Johann Gottlieb Fichte Essay - Critical Essays

Fichte, Johann Gottlieb


Johann Gottlieb Fichte 1762-1814

German philosopher.

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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...

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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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Robert Adamson (essay date 1881)

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...

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John Dewey (essay date 1915)

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...

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George Santayana (essay date 1916)

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.]


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Richard Kroner (essay date 1948)

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

1. Introduction

The year 1800 was a fateful year in the philosophical movement which we are wont to call "German Idealism." "O'er what place does...

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Frederick Copleston (essay date 1963)

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...

(The entire section is 4815 words.)

Tom Rockmore (essay date 1980)

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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Patrick Gardiner (essay date 1982)

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...

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Daniel Morrison (essay date 1993)

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 womenthey both have rights and do not have rightsand then demonstrates how Fichte's assumptions allowed for this apparent paradox.]

I. Introduction

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...

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Further Reading

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...

(The entire section is 782 words.)