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Johann Gottlieb Fichte

Johann Gottlieb FichteBorn: 19-May-1762
Birthplace: Rammenau, Upper Lusatia, Saxony, Germany
Died: 27-Jan-1814
Location of death: Berlin, Germany
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof, Berlin, Germany

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Philosopher

Nationality: Germany
Executive summary: Critique of Revelation

German philosopher, born at Rammenau in Upper Lusatia on the 19th of May 1762. His father, a ribbon-weaver, was a descendant of a Swedish soldier who (in the service of Gustav Adolph the Great) was left wounded at Rammenau and settled there. The family was distinguished for piety, uprightness, and solidity of character. With these qualities Fichte himself combined a certain impetuosity and impatience probably derived from his mother, a woman of a somewhat querulous and jealous disposition.

At a very early age the boy showed remarkable mental vigor and moral independence. A fortunate accident which brought him under the notice of a neighbouring nobleman, Freiherr von Miltitz, was the means of procuring him a more excellent education than his father's circumstances would have allowed. He was placed under the care of Pastor Krebel at Niederau. After a short stay at Meissen he was entered at the celebrated school at Pforta, near Naumburg. In 1780 he entered the University of Jena as a student of theology. He supported himself mainly by private teaching, and during the years 1784-87 acted as tutor in various families of Saxony. In 1787, after an unsuccessful application to the consistory for pecuniary assistance, he seems to have been driven to miscellaneous literary work. A tutorship at Zürich was, however, obtained in the spring of 1788, and Fichte spent in Switzerland two of the happiest years of his life. He made several valuable acquaintances, among others Lavater and his brother-in-law Hartmann Rahn, to whose daughter, Johanna Maria, he became engaged.

Settling at Leipzig, still without any fixed means of livelihood, he was again reduced to literary drudgery. In the midst of this work occurred the most important event of his life, his introduction to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. At Schulpforta he had read with delight Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Anti-Goeze, and during his Jena days had studied the relation between philosophy and religion. The outcome of his speculations, Aphorismen über Religion und Deismus (unpublished, date 1790; Werke, i. 1-8), was a species of Spinozistic determinism, regarded, however, as lying altogether outside the boundary of religion. It is remarkable that even for a time fatalism should have been predominant in his reasoning, for in character he was opposed to such a view, and, as he has said, "according to the man, so is the system of philosophy he adopts."

Fichte's Letters of this period attest the influence exercised on him by the study of Kant. It effected a revolution in his mode of thinking; so completely did the Kantian doctrine of the inherent moral worth of man harmonize with his own character, that his life becomes one effort to perfect a true philosophy, and to make its principles practical maxims. At first he seems to have thought that the best method for accomplishing his object would be to expound Kantianism in a popular, intelligible form. He rightly felt that the reception of Kant's doctrines was impeded by their phraseology. An abridgment of the Kritik der Urtheilskrajt was begun, but was left unfinished.

Fichte's circumstances had not improved. It had been arranged that he should return to Zürich and be married to Johanna Rahn, but the plan was overthrown by a commercial disaster which affected the fortunes of the Rahn family. Fichte accepted a post as private tutor in Warsaw, and proceeded on foot to that town. The situation proved unsuitable; the lady, as Kuno Fischer says, "required greater submission and better French" than Fichte could yield, and after a fortnight's stay Fichte set out for Königsberg to see Kant. His first interview was disappointing; the coldness and formality of the aged philosopher checked the enthusiasm of the young disciple, though it did not diminish his reverence. He resolved to bring himself before Kant's notice by submitting to him a work in which the principles of the Kantian philosophy should be applied. Such was the origin of the work, written in four weeks, the Versucheiner Kritik aller Offenbarung (Essay towards a Critique of all Revelation). The problem which Fichte dealt with in this essay was one not yet handled by Kant himself, the relations of which to the critical philosophy furnished matter for surmise. Indirectly, indeed, Kant had indicated a very definite opinion on theology: from the Critique of Pure Reason it was clear that for him speculative theology must be purely negative, while the Critique of Practical Reason as clearly indicated the view that the moral law is the absolute content or substance of any religion. A critical investigation of the conditions under which religious belief was possible was still wanting. Fichte sent his essay to Kant, who approved it highly, extended to the author a warm reception, and exerted his influence to procure a publisher. After some delay, consequent on the scruples of the theological censor of Halle, who did not like to see miracles rejected, the book appeared (Easter, 1792). By an oversight Fichte's name did not appear on the title page, nor was the preface given, in which the author spoke of himself as a beginner in philosophy. Outsiders, not unnaturally, ascribed the work to Kant. The Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung went so far as to say that no one who had read a line of Kant's writings could fail to recognize the eminent author of this new work. Kant himself corrected the mistake, at the same time highly commending the work. Fichte's reputation was thus secured at a stroke.

The Critique of Revelation marks the culminating point of Fichte's Kantian period. The exposition of the conditions under which revealed religion is possible turns upon the absolute requirements of the moral law in human nature. Religion itself is the belief in this moral law as divine, and such belief is a practical postulate, necessary in order to add force to the law. It follows that no revealed religion, so far as matter or substance is concerned, can contain anything beyond this law; nor can any fact in the world of experience be recognized by us as supernatural. The supernatural element in religion can only be the divine character of the moral law. Now, the revelation of this divine character of morality is possible only to a being in whom the lower impulses have been, or are, successful in overcoming reverence for the law. In such a case it is conceivable that a revelation might be given in order to add strength to the moral law. Religion ultimately then rests upon the practical reason, and expresses some demand or want of the pure ego. In this conclusion we can trace the prominence assigned by Fichte to the practical element, and the tendency to make the requirements of the ego the ground for all judgment on reality. It was not possible that having reached this point he should not press forward and leave the Kantian position.

This success was coincident with an improvement in the fortunes of the Rahn family, and the marriage took place at Zürich in October 1793. The remainder of the year he spent at Zürich, slowly perfecting his thoughts on the fundamental problems left for solution in the Kantian philosophy. During this period he published anonymously two remarkable political works, Zurückforderung der Denkfreiheit van den Fürsten Europas and Beiträge zur Berichtigung der Urtheile des Publicums über die französische Revolution. Of these the latter is much the more important. The French Revolution seemed to many earnest thinkers the one great outcry of modern times for the liberty of thought and action which is the eternal heritage of every human being. Unfortunately the political condition of Germany was unfavorable to the formation of an unbiased opinion on the great movement. The principles involved in it were lost sight of under the mass of spurious maxims on social order which had slowly grown up and stiffened into system. To direct attention to the true nature of revolution, to demonstrate how inextricably the right of liberty is interwoven with the very existence of man as an intelligent agent, to point out the inherent progressiveness of state arrangements, and the consequent necessity of reform or amendment, such are the main objects of the Beiträge; and although, as is often the case with Fichte, the arguments are too formal and the distinctions too wiredrawn, yet the general idea is nobly conceived and carried out. As in the Critique of Revelation so here the rational nature of man and the conditions necessary for its manifestation or realization become the standard for critical judgment.

Towards the close of 1793 Fichte received an invitation to succeed K. L. Reinhold as extraordinary professor of philosophy at Jena. This chair, not in the ordinary faculty, had become, through Reinhold, the most important in the university, and great deliberation was exercised in selecting his successor. It was desired to secure an exponent of Kantianism, and none seemed so highly qualified as the author of the Critique of Revelation. Fichte, while accepting the call, desired to spend a year in preparation; but as this was deemed inexpedient he rapidly drew out for his students an introductory outline of his system, and began his lectures in May 1794. His success was instantaneous and complete. The fame of his predecessor was altogether eclipsed. Much of this success was due to Fichte's rare power as a lecturer. In oral exposition the vigor of thought and moral intensity of the man were most of all apparent, while his practical earnestness completely captivated his hearers. He lectured not only to his own class, but on general moral subjects to all students of the university. These general addresses, published under the title Bestimmung des Gelehrten (Vocation of the Scholar), were on a subject dear to Fichte's heart, the supreme importance of the highest intellectual culture and the duties incumbent on those who had received it. Their tone is stimulating and lofty.

The years spent at Jena were unusually productive; indeed, the completed Fichtean philosophy is contained in the writings of this period. A general introduction to the system is given in the tractate Über den Begriff der Wissenschaftslehre (On the Notion of the Theory of Science), 1794, and the theoretical portion is worked out in the Grundlage der gesammten Wissenschaftslehre (Foundation of the whole Theory of Science, 1794) and Grundriss des Eigenthümlichen d. Wissenschaftslehre (Outline of what is peculiar in the Theory of Science, 1794). To these were added in 1797 a First and a Second Introduction to the Theory of Science, and an Essay towards a new Exposition of the Theory of Science. The Introductions are masterly expositions. The practical philosophy was given in the Grundlage des Naturrechts (1796) and System der Sittenlehre (1798). The last is probably the most important of all Fichte's works; apart from it, his theoretical philosophy is unintelligible.

During this period Fichte's academic career had been troubled by various storms, the last so violent as to put a close to his professorate at Jena. The first of them, a complaint against the delivery of his general addresses on Sundays, was easily settled. The second, arising from Fichte's strong desire to suppress the Landsmannschaften (students' orders), which were productive of much harm, was more serious. Some misunderstanding caused an outburst of ignorant ill-feeling on the part of the students, who proceeded to such lengths that Fichte was compelled to reside out of Jena. The third storm, however, was the most violent. In 1798 Fichte, who, with F. I. Niethammer (1766-1848), had edited the Philosophical Journal since 1795, received from his friend F. K. Forberg (1770-1848) an essay on the "Development of the Idea of Religion." With much of the essay he entirely agreed, but he thought the exposition in so many ways defective and calculated to create an erroneous impression, that he prefaced it with a short paper On the Grounds of our Belief in a Divine Government of the Universe, in which God is defined as the moral order of the universe, the eternal law of right which is the foundation of all our being. The cry of atheism was raised, and the electoral government of Saxony, followed by all the German states except Prussia, suppressed the Journal and confiscated the copies found in their universities. Pressure was put by the German powers on Charles Augustus, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar, in whose dominions Jena university was situated, to reprove and dismiss the offenders. Fichte's defenses (Appellation an das Publicum gegen die Anklage des Atheismus, and Gerichtliche Verantwortung der Herausgeber der phil. Zeitschrift, 1799), though masterly, did not make it easier for the liberal-minded grand-duke to pass the matter over, and an unfortunate letter, in which he threatened to resign in case of reprimand, turned the scale against him. The grand-duke accepted his threat as a request to resign, passed censure, and extended to him permission to withdraw from his chair at Jena; nor would he alter his decision, even though Fichte himself endeavored to explain away the unfortunate letter.

Berlin was the only town in Germany open to him. His residence there from 1799 to 1806 was unbroken save for a course of lectures during the summer of 1805 at Erlangen, where he had been named professor. Surrounded by friends, including Schlegel and Schleiermacher, he continued his literary work, perfecting the Wissenschaftslehre. The most remarkable of the works from this period are -- (1) the Bestimmung des Menschen (Vocation of Man, 1800), a book which, for beauty of style, richness of content, and elevation of thought, may be ranked with the Meditations of Descartes; (2) Der geschlossene Handels-staat, 1800 (The Exclusive or Isolated Commercial State), a very remarkable treatise, intensely socialist in tone, and inculcating organized protection; (3) Sonnenklarer Bericht an das grössere Publicum über die neueste Philosophie, 1801. In 1801 was also written the Darstellung der Wissenschaftslehre, which was not published until after his death. In 1804 a set of lectures on the Wissenschaftslehre was given at Berlin, the notes of which were published in the Nachgelassene Werke, vol. ii. In 1804 were also delivered the noble lectures entitled Grundzüge des gegen-wärtigen Zeitalters (Characteristics of the Present Age, 1804), containing a most admirable analysis of the Aufklärung, tracing the position of such a movement of thought in the natural evolution of the general human consciousness, pointing out its inherent defects, and indicating as the ultimate goal of progress the life of reason in its highest aspect as a belief in the divine order of the universe. The philosophy of history sketched in this work has something of value with much that is fantastic. In 1805 and 1806 appeared the Wesen des Gelehrten (Nature of the Scholar) and the Anweisung zum seligen Leben oder Religions-lehre (Way to a Blessed Life), the latter the most important work of this Berlin period. In it the union between the finite self-consciousness and the infinite ego or God is handled in an almost mystical manner. The knowledge and love of God is the end of life; by this means only can we attain blessedness (Seligkeit), for in God alone have we a permanent, enduring object of desire. The infinite God is the all; the world of independent objects is the result of reflection or self-consciousness, by which the infinite unity is broken up. God is thus over and above the distinction of subject and object; our knowledge is but a reflex or picture of the infinite essence. Being is not thought.

The diasters of Prussia in 1806 drove Fichte from Berlin. He retired first to Stargard, then to Königsberg (where he lectured for a time), then to Copenhagen, whence he returned to the capital in August 1807. From this time his published writings are practical in character; not until after the appearance of the Nachgelassene Werke was it known in what shape his final speculations had been thrown out. We may here note the order of these posthumous writings as being of importance for tracing the development of Fichte's thought. From the year 1806 we have the remarkable Bericht über die Wissenschaftslehre (Werke, vol. viii.), with its sharp critique of Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling; from 1810 we have the Thatsachen des Bewusstseyns, published in 1817, of which another treatment is given in lectures of 1813 (Nachgel. Werke, vol. i.). Of the Wissenschaftslehre we have, in 1812-13, four separate treatments contained in the Nachgel. Werke. As these consist mainly of notes for lectures, couched in uncouth phraseology, they cannot be held to throw much light on Fichte's views. Perhaps the most interesting are the lectures of 1812 on Transcendental Logic (Nach. Werke, i. 106-400).

From 1812 we have notes of two courses on practical philosophy, Rechtslehre (Nach. Werke, vol. ii.) and Sittenlehre (ib. vol. iii.). A finished work in the same department is the Staatslehre, published in 1820. This gives the Fichtean utopia organized on principles of pure reason; in too many cases the proposals are identical with principles of pure despotism.

During these years, however, Fichte was mainly occupied with public affairs. In 1807 he drew up an elaborate and minute plan for the proposed new university of Berlin. In 1807-08 he delivered at Berlin, amidst danger and discouragement, his noble addresses to the German people (Reden an die deutsche Nation). Even if we think that in these pure reason is sometimes overshadowed by patriotism, we cannot but recognize the immense practical value of what he recommended as the only true foundation for national prosperity.

In 1810 he was elected rector of the new university founded in the previous year. This post he resigned in 1812, mainly on account of the difficulties he experienced in his endeavor to reform the student life of the university.

In 1813 began the great effort of Germany for national independence. Debarred from taking an active part, Fichte made his contribution by way of lectures. The addresses on the idea of a true war (Über den Begriff eines wahrhaften Kriegs, forming part of the Staatslehre) contain a very subtle contrast between the positions of France and Germany in the war.

In the autumn of 1813 the hospitals of Berlin were filled with sick and wounded from the campaign. Among the most devoted in her exertions was Fichte's wife, who, in January 1814, was attacked with a virulent hospital fever. On the day after she was pronounced out of danger Fichte was struck down. He lingered for some days in an almost unconscious state, and died on the 27th of January 1814.

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