The New International Encyclopædia/Fichte, Johann Gottlieb

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FICHTE, Johann Gottlieb (1762-1814). An illustrious German philosopher. He was born the son of a ribbon-weaver, at Rammenau, in Upper Lusatia, May 19, 1762. As a lad of promise he attracted the attention of a neighboring nobleman, Baron von Miltitz, who assisted him in his early education. In 1776 Fichte was placed at the gymnasium of Pforta, near Naumburg, and in 1780 he entered the University of Jena, where, as subsequently at Leipzig, he studied theology and philosophy. During the years 1784 to 1788 he supported himself in a precarious way as tutor in various Saxon families. From 1788 to 1790 he taught in private families at Zurich, where he became acquainted with Pestalozzi. He then returned to Leipzig and in 1791 obtained a tutorship at Warsaw, in the house of a Polish nobleman. The situation, however, proved disagreeable, and the philosopher next proceeded to Königsberg, where he had an interview with Kant, of whom he had become an ardent disciple. He submitted his Kritik aller Offenbarung (Critique of all Revelation) to that philosopher, who praised it highly, and advised him to publish it. The following year it appeared anonymously, and was credited to Kant, who then made known its authorship. This incident established Fichte's fame as a philosopher. In 1794 he was appointed to the chair of philosophy at Jena, where he commenced to expound with extraordinary zeal his system of ‘transcendental idealism.’ In 1795 he published his Wissenschaftslehre (Doctrine of Science), in which he clearly broke away from Kant, whose speculations did not seem to him sufficiently thorough. In 1796 he published Grundlage des Naturrechts (Foundation of Natural Rights); in 1798, System der Sittenlehre (System of Ethics), and in the same year an article in a philosophical journal, which cost him dear. It was entitled “Ueber den Grund unsers Glaubens an eine göttliche Weltregierung” (The Basis of Our Belief in a Divine Government of the World). For views therein expressed he was charged with atheism, inasmuch as he had characterized God as the living moral order of the world. In vain did he deny the atheistic nature of this doctrine; the odium theologicum was too strong for him, and he was compelled to relinquish his chair. Fichte went to Berlin, where he delivered lectures to audiences composed of men of distinction, and where he made friends of such men as Schlegel, Schleiermaeher, and Tieck. In 1805 he was appointed to a professorship in Erlangen. The approach of the French army drove him in 1806 to Königsberg, and in 1807-08 he delivered his famous “Addresses to the German Nation” (“Reden an die deutsche Nation”) in Berlin. These addresses were full of the most exalted enthusiasm. The Prussian King appreciated the zeal of the eloquent metaphysician, and, on the restoration of peace, appointed him to a professorship in the newly founded University of Berlin. In 1810 the university was opened with a host of brilliant names — Fichte, Friedrich August Wolf, Wilhelm von Humboldt, DeWette, Schleiermacher, and Savigny. By the votes of his colleagues Fichte was unanimously elected rector. In 1813 the War of Liberation broke out, and the hospitals of the Prussian capital were soon crowded with patients. Fichte's wife was one of the first to offer her services as a nurse. For five months she tended the sick with all the patient tenderness and devotion of her nature. At last she was seized with typhoid fever, and after a fearful struggle she recovered; but her husband caught the infection, and died January 27, 1814.

The fundamental notion of the idealism set forth in Fichte's writings, at least in the earlier of them, is the sole reality of the conscious self or ego, which gives rise by its activity to the not-self or non-ego, inasmuch as self-knowledge is possible only in contrast with knowledge of a non-ego. The significance of this view in the history of philosophy can be understood only by comparing it with Kant's (q.v.), from which it was developed. Kant had taught that experience arose from the concurrent action of sensation and thought, sensation being the product of things in themselves as they affect the mind, while thought is the spontaneous activity of the conscious self. Thus, experience for Kant is dualistic. This dualism is what Fichte sought to overcome, and he set about it by denying that the sense element in experience is traceable to the action of objects independent of the percipient subject. The non-ego is the creation of the ego. This creation is not accomplished at the instigation of some external stimulus. It is an original, uncaused, free activity of the self. The first result of this activity is sensation. The act of giving rise spontaneously to sensation is an unconscious act; its effect is the first object of consciousness. Because the act is unconscious, its result seems to be obtruded upon consciousness from without, a well-known characteristic of sensation. Why does the self create a sense object? In order in give free play to its activity. It sets up an object as a limit only to transcend this limit. This is done in the successive stages of knowledge, beginning with perception and ending with the categorical imperative, which is the termination of the process, because at this point the self is conscious of itself (not of some apparent alien obtrusion), as giving to itself all its determinations. The ego, in so far as it is determined by the knowledge, is the intelligent ego, and, as such, the subject of theoretical science; the ego, on the other hand, as determining the non-ego, is the subject of practical science. To recapitulate, Fichte makes that which, from the standpoint of ordinary consciousness, we call the world, merely a product of the ego; it exists only through the ego, for the ego, and in the ego. The ego, however, is not held by Fichte to be the phenomenal self — that is, the limited temporal self which each person takes himself to be. On the contrary, the creative ego is a universal self common to all finite selves. Abstraction must be made from the finitude of our individual selves, for the finitude is itself a self-imposed limit to he transcended. The universal self thus reached is God. A popular exposition of his philosophy is given in his Anweisung zum seligen Leben. It is set forth in a strictly scientific manner in the lectures published in the Nachgelassene Werke, edited by I. G. Fichte (3 vols., Bonn, 1834-35), in which his Speculative Logik and his revised theory of law and morals are particularly deserving of attention. Although Fichte never, strictly speaking, formed a school, and although his system has been adopted only by a few, such as J. B. Schad, Mehmel, Cramer, Schmidt, and Michaelis, his influence upon the subsequent development of German philosophy has been very important, especially through the influence he exerted upon Hegel (q.v.). Fichte's collected works were published by his son, I. H. Fichte (1845-46). His popular works have been translated into English. Their titles are: The Destination of Man; The Vocation of the Scholar; The Way to the Blessed Life, The Characteristics of the Present Age; and Outlines of the Doctrine of Knowledge. A. E. Kroeger translated The Science of Knowledge (1889); The Science of Rights (1869 and 1889); and The Science of Ethics as Based on the Science of Knowledge (1897). Some of the shorter works have appeared in translations from time to time in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Consult: Kuno Fischer, Geschichte der neuern Philosophie, vol. v. (Heidelberg, 1897 et seq.); id., Fichte's Leben, Werke und Lehre (ib., 1900); Adamson, Fichte (London, 1881); Everett, Fichte's Science of Knowledge: a Critical Exposition (Chicago, 1884); Schneider, Johann Gottlieb Fichte als Socialpolitiker (Halle, 1894); Lindau, Fichte und der neuere Socialismus (Berlin, 1900); Weber, Fichte's Socialismus und sein Verhältnis zur Marxschen Doktrin (Tübingen, 1900); and the leading histories of philosophy, such as Erdmann's, Ueberweg-Heinze's, Windelband's, and Falckenberg's.