(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Johann Gottlieb Fichte is a transitional figure in the history of German philosophy. His philosophical impetus came from Immanuel Kant, and his work began the modifications of Kant that ultimately resulted in the Absolute Idealism of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. He had some trying experiences as a young man, finding himself in financial want during the latter days of his formal education and during the five years that passed between his engagement to his future wife and their marriage. He was forced to scrape along as a tutor during his early career, work that was not always satisfying and rewarding. However, during these early years as a private tutor, he came across the writings of Kant, and these provided him with background and inspiration for his career as a philosopher. In fact, his emergence from obscurity to national recognition almost overnight resulted from his being mistaken for Kant. A book of Fichte’s on philosophy of religion was published without his name appearing as author. The literary world assumed the book had been written by Kant himself. Kant then made it known that the book was from Fichte’s pen, not his own, and he also praised the work, thereby immediately making Fichte a national figure.

Fichte and Kant

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Fichte was attracted most strongly to the ethical views of Kant. He saw himself in his youth as a Spinozist, but he was not happy with philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s rigid determinism. He had considerable passion and enthusiasm, and he apparently also had a need to feel that his acts were subject to ethical appraisal in that he himself was a free and responsible ethical agent. In the Spinozistic world, of course, all acts followed from their causal antecedents in a necessary way. This view comforted Spinoza, but it was too somber for Fichte. Kant’s conviction, expressed in the Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (1788; The Critique of Practical Reason, 1873), that men are free ethical agents, opened a new philosophical possibility for Fichte.

However, even Kant was not strong enough for Fichte, because Kant did not begin his philosophy with a free ethical agent but with an account of the world of experience that the scientist investigates. Kant’s metaphysics and epistemology only made it possible that there are free, ethically responsible selves; proof that such is indeed the case was not given. Because Fichte wanted a firmer base than this for his own philosophy, he introduced modifications that, although they seemed innocent enough at first, ultimately resulted in a noticeably different kind of idealism from that of Kant. Kant was moved by both the heavens above and the moral law within; Fichte was too much involved with the moral law within to pay much attention to the heavens.

On the epistemological side, Fichte dropped out the Kantian Ding-an-sich (thing-in-itself). For Kant, the world of experience is a world constructed out of the sensuous material given in the manifold of intuition as ordered by the forms of space and time, a construction that is ordered by the categories. However, the manifold of sense is caused by the unknown and unknowable Ding-an-sich. We can know only the world of our experience; we cannot know anything of the things-in-themselves. (Except, perhaps, that they cause the sensuous manifold out of which we produce the world of our experience.) Things-in-themselves, then, initiate a process that ultimately yields the world of our experience,...

(The entire section is 913 words.)

The Spinozistic Position

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Book 1, “Doubt,” has the tone of Descartes’s Discours de la méthode (1637; Discourse on Method, 1649) or his Meditationes de prima philosophia (1641; Meditations on First Philosophy, 1680). Fichte writes in the first person and addresses himself to the problem of discovering what he can know about himself and the world in which he lives. He considers the information he gets from sense-experience and draws conclusions about what the world is like. He accepts the view that there are independently real objects, each occupying a place in a system that is connected throughout by necessary causal relations. Each object or each event in nature is what it is and is what it must be. Nothing could possibly be other than it is. Removing even a single grain of sand, Fichte says, would change the entire structure of nature; all past and future history would be different.

Each man, including Fichte himself, is, of course, “a link in this chain of the rigid necessity of Nature.” There is a “forming power” in nature, or perhaps better, behind or lying under observed nature, which gives rise to all the objects and events that make up the system of nature. Fichte himself was produced by the forming power. As he becomes aware of this power, he says, he feels himself sometimes free, sometimes restrained, and sometimes compelled. Yet this is merely Fichte’s awareness of how the underlying power operates in his own existence...

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The Kantian Position

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Book 2, “Knowledge,” is a dialogue, not unlike George Berkeley’s Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713). Fichte writes that he is tormented by the doubt that issued from the first attack on the problem, and he awakens in the night, his sleep interrupted by the unresolved problem. A Spirit then comes to him to lead him out of doubt and into knowledge. The knowledge offered is subjective idealism, and book 2 is as fine a statement of the position as is generally available.

The Spirit begins by questioning Fichte about how he knows objects in the external world, to which Fichte replies that he knows them by sensation. However, the sensations are merely modifications of Fichte himself, the Spirit points out, and so Fichte has knowledge only of his own condition—not knowledge of the independently real, external world. “In all perception,” the Spirit points out, “thou perceivest only thine own condition.”

Fichte is not yet convinced, however. The argument moves on to consider the ordinary belief that sensations are caused by independently real, external objects. However, such independent objects cannot be known by sense, for if Fichte has sensations, they are merely modifications of Fichte himself, not characteristics of independent objects. If there are external, independent objects, they cannot be known by sense, at any rate. They can only be known in virtue of applications of the principle of causality. However, how can the principle of...

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The Fichtean Position

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

However, other selves, the necessary additional elements that make the ethical situation plausible, do not have fundamental reality in the subjective idealism that is presented in book 2. The doubt of book 1 is replaced by knowledge, yet this knowledge does not assure a fundamental reality for other selves. To get full reality for other selves Fichte must go still further; he must go beyond knowledge. If knowledge must be transcended, it is inadequate. The opinion is what lies behind the strikingly strange statement Fichte makes near the end of book 2, that “knowledge is not reality, just because it is knowledge.” Knowledge does not disclose reality, according to Fichte. Its function differs from this commonly held view. Really, knowledge is less powerful. Fichte writes that “it destroys and annihilates error,” but it “cannot give us truth, for in itself it is absolutely empty.” Knowledge is not the avenue to reality. It must make way for a higher power; it must make way for faith, the subject of book 3. Faith assures the self that there are really other selves.

Book 3 opens with Fichte’s dissatisfaction at the outcome of book 2. If all there is to the world is the construction Fichte himself unconsciously makes out of the modifications of his own self, then the world is empty. Yet this is all one can get from knowledge. However, knowing does not exhaust human life; there is more to it than just that. “Not merely TO KNOW, but according to thy knowledge TO DO, is thy vocation,” Fichte declares. The “doing” here is clearly an ethical doing; it is striving, achieving, fulfilling obligations. Fichte regards himself as under an immediate and underived sense of obligation to act; this is his, it is all humanity’s, vocation. Yet if one is to act, there must be an arena in which to act; there...

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A Transitional Figure

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

However, while The Vocation of Man is a fine example of Romantic idealism, it is at the same time, paradoxically, a work that foreshadows significant developments in philosophy of a sort opposed in spirit and method to much of what Fichte endorsed. In rejecting the Ding-an-sich of Kant, in emphasizing the role of the self in the effort to know reality, in basing his philosophy on the self’s declaration of its own existence, and particularly in urging the definitive importance of action, Fichte suggested the basic ideas of later pragmatic and existentialistic philosophies. Of course, Fichte remains a subjective idealist, and he never developed the pragmatic and existentialistic features of his thought;...

(The entire section is 482 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Sources for Further Study

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.

Baur, Michael. “Self-Measure and Self-Moderation in Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre.” In New Essays in Fichte’s Foundation of the Entire Doctrine of Scientific Knowledge, edited by Daniel Breazeale and Tom Rockmore. Amherst, N.Y.:...

(The entire section is 610 words.)