Arguably the most important philosophical, literary, and intellectual movement of the last two centuries was not Marxism, but Romanticism – even Marxism drew upon Romanticism. Romanticism influenced everything from arts and literature, to philosophy, politics, economics, nationalism, radicalism, conservatism, and revolutionary philosophies. Among the most important of the early Romantics was Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a leader of the Jena School of Romanticism and someone who was a major influence upon Hegel. Furthermore, the importance of Fichte was the integration of Kantian idealism into a Germanic notion of self-consciousness that fueled the rise of German nationalism during the Napoleonic era. In this regard Fichte can be seen as both a father of German nationalism and German Romanticism even if he is little known or little read today despite his historical importance and influence over more famous Romantics like Hegel.
Unfortunately for people who do not know German, most of Fichte’s works remain in German. I am principally drawing from his great work of political economy, Der geschlossene Handelsstaat (which can be roughly translated as The Closed Economic State). Fichte’s work was one that drew upon Kant’s synthetic a priori. In Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argued against British materialism and empiricism in that the synthetic a priori can be known without experience (it can be known through reason and logic itself), but that the synthetic a priori is validated by experience. Therefore, it is true because we know it to be true from reasonable inquiry, and it is also true because we observe (or experience) it to be true in our lives. Thus, the synthetic a priori becomes a logical necessity, and the synthetic a priori becomes the cornerstone of all foundationalism. In reality, in Kant’s critique of pure Platonic rationalism, as well as the misapprehended “rationality” of empiricism that leads to outright skepticism and nihilism, Kant resurrected the old tradition of Aristotelian and Augustinian empirical rationalism (empirical realism) – a reason that also draws upon experience and observation. This is remembered as “empirical realism” (or “transcendental realism” as it relates to Kant) in some circles, where the transcendental, or the ideal, is experienced in real terms (this avoids the reductionist empiricism of Hobbes, Locke, and Hume).
Just as we examined with Johann Hamann, the Romantics were not “irrationalists” as their opponents in the mid-20th century charged. Instead, they were – like Kant and Fichte – attempting to liberate reason from constrictive materialism. The empiricist and Whig traditions in Britain, which subsequently spawned the important movement of French Materialism in the likes of La Mettrie, Diderot, and d’Holbach, reject rationalism outright. Rationalism, as an epistemological movement, is premised upon a priori knowledge or thought being true, which can either be fully grasp through the innate ideas we have (Platonic rationalism), or known through critical inquiry and observable experience (Aristotle, Augustine, and Kant). In fact, the claim that Kant was an irrationalist because of his famous line, “I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith” is deeply misleading as all Romantic scholars know. Empiricism, rather than rationalism, needs some room of faith since it is entirely premised on simple experience or observation – to which we have faith that what we observe holds true at all times (this is the case with Einstein’s quantum mechanics, we don’t know but take it to be universally valid on faith because faith is an axiomatic claim). This is one of the funny aspects of epistemological philosophy, empiricism, which is also the root epistemology of modern science, is actually faith-based in the traditional epistemological sense whereas pure rationalism (Platonism and neo-Platonism, along with idealism) are not faith-oriented whatsoever, they’re constructed and depend upon nothing more than pure thought. Kant’s statement that many empiricists who don’t even know what empiricism truly entails, are wrong to claim Kant as an irrationalist because Kant’s statement there reflects the need to have some faith to validate observable experience whereby the axiom of faith helps make the synthetic a priori a logical necessity and the foundation of knowledge precisely because we think it to be rationally true but we also observe it to be true, so in our observing it to be true we have to take, on faith, that it is observably true which, when coupled with our rational inquiry that makes us believe it to be true, leads to the logical syllogism that it must be true.
Having gotten that out of the way, since the synthetic a priori is important to Fichte’s work in political economy, Fichte begins to try to understand why Germany – which is so large and sits upon so many natural resources, is poor and divided. We often forget that early 19th century Germany was mainly rural, poor, and divided. Germany was not yet the industrial, economically prosperous, and strong nation that it would soon become – in part, thanks to the adoption of the political economic views of people like Fichte, Hegel, and Friedrich List (the philosopher and economist, not the composer).
Fichte argued that the basis of all economic prosperity is two-fold: nature and labor. Nature holds within it the fruits of economic prosperity, but it takes labor to extract the fruits of prosperity. It is a simple proposition that Karl Marx even drew on in his critique of the German Gotha Program which declared that only labor was the basis for economic prosperity. For Fichte, this is the problem with “pure reason.” Yes, pure reason will lead one to believe that labor is the source of wealth. But if you live in a desert without any resources, not even oil, what good is labor? For labor to be productive, there must be a nature that holds within it the fruits to be extracted. Thus, labor correlates and is integrally bound up with nature.
This recognition has another aspect to political economy that I will not dwell on too much. But it embodies the basic romantic impulse of humanity’s natural condition being one that is at home with nature, rather than flying from, attempting to overcome, or even destroy, nature. That is, labor keeps humanity tied to nature. Labor understands, like the farmers, fishermen, and loggers, that one must also preserve and protect nature in order for it to recover and continue to have its fruits for prosperity. Thus, the laboring classes are also conservationist whether they are aware of it or not. The natural world, in its beauty and wealth, can be utilized and preserved. Fichte, on the other hand, looks at the exploitative and industrializing storm that is rising in Britain as something abominable – it is the culmination of empiricist “logic” of exploitation of not only nature, but also humans, it will destroy the English countryside, and therefore force Britain to look outward to fuel its appetite for economic conquest. Therefore, labor, in Fichte’s eyes, is inherently anti-imperialistic whereas industrialism, capitalism, and mechanism are, by their own internal logic, going to exhaust into imperialism and bring destruction to all lands and peoples which it infects.
Fichte claims that the mathematical and empirical nature of industrialism is ultimately unconducive to long-term prosperity because one cannot maintain wealth unless one maintains the natural world. And to protect nature and labor from the exploitations of Anglo-French materialism, Fichte argues for a closed political economy and closed society. This leads to his early nationalism. The German peoples must unite as one; otherwise each of the smaller principalities will fall to the British and French onslaught. The only viable of the states in the Germanies, at the time, were Prussia and Bavaria (possibly Saxony too but Prussia had already proven in the preceding century that it was far more powerful than Saxony).
Historically, this was a conundrum that the romantics suffered from. Which enemy was long-term and which was short-term? The Napoleonic Wars were brewing, but the German Romantics came to believe that Napoleon’s bid for universal empire in Europe would fail. This meant that while the French were their short term enemies, their long term enemies would be the British and their mercantile and capitalist ethos. Germany was rich in natural resources, thus, to protect Germany from British hands, the German people would have to unify (which would help them defeat the French in the process) in order to protect their land and way of life against British expansionist economics (i.e. “free trade” and colonization). Fichte even claims the moral superiority of the Germans because of their anti-colonial attitude (something that Johann Herder also promoted as part of German moral superiority over and against the British and French).
For Fichte, then, a closed society is to the benefit of nature and labor. An open society will lead to the degradation of nature and the absolute culling of labor. A closed political economy, premised on protectionism, was about protecting the interest of labor, as well as protecting the natural world from exploitation. One must understand, and I do have a four year bachelor’s degree in economics, that even though it is mathematically known that protectionism and international trade benefits the statistics of the macro economy, to whom does all of this benefit? We are told that protectionism harms consumers – and that is in a certain sense true, and all persons are consumers. This was not lost to people like Fichte and List. However, they argue that consumerism (which is the end point of capitalism) cannot be sustained indefinitely and that there are other problems with consumerism in philosophy that we simply cannot go into here (questions revolving around metaphysics and ontology especially). Consumerism, free trade, and the destruction of protectionism will lead to the destruction of labor, the exploitation of natural resources, and the collapse of the labor economy in favor of the capitalist and consumerist economy which primarily benefits the merchant, trader, banking, and commercialist classes (e.g. the bourgeoisie).
To this end Fichte’s borrowing of Herder’s concept of the volk (the people), and the volkgeist (people’s spirit), is also rooted in his theory of labor. The vast majority of people are laborers. The gentry aristocrats, who are not capitalists, are also laborers in the sense that they are the stewards of labor and nature (the gentry aristocratic lifestyle demands the preservation of nature and the well-being of labor). Thus, labor is integrally part of consciousness. Hegel and Marx picked up on this in even greater force and detail. For Fichte, labor unites people to the land, but labor – that common experience of labor and common attachment to nature – also unites laborer with laborer with a shared experience and shared sense of values: hard work, conservationism, and fortitude (both physically and mentally). Therefore, labor helps establish a common bond among people as well as people to their land that they work. (This is a longstanding thought that goes back to the Benedictines and isn’t unique to the German Romantics.) The potential destruction of labor (their livelihood), the natural land that laborers work and live in (their home), and their way of life (via the destruction of labor and the land), will lead to the consciousness of the volk binding together against all forces that seek to override the everlasting thesis of labor.
To end, Fichte, not Hegel, is the one who produced the tripartite thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Hegel borrowed from Fichte and called this positive-negative-synthetic. Hegel then expanded upon Fichte’s ideas, but Fichte argues that the thesis of all culture, society, and general intellect rests upon the twin knowledge of nature and labor as the source of life and wellbeing, and that this thesis of nature and labor is challenged, but in this challenge, the unity of nature and labor only grows stronger in its defense of the eternal thesis which is true at all times for the reason of the synthetic a priori. Thus, the synthesis, which will accept aspects of the antithesis, primarily is the refortification and strengthening of the synthetic a priori thesis of nature and labor. This thesis of nature and labor is the basis of not only culture and society, but also of the nation. Fichte warns that if nature and labor would ever be destroyed, so too would culture and the nation in the realist sense possible, even if one still had nominal borders and a national government.