During the 1790s the little town of Jena, in Saxony, blossomed into colourful activity. With active support from Goethe, ducal minister in nearby Weimar, the ancient university cast off its reputation for beery rowdiness and intellectual torpor. Schiller was given a post there in 1789, and Fichte in 1794, and their passionate lectures - delivered in German rather than the customary Latin - soon attracted audiences from all over Germany, and from France and Britain as well.
What everyone wanted was philosophy. In particular they wanted to be part of the 'critical revolution' initiated by Kant a decade or so before. They were convinced that there could be no going back on Kant's doctrine that the fundamental forms of experience are created by our own mental activity rather than forced on us from outside. But whereas Kant had launched his 'critical philosophy' in a spirit of sober enlightenment, the new romantics were determined to press it forward to the conclusion that we humans are not just creatures of our world but creators of it as well - poetic inventors of our individual and national selves. As Kant grew doddery and forgetful in faraway Königsberg, the young people of Jena were convinced that a post-Kantian future of autonomous self-creation belonged to them.
LRB 30 November 2000 | PDF Download