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Saturday, June 1, 2019

Reading Kant in the 1790s

Jakob Friedrich Fries
The 1790s were the period when Germany witnessed the pantheism controversy, the effects of the French Revolution and the rise of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. Jakob Friedrich Fries was introduced to Kantian philosophy by one of his teachers Karl Bernhard Garve at the Moravian seminary in Niesky where he was studying in the years 1792—1795. The brethren at the Moravian seminary considered Kant’s thought bad for religious faith and they did not take kindly to Garve’s endeavors for acquainting his students with Kantianism. Garve was relieved of his duties, but his efforts had the intended effect—at the top of the reading list of his students was Kant.

In his book The Genesis of Neo-Kantianism, 1796-1880, Frederick C. Beiser gives the following description of Fries’s attempts to read Kant at the seminary:
"At first the only books he could obtain were the Prolegomena and the so-called Prize Essay, that is, Kant’s 1764 pre-critical work Untersuchung über die Deutlichkeit der Grundsätze der natürlichen Theologie und der Moral. Fries was greatly impressed by both works, which, he said, taught him a completely new method of doing philosophy. But how was Fries to get Kant’s masterwork, his Kritik der reinen Vernunft? Only with great stealth. Against regulations, Fries sneaked out of the seminary and walked to the bookdealer in neighbouring Görlitz. There he bought only parts of the book, some printed sheets; he dared not buy a whole bound copy, because this would have attracted the suspicion of the inspectors. When the seminary’s doctor visited the bookshop in Görlitz, the bookdealer praised the youth’s intellectual curiosity; the doctor raised alarm, and the inspectors duly confiscated the sheets. Fries managed to get them back by convincing the inspectors that he would do it again anyway." 
Beiser notes that “Kant had become “forbidden fruit” for students at the seminary. The temptation of reading him was all the greater precisely because it had been prohibited.”

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