Johann Gottlieb Fichte Background and Works-A History of Western Philosophy, Volume 2_ Modern and Postmodern_ From Descartes to Derrida
Johann Gottlieb Fichte was born in a tiny village in Saxony, Germany. He was the oldest son of a humble weaver. Originally, Fichte was schooled by a visiting nobleman who was so impressed with the child’s ability at nine years of age to report the substance of a sermon with great accuracy that he decided to provide the boy’s education. After the death of this tutor, young Johann struggled on his own with little help from his parents. After he finished his secondary schooling at the Pforta school, he furthered his education at the University at Jena and then to Leipzig for theological training. The highly recognized school at Pforta is where later Friedrick Nietzsche (see below) would be educated. After a while, he himself found jobs as a tutor until he married the brilliant and devoted Johanna Rahn. By this time, Fichte’s philosophical interests had been influenced by Spinoza’s pantheistic determinism until he came across Kant’s Critiques via one of his pupils. This was a key factor in his transformation into Idealism.
He served as a tutor in Leipzig and Zurich until he was dismissed because of his overbearing temperament. While at Zurich, he read Kant, Montesquieu, and Rosseau, and gladly accepted the French Revolution. This led to Fichte becoming a convert to Kant. It seemed as though to Fichte that Kant’s philosophy was able to shed light on those troubling ideas in Fichte’s mind. Eventually, Fichte met Kant in Königsberg but received a cold welcome. When he wrote a monograph called an Essay Toward a Critique of All Revelation (pub. 1792) that applied critical philosophy to certain topics associated with religion, Kant became impressed with Fichte’s work and took steps to have it published. Unfortunately, the printer of the publication had not included Fichte’s name at the top and it was assumed because of its anonymity that this particular work was Kant’s alone. Kant quickly gave credit where credit was due and Fichte suddenly became popular. In 1794 at thirty years of age, he was called to a professorship at the university at Jena and found residence in small neighboring city of Weimer where there also resided many great scholars, including Goethe and Schiller. Fichte became known as a great Kantian interpreter.
Later he published a treatise on Idealism called Basis of the Entire Theory of Science (1794) which manifested into other works titled Basis of Natural Right (1796) and System of Ethics (1798). His reputation for hastiness and for various other reasons, including a charge of atheism because of his position of editor in a publication called Philosophical Journal, ended in his being dismissed from Jena. The work that led to the accusation of atheism was On the Ground of our Belief in a Divine World-Order. This world order proposed by Fichte identified God with a moral-order to be created and sustained by the human will. He wrote other works including lectures called On the Characteristics of the Present Age which attacked the Romanists, The Nature of the Scholar, The Way to the Blessed Life or Doctrine of Religion, and his famous work titled Addresses to the German Nation. In 1810, Fichte was appointed head of philosophy at the University of Berlin. His most noted work that presents his philosophical perspective is covered in Vocation of Man (1799). When the typhoid epidemic broke out, both Johann and his wife contracted the disease. Johann nursed his wife back to health but he later died in January of 1814.
Fichte was a deeply conscientious, religious, and moral man having a high regard and duty for the promotion of Kant. He believed every man did indeed have a divine vocation for which purpose he was brought into the world to fulfill. He would, however, present his convictions as though they were the voice of God Himself.
Fichte was the first to promote Idealism after Kant. This ideal dominated German philosophy during the early nineteenth century. However, Fichte called his doctrine ‘critical idealism’ in order to differentiate it from Kant’s. Fichte took the ‘thing-in-itself’ as the dividing line between dogmatism— accepting the thing-in-itself—and idealism which denies it. The conflict between these two according to Fichte is the striking difference between free determination of one’s will and some standard of truth illustrating a sense of necessity. Kant pushed for an individual a priori in each science and in morality. Fichte strived to show their interconnectedness and interdependence. He initially sided with Kant that religion is derived from ethics but takes this further and posits that God is manifested within the universal moral order. To accomplish this task, he introduces what he calls the “science of sciences” or “science of knowledge.” Here he illustrates an a priori associated with every science positing a universal knowledge associated with this ‘new science.’
Different persons look in different directions depending on what kind of persons they are. The mature self-reliant philosopher recognizes his freedom and will choose Idealism whereas the immature, those who have little consciousness of their independence, will pick dogmatism. However, dogmatism ends in fatalism and materialism whereas idealism safeguards independence of the self and is grounded in nature. This even illustrates that idealism has an advantage over dogmatism. Further, the thing-in-itself is never shown to exist in experience but is only used as an invention to show its necessity.
The Ego and the Pure (Super) Ego
Fichte’s new science (Wissenschaftslehre) is briefly outlined as follows. First, he asks the inquirer to examine himself carefully noticing that he should observe himself freely and having both imagination and will. However, there are also external objects that are independent of volition and yet appear as necessary thus being imposed upon me. When something is experienced, two factors result. There is the object itself—the thing-in-itself—and the one observing the object forming the concept—the intelligence-in-itself. The question is, which is ultimate, the object itself or the judgment of the object in the mind? The object is really only seen when the observer is also aware of himself. Therefore, there is really never any awareness of the object-in-itself except only an assumption. (This even extends to the awareness of one’s self—existence is a combination of impressions.) Fichte replaces the intelligence-in-itself with the term ‘I’ or ‘ego.’ What is behind the ego is a pure ego, a transcendent ego which is the first principle of philosophy. When a man reflects on his own selfconsciousness, he sees that it also includes a suspicion about the existence of the pure ego as an active force, not being an object itself.
Fichte’s Idealism places the consciousness independent of experience. This I-in-itself is free (and spiritual) and takes the external world as its product. His view is dialectical. Creating a thesis, he uses the law of identity to prove his point that the object A must exist in the ‘self’ or else it could never be perceived in the first place. Through his anti-thesis, he negates the object—not-A—which in turn negates the ‘self’ making it in opposition to the ‘self.’ The synthesis is the union of the two in opposition: the ‘self’ called the ego and the ‘not-self’ called the ‘Super’ Ego which is associated with the external world. The external world operated by the Super Ego is the source of the forms of the
mind and of the sensed objects themselves. This Larger Ego is the common Mind or Will. This is the essence of Fichte’s Idealism.
Fichte is not just concerned with the phenomenology of consciousness; rather he is concerned with developing an idealistic metaphysics. His positing that there is a pure ego insinuates that there is one and only one transcendent ego that actively and infinitely manifests itself in the finite consciousnesses. He even goes as far as to identify it as a spiritual Life who creates all phenomena. He is pressing for both a phenomenology of consciousness and a metaphysics of Idealism.
During Fichte’s Jena tenure, he seemed to limit God to an impersonal being. This led to some conservative Christians making the claim of atheism against him. However, during the time he was in Berlin he wrote essays that more specifically described the Super Ego as a being sufficient to fulfill certain purposes. This external world, according to Fichte, was one for the fulfillment of moral purposes. The specific aim for individuals was for them to find their specific duty and vocation. This leads into his ethical idealism.
Fichte’s Ethical Idealism
Fichte’s moral law is the law of nature where God orders the universe. The material world is apparent to man’s senses. The human will is free and his soul is immortal. A person should exercise his freedom without impinging upon the freedom of others. Each person comes into the world with a unique vocation for which he is to perform. However, his duty is never completely fulfilled in this life; hence, the immortality of the soul makes allowance for its completion. Each person is to feel the responsibility to conduct his life in such a way as to work towards his unique calling. Our moral nature shows that he has ‘natural’ impulses for certain activities only because he wants to do those
certain behaviors. On the other hand, humans perform other activities to where he leaves them undone with no regards to an end. This provides evidence for a person’s inner moral and ethical nature. Humans are a product of ego, intelligence, and consciousness and as such they strive after freedom and independence through s natural impulses and desires. The natural impulses and desires are from a transcendent point of view, one impulse. Humans are not merely a mechanism. This is especially true for the scholar whose leadership and dominance incite others to work at their unique vocation. The scholar was one who was the clergyman of truth, a guide, a teacher in the human race dedicated to elevating morality, and one who was make known the knowledge of the Divine. This is addresses in
The Nature of the Scholar where Fichte indicts mankind, stating that most men are slothful and never fulfill their responsibilities.
This individual focused vocation also finds its principle in the nations of the world. Fichte’s morality focuses in on the individual; his right focuses in on the relationships of one human being to another. Both have a common focal point—a person striving for the infinite. The notion of this infinite striving illustrates the pure freedom found in a human being man which is a person’s duty making up the essence of the moral law. Each nation too has its own unique vocation in history where it is to make its contribution in the advancement of mankind. Fichte especially thinks this is true for the Germans above all and addresses this in his Addresses to the German Nation. The vocational duty of each person is as Fichte dictum says: “Always fulfill thy vocation . . . act according to thy conscience” (The Science of Ethics, II, 12, 13). This pronouncement guides a person to synthesize his needs and wants so that the moral order can be actualized. The state’s purpose is to provide restraints for the common will joined in a civil pact. To act this out, each individual is to surrender his or her freedom to the state. The state is there only to harness non-ethical interests. Eventually, the need fo the state will disappear but for the time being, the state is indispensable and carries with it great moral responsibility.
Above all, mankind is to strive for his ultimate destiny—the union with God in perfect love. This is his philosophy of religion and is presented in Fichte’s The Way to the Blessed Life.
Fichte on Faith and Religion
In his essay titled On the Basis of Our Belief in a Divine Providence (1798), Fichte illustrates his notion of the idea of God and the world. He accomplishes this not through ordinary consciousness or transcendental idealism of the Pure Ego, but rather through the notion of morality. Here, the ego is a part of the super-sensible moral order—God, the divine moral orderer. The Fichtean God is the moral orderer and actualizes Himself through nature and morality—not just a reconciler of them. Immortality can even be understood now as a reality while the infinite Self strives (as was illustrated in his notion regarding vocation). Freedom is the realization of the internal subjective nature that allows obedience to moral imperatives. Since man is a member of the sensible world and the eternal world, he is obligated to the moral law within the material realm. His loyalty is based on rational faith in the true source of life. It is through the activity of religion that the will dies to self and attaches to the law of duty. However, this duty is accomplished through an attitude of love based upon religious meditations where one takes on the characteristics of God’s intelligence, will and power. Therefore, man is left to choose between a love for God or a love for this phenomenal world. This is the basis of true faith. To speak of God as substance, or as personal, or benevolent, is nonsense according to Fichte. However, belief in the divine moral order posits that moral actions result in the good and evil actions never result in the good. Here again, this is where the charge of atheism was levied against him because his readers thought he reduced God to some moral ideal.
The focal point of religion is in the obedience to the moral law. Faith is faith in the ontological moral order. It can be seen that this dynamic panentheistic idealism is based on faith and not based on knowledge. In order to fulfill the moral vocations there is the requirement of faith in a living and active moral order, the infinite Reason and Will. However, Fichte in The Way to the Blessed Life concerns himself with edifying the uplifting his hearers and reassuring them that his philosophy is not at odds with the Christian religion.
Johann Gottlieb Fichte Background and Works-A History of Western Philosophy, Volume 2_ Modern and Postmodern_ From Descartes to Derrida