Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Snow, Dale E. Review of Yolanda Estes, et al., eds. J. G. FICHTE AND THE ATHEISM DISPUTE. NDPR (March 2011).

Estes, Yolanda, and Curtis Bowman, eds.  J. G. Fichte and the Atheism Dispute (1798-1800).  London: Ashgate, 2010.

The atheism dispute (Atheismusstreit) riveted all of learned Germany in 1799, and its consequences reverberated for many more years. The precipitating event seems curiously out of proportion to the response it engendered: Fichte, who was co-editor of the Philosophisches Journal, agreed to print an essay by F. K. Forberg entitled "On the Concept of Religion." Fearing that readers could misunderstand Forberg's ideas as an expression of his views, Fichte included an essay of his own, "On the Ground of Our belief in a Divine World-Governance." As a direct result, the journal was put under an edict of confiscation; Fichte was accused of atheism, officially censured by the authorities, and ultimately resigned from his professorship at the University of Jena.

It was in all likelihood the anonymous publication of a widely circulated pamphlet, "A Father's Letter to his Student Son about Fichte's and Forberg's Atheism," which initially drew public attention to the essays. The editors describe it accurately as "a maudlin tract" (7). It contains a litany of accusations of the ways in which Fichte's and Forberg's ideas were certain to result in corruption of the youth: they stood for atheism, political rebelliousness, and even moral licentiousness. This unfavorable publicity was more than sufficient to touch off a firestorm of criticism of Fichte, his philosophy, and his person. Fichte thought of and presented himself as Kant's heir, and for many Kant's signature achievement had been the overturning of the traditional relationship between faith and reason. This made it plausible to quickly extend the suspicion of atheism to Fichte's best-known work, The Science of Knowledge (Wissenschaftslehre) as well. Numerous publications for and against Fichte appeared in rapid succession, including F. H Jacobi's notorious "open letter to Fichte," which declared Fichte's philosophy to be tantamount to "nihilism." This is thought to be the first use of this term. The larger significance of the atheism dispute, then, can be seen in the way in which it led into a debate over the values of the German Enlightenment itself, much as the pantheism controversy of the 1780s had done.

For both Fichte's contemporaries and today's scholars, the atheism dispute and its aftermath threatened to overshadow all the other achievements of Fichte's Jena period. A recent remark of Allen Wood's is typical of this view: "The 1790s were for Fichte (and modern philosophy) a brief era of astonishing philosophical achievement. But the tale as a whole is far darker and more troubling, even tragic." Daniel Breazeale presents a more measured account in his Fichte: Early Philosophical Writings; however, his book, focused as it is on the Jena Wissenschaftslehre, contains none of the atheism controversy texts. Thus there is a real need for the collection and translation of the relevant materials necessary for the comprehension of this extraordinary episode in the history of philosophy. Even in German, it is difficult to find a readily accessible comparable compilation.

The present volume is a near-masterpiece of careful reconstruction and contextualization of the unfolding of the atheism dispute as reflected in the essays, letters, edicts, and petitions which combine to tell this remarkable story. All of the texts in this volume are appearing in English translation for the first time. The only major atheism controversy text which previously existed in English translation is Jacobi's "open letter" to Fichte. . . .


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