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.
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.
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...
(The entire section is 2520 words.)