12 September, 2021 • • 47.3EssaysPhilosophy

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Unoriginal, Unsystematic, and Popular

James Thompson

The Wikipedia entry for Christian Garve announces confidently that he was ‘one of the best-known philosophers of the late Enlightenment, along with Immanuel Kant and Moses Mendelssohn’. However, placing Garve alongside such figures seems implausible today. Kant has become an essential figure in modern philosophy, and Mendelssohn remains of interest not only for his own sake but also as a participator in the troubled history of Jews in Germany. But Garve? Even moderns familiar with the flowering of German intellectual culture around 1800 are unlikely to recognise his name; outside of the narrow circle of German dix-huitièmistes, he is largely consigned to oblivion.

Born in 1742 in Breslau (now Wrocław) in Silesia, Garve’s career after his student days was spent almost exclusively in the town of his birth, where the income from his father’s dyeing business supported his career as a writer. His interests were broad, ranging across subjects such as literary criticism, current affairs, and psychology, and he was perhaps most famous in his own lifetime as a translator of Scottish moral philosophy and of Cicero. In the years preceding his death in 1798, he was chiefly occupied with five volumes of Essays on various subjects from moral philosophy, literature, and social life.

The Essays might be regarded as Garve’s representative work. The German term translated by ‘essays’ above is Versuche, and it is perhaps symbolic that Garve’s attempt to coin a German equivalent for Montaigne’s Essais or Bacon’s Essays was unsuccessful (Adorno defined ‘Der Essay als Form’, not ‘Der Versuch’). In this, as in so many other ways, he found himself on the wrong side of German intellectual history. Arguments for reading him today therefore take on the character of a salvage operation; but the Essays offer a useful starting point, because they are the culmination of the concerns which inform Garve’s thought as a whole. His commitment to an ‘essayistic’, unsystematic mode of philosophy was the focus of his detractors’ attack, and his formulation and justification of this mode are what make him worth revisiting today.

Some background is necessary here. Ideas about how philosophy should be done are tightly bound up with a sense of what it is, and the story of Garve’s career is at least partly a story of clashes between different perspectives. If he is remembered today, it is as a ‘popular philosopher’. Popular philosophy was not so much an identifiable school as a convenient umbrella term for a set of broadly shared priorities, chief among these being the conviction that it was both possible and desirable to convey serious thought about subjects of general interest to an educated but non-specialist audience. Denis Diderot exhorted contemporaries to ‘hurry to make philosophy popular’. Joseph Addison furnished a helpful soundbite in the first number of the Spectator magazine: ‘It was said of Socrates, that he brought Philosophy down from Heaven, to inhabit among Men; and I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy out of Closets and Libraries, Schools and Colleges, to dwell in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-Tables, and in Coffee-Houses.’ The Spectator was a milestone in the history of the English essay, and the essay­­—short prose non-fiction which appealed to a broadly cultured audience—was an obvious vehicle for popular philosophy. David Hume pictured essay-writing as a bridge between philosophy and cultured everyday life: ‘’Tis to be hop’d, that this League betwixt the learned and conversible worlds, which is so happily begun, will be still farther improv’d to their mutual advantage; and to that End, I know nothing more advantageous than such Essays as these with which I endeavour to entertain the Public.’

Popular philosophy could boast, then, of some heavyweight supporters, but in Germany the whole project began to be regarded with suspicion around 1800. Kant’s approach to philosophy—its language difficult, its subject matter abstract—excluded all others. Supporters sought to restrict the definition of the concept. Kant had hailed Garve as ‘a philosopher in the true sense of the word’, yet Hegel could later proclaim that ‘philosophy is by nature esoteric’: ‘it is only philosophy insofar as it is opposed to common human understanding’. Garve was well aware of these developments. When in a late work he describes himself as a ‘popular philosopher’, who relies on ‘common human sense’, he adds that his opponents think this common sense ‘an enemy of all true philosophy’.

The heirs of Kant were concerned to relegate ‘popular philosophy’ to secondary status. With this went a disparagement of popular philosophy’s ways of dealing with the important questions. A review by Friedrich Schleiermacher of Garve’s late writing dismisses it as a ‘chaos’ of ‘Unphilosophie’. The German suggests a debasement of ‘true’ philosophy, and throughout the review, Garve is reviled for his flawed approach. ‘Garve never arrives at anything whole or original, but always revolves around in the circle of the derivative and individual detail’. Instead, he takes up varied, not obviously ‘philosophical’ subjects and derives a series of unsystematic observations from them. A late work of Garve’s, Fragments towards the Portrayal of the Mind, Character and Government of Frederick II, is representative: ‘In the large section about Frederick’s literary character there is practically nothing on that subject; instead the king is treated here, in typical Garve fashion, as a topos [Stelle], about which and based on which Garve supplies a variety of observations. I shouldn’t say here; the king is treated in this way everywhere.’

The interest of Schleiermacher’s broadside lies in what it assumes. ‘Philosophy’ is systematic; it is not derivative or fragmentary; it should not be based upon scattered observations of concrete experience. This is what Garve deals in; therefore, he is incapable of producing anything worth reading. What Schleiermacher regards as perversions, however Garve thought of as not only legitimate but important aims. Originality, for example: the concept is a vexed one, but Garve stressed the need for thought to begin with discriminating appropriation of the work of others. An early essay, ‘The Christmas Present’, dramatizes the process by which reading stimulates independent mental activity: ‘Ideas ignite one another like sparks of electricity. Once the mind is at work and in motion; once it has taken hold of the thread of thought; it rapidly moves from replicating the concepts of others to generating its own.’

As for being ‘unsystematic’, Garve thought that his method of philosophy complemented systematic approaches, and both were necessary for the development of human knowledge. Volume 2 of the Essays on various subjects includes ‘On the Art of Thinking’, something of a manifesto. The essay contrasts two philosophical methods, the ‘systematic method’ and the ‘Socratic method’. The latter reasons inductively, drawing general principles from the disparate data of human culture and experience: ‘The Socratic method begins where the person who wants to be informed must always begin, with isolated facts, which it uses either as examples to be interpreted, or as phenomena to be explained. Sometimes it supports its investigations with generally held opinions, the stories of antiquity, or the sayings of the wise. By seeking out the true meaning of these, or testing their validity, it slowly arrives at the investigation of the subjects themselves.’ This method catches things that its systematic counterpart cannot: ‘Every object of consideration has certain characteristics and relationships, which, because they are not fully linked with one another and with the whole, easily escape us if we tie our conceptions of them together as a single uninterrupted chain; but an unmethodical, piecemeal investigation, when a gift for observation, understanding and wit work together, is much more useful in bringing us to a knowledge of them.’ The formulation is long, but as it wanders through relative clauses, it illustrates the wandering of the unsystematic philosopher.

And also, surely, of the essayist. Friedrich Schlegel once snorted that Garve ‘reviewed’ the subjects on which he should ‘philosophise’. The comment is telling: what aroused the dislike of both Schleiermacher and Schlegel was a literary method as well as an intellectual one. The Socratic method highlights a move characteristic of great essayists. Haven’t such writers always seized upon specific instances of culture (often, but not always, literary) or human experience, and used these either to illustrate or to prove some broader notion? Montaigne’s ‘Des coches’, still a feature of French undergraduate courses, weaves together apparently disparate historical and mythical anecdotes, more or less loosely connected with its title, in order to demonstrate the moral courage of the inhabitants of the Americas over against the brutality of their colonizers. An Orwell essay on anti-Semitism uses a series of overheard comments about Jews in Britain to diagnose widely held attitudes whose consequences were only too evident.

An obvious interjection says here that what is required is not so much a defence of Garve’s approach as an appreciation that he and Schleiermacher were simply doing different things, each with their legitimate methods and goals, and perhaps the Schleiermacher review simply signals a bifurcation of the two paths, with the essay being allocated to ‘literature’ rather than ‘philosophy’—a distinction which the eighteenth century might not have recognised, but which now seems indisputable. Essay writing begins with its own set of questions, questions of human attitudes, behaviour, and experience, which are not really the province of philosophy as it is practised today. Perhaps the ever-increasing specialisation which has led to such a scenario is regrettable, but disciplinary demarcation, even if somewhat arbitrary, does aid precision by excluding some things and including others.

All this may be true; but it does not quite go far enough. Schleiermacher’s claim implies a distinction not merely of labelling but of value. It assumes that the results of an approach such as Garve’s are less profound than those produced by the serious methods of systematic philosophy. Moreover, modern research, even when it tries to be sympathetic to Garve, usually ends up uncritically tracing the same basic picture that Schleiermacher painted with such bold bias. An article in a modern dictionary of philosophers concludes by noting that ‘originality, perspicuity, and thoroughness were not [Garve’s] forte’. So it remains to be shown that Garve’s exposition of the essay captured something of intellectual substance. Which it did; for who would deny that a Montaigne or an Orwell really does illuminate something important? Doubtless it would be possible and necessary to supplement these approaches with more ‘systematic’ analyses; doubtless even the best essays will always leave many thoughts neglected or underdeveloped. What they sacrifice in comprehensiveness, however, they gain in an intuitive capacity to unearth what more systematic approaches miss. Garve saw this; Schleiermacher was wrong to dismiss it.

‘On the Art of Thinking’ offers a provocative articulation of, and justification for, the essay form, from someone whose allegiance to it cost his reputation dear. A few keystrokes should be enough to find it on Google Books; readers with German, an interest in the essay, and eyesight able to withstand large quantities of digitized Gothic script will find the hour or so that it requires a worthwhile use of their time.


James Thompson completed a D.Phil in German at St Hilda’s in 2018.