Fichte, Johann Gottlieb

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FICHTE, JOHANN GOTTLIEB (17621814), was a German Idealist philosopher and religious thinker. Usually remembered mainly for his part in the development of German Idealism from Kant to Hegel and for his contribution to the rise of German national consciousness, Fichte is also an important figure in European religious thought at the end of the Enlightenment. Born in Rammenau (Lausitz), he enrolled in the University of Jena as a student of theology when he was eighteen. During his studies and a subsequent period as a private tutor in Zurich, he was apparently unacquainted with Kant's philosophy and seems to have been a determinist who admired Spinoza. Returning to Leipzig in 1790, he began a study of Kant that led to his conversion to Kantian practical philosophy. His fragmentary "Aphorismen über Religion und Deismus," written at this time, reveals his concern with the tension between simple Christian piety and philosophical speculation.

A fateful turn in Fichte's life and career came in 1791, when he traveled to Königsberg to meet Kant. Hoping to attract the master's attention, Fichte set out to write his own letter of introduction in the form of a Kantian-style "critique of revelation." When financial hardship cut short his stay in Königsberg, Fichte asked Kant for a loan to finance his return to Leipzig but got instead an offer to arrange publication of Fichte's manuscript with Kant's own publisher. Delayed for a time by the Prussian state censor, Fichte's Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation made its debut at the Leipzig Easter Fair in 1792 under puzzling circumstances. The publisher, perhaps deliberately, omitted both the author's name and his signed preface. The book was widely assumed to be Kant's long-awaited work on religion and received laudatory reviews in the leading journals. When Kant announced the true authorship, Fichte became an important philosopher virtually overnight. The book appeared in a revised second edition the following year, with Fichte's name on the title page, and in 1794 he was appointed to a chair of philosophy in Jena.

Like Kant's Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (published a year later), Fichte's Critique of All Revelation argues that a valid revelation must conform to the moral law, which is purely an internal concern of reason. Fichte maintains that a revelation in external nature is nevertheless possible because some people are so enmeshed in the sensuous that God can advance the moral law only by presenting it in sensuous terms. When Fichte published his own Idealist system in 1794, titled Wissenschaftslehre (Science of knowledge), he abandoned his explicit dependence on Kant's philosophy while claiming to remain loyal to its fundamental aims. By giving up the Kantian "thing-in-itself" (Ding an sich ), Fichte overcomes the duality of theoretical and practical, deriving all knowing from the activity of the transcendental ego (das Ich ). He thereby inaugurates the transformation of Kant's critical philosophy, which culminates in the absolute Idealism of Schelling and Hegel. Fichte's essay on the divine governance of the world, published in 1798, led to the famous Atheism Controversy, which resulted in the loss of his position in Jena and his move to Berlin. Fichte's religious position at this time could be more accurately described as ethical pantheism than as atheism, for he equated the human inner sense of the moral law with God's governance of the world. Convicted of teaching "atheism," he was dismissed from the University of Jena in 1799.

During the last period of his life in Berlin, Fichte developed his political and economic views in the Speeches to the German Nation, while continuing to revise and develop his Wissenschaftslehre in lectures and in print. Ironically, the man who lost his position for being an atheist moved in an increasingly mystical and theosophical direction in his later years.

Fichte died in 1814 of a fever caught from his wife, who was nursing victims of an epidemic. His writings exerted a continuing influence not only on philosophers but also on theologians, including Friedrich Schleiermacher. Fichte stands as a Janus figure between the religious rationalism of the Enlightenment, which he embraced in his youth, and the new currents of Idealist and Romantic thought, to which he contributed original impulses.


Works by Fichte

The standard and most accessible edition of Fichte's works is Johann Gottlieb Fichte's sämmtliche Werke, 8 vols., edited by J. H. Fichte (18451846; reprint, Berlin 1971); the writings on religion make up volume 5. A critical edition is being published as the J. G. Fichte-Gesamtausgabe der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, edited by Reinhard Lauth and Hans Jacob (Stuttgart, 1964). I have translated Versuch einer Kritik aller Offenbarung, 2d ed. (Königsberg, 1793), as Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation (Cambridge, 1978), with an introduction and a bibliography of primary and secondary works.

Works about Fichte

An insightful discussion of Fichte's importance for Christian thought is contained in volume 4 of Emanuel Hirsch's Geschichte der neuern evangelischen Theologie, 5 vols. (Gütersloh, 1949). Wolfgang Ritzel traces the development of Fichte's religious thought through his entire career in Fichtes Religionsphilosophie, "Forschungen zur Kirchen- und Geistesgeschichte," vol. 5 (Stuttgart, 1956).

Garrett Green (1987)

Fichte, Johann Gottlieb

views updated Jun 11 2018


Founder of absolute transcendental idealism and father of the philosopher Immanuel Hermann Fichte (17961879); b. Rammenau in Saxony, May 19, 1762; d. Berlin, Jan. 27, 1814. The elder Fichte received his early education under the patronage of Baron von Miltitz. Agitated and rebellious, he studied theology at Göttingen, Jena, and Leipzig from 1780 to 1784, then devoted nine years to private instruction. Asked to explain Kant's philosophy, he so thoroughly penetrated it that his anonymously published Versuch einer Kritik aller Offenbarung (Königsberg 1792) was thought to be Kant's own work. Fichte decided to supply a philosophy of religion for Kant's system. Reducing religion to Kant's "moral law," he held that sensible representations in various religions are an illusion of practical reason. In 1794 he started to teach at the University of Jena, but he was accused of atheism in 1798 and had to cede his position to F. W.J. schelling the following year. Going to Berlin, he began to give courses in philosophy there and at Erlangen (1805). Inciting German nationalism by his Reden an die deutschen Nation (180708), he eventually became the second rector of the newly established University of Berlin. He died of typhus, which he contracted from his wife.

Teaching. According to Fichte, dogmatism abstracts from understanding and proposes the thing in itself as a reality that is the cause of thought, whereas idealism abstracts from the thing and substitutes intelligence in itself for the reality. Thus idealism holds that thoughts are representations accompanied by an awareness of necessity, produced by the intelligence. At the end of a lengthy transcendental deduction, Fichte proposes the Ego, itself transcending objectification, as the condition of all objectifiability and the necessary condition of self-consciousness. The transcendental Ego is attainable only by intellectual intuition, in which it is recognized by its activity within consciousness. Life arises in intellectual intuition, and, without it, there is death.

Fichte's absolute idealism claims a "victory over the opposition between thought and being," as well as between being and action. This victory establishes absolute activism and pure freedom, and morality is absolute and unconditioned. Reason determines its own activity by itself and, from this fact of self-determination, it must recognize that others, too, have freedom. The concept of law, then, is a condition of one's own consciousness. The essential condition for a juridical situation (Rechtszustand ) is the state, and the law of the state is the principal scope of the philosophy of law. The basis for all life in the state is the "pact of the citizens" (Staatsbürgervertrag ), which embraces a defense pact (Schutzvertrag ) and a property pact (Eigentumsvertrag ). The ultimate complement of this concession is the "closed commercial state," in which work and merit should be divided by the state as such according to a type of socialism. Whoever violates the pact of the state by an infraction of the law will be excluded from the pact of the state.

In accord with deism and illuminism, Fichte makes religion identical with morality and duty. He adopts the formula "faith in the moral order of the world" as the expression of the very essence of religion. Like Kant, he attributes to faith the capacity of attaining the supersensible. Faith is the actuation of freedom from all influence of the sensible world, this freedom having the scope of positing oneself through oneself. The self-certitude provided by faith does not require any further explanation, justification, or authorization. It is not based upon or determined by any other truth; rather every other truth is based upon it. This is the world of morality, the content and scope of freedom to which the transcendental viewpoint leads.

Instead of speaking of the divinity (Gottheit ), Fichte speaks of the divine (das Göttliche ), which, from the semantic viewpoint, is an even vaguer term. According to him, the divine becomes living and real in man. Like authentic incredulity and impiety, true atheism consists in rationalizing the consequences of one's own actions, in not obeying the voice of one's own conscience, in placing one's own judgment before God's judgment, and in making oneself God. Denying the fact of original sin, Fichte reduces all revealed religion to natural religion, wherein there is no dogma, all Biblical statements having value only in reference to moral action.

Critique. In general, Fichte starts with the illuministic positions of Spinoza, Rousseau, and Lessing and ends up in dissolving thought into action and destroying the very possibility of truth. Pursuing the logic of his predecessors, he adds only a Germanic preoccupation with deterministic morality. As his son later wrote, "in the chain of [his] thoughts, everything is predetermined so that in the world of conscious natures, there is no room for free initiative" (Sämmtliche Werke 5:vi).

Bibliography: Works. Nachgelassene Werke, ed. i. h. fichte, 3 v. (Bonn 183435); Sämmtliche Werke, ed. i. h. fichte, 8 v. (Berlin 184546; repr. 1964); Werke, ed. f. medicus, 6 v. (Leipzig 190812); Fichtes Briefwechsel, ed. h. schulz, 2 v. (Leipzig 192530). Literature. f. c. copleston, History of Philosophy (Westminster, Md. 1946) v.7. j. d. collins, A History of Modern European Philosophy (Milwaukee 1954). x. lÉon, Fichte et son temps, 2 v. in 3 (Paris 192227). r. adamson, Fichte (Edinburgh 1881). h. heimsoeth, Fichte (Munich 1923). m. wundt, Fichte (2d ed. Stuttgart 1937). r. w. stine, The Doctrine of God in the Philosophy of Fichte (Philadelphia 1945). h. c. engelbrecht, Johann Gottlieb Fichte: A Study of His Political Writings, with Special Reference to His Nationalism (New York 1933).

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Fichte, Johann Gottlieb

views updated May 18 2018


FICHTE, JOHANN GOTTLIEB (1762–1814), German philosopher.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte is best known for his lifelong effort to develop a comprehensive system of transcendental idealism under the general name Wissenschaftslehre or "Theory of Scientific Knowledge," which would be true to the "spirit" if not to the letter of Kantianism. Fichte is also known for his popular lectures and writings on philosophy of history, education, and religion, including his controversial Addresses to the German Nation.

Fichte was born in very humble circumstances in Saxony and educated in Jena and Leipzig. His first encounter with Immanuel Kant's Critiques was enough to persuade him to devote the rest of his life, first of all, to popularizing the salubrious consequences of transcendental idealism, and secondly to the systematic reformulation of the same upon a more secure foundation. His first book, Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation (1792), which appeared without his name and was mistakenly attributed to Kant, immediately established his reputation, on the basis of which he obtained a professorship at the University of Jena (1794–1799). His public defense of the principles of the French Revolution earned him a reputation as a political radical.

In Jena, Fichte set out the basic principles of his new "System of Human Freedom" in his lectures and books, Foundations of the Entire Wissenschaftslehre (1794–1795) and Outline of Distinctive Character of the Wissenschaftslehre with Respect to the Theoretical Faculty (1795). In this "foundational" portion of his system, he showed how "theoretical" consciousness of the I and its objects presupposes and is made possible by "practical" striving and willing, thereby installing at the heart of his new system "the primacy of the practical." This was accomplished by limiting the realm of transcendental philosophy to that of analyzing the structure of pure subjectivity itself, the realm of the autonomous or "absolutely self-positing" I.

During this period Fichte also developed, in his Foundations of Natural Right (1796–1797), a highly original political theory or philosophy of law, stressing the independence of the latter from morality and including a "deduction" of intersubjectivity as a condition for self-consciousness. His most accomplished work during the Jena period was his System of Ethics (1798), in which he reformulated the foundations of his system and tried to replace Kant's merely "formal" ethics with a real or material theory of morals, which stresses the constitutive role of moral consciousness ("conscience") as a condition for self-consciousness as such.

In 1799 Fichte was charged with atheism on the basis of his apparent identification of God with the "moral world order" (in his essay "On the Basis of our Belief in Divine Governance of the World" [1798]) and subsequently lost his position at Jena. He then moved to Berlin, where he spent most of the rest of his life. At first he supported himself as a freelance author and lecturer. In works such as The Vocation of Man (1800), Characteristics of the Present Age (1806), The Way toward the Blessed Life (1806), and Addresses to the German Nation (1808) he tried to present the standpoint of the Wissenschaftslehre in a broadly "popular" and accessible manner and to apply the same to the pressing historical, moral, educational, and political needs of his own time—including the immediate need for spiritual rejuvenation and heightened self-awareness on the part of the "German nation" that had been humiliated by Napoleon. When the University of Berlin was established in 1810, Fichte became dean of the philosophy faculty and then rector of the university, as well as professor of philosophy.

At the same time Fichte was trying to engage with the events and needs of his era, he was also busy developing and revising the theoretical foundations of his Wissenschaftslehre—a process he began in Jena, with his lectures on Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo (1796–1799) and continued in Berlin and elsewhere. In all, he produced at least fifteen radically different presentations of the Wissenschaftslehre, only the first of which was published during his own lifetime. Some of the later versions were included in the edition of Fichte's Works published by his son in the mid-nineteenth century, but it is only in recent decades that some of the later versions of the Wissenschaftslehre have become available in the new critical edition of his Works published under the auspices of the Bavarian Academy of the Sciences.

Fichte's influence during his own lifetime was immense and was not limited to his well-known philosophical influence upon Friedrich von Schelling and Friedrich Hegel. They both learned from his philosophy (from, for example, his pioneering development of the "dialectical method") and ultimately rejected the same as "subjective idealism." He also had a direct influence upon the first generation of German Romantic authors, including Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis, and his Addresses played a controversial role in the subsequent development of German nationalism. Since the later versions of his system were not published until long after his death, the "reception" of Fichte's philosophy is a process that continues into the early twenty-first century.

See alsoHegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Novalis (Hardenberg, Friedrich von); Schelling, Friedrich von.


Breazeale, Daniel, ed. and trans. Fichte: Early Philosophical Writings. Ithaca, N.Y., 1988.

——. Foundations of Transcendental Philosophy (Wissenschaftslehre) nova methodo (1796/99). Ithaca, N.Y., 1992.

——. Introductions to the Wissenschaftslehre and Other Writings, 1797–1800. Indianapolis, 1994.

——. The Popular Works of Johann Gottlieb Fichte. 2 vols. Bristol, U.K., 1999.

Breazeale, Daniel, and Günter Zöller, eds. and trans. System of Ethics. Cambridge, U.K., 2005.

Heath, Peter, and John Lachs. Science of Knowledge. Cambridge, U.K., 1982.

Neuhouser, Frederick, ed. Foundations of Natural Right: According to the Principles of Wissenschaftslehre. Translated by Michael Baur. Cambridge, U.K., 2005.

Wright, Walter E., ed. and trans. The Science of Knowing: J. G. Fichte's 1804 Lectures on the Wissenschaftslehre. Albany, N.Y., 2005.

Daniel Breazeale

Johann Gottlieb Fichte

views updated May 17 2018

Johann Gottlieb Fichte

The German philosopher of ethical idealism Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) posited the spiritual activity of an "infinite ego" as the ground of self and world. He believed that human life must be guided by the practical maxims of philosophy.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte was born Rammenau on May 19, 1762, the son of a Saxon peasant. As a child, he impressed a visiting nobleman, Baron Miltitz, who adopted him and had him schooled at Pforta. In 1780 he became a student of theology at the University of Jena and later studied at Wittenberg and Leipzig. He soon assimilated three major ideas that became the foundations of his own philosophy: Spinoza's pantheism, Lessing's concept of striving, and Kant's concept of duty.

Zurich Years

Fichte's patron died in 1788, leaving him destitute and jobless, but Fichte was able to obtain a position as tutor in Zurich, where he met Johanna Rahn, whom he would marry in 1794. Having unsuccessfully tried to make his mark in the world of letters, he finally succeeded in 1792, when he wrote his Versuch einer Kritik aller Offenbarung (Critique of All Revelation), an application of Kant's ethical principle of duty to religion. Since this work was published anonymously, it was believed to be Kant's; but Kant publicly praised Fichte as the author, earning him the attention of Goethe and the other great minds at the court of Weimar.

Teaching at Jena

In 1794, through the influence of Goethe, Fichte was offered a professorship at Jena, where he proved an impassioned, dynamic teacher. He was a short, strongly built man with sharp, commanding features. His language had a cryptic ring; to Madame de Staël he once remarked, "Grasp my metaphysics, Madame; you will then understand my ethics."

Fichte displayed a strong moral concern for the lives of his students; he criticized the fraternities and gave public lectures on university life, which were published as Einige Vorlesungen über die Bestimmung des Gelehrten (1794; The Vocation of the Scholar). Despite all this extracurricular activity, Fichte developed his basic system, the Wissenschaftslehre, the doctrine of knowledge and metaphysics, in two works, über de Begriff der Wissenschaftslehreand Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre (both 1794). Since he was obsessively concerned with the clarity of his writings, these works were later revised and published in several different versions in his lifetime (the English translation was entitled The Science of Knowledge).

Metaphysics and Ethics

Fichte's metaphysics is called subjective idealism because it bases the reality of the self and the empirical world on the spiritual activity of an infinite ego. From the principle of the infinite ego, Fichte deduced the finite ego, or subject, and the non-ego, or object. This split, or "oppositing," between subject and object cannot be overcome through knowledge. Only through moral striving and the creation of a moral order can the self be reunited with the infinite ego. The System der Sittenlehre nach den Principien der Wissenschaftslehre (1798; The Science of Ethics as Based on the Science of Knowledge) expresses the necessity of moral striving in the formula, "If I ought I can." Even God is identified with the moral order in the essay "On the Ground of Our Belief in a Divine World Order" (1798). Fichte was wont to claim that in his own life "he created God every day."

Charges of Atheism

Because of his radical political ideas and his intense moral earnestness, Fichte attracted the hostility of several groups: fraternity students, monarchists, and the clergy. The last group charged Fichte with atheism, since he had stated that "there can be no doubt that the notion of God as a separate substance is impossible and contradictory." He refused to compromise with his critics, even publicly attacking their idolatry of a personal God, and was forced to leave Jena in 1799.

Berlin and Later Writings

These years of professional insecurity did not diminish Fichte's philosophical activity. He produced a popular account of his philosophy in Die Bestimmung des Menschen (1800; The Vocation of Man). In Der geschlossene Handelsstaat (1800; The Closed Commercial State) he argued for state socialism, and in Grundzüge der Gegenwärtigun Zeitalters (1806; Characteristics of the Present Age) he presented his philosophy of history. Fichte's metaphysics became more theologically oriented in Die Anweisung zum seligen Leben, order Religionslehre (1806; The Way towards the Blessed Life). But his most memorable accomplishment during the time of the siege of Napoleon was his Reden au die deutsche Nation (Addresses to the German Nation), given in the winter of 1807-1808. These speeches rallied the German people on the cultural and educational "leadership of humanity."

In 1810, after teaching two terms at the universities of Erlangen and Königsberg, Fichte was appointed dean of the philosophy faculty and later rector of the University of Berlin. But Napoleon's siege of Berlin was to cut short his new teaching career. Johanna, his wife, nursing the wounded, fell ill with typhus and recovered; Fichte, however, succumbed to the disease and died on Jan. 27, 1814. His philosophy was quickly superseded by the philosophies of Schelling and Hegel.

Further Reading

William Smith provided an extensive memoir of Fichte's life in his translation of The Popular Works of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (2 vols., 1848-1849; 4th ed. 1889). A study of an important aspect of Fichte's work is H. C. Engelbrecht, Johann Gottlieb Fichte: A Study of His Political Writings with Special Reference to His Nationalism (1933). For general accounts of Fichte's philosophy, the best sources in English are Robert Adamson, Fichte (1881; repr. 1969); Ellen Bliss Talbot, The Fundamental Principle of Fichte's Philosophy (1906); and Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 7 (1946; new ed. 1963). Recommended for the historical background of idealism are Josiah Royce, The Spirit of Modern Philosophy (1892; repr. 1967), and John Herman Randall, The Career of Philosophy, vol. 2 (1965). □

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