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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


FICHTE

(1762 — 1814)

 

ETHICAL IDEALISM

Johann Fichte was the eldest child of a ribbon maker. He was born in Rammenau, Lusatia (Germany) and educated at the famous Pforta School (through the generosity of a baron who had become impressed by his potential), and then at the Universities of Jena, Wittenberg, and Leipzig, studying theology and philosophy. Financially insecure he became a private tutor in 1788 but in 1794 he secured a professorship at Jena as a result of the recommendations of Kant and Goethe. However, his unorthodox views and teaching methods eventually led to his dismissal in 1799. He taught for a short time at Erlangen and Königsberg, and then at Berlin (where he was briefly Rector). He was active in the struggle against Napoleon, but he devoted most of the remainder of his life to his writing. He died in Berlin of typhus.

 

METAPHYSICS

[1] [See The Doctrine of Knowledge.] Fichte's metaphysics is closely connected with his theory of knowledge, ethics, and philosophy of religion. For convenience these several areas will be examined separately. His system arises out of a negative and a positive reaction to Kant. Fichte rejected the idea of an unknowable 'thing-in-itself'; this, he said, leads to dogmatic materialism and determinism. But he was aware of himself as a free, moral being, with an interest in the self rather than in 'things', and understood this as the active, free, Absolute Ego, which is self-affirming intelligence-in-itself, creative thought, and the Absolute moral principle in man. We cannot of course experience this transcendental or pure Ego; it is not an object of consciousness, or indeed a substantial entity at all, but its positing and limiting of itself in the finite ego or individual self is a precondition for the emergence of unified consciousness. It is thus the universal 'I' principle which is active within all consciousnesses. And Fichte claims we have an 'intellectual intuition' of it within the consciousness, and that it is implicit in our actions. He identifies it with a 'doing' (Tun) or activity [a], but this is not an active 'thing' (ein Ttiges). He adopted this as his immediately basic proposition to constitute the certain foundation of his 'doctrine (or theory) of knowledge' [see sec. 2].

Fichte was faced with two problems: how to derive 'objective' consciousness from the self-conscious intelligence-in-itself, and how to account for the world of material objects. His answer to these is his 'phenomenology of consciousness'. He distinguishes three principles or stages. By reflecting on its own consciousness self-determining reason 'deduces' real categories. (1) The pure Ego posits itself. Its positing of itself in intuition constitutes its 'being'; and we refer to this under the category of reality. (2) Now to posit itself as pure or Absolute Ego it must be opposed by a general objectivity: a 'Non-Ego' is 'opposited' to it. Here the category of negation is applicable. It gives rise to, and is a precondition for what he says is the unlimited activity or striving, and moral self-realization of the Absolute Ego. (3) The Ego and the Non-Ego must limit or restrain each other; for if they were unlimited they would cancel each other out and there would be no consciousness at all. We thus reach the category of limitation or finitude. The Ego posits a limited (finite, or divisible) empirical and individual ego in opposition to the limited Non-Ego. This philosophical reconstructing is regarded by Fichte as a practical deduction, in so far as the Absolute Ego, in its positing or determining of the Non-Ego, produces Nature as the ground of ideal actions (involving desire, free choice, and self-activity) [see his System of Ethics]. However, if we think of the Absolute, pure Ego as positing itself and as being limited or determined by the Non-Ego, the deduction is a theoretical one; and it is concerned with 'real' sequences of actions involving, for example, 'ideas' (Vorstellungen) and sensations, but the Non-Ego remains in the realm of consciousness. Fichte stresses that the theoretical deduction is subordinate to the practical [b][b] in that the spiritual Ego strives to realize itself (the 'end') in unlimited activity using the Non-Ego as its 'means'. [See further in sec. 2.]

Fichte also considers formal logic as derivable from philosophy — the fundamental 'science' [c]. [See Foundation of the Entire Doctrine of Knowledge.] Although the laws of general logic in a sense determine how our 'deed-acts' or 'doings' are to be thought, the basic propositions of philosophy are prior to their formalizations in logic. Fichte identifies a corresponding three stage deduction. Firstly, the certainty of the identity 'A = A' exhibits the Ego's positing of itself as identical to itself through its pure activity. (This is the 'absolutely unconditioned fundamental principle'.) Secondly, he derives the 'proposition of oppositing', '– A is not A', (the conditioned fundamental principle — 'with regard to content') which corresponds to the absolute oppositing of the Non-Ego to the Ego. Lastly, he deduces the third fundamental principle (conditioned in its form): 'A (in part) = – A, and – A (in part) = A', which grounds the oppositing of the finite or divisible Non-Ego to a finite Ego.

 

KNOWLEDGE

[2] In his Doctrine of Knowledge Fichte rejects 'dogmatism' [a], according to which consciousness is explained in terms of the empirical realm and mechanical necessity. So in his theory of knowledge he attempts to reconcile our ordinary experience of things in the world with his idealist metaphysics. It consists essentially in an examination of the process of theoretical deduction and its explanation in terms of the practical deduction. There are three stages in the theoretical deduction. Firstly the Absolute Ego produces the forms of intuition of space and time as a result of its "power of productive imagination". The Ego is both passive and active. It is passive in its reception of sensation which give rise to 'subjective modifications' of itself — representations (Vorstellungen) and images (Bilder); and active in so far as it refers sensations to the Non-Ego. Secondly, the understanding (Verstand), through the 'power of judgement' 'fixes' these representations as concepts and then as objects of thought for the understanding. Lastly, through the 'power of absolute abstraction' (reason), the universal is abstracted from particular objects (the Non-Ego), thereby enabling us to reflect on the pure Ego and its productive activity, and thus to expand our self-consciousness. At each stage of this progressive movement from sensation, to space and time, and the categories the lower is apprehended and articulated more fully and clearly by the reason [a], but Fichte says that a complete or pure intellectual intuition is never attained. He then tries to show how the theoretical deduction itself has to be referred back to and underpinned by the practical deduction. Implicit in the Absolute Ego as unlimited striving is a subconscious drive (Trieb), which both exists for the limited empirical Ego as feeling (Gefhl) and constrains it because the Non-Ego is opposing it. This drive then becomes what he calls "an impulse towards the object" and is experienced as force (Kraft) [b]. The impulse, initially experienced as a primitive level of reflection, comes to manifest itself more clearly in distinct desires and acquires more 'satisfactions' through the striving — a striving which can be satisfied, albeit only partially, through moral action. So what Fichte appears to be saying is that the world of appearances, that is, of 'ideas' (Vorstellungen), is qua Nature the manifestation of the objective spiritual reality (which is independent of finite egos and identifiable with the Absolute or unlimited Ego). As deduced theoretically it is consciousness: deduced practically it is passive, 'dead' Nature — knowable only through the individual, empirical ego's moral striving for perfection. Knowledge for Fichte is thus essentially practical [c][c]. It seems to follow also that, (1) given his account of the categories (which in Kant's philosophy belong to the transcendental logic) as belonging to the 'self-oppositing' of the Absolute Ego rather than as transcendentally 'subjective' forms of the individual understanding, and (2) his view that formal logic is grounded in the Doctrine of Knowledge, the distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge 'breaks down' [d]. [Or, rather, perhaps we may say that our experience of things derives from the individual self-consciousness but that both the natural world and individual consciousness are the products of the Absolute Ego's self-positing. Our knowledge of this 'universal Ego' (allgemeinen Ich) is thus at once a priori (with respect to ground) and a posteriori (with respect to content experienced in act). However, this interpretation remains contentious.]

 

ETHICS/ PHILOSOPHY OF MAN

[3] [See The System of Ethics.] If Fichte's metaphysics and theory of knowledge are grounded in the practical realm, what is the basis of his ethics itself? He sees man as a unity — of conscious active being. But the fundamental impulse of striving is, as it were, two-dimensional. On the one hand man is an object, governed by the laws of sense-intuition, determined by nature, concerned with meeting his biological needs, in particular, self-preservation. On the other hand, as self-determining subject, or pure spirit, man exhibits a drive to freedom and independence. Freedom, however, is possible in both realms. Man is formally free in so far as he consciously reflects and chooses to follow his natural impulse. He is materially free if he acts for the sake of freedom, so as to achieve the Ego's independence, or self-realization. Fichte argues that a synthesis is needed, and this can be attained if the former renounces pleasure and the latter its 'purity', that is, its independence from natural objects. He also claims that freedom is inseparable from, and indeed in a sense identical with law [a], in that we cannot think of ourselves as free without at the same time thinking of ourselves as falling under a law, and vice versa. He sets out the central tenets of his ethics on the basis of this account of freedom and law.

The objective world of Nature posited by the Absolute Ego is to be seen, not just as bringing about self-consciousness and as the means for ensuring our self-preservation and material welfare, but also as necessary for us to fulfil ourselves morally, so that we might achieve our end as spiritual, rational self-determining agents through the utilization of external objects. It is by virtue of its role in facilitating the creative expression of the inner spirit and self-realization of the will that labour acquires dignity [b]. A key concept in Fichte's ethics is that of conscience, "the immediate consciousness or feeling of our determinate duty". He equates this with a formal condition to which moral actions must conform: "Act always according to your best conviction of your duty". And it is in this feeling that reconciliation between the (objective) empirical Ego and the (subjective) pure Ego can be effected and harmony achieved [c]. Conscience is infallible; and if we are immediately conscious of our duty we are obliged to do it. But Fichte recognises that its precise application to a particular course of action may not always be clear; and indeed we may ourselves often be responsible for obscuring our own conscience. In such cases, if we do not act impulsively, we should act so as to maximize self-advantage. The philosopher's job is to deduce and set out general rules for action and to categorize them according as to whether they are conducive or not to the Ego's moral end. But the determination of one's actual obligation in a particular situation remains a matter for the individual conscience. Failure to attend to the call of duty, backsliding or laziness on the part of the empirical ego constitutes evil [d].

 

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

[4] [The System of Ethics; The Foundation of Natural Right.] We exist in a context of constraint. There can be no self-consciousness unless the finite individual Ego can be set off against other similar Egos. And to act in any way presupposes a common sensible and unique social and cultural world in which our action can occur. Members of a community of rational beings necessarily constrain each other. As Fichte says, our freedom is limited in so far as we recognise the freedom of others. He expresses this formally in his 'Rule of Right' [a], which provides the justification for private property, public expression of opinion, and so on. To reconcile the equal claims of all members of the community to such rights he says that individual wills have to be 'united' to become one General Will. Fichte regards the State as the 'super-sensible' structure and agent through which this can be articulated and the rights and freedom of its members thereby guaranteed and their self-realization made possible (and thence the self-realization of the Absolute Ego). To establish this State individuals enter into a social contract [b].

As to the kind of state he advocates, he rejects both despotism and democracy (in the sense of rule by the people — which he thinks leads to chaos). But within these extremes a range of constitutions may be compatible with the concept of the rational state. He seems to have favoured a kind of collective ombudsman (he calls it the 'Ephorate') to check any abuse of power. Such a collective or oligarchy, however, is to possess neither legislative nor executive functions [c]. He envisages a planned economy and division of labour so as to encourage material, social, and spiritual self-realization. But once all the members of the community have acquired moral perfection the State will no longer have a purpose and will cease to exist [d]. Fichte also anticipates that the idea of the general Will can be extended to cover all mankind in a federation of nations; and, ironically, he supposed that the German nation might be the pacesetter towards this ultimate unification. [See Natural Right.]

 

PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION

[5] Fichte did not have a fixed position on religion; his views were constantly being modified. Initially [The Foundation of our Belief in a Divine Providence] he tended towards a kind of Spinozistic pantheism (but which was regarded by many contemporaries as atheism). Considered from the standpoint of ordinary consciousness or from empirical science, there can be no place for a divine intelligence; the Absolute Being is the world. At the same time we think ('transcendentally') of the world as 'opposited' by the Absolute Being or Ego. However, this gives rise to a dilemma. Is the Absolute Ego a being prior to Nature which posits it as a totality of individual Egos? Or is it a manifestation of the subconscious strivings of individuals, acting only in and through them? In general Fichte seems to regard the Absolute as the One Life which intuits the objects of the material world. This might perhaps be identified with God as the active ordering process or living moral order (the ordo ordinans), to which the Ego belongs — the Non-Ego, the world (ordo ordinata) being the means by which the Ego can achieve its satisfaction for its striving. However, we cannot attribute personality or substantiality to such a being. Any attempt to describe it would condition it and render it dependent. All we can do, Fichte says [The Vocation of Man], is to think of the One Life or 'active ordering' as the infinite creative Reason or eternal Will [a], by which everything exists as 'presentations' and in which it becomes conscious of itself. Whether as moral order or infinite Will 'God' must remain an object of faith (manifested in action) and not knowledge [b]. In later works [for example, The Doctrine of Religion] Fichte emphasized the transcendence, and self-subsistence of Absolute Being, while maintaining its identification with the one infinite, eternal 'Life'. This Being knows itself absolutely (as object) through its external expression (its Dasein, or 'being there') in consciousness and thus through the individual consciousnesses (as subjects) of rational individuals (though they themselves cannot grasp the totality). An alternative view was also offered at about the same time [in his 1804 lectures on the Theory of Science], according to which the Absolute is Light and its essence Being and Thought [c], an apparent division between which is exhibited only in Light's radiation.

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Fichte's philosophy can readily be understood as a response to Kant's. Arguing that Kant cannot consistently claim even that there is a thing-in-itself, a noumenon, Fichte asserts, nevertheless, that is knowable through practical reason — as the unlimited Absolute Ego or Being. The central thrust of his thinking is therefore towards an ethical idealism. In effect he subordinates Kant's first Critique to the second, restricts the scope of cognition, and synthesizes 'subject' and 'object'. Indeed in his identification of 'feeling' or conscience with the 'formal condition' of duty he may be supposed to have made an advance on Kant's categorical imperative. Against this, it can be argued that it does not bring about the harmonization of the subjective and objective Egos as he supposes. Furthermore, one can question whether the tension between the theoretical and practical deductions can be sustained. The self-positing pure Ego is supposed to utilize the Non-Ego as its means (in the primacy of the practical) while at the level of the theoretical it is conceived of as being limited or determined by the Non-Ego. Arguably the dualism between consciousness and 'dead' Nature has not been satisfactorily resolved. And it is questionable whether Fichte's claim that conscience is infallible is tenable given his wish (with Kant) to exclude all considerations of heteronomy in moral judgements. Moreover, in the context of German Idealism, Fichte's system has been held to be one-sided. Criticisms have also be levelled against the religious aspect of his thought. It has been said that the various stages of development of his ideas are not always consistent. While his early views led to the charge of atheism, his later metaphysical accounts of God as Absolute being or as 'Light' have been seen as evidence of a sharp break with his ethical idealism. Fichte himself would seem to have regarded the latter as 'being' implicit in and presupposing the divine Absolute Being.

 

READING

Fichte: ber den Begriff der Wissenschaftslehre (1794; 1798) (Concerning the Concept of the Doctrine of Knowledge; trans. D. Breazeale); Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre, (1794/5; 1802) (Foundation of the Entire Doctrine of Science; trans. P. Heath); Grundlage des Naturrechts (1796/7) (The Foundation of Natural Right; ed. F. Neuhouser, trans. M. Bauer); Das System der Sittenlehre nach den Principien der Wissenschaftslehre (1798) (The System of Ethics based on the Doctrine of Science; ed. & trans. G. Zller & D. Breazeale); ber den Grund unseres Glaubens an eine göttliche Weltregierung (1798) (Concerning the Ground of Our Belief in a Divine World-Order; trans. D. Breazeale); Die Bestimmung des Menschen (1800) (The Vocation of Man; trans. P. Preuss); Die Religionslehre (1806) (The Doctrine of Religion; trans. W. Smith). See also the collection of extracts from Fichte in R. Bubnner (ed.), German Idealist Philosophy.

Studies

R. Adamson, Fichte.

F. Neuhouser, Fichte's Theory of Subjectivity.

E. B. Talbot, The Fundamental Principle of Fichte's Philosophy.

Collections of essays

K. Ameriks (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to German Idealism.

D. Breazeale and T. Rockmore (eds), New Essays on Fichte's later Jena 'Wissenschaftslehre'.

G. Zöller (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Fichte.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Fichte

 

Note: Fichte's general position in relation to the primacy of the Absolute Ego and his account of knowledge was rejected by Schopenhauer in favour of the supremacy of irrational Will and man's 'existential' needs [see Schopenhauer secs 1 & 2]; and by Nietzsche, in the context of his general rejection of Idealism and rationalist metaphysics [see Nietzsche sec. 2] ).

 

[1a] Thing-in-itself, free, active active, absolute moral principle in man; Absolute Ego's positing and limiting of itself as finite egos is pre-condition for emergence of consciousness; intellectually intuitable and implicit in actions

   Kant

Schleiermacher

Hegel

Schelling

Schopenhauer

Scheler

Ricoeur

[2d 3b c 4a 6a]

[1a c]

[1a]

[1a 2a 3a]

[1c]

[4d]

[4c 5g]

 

[1b 2a c] 'Phenomenology of consciousness': theoretical deduction (in consciousness) of categorial stages (subordinate to practical deduction — of Nature as realm for action); the empirical and Absolute Ego

   Kant

Hegel

Schelling

Schopenhauer

[2c 3a]

[1c 3d 4a 5a]

[1a b d 2a b 3b]

[1b 2b]

 

[1c; cf. 2d] Formal logic expresses fundamental propositions but derivative from philosophy

   Kant

Hegel

[1a]

[3a]

 

[2a 1b] Rejection of 'dogmatic' empiricism; world of experience and idealism reconciled in the theoretical deduction: knowing as process of increasing self-knowledge from perception, to space and time, and categories; no sharp separation between stages; self-consciousness through abstraction from Non-Ego

   Leibniz

   Kant

Schleiermacher

Hegel

Schelling

Schopenhauer

[6b]

[2a 2b-d 3a 4a]

[1a b]

[1b 2a b 5b]

[2b 3b]

[1b c]

 

[2b] In practical deduction subconscious drive (implicit in Absolute Ego) is feeling for empirical ego — becomes force/ impulse

   Herder

Schelling

Schopenhauer

   Bergson

[1b]

[1e]

[2b 3a h]

[4a]

 

[2c; cf. 1b] Non-Ego (realm of appearances) as both consciousness (theoretical deduction) and 'dead' Nature (practical deduction); knowledge only through individual's moral striving.

   Kant

   Hegel

Schelling

Schopenhauer

   Bergson

[6a]

[1c 4a]

[1c 2b 4a 5b]

[1b 2a 2b 3h]

[1c]

 

[2d] Breakdown of distinction between a priori and a posteriori    Kant [1a]

 

[3a; also 3b] Man (object) determined by Nature; (subject) self-determining — but a unity: reconciliation of 'formal' 'material' freedom possible in moral activity (freedom identical with law)

   Spinoza

   Kant

Schleiermacher

Hegel

Schelling

[3c]

[5c 7a 10d]

[3a]

[5f 6c e f]

[2c]

 

[3b] Objective world (Nature) for man's self-preservation and moral fulfilment; dignity of labour as means for creative expression

   Herder

Schleiermacher

Hegel

Schelling

   Bergson

[2d]

[2a]

[4a 6c]

[4a]

[1c]

 

[3c] Reconciliation of empirical and pure Ego through conscience (feeling of duty)

   Kant

Schleiermacher

Hegel

[6b d 10d]

[2a]

[5a 6e]

 

[3d] Weakness of will in the empirical ego — evil

   Plato

Schelling

[9d 13a]

[6d]

 

[4a] Limitations of individual's freedom by others in shared social and cultural context; the Rule of Right;

   Herder

Schelling

[2e]

[4b]

 

[4b] Individual wills subordinate to General Will — the State provides the structure and guarantees rights and freedom and self-realization; established through social contract

   Rousseau

Hegel

Schelling

[1f g]

[6e 7a b]

[4b]

 

[4c d] Advocates a 'collective' to prevent abuses (rejection of despotism and democracy) but it has no legislative or executive power; state as 'super-sensible' agent to encourage individuals' development through division of labour & planned economy; will then cease

   Plato

   Rousseau

Hegel

   Marx

[sec. 14]

[1g]

[7a c]

[2e]

 

[5a] 'God' as Absolute Being: the One Life, moral order, creative Reason as eternal Will, but non-substantial and impersonal

   Spinoza

   Kant

Schleiermacher

Hegel

   Whitehead

[2b c]

[8b 10f]

[1c 1e]

[8a]

[5b]

 

[5b] God as object of faith (seen in moral action) not knowledge

   Kant

Schleiermacher

Hegel

Schelling

[10f]

[1b c]

[8f]

[3c]

 

[5c] Absolute as Light; division of its essence into Being and thought exhibited in appearance through radiation

   Plato

   Plotinus

[8b]

[1d]