Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762 – 1814) was a German philosopher, and one of the founding figures of the German Idealism and Kantianism movements in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.
At one time perceived merely as a bridge between the ideas of Kant and Hegel, he has since begun to be appreciated as an important philosopher in his own right, with original insights into the nature of self-awareness. He also wrote Political Philosophy, and is thought of by some as the father of German Nationalism.
Fichte (pronounced FIC-ta) was born on 19 May 1762 in Rammenau in the Saxony region of eastern Germany. His family were ribbon makers and too poor to pay for his schooling, although early in life he impressed everyone with his great intelligence. Through the patronage of a local nobleman, Baron Miltitz, he was able to attend the well-known Pforta boarding school, which prepared students for a university education, and in 1780, he began study at the University of Jena in central Germany, and then at the University of Leipzig. With the death of his patron, he had to break off his studies for financial reasons in 1784, and left without completing his degree.
He worked as a private tutor in Zürich, Switzerland for a time, where he met, and became engaged to, his future wife Johanna Rahn, niece of the German poet F. G. Klopstock, in 1790. Later the same year, (back in Leipzig and again in financial distress), Fichte agreed to tutor a university student in the Kantian philosophy, about which he knew very little at the time, and so began to study in depth the works of Immanuel Kant, which were to have a lasting effect on his life and thought.
The next year, he travelled to Königsberg to meet Kant himself, although Kant was apparently not especially impressed by his visitor. But in 1792, Fichte published his hastily prepared first work, “Versuch einer Kritik aller Offenbarung”(“Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation”), an unsigned book which was initially assumed to be by Kant himself. When Kant cleared the confusion and openly praised the work and its author, Fichte’s reputation skyrocketed.
Fichte continued working as a tutor while attempting to fashion his philosophical insights into a system of his own, which he came to call Wissenschaftslehre(variously translated as “Science of Knowledge”, “Doctrine of Science”, or “Theory of Science”). In October 1793, he married his fiancée in Zürich, (they were to have a son, Immanuel Hermann, in 1797), and shortly thereafter was offered the chair in philosophy at the University of Jena, which was rapidly becoming the capital of the new German philosophy.
He stayed at Jena until 1799, publishing the scholarly works that established his reputation as one of the major figures in the German philosophical tradition, as well as more popular works for the general public (to fulfill his desire to communicate Kantianism to the wider world). In a 1798 essay, Fichte argued that religious beliefcould be legitimate only insofar as it arose from properly moral considerations, and that God has no existence apart from the moral world order. This led to accusations of unothodoxy and Atheism and he was ultimately forced to leave Jena.
By the time Fichte settled in Berlin in 1800, his reputation had already started to wane, particularly after disavowals of his Wissenschaftslehre by Kant and by Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743 – 1819). To earn a living, he gave private lectures and published new works, including “Die Bestimmung des Menschen” (“The Vocation of Man”) in 1800, although he was loath to publish for fear of being misunderstood again. When the newly founded Prussian university in Berlinopened in 1810, Fichte was made the head of the philosophy faculty, and in 1811 he was elected the first rector of the university. He continued his philosophical work until the very end of his life, lecturing on the Wissenschaftslehre and writing on Political Philosophy (including on a new form of national education that would enable the German nation to achieve its full potential) and other subjects.
When the War of Liberation against Napoleon Bonaparte broke out in 1813, both Fichte and his wife Johanna joined the militia. He died in Berlin from a typhus epidemic on 27 January 1814, at the age of fifty-two. His son, Immanuel Hermann Fichte (1797 – 1879), also made contributions to philosophy.
After the publication of some radical works defending the principles of the French Revolution in 1793, Fichte began working in earnest on the formulation of his philosophy of Wissenschaftslehre which he continued to revise for most of the rest of his life. He saw it as a the search for new foundations for Kant’s Critical philosophy, although never as a repudiation of Kantianism. Following on from the “Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre” (“Foundations of the Entire Wissenschaftslehre”) of 1794/5, came “Grundlage des Naturrechts nach Principien der Wissenschaftslehre” (“Foundations of Natural Right Based on the Wissenschaftslehre”, 1796/7) and “Das System der Sittenlehre nach den Principien der Wissenschaftslehre” (“System of Ethical Theory Based on the Wissenschaftslehre”, 1798). Other re-formulations, explanations and digests followed.
Fichte realized, largely in response to a work called “Aenesidemus” by Gottlob Ernst Schulze (1761 – 1833), that he did not endorse Kant’s argument for the existence of noumena (“things in themselves”), the supra-sensible reality beyond the categories of human reason, and saw the rigorous and systematic separation of “things in themselves” and things “as they appear to us” as an invitation to Skepticism. He made the radical suggestion that we should accept the fact that consciousness does not have any grounding in a so-called “real world” or indeed in anything outside of itself. However, he argued, consciousness of the self depends upon resistance by something that is understood as not part of the self (his famous “I / not-I”distinction) i.e. the existence of other rational subjects.
In 1806, he published “Die Grundzüge des gegenwärtigen Zeitalters” (“The Characteristics of the Present Age”), employing his Wissenschaftslehre for the purposes of the Philosophy of History, and identifying five stages of history in which the human race progresses, from the rule of instinct to the rule of reason. Despite (or possibly because of) parallels with Hegel’s later formulation of history as a dialectical process, it was arguably Hegel himself who was largely responsiblefor the subsequent relegation of Fichte to a footnote in the larger history of German Idealism.
Fichte also originated the principle of Rational Voluntarism, arguing that the worldand all its activity is only to be understood as material for the activity of the practical reason, which is the means through which the will achieves complete freedom and complete moral realization.
Fichte’s later political writings were in stark contrast to his early radical and progressive works. He developed a theory of the state based on the idea of self-sufficiency (autarky), which would control international relations, the value of money, and severely limit trade with the outside world. He also called Jews a “state within a state” that could “undermine” the German nation, and ecouraged the building of a national Jewish state in Palestine. His “Reden an die deutsche Nation” (“Addresses to the German Nation”) of 1807-8 in particular was used by German nationalist circles before and during the First World War to enhance national sentiments, and he is thought of by some as the father of German Nationalism.