‘Fichte’s and Heidegger’s Plans for a Historically Situated German University’

In 1807, the German idealist philosopher, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, draw up plans for the founding of the University of Berlin, prior to the realization of such a plan two years’ later by Wilhelm von Humboldt. At around the same time, Fichte delivered in Berlin his Addresses to the German Nation. In these addresses, Fichte proposes a German national education as the only means of truly uniting the German nation and allowing it to regain its independence in the face of French hegemony. Over a century later in 1933, the philosopher Martin Heidegger made his speech, ‘Die Selbstbehauptung der deutschen Universität’, on assuming the Rectorship of the University of Freiburg, and at a time when the National Socialist’s assumption of power was leading to a reassertion of German identity and power. In his speech, Heidegger makes proposals concerning how a university should be, specifically in its relation to its role in German cultural life. Both Fichte and Heidegger thus present us with proposals for ‘the future university’ developed in turbulent political times.

It is my intention to look at how Fichte’s plans for the future university of Berlin in their relation to his vision of a German national education and the wider goal of the regeneration of the German nation can be compared to Heidegger’s aims in his Rector’s speech, so as to raise the broader question as to how historical circumstances may shape how the role and aims of the university in society are conceived, particularly when these historical circumstances belong to a period of social and political instability and turbulence. In the case of Fichte and Heidegger, given the consequences of the rise of German nationalism in European history, we are also provided with some examples of the possible dangers involved in incorporating wider social and cultural, not to mention nationalistic, aims into a conception of what a university ought to be or become. On the other hand, Fichte and Heidegger confront us with the question as to whether under certain historical conditions it is possible, given external pressures, to resist introducing such aims. Other issues to be explored will include Fichte’s and Heidegger’s introduction of a hierarchy of subjects, with philosophy appearing to be given a guiding role. In the light of this conception of the fundamental role of philosophy in the university, I intend to ask whether Fichte’s and Heidegger’s thoughts on what a university should be contain a utopian element, despite their seeming to be shaped by historical circumstances.

My project thus contains philosophical, political and historical aspects.


Dr David James is a Visiting Fellow at CRASSH, Easter 2011.

He is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. He received a DPhil in Philosophy from the University of Sussex, and went on to hold research fellowships at the University of Ottawa, the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of Johannesburg. He has published extensively on the topics of German idealist political thought and aesthetics. His latest book, Fichte’s Social and Political Philosophy: Property and Virtue, will be published by Cambridge University Press. While a visiting fellow at CRASSH, David will be working on the topic of J. G. Fichte’s proposals concerning the planned establishment of a new university in Berlin in the early eighteenth-century. He will seek to place these proposals within the context of Fichte’s claim that the moral regeneration of the German nation requires the establishment of a new German national education. Special emphasis will be placed on the question of the role of Fichte’s own foundational philosophical science, the Wissenschaftslehre, in both the life of the university and a German national education more generally.


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