Fichte Advocates Free Speech Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Swept up in the ideals of the French Revolution, Johann Gottlieb Fichte and several other young German philosophers argued in the 1790’s for increases in individual liberty, including relaxations of censorship.

Summary of Event

Johann Gottlieb Fichte was a child of his time, and that time was revolutionary on unprecedented levels. Recent revolutions in America and France had overthrown centuries of monarchic tradition, encouraged common citizens with expectations of increased liberty, and inspired philosophers the world over. The French Revolution French Revolution (1789-1796);influence on German philosophy[German philosophy] especially colored the German philosophy of the 1790’s with speculations of personal freedom and social and political reform in the wake of Immanuel Kant’s 1784 brief manifesto of free thought, Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung? (An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightening?, 1798; better known as What Is Enlightenment?). What Is Enlightenment? (Kant) Kant—in Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; Critique of Pure Reason, 1838), Critique of Pure Reason (Kant) Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (1788; Critique of Practical Reason, 1873), Critique of Practical Reason (Kant) and especially Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (1785; Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Ethics, 1895; better known as Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1950) Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (Kant) —laid a solid philosophical foundation for the reality of personal freedom and suggested that to deny such freedom would be contrary to rational nature. [kw]Fichte Advocates Free Speech (1792-1793) [kw]Speech, Fichte Advocates Free (1792-1793) [kw]Free Speech, Fichte Advocates (1792-1793) Freedom of speech Freedom of the press;Germany Civil liberties Freedom, individual [g]Germany;1792-1793: Fichte Advocates Free Speech[3000] [c]Philosophy;1792-1793: Fichte Advocates Free Speech[3000] [c]Government and politics;1792-1793: Fichte Advocates Free Speech[3000] Fichte, Johann Gottlieb Bahrdt, Carl Friedrich Burke, Edmund Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hölderlin, Friedrich Kant, Immanuel Klein, Ernst Ferdinand Paine, Thomas Reinhold, Karl Leonhard Rousseau, Jean-Jacques Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Voltaire

Modern ideas of civil freedom Civil liberties originated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who claimed that humans are born free but restricted artificially, and Voltaire, who famously offered to defend to the death the right of anyone to disagree with him. Both Rousseau and Voltaire strongly influenced Kant and his followers. Karl Leonhard Reinhold, in his popular simplification of Kant’s philosophy in the late 1780’s and early 1790’s, emphasized the centrality of the free will for both metaphysics and ethics. Two influences permeated German ethical thought in the 1790’s: the Kantian philosophy of individual responsibility, autonomy, duty, and freedom and the practical ideals of radical or romantic freedom, which emanated chiefly from the social philosophy and political reality of France. These two influences were not at all at odds with each other.

The spirit of the time included such progressive writings as Ernst Ferdinand Klein’s Über Denk und Drukfreiheit (1784; On Freedom of the Press and of Thought: For Princes, Ministers, and Writers, 1996), On Freedom of the Press and of Thought (Klein) Carl Friedrich Bahrdt’s Über Pressfreyheit und deren Gränzen (1787; On Freedom of the Press and Its Limits, 1996), and Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791-1792). Rights of Man (Paine) Even Edmund Burke, Burke, Edmund despite his opposition to the French Revolution, was a champion of individual rights, as is seen in his sympathy for the American Revolution. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, schoolmates at Tübingen during the French Revolution, were three of the most confident and eloquent German student voices in support of its ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Hölderlin’s poetry between 1789 and 1793 frequently expressed revolutionary sentiments.

A bold and precocious youth from a poor background, Fichte was impatient to advance his career as a philosopher. In 1791, he made a pilgrimage to Königsberg, East Prussia, where Kant held his professorship. Fichte managed on July 4 to gain an audience with Kant. Shortly thereafter, Fichte submitted to Kant a manuscript that interpreted Kantian ethical concepts within a philosophy of religion. Kant was favorably impressed and arranged for his own publisher, Hartung, to print it as Versuch einer Kritik aller Offenbarung (Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation, 1978) Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation (Fichte) in the spring of 1792. The book appeared anonymously, as was not unusual in those days for the first works of young academic authors. Many of its earliest readers assumed that it was the work of Kant himself, and Fichte’s reputation was instantly and solidly established among German intellectuals as soon as its true authorship was publicized.

In 1793, Fichte published anonymously in Danzig two books on social and political philosophy and topical issues: the eighty-six-page Zurückforderung der Denkfreiheit (reclamation of freedom of thought) and the two-volume Beitrag zur Berichtigung über die französische Revolution (contribution to the rectification of the public’s judgment of the French Revolution). These two books laid out a clear philosophy of the individual expression of human freedom. While some of his similarly inclined contemporaries, notably Bahrdt, claimed that the right to free speech was ordained by God, Fichte instead regarded the justification of free speech as social. That is, any civilized society requires that its citizens be educated. Education requires that ideas be freely available for discussion and evaluation. Therefore, free speech is the linchpin of any society that aspires to develop its culture to the highest possible level.

Mainly on the strength of the general praise given to his Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation and despite the two polemical and radical works of 1793, Fichte was appointed to succeed Reinhold as professor of philosophy at the University of Jena in May, 1794. He remained in that post until dismissed in 1799, amid charges, probably true, that his Kantian humanism was a thinly disguised atheism.

Napoleon I’s Napoleon I Napoleon I;German intelligentsia aggressive actions between 1804 and 1807 alienated many of the liberal German intelligentsia, who had formerly supported him as an exponent of revolution and human rights. Feeling betrayed, Ludwig van Beethoven [p]Beethoven, Ludwig van angrily erased his dedication of the Eroica symphony Eroica symphony (Beethoven) to Napoleon after Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804. Hegel remained loyal to Napoleonic ideals, even if disgusted by the emperor’s human faults.

Fichte, on the other hand, became a fervent German nationalist and increasingly conservative. In 1806, he offered personal encouragement to Prussian troops defending the homeland against the French invaders. In 1808, he published Reden an die deutsche Nation (Addresses to the German Nation, 1922), Addresses to the German Nation (Fichte) advocating the Prussian militaristic ethic, proclaiming German cultural superiority, and generally abandoning his progressive social and political ideals of fifteen years earlier—except his principle of free speech. He continued to believe that the people, by their free and uncensored public deliberations of anything that concerned them, would act as de facto advisers to the king, enabling the king to make better decisions. In the final version of Fichte’s philosophy of individual freedom, the right of the people to free speech was for the benefit of the king, not the people, and the people were always bound to obey all royal commands, regardless of what they were allowed to say about them.


With the fall of Napoleon in 1815, the consequent return to conservative values in the German states, and especially the Carlsbad Decrees of 1819, Carlsbad Decrees (1819) most of the revolutionary prospects for personal liberty and individual freedom of speech came to nought. They would not be revived until the short-lived Young Hegelian movement from about 1835 to 1848. Between 1819 and 1848, throughout the various German-speaking states dominated by Prussia and Austria, governments severely censored Censorship;German states the press, restricted public speech and the power of the people to assemble, subverted dissent, and exercised absolute control over the universities.

Many professors were fired or persecuted during this reactionary era. Even Hegel, Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich the most prominent philosopher of the 1820’s, suddenly found that he had to be very careful about what he said and even more careful about what he wrote. For example, in his Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts (1821; The Philosophy of Right, 1855), Philosophy of Right, The (Hegel) the main locus of his social and political philosophy and his philosophy of history, Hegel wrote that the rational is actual and the actual is rational, which can be interpreted as a conservative endorsement of the current Prussian regime. However, in the lectures that he gave to his students at about the same time on the same topics, he said that the rational becomes actual and the actual becomes rational, which can be interpreted more nearly along the lines of Hegel’s own progressive social theory.

Hegel, a lifelong constitutional monarchist, remained as liberal as one could be in Prussia and still keep an academic job, and he never turned as far toward the conservative end of the spectrum as did Fichte. Nevertheless, Hegel’s respect for Fichte remained so high that he requested to be buried next to him. The two philosophers and their wives lie side-by-side in Dorothea Cemetery in Berlin.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ameriks, Karl. Kant and the Fate of Autonomy: Problems in the Appropriation of the Critical Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Includes interpretations of Kant’s, Fichte’s, Reinhold’s, and Hegel’s respective concepts of freedom, placing them within the context of one another.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">La Vopa, Anthony J. Fichte: The Self and the Calling of Philosophy, 1762-1799. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Biographical study of the young Fichte.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rockmore, Tom. Fichte, Marx, and the German Philosophical Tradition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980. An account of Marx’s appropriation of Fichte’s theory of the human self as a free and active moral agent.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schmidt, James, ed. What Is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Part 1 is a collection of key texts from the German 1780’s and 1790’s pertaining to personal reason and autonomy; parts 2 and 3 provide the perspectives and interpretations of seventeen important twentieth century thinkers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Lindsley Armstrong. “Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s Free Speech Theory.” American Communication Journal 4, no. 3 (Spring, 2001). Available at http:\ A clear exposition written by a lawyer from the perspective of a philosophy of law, in a peer-reviewed, online-only scholarly journal.

Early Enlightenment in France

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Condillac Defends Sensationalist Theory

Helvétius Publishes De l’esprit

Voltaire Publishes A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket

Publication of Holbach’s The System of Nature

Kant Publishes Critique of Pure Reason

Herder Publishes His Philosophy of History

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Edmund Burke; Johann Gottlieb Fichte; Immanuel Kant; Thomas Paine; Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Voltaire. Freedom of speech Freedom of the press;Germany Civil liberties Freedom, individual

Categories: History