History of philosophy

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GURKA, Dezső

History of philosophy

The peregrination of János Körmöczi (1762–1836) to Jena and Göttingen has a special place in the history of Hungarian knowledge transfer of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Through his university visits, mostly the impact of Jena was mediated, but the influence of Göttingen was also decisive for him, including its natural scientific aspects. Another characteristic of Körmöczi’s work is that he did not only utilise these influences in his teaching, but also attempted to develop Hungarian philosophical and scientific language through his translations.

The first text, published in connection with the field of the history of philosophy, partly and the second text in its entirety represent the earliest attempts to transpose German idealism into a Hungarian context. János Körmöczi’s notes on Lichtenberg’s physics lectures epitomise the early phase of the development of the Hungarian terminology of (electro)physics.

Körmöczi’s funeral oration, The School of Learning Humanity (Az emberség megtanulásának oskolája), published in 1802 in Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca, today in Romania) and delivered earlier at the funeral of his former teacher and Göttingen student, József Pákei (1759–1802), in some respects forms part of the corpus of translations in Hungarian philosophy. In scholarly works on the Hungarian history of philosophy, in connection with his peregrination to Jena, Körmöczi is credited with being the first Hungarian translator of Fichte’s 1793 pamphlet entitled A gondolatszabadság visszakövetelése Európa fejedelmeitől, akik azt ezidáig elnyomták (Zurückforderung der Denkfreiheit von den Fürsten Europas die sie bisher unterdrückten). As the translation of this radical work by Fichte could not be published, Körmöczi included a short excerpt in his funeral oration without identifying the German author.

The intellectual background of the funeral oration’s questioning of “what I was, what I am, what I must become” is constituted by the programme of fulfilment described by Fichte in several of his works. Körmöczi, in the successive parts of his speech, related to the concept of human resources, discusses the problems of education, religion, and morality, intending to unfold the concept of humanity in the context of moral perfection and the criteria of refinement. Separating the notions of humankind and the real human being, he also describes the tendency of refinement – the transition from a natural state to society – by contrasting the world of Californian natives with that of the people living near the Thames (cultural landscape). Körmöczi sees the freedom of thought (underpinned by the quote taken from Fichte) as an indispensable condition for the promotion of the common good.

In later years, Körmöczi not only succeeded Pákei as a professor of philosophy, but he also continued the teaching of experimental physics established by his former teacher. The second document published here, Körmöczi’s 1802 inaugural address in Cluj-Napoca, has been interpreted by earlier literature as an independent text and placed in context focusing only on the references to Rousseau and Kant in Fichte’s original work. Körmöczi’s text, however, is a Hungarian, and in part, Latin translation of Fichte’s four-part speech of 1794 entitled Einige Vorlesungen über die Bestimmung des Gelehrten (in modern Hungarian: Előadások a tudás emberének rendeltetéséről). Based on all this, Körmöczi, as the translator of two of Fichte’s works, can now be considered one of the most important Hungarian translators of post-Kantian philosophy, while the translation read out at his inauguration can also be interpreted as a programmatic statement, the value system and conceptual network of which has many elements in common with the funeral oration. The reason for choosing Fichte’s text may have been precisely because the problems of human freedom and the freedom of the will (human resources) are also strongly raised here. At the same time, in Körmöczi’s translation of Fichte’s work, the concept of society is also emphatic, in so far as he interprets man as determined by the collective (“in societate”). The function of the state (power) is defined in Körmöczi’s translation as the promotion of the development of freedom.

Körmöczi’s written inheritance also includes several volumes of extensive notes in Hungarian, German, and Latin, which he compiled based on lectures he attended at the University of Göttingen and also from books on the subject of these lectures. The archival material includes two notes in which Körmöczi documented lectures on experimental physics by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. The notes published here contain illustrated descriptions of Lichtenberg’s lectures in the winter semester of 1796/1797, noted down from occasion to occasion and illustrated with drawings. The significance of this document lies in the fact that it helped to clarify in some places the earlier protocols of Lichtenberg’s experiments on electricity, published in five volumes by Gottfried Gamauf.

Since Körmöczi’s scientific orientation is not primarily related to Jena, but Göttingen, he was thus mainly influenced by the experimental approach instead of a speculative one. Hence, the key objects featured in these notes are the various – mainly electrophysical – experimental devices (instruments), such as the capacitator or the electrophorus. From 1798 onwards, as the inventory of the instruments he acquired shows, Körmöczi directly introduced the experimental approach he encountered at Lichtenberg’s lectures and showed his students the electrophysical experiments seen at Göttingen. The text also deals with the question of healing with electricity (uses of the body) based on Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland’s results.

The importance of studying under Lichtenberg and also the person of the professor to Körmöczi is demonstrated by the fact that he requested a certificate from him (along with Johann Beckmann, professor of economics) after completing his studies at the University of Göttingen (republic of letters, peregrinatio). The text itself indicates that the Transylvanian student was a regular visitor to Lichtenberg’s lectures. The documents that have survived in Körmöczi’s written inheritance not only provide useful information on the history and practices of the peregrination of students from the Principality of Transylvania and, more broadly, the whole Kingdom of Hungary, but they also complement our previous knowledge on the universities of Jena and Göttingen, the sources of novel philosophical and natural scientific knowledge. In addition to the lecture notes, which are useful for Lichtenberg philology, Körmöczi’s papers include a Hungarian translation of Fichte’s above-mentioned Einige Vorlesungen über die Bestimmung des Gelehrten, which, on the one hand, may contribute to a deeper understanding of the German philosopher’s influence in Central and Eastern Europe, and, on the other hand, raises Körmöczi’s role to the level of Pál Sipos and Pál Köteles in the history of Hungarian philosophy within the circle of professors that Péter Egyed called the Transylvanian Triad.

Körmöczi, because of the official actions against Kantian and Fichtean philosophy in the late eighteenth century and the reconsideration of the related debates from a religious and moral point of view, could not become a simultaneous interpreter of German philosophy for the Hungarian audiences. However, through the thoughts of and quotations by Fichte included in his speeches, Körmöczi did not only contribute to the development of the language of philosophy, but also ensured the latent presence of the ideas of contemporary German philosophy in the Hungarian discourse. Through Körmöczi’s notes taken at Lichtenberg’s lectures and the experimental methods he developed on their basis, scientific theory and practice were directly linked in the work of the Transylvanian Unitarian professor, and thus he managed to bring the results of Göttingen’s experimental physics into Hungarian education in a synchronous way.