Fichte, Johann Gottlieb
Johann Gottlieb Fichte 1762-1814
Johann Gottlieb Fichte entered the field of German philosophy in the wake of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and just prior to G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831). Consequently, his name often appears in critical works only to mark the distance between Kant and Hegel. Fichte was, however, an important thinker in his own right, as historians have acknowledged more and more in recent years. Fichte's explication of Kant, which long earned him credit for being his predecessor's best interpreter, also catalyzed Fichte's original philosophy, which depends on his concept of the Wissenschaftslehre, or "The Science of all Knowledge." Determined to make his system accessible to the German population at large, as well as to other specialists, Fichte lectured and wrote prolifically, producing many major works in his relatively short career. He excelled as a speaker, addressing himself to the public with a missionary zeal based on his belief that philosophy—practical philosophy—could change lives, as it had his. Fichte directed the force of his work against the implications of determinism, searching instead for the possibility of human freedom or agency. A disciple of political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Fichte applied his philosophical commitment to political causes as well, allying himself with the cause of the French Revolution in 1789. When Germany felt the threat of imperial French forces less than two decades later, Fichte devoted himself to fomenting German unity, thus earning a reputation as the "father of German nationalism."
Fichte was born on May 19, 1762, in Saxony. The son of a poor ribbon weaver, Fichte was working as a goose herd by the age of eight. At this time, however, his precociousness won him an aristocratic mentor in Baron Ernest Haubold von Miltitz. The Baron provided Fichte first with a private tutor, then with entrance to a prestigious preparatory school, and finally with courses of study at the universities in Jena, Wittenburg, and Leipzig. Before Fichte finished his anticipated degree in theology, however, the generosity of the von Miltitz family ran out: the Baron's heirs withdrew financial support in 1784. Fichte had to abandon his studies in order to support himself as a tutor. Already an avid student of philosophy, he lived frugally in the hopes that he could stop teaching long enough to pursue intellectual work. He has been described as advocating during this time a "metaphysical fatalism"—a determinism bereft of any belief in free will. His philosophical perspective shifted quite radically in the early 1790s, however, when he embarked on an in-depth study of Kant, whose thought dominated German philosophy. After a virtual conversion through Kant's work, Fichte decided to meet the master. Their first interview was lukewarm, so Fichte decided to demonstrate his devotion and skill with some written work. His Attempt at a Critique of all Revelation so impressed Kant that the latter recommended it to his publisher, who had it in print by 1792. When the first edition appeared, accidentally, without the author's name, it was taken to be a new work by Kant himself. Once Fichte took his rightful place in the spotlight, with Kant's blessing, his name won immediate, broad recognition.
Two years later, accompanied by his new wife, Fichte assumed a professorship at the University of Jena, where he quickly became a popular teacher. His private lectures drew a regular and sizable student attendance, while his public lectures—in itself a radical concept—sometimes drew audiences of 500. As he energetically pursued his teaching duties, Fichte continued to develop his philosophical system, consolidating his reputation as a Kantian even as he began to strike into new territory. His publications and lectures while at Jena ultimately focused on the idea of Wissenschaftslehre, the "first principle" that functioned as the linchpin to his entire philosophical system. The demands of his life at Jena, however, limited the time he had for writing, so that he was only able to outline the Wissenschaftslehre in print, often as an accompaniment to his lectures; he anticipated some point in the future when he would have the time to explain his philosophy in depth. That opportunity came, but through rather adverse events: Fichte's outspokenness and radical stances made him a controversial figure among his more conservative colleagues, the most hostile of whom painted him as anti-throne and anti-altar. Fichte did little to help matters: he tended to throw himself into public controversies, and his style of debate was aggressive and often described as petty. The tensions finally came to a head in 1799, when charges that he was an atheist prompted a forced resignation from his post. The situation cost Fichte many of his adherents and mentors, including Kant. Although the expulsion was a loss, Fichte was able to devote time to his writings, producing many of his most important treatises, including The Vocation of Man, which he began immediately in 1799. He produced new explanations of the Wissenschaftslehre in 1801, 1804, 1810, and 1813. He also found opportunities to continue his teaching career, working at the universities in Erlangen and Konigsberg before he was appointed dean of the philosophy faculty in Berlin in 1810, where he also served as rector from 1811 to 1812. He continued his political activities, throwing himself into the cause of German nationalism during the Napoleonic wars. In a sense, he even lost his life to the war: he died at the end of January, 1814, from the typhus his wife had contracted while nursing wounded soldiers.
Although Fichte regarded his duties at Jena as limiting his opportunity to develop and articulate his philosophical system, it was a prolific period in his life. All of the significant works of the time, with the exception of Some Lectures Concerning the Scholar's Vocation in 1794, treated the Wissenschaftslehre. Fichte's earliest significant publication at Jena was his review of the philosopher G. E. Schulze's book Aenesidemus; the review was first published in Allgemeine Literature-Zeitung in 1794. The article presented, in its initial form, Fichte's own philosophical positions, especially the pivotal concept of the Wissenschaftslehre.
Fichte formally introduced himself to Jena with Concerning the Concept of the Wissenschaftslehre, or, of So-called "Philosophy" (1794). His Foundations of the Entire Wissenschaftslehre appeared in 1794. These, plus an Outline prepared for his students, only sketched the first principle on the expectation that he would later have time to publish a more thorough explication. In his two "Introductions" published in the Philosophisches Journal in 1797-98, titled Attempt at a New Presentation of the Wissenschaftslehre, Fichte attempted to expand his explications, but there still was much left to do. Although over twenty versions turned up in his papers after his death, Fichte never completed that all-encompassing statement of his basic principle; consequently, philosophers and historians have treated Foundations as the primary statement of the Wissenschaftslehre.
Instead of a complete statement of his principle, Fichte published many developments of the Wissenschaftslehre, demonstrating how it functioned in fields outside of abstract philosophy. Foundations of Natural Right according to the Principles of the Wissenschaftslehre (1796-97), which ultimately influenced Hegel, provided an application of the principle to natural law and the state. The System of Ethical Theory according to Principles of the Wissenschaftslehre (1798) did the same for moral law, stressing the importance of moral striving. Fichte planned similar volumes on aesthetics, religion, and the philosophy of nature, but they never materialized. Upon his dismissal from Jena, Fichte wrote The Vocation of Man (1800), which presented his idealist response to skepticism. Other significant works of this period include The Closed Commercial State (1800), a recommendation of a socialist state; The Characteristics of the Present Age (1806), a historical work; The Way towards the Blessed Life (1806), a theological work; and Addresses to the German Nation (1808), a collection of his speeches calling for German unity.
Tom Rockmore identifies the years from 1790 to 1807 as Fichte's "brief moment of glory . . . when [his] was the brightest star in the philosophical firmament." That brightness was, however, very short-lived: recent scholars have noted the relative obscurity in which Fichte's work has suffered for almost two centuries. They attribute that insignificance to several causes, including the overshadowing figures of Kant and Hegel, and the complexity and difficulty of Fichte's prose style, which has sometimes made his work inaccessible to lay people as well to other philosophers. Responses to some of Fichte's earliest publications pointed out the opacity of his style. As his reputation grew, that problem became compounded by his tendency to write in a defensive fashion, often resorting to ad hominem attacks on his critics. The anger in his prose was, however, a reaction against criticisms that were also harsh and personal. Anti-Kantians of his own period took sharp aim at Fichte, abusing him and his writing; Kant-purists also criticized him, chastising his divergence from the master.
The neglect of Fichte's philosophical works may also be partly due to the popularity of his political writings in Germany. His philosophical reputation was at times obscured by his reputation as a "founding father of German nationalism." Outside of Germany, especially in the period encompassing the two world wars, that reputation damaged appreciation of his philosophical works. Where attention has focused on his philosophy, Fichte's detractors have cast him as a "subjective idealist," following the lead set by Kant in his rejection of Fichte in 1799. According to this critique, Fichte's works are subjective to the point of monstrous egotism. A reevaluation, however, gathered momentum in the second half of the twentieth century, spurred on mostly by critics in Germany, Italy, and France. Drawing on a definitive critical edition and the first publication of many of Fichte's posthumous papers, these critics have begun to consider Fichte as an original thinker in his own right and, consequently, to cast his ideas in increasingly complex terms. The fresh perspective spread to England and the United States, where it is evident in the wealth of publications made available in the 1980s and 1990s.
Versuch einer Kritik aller Offenbarung [Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation] (philosophical treatise) 1792
Einige Vorlesungen über die Bestimmung des Gelehrten [Some Lectures Concerning the Scholar's Vocation] (philosophical treatise) 1794
Über den Begriff der Wissenschaftslehre [Concerning the Concept of the Wissenschaftslehre, or, of So-called "Philosophy"] (philosophical treatise) 1794
Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre [Foundations of the Entire Wissenschaftslehre] (philosophical treatise) 1794-95
Grundlage des Naturrechts nach Prinzipien der Wissenschaftslehre [Foundations of Natural Right according to the Principles of the Wissenschaftslehre] (philosophical treatise) 1796-97
Attempt at a New Presentation of the Wissenschaftslehre (philosophical treatise) 1797-98
Das System der Sittenlehre nach den Prinzipien der Wissenschaftslehre [The System of Ethical Theory according to Principles of the Wissenschaftslehre] (philosophical treatise) 1798
Die Bestimmung des Menschen [The Vocation of Man] (philosophical treatise) 1800
Der geschlossne Handelstaat [The Closed Commercial State] (philosophical treatise) 1800
Darstellung der Wissenschaftslehre aus dem Jahre...
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Principal English Translations
The Way towards the Blessed Life; or, The Doctrine of Religion (translated by William Smith) 1849
The Science of Rights (translated by A. E. Kroeger) 1869
The Science of Ethics as Based on the Science of Knowledge (translated by A. E. Kroeger) 1897
Addresses to the German Nation (translated by R. F. Jones and G. H. Turnbull) 1922
Foundations of the Entire Science of Knowledge (translated by Peter Heath and John Lachs) 1970
The Vocation of Man (translated by Peter Preuss) 1987
Fichte: Early Philosophical Writings (translated by Daniel Breazeale) 1988
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SOURCE: "'Wissenschafslehre' in Its Earlier Form," in Fichte, William Blackwood and Sons, 1881, pp. 125-88.
[Adamson's work constituted the earliest substantial study of Fichte in English. The first half of his book covers Fichte's biography, and the second, his philosophies. The chapter excerpted below offers an explanation of the Wissenschaftslehre as it appears in Fichte's earlier writings. Beginning with Fichte's influences, Adamson describes Fichte as "Spinoza in terms of Kant."]
The general aim or spirit of the Wissenschaftslehre having been determined, it becomes necessary to consider more particularly the nature of the problems presenting themselves for solution, and the method by which they are to be treated. As regards both points, the most valuable writings are the two "Introductions to Wissenschaftslehre," and the "Sonnenklarer Bericht."1
1.—Dogmatism and Idealism.
The slightest reflection discloses to us the remarkable distinction in consciousness between two orders of representations2 or phenomena, which we call, with some vagueness, inner and outer experience. With more precision we should say that, while some phenomena of conciousness present themselves as evidently the products of free mental activity, others appear in an order independent of us, and are characterised for us by the...
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SOURCE: "Moral and Political Philosophy," in German Philosophy and Politics, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1942, pp. 98-113.
[Although Dewey's German Philosophy and Politics appeared in a revised edition in 1942, the chapters were revised as little as possible in order to retain their World War I perspective. In a view characteristic of the years spanning both world wars, Dewey presents Fichte as "the beginning" of modern German nationalism.]
. . . Kant was enough of a child of the eighteenth century to be cosmopolitan, not nationalistic, in his feeling. Since humanity as a whole, in its universality, alone truly corresponds to the universality of reason, he upheld the ideal of an ultimate republican federation of states; he was one of the first to proclaim the possibility of enduring peace among nations on the basis of such a federated union of mankind.
The threatened domination of Europe by Napoleon following on the wars waged by republican France put an end, however, to cosmopolitanism. Since Germany was the greatest sufferer from these wars, and since it was obvious that the lack of national unity, the division of Germany into a multitude of petty states, was the great source of her weakness; since it was equally obvious that Prussia, the one strong and centralized power among the German states, was the only thing which saved them all from national extinction, subsequent political...
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SOURCE: "Transcendentalism Perfected" and "Fichte on the Mission of Germany," in Egotism in German Philosophy, J. M. Dent and Sons Limited, and Charles Scribner's Sons, 1916, pp. 65-72 and 73-83.
[In the two chapters below, Santayana addresses the irony that "Fichte, a prophet sprung from the people, a theoretical republican who quarrelled with his students for forming clubs and fighting duels, a fierce idealist full of contempt for worldlings, should have so perfectly supplied the Junkers and bankers with their philosophy. " He illustrates how Fichte's transcendental idealism, translated by the philosopher into nationalism, could become the nationalism of German fascism.]
Fichte purified the system of Kant of all its inconsistent and humane elements; he set forth the subjective system of knowledge and action in its frankest and most radical form. The ego, in order to live a full and free life, posited or feigned a world of circumstances, in the midst of which it might disport itself; but this imagined theatre was made to suit the play, and though it might seem to oppress the Will with all sorts of hindrances, and even to snuff it out altogether, it was really only a mirage which that Will, being wiser than it knew, had raised in order to enjoy the experience of exerting itself manfully.
It would seem obvious from this that the Will...
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SOURCE: "The Year 1800 in the Development of German Idealism," in The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. I, No. 4, June, 1948, pp. 1-31.
[In the excerpt that follows, Kroner recounts the history of German Idealism, focusing "on the year 1800 in which the period of Kant and Fichte waned and the period of Schelling and Hegel began."]
The general import of the year 1800 as the turning point in the development of German Idealism
The year 1800 was a fateful year in the philosophical movement which we are wont to call "German Idealism." "O'er what place does the moon hang to your eye, my dearest Sara? To me, it hangs over the left bank of the Elbe . . ."1 Coleridge wrote to his wife on September 19 in 1798. His famous visit to Germany in this and the following year has not only a biographical but also a general historical significance. Coleridge and through him the English world became acquainted with the rising star of German Idealism. The years in which Coleridge stayed in Germany were years of a tremendous philosophical and spiritual struggle that reached its climax in 1800 when Schelling published his System of Transcendental Idealism, the title and charter of Philosophic Romanticism.
The Critique of Pure Reason had appeared in 1781; almost twenty...
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SOURCE: "Fichte," in A History of Philosophy: Volume VII, Fichte to Nietzsche, Burns and Oates Limited, 1963, pp. 32-58.
[In his A History of Philosophy, Copleston devotes three chapters to explicating Fichte's philosophy. The excerpt that follows includes Copleston's review of Fichte's life and some of the fundamental tenets in his philosophy.]
1. Johann Gottlieb Fichte was born in 1762 at Rammenau in Saxony. He came of a poor family, and in the ordinary course of events he could hardly have enjoyed facilities for pursuing advanced studies. But as a small boy he aroused the interest of a local nobleman, the Baron von Miltitz, who undertook to provide for his education. At the appropriate age Fichte was sent to the famous school at Pforta where Nietzsche was later to study. And in 1780 he enrolled as a student of theology in the University of Jena, moving later to Wittenberg and subsequently to Leipzig.
During his studies Fichte came to accept the theory of determinism. To remedy this sad state of affairs a good clergyman recommended to him an edition of Spinoza's Ethics which was furnished with a refutation by Wolff. But as the refutation seemed to Fichte to be extremely weak, the effect of the work was the very opposite of that intended by the pastor. Determinism, however, was not really in tune with Fichte's active and energetic character or with his strong...
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SOURCE: "Fichte's Theory of Man as Active Self," in Fichte, Marx, and the German Philosophical Tradition, Southern Illinois University Press, 1980, pp. 6-27.
[In the excerpt that follows, Rockmore reviews Fichte's philosophy as it defined his notion of human activity. Rockmore concludes that "in Fichte's position the attempted solution to the problem of consciousness requires a view of man as an active being."]
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SOURCE: "Fichte and German Idealism," in Idealism: Past and Present, edited by Godfrey Vesey, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 111-26.
[In the following essay, Gardiner considers Fichte's claim that his works are arguments for human freedom. This purpose might be difficult to believe, Gardiner contends, until one puts Fichte's writings into historical and cultural context.]
Fichte's reputation at the present time is in some respects a curious one. On the one hand, he is by common consent acknowledged to have exercised a dominant influence upon the development of German thought during the opening decades of the nineteenth century. Thus from a specifically philosophical point of view he is regarded as an innovator who (for good or ill) played a decisive role in transforming Kant's transcendental idealism into the absolute idealism of his immediate successors, while at a more general level he is customarily seen as having put into currency certain persuasive conceptions which contributed—less directly but no less surely—to the emergence and spread of romanticism in some of its varied and ramifying forms. On the other hand, however, it is noticeable that detailed consideration of his work has not figured prominently in the recent revival of concern with post-Kantian thought as a whole which has been manifested by philosophers of the English-speaking world. Although his name is frequently mentioned...
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SOURCE: "Women, Family, and State in Fichte's Philosophy of Freedom," in New Perspectives on Fichte, edited by Tom Rockmore and Daniel Breazeale, Humanities Press, 1996, pp. 179-91.
[In the following essay, which was presented in 1993 and first published in 1996, Morrison sets forth the apparent contradiction in Fichte's treatment of women—they both have rights and do not have rights—and then demonstrates how Fichte's assumptions allowed for this apparent paradox.]
As Fichte called his philosophy the first system of freedom, it would be interesting to know his position on the rights of women as it can be argued that the position of women in society is a sensitive barometer of the freedom and rights within the society as a whole. It also happens to be the case that the position of women in Fichte's philosophy has largely been ignored.1
Fichte discusses women at length in The Science of Rights2 and in The Science of Ethics3 . What he says in these works regarding women, their rights, and their place in society may appear contradictory and difficult to fit into twentieth century political categories. The main task of this paper will be to overcome the apparent contradictions presented by Fichte and to offer the most generous reading possible for this position which has been...
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Breazeale, Daniel. "Fichte's Aenesidemus Review and the Transformation of German Idealism." The Review of Metaphysics XXXIV, No. 3 (March 1981): 545-68.
Examines the moment and content of Fichte's review in order to establish its significance in Fichte's thought, as well as Breazeale's assertion that it "marks a genuine watershed in the history of German Idealism."
Breazeale, Daniel and Tom Rockmore, eds. Fichte: Historical Contexts/Contemporary Controversies. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1994, 271 p.
Presents a selection of essays on Fichte that reflect the resurgent, late twentieth-century interest. Includes essays by the editors and by Robert Williams, Jere Paul Surber, and Frederick Neuhouser.
Breazeale, Daniel and Tom Rockmore, eds. New Perspectives on Fichte. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1996, 233 p.
Updates the editors' previous volume, particularly stressing new approaches to Fichte. Includes essays by the editors and by Wayne M. Martin, Jere Paul Surber, and George J. Seidel.
Engelbrecht, H. C. Johann Gottlieb Fichte: A Study of His Political Writings with Special Reference to His Nationalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1933, 221 p.
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