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...
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