Johann Gottlieb Fichte German Idealist and Precursor of Romanticism

The career of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who was born on May 19, 1762, began with a publisher’s trick. Part of the edition of his first work, “Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation”, appeared anonymously – and at first many readers thought the great Immanuel Kant was its author. Kant was in fact impressed by the work and had brokered its publication. When the name of the true author came out, the disclosure made Fichte known overnight to a large audience.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte | © Lorenz-Vierecke Johann Gottlieb Fichte | © Lorenz-Vierecke Fichte was initially influenced by Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason (Kritik der praktischen Vernunft), which provides ethics with a rational foundation in the formal principle of universalizability: moral maxims must be generally, invariably and unconditionally valid – universal. Whereas Christianity presents an explanation of the world from which it derives an ethics, Fichte assumes that the core of every religion is ethics, which must be in agreement with rational principles. Whatever in religious revelation contradicts reason cannot be of divine origin. Rational morality is thus absolute and every religious morality derives from rational morality. This view anticipates an ultra-modern theological position which declares that ethics is the core of religion. But at the time the thesis that reason is the measure of religion earned Fichte the accusation of atheism.

Professor without a degree

In 1794, despite these charges, Fichte was appointed to a professorship at the University of Jena. And this although he had no degree and after years of wandering from one position as a private tutor to another, with little success and much trouble. The son of a ribbon weaver who distinguished himself at school, Fichte was sponsored by the local lord of the manor of Rammenau. In 1780 he began a four year study of Protestant theology at the theological seminary in Jena. Then the search for work took him to various places, including Warsaw and Zurich, where he met his later wife, with whom he was to have one son.

He became famous and celebrated, particularly by nationalists, for his Addresses to the German Nation (Reden an die deutsche Nation, 1880). These speeches by no means called for an uprising against the French occupation force of Napoleon’s troops. On the contrary, Fichte saw Germany’s role not in military but rather in intellectual supremacy, based on reason established in the state and society. To this end all citizens must shed their egotism so as to serve the nation, which would amount to the realization of their equality, that is, the surmounting of class barriers. This in turn would require universal and equal education. In this conception, Fichte envisages a moral world order. Previously, he had emphasized the vitality of the German language, which, he argued, made it superior to French. This exposed him to danger of life and limb, for the French occupiers responded to all forms of intellectual resistance with the punishment of execution.

Leading philosopher of German Idealism

But it was not only the Addresses to the German Nation that earned him an appointment in 1809 at the newly founded University of Berlin. His Science of Knowledge (Wissenschaftslehre), which he began in 1794 and continued to develop in his late work (1813), made him the leading philosopher of German Idealism. In his lifetime, Fichte’s only famous rival to this title was Schelling. The Science of Knowledge continues and radicalizes Descartes’ and Kant’s philosophy of the subject. The subject, in the form of the senses and reason, constitutes the conditions for all knowledge of objects.

This philosophy is not satisfied with the two disparate terms of the knowing self on the one hand and the known object on the other, but considers reflexively the activity of the self in knowing the object. Such a reflexive consciousness unites subject and object, self and world. This unity Fichte calls the absolute self. The absolute self is not only the condition of all being, which becomes conscious only through it. It is also the precondition of action and morality. The absolute self, and this is the gist of Fichte’s Idealism, constitutes all being and thus joins man with being in a unity. By contrast, Fichte’s contemporaries assumed that the environing world possesses its own material being, which they seek to appropriate and so to treat the world as they wish, that is, egotistically. If, however, man recognizes that the absolute self unifies all being and the whole world, then he can surmount his egoism. This is the aim of both Fichte’s moral and educational program.

Unity of man and world

The idea of the unity of man and world made Fichte the precursor of Romanticism, the prevailing contemporary movement, especially in literature. Fichte enjoyed contacts with many Romantics – for example, with Friedrich Schleiermacher, the Schlegel brothers, Novalis. But he was also friends with Friedrich Schiller and met several times with Goethe, the two main exponents of Weimar Classicism. Despite Fichte’s philosophical importance and patriotic engagement, his academic career did not run smooth. In 1798 he was dismissed from his professorship in Jena because of his inept conduct; the publication of his work On the Ground of Our Belief in a Divine World-Governance (Über den Grund unseres Glaubens an eine göttliche Weltregierung) had again exposed him to widespread charges of atheism. The book does in fact deny all faith in divine providence. Primary, according to Fichte, is not faith in God, from which then his works in the world are derived. Primary is man’s recognition of the work of reason, above all its moral effects, from which then a ground is sought in God.

The dismissal was followed by uncertain and insecure years, during which Fichte moved to Berlin and lived from lectures and writing. In 1805 he was appointed to a professorship at the university in Erlangen, then still under Prussian rule. After the Prussian defeat at the hands of Napoleon, Fichte fled with the government to Königsberg. His last years at the University of Berlin were marked by conflicts with colleagues, administration and students, who often threw stones at the windows of their professor’s flat. He died of an infection presumably caught from his wife, who had just recovered from it. To this extent his death came unexpectedly. But for years Fichte had been plagued by serious illnesses from which he never completely recovered. He died in Berlin on January 29, 1814.

Suggested reading:
Wilhelm G. Jacobs, Johann Gottlieb Fichte – Eine Biographie, Insel Verlag 2012; 251 pages; ISBN
Manfred Kühn, Johann Gottlieb Fichte – Ein deutscher Philosoph, C. H. Beck Verlag 2012; 612 pages, 30 illustrations; ISBN