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The Philosophy of Johann Gottlieb Fichte

I. Life and Works

Johann Gottlieb Fichte ( picture) was born at Rammenau in Upper Lusatia in 1762. He studied theology at the University of Jena, where, some years later, he occupied the chair of philosophy. Dismissed from Jena as a result of a violent controversy, he lectured at Berlin, where he became identified with the Romantic Movement.

In 1807 and 1808 he delivered in Berlin his famous Addresses to the German Nation, which were aimed at Stirring up the patriotic spirit of his countrymen and enlightening them on the foundations for national prosperity. Fichte died of typhus in 1814.

His masterpiece is Foundation of General Science.

II. Doctrine - Transcendental Idealism

Kantian Criticism had broached the following question:

"What knowledge of nature are we able to obtain?"

As an answer Criticism had advanced the doctrine of the thinking ego, which organizes the data of experience according to subjective a priori forms. Kant's thinking ego does not create experience and nature; rather, it is a transcendental condition for obtaining a knowledge of experience and nature.

For Fichte, on the contrary, the ego is creative activity and the root of all reality. Nothing is presupposed to the ego. In the very act by which the ego affirms that it is thinking there are contained, implicitly, all the causes of the phenomena, and nature in its totality. Fichte thus abolishes Kant's dualism of subject and object, of form and matter, of thought and being.

For him the subject alone exists; this he calls Pure Ego. Object, matter and noumenon will depend upon the activity of the Pure Ego. Thus the object is not something extraneous to the thinking subject; it is a moment in its development. To know nature is equivalent to knowing the process by which nature is derived from Pure Ego.

Thus we are brought to complete Transcendental Idealism; and Fichte, aware of this fact, tries to demonstrate its superiority over philosophical dogmatism, represented, as Fichte says, by Kant's doctrine of the "thing in itself." Fichte points out that Kant, in deriving experience from the object (the thing in itself), ended in mechanical necessity and materialism. Instead, the new Idealism, regarding things as being produced by the conscious activity of the ego, derives them from the world of liberty.

Nor was that all, for Fichte advanced practical reasons demanding that being (the object) be reduced to the status of a construction (ideated effect) of the thinking subject. Fichte adjudged impossible the dualism of the theoretical and practical ego which Kant had established. The two Kantian egos from two spheres of activity, placed, as it were, in juxtaposition. Still, they have no real contact with one another.

Fichte rejects this dualism, and bases his teaching on Kant's doctrine of the primacy of practical reason. Such a primary does not permit this absolute cleavage between the theoretical and the practical, but rather implies a unification of the two, with the subordination of the theoretical to the practical in the relationship of means to end. In other words, the primary impulse of Pure Ego is an act of will, the purpose or end of which is the fulfillment of a duty or obligation.

The successive stages (moments) of development of Pure Ego -- in other words, its objectivation in nature, and its operation of knowledge -- are nothing more than means willed by Pure Ego itself to attain its end. Thus the spirit (Pure Ego) which thinks is one and the same with the spirit which is obliged. Pure Ego, by thinking, actualizes the means (nature) enabling this Pure Ego to fulfill its duty (teleological view of reality).

The basic element of the activity of Pure Ego is conflict -- a never-ceasing struggle between what any individual ego is and what it should be. Thus the fulfillment of one action begets a further obligation, and the fulfillment of this second in turn evokes another, and so on ad infinitum. Only in this struggle, according to Fichte, can we have an effective superiority of practical reason over all the stages (moments) of the ego.

The stages by which Pure Ego carries out its infinite activity are two: production and reflection. In the first stage, the Ego, by an unconscious impulsion towards its end, produces the object (nature). Such a production must be understood as the act of Pure Ego, by which it takes the form of a limited being; it is an act of auto-limitation. Limitation is the mainspring, as it were, which renders possible the infinite activity of Pure Ego. Without such limitation there would be no object, but only Pure Ego alone, with no possibility of action, either theoretical or practical.

Theoretical action consists in knowledge, and knowing implies that there is a determined (limited) object known. Similarly, practical action consists in the fulfillment of a duty which involves the exercise of effort to overcome or remove obstacles or limitations. Hence, Pure Ego, when it objectivates itself and becomes nature, also limits itself.

Whereupon there arises the second stage of activity, reflection, by which Pure Ego attains its individual consciousness. Fichte calls this the empirical ego. With the rise of consciousness, or the empirical ego, the spirit of man knows itself as a limited ego; it becomes aware of self (ego) and non-self (non-ego). Once the spirit has acquired this consciousness of ego and non-ego, there arise in it the various forms of knowledge, sensible, intellectual and rational.

Reflection is not terminated in the act of cognitive representation; cognition is not an end in itself but only a means to the realization of an end. We know in order to act. Thus, whatever serves as a limitation to our understanding becomes an obstacle for the will. Practical activity consists in an effort to remove this obstacle.

This effort sets in motion an infinite series of ever greater realizations, an unending activity which never finds satisfaction or surcease in any actually acquired state of being, but tends ever toward the attainment of what should be. Since this end is not attainable within the limited object, moral activity will never cease to produce new and greater forms of duty.

The deficiencies which occur in this ascending line of duties are due, according to Fichte, to the shortcomings of individual and national education. Thus men, both as individuals and as social groups, must be educated to know what they are obliged to be.

The defeats which the German people had suffered in the struggle against Napoleon were vividly present in the mind of Fichte; he attributed these calamities to the political division of Germany. As a means of overcoming Napoleon, he advocated the unification of all the German states -- a strong Germany, conscious of its primacy, a leader among nations, should be able to destroy the power of Napoleon. Doctrines of this kind, appealing to the national spirit and to the idea of the superiority of the German people over all others, explain why Fichte had such great influence on the future of his country

Adapted from the book: "Modern Philosophy"

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