Fries, Jakob Friedrich (1773–1843)

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Jakob Friedrich Fries, the German critical philosopher, was born in Barby, Saxony. An avowed follower and elaborator of Immanuel Kant's philosophy, Fries emphasized the analytical, descriptive, and methodological aspects of the critical philosophy as against the constructive and speculative idealism of such contemporaries as K. L. Reinhold, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and G. W. F. Hegel. He received his secondary and college education at the Moravian Academy in Niesky. From his Pietistic Moravian background Fries preserved a conviction of the importance of "pure feeling" as a manifestation of "the infinite in the finite." At Niesky he was given a thorough grounding in mathematics and in the natural sciences. There he was also introduced to a version of Kant's philosophy based on Reinhold's, which he early sought to correct and supplement by secretly reading in Kant's own writings. In 1795 he went to Leipzig, where he studied under the philosopher-physician Ernst Plattner.

The influence of Plattner and of F. H. Jacobi accounts for Fries's emphasis on the concept of self-observation. From 1797 on, Fries continued his studies in mathematics and physics at Jena, where he also attended Fichte's lectures. "I listened to Fichte, took notes, then rushed home and wrote rebuttals," he later recalled. These critical notes were incorporated into his polemical writings. As early as 1798, in the article "Über das Verhältniss der empirischen Psychologie zur Metaphysik" (On the relation of empirical psychology to metaphysics; in Erhard Schmids Psychologische Magazin, Vol. 3), he argued that the task of philosophy is essentially descriptive rather than speculative.

Following his studies at Jena, Fries served as a private tutor in Switzerland, then returned to Jena as a docent in 1801, submitting a habilitation thesis on intellectual intuition. The polemical tract Reinhold, Fichte und Schelling (Leipzig, 1803) established his reputation as a critic of the romantic orthodoxy in German philosophy. From Jena he was called to a professorship in philosophy and mathematics at Heidelberg. That year he published Wissen, Glaube und Ahndung (Knowing, faith and presage; Jena, 1805), a popular exposition of his doctrine of a threefold approach to reality. This was followed, during the years 18061807, by his chief work, the three-volume Neue Kritik der Vernunft (New critique of reason; Heidelberg, 1807; 2nd ed., Neue oder anthropologische Kritik der Vernunft, Heidelberg, 18281831), in which he attempted to correct and restate the Kantian critique of speculative and practical reason as a program of psychological self-observation or "anthropology."

Progressive Political Views

A decisive shift in Fries's career occurred in 1816, when he returned to Jena to a professorship in theoretical philosophy. Under the tolerant and liberal regime of Duke Karl August, he published his Ethik (Heidelberg, 1818), a work in which he stressed the ideal of individual liberty and political equality as a consequence of the Kantian doctrine of the dignity proper to a human being. In pamphlets and lectures and at student gatherings during this period, Fries argued for constitutional and representative government, extolled the political wisdom of the "people," opposed the conservatism of student secret societies, and advocated German unification. This activity, climaxed by his participation in the Wartburg Festival of October 18, 1817a demonstration by student liberals that included a ceremonial burning of "reactionary" booksinevitably incurred the wrath of the Austrian and Prussian governments. It also elicited scornful comments from the politically more orthodox Hegel, who in his Philosophy of Right (translated by J. M. Knox, Oxford, 1942) downgraded Fries as "a ringleader of those hosts of superficiality, of these self-styled 'philosophers,'" and attacked his Wartburg speech as "the quintessence of shallow thinking a broth of 'heart, friendship, and inspiration.'" By 1819 the conservative opposition had prevailed upon Karl August, and Fries was suspended from his position at Jena. He had earlier lost hope that he would be offered the chair of philosophy at Berlin, which in 1818 went to Hegel.

Although Fries was eventually allowed to resume teaching at Jena (he taught science from 1824 and philosophy from 1825 on) and held this post until his death, the 1819 suspension was the final turn in his estrangement and isolation from the intellectual currents of the period. From then on, supported by a small following, he devoted his life to studies of mathematics, physics, and psychology, to systematization of his metaphysics and ethics, and to a rewriting of the history of philosophy on the theme of "progress in scientific development." To this period belong Die mathematische Naturphilosophie (Heidelberg, 1822); System der Metaphysik (Heidelberg, 1824); Handbuch der psychischen Anthropologie (2 vols., Jena, 1820 and 1821); and Die Geschichte der Philosophie (2 vols., Halle, 18371840).

Approaches to Reality

Fries followed Immanuel Kant in the overall architectonic of his philosophy and in specific doctrines. Corresponding to Kant's three Critiques, he distinguished three approaches or attitudes toward realityknowing, faith, and presage, or presentiment (Ahndung ). We know things only as appearances to a peculiarly human sensibility and understanding. But we have faith in the reality of a world of real moral agents under eternal moral laws. Our understanding is aware of this world only negatively, as a limitation of the empirical world, through the Ideas of Reason. Finally, through presage or presentiment, a pure and disinterested feeling akin to the experience of the beautiful and the sublime, we are given the assurance that the world of appearances and the real world are not two worlds but one, and that the former is a manifestation of the lattera finite projection of the infinite into the finite.

Types of Knowledge

Within the sphere of knowing, Fries distinguished two levels: original or immediate knowledge, and reflective or mediate knowledge. The types of mediate knowledge are given in the Kantian forms of judgment: analytic, synthetic a posteriori, and synthetic a priori. We must also distinguish three types of immediate knowledge. An empirical intuition is a direct awareness of the sensory given; a pure intuition is a direct awareness of space and time as empty containers of sensible entities; and an immediate metaphysical cognition is the direct but nonintuitive awareness of principles involving the categories of the understanding (for example, the principle of causality or the principle of the permanence of substance). No attempt to reduce cognitions of the second and third types to cognitions of the first type can ever succeed. Space and time are the forms of our empirical intuitions; the categories are the forms of human understanding. Fries thus shared with Kant the critical solution of the problem of a priori knowledge. He also shared with Kant the rejection of both the empiricist and the intellectual intuitionist solutions of the problem.

Metaphysical Knowledge

Fries departed from Kant, however, in his interpretation of the basis for the critical solution in the case of a priori metaphysical knowledge. Fries found inconsistency and circularity in Kant's attempt to validate categories and to "prove" the principles of the understanding by referring them to "the possibility of experience." If these are indeed principles, no proof could be required and none would be sufficient. Kant succumbed, in Fries's judgment, to the ancient rationalist prejudice that everything can be proved and that all truths can be reduced to a single principlein Kant's case, the concept of possible experience. All that is possible, Fries objected, is to display the status of certain cognitions as a priori and necessary. "I do not prove," he explained, "that all substance is permanent; rather I point to the fact that the principle of the permanence of substance lies in every finite mind" (Neue oder anthropologische Kritik der Vernunft, 2nd ed., Vol. I). In Kant's language, only a "metaphysical deduction" (the answer to the question, "What is the case?") is possible.

Discovery of Metaphysical Principles

The regression to metaphysical principles is not an easy task, for unlike empirical and pure intuitions, which are clear and readily available to consciousness, metaphysical principles lie "concealed and obscure" in the depths of human reason. Fries described this regression as a process of self-observation or "psychic anthropology," and likened it to experimental physics insofar as the latter aims to discover the general law involved in specific physical phenomena. Kant, accordingly, misunderstood the function of critical philosophy and the status of the judgments that constitute it, for whereas the truths that critical philosophy aims to uncover are nonempirical and necessary, the critique itself is empirical and fallible. Fries admired the long "subjective" deductions of the categories in the first edition of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason but was skeptical of the short "objective" deductions of the second edition.


A complete theory of proof must, therefore, distinguish three kinds: (1) demonstration, or the reduction of a "reflective" or "mediate" cognition to an intuition (pure or empirical); (2) proof, or the reduction of one mediate cognition to another; and (3) deduction, or a regressive analysis that traces a given cognition to its ground in immediate metaphysical knowledge. Just as in the case of demonstration, in which no question can arise concerning the validity of the intuitions themselves, so too, in the case of deduction, no question can possibly arise as to the validity of our immediate metaphysical knowledge. A deduction is, of course, something fallible; closer scrutiny may later reveal a disparity between a given cognition and its supposed ground. But the same danger exists for demonstrationin this case minimally.


Truth is a matter of correspondence between thought and object, but the object is not something transcendent; it is simply an immediate cognition. Truth is a relation between two levels of cognition. With regard to immediate knowledge itself we must accept the principle of "Reason's self-reliance" (Selbstvertrauen der Vernunft ), that is, that we possess such knowledge and that it is intrinsically valid.

Fries's "Psychologism"

Fries's restatement of the Kantian deduction has often been attacked as psychologism. If psychologism is understood as the attempt to find the validity of human beliefs in their psychological causes and in the laws of association, the charge is unfair. Fries was not a proponent of psychologism in that sense: For him, the validity of immediate knowledge lay in its logical character, universality, and necessity, not in its causal origins. Indeed, Fries wrote critically against such contemporary advocates of psychologism as Friedrich Eduard Beneke, with whom he was sometimes mistakenly compared. At the same time, he did seem to suggest that logical character can be gathered from mere psychological observation of our mental processes. And in this connection he has been justly criticized for confusing a mental act with its logical content. Certainly the process that Fries described as "anthropology" would be more accurately described today as "logical" or "phenomenological" analysis. Fries was perhaps misled by the analogy between a logical regress to presuppositions in philosophy and the heuristic regress (induction) to general hypotheses and theories in physics.

Science and Mathematics

In the fields of mathematics, physics, and psychology, Fries's thought was highly original and expertly worked out. He had a clear conception of a philosophy of mathematics and physics as an independent discipline, and anticipated the modern distinction between a theory and a metatheory. In his theory of nature he attacked Kant's concessions to teleology and argued for a thoroughgoing mechanism that would also encompass the biological sciences. His psychological investigations extended into the study of pathological phenomena. He took note of the distinction between inherited and acquired, as well as between continuous and periodic, mental disorders and argued for the physiological basis of mental illnessconcepts that were by no means as current in Fries's time as they are in ours and that were unfortunately ignored by the psychiatric practitioners of his day.

Fries's Influence

Fries was succeeded at Jena by his pupil E. F. Apelt, who published a masterly textbook of Friesian metaphysics and in 1847 established the journal Abhandlungen der Fries'schen Schule, which served for two years as a forum for critical, scientifically oriented philosophy. There was a revival of interest in Fries and in his approach to Kant in the years preceding and immediately following World War I, centering about Leonard Nelson at Göttingen, who shared Fries's scientific outlook and reacted to the idealist Neo-Kantian orthodoxy in the German universities of his time much as Fries had reacted to Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. The theologian Rudolf Otto, an early associate of Nelson, developed Fries's concept of "presage" in his influential book Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy, Gotha, 1917). In 1904 Nelson established a new series of the Abhandlungen der Fries'schen Schule of which six volumes appeared before publication was discontinued in 1937. National Socialism proved itself as inimical to Nelson's school as Klemens von Metternich's political reaction had been to Fries's. In 1958 Julius Kraft, a student of Nelson's, founded the philosophical journal Ratio as a continuation of the Abhandlungen.

Although Fries's influence was and remains limited, part of the interest that his philosophy holds for the modern reader lies in its analogues with, and anticipations of, positions and problems that were central in twentieth-century thought, especially in England and the United States. There is, first, an obvious but quite unexplored analogy between Fries's psychological method and Edmund Husserl's phenomenology. Moreover, the view that metaphysical principles can only be exhibited as such but not proved has been variously defended by R. G. Collingwood and by representatives of the Oxford school of linguistic analysis. There are also apparent counterparts of Fries's "self-reliance of Reason" in G. E. Moore's appeal to common sense, in the positivists' appeal to a level of incorrigible knowledge, and in Ludwig Wittgenstein's famous dictum that "the propositions of our ordinary language are in perfect order." Indeed, the question of the status of the propositions employed by the critical or analytical philosopher, which was first raised by Fries, has come under much discussion in recent years, under the heading "the problem of analysis."

See also Collingwood, Robin George; Faith; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Husserl, Edmund; Jacobi, Friedrich Heinrich; Kant, Immanuel; Knowledge, A Priori; Moore, George Edward; Nelson, Leonard; Neo-Kantianism; Otto, Rudolf; Psychologism; Reinhold, Karl Leonhard; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann.


works by fries

A list of all Fries's writings will be found in Abhandlungen der Fries'schen Schule, n.s., 6 (1937): 473495.

With G. König and Lutz Geldsetzer. Sämtliche Schriften. Aalen: Scientia Verlag, 1967.

With D. Z. Phillips. Dialogues on Morality and Religion. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1982.

With Frederick Gregory. Knowledge, Belief, and Aesthetic Sense. Köln: Jürgen Dinter, Verlag für Philosophie, 1989.

On Fries's life and writings, the fundamental work remains E. L. T. Henke, Jakob Friedrich Fries (Leipzig, 1867). The last detailed study of Fries's theory of knowledge is in Alfred Kastil, Fries' Lehre von der Unmittelbaren Erkenntnis, a monograph that constitutes Abhandlungen der Fries'schen Schule 4 (1912). For a short critical assessment of the same subject, see Ernst Cassirer, Das Erkenntnissproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit (Berlin, 1923), Vol. III, Ch. 7. A stimulating but partisan account of Fries's philosophy will be found in Leonard Nelson, Fortschritte und Rückschritte der Philosophie (Frankfurt, 1962). In connection with Fries's theory of law and religion, especially interesting are Julius Kraft, Die Methode der Rechtstheorie in der Schule von Kant und Fries (Berlin, 1924) and Rudolf Otto, Kantisch-Fries'che Religionsphilosophie und ihre Anwendung auf die Theologie (Tübingen: Mohr, 1909), translated by E. B. Dicker as The Philosophy of Religion Based on Kant and Fries (London: Williams and Norgate, 1931).

Alexander P. D. Mourelatos (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael Farmer (2005)

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Fries, Jakob Friedrich (1773–1843)

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