Thursday, August 07, 2008

Language and Conflict: Review of Johann Gottlieb Fichte's Addresses to the German Nation

An eloquent and useful work for German Supremacists and neo-Nazis.

Fichte wrote "Addresses..." during the period when Napoleon controlled Germany.  Fichte gave these lectures in an attempt to rally the locals to rise up and get rid of the Corsican upstart.  Most of his plan to get them psyched up?  Pandering. 

He starts with a lot of talk about education, and near the end of this section he actually says that poverty and crime will pretty much dissapear with his proposed education system. Virtually no details are provided, but he says the kids will love it and he also says during it each will becom accustomed "to bear every effort and hardship."  Sounds like something the kids will love!

His discussion of education might be retarded, but it isn't the offensive part.  For this, Fichte makes up a ludicrous and factually incorrect linguistic argument to buttress his claims that the Germans are the only true people on Earth.  It's really silly, but the gist is that if ever your ancestors are conquered, and forced to learn a new language, they will be cut off from all further intellectual progress.  Fichte claims, clearly and repeatedly, that only Germans are capable true thought, or original philosophy.  That non-Germans can never truly learn the German language, because it is too much for them.  Non-Germans, who think they've thought of something?  It's like a faerie on the grass, no impact at all. 

I read this book because some academics and others pointed to Fichte as an important herald in the field I've been developing, language and conflict.  It turns out that, other than his crackpot theory of the role of language in the ability of people to think, he mentions language, or German, very little.  He fears, in one section, that Germans will be forced to adopt French (some already had) and this will make them permanently subject people. He says that even should German survive as a literary language, German men of letters would be powerless to perform what he sees as the "noblest privilege and sacred function" of an intellectual, to address a people's most important affairs.  Fichte ends this portion, as far as language is concerned, by saying "Germany was split up into several separate States. and was held together as a common whole almost solely by the instrumentality of the man of letters, by speech and writing."

It is obvious now why the German Romantics liked him, at least at first. They were, themselves, literary men who took an interest in affairs of State.  Soon after actually meeting Fichte, however, they stopped hanging out.  He didn't last long as the first Chair of Philosophy of the new Berlin University (1810), either.

After that, there is only this quote, which I like and which is poetic.  It is from the very last Address before the conclusion, which makes it odd how he starts...
To begin with and before all things: the first, original and truly natural boundaries of States are beyond doubt their internal boundaries.  Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself, long before any human art begins; they understand each other and have the power of continuing to make themselves understood more and more clearly; they belong together and are by nature one and an inseparable whole.  Such a whole, if it wishes to absorb and mingle with itself any other people of different descent and language, cannot do so without itself becoming confused, in the beginning at any rate, and violently disturbing the even progress of its culture.  From this internal boundary, which is drawn by the spirital nature of man himself, the marking of the external boundary by dwelling-plae results as a consequence; and in the natural view of things it is not because men dwell between certain mountains and rivers that they are a people, but, on the contrary, men dwell together -- and, if their luck has so arranged it, are protected by rivers and mountains -- because they are a people already by a law of nature which is so much higher.
So, other than one part of one sentence (highlighted in orange) which rings true and isn't absurd, Fichte doesn't address languages and nations at all.

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