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 Wissenschaftslehre and 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 on Johann Gottlieb Fichte

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).