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Rethinking a Major German Thinker

by Jeff Worley

Photo of Dan Breazeale“He had a big chip on his shoulder. He was always very radical in his political and religious views; in fact, he lost his job at Jena University because he was accused of being an atheist. He was self-righteous and extremely irascible. Someone once said of him, ‘He had a hard time putting up with life.’”

Dan Breazeale, who seems, well, quite comfortable with life himself, is talking about the German thinker Johann Gottleib Fichte, the philosopher who has most intrigued him during his 34-year career at UK. And Breazeale, professor of philosophy and this year’s College of Arts & Sciences Distinguished Professor, puts the blame for his intense interest in Fichte (1762-1814) squarely on the shoulders of Bertrand Russell.

“When I was 17 or 18, I read Russell’s History of Modern Philosophy, and Russell says something to the effect that of all the great philosophers, Fichte carries subjectivism to the point of insanity. I mean, Russell really slandered this guy—one of the major figures in German philosophy,” says Breazeale, an extremely engaging man who laughs easily and often. “And maybe because I have a strong contrarian streak, I thought, ‘C’mon, Fichte can’t be that bad.’ And I started reading his work.”

When Breazeale traveled to West Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship in 1976, five years after he came to UK from Yale University, he began an intense study of the philosopher. But he ran into a serious problem.

“The more I read Fichte, the more I realized I had ideas to work out. The way most philosophers do this is to talk to other philosophers, but there was nobody I could talk to in my own language; so I decided to translate a small selection of Fichte’s more important early writings. Then I’d publish them and have a basis for conversation, so these translations were meant to be a means to an end. That was the plan anyway.”

Well, Breazeale says, one thing led to another. “Here it is nearly 30 years later, and I’ve translated four big fat volumes of Fichte and I’ve just started on another one—I didn’t mean to!—and somewhere along the way I also founded a very active scholarly association called the North American Fichte Society and became intensely involved in international Fichte research, which has meant frequent travel to conferences in Europe and elsewhere. Fichte,” he adds, “has been very, very good to me.”

Portrait of Johann Gottleib FichteJohann Gottleib Fichte is one of the major figures in German philosophy in the period between Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

So what was this man’s philosophy all about?

“He spent his entire life working on a system he called the Wissenschaftslehre, which means a theory of science or scientific knowledge,” Breazeale explains. The primary task of Fichte’s system was to explain how human beings who believe they are moral, responsible and free can at the same time feel integrated into in a world that works on the directly opposite scientific principles of cause and effect, tenets that certainly appear to have nothing to do with morality, responsibility or freedom.

“He tried to resolve this tension between spirit (or free self-consciousness) and nature (or the objective world of which we are conscious) by starting with the former and then proceeding to the latter, understood now as a set of limitations that are conditions for the very possibility of freedom and intellect.”

Any understanding Breazeale has of Fichte’s writings has been hard-won, he says.

“This guy gave some of the most abstract philosophical lectures that have ever been given. His lectures are pitiless in their level of total abstraction—page after page of soul-trying abstraction.”

But Fichte could also come down to earth, Breazeale says. He enjoyed giving popular lectures on the vocation of the scholar, on nationalism and other topics of general interest. “He even gave lectures about the importance of universities abolishing fraternities so that students could live a more upstanding, serious kind of life,” he adds with a chuckle.

Despite his evident commitment to pure scholarly labor, Breazeale maintains that intensely studying any philosopher is only a means to an end—being better able to examine one’s own life. “I believe, as Socrates did, that the unexamined life is not worth living, and, when all has been said and done, the greatest benefit I have derived from my lifelong engagement with a few of the great philosophers of the past is that this has helped me think through many of my own perplexities.”

Photo of Dan BreazealeThrough the years the philosophers Breazeale has been most attracted to are those who have challenged common-sense intuitions about reality and value. “Philosophers who have made a big splash by saying things like, ‘God is dead’ or ‘Life is absurd’ or ‘The world is merely a construction of the mind’ have most strongly attracted my attention. I find such apparently outrageous claims to be the most worthy of serious reflection. When you take them seriously, you may come to see the everyday world in a new and startling—and often illuminating—way.”

Breazeale is proud of the fact that largely through his translations of Fichte, the state of Fichte scholarship is “robust” compared to what it was 30 years ago. In addition to the translations, he has written and published more than 50 essays, research papers and book chapters on Fichte and his contemporaries, and has given scores of invited lectures and presentations at professional conferences in the United States and abroad. And recently, he’s been contacted by Oxford University Press and asked to assemble 24 of his published articles on Fichte in book form.

One of the things that Breazeale says he’s most proud of is his graduate students through the years. He has taught a dozen different graduate seminars and has directed as many dissertations.

“Most of my graduate students are interested in the same questions I am, and my own research has benefited as much from the contributions and criticisms of my students as, I hope, theirs has benefited from mine. I take a great deal of personal pleasure in the careers and successes of these students.”

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