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The Vocation of Man (Die Bestimmung des Menschen) is a treatise published in 1800 by German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Fichte was a contemporary of Kant and an imitator of his style. His treatise is divided into three parts: 1.) Doubt 2.) Knowledge, and 3.) Faith.

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In beginning of the first chapter, Fichte states, "I cannot truly say that I possess the slightest knowledge of my vocation" (16). Fichte then proceeds with that which he knows: that everything in Nature "is something" (such as a color, or another descriptive adjective) or "it is not something," and he concludes that "from nothing, nothing whatever can proceed" (22). Humans, too, are a part of nature; however, they are capable of thoughts that exist in as real a fashion as tangible objects ("[thought's] existence is absolute and independent" [28]).

In "Doubt," Fichte concludes that "my consciousness is the source of my limitation." This results in a paradox: man is subject to the limitations of Nature but also makes his own limitations. Fichte postulates: "Am I free and independent?—or am I nothing in myself, and merely the manifestation of a foreign power?" Neither, according to Fichte, is sufficient to explain mankind's complexity.

His chapter on "Knowledge" begins with an imagined dialogue between himself and an encouraging interlocutor called "The Spirit." This internal dialogue with "The Spirit" convinces Fichte that humans don't necessarily have control over their own thoughts. Additionally, "in [human] consciousness there is always a conclusion drawn from the effect in myself to a cause out of myself" (94). This section suggests that mankind and consciousness are not subject to a foreign power. This conclusion is reached through a Socratic dialogue.

The third section acknowledges mankind's search for "something beyond a mere presentation of conception" (113). In this section, Fichte reasons that humans are uniformly directed by a common, universal "Will." He states, "This Will unites me with himself; he also unites me with all finite beings like myself, and is the universal mediator between us all" (174). Ultimately, Fichte's philosophical treatise uses inductive reasoning (stemming from our own human thoughts) to intuit the existence of a benevolent higher power.


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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

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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, but the world of experience, as we are able to know it, includes no things-in-themselves, and it is, furthermore, something that we ourselves unconsciously construct. We do not experience things-in-themselves; we cannot know them. It is a short step from this idea of things-in-themselves to saying that we do not need them and that they are therefore not real. This is the step Fichte made. The world of experience was for Fichte, as it was for Kant, a construction made unconsciously by the self. However, while Kant saw this construction as a kind of response to the stimulus of an unknown and unknowable thing-in-itself, Fichte did away with the thing-in-itself and merely said that the world of experience is an unconscious construction by the self.

Fichte, however, did offer a causal account to explain how the world of experience comes to be constructed, an account that results from his fundamentally ethical orientation. At the base of Fichte’s system is the self as an ethical agent. The self, in becoming aware of itself, sees itself as a free ethical agent, and therefore posits the ego. The self, or ego, posits its own existence. It is as if Fichte were offering a variation of French philosopher René Descartes’s Cogito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) argument; we might paraphrase Fichte’s starting point as “I am obligated, therefore I am.” It is not the knowledge problem with which Fichte begins, but the ethical problem. However, after the ego posits itself, it finds that there is need for an additional posit. One cannot be ethical in a vacuum; there must be an arena of action—one must be obligated to other persons. It is this circumstance that produces the world of experience. The ego, having posited itself as ethical agent, also posits the nonego as a world of experience (which includes other selves) in order that the ego may have an arena in which to perform its tasks and discharge its obligations. The world of experience is not fundamental in its own right in Fichte’s philosophy as it is in Kant’s. Rather, the world of experience exists in order that a person can be ethical.

It is against this background that The Vocation of Man must be viewed. It is less technical than most of Fichte’s writings, and it is addressed to the ordinary reader rather than to the professional philosopher. Fichte says in the preface that the book “ought to be intelligible to all readers who are able to understand a book at all.” He therefore avoids the words “ego” and “nonego,” as well as other technical terms that appear elsewhere in his writings. Nevertheless, the position is the same. This avoidance of technicality is one of the considerable merits of this book, as contrasted with Fichte’s Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre (1794; The Science of Knowledge, 1868). The latter is liberally sprinkled with technical terminology and arguments that Fichte himself thought important and sound but that recent philosophers have judged to be almost the opposite. The Vocation of Man is thus the most understandable and the most popular statement of Fichte’s position.

The book has three divisions: “Doubt,” “Knowledge,” and “Faith.” Roughly, they may be said to represent the Spinozistic, the Kantian, and the Fichtean positions, at least as Fichte understood them.

The Spinozistic Position

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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 and consciousness. It explains his own consciousness, his awareness of himself as a discrete item in the system of nature. However, this self-consciousness of the forming power as manifested in himself provides the ground from which he infers that the forming power also manifests itself in other objects in nature. There are varieties of individual selves, each resembling Fichte. Finally, the summation of the self-consciousnesses of these selves makes up the “complete consciousness of the universe.” Fichte, as a self, then, is one element—a self-conscious, intelligent, willing element—in a rigidly determined system that is the result of a fundamental forming power in nature.

Yet this Spinozistic system of nature fails to satisfy Fichte. There is no freedom in it. If Fichte, together with all his acts, is merely a set of necessary consequences in a rigidly determined system, then he is not an ethical agent. Whatever he does, he necessarily has to do, and his conduct is therefore not subject to ethical evaluation or to praise and blame. This is the outcome of his reflection. However, what he desires, on the other hand, is to know that he is free and ethically responsible. He wants to be, in some sense, himself the cause of his behavior, instead of feeling that his behavior is merely the effect of external causes.

The conclusion reached in book 1 of The Vocation of Man, then, is this: Fichte has stated two possibilities: Either he is merely one element in a rigidly determined system, or else he is a free moral agent. One view, he says, satisfies his heart, while the other destroys his own sense of worth. Which view should he adopt? This is the issue he must resolve, but he is left, at the end of book 1, in doubt.

The Kantian Position

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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 causality itself be justified? Certainly not by appealing to the fact that sense objects are causally connected, for that would be to argue in a circle. The argument would then go: I know there are independent objects because of the principle of causality, and I know the principle of causality because independent objects are examples of it. Such an argument fails to do the required job. The principle of causality must, therefore, be justified in another way.

The alternative taken is that the causal principle is a statement of how humans really do interpret experience; that is to say, the principle is contributed by the knower, not by the objects known. The principle is thus another modification of Fichte himself, not a feature of the world he believes is external to himself. If this is the case, however, the justification previously given for believing that there are independent objects that cause sensations collapses, and Fichte’s world of experience loses all of its independent status. Kant’s things-in-themselves are removed from the philosophical terrain because they are erroneously inferred from an inadequately formulated version of the causal principle. The world of experience is not a response to a set of stimuli from independently real things in themselves; instead, it is from beginning to end a projection of, or a construction out of, the self’s own modifications. The “object” of knowledge is only a modification of the knower, and, as such, is (in Fichte’s terminology) a “subject-objectivity.” Subject and object merge into the subjectivity of the knower.

Such is the subjective idealism developed in the second book of The Vocation of Man. His subjective idealism was developed by Fichte in order to settle the doubt that marked the outcome of book 1. Fichte wanted to reject rigid determinism but needed a ground that would justify the rejection. He saw subjective idealism as providing such a ground. If the world of experience is constructed freely by the self, then the self need no longer labor under the onus of rigid determinism. The Spirit tells Fichte that he need “no longer tremble at a necessity which exists only in thine own thought; no longer fear to be crushed by things which are the product of thine own mind.”

The Fichtean Position

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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 must be an externally real world to act in and to act on. To justify such a world on the basis of knowledge is not possible. One must transcend knowledge and place his reliance in faith. Early in book 3, Fichte resolves to do just this. He turns from knowledge to faith, from intellect to will, and thus he arrives at a real, external world that is populated with other selves related to Fichte and to one another by mutual ties of ethical obligation.

This discussion brings to a conclusion the strictly philosophical segment of The Vocation of Man. Fichte goes on for quite a time, however, into what is really more religion than philosophy. Once he has established his own existence and the existence of a world in which he can strive, he sermonizes about fulfilling his obligations. If book 1 is similar to Descartes and book 2 is similar to Berkeley, it can be said with equal justice that book 3 resembles a sermon enjoining strenuous ethical striving. Fichte tries to sound a clear call to plain living and high thinking, and his fervor, if not the details of his message, cannot fail to strike the reader.

Essentially the position he took is a mystical one. Somehow or other, according to his account, Fichte’s own ethical will merged with the Universal Will, a kind of metaphysical ultimate that functioned as Fichte’s God. He seemed to feel affinities with Saint John’s Gospel, but he insisted on de-anthropomorphizing God, and he thus lost what has always been at the center of the devotional life of the saints. Fichte had much of the emotion of the Christian mystic, but little sympathy for the object of Christian devotion. He replaced Saint John’s incarnate Word (Jesus Christ) with a pantheistic extension of his own ethical sensitivity. The result is quite a frightening projection of Fichte’s own passions set up as God. The control exercised over the saint by his worship of a truly transcendent God is missing in Fichte; he remained an egocentric German Romantic.

The Vocation of Man is a kind of guided tour beginning with Spinoza, leading through Kant, and ending in a subjective ethical idealism with deep Romantic footings. It is an excellent introduction to the philosophy of nineteenth century Germany, and it shares with that general movement its characteristic strengths and weaknesses. The logic is often unsound, feeling often overrules reason, selfish concerns are sometimes read out as the Will of God. Yet the Romantics generally, and Fichte among them, certainly were ethically concerned; they were trying to spell out the moral ideal and to set people moving toward a better world.

A Transitional Figure

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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; philosophically speaking, he remains a nineteenth century German idealist. However, the resolution of the paradox of moral action—the paradox in which humans as free moral agents find themselves involved because of their presence in a causally determined universe—is similar to the resolution achieved by the existentialists, Christian and atheistic alike. To begin with the striving self, to regard humans as what they can become as a result of their moral efforts, to take their moral “vocation” as prior to their essence—all of this is strikingly similar to the ideas later to be defended by such radically different philosophic personalities as Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre.

It is the emphasis on will which makes a philosopher such as Fichte a transitional figure, borrowing from the old idealistic philosophy and suggesting the lines of development of the new pragmatic-existentialistic philosophy. A thinker who extends the principle of the will to the entire universe, deifying will and rejection all else on its behalf, exhibits a metaphysical radicalism that is today’s philosophical conservatism. However, one who regards will, the striving of the stubbornly independent self, as definitive of self, of humans, but not of all reality—such a one may very well oppose oneself to the idealist, at the same time refusing to commit oneself to realism; this thinker remains pragmatic, testing not only one’s own nature, but the nature of everything else, in terms of action and consequences.

In arguing that the moral will involves the assumption of a moral law that admits no exceptions, and in regarding the Infinite Will as that law—“a Will that in itself is law”—Fichte shows that he is in the great tradition of idealistic philosophy. However, in arguing that it is “the vocation of our species to unite itself into one single body” through the moral striving of the free self, and in suggesting that “All my thoughts must have a bearing on my action,” Fichte passes from the metaphysical to the moral, and from the moral to the pragmatic and existential. In his philosophy, then, the old and the new combine, neither one in a pure state but each aspect enlivened by the presence of the other.


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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.: Prometheus Books, 2001. Discusses Fichte’s theory about how the human mind operates, illuminating the ideas in The Vocation of Man.

Breazeale, Daniel. “Bibliography.” In Fichte: Historical Contexts/Contemporary Controversies, edited by Daniel Breazeale and Tom Rockmore. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1994. An entire chapter lists the essential studies of Fichte’s work, including The Vocation of Man.

Everett, Charles Carroll. Fichte’s “Science of Knowledge”: A Critical Exposition. Chicago: S. C. Griggs, 1884. Compares Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s and Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophies to Fichte’s. Argues that Fichte fails to reconcile the concept of finitude with the doctrine of the absolute. More than half of the work is devoted to exposition of Fichte’s three fundamental principles.

Gopalakrishnaiah, V. A. Comparative Study of the Educational Philosophies of J. G. Fichte and J. H. Newman. Waltair: Andhra University Press, 1973. Stresses the importance of the university to the community, the social function of education, and the provision of scientific research by the university in Fichte’s educational theories and contrasts these themes with their contraries in John Henry Newman.

Hohler, T. P. Imagination and Reflection: Intersubjectivity Fichte’s “Grundlage” of 1794. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1982. Devoted to the problem of finitude and the philosophy of the “I” in Fichte’s early writings only. Argues that the transcendental “I” is essentially and inherently intersubjective; that is, intersubjectivity is argued to be a transcendental constituent of “I-ness.”

La Vopa, Anthony J. Fichte: The Self and the Calling of Philosophy, 1762-1799. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Explains Fichte’s concept of God, which underlies The Vocation of Man, in relation to the charge against him of atheism.

Neuhouser, Frederick. Fichte’s Theory of Subjectivity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Outlines the development of Fichte’s early writings that attempt to construct a unified and coherent theory of subjectivity.

Radrizzani, Ives. “The Place of The Vocation of Man in Fichte’s Work.” In New Essays on Fichte’s Later “Jena Wissenschaftslehre,” edited by Daniel Breazeale and Tom Rockmore. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2002. Besides Radrizzani’s essay, this volume includes Rockmore’s discussion of Fichte’s use of the term “representation” in The Vocation of Man.

Rockmore, Tom. Fichte, Marx, and the German Philosophical Tradition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980. Compares the philosophical positions of Fichte and Karl Marx, often taken to be intellectual opposites, with a view toward establishing their common ground within the context of nineteenth century German thought.

Rockmore, Tom, and Daniel Breazeale, eds. New Perspectives on Fichte. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1996. A collection of thirteen essays on Fichte’s philosophy, selected from a 1993 conference.

Talbot, E. B. The Fundamental Principle of Fichte’s Philosophy. New York: Macmillan, 1906. Concentrates on the changes that Fichte made in his fundamental principle between the early and later periods of his development. Argues that differences noted by critics are overstated and that the fundamental characterization as activity remains constant throughout.

Zöller, Günter. Fichte’s Transcendental Philosophy: The Original Duplicity of Intelligence and Will. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Clarifies Fichte’s major concepts, giving special attention to the meaning of “faith” in The Vocation of Man.

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