Johann Gottlieb Fichte

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Johann Gottlieb Fichte
Johann Gottlieb Fichte.jpg

Prof. Dr. phil. Fichte

Born 19 May 1762(1762-05-19)
Rammenau, Oberlausitz, Electorate of Saxony, Holy Roman Empire
Died 29 January 1814 (aged 51)
Berlin, Province of Brandenburg, Kingdom of Prussia
Nationality German
Known for Western philosophy, 18th-century philosophy, Continental philosophy, German idealism, Post-Kantian transcendental idealism
Occupation Philosopher, writer, professor
Notable students:
Friedrich Schlegel
Friedrich Hölderlin
August Ludwig Hülsen
Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (b. 19 May 1762; d. 29 January 1814) was a German philosopher who became a founding figure of the philosophical movement known as German idealism, which developed from the theoretical and ethical writings of Immanuel Kant. Fichte also wrote works of political philosophy; he has a reputation as one of the fathers of German patriotism. In 1807–08, he delivered at Berlin his Reden an die deutsche Nation (Addresses to the German Nation), a series of nationalist speeches against the Napoleonic occupation (Franzosenzeit) of Prussia, which became an inspiration for German nationalism and the Völkisch movement.

Short chronology

Celebration (Reichsgründungsfeier) of the founding of the Reich (1871) in January 1933 at Berlin University in the auditorium of the Old Library ("Kommode"). Behind the lectern is the large painting "Fichtes Speech to the German Nation" by Arthur von Kampf, which was destroyed by allied terror bombing in WWII.
Edmund Husserl Philosophicus Teutonicus.jpg
  • 1784-89 Private tutor (Hauslehrer) in Leipzig
  • 1789-90 Private tutor in Zurich
  • 1791-92 Private tutor in West Prussia
  • 1794-99 Chair of philosophy at the University of Jena
    • While at Jena Fichte wrote his famous Wissenschaftslehre (1796) – translated as the Doctrine of Scientific Knowledge – as well as a series of polemical political tracts.
  • 1805-06 Chair of philosophy at the University of Erlangen
  • 1807 Professorship at the University of Königsberg
  • 1810-14 Professor of philosophy at the Berlin University, at the same time first dean of the Philosophical Faculty
  • 1811 First rector of Berlin University[1]


Fichte was born at Rammenau in Upper Lusatia. His father was Christian Fichte (1737–1812), a ribbon-weaver, his mother was Maria Dorothea, née Schurich (1739–1813). The family was distinguished for piety, uprightness, and solidity of character. With these qualities Fichte himself combined a certain impetuosity and impatience probably derived from his mother, a woman of a somewhat querulous and jealous disposition.

At a very early age the boy showed remarkable mental vigour and moral independence. A fortunate accident which brought him under the notice of a neighbouring nobleman, Freiherr von Miltitz, was the means of procuring him a more excellent education than his father's circumstances would have allowed. He was placed under the care of Pastor Krebel at Niederau. After a short stay at Meissen he was entered at the celebrated school at Pforta, near Naumburg. In 1780 he entered the university of Jena as a student of theology. He supported himself mainly by private teaching, and during the years 1784-1787 acted as tutor in various families of Saxony. In 1787, after an unsuccessful application to the consistory for pecuniary assistance, he seems to have been driven to miscellaneous literary work. A tutorship at Zurich was, however, obtained in the spring of 1788, and Fichte spent in Switzerland two of the happiest years of his life. He made several valuable acquaintances, among others Lavater and his brother-in-law Hartmann Rahn, to whose daughter, Johanna Maria, he became engaged.

Settling at Leipzig, still without any fixed means of livelihood, he was again reduced to literary drudgery. In the midst of this work occurred the most important event of his life, his introduction to the philosophy of Kant. At Schulpforta he had read with delight Lessing's Anti-Goeze, and during his Jena days had studied the relation between philosophy and religion. The outcome of his speculations, Aphorismen über Religion and Deismus (unpublished, date 1790; Werke, i. 1-8), was a species of Spinozistic determinism, regarded, however, as lying altogether outside the boundary of religion. It is remarkable that even for a time fatalism should have been predominant in his reasoning, for in character he was opposed to such a view, and, as he has said, "according to the man, so is the system of philosophy he adopts." Fichte's Letters of this period attest the influence exercised on him by the study of Kant. It effected a revolution in his mode of thinking; so completely did the Kantian doctrine of the inherent moral worth of man harmonize with his own character, that his life becomes one effort to perfect a true philosophy, and to make its principles practical maxims. At first he seems to have thought that the best method for accomplishing his object would be to expound Kantianism in a popular, intelligible form. He rightly felt that the reception of Kant's doctrines was impeded by their phraseology. An abridgment of the Kritik der Urtheilskraft was begun, but was left unfinished.

Fichte's circumstances had not improved. It had been arranged that he should return to Zurich and be married to Johanna Rahn, but the plan was overthrown by a commercial disaster which affected the fortunes of the Rahn family. Fichte accepted a post as private tutor in Warsaw, and proceeded on foot to that town. The situation proved unsuitable; the lady, as Kuno Fischer says, "required greater submission and better French" than Fichte could yield, and after a fortnight's stay Fichte set out for Konigsberg to see Kant. His first interview was disappointing; the coldness and formality of the aged philosopher checked the enthusiasm of the young disciple, though it did not diminish his reverence. He resolved to bring himself before Kant's notice by submitting to him a work in which the principles of the Kantian philosophy should be applied. Such was the origin of the work, written in four weeks, the Versuch einer Kritik aller Offenbarung (Essay towards a Critique of all Revelation).

The problem which Fichte dealt with in this essay was one not yet handled by Kant himself, the relations of which to the critical philosophy furnished matter for surmise. Indirectly, indeed, Kant had indicated a very definite opinion on theology: from the Critique of Pure Reason it was clear that for him speculative theology must be purely negative, while the Critique of Practical Reason as clearly indicated the view that the moral law is the absolute content or substance of any religion. A critical investigation of the conditions under which religious belief was possible was still wanting. Fichte sent his essay to Kant, who approved it highly, extended to the author a warm reception, and exerted his influence to procure a publisher. After some delay, consequent on the scruples of the theological censor of Halle, who did not like to see miracles rejected, the book appeared (Easter, 1792). By an oversight Fichte's name did not appear on the title-page, nor was the preface given, in which the author spoke of himself as a beginner in philosophy. Outsiders, not unnaturally, ascribed the work to Kant. The Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung went so far as to say that no one who had read a line of Kant's writings could fail to recognize the eminent author of this new work. Kant himself corrected the mistake, at the same time highly commending the work. Fichte's reputation was thus secured at a stroke.

The Critique of Revelation marks the culminating point of Fichte's Kantian period. The exposition of the conditions under which revealed religion is possible turns upon the absolute requirements of the moral law in human nature. Religion itself is the belief in this moral law as divine, and such belief is a practical postulate, necessary in order to add force to the law.

It follows that no revealed religion, so far as matter or substance is concerned, can contain anything beyond this law; nor can any fact in the world of experience be recognized by us as supernatural. The supernatural element in religion can only be the divine character of the moral law. Now, the revelation of this divine character of morality is possible only to a being in whom the lower impulses have been, or are, successful in overcoming reverence for the law. In such a case it is conceivable that a revelation might be given in order to add strength to the moral law. Religion ultimately then rests upon the practical reason, and expresses some demand or want of the pure ego. In this conclusion we can trace the prominence assigned by Fichte to the practical element, and the tendency to make the requirements of the ego the ground for all judgment on reality. It was not possible that having reached this point he should not press forward and leave the Kantian position.

This success was coincident with an improvement in the fortunes of the Rahn family, and the marriage took place at Zurich in October 1793. The remainder of the year he spent at Zurich, slowly perfecting his thoughts on the fundamental problems left for solution in the Kantian philosophy. During this period he published anonymously two remarkable political works, Zurückforderung der Denkfreiheit von den Fürsten Europas and Beiträge zur Berichtigung der Urtheile des Publicums über die französische Revolution. Of these the latter is much the more important. The French Revolution seemed to many earnest thinkers the one great outcry of modern times for the liberty of thought and action which is the eternal heritage of every human being. Unfortunately, the political condition of Germany was unfavourable to the formation of an unbiassed opinion on the great movement. The principles involved in it were lost sight of under the mass of spurious maxims on social order which had slowly grown up and stiffened into system. To direct attention to the true nature of revolution, to demonstrate how inextricably the right of liberty is interwoven with the very existence of man as an intelligent agent, to point out the inherent progressiveness of state arrangements, and the consequent necessity of reform or amendment, such are the main objects of the Beiträge; and although, as is often the case with Fichte, the arguments are too formal and the distinctions too wiredrawn, yet the general idea is nobly conceived and carried out. As in the Critique of Revelation so here the rational nature of man and the conditions necessary for its manifestation or realization become the standard for critical judgment.

Towards the close of 1793 Fichte received an invitation to succeed K. L. Reinhold as extraordinary professor of philosophy at Jena. This chair, not in the ordinary faculty, had become, through Reinhold, the most important in the university, and great deliberation was exercised in selecting his successor. It was desired to secure an exponent of Kantianism, and none seemed so highly qualified as the author of the Critique of Revelation. Fichte, while accepting the call, desired to spend a year in preparation; but as this was deemed inexpedient he rapidly drew out for his students an introductory outline of his system, and began his lectures in May 1794. His success was instantaneous and complete. The fame of his predecessor was altogether eclipsed. Much of this success was due to Fichte's rare power as a lecturer. In oral exposition the vigour of thought and moral intensity of the man were most of all apparent, while his practical earnestness completely captivated his hearers. He lectured not only to his own class, but on general moral subjects to all students of the university. These general addresses, published under the title Bestimmung des Gelehrten (Vocation of the Scholar), were on a subject dear to Fichte's heart, the supreme importance of the highest intellectual culture and the duties incumbent on those who had received it. Their tone is stimulating and lofty.

The years spent at Jena were unusually productive; indeed, the completed Fichtean philosophy is contained in the writings of this period. A general introduction to the system is given in the tractate Über den Begriff der Wissenschaftslehre oder der sogenannten Philosophie (On the Notion of the Theory of Science), 1794, and the theoretical portion is worked out in the Grundlage der gesammten Wissenschaftslehre (Foundation of the whole Theory of Science, 1794) and Grundriss des Eigenthümlichen der Wissenschaftslehre (Outline of what is peculiar in the Theory of Science, 1794). To these were added in 1797 a First and a Second Introduction to the Theory of Science, and an Essay towards a new Exposition of the Theory of Science. The Introductions are masterly expositions. The practical philosophy was given in the Grundlage des Naturrechts (1796) and System der Sittenlehre (1798). The last is probably the most important of all Fichte's works; apart from it, his theoretical philosophy is, for normal humans, unintelligible.

During this period Fichte's academic career had been troubled by various storms, the last so violent as to put a close to his professorate at Jena. The first of them, a complaint against the delivery of his general addresses on Sundays, was easily settled. The second, arising from Fichte's strong desire to suppress the Landsmannschaften (students' orders), which were productive of much harm, was more serious. Some misunderstanding caused an outburst of ignorant ill-feeling on the part of the students, who proceeded to such lengths that Fichte was compelled to reside out of Jena. The third storm, however, was the most violent. In 1798 Fichte, who, with F. I. Niethammer (1766-1848), had edited the Philosophical Journal since 1795, received from his friend F. K. Forberg (1770-1848) an essay on the "Development of the Idea of Religion." With much of the essay he entirely agreed, but he thought the exposition in so many ways defective and calculated to create an erroneous impression, that he prefaced it with a short paper On the Grounds of our Belief in a Divine Government of the Universe, in which God is defined as the moral order of the universe, the eternal law of right which is the foundation of all our being. The cry of atheism was raised, and the electoral government of Saxony, followed by all the German states except Prussia, suppressed the Journal and confiscated the copies found in their universities. Pressure was put by the German powers on Charles Augustus, grand-duke of Saxe-Weimar, in whose dominions Jena university was situated, to reprove and dismiss the offenders. Fichte's defences (Appellation an das Publicum gegen die Anklage des Atheismus, and Gerichtliche Verantwortung der Herausgeber der Phil. Zeitschrift, 1799), though masterly, did not make it easier for the liberal-minded grand-duke to pass the matter over, and an unfortunate letter, in which he threatened to resign in case of reprimand, turned the scale against him. The grand-duke accepted his threat as a request to resign, passed censure, and extended to him permission to withdraw from his chair at Jena; nor would he alter his decision, even though Fichte himself endeavoured to explain away the unfortunate letter.

Berlin was the only town in Germany open to him. His residence there from 1799 to 1806 was unbroken save for a course of lectures during the summer of 1805 at Erlangen, where he had been named professor. Surrounded by friends, including Schlegel and Schleiermacher, he continued his literary work, perfecting the Wissenschaftslehre. The most remarkable of the works from this period are - (I) the Bestimmung des Menschen (Vocation of Man, 1800), a book which, for beauty of style, richness of content, and elevation of thought, may be ranked with the Meditations of Descartes; (2) Der geschlossene Handelsstaat, 1800 (The Exclusive or Isolated Commercial State), a very remarkable treatise, intensely socialist in tone, and inculcating organized protection; (3) Sonnenklarer Bericht an das grossere Publicum über die neueste Philosophie, 1801. In 1801 was also written the Darstellung der Wissenschaftslehre, which was not published till after his death. In 1804 a set of lectures on the Wissenschaftslehre was given at Berlin, the notes of which were published in the Nachgelassene Werke, vol. ii. In 1804 were also delivered the noble lectures entitled Grundzüge des gegenwärtigen Zeitalters (Characteristics of the Present Age, 1804), containing a most admirable analysis of the Aufklärung, tracing the position of such a movement of thought in the natural evolution of the general human consciousness, pointing out its inherent defects, and indicating as the ultimate goal of progress the life of reason in its highest aspect as a belief in the divine order of the universe. The philosophy of history sketched in this work has something of value with much that is fantastic. In 1805 and 1806 appeared the Wesen des Gelehrten (Nature of the Scholar) and the Anweisung zum seligen Leben oder Religionslehre (Way to a Blessed Life), the latter the most important work of this Berlin period. In it the union between the finite self-consciousness and the infinite ego or God is handled in an almost mystical manner. The knowledge and love of God is the end of life; by this means only can we attain blessedness (Seligkeit), for in God alone have we a permanent, enduring object of desire. The infinite God is the all; the world of independent objects is the result of reflection or self-consciousness, by which the infinite unity is broken up. God is thus over and above the distinction of subject and object; our knowledge is but a reflex or picture of the infinite essence. Being is not thought.

The diasters of Prussia in 1806 drove Fichte from Berlin. He retired first to Stargard, then to Konigsberg (where he lectured for a time), then to Copenhagen, whence he returned to the German capital in August 1807. From this time his published writings are practical in character; not till after the appearance of the Nachgelassene Werke was it known in what shape his final speculations had been thrown out. We may here note the order of these posthumous writings as being of importance for tracing the development of Fichte's thought. From the year 1806 we have the remarkable Bericht über die Wissenschaftslehre (Werke, vol. viii.), with its sharp critique of Schelling; from 1810 we have the Thatsachen des Bewusstseyns, published in 1817, of which another treatment is given in lectures of 1813 (Nachgel. Werke, vol. i.). Of the Wissenschaftslehre we have, in 1812-1813, four separate treatments contained in the Nachgelassene Werke. As these consist mainly of notes for lectures, couched in uncouth phraseology, they cannot be held to throw much light on Fichte's views. Perhaps the most interesting are the lectures of 1812 on Transcendental Logic (Nachgelassene Werke, i. 106-400).

From 1812, we have notes of two courses on practical philosophy, Rechtslehre (Nach. Werke, vol. ii.) and Sittenlehre (ib. vol. iii.). A finished work in the same department is the Staatslehre, published in 1820. This gives the Fichtean utopia organized on principles of pure reason; in too many cases the proposals are identical with principles of pure despotism.

During these years, however, Fichte was mainly occupied with public affairs. In 1807 he drew up an elaborate and minute plan for the proposed new university of Berlin. In 1807-1808, he delivered at Berlin, amidst danger and discouragement, his noble Addresses to the German people (Reden an die deutsche Nation). Even if we think that in these pure reason is sometimes overshadowed by patriotism, we cannot but recognize the immense practical value of what he recommended as the only true foundation for national prosperity.

In 1810, he was elected rector of the new university founded in the previous year. This post he resigned in 1812, mainly on account of the difficulties he experienced in his endeavour to reform the student life of the university.

In 1813, began the great effort of Germany for national independence (Deutsche Erhebung). Debarred from taking an active part, Fichte made his contribution by way of lectures. The addresses on the idea of a true war (Über den Begriff eines wahrhaften Kriegs, forming part of the Staatslehre) contain a very subtle contrast between the positions of France and Germany in the war.

In the autumn of 1813, the hospitals of Berlin were filled with sick and wounded from the German Campaign of 1813 (de). Among the most devoted in her exertions was Fichte's wife, who, in January 1814, was attacked with a virulent hospital fever. On the day after she was pronounced out of danger Fichte was struck down. He lingered for some days in an almost unconscious state, and died on the 27th of January 1814.

The philosophy of Fichte, worked out in a series of writings, and falling chronologically into two distinct periods, that of Jena and that of Berlin, seemed in the course of its development to undergo a change so fundamental that many critics have sharply separated and opposed to one another an earlier and a later phase. The ground of the modification, further, has been sought and apparently found in quite external influences, principally that of Schelling's Naturphilosophie, to some extent that of Schleiermacher. But as a rule most of those who have adopted this view have done so without the full and patient examination which the matter demands; they have been misled by the difference in tone and style between the earlier and later writings, and have concluded that underlying this was a fundamental difference of philosophic conception. One only, Johann Eduard Erdmann, in his Die Entwicklung der deutschen Spekulation seit Kant, § 29, seems to give full references to justify his opinion, and even he, in his later work, Grundriss der Gesch. der Philos. (ed. 3), § 311, admits that the difference is much less than he had at the first imagined. He certainly retains his former opinion, but mainly on the ground, in itself intelligible and legitimate, that, so far as Fichte's philosophical reputation and influence are concerned, attention may be limited to the earlier doctrines of the Wissenschaftslehre. This may be so, but it can be admitted neither that Fichte's views underwent radical change, nor that the Wissenschaftslehre was ever regarded as in itself complete, nor that Fichte was unconscious of the apparent difference between his earlier and later utterances. It is demonstrable by various passages in the works and letters that he never looked upon the Wissenschaftslehre as containing the whole system; it is clear from the chronology of his writings that the modifications supposed to be due to other thinkers were from the first implicit in his theory; and if one fairly traces the course of thought in the early writings, one can see how he was inevitably led on to the statement of the later and, at first sight, divergent views. On only one point, the position assigned in the Wissenschaftslehre to the absolute ego, is there any obscurity; but the relative passages are far from decisive, and from the early work, Neue Darstellung der Wissenchaftslehre, unquestionably to be ins uded in the Jena period, one can see that from the outset the doctrine of the absolute ego was held in a form differing only in statement from the later theory.

Fichte's system cannot be compressed with intelligibility. We shall here note only three points: - (a) the origin in Kant; (b) the fundamental principle and method of the Wissenschaftslehre; (c) the connexion with the later writings. The most important works for (a) are the "Review of Aenesidemus," and the Second Introduction to the Wissenschaftslehre; for (b) the great treatises of the Jena period; for (c) the Thatsachen des Bewusstseyns of 1810.

(a) The Kantian system had for the first time opened up a truly fruitful line of philosophic speculation, the transcendental consideration of knowledge, or the analysis of the conditions under which cognition is possible. To Kant the fundamental condition was given in the synthetical unity of consciousness. The primitive fact under which might be gathered the special conditions of that synthesis which we call cognition was this unity. But by Kant there was no attempt made to show that the said special conditions were necessary from the very nature of consciousness itself. Their necessity was discovered and proved in a manner which might be called empirical. Moreover, while Kant in a quite similar manner pointed out that intuition had special conditions, space and time, he did not show any link of connexion between these and the primitive conditions of pure cognition. Closely connected with this remarkable defect in the Kantian view - lying, indeed, at the foundation of it - was the doctrine that the matter of cognition is altogether given, or thrown into the form of cognition from without. So strongly was this doctrine emphasized by Kant, that he seemed to refer the matter of knowledge to the action upon us of a non-ego or Ding-an-sich, absolutely beyond consciousness. While these hints towards a completely intelligible account of cognition were given by Kant, they were not reduced to system, and from the way in which the elements of cognition were related, could not be so reduced. Only in the sphere of practical reason, where the intelligible nature prescribed to itself its own laws, was there the possibility of systematic deduction from a single principle.
The peculiar position in which Kant had left the theory of cognition was assailed from many different sides and by many writers, specially by Schultze (Aenesidemus) and Maimon. To the criticisms of the latter, in particular, Fichte owed much, but his own activity went far beyond what they supplied to him. To complete Kant's work, to demonstrate that all the necessary conditions of knowledge can be deduced from a single principle, and consequently to expound the complete system of reason, that is the business of the Wissenschaftslehre. By it the theoretical and practical reason shall be shown to coincide; for while the categories of cognition and the whole system of pure thought can be expounded from one principle, the ground of this principle is scientifically, or to cognition, inexplicable, and is made conceivable only in the practical philosophy. The ultimate basis for the activity of cognition is given by the will. Even in the practical sphere, however, Fichte found that the contradiction, insoluble to cognition, was not completely suppressed, and he was thus driven to the higher view, which is explicitly stated in the later writings though not, it must be confessed, with the precision and scientific clearness of the Wissenschaftslehre.
(b) What, then, is this single principle, and how does it work itself out into system? To answer this one must bear in mind what Fichte intended by designating all philosophy Wissenschaftslehre, or theory of science. Philosophy is to him the rethinking of actual cognition, the theory of knowledge, the complete, systematic exposition of the principles which lie at the basis of;all reasoned cognition. It traces the necessary acts by which the cognitive consciousness comes to be what it is, both in form and in content. Not that it is a natural history, or even a phenomenology of consciousness; only in the later writings did Fichte adopt even the genetic method of exposition; it is the complete statement of the pure principles of the understanding in their rational or necessary order. But if complete, this Wissenschaftslehre must be able to deduce the whole organism of cognition from certain fundamental axioms, themselves unproved and incapable of proof; only thus can we have a system of reason. From these primary axioms the whole body of necessary thoughts must be developed, and, as Socrates would say, the argument itself will indicate the path of the development.
Of such primitive principles, the absolutely necessary conditions of possible cognition, only three are thinkable - one perfectly unconditioned both in form and matter; a second, unconditioned in form but not in matter; a third, unconditioned in matter but not in form. Of these, evidently the first must be the fundamental; to some extent it conditions the other two, though these cannot be deduced from it or proved by it. The statement of these principles forms the introduction to Wissenschaftslehre. The method which Fichte first adopted for stating these axioms is not calculated to throw full light upon them, and tends to exaggerate the apparent airiness and unsubstantiality of his deduction. They may be explained thus. The primitive condition of all intelligence is that the ego shall posit, affirm or be aware of itself. The ego is the ego; such is the first pure act of conscious intelligence, that by which alone consciousness can come to be what it is. It is what Fichte called a Deed-act (Thathandlung); we cannot be aware of the process, - the ego is not until it has affirmed itself, - but we are aware of the result, and can see the necessity of the act by which it is brought about. The ego then posits itself as real. What the ego posits is real. But in consciousness there is equally given a primitive act of op-positing, or contra-positing, formally distinct from the act of position, but materially determined, in so far as what is op-posited must be the negative of that which was posited. The non-ego - not, be it noticed, the world as we know it - is op-posed in consciousness to the ego. The ego is not the non-ego. How this act of op-positing is possible and necessary, only becomes clear in the practical philosophy, and even there the inherent difficulty leads to a higher view. But third, we have now an absolute antithesis to our original thesis. Only the ego is real, but the non-ego is posited in the ego. The contradiction is solved in a higher synthesis, which takes up into itself the two opposites. The ego and non-ego limit one another, or determine one another; and, as limitation is negation of part of a divisible quantum, in this third act, the divisible ego is op-posed to a divisible non-ego.
From this point onwards the course proceeds by the method already made clear. We progress by making explicit the oppositions contained in the fundamental synthesis, by uniting these opposites, analysing the new synthesis, and so on, until we reach an ultimate pair. Now, in the synthesis of the third act two principles may be distinguished: - (1) the non-ego determines the ego; (2) the ego determines the non-ego. As determined the ego is theoretical, as determining it is practical; ultimately the opposed principles must be united by showing how the ego is both determining and determined.
It is impossible to enter here on the steps by which the theoretical ego is shown to develop into the complete system of cognitive categories, or to trace the deduction of the processes (productive imagination, intuition, sensation, understanding, judgment, reason) by which the quite indefinite non-ego comes to assume the appearance of definite objects in the forms of time and space. All this evolution is the necessary consequence of the determination of the ego by the non-ego. But it is clear that the non-ego cannot really determine the ego. There is no reality beyond the ego itself. The contradiction can only be suppressed if the ego itself opposes to itself the non-ego, places it as an Anstoss or plane on which its own activity breaks and from which it is reflected. Now, this oppositing of the Anstoss is the necessary condition of the practical ego, of the will. If the ego be a striving power, then of necessity a limit must be set by which its striving is manifest. But how can the infinitely active ego posit a limit to its own activity? Here we come to the crux of Fichte's system, which is only partly cleared up in the Rechtslehre and Sittenlehre. If the ego be pure activity, free activity, it can only become aware of itself by positing some limit. We cannot possibly have any cognition of how such an act is possible. But as it is a free act, the ego cannot be determined to it by anything beyond itself; it cannot be aware of its own freedom otherwise than as determined by other free egos. Thus in the Rechtslehre and Sittenlehre, the multiplicity of egos is deduced, and with this deduction the first form of the Wissenschaftslehre appeared to end.
(c) But in fact deeper questions remained. We have spoken of the ego as becoming aware of its own freedom, and have shown how the existence of other egos and of a world in which these egos may act are the necessary conditions of consciousness of freedom. But all this is the work of the ego. All that has been expounded follows if the ego comes to consciousness. We have therefore to consider that the absolute ego, from which spring all the individual egos, is not subject to these conditions, but freely determines itself to them.

How is this absolute ego to be conceived? As early as 1797 Fichte had begun to see that the ultimate basis of his system was the absolute ego, in which is no difference of subject and object; in 1800 the Bestimmung des Menschen defined this absolute ego as the infinite moral will of the universe, God, in whom are all the individual egos, from whom they have sprung. It lay in the nature of the thing that more precise utterances should be given on this subject, and these we find in the Thatsachen des Bewusstseyns and in all the later lectures. God in them is the absolute Life, the absolute One, who becomes conscious of himself by self-diremption into the individual egos. The individual ego is only possible as opposed to a non-ego, to a world of the senses; thus God, the infinite will, manifests himself in the individual, and the individual has over against him the non-ego or thing. "The individuals d6 not make part of the being of the one life, but are a pure form of its absolute freedom." "The individual is not conscious of himself, but the Life is conscious of itself in individual form and as an individual." In order that the Life may act, though it is not necessary that it should act, individualization is necessary. "Thus," says Fichte, "we reach a final conclusion. Knowledge is not mere knowledge of itself, but of being, and of the one being that truly is, viz. God.... This one possible object of knowledge is never known in its purity, but ever broken into the various forms of knowledge which are and can be shown to be necessary. The demonstration of the necessity of these forms is philosophy or Wissenschaftslehre" (Thats. des Bewuss. Werke, ii. 685). This ultimate view is expressed throughout the lectures (in the Nachgelassene Werke) in uncouth and mystical language.

It will escape no one how the idea and method of the Wissenschaftslehre prepare the way for the later Hegelian dialectic, and how completely the whole philosophy of Schopenhauer is contained in the later writings of Fichte. It is not to the credit of historians that Schopenhauer's debt should have been allowed to pass with so little notice.

Doctrine of Scientific Knowledge

The primary task of Fichte’s system of philosophy (the Wissenschaftslehre) is to reconcile freedom with necessity, or, more specifically, to explain how freely willing, morally responsible agents can at the same time be considered part of a world of causally conditioned material objects in space and time. Fichte’s strategy for answering this question—at least in his early writings, which are the ones upon which his historical reputation as a philosopher has (at least until recently) been grounded and hence are the ones to be expounded here—was to begin simply with the ungrounded assertion of the subjective spontaneity and freedom (infinity) of the I and then to proceed to a transcendental derivation of objective necessity and limitation (finitude) as a condition necessary for the possibility of the former. This is the meaning of his description, in his “First Introduction to the Wissenschaftslehre,” of philosophy’s task as that of “displaying the foundation of experience” or “explaining the basis of the system of representations accompanied by a feeling of necessity.” Fichte derived this conception of the task and strategy of philosophy from his study of Kant, and no matter how far his own system seemed to diverge from “the letter” of the Critical philosophy, Fichte always maintained that it remained true to “the spirit” of the same. Central to this “spirit,” for Fichte, is an uncompromising insistence upon the practical certainty of human freedom and a thoroughgoing commitment to the task of providing a transcendental account of ordinary experience that could explain the objectivity and necessity of theoretical reason (cognition) in a manner consistent with the practical affirmation of human liberty. Though Fichte attributed the discovery of this task to Kant, he believed that it was first accomplished successfully only in the Wissenschaftslehre, which he therefore described as the first “system of human freedom.” In an effort to clarify the task and method of transcendental philosophy, Fichte insisted upon the sharp distinction between the “standpoint” of natural consciousness (which it is the task of philosophy to “derive,” and hence to “explain”) and that of transcendental reflection, which is the standpoint required of the philosopher. He thus insisted that there is no conflict between transcendental idealism and the commonsense realism of everyday life. On the contrary, the whole point of the former is to demonstrate the necessity and unavailability of the latter.[2]


  • "The last four addresses answered the question: what is the German in opposition to other peoples of Teutonic descent? This line of argument in support of our inquiry as a whole will be completed if we further add the examination of the question: what is a people? This latter question is identical with, and at the same time helps to answer, another question, often raised and resolved in very different ways: what is love of fatherland? Or, as one might more accurately express oneself: what is the love of the individual for his nation? If we have thus far proceeded aright in the course of our inquiry, then it must be evident that only the German – the original man whose spirit has not become dead in some arbitrary organisation – truly has a people and is entitled to reckon on one; that only he is capable of real and rational love for his nation. The following observation, which at first seems to have no connection with the foregoing, will set us on the way to solving our appointed task. Religion, as we had cause to remark already in our third address, is quite able to transport us beyond all time, and beyond the present, sensuous life, without the least injury to the justness [Rechtlichkeit], morality and sanctity of the life seized by this faith." – Johann Gottlieb Fichte, in: Reden an die deutsche Nation, 1808
  • “We shall realise that which Fichte has given to the German nation as its task. We want to establish a state of justice and truthfulness founded upon the equality of all humanity.” – Friedrich Ebert, first Reichspräsident of the Weimar Republic, on 19 February 1919[3]


In October 1793, Fichte was married to Johanna Rahn in Zurich, where he remained the rest of the year. Three years later, his son Immanuel Hermann (1796–1879) was born.


Fichte's complete works were published by his son J. H. Fichte, Sämtliche Werke (8 vols., Berlin, 1845-1846), with Nachgelassene Werke (3 vols., Bonn, 1834-1835); also Leben and Briefwechsel (2 vols., 1830, ed. 1862). Among translations are those of William Smith, Popular Writings of Fichte, with Memoir (2 vols., London, 1848-1849, 4th ed. 1889); A. E. Kroeger, portions of the Wissenschaftslehre (Science of Knowledge, Philadelphia, 1868; ed. London, 1889), the Naturrecht (Science of Rights, 1870; ed. London, 1889); of the Vorlesungen U. d. Bestimmung d. Gelehrten (The Vocation of the Scholar, by W. Smith, 1847); Destination of Man, by Mrs P. Sinnett; Discours a la nation allemande, French by Leon Philippe (1895), with preface by F. Picavet, and a biographical memoir.

See also

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