The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Fichte, Johann Gottlieb

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Fichte, Johann Gottlieb
Edition of 1920. See also Johann Gottlieb Fichte on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

FICHTE, Johann Gottlieb, German philosopher: b. at Rammenau in Lusatia, 19 May 1762; d. Berlin, 27 Jan. 1814. He came of healthy peasant stock which had lived in the region for many generations. A tradition in the family was to the effect that a Swedish sergeant, left wounded in the village during the wars of Gustavus Adolphus, had recovered and later married the daughter of his kindly benefactor. From this marriage sprang the Fichtes, a family noted in the neighborhood for its probity and piety. Christian Fichte, Johann Gottlieb's father, married somewhat above his station. It has been suggested that a certain impatience which Fichte himself displayed throughout his life was an inheritance from his mother.

Young Fichte received the rudiments of his education from his father. He early showed remarkable ability, and it was owing to his reputation among the villagers that he gained the opportunity for a better education than he otherwise would have received. The story runs that Freiherr von Militz, a country landowner, arrived too late to hear the local pastor preach. He was, however, informed that a lad in the neighborhood would be able to repeat the sermon practically verbatim. The upshot of the affair was that the lad was taken under Von Militz's protection. He was placed in the family of Pastor Krebel at Niederau near Meissen and there received thorough grounding in the classics. The kindly home of the good pastor must have made the parting from his parents less severe than it would otherwise have been. From this time onward, Fichte saw little of his parents. In October of the year 1774, we find him at the celebrated foundation-school at Pforta near Naumberg. This famous school is associated with the names of Novalis, the Schlegels, Fichte and Nietzsche. The spirit of the institution was semi-monastic and, while the education given was excellent in its way, it is doubtful whether there was enough social life and contact with the world for a pupil of Fichte's temperament and antecedents. Perhaps his education strengthened a tendency toward introspection and independence, characteristics which appear strongly in his doctrines and writings. In 1780, he enrolled himself in the theological faculty at Jena. How far his heart was given to the career for which this was an opening it is impossible to say. His mother desired it, and it was the path of least resistance for a poor boy of pietistic heritage. It is well to bear in mind that Schelling and Hegel, two other leaders of German romantic idealism, entered philosophy from theology, a fact not without bearing upon the drift of their thinking. Fichte seems to have supported himself at this period of bitter poverty and hard struggle, years which surely had their effect upon his spirit. He now became a tutor and spent two of the happiest years of his life at Zürich in Switzerland. Here he met Johanna Rahn who was afterward to be his wife.

Thus far, Fichte had not discovered his vocation. He had already become acquainted with the philosophy of Spinoza and shown a tendency to adapt its monism to the problems of theology. This influence of Spinoza remained with him throughout his life and affected his interpretation of Kant. It was not until about 1790, however, that he studied the Kantian philosophy. In it, he at last found what he had been seeking, a satisfactory way of approach to speculative problems; a way of approach, moreover, which did justice to those moral demands which were such a dominant part of his nature. He now occupied himself with the task of thinking through the implications of the Kantian position and of perfecting it. But while he was assimilating the Kantian philosophy and preparing to develop it, fate gave him another blow. Financial reverses were suffered by the Rahn family, and the impending marriage had to be postponed. He went as a tutor to Warsaw, but was soon released. Now came his chance to see Kant at Königsberg. After a disappointing first interview, he shut himself in his lodgings and threw all his energies into the composition of an essay which would compel Kant's attention and interest. This essay, completed in five weeks, was the ‘Versuch einer Kritik aller Offenbarung’ (‘Essay toward a Critique of all Revelation’). Kant's interest was awakened and led to the publication of the essay. Fichte's name having been omitted from the title-page by accident, it was taken by reviewers for Kant's own production. Fichte's reputation was thus made as the best interpreter of the critical philosophy. In October 1793, he was married at Zürich, where he remained the rest of the year. Stirred by the events and principles of the French Revolution, he wrote and published anonymously two pamphlets which mark him as a devoted defender of liberty of thought and action and an advocate of political changes. In December of the same year, he received an invitation to fill the position of extraordinary professor of philosophy at Jena. He accepted and began his lectures in May of the next year. His success was immediate. He seems to have excelled as a lecturer because of the earnestness and force of his personality. These lectures were later published under the title ‘The Vocation of the Scholar.’ He gave himself up to intense production, and a succession of works soon appeared. Among these are his chief work, ‘Foundation of the whole Theory of Science’ (1789); ‘Theory of Morals’ (1798), and several ‘Introductions’ to his system. It is generally admitted that his theoretical philosophy reflects his practical philosophy. The primacy of the moral will is his starting-point. After weathering a couple of academic storms, he was finally dismissed as a result of a charge of atheism (1799). The whole affair was unfortunate, to say the least. For Fichte, God should be conceived primarily in moral terms. To many this seemed to rob Him of personality. Since all the German states except Prussia had joined in the cry against him, he was forced to go to Berlin. Here he associated himself with the Schlegels, Schleiermacher, Schelling and Tieck. The disaster at Jena in which Napoleon completely crushed the Prussian army drove him abroad for a time, but he returned the next year (1807) and continued his literary activity. The deplorable situation of Germany stirred him to the depths and led him to deliver the famous ‘Addresses to the German Nation’ (1808) which guided the uprising against Napoleon. He became a professor of the new university at Berlin founded in 1809, and its rector in the succeeding year. But, once more, his impetuosity and reforming zeal led to friction, and he resigned in 1812. The campaign against Napoleon began, and the hospitals at Berlin were soon full of patients. Fichte's wife devoted herself to nursing and caught a virulent fever. Just as she was recovering, he, himself, was stricken down. He did not have the force to recover and died 27

Fichte's philosophy was a speculative development of certain aspects of Kant's doctrines. It can best be understood when considered an audacious attempt to simplify the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ in the light of the ‘Critique of Practical Reason.’ Fichte's genius was ethical, as we have already pointed out, and he instinctively took the active ego of the second Critique as his point of departure. For a proper appreciation of the importance of this remodeling and speculative interpretation of Kantianism, a brief analysis of the structure of the latter philosophy is necessary. Kant began his constructive thinking in an attempt to meet Hume's atomistic sensationalism. His problem was to determine how an assumed manifold of sense could be organized into the world of law and order with which science is acquainted. Only, Kant argued by the agency of a synthetic ego working through a priori forms such as space, time, substance, causality, etc., which are contributed by the mind. These forms were painstakingly enumerated and grouped together by him, but he was unable to deduce them from the ego or relate them to it in a satisfactory way. Moreover, he granted the existence of things-in-themselves, outside of experience and unknown, yet productive of the manifold of sense which the mind had to weave into an ordered phenomenal realm. Fichte believed that Kant had not been critical enough of his assumptions and had consequently failed to produce the harmonious system which a deeper insight could yield. His double clue was to reject the thing-in-itself and so to interpret the active ego as to make it the source of the structure of experience. The result of this double reform was the speculative type of ethical idealism which appears in the ‘Wissenschaftslehre.’

The fundamental principle of his theory of knowledge is, that there can be nothing in the ego which is not a product of the activity of the ego. Kant had accepted a manifold of sense foreign to the ego. Fichte rejects this as pure dogmatism. If the ego alone is active, it is impossible to account for the origin of our ideas by means of a non-ego, for this would be passive and incapable of originating anything. The careful reader who is acquainted with the history of philosophy will realize that we have here the same motive which led Berkeley to reject matter and Leibnitz to substitute monads for Descartes' extended substance. Having chosen idealism, Fichte proceeds to deduce the general character of experience from the laws of the ego's activity. The ego is the veritable essence of our nature and, in moments of carefully prepared intuition its free, spiritual energy can be glimpsed welling up within us. Such an intuition requires effort and a character distinguished by self-reliance. The reader should again note a parallel. M. Henri Bergson's philosophy stresses just such a prepared effort of intuition. The first act of the ego is to posit itself. But there is much in experience besides the ego, much which we are not aware of producing. Hence, another principle is necessary. The ego posits a non-ego. But analysis of consciousness shows that the empirical ego is a limited ego in relation with a limited non-ego. We are thus led to a third principle: The ego posits a limited ego in opposition to a limited non-ego. These three principles are fundamental for Fichte and constitute together an example of his antithetical method.

In order to bring out the speculative, or aprioristic, tone of his thinking, it may be well to give an example of that deduction of the forms of the mind which he put in the place of Kant's scholastic enumeration. The form of time arises when the different acts of the ego occur in such a manner as to be dependent on each other in a definite order. As Höffding points out, Fichte did not have a rich enough psychology at his disposal and he was tempted into arbitrary applications of his principles and method.

Two questions of extreme significance for the interpretation of Fichte's philosophy remain: What is the relation of the limited empirical ego to the infinite ego? Why does the ego posit a non-ego? In answer to the first question it is best to admit that Fichte assumes an infinite ego which works within us and which is more than we are. Had he a right to call this something an ego? It seems that, in his later years, mysticism more and more triumphed and he drifted toward Spinoza, the inspirer of his earliest thinking. The answer to the second question brings the ethical bias of his system into relief. The ego limits itself by the non-ego in order that it may have a field of opposition against which it may struggle and so develop itself. We may connect with this idea the ethical law which he formulates somewhat as follows: Every particular action must form a part of a series which leads me to complete spiritual freedom.

Fichte's ethics may be characterized as a vitalizing of the rather formal teaching of Kant. Duty is grounded upon the capacity for self-reliant freedom which man possesses; it is never rightly that which is urged upon the individual by authority and so from the outside. True freedom is an achievement which creates or realizes itself. Fichte succeeds in giving this outlook a social setting which looks to the coöperation of personalities as the goal. In this connection, it is of interest to note that his book ‘Der geschlossene Handelsstaat’ (The Exclusive Industrial State’) is one of the first in which what is now called state socialism was advocated. No international trade is to be permitted in order that the internal growth of each nation may take a natural course. The aim of the state should be to assign to every individual the means to culture and genuine freedom.

Bibliography. — ‘Sammtliche Werke,’ edited by his son J. H. Fichte (8 vols., Berlin 1845-46); also ‘Nachgelassene Werke’ (3 vols., Bonn 1834-35); Fichte‘s ’Popular Works' (tr. by W. Smith, 4th ed., London 1889); Kroeger, A. F., ‘The Science of Knowledge’ (translations of the ‘Grundlage der gesammten Wissenschaftslehre’; ‘Grundriss des Eigenthumlichen der Wissenschaftslehre,’ etc., London 1889); ‘The Science of Rights’ (id. 1889). The following are important critical works: Adamson, ‘Fichte’ (London 1881); Everett, C. C, ‘Fichte's Science of Knowledge’ (Chicago 1884); Weber, M., ‘Fichtes Sozialismus und sein Verhaltnis zur Marx'schen Doctrin’ (1900). Consult also Höffding, ‘History of Modern Philosophy.’

Roy W. Sellars,
Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of Michigan.


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JOHANN GOTTLIEB FICHTE