Fichte's Conception of God

Fichte's Conception of God  (1895) 
by Joseph Alexander Leighton


THE earliest expression of Fichte’s views on the nature of God is to be found in his Aphorisms on Religion and Desire, written in 1790. Here the world is regarded as the realized thought-system of God, and all changes in finite beings as predetermined by God. But this view failed to satisfy him. The heart, he asserted, craves a God who will answer prayer; and here head and heart contradict one another. Man has a speculative impulse to solve this contradiction, but he, a mere link in the chain, cannot settle the question, and so the matter stands at this period.

In the midst of this conflict between heart and reason Fichte commenced the study of the Kantian philosophy, and we know from his letters written at this period with what enthusiasm he embraced Kant’s doctrine. It set for him the proper limits of the knowledge of the understanding. No one, he said, had refuted his determinism, but it had failed to satisfy his heart, and the Kantian criticism seemed to him to leave a place for the heart’s demands in the determination of the nature of God. His Critique of All Revelation, written in 1791, two years earlier than Kant’s corresponding work, although wholly Fichte’s own in method and style, is a further development of Kant’s practical philosophy.[1] In this work Fichte seems still to regard God as a being-in-himself, apart from the world, who may reveal himself by interposing from without at particular times in the world’s history. But this revelation must be wholly in accordance with man’s moral nature. It is only possible, as a fact in the sense-world, when a man or Humanity has sunk so low that the moral laws given by pure reason have entirely lost their influence. Under conditions such as these a fact in the world of sense, the causality of which is attributed to a supersensible Being, may give sanction to the moral Law and force men to obedience of it. In other words, God may reveal himself immediately through the world of sense and demand obedience. The criterion of a revelation is the correspondence of its principles with the moral law given by practical reason.

In this work Fichte gave very clearly the moral proof for the existence of God as moral Being. For him God could only be objectively thought as the moral Law-giver, and all revelation could only be moral. For Fichte a real revelation was possible.[2] We may take the Critique of All Revelation as closing the Kantian period of Fichte’s thinking on the philosophy of religion.

In the earlier period God was regarded as wholly transcendent. From the time that the Wissenschaftslehre was written, God is regarded as immanent in the world. The object of the Wissenschaftslehre seems to be to deduce the individual Ego from the absolute Ego. The absolute Ego is established as unconditioned ground of the individual Ego and Non-Ego. This absolute Ego is defined as an “Ego in whose self-determination all the Non-Ego is determined.” The idea of this is the idea of God; the effort to attain this idea is faith in God.[3]

Inasmuch as intelligence has here no empirical perception of the object, we can never get beyond this immediately certain faith. What from the theoretical point of view is pure or Absolute Ego, from the practical point of view is God.[4] The Wissenschaftslehre is not a doctrine of subjective idealism which deduces the world from the individual or finite Ego. The ground of both, by whose self-determination both arise, is the absolute Ego. Just as Spinoza regarded the unity of extension and thought as a substance underlying both, so Fichte regards the unity of the finite Egos and the non-Ego as a unity underlying and supporting the finite conscious Egos, an absolute Ego. The doctrine is objective idealism. The Wissenschaftslehre, taken in connection with Fichte’s letter to Jacobi (1795) and his review of Schultz’s Aenesidemus in the Literatur-Zeitung for 1794, clearly teaches that the absolute Ego, or God, is objective, i.e., has existence beyond the finite Egos of which he is the underlying principle.

Some of the historians of philosophy, notably Pfleiderer,[5] have represented Fichte’s view at this period as subjective idealism. This is due, I think, to a misapprehension of Fichte’s method. In the Wissenschaftslehre he is concerned only with the deduction of theoretical and practical knowledge from the nature of the Ego. It is the material world that is denied. As Fichte himself expressed it later, his philosophy is acosmistic. Subjective idealism it certainly is not. The absolute or pure Ego is assumed as starting-point, and the deduction of our world of knowledge therefrom is proceeded with. For his purpose it did not seem to Fichte in any way necessary that he should further define the pure Ego. His letter to Jacobi shows conclusively enough that the pure or absolute Ego of the Wissenschaftslehre was identical with God. Nor did his views afterwards suffer any material change, as the progress of this exposition will show. His later statements are only developments of his earlier view from somewhat different standpoints.

In the above-mentioned works God is looked at from the theoretical side. In those writings dealing with the philosophy of religion, which followed the publication of the Wissenschaftslehre, God is regarded almost entirely from the standpoint of morals. The first of these is entitled On the Ground of our Faith in a Divine Government of the World. This is a brief statement prefixed to an article by Forberg On the Definition of the Idea of Religion, in the Philosophical Journal (1798), edited by Fichte and Niethammer. Forberg in this article identified religion and morality. Fichte agreed with him so far as he went, but found it necessary to explain his own views, because Forberg stopped short and failed to draw out the implications of his position. Philosophy, our author urged, produces no facts, it only explains them. The philosopher presupposes the fact of faith in God, and “deduces this fact from the necessary procedure of every reasoning being.”[6] Faith is not arbitrarily assumed, but is necessary. Two standpoints are possible, namely, the transcendental and that which is occupied by common consciousness and natural science alike. From the latter standpoint the sense-world is viewed as an absolutely self-existent whole, and every event in it proceeds according to its own immanent laws. To argue from the existence of this sense-world to an Intelligence who is the author of it, is to cheat us with empty words. All the determinations of this intelligence are conceptions, and how can these either create matter ex nihilo or modify an eternal matter? From the transcendental point of view, there is no self-existent world, and what we see is only the reappearance of our own inner activity. From the sense-world we cannot reach in any way the moral World-Order. One must seek the latter in the region of the supersensuous. Now, I have the absolute conviction or faith that I can determine my own moral nature, which is supersensuous, to act in a certain way. I am free to set before myself a moral end, and “I posit this end as realized in some future time.” I am convinced that this end will be realized. I must do this, or deny my own being. But it does not lie within my power to realize any moral end in the world. I can only determine myself to make the choice. The end is achieved only as a consequence of a higher law, a moral World-Order. The living and working moral order is God himself, and we can conceive no other.[7] This moral World-Order can be deduced from nothing else. It is the basis of all objective knowledge, the ground of all certainty. We must not assume a particular being as cause of it. If we assume a particular being, it must be distinguished from ourselves and the world, and personality and consciousness will be attributed to it. It will be a finite being and no God, and will explain nothing. The finite cannot comprehend the infinite. In this moral World-Order, every rational being has a determined place, and its fate, so far as it does not result from its own actions, is the result of the World-Order. Fichte closes his article with two quotations, which, he says, express his own views. The second of these, from Schiller’s Worte des Glaubens, is as follows:

“And God is!—a holy Will that abides,
Though the human will may falter;
High over both Space and Time it rides,
The high Thought that will never alter:
And while all things in change eternal roll,
It endures, through change, a motionless soul.”[8]

This statement of his position brought against him the accusation of atheism. In the Appeal to the Public against the Charge of Atheism, and the Judicial Answer to the Charge of Atheism, he further develops his own doctrine in contrast with that of his accusers. He contends that his opponents regard God as a particular substance. Substance means with them “a sensible being existing in time and space.” This God, extended in time and space, they deduce from the sense-world. Fichte claims that extension or corporeality cannot be predicated of the Deity.[9] The sensuous world is only the reappearance of the supersensuous or moral world through our attempt to grasp the latter by means of our sensuous faculty of presentation. The sensuous is mere appearance, and can furnish no ground for the existence of God. The Deity is not to be understood as the underlying ground of phenomena, for, so conceived, He is made a corporeal substrate.[10] He is an order of events, not a substance. The sensuous predicate of existence is not to be applied to Him, for the supersensuous God alone is. He is not dead Being, but rather pure action, the life and principle of the supersensuous World-Order. His opponents, continued Fichte, deduce all relations of the Godhead to us from a knowledge of God got independently of these relations. Our author denies the validity of their procedure, and maintains that the relation of the Godhead to us as moral beings is immediately given.[11] He repeats the statement that God as moral World-Order is postulated as guaranteeing the realization of the end which the man of good disposition sets before himself. He regards God, taken in such a sense, as being quite as immediately certain as our own existence. Duty cannot be done absolutely without reference to an end, for in that case it would be without content. Man must act with regard to an end, and this end is blessedness, not enjoyment. God as moral World-Order makes it possible that this end be realized. On the other hand, the end which his opponents set before themselves is enjoyment. Their God who dispenses enjoyment is a material existence, a prince of this world.[12] Eudaemonism in morals is allied with dogmatism in speculation. To characterize God as a spirit, is of negative value in distinguishing Him from things material.[13] It gives us no positive information, for we know as little wherein the being of a spirit consists as wherein the being of God consists. Inasmuch as all our thinking is limiting, God is inconceivable.[14] If personality and consciousness are to be denied of God, it is only in the sense in which we conceive ourselves as personal and conscious.[15] God is a wider consciousness than we are, a pure intelligence, spiritual life and actuality. He is neither one nor many, neither man nor spirit. Such predicates belong only to finite beings. Again, God’s existence cannot be proved. Not from the sense-world, for Fichte’s system is acosmistic. Not from the super sensuous world, for proof implies mediation. The supersensuous World-Order is God, and is immediately perceived through the inner sense.

Reminiscences, Answers, and Questions, written in 1799, but only published after Fichte’s death, contains a further characterization of God from the aspect of Activity. The philosopher, it is maintained, deals only with the idea of God. Faith in God is presupposed as posited by all rational beings. This faith is deduced as in the previous writings. The expression “order of a supersensuous world” has been misapprehended. It is not to be understood “as if the supersensuous world were, before it had order, and as if order were thus but an accident of that world. On the contrary that world only becomes a world by being ordered.” The philosopher is not concerned with the actual significance of God for religion, but only with the logical significance for philosophy. Faith in the moral World-Order is belief in a “principle by virtue of which every determination of the will through duty assuredly effects the promotion of the object of reason in the universal connection of things.”[16] This involves the presupposition that the world of reason is created, maintained, and governed by this principle. This principle or World-Order is Activity, not dead Permanency. It is a living being, “creating, maintaining, governing.” Inasmuch as these predicates are asserted of one principle, we must think a permanent substrate to which these belong and which unites the different predicates. The oneness is mediate; the predicates arise immediately. The one principle can only be thought of “as a, for itself, existing and working principle,”[17] as pure Spirit, as Creator, Maintainer, and Governor. But this thinking is an abstraction. Abstractly the principle of the world is a logical subject. Concrete thinking gives us God as Activity, as the Creating, Maintaining, Governing, etc. “The conception of God cannot be determined by categories of existence, but only by predicates of an activity.”[18]

In the Vocation of Man, published in 1800, God is characterized as the living holy will in whom we live and move and have our being. He reveals himself in the heart, and is comprehended by faith. He is best known to the simple child-like mind. Faith in duty is faith in God. My will is a part of two orders, the spiritual and the sensuous. The law or order of the supersensuous world is the Infinite Will. I unite myself with this by making my will conform to it. The voice of conscience, of freedom, in my breast commands me to do this. The Infinite Will unites me with all other finite wills in a world or system of many individuals. The union and direct reciprocal action of many separate and independent wills is the world. What the Infinite is in himself, no finite being can say. As the finite mind conceives it, he is self-existing, self-manifesting Will.

It had been asserted that Fichte’s doctrine of God was pantheism, that in his theory finite beings are the constituent parts of the moral world, and that our relation to one another is the World-Order. Fichte deals with this charge in “From a private letter,” published in the Philosophical Journal in 1800. His opponents, he says, understand by order something dead, fixed, and ready-made. Their order consists of a manifold of things lying beside and following one another (Ordo ordinatus). He, on the contrary, understands by order an active, working principle (Ordo ordinans). In all human actions, two things are reckoned, a determination of the individual’s will and something independent of his will, by which a consequence follows his willing. So in morality, if A stand for the determination of the will to an end, and B for that principle through which there comes about a consequence necessarily connected with A, then the law of the connection of A and B in the moral order of things is the moral World-Order, and is outside of, and independent of, finite moral beings.

The final expression of Fichte’s doctrine of God is found in the Doctrine of Religion, or Way to the Blessed Life, lectures delivered at Berlin in 1806. God is described in these lectures as pure Thought. He can only be apprehended in pure thought, which is the same as Christian faith. God is Being (Seyn). Being is; it does not arise. It can only be conceived, as “a self-comprehensive, self-sufficient, unchangeable,” but, nevertheless, living and loving, unity.[19] Determinate Being (Daseyn) is a manifestation or revelation of this pure Being (Seyn). Determinate Being is pure Being becoming conscious of itself in a particular or determinate form. It is an image of pure Being. It is our nature as finite conscious beings to split the one pure Being in our consciousness into multiplicity, and hence arises the world. Inasmuch as in consciousness we are determinate beings, we can never know how determinate Being comes from pure Being. We are by no means the Absolute Being, but only fragments of this Absolute Being. It is a necessity of God’s nature that he throw out from himself a part of his determinate being or manifestation, and establish this part in true independence and freedom. We are such parts of God’s determinate being and as such are conscious free beings independent of God. Each individual has the power of free choice, which God himself cannot take away. But this choice is rightly exercised in recognizing our being in God and submitting to his will. Being is originally separated in its determinate existence into individual existences, and will remain so separated to all eternity. God is one and unchangeable. It is only his type or image in us which enters into change. The Divine Life, which abides in the hidden being of consciousness, no conception can reach.

It will be evident from the foregoing sketch of Fichte’s principal writings on the subject of religion that, after he had once abandoned the Kantian view of God as a merely transcendent being, his views did not materially change. He always thereafter conceived God as immanent in the world. His different writings on the subject are progressive developments of this thought. He consistently held to the position that the human understanding could not grasp God in his transcendence. He did not deny the transcendence, and he bases God’s relation to man wholly on the moral world. Fichte has given us no systematic exposition of his doctrine of God. What he said at different times, and in a fragmentary fashion, must be pieced together. When the different expressions of his views are brought into connection with one another, it will be seen that they form a consistent unity. In the Wissenschaftslehre he is concerned with the systematic deduction of the individual from the pure or absolute Ego. It has been shown that this absolute Ego was for Fichte identical with God. The question as to how God can be thought as self-conscious, had even thus early occurred to him. But at this time he failed to give any clear statement of his position on this question. He remarks that God’s self-consciousness could only be explained by the presupposition that God thinks His own being. But, since in God the reflected and the reflecting would be all one, His self-consciousness is still not explained. Never at any time did Fichte deny consciousness or personality to God except when protesting against the crude anthropomorphic way of attributing to God a consciousness like our own. In such cases he frequently laid himself open to misunderstanding by his exaggerated and controversial manner of writing.[20] In the Doctrine of Religion he seeks to give a further explanation of God’s consciousness. God as pure Being (Seyn) becomes conscious of himself as determinate Being (Daseyn). Determinate Being seems here to include the world and finite selves, which are thus the contents of the Divine consciousness. It must be kept in mind, however, that Fichte would deny the validity of any attempt to explain how determinate being comes to be the content of God’s consciousness, or indeed to explain the latter in any way. To the finite Ego, who is conscious only in opposition to a non-Ego, this, he would say, must always be incomprehensible. The most prominent feature of Fichte’s doctrine of God is his view of Him as the moral World-Order. It was this view that he asserted against the anthropomorphism which pictured God as a particular substance existing in time and space. It is only another way of expressing the same thought when the Deity is spoken of by him as living, holy Will. Again, the doctrine of God as Being (Seyn), which pervades the Doctrine of Religion, is not, as some say, a relapse into the old ontological way of regarding God as an immovable substance. Fichte says again and again in this work that the nature of Being is to manifest itself, that it is ever active, ever living and loving, and not a dead permanency. As he puts it in Lecture I, “Being and Life are one and the same.” When he says Being is unchangeable, he means that it ever persists through all change. Change is itself a manifestation of the living Being. “The Divine is thinking and living in one organic unity.” This pure Being speaks to us in our hearts as the voice of conscience, telling us our vocation. The Doctrine of Religion is not so much concerned with the deduction of God from our moral nature as with the definition of religion as life in God. But the view of God as moral World-Order is not recalled. Morality is merged in religion, which is active, joyous love of God and life in Him.

Summing up, we may say that for Fichte God was living, conscious spirit, or loving, holy will, immanent in the world as its moral principle, and immanent in man as his own higher nature. What ‘spirit’ or ‘consciousness’ meant when applied to God, Fichte wisely abstained from attempting to define. From all his writings there stands out clearly the firm, unfaltering conviction that outside the world of spirit there is nothing real.

J. A. Leighton.


  1. See Fichte’s Werke, V. Vorrede des Herausgebers, von J. H. Fichte.
  2. Werke, V. Vorrede des Herausgebers, von J. H. Fichte.
  3. Fichte to Jacobi, August 30, 1795, and Review of Schulze, 1794. See Dr. Wm. Smith’s Memoir, pp. 60, 62.
  4. Ibid., 1795.
  5. Philosophy of Religion, vol. I, p. 279.
  6. Fichte, Werke, V, p. 178.
  7. Ibid., p. 186.
  8. Merivale’s translation, quoted in Smith’s Memoir, p. 96.
  9. Fichte, Werke, V, p. 258.
  10. Ibid., p. 263.
  11. Ibid., p. 214.
  12. Fichte, Werke, V, p. 218.
  13. Ibid., p. 264.
  14. Ibid., p. 265.
  15. Ibid., p. 266.
  16. Science of Knowledge, Kroeger’s translation, p. 369.
  17. Ibid., p. 373.
  18. Ibid., p. 377.
  19. Lect., III. Smith’s translation.
  20. He seems not to have shown much discrimination in dealing with opponents, and to have very frequently distorted their views.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1954, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.