The father’s hand (1)

Our conference “letter around 1800 – on the mediality of generation” was a step towards the modelization of interpersonal relationships within correspondence corpora in German in the early 19th century. It allowed me to experiment with categories like intellectual genealogies and the way they are reflected in the manuscripts of the letters themselves. My contribution dealt with a singular collaboration situation, the one between father and child. It was based on three case studies that showed mainly:

  • that it was considered as a sign of moral weakness for a son to walk in his father’s footsteps;
  • that the “sons of” sometimes turned to “second fathers” – with variable success;
  • that what was the rule for the sons was the exception for the daughters: they had to stick to their father and to evolve as their very shadow.



Ludwig Tieck Sitting to Portrait, Daughter Dorothea behind him

Ludwig Tieck Sitting to Portrait, Daughter Dorothea behind him

My argumentation was based on the way the motive of the “hand” was declined in letters commenting on the work relationships between fathers and sons or daughters. I will develop each one of the case studies  in three different blog posts. This is the first one.


(1) The case of Immanuel Hermann Fichte

Immanuel Hermann Fichte was the son of the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. The part of his philosophical work that is known and studied it that of his maturity and has little to do with his father’s philosophy.

Immanuel Hermann Fichte 1859

Immanuel Hermann Fichte 1859

But there is one text in which the conceptual closeness between father and son lead to wild assumptions at the Department of Philosophy of the Berlin University  in 1817.

When 21 year-old Immanuel Hermann Fichte (the portrait was made 40 years later and requires some effort of the imagination to get a grasp of what he could look like as a student)  applied for a doctorate in Philosophy from the Berlin University, he was the first one to apply for this title since the University was funded seven years earlier. The vast majority of applicants in the Department of Philosophy (which included not only Philology and Philosophy, but also Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Physics) had done so in Philology, and not many of them had successfully passed the exam – several received a master’s degree instead. Most of the doctorates that were allotted in these prime years of the University were honorific titles (doctorate honoris causae). The Departments of this institution that had yet to prove its legitimacy were in need of teaching personal and of scholarly prestige, which were most likely to be provided by private scholars who were already qualified by known publications. Students aspiring to such a position had to be particularly talented and appreciated as a person.

Immanuel Hermann Fichte was a student of Philology, and none of the lesser ones. He was brilliant enough to be part of the Department’s elite: an ordinary member of August Boeckh’s Philological Seminar (between 1812 and 1815). When Fichte father died unexpectedly, still in the exercise of his functions as a professor in that very same Department, in 1814, wife and son were left without any income. Between 1815 and 1817, Immanuel Hermann Fichte studied philosophy by himself and composed in that time the treatise he submitted to the Department of Philosophy when applying for his doctorate. This text, which was the first step of a long process aiming at allowing him to give lectures and hence earn money, is not the dissertation itself. The procedure required the applicants to first submit an essay which was conceived as giving a “proof” of the student’s ability (or not) to compose a valid dissertation. The essay was accompanied by an application letter (Petitionsschreiben).

Since Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s death, there was only one Chair of Philosophy left at the Berlin University and it was held by Karl Solger. The Dean asked Solger for a review of the text submitted by Immanuel Hermann Fichte. Solger wrote that a quick look gave him sufficient proof that the student should be authorized to submit a full dissertation.

Circular reg. the doctorate of Immanuel Hermann Fichte. HUB, UA, Phil. Fak. 210, Bl. 105.

Circular reg. the doctorate of Immanuel Hermann Fichte.
HUB, UA, Phil. Fak. 210, Bl. 105.

His colleague, mineralogist Christian Samuel Weiss, viewed it otherwise. He accused Immanuel Hermann Fichte of having submitted to the Department a manuscript he found in his father’s papers. One of the key argument Weiß used was the fact that the characteristic handwriting of the father, whom all faculty members knew for having exchanged (be it only circulars) with him, was allegedly clearly recognizable in parts of the manuscript as well as in in the application letter.

This “material” argument is only part of a series of statements. Weiß finds it suspect that Immanuel Hermann Fichte does not quote his father in spite of the fact that what he develops is very close to Fichtean philosophy – a good proof, to his eyes, that the text had been written by the father, who would not have quoted himself. Furthermore, Weiß finds it unlikely that such a young philosopher might be able to achieve the systematic depth displayed in the text. He accumulates a series of loosely related arguments:

“this is the work of an exercised, trained, agile, penetrative and in himself matured thinker, not the work of a youth taking his first steps in the philosophical field likely to come from a young man who has practically never been taught orally in philosophy, especially not by his father, whose footsteps he did not seem to want to follow as long as the father lived and who, as far as I know, in no way inherited his father’s nature, and seems to be a mediocre head.” (HUB, UA, Phil. Fak. 210, F. 105)

It would certainly be interesting to comment in some more depth on the rage with which the arguments are thrown over one another. If one considers the accusation solely from the point of view of what is being said of the son being the hand of the father, three points seem particularly interesting here:

  • Father and son are described as being two parts of one being. The father’s handwriting that Weiß assumes to recognize is that of the time when he had the gout and could allegedly only write with his left hand (which is all invented by Weiß: Fichte father did not do so during his gout crisis). Weiß thus creates an hybrid being in which the father is the left hand and the son the right hand. The argument that “only a mature thinker” could write such a text emphasizes this notion of a bodily continuum between father and son. Through this construction, Weiß generates the fiction of a work commonly written by father and son and not acknowledged as such. From this point on, he can refer to a more general moral frame in which it is not the plagiarism which is problematic, but the production of a common work regarded as intellectually feeble and therefore morally reprehensible.
  • The argument of the “recognizable” handwriting refers to both an objective optical proof and a subjective reminiscence of the situation at the Department when Fichte father was still alive. Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s time at the Department had been a tempestuous one. When he was a rector, he ignored the decisions of the University Senate and discussed his own positions with the Ministry instead. He was surrounded by a court of followers. Weiß reactivates the trauma of the Department’s life under Fichte senior, especially by playing self-reflexively on his own piece of writing. Basically, he awakens the memory of the numerous circulars and notes composed by the Department Faculty only a few years earlier to find a way out of the crisis with Fichte sen. in his own practice of the circular. This is a way of saying “Do you really want a Fichte again in the Department?”
  • There is an hesitation between accepting and refusing the scope of what genealogy implies. The assessment of what Immanuel Hermann Fichte inherited by genetic predisposition and by exposure to his father’s ideas in his youth is being alternatively recognized and denied by Weiß. This has probably to do with more general interrogations on the value of teaching and the constitution of an autonomous intellectual personality.

The main defendant of Immanuel Hermann Fichte was his teacher, August Boeckh. Point by point, Boeckh could disavow Weiß’ accusation. After all, Immanuel Hermann Fichte was not so much a Fichtean than he was, by 1817, a Boeckhian.


Further readings on this topic apart from the long version (in German) of this paper (to appear in the Fall of 2014):

– my paper “Die Entwicklung der Philosophischen Fakultät der Berliner Universität in den Jahren 1813-1817 – oder wie Boeckh seinen Studenten zur Promotion verhalf”, in: August Boeckh. Philologie, Hermeneutik und Wissenschaftspolitik, dir. by Christiane Hackel & Sabine Seifert, Berlin, 2013.

– the master’s thesis of Eva Schneider: Ein Macht- und Methoden-Streit um die Philosophie. Der Plagiatsvorwurf gegen I.H. Fichte (TU Berlin, 2013)

– the major work ever written on I.H. Fichte: Hermann Ehret, Immanuel Hermann Fichte. Ein Denker gegen seine Zeit, Stuttgart, 1986

Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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