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Western Philosophy
18th-century philosophy
Johann Gottlieb Fichte
Name: Johann Gottlieb Fichte
Birth: 19 May, 1762 (Rammenau, Saxony)
Death: 27 January, 1814 (Berlin, Germany)
School/tradition: German Idealism, Post-Kantianism
Main interests
Self-consciousness and Self-awareness, Moral Philosophy, Political Philosophy
Notable ideas
absolute consciousness, the not-I, striving, mutual recognition
Immanuel Kant, Karl Leonhard Reinhold, Salomon Maimon |
Hegel, Schopenhauer, Schelling, Novalis, Dieter Henrich

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (May 19, 1762January 27, 1814) was a German philosopher. His significance in the history of Western philosophy has been much overlooked, yet he is 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 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 ruminations. Fichte also wrote political philosophy, and is thought of by some as the father of German nationalism [1].

Life and workEdit

Fichte was born in Rammenau, Saxony. In 1780, he began study at the Jena theology seminary. In 1784, without completing his degree, Fichte ended his studies. Fichte worked as a private tutor in Zurich, and in 1790 he became engaged to Johanna Rahn, who happened to be the niece of the famous poet F. G. Klopstock. In 1790, Fichte began to study the the works of Kant, which were to have a lasting effect on the trajectory of his life and thought. Not long after meeting Kant in Königsberg, where he asked for Kant's financial support, Fichte published his first work, Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation (1792), a book that investigates the connections between divine revelation and Kant's Critical philosophy. For reason that remain obscure, the book was published anonymously, and was thus mistakenly thought to be a new work by Kant himself. Kant cleared the confusion and openly praised the work, which greatly improved Fichte's reputation in the philosophical community.

Fichte died of typhus at the age of fifty-two. His son, Immanuel Hermann Fichte, also made contributions to philosophy.

Fichte's Philosophical WritingsEdit

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. His student, 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 proofs 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.

Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. I, §13

In his famous work Foundations of Natural Right (1796), Fichte argued that self-consciousness was a social phenomenon. A necessary condition of any subjects' self-awareness, he argued, is the existence of other rational subjects. These subjects influence and summons the subject or self into an awareness of itself. This idea is an elaboration and extension of his Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre (translated into English as The Science of Knowledge), where he showed that consciousness of the self depends upon resistance or a check by something that is understood as not part of the self. Fichte's famous self/not-self (also called I/not-I) distinction derives from these points and is developed in the Science of Knowledge.

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.

In 1806, in a Berlin occupied by Napoléon, Fichte gave a series of Addresses to the German Nation which became an incentive for German nationalism, and which has been cited as an example of Romantic nationalism. Here, Fichte indirectly continues his anti-Semitic argumentation from his early works on religion and the French Revolution and speaks of the alleged superiority of German people over others[2]. In other earlier works he called Jews a "state within a state" that would "undermine" German nation[3]. He openly expressed desire to expel Jews from Germany[4] In regards to Jews getting 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"[5].

Fichte also expressed severe dislike towards Poles and their culture, claiming they were "wild", "barbarian", "unclean" and "animalistic"[6]

Bibliography Edit

Primary sourcesEdit

  • Early Philosophical Writings
  • (1793) Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation (Versuch einer Kritik aller Offenbarung)
  • (1796) Foundations of Transcendental Philosophy (Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo)
  • (1798) The System of Ethics in accordance with the Principles of the Wissenschaftslehre (Das System der Sittenlehre nach den Principien der Wissenschaftslehre)
  • (1800) Introduction to the Wissenschaftslehre and Other Writings
  • (1800) The Vocation of Man (Die Bestimmung des Menschen)
  • (1807-8) Addresses to the German Nation

Secondary Sources (English)Edit

  • Arash Abizadeh. "Was Fichte an Ethnic Nationalist?" History of Political Thought 26.2 (2005): 334-359.
  • Daniel Breazeale. "Fichte's 'Aenesidemus' Review and the Transformation of German Idealism" The Review of Metaphysics 34 (1980/1) 545-68.
  • Daniel Breazeale and Thomas Rockmore (eds) Fichte: Historical Contexts/Contemporary Controversies. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1997.
  • Franks, Paul, All or Nothing: Systematicity, Transcendental Arguments, and Skepticism in German Idealism, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005
  • Dieter Henrich. "Fichte's Original Insight" Contemporary German Philosophy 1 (1982) 15-52.
  • T. P. Hohler. Imagination and Reflection: Intersubjectivity. Fichte's 'Grundlage' of 1794. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1982.
  • Wayne Martin. Idealism and Objectivity: Understanding Fichte's Jena Project. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.
  • Frederick Neuhouser. Fichte's Theory of Subjectivity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • Peter Suber. "A Case Study in Ad Hominem Arguments: Fichte's Science of Knowledge," Philosophy and Rhetoric, 23, 1 (1990) 12-42.
  • Robert R Williams. Recognition: Fichte and Hegel on the Other. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.
  • Gunther Zoller. Fichte's Transcendental Philosophy: The Original Duplicity of Intelligence and Will. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

External links Edit

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