Johann Gottlieb Fichte

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2520

Article abstract: Fichte’s philosophy of ethical idealism served as the pivotal theory in the development of Idealism within the German philosophical community. His emendations of Immanuel Kant’s conception of the human mind paved the way for the development of Absolute Idealism by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

Early Life

Johann Gottlieb Fichte was born into poverty. His father, Christian Fichte, managed only a meager living by making and selling ribbons. At an early age, Johann displayed severe conscientiousness, stubbornness, and tremendous intellectual talents. As legend has it, a local nobleman, Baron von Miltitz, missed the Sunday sermon and was informed that Johann could recite it verbatim. The baron was so impressed with this feat that he undertook to have the poor boy formally educated. Fichte was sent to the school at Pforta (1774-1780). This was followed by studies in theology at the Universities of Jena, Wittenberg, and Leipzig. No longer supported by Miltitz, Fichte was forced to terminate his education in 1784 and support himself by tutoring. Yet his proud temperament and radical ideas forced him to change locations frequently. In 1788, he traveled to Zurich as a tutor for a wealthy hotel owner. There he befriended Johann Kasper Lavater, the most important pastor of Zurich, with whom he came to share theological interests. Lavater in turn introduced him to Inspector Hartman Rahn (a brother-in-law of the poet Friedrich Klopstock). Fichte fell in love with the inspector’s daughter Johanna. Because of his financial situation, however, they remained unmarried for several years.

Life’s Work

During his engagement, Fichte studied the work of Immanuel Kant, the dominant philosopher in Germany during this period and the figure responsible for Fichte’s intellectual development. Initially, Fichte endorsed the doctrine of determinism. He became convinced, however, that a philosophical reconciliation between determinism and human freedom was possible within a Kantian framework. In fact, Fichte was so enthusiastic about Kant’s philosophy that he traveled to Königsberg to meet the aging savant but received a rather cold reception.

In spite of this rebuff, Fichte immediately went to work on his first major philosophical treatise, Versuch einer Kritik aller Offenbarung (1792; Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation, 1978), in which he interpreted revealed religion in terms of Kant’s moral theory. He argued that the experience of duty (the analysis of which he deduced from Kant) is the real supernatural element in human life; in short, one’s experience of the moral law is one’s experience of the divine. Thus, revealed religion amounts to an acknowledgment of being bound by a principle (of morality) which cannot be deduced from the world of sensation.

When the work was published, the author’s name was omitted and the reading public assumed that Kant was the author. Eventually, Kant denied authorship, praised the work, and cited the rightful author. This error on the part of the publisher made Fichte’s career. The year after publication he married Johanna.

After their marriage, Fichte and his wife continued to live in Switzerland. During this time, Fichte published two pamphlets anonymously, Zurückforderung der Denkfreiheit von der Fürsten Europens (1793; reclamation of the freedom of thought from the princes of Europe) and Beitrag zur Berichtigung der Urteile des Publikums über die französische Revolution (1793; contributions designed to correct the judgment of the public on the French Revolution). In these works, he was influenced by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s concerns with freedom of thought and toleration and defended the ideal of free speech as an inalienable right. Unfortunately, these political views earned for him the label of a radical.

In 1794, at the age of thirty-two, he was appointed to a professorship at the University of Jena on the recommendation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Fichte had been working on foundational problems in epistemology and metaphysics for some time and now combined these domains of philosophical investigation into a science of knowledge, the Wissenschaftslehre. His first major texts on the subject, über den Begriff der Wissenschaftslehre and Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre (combined translation as The Science of Knowledge, 1868), were published the same year of his appointment.

Kant lies at the basis of all Fichte’s writings, but even though Fichte embraced Kant’s moral philosophy, he completely rejected Kant’s metaphysical notion of the thing-in-itself (Ding-an-sich). This concept refers to that which lies “behind” and causes experience. Yet there can be no answer to the question of whether the world is identical to the way it is experienced (since an answer would entail taking a viewpoint which stands above experience and measuring its correspondence). Since one cannot know in principle if there is perfect correspondence between one’s experience and the thing which causes that experience, one is forced to conclude that the thing-in-itself is absolutely unknowable. Since Fichte rejected the notion of such a cause of experience, only the phenomenal realm was left. This is the starting point of all idealistic philosophies, the world as it appears in one’s experience.

The great problem for Fichte was to account for the fact that experiences are of two sorts, namely subjective and objective, or what appears as coming from one’s own mind and what does not. The philosopher conceptually isolates the two fundamental facts of experience, the subject and the object, and attempts to explain all experience in terms of one or the other. The attempt which begins with the object (of experience) must ultimately make recourse to the thing-in-itself and is labeled dogmatism by Fichte. The other approach, idealism, begins with the subject (of experience) and explains experience ultimately through recourse to the thought which lies behind the conscious subject. Only this approach allows for freedom of action. Most important, Fichte argued that the choice between these two is ultimately based on the character of the philosopher. Since freedom belongs to the realm of the subject, a philosopher aware of and concerned with the fact of freedom will choose idealism.

Within this general idealistic approach, Fichte argued that there are three fundamental principles which characterize the metaphysical structure of the universe. All the particular sciences are derived from these principles, which do not admit of further justification or grounding. The first, and logically ultimate principle, is “the ego posits itself,” or, in effect, reality is conceived of as activity. Fichte has already ruled out the thing-in-itself, so reality is not ultimately material, it is ideal, or thought or spirit. Yet even as ideal, the fundamental nature of reality is not substance, it is thought activity. This activity is the absolute ego, by which Fichte does not mean the individual self, soul, “I,” or whatever might be meant by the term “ego” in contemporary psychology. He means the primordial, total, infinite activity of existence. The second principle is that this prime activity creates for itself a “field.” The transcendental ego posits the non-ego and in so doing limits and defines itself by creating the domain within which it realizes itself. The third principle is that the absolute spirit posits a limited ego in opposition to a limited non-ego. One now has the particular subjects and objects of empirical knowledge, that is, knowers and what is known.

In Kant’s philosophy, the concept of the transcendental ego had served the function of making the experience and moral action of the individual possible. Fichte argued that a transexperiential, unindividuated ego was the ground or source of all being, including finite, experiencing selves.

In the following years, Fichte developed the ethical aspect of his philosophy. In 1796, he published Grundlage des Naturrechts nach Principien der Wissenschaftslehre (The Science of Rights, 1886, 1889) and in 1798 he published Das System der Sittenlehre nach den Principien der Wissenschaftslehre (The Science of Ethics as Based on the Science of Knowledge, 1897).

In Fichte’s moral philosophy, the choices of the individual are expressions of the striving of the absolute ego, if the individual acts in accord with the moral law. The free activity of the absolute spirit has as its end increased self-determination or definition (as free, self-defining activity). Since the absolute ego expresses its free, determining activity through individual selves, each individual self strives to determine itself to strive after complete freedom. Thus, freedom itself becomes the end of moral activity. With these developments of his moral philosophy, Fichte had become the preeminent philosopher in Germany.

While at Jena, Fichte coedited a monthly philosophical journal, the Philosophisches Journal einer Gesellschaft teutscher Gelehrten. In 1798, he published an article in this journal entitled “Concerning the Foundation of Our Belief in Divine Government of the World,” in which he argued that if the world is considered from a standpoint outside itself, then it is seen to be only a “reflection of our own activity.” Accordingly, God is not needed to explain the existence of the sensed world. Fichte iterated an identification of God with the moral order of the universe (equating God with the absolute ego). On the basis of these claims, he was charged, in a series of anonymous pamphlets, with atheism and unfitness for teaching. The Saxon government ordered the Universities of Leipzig and Wittenberg to impound all copies of the journal in which the articles appeared and requested the governments of the neighboring German states to follow suit. Fichte responded by publishing two essays insisting that his views were not atheistic though they differed from the Judeo-Christian conception of a personal God. The Grand Duke of Weimar was finally approached concerning the issue and, because he was dedicated to free research, would have been content with a censure of Fichte. Anticipating this, Fichte declared in writing to the authorities that he would not submit to censure which, when acknowledged by the government, was tantamount to dismissal. Fichte left the university in 1799 and settled in Berlin. Surprisingly, though Goethe had supported Fichte’s acceptance at Jena, he now became an ardent supporter of his dismissal. In addition, Kant published a statement in which he emphatically separated his own philosophy from that of Fichte’s.

In the year after his dismissal, Fichte published a popularization of his moral views, Die Bestimmung des Menschen (1800; The Vocation of Man, 1848). In 1805, Fichte accepted a professorship at Erlangen. Yet within two years he returned to Berlin and shortly thereafter published Reden an die deutsche Nation (1808; Addresses to the German Nation, 1922). In this work, he advocated national educational policies which emphasized the development of the individual’s conscience and capacity for moral action. When these traits were fully realized in adulthood, according to Fichte, the German people would be worthy of being spiritual leaders of the world, Fichte believed that the German people were best fitted for such leadership because Napoleon I had betrayed the ideals as expressed in the French Revolution.

Fichte’s metaphysics took on deeply religious overtones toward the end of his life. He came to equate the absolute ego with the god of traditional religion. In 1806, he published Die Anweisung zum seligen Leben: Oder, Auch die Religionslehre (The Way Towards the Blessed Life, 1844). In this work, Fichte claimed that the whole purpose of life is to attain knowledge of and love of God.

The final university appointment came for Fichte in 1811, when he was made rector of the newly formed University of Berlin. Because his temperament made it difficult to work with him, he did not remain at this post for long. He did continue to lecture throughout 1812-1813. During these years, Johanna worked at a hospital nursing the sick and those wounded in the Napoleonic Wars. In the course of her work, she contracted a fever and while Fichte was nursing her back to health he also became ill. The malady proved fatal in his case, and he died on January 27, 1814.


Johann Gottlieb Fichte exercised a tremendous influence on philosophy in Germany. He personally knew the leading figures of the Romantic movement. While he was Fichte’s student in 1796, Friedrich von Schlegel closely followed the intellectual footsteps of his master. Schlegel later turned to Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz and eventually became the most prominent leader of the German Romantic movement. Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, a professor at Jena, argued that the absolute ego could be apprehended in a direct intuition (and not merely posited by pure practical reason as in Fichte’s system). One of Schelling’s early journal articles was a comparison of the philosophies of Fichte and Spinoza. Fichte met Friedrich Schleiermacher during his Berlin years. He was, however, very critical of the free morals and glorification of sentimentality of the Romanticists and quickly dissociated himself from the movement.

Most important, Fichte influenced Hegel, who had succeeded Fichte in 1800 as professor of philosophy at Jena. Hegel’s first book was a comparison of the philosophies of Fichte and Schelling. Fichte’s change of the Kantian transcendental ego into an unindividuated absolute activity paved the way for Hegel’s development of Absolute Idealism. Fichte’s philosophy also influenced Thomas Carlyle.

In his own day, Fichte was respected as much for his moral character as for his philosophy. He was regarded as extremely conscientious, self-demanding and disciplined. The epigraph on his tomb reads “Thy teachers shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars that shine for ever and ever.”


Adamson, Robert. Fichte. Edinburgh: William Blackwood and sons, 1881. Contains a long biography. Devoted to tracing the evolution of The Science of Knowledge from early phase to later phase. Argues that this philosophy never rids itself of subjective idealism and that only in its earlier formulations was the doctrine influential.

Everett, Charles Carroll. Fichte’s “Science of Knowledge”: A Critical Exposition. Chicago: S. C. Griggs and Co., 1884. Compares Hegel’s and Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophies to Fichte’s. Argues that Fichte fails to reconcile the concept of finitude with the doctrine of the absolute. More than half of the work is devoted to exposition of Fichte’s three fundamental principles.

Fichte, Johann Gottlieb. Fichte: Early Philosophical Writings. Translated and edited by Daniel Breazeale. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988. Contains a long biographical introductory essay by the translator and a substantive preface to each of the ten selections.

Gopalakrishnaiah, V. A. Comparative Study of the Educational Philosophies of J. G. Fichte and J. H. Newman. Waltair: Andhra University Press, 1973. Stresses the importance of the university to the community, the social function of education, and the provision of scientific research by the university in Fichte’s educational theories and contrasts these themes with their contraries in Newman.

Hohler, T. P. Imagination and Reflection: Intersubjectivity Fichte’s “Grundlage” of 1794. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1982. Devoted to the problem of finitude and the philosophy of the “I” in Fichte’s early writings only. Argues that the transcendental “I” is essentially and inherently intersubjective; that is, intersubjectivity is argued to be a transcendental constituent of “I-ness.”

Talbot, E. B. The Fundamental Principle of Fichte’s Philosophy. New York: Macmillan, 1906. Concentrates on the changes that Fichte made in his fundamental principle between the early and later periods of his development. Argues that differences noted by critics are overstated and that the fundamental characterization as activity remains constant throughout.

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