Johann Gottlieb Fichte  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (May 19, 1762January 27, 1814) was a German philosopher. He was one of the founding figures of the philosophical movement known as German idealism, a movement that developed from the theoretical and ethical writings of Immanuel Kant. Fichte is often perceived as a figure whose philosophy forms a bridge between the ideas of Kant and the German Idealist Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Recently, philosophers and scholars have begun to appreciate Fichte as an important philosopher in his own right due to his original insights into the nature of self-consciousness or self-awareness. Like Descartes and Kant before him, the problem of subjectivity and consciousness motivated much of his philosophical rumination. Fichte also wrote political philosophy, and is thought of by some as the father of German nationalism.

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Fichte's philosophy

In mimicking Kant's difficult style, his critics argued that Fichte produced works that were barely intelligible. "He made no hesitation in pluming himself on his great skill in the shadowy and obscure, by often remarking to his pupils, that 'there was only one man in the world who could fully understand his writings; and even he was often at a loss to seize upon his real meaning.'" This remark was often mistakenly attributed to Hegel. On the other hand, Fichte himself acknowledged the difficulty of his writings, but argued that his works were clear and transparent to those who made the effort to think without preconceptions and prejudices.

Fichte did not endorse Kant's argument for the existence of noumena, of "things in themselves", the supra-sensible reality beyond the categories of human reason. Fichte saw the rigorous and systematic separation of "things in themselves" (noumena) and things "as they appear to us" (phenomena) as an invitation to skepticism. Rather than invite such skepticism, Fichte made the radical suggestion that we should throw out the notion of a noumenal world and instead accept the fact that consciousness does not have a grounding in a so-called "real world". In fact, Fichte achieved fame for originating the argument that consciousness is not grounded in anything outside of itself. The phenomenal world as such, arises from self-consciousness; the activity of the ego; and moral awareness. His student (and critic), Arthur Schopenhauer, wrote:

...Fichte who, because the thing-in-itself had just been discredited, at once prepared a system without any thing-in-itself. Consequently, he rejected the assumption of anything that was not through and through merely our representation, and therefore let the knowing subject be all in all or at any rate produce everything from its own resources. For this purpose, he at once did away with the essential and most meritorious part of the Kantian doctrine, the distinction between a priori and a posteriori and thus that between the phenomenon and the thing-in-itself. For he declared everything to be a priori, naturally without any evidence for such a monstrous assertion; instead of these, he gave sophisms and even crazy sham demonstrations whose absurdity was concealed under the mask of profundity and of the incomprehensibility ostensibly arising therefrom. Moreover, he appealed boldly and openly to intellectual intuition, that is, really to inspiration." --Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. I, §13

Søren Kierkegaard was also a student of the writings of Fichte:

"Our whole age is imbued with a formal striving. This is what led us to disregard congeniality and to emphasize symmetrical beauty, to prefer conventional rather than sincere social relations. It is this whole striving which is denoted by — to use the words of another author — Fichte's and the other philosophers' attempts to construct systems by sharpness of mind and Robespierre's attempt to do it with the help of the guillotine; it is this which meets us in the flowing butterfly verses of our poets and in Auber's music, and finally, it is this which produces the many revolutions in the political world. I agree perfectly with this whole effort to cling to form, insofar as it continues to be the medium through which we have the idea, but it should not be forgotten that it is the idea which should determine the form, not the form which determines the idea. We should keep in mind that life is not something abstract but something extremely individual. We should not forget that, for example, from a poetic genius' position of immediacy, form is nothing but the coming into existence of the idea in the world, and that the task of reflection is only to investigate whether or not the idea has gotten the properly corresponding form. Form is not the basis of life, but life is the basis of form. Imagine that a man long infatuated with the Greek mode of life had acquired the means to arrange for a building in the Greek style and a Grecian household establishment — whether or not he would be satisfied would be highly problematical, or would he soon prefer another form simply because he had not sufficiently tested himself and the system in which he lived. But just as a leap backward is wrong (something the age, on the whole, is inclined to acknowledge), so also a leap forward is wrong — both of them because a natural development does not proceed by leaps, and life's earnestness will ironize over every such experiment, even if it succeeds momentarily." --Søren Kierkegaard, Journals, Our Journalistic Literature, November 28, 1835

Central theory

In his work Foundations of Natural Right (1797), Fichte argued that self-consciousness was a social phenomenon — an important step and perhaps the first clear step taken in this direction by modern philosophy. A necessary condition of every subject's self-awareness, for Fichte, is the existence of other rational subjects. These others call or summon (fordern auf) the subject or self out of its unconsciousness and into an awareness of itself as a free individual.

Fichte's account proceeds from the general principle that the I must set itself up as an individual in order to set itself up at all, and that in order to set itself up as an individual it must recognize itself as it were to a calling or summons (Aufforderung) by other free individual(s) — called, moreover, to limit its own freedom out of respect for the freedom of the other. The same condition applied and applies, of course, to the other(s) in its development. Hence, mutual recognition of rational individuals turns out to be a condition necessary for the individual 'I' in general. This argument for intersubjectivity is central to the conception of selfhood developed in the Doctrine of Science (Wissenschaftslehre). In Fichte's view consciousness of the self depends upon resistance or a check by something that is understood as not part of the self yet is not immediately ascribable to a particular sensory perception. In his later lectures (his Nova Methodo), Fichte incorporated it into his revised presentation of the very foundations of his system, where the summons takes its place alongside original feeling, which takes the place of the earlier Anstoss (see below) as both a limit upon the absolute freedom of the I and a condition for the positing of the same.

The I (Das Ich) itself sets this situation up for itself (it posits itself). To 'set' (setzen) does not mean to 'create' the objects of consciousness. The principle in question simply states that the essence of an I lies in the assertion of ones own self-identity, i.e., that consciousness presupposes self-consciousness. Such immediate self-identity, however, cannot be understood as a psychological fact, nor as an act or accident of some previously existing substance or being. It is an action of the I, but one that is identical with the very existence of this same I. In Fichte's technical terminology, the original unity of self-consciousness is to be understood as both an action and as the product of the same I, as a fact and/or act (Tathandlung), a unity that is presupposed by and contained within every fact and every act of empirical consciousness, though it never appears as such therein.

The 'I' must posit (setzen) itself in order to be an 'I' at all; but it can posit itself only insofar as it posits itself up as limited. Moreover, it cannot even posit for itself its own limitations, in the sense of producing or creating these limits. The finite I cannot be the ground of its own passivity. Instead, for Fichte, if the 'I' is to posit itself off at all, it must simply discover itself to be limited, a discovery that Fichte characterizes as a repulse or resistance (Anstoss; German: Anstoß) to the free practical activity of the I. Such an original limitation of the I is, however, a limit for the I only insofar as the I posits it out as a limit. The I does this, according to Fichte's analysis, by positing its own limitation, first, as only a feeling, then as a sensation, then as an intuition of a thing, and finally as a summons of another person. The Anstoss thus provides the essential impetus that first posits in motion the entire complex train of activities that finally result in our conscious experience both of ourselves and others as empirical individuals and of the world around us.

Though Anstoss plays a similar role as the thing in itself does in Kantian philosophy, unlike Kant, Fichte's Anstoss is not something foreign to the I. Instead, it denotes the I's original encounter with its own finitude. Rather than claim that the Not-I is the cause or ground of the Anstoss, Fichte argues that non-I is set up by the I precisely in order to explain to itself the Anstoss, that is, in order to become conscious of Anstoss.

Though the Wissenschaftslehre demonstrates that such an Anstoss must occur if self-consciousness is to come about, it is quite unable to deduce or to explain the actual occurrence of such an Anstoss — except as a condition for the possibility of consciousness. Accordingly, there are strict limits to what can be expected from any a priori deduction of experience, and this limitation, for Fichte, equally applies to Kant's transcendental philosophy.

According to Fichte, transcendental philosophy can explain that the world must have space, time, and causality, but it can never explain why objects have the particular sensible properties they happen to have or why I am this determinate individual rather than another. This is something that the I simply has to discover at the same time that it discovers its own freedom, and indeed, as a condition for the latter.

Other works

Fichte also developed a theory of the state based on the idea of self-sufficiency. In his mind, the state should control international relations, the value of money, and remain an autarky. Because of this necessity to have relations with other rational beings in order to achieve consciousness, Fichte writes that there must be a 'relation of right,' in which there is a mutual recognition of rationality by both parties.

Nationalism

Fichte's philosophical and humanitarian virtues fueled his national efforts, as nationalism proved to be mode he saw fit to carry out his ideals. Fichte was man of action and believed it his duty to actively create a better world for humanity. In 1790 Fichte disclosed a frame of mind which might easily lead to the life of a reformer, and wrote, "I wish not to merely think; I want to act. . . I have only one passion, one need, one complete feeling of myself, that is, to work for humanity. The more I do the happier I feel." Fichte saw European society as corrupted, one that encouraged impulses based on purely self-interested motives and restricted individuals freedom. Fichte remarked, "I now believe with all my heart in the freedom of man and perceive with this belief are duty, virtue, and any ethics at all possible. . . It is, furthermore, clear to me that results extremely harmful to society proceed from the acceptance of the principle of determinism and that the great moral depravity of the so-called better classes mainly flows from this source." Fichte's philosophical and humanitarian aims were to remedy Europe of the determinism, and he sought for a platform to express his ideals so they might be receipted and properly administered. It is important to note the impacts the French Revolution had on Fichte, as it further sustained his objections against absolutism and his faith in freedom. Fichte explained his approval of Revolutionary France by stating, "I am more than certain that if the French do not acquire a dominance and make changes in Germany. . . in a few years no one in Germany who is to have practiced freedom of thought will have a haven. I am more than certain, therefore, that even if I find a corner somewhere, I shall be driven out within two years at the most."

In 1803 Fichte saw humanity in the "third principal epoch of world history", and described the era as one with, "mere sensuous self-interest as the impulse of all its vital stirrings and motions." Fichte was a contemporary cosmopolitan in early eighteenth century Germany, his thoughts and concerns were the troubles of humanity's current place in history. He believed other cosmopolitans shared his virtues, and saw the new French state as an ally that embodied his philosophical values. However, by 1804 Fichte's views toward France took a drastic turn witnessing Napoleon's armies advance through Europe, that would occupy German territories, strip them of their raw materials and subjugate them to foreign rule. When France committed what Fichte considered an atrocity before humanity, the abstinence of embracing their own ideals, he contested Germany would be responsible to carry the French Revolution virtues into the future. Furthermore, his nationalism was not aroused by Prussia military defeat and humiliation, for these had not yet occurred, but resulted from devotion to his own humanitarian philosophy. Through disappointment in the French he turned to the German "nation" as the instrument of fulfilling it. By 1806 his cosmopolitan ideals combined with German patriotic spirit, and a German nationalists was born. Fichte unveiled his German nationalism when he wrote, "Cosmopolitanism is the will the purpose of humanity be really achieved. Patriotism is the will that purpose be fulfilled in that to nation we to which we ourselves belong and that the results spread from it to entire humanity. . . Cosmopolitanism must necessarily become patriotism."

The characteristics of Fichte’s German nationalism are revealed in his "Addresses to the German Nation", and his nationalism is centered on his interpretation of the “present age”, and Germany's opportunity therein. On December 18, 1807 at the University of Berlin Fichte’s presented his age explication, “With us, more than any other age in the history of the world, time is taking great strides. Within the three years that have passed since my interpretation of the current epoch, it has at some point run its course and come to an end.” Fichte believed the German people would fulfill the ultimate goals for humanity by creating and leading a new age in history. Fichte insisted there was such an age and proclaimed to the German people, “I affirm that there is such a world, and it is the purpose of these addresses to prove to you its existence and its true properties, to bring before your eyes a vivid picture of this world, and to indicate the means of creating it.”

Fichte made important contributions to political nationalism in Germany. In his Addresses to the German Nation (1808), a series of speeches delivered in Berlin under French occupation, he urged the German peoples to "have character and be German" — entailed in his idea of Germanness was antisemitism, since he argued that "making Jews free German citizens would hurt the German nation." Fichte answered the call of Freiherr vom Stein, who attempted to develop the patriotism necessary to resist the French specifically among the "educated and cultural elites of the kingdom." Fichte located Germanness in the supposed continuity of the German language, and based it on Tacitus, who had hailed German virtues in Germania and celebrated the heroism of Arminius in his Annales.

In an earlier work from 1793 dealing with the ideals and politics of the French Revolution, Beiträge zur Berichtigung der Urteile des Publikums über die Französische Revolution (Contributions to the Correction of the Public's Judgment concerning the French Revolution), he called Jews a "state within a state" that could "undermine" the German nation. In regard to Jews getting "civil rights," he wrote that this would only be possible if one managed "to cut off all their heads in one night, and to set new ones on their shoulders, which should contain not a single Jewish idea."

Women

Fichte argued that "active citizenship, civic freedom and even property rights should be withheld from women, whose calling was to subject themselves utterly to the authority of their fathers and husbands."




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