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Johann Gottlieb Fichte


FICHTE, JOHANN GOTTLIEB German philosopher, was born at Rammenau in Upper Lusatia on May 19, 1762, the son of a ribbon-weaver. After attending the cele brated school at Pforta, near Naumburg, he entered the university of Jena, but in 1781 went to Leipzig. During 1784-87 he acted as tutor in various families of Saxony, going to Zurich in 1788.

In 179o, he settled at Leipzig, and though reduced to literary drudgery, produced his Aphorismen fiber Religion and Deismus (unpublished, date 179o; Werke, i. 1-8), a species of Spinozistic determinism, regarded, however, as lying altogether outside the boundary of religion.

Fichte's Letters of this period attest the influence exercised on him by the study of Kant. The Kantian doctrine of the inherent moral worth of man harmonized with his own character, and his life became an effort to perfect a true philosophy, and to make its principles practical maxims. An abridgement of the Kritik der Urtheilskra f t in a popular, intelligible form was begun, but left unfinished. A post as private tutor in Warsaw having proved un suitable after a fortnight's trial, Fichte set out for Konigsberg to see Kant. His first interview was disappointing, and he resolved to bring himself to the notice of the aged philosopher by a work in which the principles of the Kantian philosophy should be applied. Such was the origin of Versucheiner Kritik oiler O ff enbarung (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. From the Critique of Pure Reason it was clear that for Kant 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. Kant having approved the essay and exerted his influence to procure a publisher, it appeared . By an oversight Fichte's name on the title-page and the preface in which he spoke of himself as a beginner in philosophy, were omitted. The work was universally ascribed to Kant who, while correcting the mistake, commended the work, and Fichte's reputation was 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 require ments 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. The super natural element in religion can only be the divine character of the moral law. Now, the revelation of this divine character of mor ality 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 want of the pure ego. In this conclusion we see 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. Having reached this point he had to press forward and leave the Kantian position.

Shortly after his marriage in 1793, Fichte published anony mously two remarkable political works, Zuriick f orderung der Denk f reiheit von den Fidrsten Europas and Beitrage zur Berichti gang der Urtheile des Publicums uber die f ranzosische Revolution. Of these the latter, which is much the more important, aimed to direct attention to the true nature of the French 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 con sequent necessity of reform or amendment. As in the Critique of Revelation so here the rational nature of man and the conditions necessary for its realization become the standard for critical judgment.

Towards the close of 1793 Fichte was called to succeed Rein hold at Jena as professor of philosophy. His success was instan taneous, and he lectured not only to his own class, but on general moral subjects to all students of the university. These general addresses, published as 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 in cumbent on those who had received it. The completed Fichtean philosophy is contained in the writings of this period at Jena. A general introduction to the system is given in Uber den Begriff der Wissenschaftslehre (On the Notion of the Theory of Science), and the theoretical portion is worked out in the Grundlage der gesammten Wissenschaftslehre (Foundation of the whole The ory of Science, 1794) and Grundriss des Eigenthumlichen d. Wissenschaftslehre (Outline of what is peculiar in the Theory of Science, 1794)• To these were added in 1797 the masterly First and Second Introduction to the Theory of Science, and an Essay towards a new Exposition of the Theory of Science. 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 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. In 1798 Fichte, who had edited the Philo sophical Journal since 1795, received from his friend F. K. For berg (17 7 o-1848) an essay on the "Development of the Idea of Religion." With much of the essay he entirely agreed, but think ing the exposition in many ways defective and calculated to create an erroneous impression, 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 Sax ony, followed by all the German states except Prussia, suppressed the Journal and demanded Fichte's expulsion from Jena. After his defences (Appellation an das Publicum gegen die Anklage des Atheismus, and Gerichtliche Verantwortung der Herausgeber der Phil. Zeitschri f t, 1 799) Fichte threatened to resign in case of reprimand and much to his discomfort, his threat was taken as a request to resign.

Except for the summer of 1805 at Erlangen where he lectured, Fichte resided from 1799 to 1805 in Berlin, surrounded by friends, including Schlegel and Schleiermacher, and perfecting the Wissenschaftslehre. The chief works from this period are Bestim mung des Mensclien (Vocation of Man, 1800), a book notable for beauty of style, richness of content, and elevation of thought ; Der geschlossene Handelsstaat, 1800 (The Exclusive or Isolated Commercial State), a remarkable treatise, intensely socialist in tone, and inculcating organized protection; and Sonnenklarer Be richt an das grossere Publicum uber die neueste Philosophie, 18oI. In 18o1 was also written the Darstellung der Wissenschaftslehre, published after his death. In 1804 were delivered the lectures en titled Grundzuge des gegenwartigen Zeitalters (Characteristics of the Present Age, 1804), containing a most admirable analysis of the Auf klarung, tracing the position of such a movement of thought in the natural evolution of the general human consciousness, point ing 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. 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, and the knowledge and love of God declared to be the end of life. 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 French victories over the Prussians in 18o6 drove Fichte from Berlin to Konigsberg (where he lectured for a time), then to Copenhagen, whence he returned to the capital in Aug. 1807. From this time his published writings are practical in character; not till after the appearance of the Nachgelassene Werke was the shape of his final speculations known. We may here note the order of these posthumous writings as important for tracing the develop ment of Fichte's thought. From 1806 we have the remarkable Bericht uber die Wissenschaftslehre (Werke, vol. viii.), with its sharp critique of Schelling and from 181 o the Thatsachen des Bewusstseyns (published 1817) of which another treatment is given in lectures of 1813 (Nach. Werke, vol. i.). Of the Wissen schaftslehre we have, in 1812-13, four separate treatments con tained in the Nach. Werke. Perhaps the most interesting are the lectures of 1812 on Transcendental Logic (Nach. Werke, i. io6 400) From 1812 we have notes of two courses on practical philoso phy, Rechtslehre (Nach. Werke, vol. ii.) and Sittenlelire (ib. vol. iii.). A finished work in the same department is the Staatslehre (published 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 a plan for the proposed new university of Berlin, and in 1807-08 delivered at Berlin his noble addresses to the German people (Reden an die deutsche Nation), full of practical views on the only true foundation for national prosperity. From 1810 to 1812 he was rector of the new Berlin University.

During the great effort of Germany for national independence in 1813, Fichte lectured on the idea of a true war (Uber dens Begriff eines wahrha f ten Kriegs, forming part of the Staats lehre). At the beginning of 1814, he was attacked with a virulent hospital fever and died on Jan. 27, 1814. The philosophy of Fichte falls chronologically into the periods of Jena and Berlin. although there is no fundamental difference of philosophic concep tion. It is demonstrable by various passages in the works and letters that he never looked upon the early JVissenschaf tslehre as containing his whole system; the modifications supposed to be due to other thinkers were from the first implicit in his theory. On only one point, the position assigned in the Wissenscha f tslehre to the absolute ego, is there any obscurity; but the relative passages are far from decisive, and from the early work, Neue Darstellung der Wissenscha f tslehre, unquestionably of 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 Wissenschaf tslehre; (c) the connection with the later writings. The most important works for (a) are the "Review of Aenesidemus," and the Second Introduction to the Wissenschaf tslehre; for (b) the great treatises of the Jena period; for (c) the Thatsachen des Bewusstseyns of I8Io.

(a) The Kantian system had opened up a truly fruitful line of philosophic speculation, the transcendental consideration of know ledge, 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 Kant made no attempt to show that the said special conditions were necessary from the very nature of consciousness. Their necessity was discovered and proved in a manner which might be called empirical. Moreover, while Kant in a similar manner pointed out that intuition had spe cial conditions, space and time, he did not show any connection between these and the primitive conditions of pure cognition. Closely connected with this remarkable Kantian defect was the doctrine that the matter of cognition is altogether given, and to be referred to the action upon us of a Ding-an-sich, absolutely beyond consciousness. While these hints towards a completely in telligible 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.

To the criticisms of Kant's theory of knowledge by Schultze (Aenesidemus) and Maimon, Fichte owed much, but his own activity went far beyond what they supplied. To complete Kant's work, to demonstrate that all the necessary conditions of knowl edge can be deduced from a single principle, and consequently to expound the complete system of reason, that is the business of the ll issenschaf tslehre. By it the theoretical and practical reason shall he 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 cog nition, 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 com pletely suppressed, and he was thus driven to the higher view explicitly stated in the later writings.

(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 JV issensclia f ts lelire, 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. It is the complete statement of the pure principles of the under standing in their rational or necessary order. But if complete, this lWissenschaf tslehre must be able to deduce the whole organism of cognition from certain primary axioms, themselves incapable of proof ; only thus can we have a system of reason.

Of such primitive principles only three are thinkable—one per fectly unconditioned both in form and matter; a second, uncon ditioned in form but not in matter; a third, unconditioned in matter but not in form. Of these, the first to some extent con ditions the other two, though these cannot be deduced from it or proved by it. The statement of these principles forms the intro duction to Wissenschaftslehre.

The primitive condition of all intelligence is that the ego shall affirm or be aware of itself. This is the first pure act by which con sciousness 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. 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 word as we know it—is op-posed in con sciousness to the 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 contradic tion is solved in a higher synthesis, which takes up into itself the two opposites. The ego and non-ego limit one another, or deter mine 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 opposi tions contained in the fundamental synthesis, by uniting these opposites, and analysing the new synthesis until we reach an ulti mate 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 theo retical, as determining it is practical; ultimately the opposed prin ciples must be united by showing how the ego is both determin ing and determined.

It is impossible to enter here on the steps by which the theo retical ego is shown to develop into the complete system of cog nitive categories, or to trace the deduction of the processes (productive imagination, intuition, sensation, understanding, judg ment, reason) by which the indefinite non-ego comes to assume the appearance of definite objects in the forms of time and space. All this evolution is the 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 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 op-positing of the Anstoss is the necessary condition of the prac tical ego, of the will. If the ego be a striving power, then of neces sity a limit must be set by which its striving is manifest. But how can the infinitely active ego posit a limit to its 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, it can only become ai,yare 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 any thing beyond itself ; it cannot be aware of its own freedom other wise than as determined by other free egos. Thus in the Rechts lehre and Sittenlehre, the multiplicity of egos is deduced, and with this deduction the first form of the W issensclia f tslehre 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 conditions of consciousness of freedom. But all this is the work of the ego, and 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. In 1800 Fichte in 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. More precise utterances are given in the Thatsachen des Bewusstseyps and in the later lectures. In them God 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 do not make part of the being of the one life, but are a pure form of its abso lute freedom." "The individual is not conscious of himself, but the Life is conscious of itself in individual form and as an indi vidual." In order that the Life may act, though it is not necessary that it should act, individualization is necessary. "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" (T hats. des Bewuss. W erke, ii. 685).

It will escape no one (I) how the idea and method of the Wissenschaftslehre prepare the way for the later Hegelian dia lectic, and (2) how completely the 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 given so little notice.


complete works were published by his Bibliography.-Fichte's complete works were published by his son J. H. Fichte, Sammtliche Werke (8 vols., Berlin, 1845), with Nachgelassene Werke (3 vols., Bonn, 1834) ; also Leben and Brief wechsel (2 vols., 1830, ed. 1862). (Fichtes Briefwechsel ed. H. Schultz, 2 vols. Leipzig, 1925.) Among translations are those of W. Smith, Popular Writings of Fichte, with Memoir (2 vols., 1848) ; A. E. Kroeger, portions of the Wissenschaftslehre (Science of Knowledge, 1889), the Naturrecht (Science of Rights, 1889) ; of the Vorlesunten d. Bestimmung d. Gelehrten (The Vocation of the Scholar, by W. Smith, 1847) ; The Vocation of Man, by W. Smith (1848) ; Address to the German Nation by R. F. Jones and G. H. Turnbull (London, 1922).

See F. Medicus, Fichtes Leben, 2nd ed. (Leipzig, 1922) ; W. Busse, Fichte and seine Beziehung zur Gegenwart des deutschen V olkes (Halle, 1848) ; J. H. Lowe, Die Philosophie Fichtes (Stuttgart, 1862) ; L. Noack, Fichte flack seinem Leben, Lehren and Wirken (Leipzig, 1862) ; R. Adamson, Fichte (1881, in Knight's "Philosophical Classics") ; O. Benzow, Zu Fichtes Lehre von Nicht-Ich (Bern, 1898) ; E. O. Burmann, Die Transcendentalphilosophie Fichtes and Schellings (Upsala, 189o) ; C. C. Everett, Fichte's Science of Knowledge (Chicago, 1884) ; E. Hirsch, Christentum u. Gesch. in Fichtes Philosophie (1920) ; W. Kabitz, Studien zur Entwickelungsgeschichte der Fichteschen Wissenschaftslehre aus der Kantischen Philosophie (1902) ; E. Lask, Fichtes Idealismus (1902) ; X. Leon, Fichte et son Temps, 2 vols., 1922, M. Wiener, J. G. Fichtes Lehre vom Wesen and Inhalt der Geschichte (1906) .

On Fichte's social philosophy see F. Schmidt-Warneck, Die Sociologie Fichtes (Berlin, 2884) ; W. Windelband, Fichtes Idee des deutschen Staates (189o) ; M. Weber, Fichtes Sozialismus and sein Verhaltnis zur Marx'schen Doctrin (190o) ; S. H. Gutman, J. G. Fichtes Sozial padogogik (1907) ; H. Lindau, Fichte and der neuere Socialismus (190o) ; R. Strecker, Fichtes Staatsphilosophie (1917) ; G. H. Turnbull, The Educational Theory of Fichte (Liverpool, 1926) . A complete bibliography is given in Ueberweg, Grand. der Gesch. der Phil. (pt. 4, 1916) .

ego, fichtes, der, philosophy, practical, cognition and non-ego