In This Article Johann Gottlieb Fichte

  • Introduction
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • On the Sciences of Knowledge of the First Period (1794–1799)
  • On the Sciences of Knowledge after 1800
  • On Popular and Political Writings
  • Fichte and Others

Philosophy Johann Gottlieb Fichte
by
Isabelle Thomas-Fogiel
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0371

Introduction

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (b. 1762–d. 1814) is the first representative of what has been called “German idealism.” He precedes both Schelling, who was considered his disciple until their final break, and Hegel. Regarded as a disciple of Kant in 1793, Fichte nevertheless reproached him for not having succeeded in founding the content of his philosophy on an absolute principle. His primary purpose is therefore to make philosophy into a rigorous science. Fichte therefore begins to elaborate in 1794 on what he calls the “Science of Knowledge” (Wissenschaftslehre; WL). He tirelessly proposes new versions of this Science of Knowledge, insisting through the repetition of the title, on the permanence of his initial motivation: to find an absolute foundation for knowledge. The versions of Fichte’s Science of Knowledge (a dozen in total, distinguished by their date: 1794, 1801, etc.) reflect the most general and abstract level of philosophical thought. This first level of philosophy, which is the most general and abstract, is called by Fichte “first philosophy.” The second level corresponds to theoretical philosophy (or the philosophy of nature) and practical philosophy (or ethics as developed, for example, in his Systems of Ethics, in 1798). The third level represents the “particular sciences,” which study more specific and concrete fields, including subdisciplines such as biology and physics, or “natural right” (i.e., “theory of right”) and philosophy of religion. Finally, a fourth level is constituted by the so-called popular writings, aimed at a public of nonphilosophers, for example, The Vocation of Man, The Way Towards the Blessed Life, and Addresses to the German Nation. The contrast between the clear and literary language of these popular writings and the arid abstraction of the Sciences of Knowledge has often been emphasized. Fichte’s body of work seems to pose a problem of continuity for many commentators. Are the multiple versions of Science of Knowledge compatible with each other? To this question, the answer is more often than not a negative one. Fichte’s commentators divided these versions into two or, sometimes, three periods. The vast majority of interpretations assert that Fichte’s thought evolved over time. Such a change is more often expressed as the passage from a doctrine of what is finite (the subject, the “Self”) to a philosophy of absolute (God, Being). The problem of this evolution has become one of the most difficult aspect of interpreting Fichte’s thought.

General Overview

Paradoxically, general presentations studying the whole of Fichte’s philosophy are not very numerous. Two reasons explain this fact: the first is that Fichte was considered from the middle of the 19th century until the beginning of the 20th century as a simple transitional figure leading from Kant to Hegel; he was therefore not studied for himself, and most of the time, only his writings from the so-called Jena period (1794–1799) were considered. The second reason is that most of the contemporary commentators have preferred to focus on a certain period (e.g., the early philosophy) or a specific field (e.g., the theory of right). Fichte’s work is thus seen as fragmented in various stages, which are usually considered as incompatible with each other. Nevertheless, some significant studies aim to provide a more complete overview of Fichte’s thinking.

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