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  • 5/12/2004
Johann Gottlieb Fichte
(5/19/1762- 1/27/1814)

Fichte was born May 19, 1762 in the village of Rammenau in the Oberlausitz area of Saxony. He was the eldest son in a family of poor and pious ribbon weavers. His extraordinary intellectual talent soon brought him to the attention of a local baron, who sponsored his education, first in the home of a local pastor, then at the famous Pforta boarding school, and finally at the universities of Jena and Leipzig. With the death of his patron, Fichte was forced to discontinue his studies and seek his livelihood as a private tutor, a profession he quickly came to detest.

Following a lengthy sojourn in Zurich, were he met his future wife, Johanna Rahn, Fichte returned to Leipzig with the intention of pursuing a literary career. When his projects failed, he was again forced to survive as a tutor. It was in this capacity that he began giving lessons on the Kantian philosophy in the summer of 1790. This first encounter with Kant's writings produced what Fichte himself described as a "revolution" in his manner of thinking. Whereas he had formally been torn between, on the one hand, a practical commitment to the moral improvement of humanity and, on the other, a theoretical commitment to "intelligible fatalism," he found in the Critical philosophy a way of reconciling his "head" and "heart" in a system that could meet the highest intellectual standards without requiring him to sacrifice his belief in human freedom.

Fichte eventually made his way to Königsberg, where he lived for a few months. After a disappointing interview with Kant, he resolved to demonstrate his mastery of the latter's philosophy by writing a treatise on a theme as yet unaddressed by Kant: namely, the question of the compatibility of the Critical philosophy with any concept of divine revelation. In a few weeks Fichte composed a remarkable manuscript in which he concluded that the only revelation consistent with the Critical philosophy is the moral law itself. Kant was sufficiently impressed by the talent of this unknown and impoverished young man to offer to arrange for the publication of Fichte's manuscript, which was published by Kant's own publisher in 1792 under the titleAttempt at a Critique of All Revelation. The first edition of this work, however, for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, appeared without the author's name and preface and was quickly and widely hailed as a work by Kant himself. When the true identity of its author was revealed, Fichte was immediately catapulted from total obscurity to philosophical celebrity.

Meanwhile, Fichte was once again employed as a private tutor, this time on an estate near Danzig, where he wrote several, anonymously published political tracts. The first of these was published in 1793 with the provocative titleReclamation of the Freedom of Thought from the Princes of Europe, who have hitherto Suppressed it. In the summer of 1793 Fichte returned to Zurich where he married his fiancé and oversaw the publication of the first two installments of his spiritedContribution to the Rectification of the Public's Judgment of the French Revolution (1793 and 1794). In this work he not only defended the principles (if not all the practices) of the French revolutionaries, but also attempted to outline his own democratic view of legitimate state authority and insisted on the right of revolution. Despite the fact that these political writings were published anonymously, the author's identity was widely known, and Fichte thereby acquired a reputation, not wholly deserved, as a radical "Jacobin."

Following the completion of these projects, Fichte devoted his time in Zurich to concentrated efforts to rethink and to revise his own philosophical position. While maintaining his allegiance to the new Critical or Kantian philosophy, Fichte was powerfully impressed by the efforts of K. L. Reinhold to provide the Critical philosophy with a new, more secure "foundation" and to base the entire system upon a single "first principle." At the same time, he became acquainted with the works of two authors who were engaged in skeptical attacks upon the philosophies of both Kant and Reinhold: Solomon Maimon and G. E. Schulze ("Aenesidemus"). It was the need to respond to the sharp criticisms of these authors that eventually led Fichte to construct his own, unique version of transcendental idealism, for which, in the spring of 1794, he eventually coined the nameWissenschaftslehre ("Doctrine of Science" or "Theory of Scientific Knowledge").

It was at precisely this moment that he received an invitation to assume the recently vacated chair of Critical Philosophy at the University of Jena, which was rapidly emerging as the capital of the new German philosophy. Fichte arrived in Jena in May of 1794, and enjoyed tremendous popular success there for the next six years, during which time he laid the foundations and developed the first systematic articulations of his new system. Even as he was engaged in this immense theoretical labor, he also tried to address a larger, popular audience and also threw himself into various practical efforts to reform university life. As one bemused colleague observed, "his is a restless spirit; he thirsts for some opportunity to act in the world. Fichte wants to employ his philosophy to guide the spirit of his age." Indeed, a passionate desire to "have an effect" upon his own age remained a central feature of Fichte's character, most notably expressed a decade later in his celebratedAddresses to the German Nation, delivered in Berlin in 1806 during the French occupation. In Jena, this same desire is reflected in the enormously popular series of public lectures on "Morality for Scholars," which he began to deliver immediately upon his arrival in Jena. The first five of these lectures were published in 1794 under the titleSome Lectures concerning the Scholar's Vocation.

Though Fichte has already hinted at his new philosophical position in his 1794 review of G. E,. Schulze'sAenesidemus, the first full-scale announcement of the same came in a short manifesto that he published as a means of introducing himself to his students and colleagues and attracting listeners to his lectures. (As an "extraordinary professor," Fichte was largely dependent upon fees paid by students attending his "private" lectures.) This manifesto,Concerning the Concept of the Wissenschaftslehre (1794), articulated some of the basic ideas of the new philosophy, but it mainly focused upon questions of systematic form and the foundations of the same.

Fichte's first truly systematic work was his Foundation of the Entire Wissenschaftslehre (1794/95). As the title implies, this work, which remains to this day Fichte's best-known philosophical treatise, was not meant to be a presentation of his entire system, but only of the rudiments or first principles of the same. In fact, Fichte had not originally intended to publish this work at all, which was written less than a year after his first tentative efforts to articulate for himself his new conception of transcendental philosophy. TheFoundation was originally intended to be distributed, in fascicles, to students attending his private lectures during his first two semesters at Jena, where the printed sheets could be subjected to analysis and questions and supplemented with oral explanations. Because of the great interest in Fichte's new philosophy, however, he soon authorized a public edition of the same, in two volumes. Parts I and II of theFoundation were published in 1794 and Part II in 1795. In 1795 he also published a substantial supplement to the Foundation, under the titleOutline of the Distinctive Character of the Wissenschaftslehre with Respect to the Theoretical Faculty. The title pages of all three of these publications, however, still stipulated that they were intended only as "a manuscript for the use of his listeners." (When, in 1802, Fichte issued a second, one-volume edition of theFoundation andOutline, in 1801, this subtitle was dropped.)

Dissatisfied with many features of his initial presentation of the "foundational" portion of his system and surprised and shocked by the virtually universal misunderstanding of his published Foundation, Fichte immediately set to work on an entirely new exposition of the same, which he repeated three times in his private lectures on "The Foundations of Transcendental Philosophy (Wissenschaftslehre) nova methodo" (1796/76, 1797/98, 1798/99). Though he intended to revise these lectures for serial publication under the titleAn Attempt a New Presentation of the Wissenschaftslehre in the Philosophisches Journal einer Gesellschaft Teutscher Gelehrten, of which he himself was by then co-editor, only the two Introductions to and the first chapter of this "New Presentation" ever appeared (1797/98).

Even as he was thoroughly revising his presentation of the foundational portion of his system, Fichte was simultaneously engaged in elaborating the various subdivisions or systematic branches of the same. As was his custom, he did this first in his private lectures and then in published texts based upon the same. The first such extension was into the realm of philosophy of law and social philosophy, which resulted in the publication ofFoundation of Natural Right in accordance with the Principles of the Wissenschaftslehre (published in two volumes in 1796 and 1797). The second was into the realm of moral philosophy, which resulted in the publication of theSystem of Ethical Theory in accordance with the Principles of the Wissenschaftslehre (1798). At this point, Fichte's own plans called for him to extend his system into the realm of philosophy of religion. He announced lectures on this topic for the Spring Semester of 1799, but before he could commence these lectures, his career at Jena had come to an abrupt and unhappy conclusion in the wake of the so-called "Atheism Controversy" of 1798/99.

In 1798 Fichte published in hisPhilosophical Journal a brief essay "On the Basis of Our Belief in a Divine Governance of the World," in which he attempted to sketch some of his preliminary ideas on the topic indicated in the title and simultaneously to give the first clear public hint of the character of a philosophy of religion "in accordance with the principles of theWissenschaftslehre." The occasion for this essay was another essay, published in the same issue of thePhilosophical Journal, by K. L. Forberg. As it happened, these two essays provoked an anonymous author to publish a pamphlet charging the authors with atheism and demanding Fichte's dismissal from his post at Jena. The matter quickly escalated into a major public controversy which eventually led to the official suppression of the offending issue of the journal and to public threats by various German princes to prevent their students from enrolling at the University of Jena. The crisis produced by these actions and the growing number of publications for and against Fichte -- which included an intemperateAppeal to the Public by Fichte himself (1799), as well as a more thoughtful response entitled "From a Private Letter" (1799) - eventually provoked F. H. Jacobi to publish his famous "open letter" to Fichte, in which he equated philosophy in general and Fichte's transcendental philosophy in particular with "nihilism." As the public controversy unfolded, Fichte badly miscalculated his own position and was finally forced to resign his position at Jena and to flee to Berlin, where he arrived in the summer of 1799.

At this point, the Prussian capital had no university of its own, and Fichte was forced to support himself by giving private tutorials and lectures on theWissenschaftslehre and by a new flurry of literary production, increasingly aimed at a large, popular audience. The first of these "popular" writings was a brilliant presentation of some of the characteristic doctrines and conclusions of Fichte's system, with a strong emphasis upon the moral and religious character of the same. This work,The Vocation of Man (1800), which is perhaps Fichte's greatest literary achievements, was intended as an indirect response to Jacobi's public repudiation of theWissenschaftslehre. That same year also saw the publication of a typically bold foray into political economy,The Closed Commercial State, in which Fichte propounds a curious blend of socialist political ideas and autarkic economic principles. Defending his philosophy against misunderstanding remained, however, Fichte's chief concern during this period, as is evidenced by the more direct response to Jacobi contained in his poignantly titledSun-Clear Report to the Public at Large concerning the Actual Character of the latest Philosophy: An Attempt to Force the Reader to Understand (1801).

At the same time that he was addressing the public in this manner, Fichte was becoming ever more deeply engrossed in efforts to rethink and to rearticulate the very foundations of his system, beginning with his private lectures on theWissenschaftslehre of 1801/2, and culminating in the three, radically new versions of the same produced during the year 1804. Indeed, he continued to produce new versions of theWissenschaftslehre right up until his death. However, with the single exception of the extraordinarily condensed (and extraordinarily opaque)Presentation of the General Outlines of the Wissenschaftslehre (1810), none of these later versions of theWissenschaftslehre was published during Fichte's lifetime. Some of them appeared, in severely edited form, in the collection of Fichte'sWorks published by his son several decades following his death, but most of them are only now being published for the first time in the critical edition of Fichte's writings produced by the Bavarian Academy of the Sciences. It appears that Fichte was so discouraged by the public reception of the first, 1794/95 presentation of the foundation of his system that he concluded that it was prudent to limit future new presentations of the same to the lecture hall and seminar room, where he could elicit reactions and objections from his listeners and respond immediately with the requisite corrections and clarifications. Be that as it may, Fichte never stopped trying to refine his philosophical insights and to revise his systematic presentation of the same. Their are more than a dozen different full-scale presentations or versions of theWissenschaftslehre, most of which were written after his departure from Jena. "TheWissenschaftslehre" is not the name of a book; it is the name of a system of philosophy, one capable of being expounded in a variety of different ways.

In 1805 Fichte spend a semester as a professor at the University of Erlangen, but returned to Berlin in the fall of that year. The next year, 1806, he published in rapid succession three popular and well-received books, all of which were based upon earlier series of public lectures that he had delivered in Berlin:On the Essence of the Scholar (a reworking of some of the same themes first addressed in the similarly titled lectures of 1794);The Characteristics of the Present Age (an attempt to show the implications of his "system of freedom" for a speculative philosophy of history); andGuide to the Blessed Life (an eloquent and rather mystical treatise on philosophy and religion). Taken together, these three "popular" works are remarkable blends of speculative profundity and rhetorical eloquence.

With the entry of the French army of occupation into Berlin in 1806, Fichte joined the Prussian government in exile in Königsberg, where he delivered yet another course of lectures on the Wissenschaftslehre and wrote an important short book onMachiavelli as Author (1807), which defends a form ofRealpolitik that at least appears to contrast quite starkly with the liberalism and political idealism of Fichte's earlier political writings. Fichte soon returned to occupied Berlin, however, where, in the winter of 1807/8, he delivered his celebratedAddresses to the German Nation (published in 1808). Though these lectures later obtained a place of dubious honor as founding documents in the history of German nationalism, they are mainly concerned with the issue of national identity (and particularly with the relationship between language and nationality) and the question of national education (which is the main topic of the work) -- both understood as means toward a larger, cosmopolitan end.

Fichte had always had a lively interest in pedagogical issues and assumed a leading role in planning the new Prussian university to be established in Berlin (though his own detailed plans for the same were eventually rejected in favor of those put forward by Wilhelm von Humboldt). When the new university finally opened in 1810, Fichte was the first head of the philosophical faculty as well as the first elected rector of the university. His final years saw no diminishment in the pace either of his public activity or of his philosophical efforts. He continued to produce new lectures on the foundations and first principles of his system, as well as new introductory lectures on philosophy in general ("Logic and Philosophy" [1812] and "The Facts of Consciousness" [1813]), political philosophy ("System of the Theory of Right" [1812] and ‘Theory of the State’ [1813]) and ethics ("System of Ethical Theory" [1812]). As presaged perhaps by his earlier book on Machiavelli, these late forays into the domain of practical philosophy betray a far darker view of human nature and defend a more authoritarian view of the state than anything to be found in Fichte's earlier, published writings on these subject.

In 1813 Fichte canceled his lectures so that his students could enlist in the "War of Liberation" against Napoleon, of which Fichte himself proved to be an indirect casualty. From his wife, who was serving as a volunteer nurse in a Berlin military hospital, he contracted a fatal infection of which he died on January 29, 1814.

Taken from:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/johann-fichte/Also see:

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