Fichte, Johann Gotlieb

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Fichte, Johann Gotlieb (1762-1814): German Philosopher.

J. G. Fichte was a German Idealist philosopher. His philosophy, and in particular, his account of the ego in terms of activity, would have an important influence on idealist’s like Hegel and Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph, as well as contemporary philosophical movements, like phenomenology and existentialism.

Fichte was born in Rammenau, Lusatia (Germany). As the son of a ribbon maker, Fichte was born into a family of little financial means. Nevertheless Fichte’s extraordinary intellectual talents drew the attention of a local baron who sponsored his educational needs. Fichte attended the celebrated preparatory school Pforta, and then the Universities of Jena, Wittenberg, and Leipzig. In 1784, however, financial hardship forced him to terminate his studies at Leipzig before finishing his degree in theology and take up a private tutoring post. He would have many different tutoring posts over much of the next decade and lived in continuous hardship hoping to save enough to return to the university to finish his degree.

Fichte’s luck would change, however, with the help of Kant, Immanuel. Although Fichte was at first unable to get the attention of the great philosopher, his command of Kantian philosophy became clear in the composition of a manuscript he sent to him. After reading this manuscript, an Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation, Kant was so impressed he recommended it for publication. It was published anonymously. Everyone assumed it was a work of Kant, Germany’s most renowned philosopher at the time. When it was revealed to be Fichte’s essay, he gained instant recognition. Having caught the interest of Goethe, Johann Wolfgang as well, in 1794 Fichte was finally offered a university post in Jena. At first things in Jena went well. His popularity as lecturer began to grow, and he began to establish the basis for his life long philosophical project of the Wissenschaftslehre (the Science of Knowledge), with a publication of a first version of it in 1794. His radical political and religious views, in combination with his unyielding personality, soon got him into trouble. Fichte’s articulation of God in the Critique of All Revelation, primarily as a moral dynamic of community, led to charges of pantheism and ultimately atheism. With the ecclesiastics against him, and much of the aristocracy leery of his vigorous support of the ideals of the French Revolution, Fichte had few friends in high places. Further, his unwillingness to compromise assured that this Atheismustreit could not be resolved, and in 1799 he was forced to leave the university. Fichte would not secure another permanent university position until 1810 at the newly established University of Berlin. In 1812 and 1813 both he and his wife took part in the national campaign against Bonaparte, Napoleon. During this time his spouse contracted typhus, and although she recovered from it, he fell ill and died in 1814.

Fichte’s philosophy is widely regarded as a philosophy of the “I”. What this means is that Fichte would continue the Kantian project of transcendental philosophy by radicalizing the world constituting of power of self-conscious subjectivity. Kant’s Copernican Revolution argued that the world was not merely encountered, but in part organized and constructed by human consciousness. Fichte’s notion of the “self-positing I” stands as an absolute act of autonomy in which the I posits itself. This account, of course, can be understood to have both ethical and epistemological significance. Epistemologically, from the perspective of knowing, the self is wholly creative: it constitutes its world. Consequently, action and knowledge are intimately bound. Ethically, or morally, this notion of a self-creating absolute I stands as an ideal of pure autonomy towards which one ought to strive. Yet as Fichte’s critics, like Schelling, were quick to point out (and as he was well aware), the radical autonomy of the I stands precisely as an ideal because although the I is self-determining it is not self-creating.

Apart from his lifelong project of the Wissenschaftslehre, Fichte’s interest in the relation between knowledge, action, and subjectivity would also lead him to more political and public writings, like the Grounding of Natural Right (1796) and his public lecture “Addresses to the German Nation”. His work had enormous influence on Romanticism and German Idealism and also had a significant impact on Twentieth Century theorists like Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, and others.

Further Reading:

Robert B. Pippen, “Fichte’s Contribution,” Philosophical Forum 19 (1987-88): 74-96.

F. Scott Scribner

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