Johann Gottlieb Fichte Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.