Sunday Fichte Anecdotes Plus Comics For 13-Year Old Girls

by John Holbo on October 30, 2016

I’m still reading Dieter Henrich, Between Kant and Hegel: Lectures on German Idealism. The more I read, the more I think I really need to read more Fichte. Also, there are moments like this:

Let us take a step back from these theoretical observations and retrace briefly the situation in Fichte’s time and the path he pursued toward his discoveries. This will help us to understand some of the motivations that informed his theoretical work. Fichte, the son of a poor artisan, grew up in a Saxonian village. His father was a ribbon weaver and sold his wares in nearby villages. There were no schools in the region, leaving Fichte to receive what education he could from his father and the village minister. The fame of this minister’s sermons plays a vital role in well-known anecdote about Fichte. Apparently, a local noble, a certain Baron von Miltitz, had long wanted to attend one of the services in which the village minister preached. Arriving on horseback one Sunday, Baron von Miltitz complained bitterly on discovering that the sermon was already over. While only a small boy of seven or eight years, Fichte was already well known for his ability to repeat sermons with nice extensions and variations of his own. So he was summoned, and his “preaching” permitted Baron von Miltitz to hear the sermon that he missed, even if in a somewhat improved and more impressive version. The minister, who had been sponsoring the young Fichte, persuaded the Baron to accept Johann Gottlieb as his protege, which proved to be one of the first absolutely contingent and decisive turning points in Fichte’s life. Von Miltitz gave Fichte a scholarship, sending him to the best schools in the region (e.g., the high school in Schul-Pforta), before sending him to study theology at the University of Leipzig.

This is brilliant because the only thing I don’t understand about this anecdote is: the important things. Child preaching is a thing, but I doubt it means the same thing in every place it springs up. I would really like to know what made the seven-or-eight-year-old prodigy’s productions prodigious in the eyes of a local noble. What style of sermon was it? Was the child charming for his precocious intellectualism or for the pure, clear note of his naivete? It’s stories like this that make me doubt that I can understand what was going on in Germany at the turn of the 19th Century. Is Nick Bostrom right? We aren’t living in the base reality but, at least at times, in some simulated Herman Hesse MMORPGBG (if you get what I mean)? OK, Bostrom didn’t go so far. But one wonders.

Then Fichte lost his scholarship due to (probably true) reports of his loose morals. Then he tried and failed to become a Philosopher King. Then he had to cram all three of Kant’s critiques? In a few days. For reals?

Fichte did not think that he should educate the young sons of officials or of bankers, but instead, should educate the princes: the philosopher either has to be the ruler or he has to educate the rulers. Armed with numerous recommendations, he went back to Germany to find the place where he could educate princes. He failed entirely. Finding himself back in Leipzig without any money, he was again compelled to teach. He could not attract even the sons of bankers, however, and had to settle instead for students who needed remedial tutoring. Although the Kantian scholar Karl Heinrich Heydenreich (1764-1801) was at that time professor at Leipzig, Fichte did not yet have any knowledge of Kant. When a student approached him for private tutoring on Kant, the then twenty-eight-year-old Fichte was obliged to accept. Bereft of all financial resources, he was equally without qualification for the job. So, within a few days, he had to read all three Critiques! …. In those few days, Fichte’s reading of Kant entirely changed his philosophical convictions and his life. Writing to his friend Weisshuhn, Fichte confessed: “I am living in a new world since I have read the Critique of Practical Reason. Propositions that I thought surely to be irrefutable are here refuted. Things I believed impossible to prove are now proven – for instance, the concept of absolute freedom. It is inconceivable, what respect for mankind, what energy, this system gives me.” He also wrote to his fiancee: “This philosophy gives me a tranquillity that I have never sensed before. Within my unsteady external situation, I have lived through my most blissful days. Tell your dear father, whom I love as my own, that in all our disputes, in spite of the power of our arguments, we were wrong, nevertheless. There is no thoroughgoing determinism in man’s nature. Man is free, and his destination is not happiness but rather dignity.” It is possible to understand this rapid conversion: a gifted, energetic young man, striving to have an influence on others, already giving sermons when he was eight (even though repeating them), became a determinist in a depressing external situation he could not escape. But later, the critical philosophy encouraged him to take destiny into his own hands: to be free and to teach freedom.

It sort of makes sense, but it also inspires me with a healthy skepticism as to whether any of it makes sense.

I may not understand what drives a precocious late 18th Century German lad to sermonize, or how, but I know what comics young girls like in 2016.

In my previous post I mentioned Penny Bright. But asking the youngest one (age 13) what her favorite books of the past year were, there were other clear winners as well.

First and foremost: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. Just read them all. In fact, read everything Ryan North has done lately, from great Adventure Time comics, to his ‘Chooseable Path Adventure Books’. I just bought the new Romeo and/or Juliet. Hamlet – To Be Or Not To Be: A Chooseable Path Adventure – was a hoot. You can play as Hamlet, Ophelia, or the ghost.

Speaking of Adventure Time, a number of titles with similar cute-funny styles (both narrative and graphical) have spun off/run in the last few years. It’s kind of a new sub-genre: magical absurdism, playing up the incongruity between the geeky-childish-hapless personalities of the protagonists and the environments in which they find themselves, i.e. the sorts of fabulous fantasy/SF settings geeks and nerds and very small kids like, but which are not, by genre convention, traditionally populated by these sorts of personalities.

In short: what if everyone is Middle Earth was a bit of a nerd? That sort of thing.

There’s Bravest Warriors and the suspiciously similarly titled but separately authentically awesome Help Us! Great Warrior. There’s Bee and Puppycat and Power Up! That should get you started and you can’t go wrong with any of them.

Lumberjanes has been a pretty big hit the last few years, deservedly so. Bunch of scrappy and resourceful young girls having serial magical adventures, and earning patches, at Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types. The camp scoutmaster, Rosie, is a cross between Dumbledore, and one of those weird ladies Gary Larson draws, with the cat’s eye glasses. And muscles and tattoos. And secrets. (But I already said: Dumbledore.)

In other superhero news, I assume you know already that the new Ms. Marvel is very good but, sadly, the reboot of Devil Dinosaur, with a young female protagonist, was a bust. Says the young daughter. (It’s not just me.)

More for older kids, like me, there is Giant Days, a wonderful slice of life comic about intermittently functional, struggling Sheffield university students. The youngest daughter loves it, too. I can’t tell how much of it she gets. But the rubbery, energetic art style is first-rate, and I’m pretty sure sometimes she just enjoys it for the pictures. It’s hard to pin down what makes this one so good. The characters are well-drawn (I’m not still talking about the art) and have good chemistry, like in any good sit-com. There are three main female leads: Susan Ptolemy, smart but sullen, somewhat self-defeating, who has recently broken up with the hyper-crafty McGraw, whose essential groundedness keeps his obsession with key-cutting from seeming like a character flaw. He is now dating a Spanish guitarist. Esther de Groot, etherial Goth beauty, whose charisma and instinctive, low-grade manipulativeness and family wealth have afflicted her with a hazardous degree of learned helplessness. But, like everyone else in the books, we can’t help but like her. Who doesn’t like Esther? No one! She has moments of non-manipulative shrewdness as well (often when penetrating the manipulativeness of others.) But we can’t help feel sorry for Ed, all the same. Daisy Wooten is the intellectual yet innocent over-achiever with the sheltered upbringing. She manages to be both shy and bossy, by turns. I liked the recent episode in which she recovers the 6-in-1 tool her passive-aggressive archaeology professor stole from her, on the local Roman ruin dig.

I guess what I’m saying is: I want a Giant Days, but about German idealism. Or at least a Help Us! Great Philosopher.



rootlesscosmo 10.30.16 at 3:18 pm

As to the prodigiousness: the youngster who can reproduce a long, complicated text from memory after a single hearing–either error-free or with improvements–is a familiar figure. Compare We are told that the young Toscanini returned home from a performance of ”Tannhauser” and wrote out the overture in full score. And everyone must know how the boy Mozart listened to Allegri’s unpublished Miserere in the Sistine Chapel and reproduced the choral piece later note for note.

<aybe what impressed the Baron was Fichte's extraordinary memory, rather than (or in addition to) his brilliance?


rootlesscosmo 10.30.16 at 3:19 pm

Sorry, messed up the blockquote code. The cite is to NY Times “Music View” 10/25/1985.


John Holbo 10.31.16 at 3:43 am

Yeah, I should have mentioned that sheer mnemonics could very well be it. But I wonder, given the emphasis on the bits he added rather than merely remembered.

Speaking of memory: I remember – vaguely – James Baldwin remembering being a child preacher in “Fire Next Time”. Although he was older than 8: 13 if I recall. Looking back, Baldwin regarded the whole thing as having been a semi-dishonest mix of cross-cutting forces. A lot of people exploiting the situation, one way or another. Competition with his father, wanting things for himself, church exploiting the spectacle of a child preacher. Obviously I’m not even hypothesizing that Fichte was like Baldwin. Their situations do not seem to have been analogous. But both of them went on to become major writers. Both of them were itinerant and alienated from the social/political worlds in which they found themselves. A comparative study of different cases of child preachers and what became of them – what it meant to different figures in different times and places – would be interesting.


magari 10.31.16 at 1:52 pm

Fichte is boring for the reason Kant is interesting: he gets swept away by the belief in the (or desire for?) free individual subject and leaves behind all the constraints on the subject found in Kant.


M Caswell 10.31.16 at 3:42 pm

magari: well said!

Dualism means tension- as I heard someone once say, Kant is a tightrope walker. (And if he’s right, every human being is one, too.)


john c. halasz 11.01.16 at 1:39 am

I’ve never read Fichte, so this is second hand. But one can see the rudimentary beginnings of Hegel’s dialectics in Fichte’s method of “positings” and revisions, (since the finite, i.e. empirical, ego in its infinite yearning for the absolute, i.e. transcendental, ego, with which it would be “identical”, the identity of subject and object being the constructive definition of the “absolute”, must always fall short). Kant, whose protege Fichte was, rejected Fichte’s interpretation, as not giving due to the finitude of the empirical ego, i.e. the moment of non-identity with the Ding-an-Sich, and, if course, Kant regarded dialectics as synonymous with sophistry. The other key point of contact is that Fichte originated the notion of “Anerkennung”, recognition, which was to become a key-stone of Hegel’s thinking. Hegel, in turn, staged his critique of Fichte in the French Revolution chapter of the PhG, wherein the Terror is viewed as a contest between absolute egos, (Hegel, though a youthful enthusiast for the Revolution, having always been a Girondist and not a Jacobin).


magari 11.01.16 at 7:45 am

By the way, John, I just now read your original post on the Henrich book and found it very good reading indeed. Count me as one who would happily consume more “let’s talk about philosophy books I’m reading” type posts.


ZM 11.02.16 at 1:17 pm

John Holbo,

There’s an interesting review of a new Kierkegaard book in The New York Review of Books this month. Its got a couple of good anecdotes — that picture of him you used as the basis for your caricature was never finished, and apparently Kierkegaard used pseudonyms as profusely as if he was a troll with a sack of sock puppets including the Watchman of Copenhagen, and Hilarius Bookbinder


John Holbo 11.03.16 at 2:25 am

Thanks for that, ZM!


Belle Waring 11.03.16 at 7:23 am

I feel somehow obliged to note that our younger daughter is, in fact, 12. Due to her having been born in 2004. 2016 is an even number, by my reckoning, and this fact (whether the year is even or odd–combined, naturally with consideration as to whether her birthday has passed) might serve as a clue in future estimates.
–yr adoring wife


John Holbo 11.03.16 at 8:55 am

You are quite right, dearheart. I’m not sure how I got turned around on that crucial ‘is she a teen yet?’ line.


Z 11.03.16 at 9:16 am

He might say, “Socrates, what is arithmetic?” and I should reply to him, as you replied to me, that arithmetic is one of those arts which take effect through words. And then he would proceed to ask: “Words about what?” and I should reply, Words about odd and even numbers, and how many there are of each. And if he asked again: “What is the art of calculation?” I should say […] “as aforesaid” of arithmetic, but with a difference, the difference being that the art of calculation considers not only the quantities of odd and even numbers, but also their numerical relations to themselves and to one another.


John Holbo 11.03.16 at 10:00 am

I’m torn between two theories about why I got it wrong.

1) I was rounding up.

2) I am cultivating my persona as a doting dad who is endearingly absent-minded about some basic things.


John Holbo 11.03.16 at 10:21 am

I told Violet and she said it’s ok because sometimes she thinks she’s still 11. So it balances out.


Z 11.03.16 at 10:36 am

Or you are blinded by the evident eloquence of your daughter when sermoning on the topic of comics and young adults books and so got yourself convinced that such a precocious young lady could not be a day younger than 13.

Which reminds me, isn’t the received opinion that children preachers become revolutionaries? I seem to recall that going back to Paris from his coronation in 1775, Louis XVI paid a visit to Louis-Le-Grand high school where two of the best pupils had the honor to recite the versified compliments they had prepared. That day was rainy and apparently neither Louis XVI nor Marie-Antoinette stepped out of their coach while the pupils stoically stood in the mud. The coach is said to have left before the end of the poem. The pupils? Maximilen de Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins.


John Holbo 11.03.16 at 10:54 am

“Or you are blinded by the evident eloquence of your daughter when sermoning on the topic of comics and young adults books and so got yourself convinced that such a precocious young lady could not be a day younger than 13.”

Or my policy of declaring every birthday in the family to be ‘sweet 16’ – except for the cats – has had the unforeseen consequence of gradually really deluding me about all of our real ages. (Now that I think about it, I wonder how old I actually am.)


D 11.04.16 at 1:40 am

If she hasn’t read it already, Brian K Vaughan’s “Runaways” is a great book for tweens.


John Holbo 11.04.16 at 5:53 am

We’ve been reading “Runaways” for years. My old hardback editions have been banged about and thumbed heavily by this point. It is indeed a good thing for kids.

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