Jacobi, Friedrich Heinrich

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Jacobi, Friedrich Heinrich (1743-1819): German Philosopher.

Jacobi was a proponent of the philosophy of feeling and a vocal opponent of Kant, Immanuel’s critical idealism. His project, which sought to undercut the Enlightenment, and reaffirmed the role of faith in both practical and theoretical philosophy, would help define him as an important influence on the development of German Romanticism.

Jacobi was born in Dusseldorf (Germany) in 1743. Although he began his studies in preparation for a career in business, he was ultimately drawn to philosophy, and changed his course of studies accordingly. He eventually became close friends with many distinguished literary figures of day like Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim, Herder, Johann Gottfried, and Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. He was drawn to philosophic figures like Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, and Shaftsbury, and was greatly influenced by his friend, and fellow philosopher of feeling, Hamann, Johann Georg. The articulation of his thought was also decisively formed by his critical engagement with Spinoza and Kant.

For Jacobi, Spinoza and Kant represented two erroneous extremes. On the one hand the dogmatic rationalism of Spinoza was a mathematically deduced metaphysics, whose necessary laws were tantamount to fatalism. On the other hand, the critical philosophy of Kant offered freedom and creativity; but denied the theoretical role of faith and feeling. According to Jacobi, Kant represented a pure subjective idealism.

He would argue that Kant’s explanation of the thing-in-itself in terms of causal influence stood as a serious contradiction for Kantian epistemology. For Jacobi, this contradiction, in which a system of knowing remains dependent upon that which falls outside the framework of that system, is proof of the importance of the role of faith in theoretical knowing. Since one cannot deduce reality from cognitive experience alone, our experience of the immediacy of the world demands that one recognize the role of faith, feeling, and revelation play in theoretical knowing. While Kant would limit the aspirations of metaphysical speculation by relegating the question of faith, ethics, and God to practical concerns that could not be theoretically proven, Jacobi would, in effect, reverse Kant’s position by arguing that faith is indeed necessary for theoretical knowledge. By extending the role of faith to theoretical knowledge, Jacobi, like Hume, David, would show that faith played an important theoretical role in knowledge. All demonstrable knowledge was at best contingent. Our experience of the reality of the world is not logically justifiable, but it commands a certainty that one is compelled to accept on the order of faith. Jacobi’s account of the contingency of human thought and the inherent limitations of reason had a wide influence on figures in German Idealism and Romanticism, like Fichte, Johann Gotlieb, Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph, Hölderlin, Johann Christian Friedrich, Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg), and others.

Further Reading:

George DiGiovanni, “The Unfinished Philosophy of Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi,” in Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi: The Main Philosophical Writings and the Novel ‘Allwill,’ 1994

F. Scott Scribner