Johann Gottlieb Fichte
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Fichte, Johann Gottlieb
Born May 19, 1762, in Rammenau; died Jan. 29, 1814, in Berlin. German philosopher and public figure associated with the school of German classical idealism.
The son of peasants, Fichte studied at the universities of Jena and Leipzig. His essay Toward a Critique of All Possible Revelation, written under the influence of I. Kant and published anonymously in 1792, was taken as Kant’s own work and highly praised. Another work by Fichte, in defense of freedom of thought, reflected the influence on him of the French Revolution. Accused of espousing atheism, Fichte was forced to leave his post at the University of Jena, where he was a professor from 1794 to 1799. In 1800 he moved to Berlin. In 1810 he was appointed professor of the University of Berlin, and he served as its rector from 1810 to 1812.
Fichte believed, as Kant did, that philosophy must serve as the foundation of all the sciences; this concept was the subject of his major work, The Science of Knowledge (1794), which he revised many times over the course of his life. Fichte’s science, or system, of knowledge was to proceed from a single basic principle; the authenticity of the entire system would derive from the authenticity of this basic principle. Here Fichte comes close to the classical rationalism of the 17th century. Following Kant, Fichte presents his own system of critical philosophy as opposed to previous systems, which are viewed as dogmatic: dogmatism, according to Fichte, proceeds from things, or substances, from which it attempts to deduce all that is real, including consciousness itself; criticism, on the other hand, proceeds from consciousness, from which the world and all its attributes are deduced. This being the starting point of his philosophy, Fichte was characterized by Lenin as “a classical representative of subjective idealism” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 18, pp. 64–65).
Lying at the foundation of Fichte’s philosophy is the conviction that one’s active practical relation to an object precedes the contemplative theoretical one. This is what distinguishes Fichte from Descartes in presenting self-awareness, or consciousness of the self, as the first self-reliant principle of knowledge: for Fichte, consciousness is not given but self-imposed; it engenders itself; its evidence rests not in contemplation but in action; it is not perceived by the intellect—rather, it is asserted by the will. What is demanded by Fichte is the acknowledgment of one’s ego, which is created by this very act of consciousness. Through this act, the individual gives birth to his own spirit and creates his own freedom. The individual “in nature” lacks constancy: the inclinations of his senses, his motivations, and his moods are always changing and dependent on other things. He frees himself from these external delimitations in the act of self-awareness: his self-identification—“I am I”—results from the free action of the self. Self-determination is posited as a task or a demand on the subject, who must eternally strive toward its fulfillment. A contradiction is apparent here: self-awareness, which Fichte holds to be the basis of his system, is at the same time an infinitely receding goal which the self has yet to achieve. In Fichte’s system this contradiction is consciously taken as the point of departure; the system, in fact, stands on the consistent elaboration of this contradiction with the aid of the dialectical method.
Fichte’s system is circular in structure, its very beginning containing its own end; all movement toward completion simultaneously leads back to the starting point. The Kantian principle of the autonomy of the will, whereby practical reason furnishes its own law, is transformed into the universal principle of Fichte’s entire system. Having thus overcome the dualism of the Kantian doctrine, Fichte sets himself the further task of deriving theoretical reason—or nature—from the principle of practical reason—freedom. Fichte’s cognition is merely a subordinate instance within the unity of practical moral activity. All reality, according to Fichte, is the product of the acting self; it is the science of knowledge that must show how and why such activity necessarily takes on objective form. Since he denies that a “thing-in-itself’ can exist independently of consciousness, Fichte is compelled in effect to introduce two separate selves, or egos: one of these is identical to the individual consciousness, while the other one (the “absolute ego,” as Fichte called it) is not identical to it. Although in certain respects this Fichtean differentiation coincides with the Kantian differentiation between empirical and transcendental consciousness, Fichte’s absolute ego, taken as a whole, goes far beyond the framework of Kant’s transcendental consciousness, frequently taking upon itself the functions of an absolute. In Fichte the individual ego at times fully coincides with the absolute ego, while at other times the two are split asunder; this alternate coinciding and falling apart is at the core of Fichte’s dialectic seen as the moving principle of thought. Together with the self-aware ego (“I am”), its opposite is posited—the non-ego. These opposites can coexist in a single self only through their reciprocal limitation—that is, by partially nullifying one another; the ego and the non-ego can only be conceived in relation to each other. If the ego is defined by means of the non-ego, the subject is seen in the theoretical aspect; if the opposite is the case, in the practical. The science of knowledge is correspondingly divided into theoretical and practical.
The principal task of the theoretical science of knowledge is, first, to explain the factual presence of the non-ego and, next, to present the theoretical ego in all its forms (such as sensation, contemplation, and understanding), deriving them from a single principle. Fichte accomplishes this task by assuming that it is the ego’s unconscious activity, effected by the productive capacity of the imagination, which produces all that is contained in the theoretical consciousness. According to Fichte, all things that are independent of consciousness are the product of the unconscious activity of the imagination and of the latter’s delimitations, which appear to consciousness under various aspects—such as sensation, contemplation, conception, understanding, and reason, and even time, space, and the entire system of categories of the theoretical ego. The positing of these limitations as well as the assumption of a theoretical ego are prerequisites for the existence of a practical ego, by whom goals are both set forth and realized; the active ego requires a content in its activity, problems to be solved, and obstacles to be overcome.
The Fichtean ego’s activity is thus absolute; it sets itself its own problems, albeit unconsciously. The ego that sets up obstacles and the ego that overcomes them know nothing about each other. The world engendered by the unconscious activity of the absolute ego is not an independent entity: nature is only matter—an object or an obstacle to be overcome; it has no independent existence and is worth nothing in itself. By overcoming each successive obstacle the practical subject, unconsciously at first, comes ever closer to self-identity. According to Fichte, the ideal of all social movement and development is the coinciding of the individual and the absolute ego; this necessarily involves conscious awareness that the entire sphere of objects surrounding man is merely the product of the ego’s own activity, set apart from the ego and constituting the ego’s external reality. This ideal, however, can never be fully realized, since its achievement would cause the cessation of activity; for Fichte, activity is an absolute, and all human history is but an endless striving toward the ideal.
In his final period, beginning in the mid-1800’s, Fichte substantively modified his theory, no longer endowing activity with a universal meaning. While he had previously identified morality with activity and had viewed the good—in accordance with the Protestant ethic—as being principally determined through action, he was now inclined to separate activity from the principle of morality. Both the content of the absolute ego and its connection with the finite individual were given a new interpretation. The absolute ego had formerly been regarded as the unattainable goal of the individual subject’s activity—the potential infinitude of such activity—and this activity itself as in effect the only existing reality. Now the absolute was considered to have actual being, while the activity of the finite ego was newly interpreted as the image of the latter; outside of the absolute, the image in itself has no reality. Thus Fichte’s evolving philosophy resulted in the splitting of goodness and activity—a split which he persistently strove to mend.
Fichte’s sociopolitical views underwent a substantive evolution: from his early attraction to the ideals of the French Revolution he went on to develop the idea of nationality as a collective personality with a particular mission. This concept, elaborated by Fichte at the time of the struggle against Napoleon, found expression in his Addresses to the German Nation (1808), in which he called on his countrymen to unite. In Fichte’s opinion, the strengthening of moral convictions and the reform of education were means for achieving political independence. He held that nations must cultivate an awareness of their own destiny and higher duty. The idea that each nation has its assigned destiny is given its fullest expression in Fichte’s philosophy of history. The history of mankind, according to Fichte, is the process of development from a state of primitive innocence, or of the unconscious rule of reason, through the universal decline and profound decay that characterized Fichte’s own time, to the conscious reign of reason. The most important role in this process was assigned by Fichte to philosophy, which alone can ensure the individual’s conscious subordination to moral laws.
Fichte’s philosophy greatly influenced the German classical idealists—the early thought of F. W. Schelling and, in part, G. Hegel—as well as the philosophical and aesthetic ideas of the Jena romantics. Subsequently Schelling and Hegel, going beyond Fichte’s subjective idealism, criticized various aspects of his philosophy. A critical appraisal of Fichte’s philosophy can be found in the classic works of Marxism, which demonstrate that Fichte’s subject is the “metaphysically disguised spirit separated from nature” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 2, p. 154).
WORKSSämtliche Werke, vols. 1–8. Berlin, 1845–46.
Werke, vols. 1–6. Leipzig, 1908–12.
Briefwechsel, vols. 1–2. Leipzig, 1925.
In Russian translation:
Naznachenie cheloveka. St. Petersburg, 1905.
Osnovnye cherty sovremennoi epokhi. St. Petersburg, 1906.
Izbr. soch., vols. 1. [Moscow] 1916.
Zamknutoe torgovoe gosudarstvo. Moscow, 1923.
O naznachenii uchenogo. Moscow, 1935.
Iasnoe, kak solntse, soobshchenie shirokoi publike o podlinnoi sushchnosti noveishei filosofii. Moscow, 1937.
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Voprosy filosofii i psikhologii, 1914, book 122(2).
Vysheslavtsev, B. Etika Fikhte. Moscow, 1914.
Oizerman, T. I. Filosofiia Fikhte. Moscow, 1962.
Lask, E. Fichtes ldealismus und die Geschichte. Tübingen, 1914.
Léon, X. Fichte et son temps, vols. 1–2. Paris, 1922–27.
Medicus, F. Fichtes Leben, 2nd ed. Leipzig, 1922.
Heimsoeth, H. Fichte. Munich, 1923.
Ritzel, W. Fichte’s Religionsphilosophie. Stuttgart, 1956.
Willms, B. Die totale Freiheit: Fichte’s politische Philosophic. Cologne, 1967.
Schulte, G. Die Wissenschaftslehre des späten Fichte. Frankfurt am Main, 1971.
Schurr, A. Philosophic als System bei Fichte, Schelling und Hegel. Stuttgart–Bad Cannstatt, 1974.
P. P. GAIDENKO