Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction by Richard Jones (1855–1923)

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Richard Jones (1855–1923)

By Kuno Fischer (1824–1907)

KUNO FISCHER of Heidelberg, one of the most brilliant and stimulating of living university professors, the great historian and interpreter of modern philosophy, is distinguished likewise as an expositor and interpreter of some of the greater literature of the modern world. Indeed, his first published work, ‘Diotima, oder die Idee des Schönen,’ was an excursion into the realm of æsthetics; and his poetic sympathies, oratorical fervor and eloquence, and the literary charm of his interpretations, have contributed no less than his profound philosophic insight toward drawing to him university students from all parts of the world, from the beginning of his distinguished university career.

The son of a country pastor, he was born July 23d, 1824, at Sandewalde in the province of Silesia. He attended the Gymnasium of Posen, and began in 1844 his university studies, philology, theology, and philosophy; first at Leipsic, then at Halle, where he received the degree of doctor of philosophy in 1847. In the Michaelmas semester of 1850 he began his instruction in philosophy as privatdocent in the University of Heidelberg. His lectures were from the first exceptionally successful, but in 1853 he was forbidden by a ministerial edict from continuing his university instruction. No reason was assigned for this arbitrary act, which aroused deep indignation in university circles throughout Germany as a serious infringement of the “Lehrfreiheit,” the unrestricted freedom of thought and of teaching so dear to the German university professor’s heart. He remained amid the beautiful surroundings of Heidelberg, enjoying the friendship of Strauss and of Gervinus, improving his enforced leisure by working on his history of philosophy,—the volume which appeared in 1856, and which serves as an Introduction to the history proper; viz., ‘Francis Bacon und seine Nachfolger’ (Francis Bacon and his Successors), receiving the compliment of an immediate translation into English. In the autumn of 1855 Fischer requested permission to lecture in the University of Berlin, but on account of the Heidelberg proscription this request was refused by the Prussian Minister of Education. However, in response to a petition of the faculty of the University of Berlin, an order was issued by the King in September 1856, granting their request that Fischer be permitted to lecture. But in the meantime he had received a call to the chair of philosophy at Jena, made famous by Fichte and Schelling and Hegel. This call he accepted. Here his lectures were again extraordinarily successful. Students flocked to Jena as they had not done since the days of Schiller, Schelling, and Fichte. He was made Privy Councilor of the Duke, and was the recipient of many honors. In 1870 he declined a call to the University of Vienna, but in 1872 he accepted a call to the University of Heidelberg as Zeller’s successor, where he for years remained, the brightest ornament of the oldest university within the present limits of Germany.

His literary work was performed in the two fields of philosophic and literary exposition and interpretation. His ‘Geschichte der Neuern Philosophie’ (History of Modern Philosophy) at last became, after successive enlargements in several editions, a monumental work, famous for the clearness and beauty of its literary style no less than for its philosophic insight and sympathetic interpretation. Kuno Fischer’s method is not to give in brief the essence of a philosophic system,—the substance of Kant, for example. He gives, on the contrary, Kant amplified, interpreted, illustrated. He states lucidly that which Kant himself stated obscurely, and illumines the Cimmerian darkness of the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ by a remarkably clear and successful interpretation, which has influenced profoundly philosophic thought during the closing decades of the nineteenth century.

His treatment of philosophic systems is colored with life by sympathetic recitals of the lives and characters of the men who founded these systems. As an introduction, for example, to the philosophy of Leibnitz, there is given a full account of the life and times of Leibnitz, closing with a description of his death, alone and friendless. This great many-sided genius, until Kant came the greatest mind since Aristotle, world-renowned, who had served his king for forty years, died neglected and solitary, practically imprisoned, set to a task, yearning for the green fields, a change of scene, and liberty, and no one knows to this day the spot where he lies buried,—a striking theme for a philosopher-poet, who is by nature an orator, “musical as is Apollo’s lute.” To hearers or readers who have learned thus to know the man Leibnitz, the system of thought of the philosopher Leibnitz can never be thereafter a mere lifeless abstraction.

Even the distinctively philosophical works of Kuno Fischer are full of literary charm. They are clear and lucid statements of momentous truths, warm with emotion and glowing with life through his vivid appreciation of the greatness of the theme. Since, as Disraeli has said, “Philosophy becomes poetry, and science imagination, in the enthusiasm of genius,” so Kuno Fischer’s readers, and especially his hearers, yield ready assent to Milton’s lines:—

  • “How charming is divine philosophy!
  • Not harsh and crabbed, as dull fools suppose,
  • But musical as is Apollo’s lute,
  • And a perpetual feast of nectar’d sweets,
  • Where no crude surfeit reigns.”
  • Kuno Fischer’s expositions and interpretations of literature relate largely to the works of Shakespeare, Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller. His method has been described in detail by Hugo Falkenheim in his volume ‘Kuno Fischer und die Litterarhistorische Methode.’ As an interpreter of literature, Fischer did not evolve his interpretations out of his inner consciousness; but as a philosopher and a historian of thought, he was able to distinguish from unessential details the ruling idea which is at the basis of a poem, and to illustrate the use which has been made of this idea by other poets, elsewhere and in other times.

    The first volume of his ‘Goethe’s Faust’ (Vol. i., ‘Faust Literature before Goethe’; Vol. ii., ‘Goethe’s Faust, its Origin, Idea, and Composition’) has been translated into English by Harry Riggs Wolcott, of the University of Heidelberg. ‘Die Erklärungsarten des Goetheschen Faust’ (Goethe’s Faust; Methods of Exposition) has been translated by Professor Richard Jones, of the University of the State of New York, for the publications of the English Goethe Society. His commentary on Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ was translated and edited by Professor J. P. Mahaffy, of the University of Dublin, in 1866. His ‘Critique of Kant’ has been translated by Professor W. S. Hough for the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, edited by Dr. William T. Harris. Professor J. P. Gordy of Ohio University has translated the first two volumes of the ‘History of Modern Philosophy,’ including Descartes and his school, and also the Introduction, which gives an outline of Grecian philosophy and of the philosophy of the Middle Ages, of the Renaissance, and of the Reformation. ‘Francis Bacon and his Successors’ is a translation of his work on Bacon by John Oxenford (London, 1857). Kuno Fischer died on July 4, 1907.