*Fichte, Johann Gottlieb

Johann Gottlieb Fichte

Johann Gottlieb Fichte



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Fichte, Johann Gottlieb

German, 1762–1814
The Wissenschaftslehre, hailed by Friedrich Schlegel in 1798 as one of the three major accomplishments of its age, was doubtless Fichte’s greatest intellectual achievement. In its attempt to reconcile the palpable epistemological dualism in Kantian philosophy between freedom and necessity, subject and object, through the concept of a practically striving, nonderivative “I,” this “science of knowledge” serves as the firm starting point for many of Fichte’s conceptual essays, e.g. Das System der Sittenlehre nach den Principien der Wissenschaftslehren (1798; The Science of Ethics as Based on the Science of Knowledge). Even the less technically philosophical and more practical essays, e.g. Der geschlossne Handelstaat (1800; The closed commercial state), are indebted to this theory of knowledge. Understandably, scholarship, encouraged by the publication since 1964 of the critical edition of Fichte’s works, has tended to view his essays in the light of his philosophy of practical activity. In Fichte’s hand the essay is a demonstration of a rational argument or an exhortation to act on the basis of knowledge.
Employing both vehicles of formal, scholarly communication and of informal, social communication, Fichte wrote on an impressive range of topics: the desirability of revolution, the mission of the scholar, the state’s economic system, the function of religion and aesthetics, patriotic nationalism and the concept of world history, and the organization of the university. His essays were published as books or in the intellectual journals Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (General literary gazette), Die Horen (The muses), and Philosophisches Journal einer Gesellschaft Teutscher Gelehrtern (Philosophical journal of the Society of German Scholars).
The essays of this prolific writer, many of which have been translated into English, are directed toward the academic philosopher and, especially after 1800, toward the educated public. To the professional philosopher, the intended reader of his first essay, the generally well-received, book-length essay Versuch einer Kritik aller Offenbarung (1792;
Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation) argued that the basis of revealed religion lies in the sovereignty of a nonempirical law whose acknowledgment strengthens the moral law in humanity. Considered to be Kant’s long-awaited treatise on religion because it was published by Kant’s publisher and even praised by the Königsberg sage, this essay propelled Fichte to fame and ultimately to his appointment to the philosophy faculty at the University of Jena. As successor to the Kantian Karl Reinhold, Fichte gave many successful public lectures in Jena; his Einige Vorlesungen über die Bestimmung des Gelehrten (1794; “Some Lectures Concerning the Scholar’s Vocation”) endeavors through cajoling, analysis, and exhortation to convince his largely student audience that they, as scholars, bear responsibility for supervising the advancement of mankind.
Hölderlin, Novalis, and Friedrich Schlegel were among the listeners who applauded Fichte’s impassioned closing plea for practical engagement: “Act! Act! That is what we are here for!” Following Fichte’s relocation to Berlin in 1799, his essays took on a decidedly popular style. Die Bestimmung des Menschen (1800; The Vocation of Man) consciously attempts to overcome the obscurity of his earlier philosophical essays and speaks in a more conversational tone to the average reader: “And it is to be hoped that the reader …will actually hold converse with himself during the act of reading; that he will deliberate, draw conclusions, and form resolutions…and thus, by his own labor and reflection, develop and build up purely out of himself that mode of thought the mere picture of which is presented to him in the book.” This polyperspective essay weighs in an even-measured, dialogical manner the alternatives of doubt, knowledge, and faith as life orientations before depicting faith’s triumph over skeptical, deterministic thinking.
The tone of a Fichtean essay varies immensely. While the technical writings associated with the Wissenschaftslehre tend to be demonstrative and sober, the anonymously published lectures of 1794 call passionately, even defiantly, for freedom of the press and represent a rebellious affirmation of nontraditional societal reorganization in terms of Rousseauvian contractualism and Kantian autonomous ethics. The important review of C.G.Schulze’s Aenesidemus in 1794 in the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung is remarkable as much as for its defense of Kantian epistemology against Schulze’s Hume-like skepticism as it is for its sarcastic and polemical barbs. Similarly, Fichte’s acridity toward his censors is revealed in the subtitle “A writing one should read before it is confiscated” of Appellation an das Publikum…(1799; Call to the public …). On the other hand, Fichte
could speak in a more moderate voice, as for example in “Über den Grund unsers Glaubens an eine göttliche Weltregierung” (1798; “On the Foundation of Our Belief in a Divine Government of the Universe”), in which he attempted to mediate F.K.Forsberg’s radical denial of Christian divinity, but apparently too closely identified God with a selfwilled moral world order himself, thus precipitating the famous “Atheismusstreit.” This “atheism controversy” was initially a departure of the minds between Fichte and Forsberg, but Fichte’s many enemies made sure that he was accused of atheism by the Saxon authorities. The case gained wide popularity as both opponents and defenders of Fichte joined the battle. At stake was essentially Fichte’s contention that the existence of God could not be inferred from the moral world order. Ultimately, the debate was a factor in Fichte’s dismissal/resignation from his academic post.
If Fichte was considered an effective public orator, his writing was not always accorded equal praise. The conceptual confusion and the abstract, occasionally opaque technical language of his various tracts of the Wissenschaftslehre, which included the coining of new words, e.g. “Tathandlung” (“act”), frequently perplexed his contemporaries. Even Fichte himself abandoned hope that he could articulate his concepts effectively. His philosophical letters Über den Geist und Buchstab in der Philosophie: In einer Reihe von Briefen (1794; “On the Spirit and Letter in Philosophy, in a Series of Letters”) were rejected for publication in Schiller’s journal Die Horen largely because Fichte, according to Schiller, “thrust[s] the reader directly from the most abstruse abstractions right into harangues.” On the other hand, Goethe praised Reden an die deutsche Nation (1808; Addresses to the German Nation), Fichte’s most widely known and most accessible essays, for their wonderful style. Based on lectures given in the amphitheater of the Berlin Academy during the Napoleonic occupation (December
1807), these inspirational public talks delineate in a confident, nationalistic tone Fichte’s plan for the education of the Germans to their true identity.
Fichte’s essays reflect his forceful, occasionally alienating personality.
Uncompromising, authoritative, and intense, they vibrate with his contention that “The kind of philosophy one adopts depends upon the sort of man one is…” (Erste Einleitung in die Wissenschaftslehre [1797; First Introduction to the Science of Knowledge]).
Fichte’s was a moralistic essayism, which sought through linear argument and effective strategies the purposeful if not always aesthetically successful expansion of freedom.
Standing in the service of his Strebungsphilosophie (philosophy of activity), his essays demand that the reader act in a manner such that the noumenal idea of freedom can be realized in the practical, social world.

Born 19 May 1762 in Rammenau, Lausitz. Studied theology at the Universities of Jena, 1780–81, and Leipzig, 1781–84. Private tutor near Leipzig, 1784–88, and in Warsaw and Danzig. Married Johanna Maria Rahn (Klopstock’s niece), 1793: one son. Chair of philosophy, University of Jena, 1793–99; dean of the philosophical faculty, 1810, and rector, 1811, University of Berlin. Died (of typhoid contracted from his wife) in Berlin, 29 January 1814.
Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Versuch einer Kritik aller Offenbarung, 1792; as Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation, translated by Garrett Green, 1978
Zurückforderung der Denkfreiheit von den Fürsten Europens, die sie bisher unterdruckten (lecture), 1793
Beitrag zur Berichtigung der Urtheile des Publikums über die französische Revolution;
Zur Beurteilung ihrer Rechtmässigkeit, 2 vols., 1793; first essay edited by D.Bergner, 1957
Über den Geist und Buchstab in der Philosophie: In einer Reihe von Briefen, 1794; as “On the Spirit and Letter in Philosophy, in a Series of Letters,” translated by Elizabeth Rubenstein, in German Aesthetic and Literary Criticism: Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Hegel, edited by David Simpson, 1984:74–93
Einige Vorlesungen über die Bestimmung des Gelehrten, 1794; as The Vocation of the Scholar, translated by William Smith, 1847; as “Some Lectures Concerning the Scholar’s Vocation,” translated by Daniel Breazeale, in Philosophy of German
Idealism, edited by Ernst Behler, 1987:1–38
Über den Begriff der Wissenschaftslehre, 1794; revised edition, 1798; edited by Hans Michael Baumgartner and Wilhelm G. Jacobs, 1969; as “Concerning the Concept of Wissenschaftslehre or, of So-Called ‘Philosophy’,” translated by Daniel Breazeale, in Early Philosophical Writings, 1988
Grundlage der gesammten Wissenschaftslehre, 1794; edited by Hans Michael Baumgartner and Wilhelm G.Jacobs, 1969; as The Science of Knowledge, translated by A.E.Kroeger, 1868; as Foundations of the Entire Science of Knowledge (Wissenschaftslehre), with the First and Second Introductions, edited and translated by Peter Heath and John Lachs, 1970
Grundriss des Eigentümlichen der Wissenschaftslehre, 1795; edited by Wilhelm G.Jacobs, 1975; as “Outline of the Distinctive Character of the Wissenschaftslehre with Respect to the Theoretical Faculty,” translated by Daniel Breazeale, in Early Philosophical Writings, 1988
Grundlage des Naturrechts nach Prinzipien der Wissenschaftslehre, 2 vols., 1796–97; edited by Manfred Zahn, 1967; as The Science of Rights, translated by A.E.Kroeger, 1869; part as “The Foundations of Natural Law According to the Principles of the Theory of Science,” translated by H.S.Reiss and P.Brown, in The Political Thought of the German Romantics, 1793–1815, edited by Reiss, 1955:44–86
Erste und ziveite Einleitung in die Wissenschaftslehre, 1797; edited by Fritz Medicus, 1920; as The First and Second Introductions to The Science of Knowledge, edited and translated by Peter Heath and John Lachs, 1970
Das System der Sittenlehre nach den Principien der Wissenschaftslehren, 1798; as The Science of Ethics as Based on the Science of Knowledge, edited by W.T.Harris, translated by A.E.Kroeger, 1897
Appellation an das Publikum über die durch ein Kurf. sächs: Confiscationsrescript ihtn beigemessenen atheistischen Äusserungen: Ein Schrift, die man erst zu lesen bittet, ehe man sie confiscirt, 1799
Die Bestimmung des Menschen, 1800; edited by Theodor Ballauf and Ignaz Klein, 1966;
as The Vocation of Man, translated by William Smith, 1848, translation revised by R.M.Chisholm, 1956, and Peter Preuss, 1987; as The Destination of Man, translated by Mrs. Percy Sinnett, 1846
Der geschlossne Handelstaat: Ein philosophischer Entwurf als Probe einer künftig zu liefernden Politik, 1800
Sonnenklarer Bericht an das grössere Publikum, über das eigentliche Wesen der neuesten Philosophie: Ein Versuch, die Leser zum Verstehen zu zwingen, 1801; as “A Crystal Clear Report to the General Public Concerning the Actual Essence of the Newest Philosophy: An Attempt to Force the Reader to Understand,” translated by John Botterman and William Rasch, in Philosophy of German Idealism, edited by Ernst Behler, 1987:39–115
Die Grundzüge des gegenwärtigen Zeitalters, 1806; as The Characteristics of the Present Age, translated by William Smith, 1847
Die Anweisung zum seeligen Leben, oder auch die Religionslehre, 1806; edited by Fritz Medicus, 1921; as The Way Towards the Blessed Life; or, The Doctrine of Religion, translated by William Smith, 1849
Über das Wesen des Gelehrten, und seine Erscheinungen im Gebiete der Freiheit, 1806;
as On the Nature of the Scholar, and Its Manifestations, translated by William Smith, 1845
Reden an die deutsche Nation, 1808; as Addresses to the German Nation, translated by Louis H.Gray, in The German Classics, vol. 5, edited by K.Francke and W.G.Howard, 1914:69–105; edited by George Armstrong Kelly, translated by R.F.Jones and G.H.Turnbull, 1913
Die Thatsachen des Bewusstseyns (lectures), 1817; as “The Facts of Consciousness,” translated by A.E.Kroeger, Journal of Speculative Philosophy (1871)
The Popular Works, translated by William Smith, 2 vols., 1848–49
Über patriotische Erziehung: Pädagogische Schriften und Reden, edited by Heinz Schuffenhauer, 1960
Early Philosophical Writings, edited and translated by Daniel Breazeale, 1988
Introductions to the Wissenschaftslehre and Other Writings (1797–1800), edited and translated by Daniel Breazeale, 1994
Other writings: philosophical works, and correspondence.
Collected works editions: Sämmtliche Werke, edited by Immanuel Hermann Fichte, 8 vols., 1845–46, reprinted 1971; Werke, edited by Fritz Medicus, 6 vols., 1908–12;
Gesamtausgabe (Bavarian Academy Edition), edited by Reinhard Lauth, Hans Jacob, and Hans Gliwitzky, 1964–(in progress).
Baumgartner, Hans Michael, and Wilhelm G.Jacobs, Johann Gottlieb Fichte— Bibliographie, Stuttgart and Bad Cannstatt: Frommann-Holzboog, 1968
Breazeale, Daniel, “Bibliography of English Translations of Fichte’s Works and of Works in English About Fichte,” in Fichte: Historical Contexts/Contemporary Controversies, edited by Breazeale and Tom Rockmore, Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1994:235–63
Doyé, Sabine, J.G.Fichte—Bibliographie (1968–1992/93), Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1993
Further Reading
Beiser, Frederick C., The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987
Beiser, Frederick C., “Philosophy and Politics in J.G.Fichte’s 1794 Wissenschaftslehre,” in his Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought, 1790–1800, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992
Breazeale, Daniel, “Fichte’s Aenesidemus Review and the Transformation of German Idealism,” Review of Metaphysics 34 (1981):545–68
Breazeale, Daniel, “Fichte and Schelling: The Jena Period,” in The Age of German Idealism, edited by Robert C.Solomon and Kathleen M.Higgins, London and New York: Routledge, 1993
Ebbinghaus, Julius, “Fichtes urspriingliche Philosophie,” in his Gesammelte Aufsätze, Vorträge und Reden, Hildesheim: Olms, 1968:211–25
Fichte and Contemporary Philosophy, Philosophical Forum special issue, 19 (1988)
Gardiner, Patrick, “Fichte and German Idealism,” in Idealism, Past and Present, edited by Godfrey Vesey, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982:111–26
Henrich, Dieter, “Fichte’s Original Insight,” in Contemporary German Philosophy, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982:15–53 (original German edition, 1967)
Idealistic Studies issue on Fichte, 62 (1979)
Jacobs, Wilhelm G., Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1984
Lachs, John, “Fichte’s Idealism,” American Philosophical Quarterly 9 (1972):311–18
Lauth, Reinhard, “Der letzte Grund von Fichtes Reden an die deutsche Nation,” Fichte Studies 4 (1992):197–231
Lauth, Reinhard, Vernünftige Durchdringung der Wirklichkeit: Fichte und sein Umkreis, Neuried: Ars Una, 1994
Mandt, A.J., “Fichte’s Idealism in Theory and Practice,” Idealistic Studies 14 (1984):127–47
Rockmore, Tom, Fichte, Marx, and the German Philosophical Tradition, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980
Seidel, George, Activity and Ground: Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, Hildesheim and New York: Olms, 1976

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