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Fichte's Social and Political Philosophy: Property and Virtue.

Fichte's Social and Political Philosophy: Property and Virtue, by David James. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2011. xii, 222 pp. $ 80.00 US (cloth).

David James specializes in Fichte's philosophy and has worked at universities in the UK, Canada, and South Africa. His book Fichte's Social and Political Philosophy centres on property and virtue. The author relates Fichte's ideas to those of British, French and German philosophers. James' book consists of five thematic chapters--mostly revised articles that appeared in 2009 and 2010--and includes a bibliography and an index. The book is concerned with the development of philosophy, the history of ideas, and social and political theory. Some of its text might be challenging for readers unfamiliar with epistemology and moral philosophy. However, the importance of German idealism and Fichte's influence upon the creation of the German nation make the book interesting to readers who otherwise read more general or political history. Fichte's life and work are situated in the fascinating period of eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the pros and cons of revolution, and nineteenth-century modernism. His philosophy contains both liberal and conservative elements.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), born to a family of modest means, was given the chance to study some theology and law. During his twenties and early thirties, he earned a living as a private tutor in Saxony, Switzerland, and Prussia. In the 1790s Fichte became known in the German states. He studied Kant's critical philosophy, and wrote appreciatively about the French Revolution. Central to Fichte's thought is that the existence of other rational subjects is a necessary condition of one's self-awareness. Those others summon the subject into an awareness as a free individual. That some people at the time thought of Fichte as a Jacobin did not prevent him being offered a professorship at the University of Jena. He lost that position in 1799 as a result of atheism charges. After the founding of the University of Berlin in 1809, he became a professor there and even served as its rector until 1812.

In Chapter 1, "Fichte's theory of property," James argues that the philosopher offered no straightforward foundation of liberal ideology. Fichte did not value the individual right to exclude others from the use or benefit of something higher than the equal right of individuals to use and develop their capacities. That equal right led Fichte to propose redistributive measures. Moreover, in The Closed Commercial State (Der geschlossne Handelsstaat) Fichte advocated national autarky. James enriches our understanding of Fichte by nuancing that philosopher's liberal reputation with his discussion of the little known The Closed Commercial State.

In Chapter 2, "Applying the concept of right: Fichte and Babeuf," the author compares Fichte to the French revolutionary writer and administrator Francois-Noel Babeuf (known as Gracchus Babeuf). James does not confirm the claim that Babeuf's socialism influenced Fichte's theory of right and its economic implications. He does explain that Fichte preferred an evolution of political regimes to a harsh revolution. Babeuf was one of the men behind the 1796 Conspiracy of Equals against the Directory, but Fichte did not follow Babeuf's egalitarianism. The class society Fichte proposed has some conservative characteristics. As James suggests in Chapter 4, although Fichte recognized the inevitability of democracy, he put his hopes upon a virtuous elite.

German idealism developed from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. The idealist Fichte is considered as a Kantian philosopher and early in his career Fichte's writing was even received as that of Kant himself. In Chapter 3, "Fichte's reappraisal of Kant's theory of cosmopolitan right," James demonstrates how Fichte's eventual proposal for a planned and closed economy deviates from Kant's cosmopolitanism.

Where James discussed a development of Fichte's ideas concerning international relations in Chapter 3, in Chapter 4, "The relation of right to morality in Fichte's Jena theory of the state and society," he discusses a development of Fichte's thought concerning the relation between right and morality. James argues "that we can think of the Foundations of Natural Right and The System of Ethics as forming parts of a single theory of the state and society, so that Fichte is [...] working with two conceptions of the state during his Jena period: an amoral one, in which the state is identified exclusively with the juridical and political sphere of right, and a more ethical one, which incorporates the moral sphere, thus bringing right and morality into relation with each other" (p. 114). In his understanding of Fichte's teleological theory of right as a condition for moral autonomy, James sees yet another argument against notably Frederick Neuhouser's liberal interpretation of Fichte.

In 1805, although his navy had lost battles against the Royal Navy, Napoleon Bonaparte's army defeated the Austrians and the Russians. A large number of German states were reorganized into a confederation under Napoleon's protection and even Prussia had to recognize the French hegemony in 1807. Fichte was in Berlin during those years--and 'in between jobs', to use an anachronism. There the philosopher delivered a number of speeches that became famous. In Chapter 5, "The role of virtue in the Addresses to the German nation," James analyzes these speeches (Reden an die deutsche Nation). As he belonged to the intellectual elite meant to guide society, Fichte felt obliged to respond to the political challenges of his time. In his Addresses, Fichte presented a specific selection of historic facts and lectured the Germans on their shared identity, based upon German history and language, and on the sorry state of their political affairs. He did not call for an uprising against the French, but pleaded for moral renewal by means of a system of national education. As James points out, Fichte's German nation was that of the Protestant North. The differences between the Protestant North and the Catholic South were to play up throughout Germany's nineteenth century.

Wouter-Jan Oosten

Sociotext Foundation, The Netherlands
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Author:Oosten, Wouter-Jan
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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