Jakob Friedrich Fries (August 23, 1773 – August 10, 1843) was a German philosopher in the Kantian tradition. Unlike Immanuel Kant’s immediate followers, Fries did not limit himself to a mere clarification of the master’s ideas, but neither did he create a system of his own like the German Idealists would. In the history of ideas, Fries primarily remains as the thinker who sought to introduce the notion of intuition into Kant’s philosophy, without altering its essential nature. For Fries, Ahndung (presentiment) is our mind’s ability to perceive the presence of the divine in nature and the human spirit, beyond the capacity of our finite reason. According to Fries, this special faculty forms an essential link between knowledge and faith. It would play an important role in the development of modern philosophy of religion seeking to transcend the limitations of rationalism without replacing it with supernatural explanations.
Fries was born at Barby in Saxony. He studied theology at the Academy of the Moravian Brethren at Niesky, and philosophy at the Universities of Leipzig and Jena. After traveling, he became professor of philosophy and elementary mathematics at the University of Heidelberg in 1806.
Though the progress of his psychological thought compelled him to abandon the positive theology of the Moravians, he retained an appreciation of its spiritual and symbolic significance. His philosophical position with regard to his contemporaries had already been made clear in his critical work Reinhold, Fichte und Schelling (1803), and in the more systematic treatises System der Philosophie als evidente Wissenschaft (1804) and Wissen, Glaube und Ahndung (1805).
Fries's most important treatise, the Neue oder anthropologische Kritik der Vernunft (2nd ed., 1828–1831), was an attempt to give a new foundation of psychological analysis to the critical theory of Immanuel Kant. In 1811 he published his System der Logik (ed. 1819 and 1837), and in 1814 Julius und Evagoras, a philosophical romance. He also was involved in public polemics, and wrote Ueber die Gefaehrdung des Wohlstandes und des Charakters der Deutschen durch die Juden (1816), advocating, among other things, a distinct sign on the dress of Jews to distinguish them from the general population as well as encouraging their expulsion from German lands. In 1816 he was invited to Jena to fill the chair of theoretical philosophy (including mathematics, physics, and philosophy proper), and entered upon a crusade against the prevailing Romanticism. In politics he was a strong Liberal and Unionist, and he did much to inspire the organization of the Burschenschaft. In 1816 he had published his views in a brochure, Von deutschen Bund und deutscher Staatsverfassung, dedicated to "the youth of Germany," and his influence gave a powerful impetus to the agitation which led, in 1819, to the issue of the Carlsbad Decrees by the representatives of the German governments.
Karl Ludwig Sand, the murderer of August von Kotzebue, was one of Fries's pupils. A letter of his, found on another student, warning Sand against participation in secret societies, was twisted by the suspicious authorities into evidence of his guilt. He was condemned by the Mainz Commission; the Grand Duke of Weimar was compelled to deprive him of his professorship and he was forbidden to lecture on philosophy. The grand duke, however, continued to pay him his stipend, and in 1824 he was recalled to Jena as professor of mathematics and physics, receiving permission also to lecture on philosophy in his own rooms to a select number of students. Finally, in 1838, the unrestricted right of lecturing was restored to him.
Fries died on August 10, 1843. The most important of the many works written during his Jena professorship are the Handbuch der praktischen Philosophie (1817–1832), the Handbuch der psychischen Anthropologie (1820–1821), and Die mathematische Naturphilosophie (1822).
By no means Fries’s most important work, at least in terms of size, Wissen, Glaube und Ahndung, is best known because it includes the term Ahndung (old form of “Ahnung” for presentiment) and discusses that notion at length. Fries himself refers the reader to his more lengthy works, of which he says with a touch of humor that they represent his “esoteric philosophy,” meaning by this that in them he takes the time to explain things systematically.
Immanuel Kant’s agnostic conclusion was that we can only know phenomena, and not things as they are, because we lack “intellectual intuition” or the capacity to directly perceive things beyond what our senses convey to us. This, among other things, precluded any certain knowledge about God and the afterlife. Kant tried to solve that impasse by indicating that practically, our reason required us to assume the existence of these entities based on moral grounds.
Like many others, Fries rejected that solution as pure illusion. For him, the certainty of faith or belief, far from representing mere opinion, was the highest form of reason. Truth on that level is given to us directly. Knowledge, on the other hand, which he equated with knowledge of the natural world based on understanding, could not possibly go beyond the understanding of causal chains among phenomena. To try, as Kant did, to rationally deduce from the harmony of nature that there had to be a supreme cause was nonsense for Fries. Rather, he said, there was a third faculty, that of “Ahndung,” that allowed us to have a presentiment of the higher order hidden behind the beauty of nature and the human soul. In that sense, Fries was both an intuitionist and a mechanistic rationalist, hence a dualist. On the one hand, be believed that through understanding, given sufficient time and effort, we were at least theoretically capable of figuring out every single event in the future, since things unfold through ironclad laws. On the other hand, he believed that we had a faculty enabling us to perceive nominal reality directly. Both were unrelated in his mind.
Unlike Hegel or Schopenhauer, Fries’s ideas have never become extremely influential in post-Kantian philosophy. However, from the perspective of those who felt that Kant’s legacy had been tampered with by his more famous followers, Fries’s thought became a favorite point of contact—allowing for an acknowledgment of Kant’s critical philosophy with the addition of the intuitive element rejected by Kant. Thus, around 1900, renewed interest in the thought system of Fries led to the creation of the neo-Friesian school in Germany. This movement included thinkers such as Leonard Nelson and the philosopher of religion Rudolf Otto.
Fries was much admired by Rudolf Otto who derived his notion of the numinous from Fries’s Ahndung. One of Otto’s earlier writings is entitled The Philosophy of Religion based on Kant and Fries (1909). Paul Tillich also acknowledges Fries’s contribution in his philosophy of religion. Both Otto and Tillich consider that Fries’s notion of Ahndung gives a more accurate account of the way we grasp the Divine than does Friedrich Schleiermacher’s notion of mere dependence (schlechthinnige Abhängigkeit).
Directly or indirectly, Fries also had an influence on Carl-Gustav Jung, Mircea Eliade, Sir Karl Popper (with his conception of truth as non-rational), and Julius Kraft, founder in 1957 of the journal Ratio.
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