Not so long ago, English-speaking philosophers treated German philosophy between Kant and Hegel in the manner of media executives flying between New York City and Los Angeles. They knew that there were a lot of people down there, but only the big names at either end were important enough to bother about. Among those who were passed over along the way was Johann Gottlieb Fichte—something that would certainly have astonished the self-confident Fichte himself.
More recently, though, there has been a revival of interest in Fichte’s thought. His ambitious account of the structures of the self has been treated more respectfully than it would have been when “consciousness” was a word not to be used in polite philosophical company. Other commentators have noticed that the conception of rational agency that nowadays attracts so many moral philosophers to Kant is basic to Fichte’s writings on ethics. To this revival we can add Isaac Nakhimovsky’s The Closed Commercial State, a learned and highly original exploration of a short work on politics that even Fichte’s admirers have mainly overlooked.
Nakhimovsky is currently a research fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and his book is written in the tradition of what has come to be known as the Cambridge School, a group of historians of political thought that traces its descent from some methodological writings published by Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock in the 1960s. The goal of the Cambridge School is to treat works of political philosophy as historically specific interventions within contested relationships of discursive power—or to put it more simply, to look at texts in context. To present philosophy in this way isn’t, obviously, very flattering to the self-image of philosophers, who prefer to think of themselves as being above mundane concerns, their eyes fixed on the distant horizon of timeless truth. Still, the Cambridge approach has proved to be very fruitful, especially when applied to writers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, who stood so close to the momentous political events of England in the seventeenth century. Fichte, too, wrote in an age of great political turmoil: the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars.
Fichte was born in 1762 in Rammenau, a small village near Dresden. Legend has it that Rammenau had a pastor who was a fine preacher and that one day a local aristocrat, Baron von Miltitz, came to the village to hear him. Von Miltitz arrived too late for the service, but the villagers called upon the young Fichte—he was about 9 at the time and working as a goose boy—to recite the sermon from memory. Whether or not the story is true, Fichte certainly did come under the protection of the baron, who paid for his schooling at the famous Schulpforta (later to count Friedrich Nietzsche among its pupils). He also supported Fichte’s university studies, with the idea that Fichte should enter the priesthood. But Fichte was a less than devoted student who often drank beyond the needs of thirst, as one of his biographers charmingly puts it. After the baron’s death, his widow lost patience, and Fichte found himself, as many young men did in those days, working as a household tutor.
It was a difficult role even for someone less tactless and opinionated than Fichte. Though the tutor was part of the household, his status was a subordinate one in a very status-conscious age. The young men who became tutors were usually better educated than the merchants and minor aristocrats who employed them, and they were often, like Fichte, full of the egalitarian ideas of Rousseau and the Enlightenment. At least Fichte didn’t go as far as the poet Hölderlin, who complicated his situation even further by falling in love with his employer’s wife (something that produced both very great poetry and almost unimaginable anguish for the two of them). Fichte never managed to hold a position for more than a short while—he lost one job after handing his employers a helpful list of their failings as parents—and so for several years he bounced around the German-speaking world, living from hand to mouth.