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. 

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It was during this time that Fichte came to philosophy. A student in Leipzig offered to pay Fichte to teach him Kantian philosophy, and Fichte agreed. He had not read Kant but needed the money. He read all three of Kant’s Critiques in a few weeks and was entranced. Above all, Kant’s account of freedom in the Critique of Practical Reason struck him with the force of revelation. In Kant’s philosophy, Fichte saw an intellectual defense of his own powerful emotional commitment to the belief in human freedom, and he threw all his restless energy into its study. He also got to meet Kant himself, which was a rare experience. Fame had arrived late for Kant, and the last twenty years of his life were spent in a struggle to complete his philosophical writing projects. He was not keen on visitors, who might disrupt his famously orderly way of life. Then, too, there was the fact that he lived in Königsberg, way off in the Baltic, 330 miles northeast of Berlin.

In 1791, Fichte landed a position that took him to Warsaw, and he traveled there from Leipzig on foot. Somehow, however, he fell out with his employer immediately upon his arrival and was dismissed before having a chance to start (a first, even for him). By threats and arguments he extracted some money in settlement and set off, again on foot, for Königsberg. Arriving at the beginning of July, he arranged a meeting with Kant, which did not, apparently, go very well. Fichte responded energetically to the setback. He dashed off an essay—a short book, really—on the philosophy of religion in the spirit of Kantian philosophy and sent it to Kant. The great man read the essay, another visit followed, and this time things went much better. By then, however, Fichte had again run out of money and, being Fichte, tried to touch Kant for a loan. Not surprisingly, Kant did not offer to fund Fichte, but he did make a suggestion. He proposed that Fichte’s essay be published and recommended it to his own publisher in Königsberg, who paid Fichte an advance.

At this point, things get murky. When the Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation was published in the spring of 1792, it was printed, for whatever reason, without the author’s name. What’s more, it had been known for some time that Kant had been engaged in writing a work on religion. And, of course, the book came out in Königsberg from a publisher who had previously published Kant. So what were readers to think?

The Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung of Jena (a journal that had been founded to promote Kantian philosophy) had no doubt. It asserted in its June 30 issue, “Everyone who has read even the smallest of those writings through which the Philosopher of Königsberg has earned himself immortal merit on behalf of mankind will recognize at once the sublime author of this work!” Imagine the surprise, then, when the following statement appeared in the issue for August 22:

The author of the Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation is Herr Fichte, Candidate in Theology, originally from the Lausitz, briefly resident in the past year in Königsberg, now household tutor for Count von Krokow in Krokow, West Prussia, as one may convince oneself with one’s own eyes from this year’s catalog of Herr Hartung, his publisher. Furthermore, I have neither in writing nor in conversation, as the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung No. 82 suggests, taken the smallest part in the work of this gifted man, and thus see it as my duty that the honor due to it should be left undiminished to him to whom it is owed. I. Kant

This was a world where philosophy mattered, and Fichte at once became one of its celebrities, his voice heard in the myriad reviews and literary journals of the day. When Karl Leonhard Reinhold, the very popular professor of philosophy in Jena, decided to leave for Kiel, Fichte was asked to replace him. He was hastily put through the academic hoops (he had no degree at all, let alone the advanced ones necessary to become a university teacher) and took up his post in May 1794.

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To be a professor of philosophy in Jena was to be at the center of intellectual life in Germany. The university was under the control of Saxe-Weimar, the little state that was the Parnassus of the German Enlightenment. Goethe himself presided there (with a little help from his friend Duke Karl August, its hereditary ruler). The court had a delicate line to walk in managing the university, however. On the one hand, Jena was pre-eminent among the German universities of the time because the students and professors enjoyed greater freedom than elsewhere. Schiller, for example, who had fallen out with the authorities in his native Württemberg because of his liberal sympathies, took refuge in Jena as a professor of history. On the other hand, it was important not to offend the princes of the students’ home states for fear they would ban their subjects from studying there.

Thanks largely to Reinhold, Jena had become, by the early 1790s, the center for the study of Kantian philosophy in Germany. Reinhold was an interesting character: an Austrian by birth and a former Jesuit, he was a Freemason with a strong commitment to the doctrines of the Enlightenment. While he was not a philosopher of the quality of Kant, he was a fluent writer whose work spoke to many of the most pressing issues of the day. His expository Letters on the Kantian Philosophy came to have great weight as the most authoritative way into the dense and forbidding thickets of Kantianism. Over time, however, Reinhold developed some critical ideas of his own about the subject. Although not easy to explain briefly (and, I think, not particularly cogent), they are surprisingly important for what came later.

Kant’s great achievement as a theoretical philosopher, Reinhold argued, was to have found a path between empiricism and rationalism with his doctrine that all our knowledge is made up of a combination of intuitions, which come from the senses, and concepts, which are original to us. This leads to an account of reality that, while it is idealistic (we have no access to a world of objects independent of our “representations”) doesn’t, unlike empiricism, reduce knowledge to a collection of sense impressions. 

Yet what about the relation between the different elements of our mental life? Kant simply enumerates them. But this is unsatisfactory, says Reinhold. Any philosophy—and here Reinhold follows Kant—must aim to be a system. That is, it must be complete and have an inner order so that all its parts are mutually consistent and support one another; everything must be given a “deduction,” in the terminology of the time. For this, however, some kind of first foundation is plainly needed. These two issues—the foundation of philosophy and the structure of mental life—coincide, Reinhold argues, and he offers his own solution in a proposition that he calls the “principle of consciousness”: “In consciousness, representation is distinguished through the subject from both object and subject and is referred to both.” From this, he claimed, everything else would follow.

Fichte had been impressed with Reinhold, but by the time he received the offer from Jena, he had come to believe that, although Reinhold was basically right in his diagnosis of the problem, his solution wouldn’t work. There is, it seems, a regress: if human knowledge is a system of representations, surely any proposition that purports to be the foundation of that system would itself be a representation (or complex of representations) and would thus need its own foundation. In consequence (or so it seems), the foundation of any philosophical system can’t itself be part of the system. Fichte embraced this consequence with enthusiasm. At the base of human consciousness, prior to any articulated structures of representations, he asserted, there exists a kind of pre-representational agency, and the task of philosophy is to recover it. “In the beginning was the deed,” as Goethe’s Faust put it.

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Fichte’s philosophy is different from Kant’s in three significant ways. First, it breaks with Kant’s idea of the “thing-in-itself.” Kant taught that reality as we know it (the solid objects that exist in space and time, not just our images of those objects) is composed of “appearances,” as he calls them. Yet Kant also asserts the need for belief in a realm of unknowable things in themselves that stand, in some odd way, behind or beyond those appearances. Since the first publication of the Critique of Pure Reason, readers have found that claim hard to accept. As Goethe’s friend Friedrich Jacobi wrote: “Without the presupposition [of the thing-in-itself] I was unable to enter into the system, but with it I was unable to stay within it.” Fichte cuts the Gordian knot. Read Kant in the spirit of his philosophy, not the letter, he says, and you can do without the thing-in-itself—indeed, Kantian philosophy would be better off without it.

A second feature is that Fichte thinks the task of philosophy is to give an account of the structures of consciousness, starting from its most basic and primitive elements and working one’s way up, systematically, to the most complex forms of human interaction, law and politics. To talk about “consciousness” here is, it should be said, potentially misleading. If we think of consciousness as solely a matter of what happens to us subjectively—how things strike us—then we miss the full radicalism of Fichte’s expulsion of the thing-in-itself. Without the thing-in-itself, the whole of reality exists only, in some sense, “for us.” So “consciousness” embraces everything; it means no more (and no less) than “the world as I found it” (to borrow a phrase from Wittgenstein) or the “life-world” (as Husserl calls it).

Finally, the idea that the foundation of philosophy lies in a “deed” brings together the two sides of Kant’s philosophy—the world of knowledge and the world of human agency—that Kant himself (his occasional pronouncements about their unity notwithstanding) had treated separately.

All of this amounted to a program for philosophy that Fichte would follow until the end of his life. He was so convinced of its importance that he gave it a special name, the Wissenschaftslehre (literally, the “doctrine of science”). While “philosophy” is a pursuit or an attitude—the “love of wisdom”—the Wissenschaftslehre claims to be a body of objective knowledge. As far as Fichte was concerned, philosophy’s long search for a starting point and method was over, and it was now possible to move on to drawing firm conclusions.

Fichte took up his post in Jena in May 1794. His reception exceeded even his own hopes, and his lectures were packed to overflowing. He didn’t confine himself to the most abstract sections of the Wissenschaftslehre but moved from pure theory to ethics, politics and history, drawing in an audience from across the whole university. Fichte was not a handsome man—he was short and stocky—but he had, it was said, “the gaze of an eagle,” and he delivered his lectures with a ferocious intensity that led to comparisons with Bonaparte. We have the earliest of them—they were published under the title Some Lectures on the Vocation of the Scholar (1794)—and they are, indeed, riveting. I can’t imagine that Fichte would have made much of a pastor, but his sermons would never have been boring.

These were also years of extreme productivity. He published a book on natural right “according to the principles of the Wissenschaftslehre,” a system of ethical theory based on the same principles, and numerous essays and reviews. Only the core of the Wissenschaftslehre failed to receive a definitive presentation that satisfied its author. 

But this happy state of affairs could not last. From the outset, slanders had circulated against Fichte: Hadn’t he said that in twenty years, there would be no more kings or princes? Hadn’t he deliberately scheduled his lectures to clash with church services? In short, was he not a Jacobin and an atheist? The charges were false, yet not so off-target that they did not draw blood. Worse, Fichte defended himself against them in the most intemperate fashion. The crisis came with the publication, in a journal edited by Fichte, of an essay by one Friedrich Karl Forberg that seemed to push the limits of the “moral religion” of Kant and Fichte to the point of open conflict with the revealed religion of the churches. Fichte published his own essay distancing himself from Forberg, though not as far as some people demanded. Rumors flew, anonymous pamphlets appeared, and the prince-elector of Saxony threatened to prevent Saxons from studying at Jena. Fichte’s public protestations of innocence were sent together with a particularly strongly worded letter to the authorities in Weimar demanding their support. Karl August, who had had quite enough of Fichte, interpreted it as an offer of resignation, which he promptly accepted.

So in 1799, Fichte again found himself out of a job. It was a setback but not a disaster. He had contacts in Berlin who were more than happy to have such a celebrated author in the Prussian capital, and although Berlin did not yet have a university, it did have a substantial educated public prepared to pay to attend his lectures. Economically, then, Fichte survived well enough. Meanwhile, in Jena, Fichte’s former disciple, Friedrich Schelling, took center stage. As Goethe remarked, “One star falls, another rises.”

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Soon after his arrival in Berlin, Fichte published The Closed Commercial State and dedicated it to the Prussian finance minister of the day, Carl August von Struensee. Its ideas are remarkably radical. If states are to live together peacefully, then they must first, Fichte asserts, find their natural borders, whatever those might be. France and Britain, for example, are really one geographical unit; hence, the constant conflict between the two will continue until one finally succeeds in taking over the other. States must also prohibit the use of gold or silver as money and close themselves off from all international trade. Perhaps not surprisingly, these extreme prescriptions have found few supporters. The best that even sympathetic commentators have managed to say is that The Closed Commercial State is a speculative exercise in ideal theory, a picture of what the world ought to be like if we abandon the limitations of political realism. In general, however, it has been treated as a somewhat embarrassing diversion from Fichte’s main project. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in the margins of his copy, “Fichte’s Vanity strangely misled him in this Essay. The style excepted, it possesses no characteristic of his metaphysical Works: it is always shallow, & most often grossly erroneous.”

At first sight, Fichte might seem a strange subject for a Cambridge School contextualist: if ever a philosopher saw himself as engaged in the pure search for truth, it was Fichte. And yet what a context he wrote in! While philosophers were sitting in the taverns of Jena arguing about the relationship between the transcendental and the empirical self, or whether the I could “posit” the not-I, the world of politics was in an uproar around them. In France, of course, the Revolution swung from moderation to terror to autocracy in a mere decade. At the same time, Europe found itself engulfed in wars that continued with unprecedented intensity the conflicts that had divided it through the earlier part of the century. In a quite brilliant chapter titled “Commerce and the European Commonwealth in 1800,” Nakhimovsky explains how these issues looked from Berlin and shows that Fichte’s ideas were anything but irrelevant to what was at stake.

Of course, given the upheavals that France went through, it would be natural to interpret its transformation as essentially a domestic drama. Was what took place there a particularly abrupt case (as the Marxists would see it) of the transfer of class power from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie—something that was accomplished less brutally if not so completely in Britain? Or was it (to follow Tocqueville) the culmination of a process of centralization and leveling that had, in fact, been initiated by the ancien régime itself? Important though those issues were (and are), another perspective was at least as urgent for the German-speaking world: What kind of a state system would follow the French Revolution?

When Friedrich Schiller gave his own inaugural lecture in Jena in May 1789, he praised the current state of European politics as a peaceable equilibrium sustained by the bonds of commerce and civilized interchange and held up the patchwork of German states as a model of harmonious diversity. By the end of the next decade, no one could doubt that the old order was gone forever—yet what would come next was uncertain.

Educated people of liberal sympathies at that time approached these issues with the conviction that questions of international peace and economics were intimately connected. In the background was the giant figure of Adam Smith. Henry Addington, at the time a member of the British Parliament, was so enthused upon meeting Smith in 1787 (at the house of William Pitt the Younger) that he addressed the following poetic effusion to him: “Oh! welcome thou! whose wise and patriot page / The road to wealth and peace hath well defin’d. / Hath striven to curb and soften hostile rage, / And to unite with interest’s ties mankind.”

Addington was surely right not to give up the day job (he would become the speaker of the House of Commons and succeed Pitt as prime minister), but his piece of doggerel does give an accurate picture of the essential parts of Smith’s position. Trade, insofar as it consisted of a network of mutually advantageous transactions, should lead to peace and harmony instead of necessarily to conflict, according to Smith. What’s more, commerce would bring about a transformation of human nature, a moderation of the destructive passions that lead to war. But this simple thought, which became the fundamental dogma of nineteenth-century free-trade liberalism after David Ricardo developed it as the theory of comparative advantage, appeared to be at odds with the experience of eighteenth-century economics. If it was true, why were the richest countries ones that governed empires with which they could trade exclusively? To this, Smith had an answer:

To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers. Such statesmen, and such statesmen only, are capable of fancying that they will find some advantage in employing the blood and treasure of their fellow-citizens to found and maintain such an empire.

Commercial empires exclusively reserved for domestic trade are, he argues, a perverse byproduct of economic growth, not its cause. In trying to secure a captive market, ”shopkeepers”—that is, merchants and manufacturers—are pursuing interests that are not those of the community as a whole. One must put government in the hands of those who will best advance the common good (the landed aristocracy, as it turns out, which readers of Smith nowadays rarely notice). But if this was British theory, it was by no means British practice. Notoriously, George III refused point-blank to take Smith’s advice and “part good friends” from his American colonies, nor to abandon the trade monopolies of the Navigation Acts. 

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By the end of the century, Berlin found itself in a curious situation. After 1795 and the Treaty of Basel, Prussia maintained neutrality between Britain and France. But it was under pressure to join one side or another—indeed, Frederick William III very nearly committed himself to the anti-French alliance, only changing his mind once the marching orders had been given. Meanwhile, French propaganda and diplomacy were also active, and von Struensee, the finance minister to whom The Closed Commercial State was dedicated, was a leading Prussian advocate of the French position. According to the French, it was England that had undermined the freedom of the seas, and only a French-sponsored reorganization of Europe would produce a truly open trading system. (Oh, and by the way, wouldn’t it be a fine idea if Prussia were to annex Hanover?)

It is a stretch to see Fichte as an active participant in these maneuverings. His argument is a simple series of steps from abstract general principles. The Wissenschaftslehre establishes that people are free and equal. As such, they need to live in conditions reflecting this moral status, which means there must be both international peace and sufficient economic equality for all to be independent and free from domination. Moreover, everyone should have work, because work, provided that it is carried out without coercion, counters natural human indolence and helps bring our desires and our capacities into balance. Trade, on the other hand, produces war, inequality and unemployment (a set of empirical claims that Fichte asserts more or less without evidence or argument). From which it follows, according to Fichte, that trade must be prohibited.

To my mind, Coleridge was right: Fichte was simply out of his depth. The Closed Commercial State is neither a disguised piece of cunning diplomatic advocacy nor a forgotten masterpiece of political economy. Nevertheless, Nakhimovsky’s book is rewarding to read. Not only does it give a rich, vivid description of the issues and contending forces at a time when the future of the European nation-state system hung in the balance; it also calls into question some pervasive assumptions about the rise of capitalism. In most accounts, capitalism and the emergence of liberal freedoms went hand in hand as part of the general process of modernization: feudal restraints were removed domestically, and the expansion of international trade produced economic growth. This is not just a story told by free-market apologists. Capitalism’s greatest critic, Karl Marx, paints essentially the same picture. Marx saw the expansion of the productive forces of society as resulting from an unfettered exchange economy—“universal commodity production”—and he thought the role of the state in capitalism’s development was primarily negative: capitalism succeeded where the state did not hold back the dynamic forces at work in “bourgeois society.”

Against that, a quite different image presented itself to many continental eyes. As they observed the rise of Great Britain, they were struck by the fact that the industrial revolution took place in a country that had fought a series of ruthless wars to establish a protected commercial empire, one in which an institution that was not just pre-capitalist but pre-feudal—chattel slavery—played a fundamental role. And this suggested that it was the establishment of international political domination through the military power of the state that led to economic growth, not vice versa. In different forms, this alternative “state-first” picture of modernization is at work in many of the debates about protectionism and colonialism that run through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and down to our own day. Indeed, it isn’t wrong to see Fichte as the ancestor of the hostility to the international market that we find in modern anti-globalization activists. Anyone who wants to look at the origins of those quarrels will find Nakhimovsky to be an erudite and helpful guide.