Johann Gottlieb Fichte (May 19, 1762 - January 27, 1814) was a German philosopher who gained his position in the history of Western philosophy by opening the way to German Idealism, based on the work of Immanuel Kant. The systems of Schelling and Hegel would further develop his key insight that Kant’s notion of an unknowable thing in itself should be discarded and that the pure Ego, perceived through intellectual intuition, should be the starting point of philosophy. Fichte thus served as the direct link between the critical philosophy of Kant and the speculative world of German idealism.
Fichte must be credited with reintroducing the idea of a direct contact of the self with ultimate reality, thus bypassing the agnostic conclusions of Kant without reverting to the traditional dogmatism of metaphysical systems. However, in spite of his repeated efforts to clarify his point of view, Fichte was unable to overcome the ambiguities surrounding his notion of the Ego, or I and his system is not free of the somewhat inflated claims typical of German Idealism.
Fichte was born in Rammenau, Saxony. In 1780, he attended the University of Jena as a student of theology. Fichte was originally a follower of Baruch Spinoza, was influenced by Lessing’s ideas on tolerance, but later followed Kant's philosophy. In spite of his lack of financial means, Fichte was able to secure a good education thanks to his exceptional talents. After completing his studies at Leipzig, Fichte was forced for economic reasons to accept a position as tutor in Zürich, were he subsequently married. There he also became familiar with Kant’s philosophy. Upon his return to Germany, Fichte visited Kant in Königsberg. Hoping to open the doors of the man he admired, Fichte wrote an Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation that was published anonymously in 1792. Scholars mistakenly thought Kant himself wrote the essay. Kant cleared the confusion and openly praised the work, which greatly improved Fichte's reputation in the philosophical community.
In 1794, Fichte was appointed professor of philosophy at the University of Jena, where his lectures soon became very popular. However, his philosophical ideas also came to be known as having pantheistic, even atheistic tendencies, which led to the so-called “Atheismusstreit” (atheism controversy). Under pressure from the Lutheran establishment, he eventually had to give up his position. In 1804, Fichte was given a chair of philosophy at the University of Erlangen. When Napoleon invaded Prussia, he delivered the now famous series of his “Addresses to the German Nation” (1806-7). Later, he would become dean of the philosophical faculty of the newly founded University of Berlin, and briefly even served as the university’s rector, an administrative task he disliked.
At age 51, during the Napoleonian war, Fichte contracted typhus from his wife who was volunteering as a nurse. She recovered under his care, but he then died from the sickness.
His son Immanuel Hermann Fichte also made contributions to philosophy.
Though Fichte wrote his early Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation in hopes of pleasing Kant, and though this work perfectly fits his master’s vision, it is beyond a doubt that it also reflected Fichte’s personal views. From the onset, Fichte’s orientation was towards ethics, and that is why he felt at home in Kant’s moral philosophy. In his critique or revelation, Fichte insists that revelation is only acceptable to the extent that it is in conformity with moral law – a view that may seem obvious and innocuous, but that had the potential of eliminating much of the biblical content as incompatible with the categorical imperative as understood by Kant and Fichte.
Fichte’s point of departure from Kant and the beginning of his own thought is linked to the Kantian notion of the “thing in itself” or “noumenon.” The transition involved here, namely that between Kant’s critical philosophy and German Idealism, is vital to explain how Kant’s minimalism – we cannot reach any ultimate, theoretical knowledge in the strictest sense – could lead so soon to a series of speculative systems whose claims to universal knowledge have exceeded anything ever presented in the history of human thought.
For Fichte, Kant’s retention of the thing in itself (noumenon), unknowable but nevertheless affirmed, was a leftover of dogmatism that had no place in his critical philosophy. Thus, Fichte made the radical suggestion that we should throw out the notion of a noumenal world and instead accept the fact that consciousness does not have grounding in a so-called "real world." In fact, Fichte achieved fame for originating the argument that consciousness is not grounded in anything outside of itself. This notion eventually became the defining characteristic of German Idealism and thus an essential underpinning to understanding the philosophies of Schelling and of Hegel, though they both reject Fichte's notion that human consciousness is itself sufficient ground for experience, and therefore postulate another "absolute" consciousness.
Fichte’s line of reasoning has its starting point in his emphasis on ethics, a concern he shared with Kant. For Kant, theoretical knowledge of things in themselves was impossible to the human mind, but practical reason gave us certainty based on moral law. Fichte agreed with Kant that theoretical knowledge of things “as they are” was impossible. But he believed that the pure Ego or I' had the capacity of direct, intellectual intuition, as a moral agent, bypassing sense perception. The ego does not recognize itself as it would recognize an object. It has an immediate awareness of its own moral activity that cannot be further demonstrated. Fichte further believed that this was the natural conclusion of Kant’s own views and that he was merely expressing what Kant actually meant when speaking of the categorical imperative and the “moral law within” that fills us with awe. Kant, however, refused to the end to follow him in this direction, insisting that moral law was purely based on reason.
Thus, for Fichte, ultimate reality is entirely in the subject of moral action, and it is something that the conscious subject has to recognize spontaneously. In that sense, we can understand Fichte’s assertion that the choice of one’s philosophy expresses the kind of man one is. By making this apparently small step beyond Kant, Fichte not only concluded that the self can actually know ultimate reality (within itself), but also that it produces it through moral action. From that starting point, the “knowing self-observation,” Fichte deduced his entire system, the Wissenschaftslehre (‘Theory of Science,’ also translated as ‘Doctrine of Knowledge’). This, however, is not the title of one book, but rather the name of his lifelong project, first introduced in 1794 and later refined and revised in multiple ways (in more than ten different versions).
If the first step is the positing of the I (thesis), the next step occurs when the I discovers itself as limited by the non-I (antithesis) that becomes the object of its moral activity (the outside world). Finally, the mutual limitation of the I and the non-I (synthesis) leads to further determination. Here, we obviously have an anticipation of the Hegelian dialectic. For Fichte, this entire process is the fruit of the free moral activity of the I, which for him is initially given. The logical structure of reality is a product of this reality, not the opposite. The conviction that the world around us is nothing more than a production of our Ego leads to certainty about our human freedom.
This leads to an obvious need of clarification concerning the nature of the I or Ego (das Ich). In his early works, Fichte gave the clear impression that by that he meant the individual self. On a phenomenological level, his approach offers valuable insight into the process by which the self operates, Fichte’s approach being diametrically opposite to that of David Hume and British Empiricists who start from sense perceptions. But Fichte’s intention is more than that of depicting the process of cognition. His aim is metaphysical, i.e., he wants to show how the world is produced by the free moral action of the I. In this context, it is difficult to understand that I as referring to a mere individual self.
Faced with such criticism, Fichte denied this had ever been his intention and his later versions of the Wissenschaftslehre moved more and more towards an understanding of the Ego as universal consciousness, even God, though not the theistic God of Christianity. Fichte made it clear that for him, God could not be more than the moral order itself. Personality as an attribute of the divinity was out of the question as, in his eyes, it implies finitude. In his later years, Fichte in fact spoke less of the Ego and introduced expressions such as creative Life and the Will that better reflect the metaphysical dimension of his considerations. Much of Fichte’s later production is notoriously difficult to understand as he moves more and more towards a speculative vision of the whole of reality and history.
Fichte is also significant for introducing the notion of the nation-state. His vision comes on the foundation laid by the political theories of Rousseau and Kant, but with the passionate input of German idealism in a time where national consciousness was emerging in Germany and elsewhere. As a result, his idea of a world citizenship was much less general than that of his predecessors and it was directly connected with the realization of the nation-state. The interesting point of that position is that the realization of an ideal in actual social and political life is at the same time seen as the actualization of a metaphysical vision. This trend would continue with Hegel.
Fichte develops nationalism in Vocation of Man (1800). In this political philosophy that is a defense of the ethical community of wills, Fichte presents an ethical imperative to work for a community and against chaos. It is a compulsion to act that is a compulsion towards betterment. Each individual has a duty to will an ethical community, a universal cosmopolitan culture. This universal community based on freedom is the goal of human freedom. Fichte posits the intermediate community is the nation-state, a limited community of wills, which is no less ethical and one in which our ethical duty towards national unification is an imperative. Later in his life, Fichte focused increasingly on the German nation and its emerging Reich, rather than on the ideal of a world community. At the same time, Fichte developed his economic philosophy along socialist lines, giving rise to what can be called an early form of “national-socialism,” though obviously far removed from what would later be known under that name.
In 1806, in a Berlin occupied by Napoléon, Fichte gave a series of Addresses to the German Nation (Reden an die deutsche Nation). As their title indicates, Fichte speaks of the “German nation,” even though at that time Germany consisted of many large and small states with no national unity. In an emphatic tone, Fichte argues that the time when all is lost due to past “selfishness” is also the best time for the creation of a new entity, a unified Germany with its own soul.
The early nineteenth century was a time when Germany’s feeling of political and cultural inferiority was being transformed into a new sense of being the chosen nation for the future of European civilization. The flowering of literature (Goethe) and Romanticism gave some justification to that new sense of pride and identity. Germany had also become the unquestionable center of philosophical activity since Leibniz and Kant. At the same time, the German lands still lacked unity and the French army largely occupied them. This partly explains the exalted and intense tone of Fichte’s 14 addresses. Destined to encourage his compatriots living under foreign rule, these addresses speak of the “original German race,” a “new human race” and the greatness of the German language (previously replaced by French or Latin in educated circles), clearly hinting at the development of pan-germanism. Fichte’s language is no less inflated here than in his philosophical writings. It contains a curious mixture of genuine patriotism, with a stress on moral and cultural education, and statements that can only perceived as excessive from our contemporary perspective. These addresses remain as part of the German heritage, though their prophetic tone has an unpleasantly ominous ring to it in the light of events that followed. For better and for worse, these addresses became an incentive for German nationalism.
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