Fichte, Johann Gottlieb
Fichte, Johann Gottlieb a German philosopher, was born May 19, 1762, at the village of Rammenau, near Bischofswerda, in Lusatia. The baron Miltetz, struck with the promise of the boy, assumed the charge of his education. At thirteen he was placed in the gymnasium of Schulpforte, and ,while there he imbibed (from reading Lessing) a spirit of free inquiry which animated his whole intellectual life. At eighteen he entered the University of Jena as a student of theology, and while there he seems to have adopted the philosophy and theology of Spinoza. But the sense of " personality" soon lifted him out of that abyss. The death of baron Miltetz threw him on his own resources, and privation added strength to his character. For a while he was tutor in a family at Zurich, and in 1790 he went to Leipzig, where he suffered greatly from poverty. "I have nothing," he writes, "excepting courage left." Kant's Kritik der reinen Vernunft (the Criticism of Pure Reason) wrought a revolution in his mode of thinking, and freed his mind entirely from the remains of Determinism. "I now heartily believe in the freedom of man, and. am well convinced that it is only on this supposition that duty, virtue, and morality is so much as possible .... It is now evident to me that the doctrine of the necessity of all human actions is the source of a great part of the immorality of the so-called higher classes" (Letter to Achelis, 1790). In 1791 he went to Warsaw to fill a place as private tutor, but soon threw it up in disgust, and' on his way home stopped at Konigsberg to visit Kant (June, 1791). Not finding at first a very cordial reception, he wrote, between July 13 and Aug. 18, his Kritik aller Offenbarung (Criticism of all possible Revelation), and laid it before Kant, as an introduction of " his mind" to that philosopher. Kant was, indeed, conciliated; but yet, when Fichte soon after asked for a small loan to help him forward, Kant refused. The book appeared in the spring of 1792, and attracted universal attention. It was everywhere ascribed to Kant, who was compelled to name Fichte as the author, in order to disclaim it completely for himself. The work seeks to determine the necessary conditions under which revelation must be given by God to man, and to lay down the criteria by which every professed revelation must be tested. In October, 1792, Fichte was married, and took up his abode with his father-in-law (Rahn) at Zurich, where he spent several months. Here he published a work on the French Revolution (1793, 2 vols.), in which he advocated the modern principle that no political constitution can be unchangeable; and that the best constitution is that which carries in itself the principle of progress, and provides a method for its own change and improvement. He was charged with Jacobinism and democracy on account of this work. In 1794 he became professor of philosophy at Jena, as successor of Reinhold. His lectures awakened great enthusiasm among the students. Part of them were published under the title Die Bestimmung des Gelehrten (transl. by W. Smith, The Vocation of the Scholar, London, 1847, 12mo). In 1795 he published Wissenschacfislehre (Doctrine of Knowledge), and in 1798 his Sittenlehre (Doctrine of Ethics). The freedom and novelty of the doctrines taught in these lectures, together with the fact that he delivered many of them on Sunday (see below), brought upon him a charge of atheism, which he vigorously repelled in his Appellation gegen die Anklage des Atheismus. Nevertheless, he was compelled to resign his chair in 1799. He went to Berlin and delivered private lectures, which were very popular; and in 1800 he published his Bestimmung des Menschen (transl. by Mrs. Sinnett under the title The Destination of Man, Lond. 1846,12mo). In 1805 he held the chair of philosophy at Erlangen for a few months. Between 1805 and 1807 he published lectures, Ueber das Wesen des Gelehrten (transl. by W. Smith under the title The Nature of the Scholar and its Manifestations, Lend. 1854, 12mo); lectures delivered at Berlin on Grundzige des gegenwdrtiges Zeitatters (transl. by W. Smith, The Characteristics of the present Age, London, 1847, 12mo); and Anwzeisung zum seligen Leben, oder die Religionslehre, the most important of his later writings, as giving what he considered to be the ethical and religious results of his philosophy (translated by W. Smith, The Way towards the blessed Life, or the Doctrine of Religion, London, 1849, 12mo). Returning to. Berlin in 1807, he published Reden an die Deutsche Nation (Addresses to the German People), which awakened great political enthusiasm. On the restoration of peace he was called by the king to aid in reorganizing the University of Berlin, and in 1810 he was made rector of the university, which then included among its faculty Schleiermacher, Neander, De Wette, Von Humboldt, and other brilliant names. During the subjection of Germany to Napoleon, much of Fichte's time and thoughts were given to politics; his patriotism was pure, fervent, and self-sacrificing. After the great battles of 1813, the hospitals were filled with wounded men, and his wife was an assiduous and devoted nurse. She was seized with typhoid fever early in 1814, and her husband imbibed the infection from her; she recovered, but he died, Jan. 27, 1814. His son, Immanuel Hermann (born in 1797), inherited his father's aptitudes to a certain extent, has edited his works, and has also vindicated him from the charge of atheism and irreligion. Besides the works of J. G. Fichte already mentioned, we name Grundlage des Natur-Rechts (Jena, 1767-9, 2 parts):-Die Thatsacheen des Bewusstseyns (Stuttgard, 1817). The following were edited by his son after his death: Nachgelassene Werke (Bonn, 1834, 3 vols.) :-Religions philosophische Schriften (Berlin, 1847): - Popularphilos. Schriften (Berlin, 1807, 7 vols.):-Briefwechsel mit Schelling (Stuttgard, 1856) :-J. G. Fichte's Sammtliche Werke (Berlin, 1845 sq. 8 vols.).
We can give only a summary view of the attempt of Fichte to found a complete philosophy. Historically he stands between Kant and Hegel, and forms the point of transition from the, one to the other. "The end which Fichte proposes to himself in his Wissenschaftslehre is to give to science a true, that is to say, an absolute principle, reposing only upon itself, and leaving a basis to all the rest. Here the idealism of Kant is accepted in all its rigor. There is no longer any arbitrarily supposed objective element, even as a simple phenomenon. All is severely deduced from the subject, the sole term of knowledge admitted by idealism. Fichte's problem is just this: to bring out philosophy whole and entire from the Ego; and this bold reasoner proposes to give his deduction a more than mathematical exactitude. Algebra rests upon the law of identity, which is thus expressed: A=A. Fichte maintains that this law implies another, the only one which a philosopher is entitled to admit without proof, and also the only one which he requires: Me=Me. When you say A=A, you intend to affirm nothing upon the existence of A. You only affirm that if A is A, A can be nothing else than A. The proposition A=A is therefore, says Fichte, absolute only in its form, and. not in its matter or contents. I know not if A exists practically and materially or not; but it matters not. I am formally certain that given A, A cannot differ from A, and that there is necessary relation between these two terms. It is by the analysis of this relation that Fichte undertakes to prove the existence of Ego. In the proposition A-A, he argues, the first A is not considered under the same point of view as the second. The first A, as we have seen, is laid down conditionally, the second absolutely. What reduces these two terms to unity, puts them in a certain relation, judges, affirms, and constitutes this relation? Evidently the Ego. Take away the Ego, and you take away the -relation, the two terms, the proposition A=A. Above it, then, there is a higher and more immediate truth. The principle of identity is only absolute inform; the principle Me =Me is absolute both inform and matter; it alone is truly absolute. I need not follow Fichte in the course of his deduction, the most subtle and artificial which can-be conceived. It is enough for me to know that he pushed to the utmost the range idea of deducing a vast system of philosophy from this one principle, the Ego. The Ego alone is the principle, explaining, laying down, creating itself. I know not whether I should wonder more at the excess of extravagance to which the human mind may be carried, or at the amazing richness of its resources. By Kant it was condemned to be ignorant of the universe and of God, locked up is the prison of the Ego. Let him alone. This one reserved point will give him back all the rest. From the furthest limits of skepticism he will even pass to the most absolute dogmatism. But a little while ago he doubted of everything. Now he vaunts, not merely that he knows: Nature, but that he creates her. Nay, he vaunts that be creates God. Such are the very expressions, at once absurd and logical, of Fichte. He draws nature and God from the Eye. The Ego implies the Non-Ego. It limits itself. It is only itself by opposing to itself another which is not itself. It poses itself only by opposing its contrary. It is itself the link of this opposition, the synthesis of this antinomy. In fact, if the Ego only exists for itself the faculty of self- limitation which it possesses implies that, in itself, it is infinite and illimitable. Beyond the divisible and relative Ego, opposed to the Non-Ego, there is, therefore, an absolute Ego, comprising nature and scan. This absolute Ego is God. Here, then, is thought in possession of its three essential objects; here are man, nature, and God, in their necessary relation, members of one identical thought, with three terms, at once separated and reconciled; here is a philosophy' worthy of the name; a rigorous, demonstrated, homogeneous science, starting from one great principle to follow out and to exhaust all its consequences.
"Such, in its general principle, is the metaphysics of Fichte. His morality is a logical, though perhaps unforeseen consequence of this. It is founded upon the Ego, whose eminent characteristic is liberty. To preserve one's own liberty, one's Ego is duty-; to respect the Ego, the liberty of others, is another not less sacred duty- which becomes the foundation of right. Hence the noble stoicism of Fichte, and that passion for liberty, which were in such perfect harmony with the masculine strength of his character and the generous part which he played in the political affairs of Germany. But the importance of the system of Fichte does not lie here. I find his greatness and originality in the extraordinary metaphysics so justly and boldly called by himself subjective absolute idealism. It has this singular feature, that in pushing the scepticism of Kant to its extremest consequences, it prepares the way for the dogmatism of Schelling and of Hegel. Not only does it prepare the way for, but even begins and contains this dogmatism. Fichte openly aspires to absolute science. He explains all things-man, nature, and God. He leads German philosophy, if I may Venture to say so, from the subjective to the objective by the subjective itself. From absolute scepticism he flings it into an enormous dogmatism. Setting out from a teaching so timid that it scarcely ventures to affirm one actual being, it is the prelude of that ambitious philosophy which embraces in its enormous frameworks the history of man and that of nature, and pretends to an unmeasured, unreserved, and universal explanation of all things" (Saisset, Modern Pantheism, Edinb. 1863, ii, 2 sq.).
On the relations of Fichte's life and works to theology and to the Christian Church, we make the following extracts from Hagenbach, German Rationalism (transl. by Gage and Stuckenberg, N. Y. 1865): " It would certainly be doing Fichte injustice to interpret his system to mean that he wished to make himself, J. G. Fichte, God. We might say with more propriety that Fichte, like Spinoza, denied the existence of God only in order to conceive him more spiritually; stripping off all associations of created things from the idea of the Creator, lest he should be dragged down into the sphere of the finite. The humans mind is too apt to think of God in an anthropomorphitic manner. Fichte was a teacher of academic youth. At his feet sat many who were destined to proclaim to Christian congregations the God of the Gospel; a God who is only Creator if there are creatures of his creation, who has called a world into being, not as a visionary world but as an actual and real one; a world in which sin, misery, and affliction appear but too real, from which the mere imagination that they do not exist cannot save us, but which can only- be removed by a higher reality, a divine fact, by God's act of love, as it appears historically is the redemption through Christ. If now the ground were taken from under the feet of those destined to proclaim such a doctrine, if nothing religious remained for them but their miserable Ego, of which they were not even as fully and energetically conscious as Fichte of his, must not many just scruples have arisen in the minds of those, too, who were not accustomed to restrain the freedom of investigation hastily? Hence Fichte was charged With no less an error than atheism, and to this day the learned are not agreed whether this oft-abused term may be applied to Fichte's system as represented in his Wissenschaftslehre. To this must be added, as Fichte himself remarks, that his democracy was as much a thorn in the eyes of his opponents as his atheism. The fact that he disregarded all established customs offended many. He chose Sunday for delivering moral lectures to the students. In this the Consistory of Weimar, of which at that time Herder was a member, thought they recognised the secret intention of gradually undermining public worship, although Fichte protested solemnly against this, and appealed to the example of Gellert, whose moral lectures had also been delivered on Sunday, and why not then the philosophical lecture-room? The dispute about reading lectures on Sunday was, however, only the prelude to a fiercer contest. Fichte published a work On the Grounds our Faith in the Divine Government of the World, in which the moral order of the world was denoted as God, and the assertion was made that we need and can conceive of no other God. 'The existence of this God cannot be doubted; it is the most certain of all things, and the ground of all other certainty; but the idea of God as a particular substance is impossible and contradictory-. It is proper to say this candidly to strike down the prating of the schools, so that the true religion of doing right cheerfully may be elevated. Many pious minds, of course, took offence at these expressions. Although Fichte might be satisfied with this moral order of the world, the Christian's faith in, God, a faith, too, in 'doing right cheerfully,' but at the same time in a real God, could by no means be content with this philosophical theory. This faith would not, however, have been destroyed by this theory, even if no interdiction had been issued against it. Such an interdiction appeared. The book in which Fichte advocated the theory of the divine order of the world was attacked in the electorate of Saxony, and from this place the attention of the court at Weimar was called to the dangers of Fichte's doctrine, 'as one not only openly hostile to the Christian, but even to natural religion.'... It is remarkable in the case of Fichte that, after he had removed himself farthest from the common Christian feeling, he was led nearer and nearer it again.... After Fichte had called attention to the deep importance of faith, in the book Die Bestimmung des Menschen; after he had pointed out the importance of Christianity as the only true religion in the history, and the great importance of the Christian state, in the Grundzuge des gegenwartigen Zeitalters, he attempted, especially in his Anweisungen zum seligen Leben, oder Religionslehre, to prove the agreement of his: philosophy of that time with the principles of Christianity, which he regarded in a light entirely different from Kant. Kant and the Rationalists placed the essence of Christianity chiefly in morality and the fulfilment of the moral law, and, in accordance with this, esteemed and used with a special predilection those passages in Scripture in which the various moral precepts are drawn in distinct outlines, as, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount, and several parables of Jesus in the first three gospels (while they' had no taste for John, who appeared to them a mystic); Fichte, on the other hand, threw himself on the fourth gospel, and regarded it as the only true source of the genuine doctrine of Christ; he, of course, did this in a one- sided manner, and with a denial of the other truths of Scripture, Which belong fully as much to the totality of Christian doctrine and history as the gospel of John. The person of Jesus had with him a signification entirely different from that of the Rationalists. He does not behold in him the teacher of morality, nor simply the moral example. No; exactly that oneness with God, as Christ expresses it in' the gospel of John, exactly that real unity with the Father which the Rationalists desired to remove as a metaphysical formula of no use to morality was to him the heart and the star-- of the Gospel. On this account he held himself so closely to John and his doctrine of the Logos having become flesh, in which he beheld the fulness of all religious knowledge. We should, however, make a great mistake if from this we concluded that Fichte agreed with the old orthodox doctrine in reference to Christ. What this doctrine regarded as a historical fact, which had occurred once, that Fichte regarded as a fact eternally repeating itself, as occurring in every religious man. Christ was not the Saviour to him in the old sense; he was only the representative of that which is continually occurring still. The eternal Word becomes flesh at all times, in every one, without exception, who understands, in a living manner, his oneness with God, and who really yields his entire individual life to the divine life in living quite in the same manner as in Christ Jesus. In the house of the distinguished philosopher, each day, without exception, was closed with proper and solemn evening devotions, in which the domestics were also accustomed to take a part. After several, verses had been sung from a choral-book, accompanies with the clavichord, the father of the family would make some remarks on some passage of the New Testament, most frequently on his favorite gospel of John. In these discourses he was less concerned about moral applications and rules of life than about freeing the mind from the distraction and vanity of the common affairs of life, and elevating the spirit to the eternal." Dorner regards Fichte as closing what he calls the period of "reflection" in philosophy by his theory of absolute subjective idealism; and holds the later form of Fichte's teaching to be Spinozistic, as denying the idea of a self-conscious God distinct from the world (Person of Christ, Edinb. transl., div. ii, co-l. iii, 93 sq.).
Literature.-Besides the works already mentioned, see J. H. Fichte, J. G. Fichte's Leben (Sulzbach, 1830); T. H. Fichte, Karakteristik d. neuesten Philosophie (Sulzbach, 1841); Erdmann, Entwickelung d. deutschen Speculation seit Kant (vol. i); W. Smith, Memoir of J. G. Fichte (Lond. 1848, 2d ed. 12mo); Christian Examiner, May, 1841, p. 192 sq.; Foreign Quart. Rev. Oct. 1845; Living Age, c-i, 162; 30:193; Tennemann, Manual Hist. Phil. (ed. Bohn), § 4C0-415; Morell, Mod. Philosophy, ch. v, § 2; Lewes, History of Philosophy (Lond. 1867, 3d ed.). ii, 490. sq.; Krug, Allg. Handworterbuch d. philos. Wissenschaften, ii, 31 sq.; Saintes, History of Rationalism, bk. ii, ch. xiii; Schwegler, Hist. of Philosophy, transl. by Seelye, § 41; Lasson, J. G. Fichte im Verhaltniss zu Kirche und Staat (Berl. 1863) Kahnis German Protestantism, bk. i, ch. iv; M'Cosh, Intuitions (see Index); Mills, in Christian Examiner, July, 1866. Fichte's Wissenschaftslehre has recently been admirably translated by A. E. Kroeger,. under the title The Science of Knowledge (Philadelphia, 1868, 12mo).