Johann Gottlieb Fichte, 1762 - 1814

Johann Gottlieb Fichte was an influential post-Kantian German philosopher whose teachings on philosophy and theology were discussed and admired by the New England Transcendentalist circle.  His Wissenschaftslehre (1795) presents the basis of his philosophy, which extends that of Immanuel Kant by emphasizing the role of the ich, or ego, where Kant spoke of the "thing-in-itself" and that of the nicht-ich, or non-ego, as the existential basis of the objective world.  Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson--whose early definition of nature clearly derives from Fichte's philosophy--encountered Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel mainly through commentaries written in English by Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Fichte has been written about as follows by Octavius Brooks Frothingham, the first historian of American Transcendentalism.
The transcendental philosophy received from Jacobi an impulse toward mysticism.  From another master it received an impulse toward heroism.  This master was Johann Gottlieb Fichte, born at Rammenau, in Upper Lusatia, on the 19th of May, 1762.  A short memoir of him by William Smith, published in 1845, with a translation of the "Nature of the Scholar," and reprinted in Boston, excited a deep interest among people who had neither sympathy with his philosophy nor intelligence to comprehend it.  He was a great mind, and a greater character--sensitive, proud, brave, determined, enthusiastic, imperious, aspiring; a mighty soul; "a cold, colossal, adamantine spirit, standing erect and clear, like a Cato Major among degenerate men; fit to have been the teacher of the Stoa, and to have discoursed of beauty and virtue in the groves of Academe!  So robust an intellect, a soul so calm, so lofty, massive, and immovable, has not mingled in philosophical discussion since the time of Luther.  For the man rises before us amid contradiction and debate like a granite mountain amid clouds and winds.  As a man approved by action and suffering, in his life and in his death, he ranks with a class of men who were common only in better ages than ours."  Thus wrote Thomas Carlyle of him more than a generation ago.
The direction given to philosophy by such a man could not but be decided and bold.  His short treatises, all marked by intellectual power, some by glowing eloquence, carried his thoughts beyond the philosophical circle and spread his leading principles far beyond the usual speculative lines.  "The Destination of Man," "The Vocation of the Scholar," "The Nature of the Scholar," "The Vocation of Man," "The Characteristics of the Present Age," "The Way towards the Blessed Life," were translated into English, published in the "Catholic Series" of John Chapman, and extensively read.  The English reviewers helped to make the author and his ideas known to many readers.
The contribution that Fichte made to the transcendental philosophy may be described without using many words.  He became acquainted with Kant's system in Leipsic, where he was teaching, in 1790.  The effect it had on him is described in letters to his friends.  To one he wrote: "The last four or five months which I have passed in Leipsic have been the happiest of my life; and the most satisfactory part of it is, that I have to thank no man for the smallest ingredient in its pleasures.  When I came to Leipsic my brain swarmed with great plans.  All were wrecked; and of so many soap-bubbles there now remains not even the light froth that composed them.  This disturbed a little my peace of mind, and half in despair I joined a party to which I should long ere this have belonged.  Since I could not alter my outward condition, I resolved on internal change.  I threw myself into philosophy, and, as you know, the Kantean.  Here I found the remedy for my ills, and joy enough to boot.  The influence of this philosophy, the moral part of it in particular (which, however, is unintelligible without previous study of the 'Critique of Pure Reason'), on the whole spiritual life, and especially the revolution it has caused in my own mode of thought, is indescribable."  To another he wrote in similar strain: "I have lived in a new world since reading the 'Critique of Pure Reason.'  Principles I believed irrefragable are refuted; things I thought could never be proved--the idea of absolute freedom, of duty, for example--are demonstrated; and I am so much the happier.  It is indescribable what respect for humanity, what power this system gives us.  What a blessing to an age in which morality was torn up by the roots, and the word duty blotted out of the dictionary!"  To Johanna Rahn he expresses himself in still heartier terms: "My scheming mind has found rest at last, and I thank Providence that shortly before all my hopes were frustrated I was placed in a position which enabled me to bear the disappointment with cheerfulness.  A circumstance that seemed the result of mere chance induced me to devote myself entirely to the study of the Kantean philosophy--a philosophy that restrains the imagination, always too strong with me, gives reason sway, and raises the soul to an unspeakable height above all earthly concerns.  I have accepted a nobler morality, and instead of busying myself with outward things, I concern myself more with my own being.  It has given me a peace such as I never before experienced; amid uncertain worldly prospects I have passed my happiest days.  It is difficult beyond all conception, and stands greatly in need of simplification. . . .  The first elements are hard speculations, that have no direct bearing on human life, but their conclusions are most important for an age whose morality is corrupted at the fountain head; and to set these consequences before the world would, I believe, be doing it a good service.  I am now thoroughly convinced that the human will is free, and that to be happy is not the purpose of our being, but to deserve happiness."  So great was Fichte's admiration of Kant's system, that he became at once an expositor of its principles, in the hope that he might render it intelligible and attractive to minds of ordinary culture.
Fichte considered himself a pure Kantean, perhaps the only absolutely consistent one there was; and that he did so is not surprising; for, in mending the master's positions, he seemed to be strengthening them against assault.  He did not, like Jacobi, draw inferences which Kant had laboriously, and, as it seemed, effectually cut off; he merely entrenched himself within the lines the philosopher of Königsberg had drawn.  Kant had, so his critics charged, taken for granted the reality of our perceptions of outward things.  This was the weak point in his system, of which his adversaries took advantage.  On this side he allowed empiricism to construct his wall, and left incautiously an opening which the keen-sighted foe perceived at once.  Fichte bethought him to fortify that point, and thus make the philosophy unassailable; to take it, in fact, out of the category of a philosophical system, and give it the character of a science.  To this end, with infinite pains and incredible labor, he tested the foundations to discover the fundamental and final facts which rested on the solid rock.  The ultimate facts of consciousness were in question.
Fichte accepted without hesitation the confinement within the limits of consciousness against which Jacobi rebelled, and proceeded to make the prison worthy of such an occupant.  The facts of consciousness, he admitted, are all we have.  The states and activities of the mind, perceptions, ideas, judgments, sentiments, or by whatever other name they may be called, constitute, by his admission, all our knowledge, and beyond them we cannot go.  They are, however, solid and substantial.  Of the outward world he knew nothing and had nothing to say; he was not concerned with that.  The mind is the man; the history of the mind is the man's history; the processes of the mind report the whole of experience; the phenomena of the external universe are mere phenomena, reflections, so far as we know, of our thought; the mountains, woods, stars, are facts of consciousness, to which we attach these names.  To infer that they exist because we have ideas of them, is illegitimate in philosophy.  The ideas stand by themselves, and are sufficient of themselves.
The mind is first, foremost, creative and supreme.  It takes the initiative in all processes.  He that assumes the existence of an external world does so on the authority of consciousness.  If he says that consciousness compels us to assume the existence of such a world, that it is so constituted as to imply the realization of its conception, still we have simply the fact of consciousness; power to verify the relation between this inner fact and a corresponding physical representation, there is none.  Analyze the facts of consciousness as much as we may, revise them, compare them, we are still within their circle and cannot pass beyond its limit.  Is it urged that the existence of an external world is a necessary postulate?  The same reply avails, namely, that the idea of necessity is but one of our ideas, a conception of the mind, an inner notion or impression which legitimates itself alone.  Does the objector further insist, in a tone of exasperation caused by what seems to him quibbling, that in this case consciousness plays us false, makes a promise to the ear which it breaks to the hope--lies, in short?  The imperturbable philosopher sets aside the insinuation as an impertinence.  The fact of consciousness, he maintains, stands and testifies for itself.  It is not answerable for anything out of its sphere.  In saying what it does it speaks the truth; the whole truth, so far as we can determine.  Whether or no it is absolutely the whole truth, the truth as it lies in a mind otherwise constituted, is no concern of ours.
The reasoning by which Fichte cut off the certainty of a material world outside of the mind, told with equal force against the objective existence of a spiritual world.  The mental vision being bounded by the mental sphere, its objects being there and only there, with them we must be content.  The soul has its domain, untrodden forests to explore, silent and trackless ways to follow, mystery to rest in, light to walk by, fountains and floods of living water, starry firmaments of thought, continents of reason, zones of law, and with this domain it must be satisfied.  God is one of its ideas; immortality is another; that they are anything more than ideas, cannot be known.
That the charge of atheism should be brought against so uncompromising a thinker, is a less grave imputation upon the discernment of his contemporaries than ordinarily it is.  That he should have been obliged, in consequence of it, to leave Jena, and seek an asylum in Prussia, need not excite indignation, at least in those who remember his unwillingness or inability to modify his view, or explain the sense in which he called himself a believer.  To "charge" a man with atheism, as if atheism were guilt, is a folly to be ashamed of; but to "class" a man among atheists who in no sense accepts the doctrine of an intelligent, creative Cause, is just, while language has meaning.  And this is Fichte's position.  In his philosophy there was no place for assurance of a Being corresponding to the mental conception.  The word "God" with him expressed the category of the Ideal.  The world being but the incarnation of our sense of duty, the reflection of the mind, the creator of it is the mind.  God, being a reflection of the soul in its own atmosphere, is one of the soul's creations, a shadow on the surface of a pool.  The soul creates; deity is created.  This is not even ideal atheism, like that of Etienne Vacherot; it may be much nobler and more inspiring than the recognized forms of theism; it is dogmatic or speculative atheism only: but that it is, and that it should, confess itself.  It was natural that Fichte, being perfect master of his thought, should disclaim and resent an imputation which in spirit he felt was undeserved.  It was natural that people who were not masters of his thought, and would not have appreciated it if they had been, should judge him by the only definitions they had.  Berkeley and Fichte stood at opposite extremes in their Idealism.  Berkeley, starting from the theological conception of God, maintained that the outward world had a real existence in the supreme mind, being phenomenal only to the human.  Fichte, starting from the human mind, contended that it was altogether phenomenal, the supreme mind itself being phantasmal.
How came it, some will naturally ask, that such a man escaped the deadly consequences of such resolute introspection?  Where was there the indispensable basis for action and reaction?  Life is conditioned by limitation; the shore gives character to the sea; the outward world gives character to the man, excites his energy, defines his aim, trains his perception, educates his will, offers a horizon to his hope.  The outward world being removed, dissipated, resolved into impalpable thought, what substitute for it can be devised?  Must not the man sink into a visionary, and waste his life in dream?
That Fichte was practically no dreamer, has already been said.  The man who closed a severe, stately, and glowing lecture on duty with the announcement--it was in 1813, when the French drums were rattling in the street, at times drowning the speaker's voice--that the course would be suspended till the close of the campaign, and would be resumed, if resumed at all, in a free country, and thereupon, with a German patriot's enthusiasm, rushed himself into the field--this man was no visionary, lost in dreams.  The internal world was with him a living world; the mind was a living energy; ideas were things; principles were verities; the laws of thought were laws of being.  So intense was his feeling of the substantial nature of these invisible entities, that the obverse side of them, the negation of them, had all the vis inertia, all the objective validity of external things.  He spoke of "absolute limitations," "inexplicable limitations," against which the mind pressed as against palpable obstacles, and in pressing against which it acquired tension and vigor.  Passing from the realm of speculation into that of practice, the obstacles assumed the attributes of powers, the impediments became foes, to be resisted as strenuously as ever soldier opposed soldier in battle.  From the strength of this conviction he was enabled to say: "I am well convinced that this life is not a scene of enjoyment, but of labor and toil, and that every joy is granted but to strengthen us for further exertion; that the control of our fate is not required of us, but only our self-culture.  I give myself no concern about external things; I endeavor to be, not to seem; I am no man's master, and no man's slave."
Fichte was a sublime egoist.  In his view, the mind was sovereign and absolute, capable of spontaneous, self-determined, originating action, having power to propose its own end and pursue its own freely-chosen course; a live intelligence, eagerly striving after self-development, to fulfil all the possibilities of its nature.  Of one thing he was certain--the reality of the rational soul, and in that certainty lay the ground of his tremendous weight of assertion.  His professional chair was a throne; his discourses were prophecies; his tone was the tone of an oracle.  It made the blood burn to hear him; it makes the blood burn at this distance to read his printed words.  To cite a few sentences from his writings in illustration of the man's way of dealing with the great problems of life, is almost a necessity.  The following often-quoted but pregnant passage is from "The Destination of Man": "I understand thee now, spirit sublime!  I have found the organ by which to apprehend this reality, and probably all other.  It is not knowledge, for knowledge can only demonstrate and establish itself; every kind of knowledge supposes some higher knowledge upon which it is founded; and of this ascent there is no end.  It is faith, that voluntary repose in the ideas that naturally come to us, because through these only we can fulfil our destiny; which sets its seal on knowledge, and raises to conviction, to certainty, what, without it, might be sheer delusion.  It is not knowledge, but a resolve to commit one's self to knowledge.  No merely verbal distinction this, but a true and deep one, charged with momentous consequences to the whole character.  All conviction is of faith, and proceeds from the heart, not from the understanding.  Knowing this, I will enter into no controversy, for I foresee that in this way nothing can be gained.  I will not endeavor, by reasoning, to press my conviction on others, nor will I be discouraged if such an attempt should fail.  My mode of thinking I have adopted for myself, not for others, and to myself only need I justify it.  Whoever has the same upright intention will also attain the same or a similar conviction, and without it that is impossible.  Now that I know this, I know also from what point all culture of myself and others must proceed; from the will, and not from the understanding.  Let but the first be steadily directed toward the good, the last will of itself apprehend the true.  Should the last be exercised and developed, while the first remains neglected, nothing can result but a facility in vain and endless refinements of sophistry.  In faith I possess the test of all truth and all conviction; truth originates in the conscience, and what contradicts its authority, or makes us unwilling or incapable of rendering obedience to it, is most certainly false, even should I be unable to discover the fallacies through which it is reached. . . .  What unity, what completeness and dignity, our human nature receives from this view!  Our thought is not based on itself, independently of our instincts and inclinations.  Man does not consist of two beings running parallel to each other; he is absolutely one.  Our entire system of thought is founded on intuition; as is the heart of the individual, so is his knowledge."
"The everlasting world now rises before me more brightly, and the fundamental laws of its order are more clearly revealed to my mental vision.  The will alone, lying hid from mortal eyes in the obscurest depths of the soul, is the first link in a chain of consequences that stretches through the invisible realm of spirit, as, in this terrestrial world, the action itself, a certain movement communicated to matter, is the first link in a material chain that encircles the whole system.  The will is the effective cause, the living principle of the world of spirit, as motion is of the world of sense.  The will is in itself a constituent part of the transcendental world.  By my free determination I change and set in motion something in this transcendental world, and my energy gives birth to an effect that is new, permanent, and imperishable.  Let this will find expression in a practical deed, and this deed belongs to the world of sense and produces effects according to the virtue it contains."
This is the stoical aspect of the doctrine.  The softer side of it appears throughout the book that is entitled "The Way towards the Blessed Life."  We quote a few passages from the many the eloquence whereof does no more than justice to the depth of sentiment:
"Full surely there is a blessedness beyond the grave for those who have already entered on it here, and in no other form than that wherein they know it here, at any moment.  By mere burial man arrives not at bliss; and in the future life, throughout its whole infinite range, they will seek for happiness as vainly as they sought it here, who seek it in aught else than that which so closely surrounds them here--the Infinite."
"Religion consists herein, that man in his own person, with his own spiritual eye, immediately beholds and possesses God.  This, however, is possible through pure independent thought alone; for only through this does man assume real personality, and this alone is the eye to which God becomes visible.  Pure thought is itself the divine existence; and conversely, the divine existence, in its immediate essence, is nothing else than pure thought."
"The truly religious man conceives of his world as action, which, because it is his world, he alone creates, in which alone he can live and find satisfaction.  This action he does not will for the sake of results in the world of sense; he is in no respect anxious in regard to results, for he lives in action simply as action; he wills it because it is the will of God in him, and his own peculiar portion in being."
"As to those in whom the will of God is not inwardly accomplished,--because there is no inward life in them, for they are altogether outward,--upon them the will of God is wrought as alone it can be; appearing at first sight bitter and ungracious, though in reality merciful and loving in the highest degree.  To those who do not love God, all things must work together immediately for pain and torment, until, by means of the tribulation, they are led to salvation at last."
Language like this from less earnest lips might be deceptive; but from the lips of a teacher like Fichte it tells of the solid grandeurs that faithful men possess in the ideal creations of their souls; the habitableness of air-castles.