In the Enciclopedia Libre Universal en Español, on the Internet, one can find an outline of an article about Johann Gottlieb Fichte, written by an anonymous author, which, as I was reading it, reminded me of things that seemed to have been taken as notes to my classes about History of Contemporary Philosophy at the University of Oviedo (Spain). It is only an outline with mistakes, inaccuracies, lack of connection in the order followed, etc. For this reason, I have decided to complete it and give it a more finished form. I do this because I am especially interested in Fichte, because he puts the operatory activity as the origin of our rational knowledge and because he is one of the most distorted and worst understood great German classic philosophers, who still awaits today for someone who will show him to us in his true depth and present philosophical importance. Moreover, a summary of his philosophy may serve as an appetizer in the face of the 200 anniversary of his death, which take place this year. The outline of the Encyclopedia would read as follows:
It is well-known the great influence that Marxism had during the twentieth century. Marx was in his intellectual origins a left Hegelian. For this reason Hegel was very important to understand Marxism and he was deeply studied, for he was seen as the one who brought to completion the philosophy initiated by Kant. The philosophers who were in the middle, Maimon, Reinhold, Fichte and Schelling, were seen, however, as mere intermediary links. But this in not so, at least in the case of Fichte and Schelling. They are something more than that, although still today they are far from achieving a fair treatment with respect to Kant and Hegel, both broadly recognized as great giants of modern thought.
Notwithstanding, Hegel's star seems to decline with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the failure of the socialist experiment that seemed to be more influential. A Hegel that, it cannot be forgotten, also influenced the fascist movement. Because, although the fascist theories opposed the marxists, there is also in their base an interpretation of the Hegelian theories. On the other hand, it looks like Schelling's criticism made in his Munich and Berlin lectures against Hegelian philosophy starts to be taken seriously.
However, we will focus in what follows in the figure of J. Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814). He is presented as a passionate follower of Kant, whom he went to visit in Könisberg, walking from Poland, and asked for help, given his precarious financial status. Kant offered him to publish, under his recommendation, his essay Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation, which would make him famous as a young writer. Nevertheless, good old Kant would publish an article rejecting Fichte's philosophy as not continuing his, by the time already famous, critical philosophy. Furthermore, this happened at a very critical time in Fichte's live, when he was accused of atheism and was forced to resign his chair in the University of Jena. He had been promoted there by Goethe, at the time minister of Culture in the Duchy of Weimar, on which the university depended. Goethe wanted to put the University of Jena at the forefront of German culture and promoted the access to its chairs to Schelling and Hegel, who will be the great philosophical stars after Fichte's stunning five years (1794-1799) in Jena.
Fichte's philosophy starts from Kant, but developing ideas of its own. Something similar to what happened to Malebranche and Spinoza with Descartes. Although Fichte doesn't accept the background of Spinoza's philosophy, his work is very influenced by him. Spinoza was famous for being an atheist and a pantheist, which motivated the interested of the youth of the time in his work, although Spinoza had been treated in the eighteenth century, in Lessing's words, as a “dead dog” and all sort of refutations of his work had been developed. However, he was saved as a great philosopher by Lessing himself in an interview posthumously published by Jacobi, which produced a great controversy and scandal (See Manuel F. Lorenzo, "La polémica sobre el espinosismo de Lessing", El Basilisco nº 1, 1989, pp.65-74), attracting the interest in his famous Ethic among the young Germans.
Fichte was one of those youngster that read and studied with great interest Spinoza's work. He read it critically, for, after Kant's “Copernican Revolution”, it is only possible a critical philosophy that does not admit knowledge of “things in themselves”, as Spinoza's God Substance was, located beyond all human experience, real or possible. However, Fichte consider that Spinoza offered the best model of a good foundation for Cartesian philosophy and took his ideas to a deeper and more coherent expression. For Fichte Kant's philosophy was also not well founded, because it offers new answers, but it departs from obscure premises. There are in Kant some contradictions, as Jacobi had pointed out. According to Kant, only in the phenomenal world is it legitimate to talk about causality. Nevertheless, as he explains the theory of knowledge, he considers that there is a matter of knowledge (sensations) that are manifestations of the “thing in itself” which is behind and beyond the phenomena. That is, for Kant something noumenal, the Thing in Itself, is the cause of phenomenal sensations, applying thus improperly the causality, which can only be applied to the relations among phenomena, to the relations among the unknowable noumenal world and the phenomenal.
Moreover, the unity of the famous three Kantian Critiques is a false unity by juxtaposition based in Tetens' theory of the three psychological faculties. Fichte intends to find a unity in Kantian philosophy in a strictly philosophical manner, rationally coherent and complete.
However the reformulation of Kantism leads him to a choice between two Ideas which preside in Kant the division of reality in two worlds: the phenomenal and the noumenal. The Idea of the I (Transcendental Ego) and that of the Thing in Itself. If we depart, as the primary Idea, from the Thing in Itself we fall into a pre-critical philosophy similar to Spinozism. But if we depart from the I we can reconstruct the World in a critical and limited way, as the world of phenomena. Not as a world in itself, but rather as the world such as it appears in the representation (Vorstellung) that we make of it. Furthermore, Fichte reenforces this choice with the claim that concerning philosophical issues we cannot remain neutral, but rather we must choose the philosophy that is in accordance with the type of person we are. In that case, those who advocate for that everything remains as it is, for fatalism, will choose a dogmatic philosophy based in the permanent and eternal Substance from which everything comes with necessity, being pointless to rebel. However, those who advocate for liberty and change, will choose to depart from the operative liberty which is attributed to the I, facing a world that can be changed. Fichte chose the I. In such a sense, Fichte's philosophical position was viewed sympathetically by the advocates of the French Revolution, which had taken place at the time, and view with suspicion by the politically reactionary positions, which gave him an aura of audacious thinker surrounded all his live by controversy.
Fichte substitutes, then, Spinoza's Substance, the God-creative Nature, for the human I. The I now take the relative place occupied before by the divine substance in Spinoza, but this does not mean that Fichte understands the I as a spiritual Substance, in the manner of the Cartesian cogito, but rather he understands it as action, as operatory activity (Tathandlung), from which it is derived, not anymore the World, but rather our representations of the World. Such an I, which Fichte calls the Absolute I, is not anymore the psychological or empirical I, but rather the Kantian Transcendental I that encompasses all my representations and has the task of making the synthesis of intuitions and concepts according to schemes of the creative imagination. The world, not in itself, but such as it appears to us, is then constructed-constituted by human subjects themselves.
Fichte performs an “ontological turn” which complements Kant's gnoseological “Copernican turn”. And he does this inverting Spinoza. Because, Kant, besides excelling above all in analytical genius, as Fichte himself recognized when he compared him with Reinhold's synthesizing “genius”, was not particularly impressed by Spinoza's philosophy, whom he had not read or studied directly, according to his own confession, and he knew about him above all through indirect references. The young Fichte, however, was attracted by the famous controversy about “Spinozism” and Lessing. That which attracts Fichte about Spinoza is the rigorous and precise form of ordering more geometrico his philosophy. In such a sense, Fichte will try to order the content of the new Kantian philosophy, inclined still towards the baroque aristotelic-scholastic molds that had been renovated in the Germanic philosophical world by Christian Wolff, in a non scholastic form of exposition and development. A form which was more in accordance with the new way of systematic founding and exposition introduced by Descartes, with his hypothetical-deductive model from the cogito as a fundamentum inconcusum, to extract from it, in the form of rigorously demonstrated propositions, as Spinoza did, the new philosophical contents resulting from Kantian criticism. In turn, the geometrical deduction will be substituted by the new dialectical deduction that Kant had introduced in his Critiques in order to escape from the antinomies and contradictions to which the superficial Cartesian rationalism lead.
Under these cirsumstances the “ontological turn” that Fichte introduces will consist in substituting the Spinozist Substance by the Kantian transcendental I. The task of a critical philosophy will not be anymore, as in the Spinozist metaphysic, to deduct the entire reality from the Deus sive Natura, but rather philosophy must abandon such metaphysical reveries in order to undertake tasks that are more humble, but more humanly achievable, such as departing from human consciousness in order to try to deduce, not anymore the world as it is in itself, but rather how it is for us, the world as representation (Vorstellung). In this Fichte continued the steps of Reinhold, who he succeeded in the chair of Jena, although having to essentially modify the so-called Principle of Consciousness (Satz des Bewusstsein) that was understood by Reinhold as an nondeductible Fact (Tatsache), being ingeniously interpreted by Fichte as an Action (Tathandlung). Neither the Kantian Thing in itself, which Reinhold had brilliantly discarded, nor the Reinhold's “facts of consciousness”, are the origin of human knowledge. Rather, for Fichte, only the actions of the I are the origin of human knowledge. Action is the essence of the I in the specific sense that action is not understood as another property of the I among others, but rather that the I is itself essentially activity, and for that reason his philosophy is a philosophy of action, a sort of pragmatism avant la letter that overcomes the Cartesian-Kantian dualism, because the I itself derives, constitutes itself and constitutes the world through his actions. This way, Fichte is the first of the great philosophers which tries to explain human knowledge, not from the mere sensations or innate Ideas, but rather from the actions of the human subject itself, in a sense which will be taken up again by Jean Piaget in his famous Genetic Epistemology.
Fichte tries to reconstruct systematically Kant's work departing from the Transcendental Ego as a critical foundation of which we can have experience, a cognitive experience of a psychological or “mental” origin. He imitates Spinoza when he tries certain logical formalization of such cognitive experience through logical-deductive principles. But such Principles are not fixed metaphysically. They must be extracted from experience, from what happens when we know something. Fichte asked his students to look at the wall and to analyze what happens in such perceptive act: an I who perceives a Not-I. Then he asked them to remember such act. In the remembrance a new I appears who perceives himself in the moment in which he was looking at the wall. This new I is a reflexive I in which the subject unfolds himself and puts himself as an object. Even if we continue to introduce new acts of knowledge as that of an I who remembered that he was looking at the wall, and so forth, an I different from the reflexive I will not appear. For this reason the first principle of Fichte's philosophy is “the I puts the I”. Said in a Cartesian way: I reflect, therefore I exist. The I produces or generates the I itself, consciousness produces consciousness. This way the first principle of Fichte's philosophy is the reflexive identity:
I = I (First Principle)
However, the I does not produce consciousness from himself, as if it were a spiritual Substance or a divine Spirit, as in Berkeley, but rather, something needs to be presupposed that forces him to do so. For this reason, a resistance presents itself against the I in his actions, an unknown “Thing in itself” which already appears in the perceptive I as the “wall” and that Fichte prefers to call Not-I, for we cannot know positively what it is. In fact, according to Fichte, the positing of a Not-I derives, not from knowledge, as in Kant, but rather, it is a belief which derives from a feeling of encountering something that resists our actions. This way he introduces a sort of “infinite Substance” as something a posteriori, unlike Spinoza who departs from it. Therefore, the second principle of Fichte's philosophy is: “the Not-I opposes the I”:
(I/NOT-I) (Second Principle).
The I is threatened by the thing in itself, by the Not-I, in the same way as the Island of Reason, which Kant talked about, was threatened by mysterious oceans of unknown limits. We cannot know the Not-I and the only thing that we can say about it is that it is not the I.
However, the ceaseless activity of the I would not make sense confronted with an indivisible, infinite and unembraceable Not-I, as the “thing in itself” of the old metaphysics. For this reason it is necessary, in the Kantian sense, to restrict knowledge to the faith world of the phenomena given to consciousness. Hence Fichte introduces a “postulate of limitation”, understanding that the opposition between the I and the Not-I only has sense when it is given within the I, between a divisible I and an indivisible Not-I. The contradiction between the I and the Not-I cannot be considered in a general and indeterminate manner, for it would be a contradiction between two infinities. The opposition I and Not-I must be limited and given in the I. According to this the Third Principle is: “in the I a divisible I opposes an indivisible Not-I”:
I(I/NOT-I) (Third Principle).
From his Third Principle Fichte reorganizes the whole Kantian philosophy. Fichte tries to reconstruct from this Third Principle all the representations of consciousness, whether theoretical or practical. This way the Third Principle I(I/NOT-I) can be interpreted in two ways: if we suppose the Not-I as acting over the passive I we obtain the representations of theoretical knowledge that Kant analyzes in the Critique of Pure Reason. If, on the contrary, we suppose an active I acting over a Not-I which presents a passive resistance to it, we obtain the moral representations, or practical in general, analyzed by Kant in his other two critiques.
REAL SERIES: I (NOT-I → I)
IDEAL SERIES: I (I → NOT-I)
The Real Series of necessary representations focuses on how sensation, perception, imagination, concepts, etc. are produced. The Ideal Series of practical representations has to do with the genesis of ethical, moral, political, juridical, etc., representations.
These are Fichte's rational principles of subjectivity that remain constant throughout his work, the famous Three Principles of his Doctrine of Science (Wissenschaftslehre) laid out in 1794. With them he intends to explain rationally the totality of human knowledge, both our theoretical cognitive representations and our practical, organizing systematically the novel results that Kant had reached in his famous three Critiques, but not in a monist way, as Reinhold intended with his famous Principle of Consciousness (Satz des Bewusstsein), but through a dialectical construction of Three Principles that “close” or narrow the field of human knowledge in a way that we could compare to Structures of rational explanatory principles, such as, for example, the famous Three Principles of Newtonian Mechanics, in which, from the same principles a set of theorems are proven. Fichte, imitating Spinoza, will conceive of the proven truths of his Philosophy as Theorems, although these proofs don't follow the geometric mode, but the dialectic of the thesis, antithesis and synthesis which Kant had begun.
However, Fichte's three principles are not a merely logical-formal deduction, but a reproduction of the dialectical development of human knowledge itself which is evident when we observe the structure outlined by the Three Principles, interpreting the First as a Thesis or starting opposition (I=I); the second as a negation of such thesis (I/Not-I); the Third as a result of the Synthesis of both: I(I/Not-I).
For this reason, the most adequate method for philosophy, according to Fichte, is the dialectical method. Fichte sees philosophy as a constructive and synthetic activity which advances, with the application in all its territories of the dialectical method; although he introduces a form of founding idealist philosophy and more related to an anthropological foundation than to an ontological, his work is entirely original and novel. His brilliant use of the dialectical method against the analytic will end up influencing, through Hegel, Marxism, who will popularize it. The importance of the dialectical method manifests itself in that, for Fichte, “philosophy is not only a system of thought, a mere collection or connexion of Propositions (Sammlung von Sätzen) that can be learned, but rather, a view of things (Ansicht der Dinge), a special mode of thought (Denkart), a dialectical mode of thought, that we can reproduce in ourselves” (J. T. Fichte, Wissenschaftslehre nova método, Felix MeinerVerlag, Hamburg, 1994, p. 11). This way he picks up the well known Kantian distinction between knowing philosophy and knowing how to philosophize.
Fichte applied the principles of his Theory of Science (Wissenschaftslehre) to his political theory (The closed commercial State), to his moral philosophy (Ethics), to law (Foundation of natural Right), but not to nature. This will be done by his brilliant young follower in Jena, Schelling, but giving birth to a very different philosophy to the Fichtean, just as Hegel remarked in his work The Difference Between Fichte's and Schelling's System of Philosophy (1801).
As much as Fichte rejects Spinoza's philosophy as a pre-critical philosophy, nevertheless, his agrees with him in the defense of freedom of thought: the State must allow all rational opinions. The tradition of modern democratic ideas is born with Spinoza, with his opposition to the religious and political fanaticism of his time. Although Spinoza was a famous and influencing figure during his short life, he was later outcast and treated as a “dead dog” because of his radicalness and heterodoxy. Fichte also wrote an Ethics, according to the principles of his Doctrine of Science. There he follows Kant's critique to “material ethics” that would put pleasure or happiness in this life as a reward for virtue. Kant puts virtue and not happiness at the centre, following this way the stoic tradition which claims that the reward to virtue can only be virtue itself. This way a “formal ethics” is defined which demands following the Categorical Imperative of moral law requires doing the good without getting any material reward in exchange. But Kant also considers that the highest good should include Happiness and not only Virtue. He sees in the Christian belief in the reward in the afterlife, in the life of the pure noumenal world of resurrected spirits, a compensation, not material (phenomenal) but purely spiritual (noumenal), for those who follow the virtuous life. According to Fichte this is a relapse in a naïve Christianity that presupposes a God who can be bought with diligence, etc. For him, happiness or the blessed life (The Way Towards the Blessed Life, 1806) is the satisfaction of duty well done. This way the reward is neither material nor formal: it is the pure feeling of satisfaction that is based not in pleasing a personal God understood as a judge of rewards and punishments, but rather, in a feeling of Love towards a God who is nothing different from the Moral Order of the World, with whom Humanity has to identify itself in is continuous improvement process and rational progress. Such an Idea of a purely rational God was introduced by Fichte in order to scape from the accusation of atheism made against him and which caused, under strong pressures, his proudly voluntary resignation and cessation, - not “expulsion” as it is usually said -, from the University of Jena.
It is true that since the strong Kantian critiques to the Proofs of the Existence of God, a kind of split between Philosophy and Theology starts, but the then prevailing political positions and the religious mentality in the Germanic world, in contrast to the French, for example, prevented the development of a philosophy exempt of theology. Shelling and Hegel learned from the religious attacks that Fichte had suffered and for this reason they use in their works an ambiguous onto-theological language with the aim of avoiding conflicts with the religious communities, both protestant and catholic, by which the Germans still remained divided. But the reason for the greater importance of religion in Fichte's work after his period in Jena also has its motives in weaknesses in his own philosophy. It is true that Fichte doesn't use the analysis of the I as a mere founding Cartesian springboard which still needs to lift itself to a theological instance, to the existence of a rational and good God who warrants the evidences of the I, but it is rather the case that, after the Kantian demolition of the so-called “ontological argument” of the existence of God, which Descartes still accepted, Fichte proposes a dialectical and internal foundation to the I's own world, similar to what Husserl will call an Egology, maybe in opposition to Theology. That is, the logical reconstruction of Subjectivity and the world of objects as cognitive representations according to purely philosophical-rational principles.
Nevertheless, when Fichte tries to reconstruct the world of the alter egos, of intersubjectivity, through the category of “recognition” (Anerkennung) – taken and later made famous by Hegel in his well-known “Dialectic of Master and Slave” in the Phenomenology of Spirit -, he is forced to appeal, as a warrant of the triumph of good, to the existence of a God understood, through Kantian influence, as the “moral order” of the world. The recognition between two Is is not direct, for through it I only perceive the other I as my representation, not in itself. I can only reach his reality in an indirect manner, through God himself who is the warrant of the existence of a Moral Order which includes other persons like me necessary in order to accomplish it. For this reason, there is in Fichte a sort of Malebranchean Occasionalism in so far as persons only recognize themselves as such not directly, but through the identification with the mentioned divine Order. In The Destination of Man (1800), he writes: “It doesn't flow directly from you to me and from me to you the knowledge that we have one from the other; we are separated by a limitative insuperable ordering. Only through our common spiritual source we know respectively the one of the other; only in it we know and influence mutually” (II, 301). Compared to the Malebranch introducer, developing Cartesian Ideas, of the existence of an “intelligible physical space”, Fichte is the introducer, developing Kantian Ideas, of an “intelligible moral order”, built from the operatory activities of the individual Is, and not by mere divine revelation, although still warranted by theological assumptions. Such a Moral Order, imposed over the particular wills, will be the guiding Idea which will open the way to the so-called Social Sciences through the Hegelian Idea of the Objective Spirit and that Marx will reinterpret as a mystification of positive historical realities such as the economical struggles causing the structural laws which impose themselves “over the will” of men, or in the functionalist and structuralist Anthropology, as elementary structures of kinship, etc.
With all this the Fichtean Philosophy of the time of Berlin is marked by a theological dependence, even acquiring a mystical tone in his writing The Way Towards the Blessed Life (1806), which has contributed to the contraposition between the revolutionary Fichte of Jena and the religious and conservative Fichte of Berlin. Nevertheless, it can be admitted that there is a basic continuity, a nuclear structure or common knot, between all the different and numerous versions of his Doctrine of Science. In such sense, Fichte never abandoned his Doctrine of the Three Principles which made him famous in Jena. It could be said then, that as well as Descartes would have been the precursor of the Kant's “Copernican Turn” when starting with such good step, as the poet Peguy would say, from the “I think”, although understanding such I as a substance which requires the participation and warranty in its evidences of the infinite divine Substance, Fichte is the precursor of the comprehension of theoretical knowledge as a knowledge that is constructed and is founded in practical knowledge, just as, for instance, Piaget's Epistemology will claim (see my article “Fichte a la luz de Piaget”), but he was unable to find a foundation of moral knowledge without appealing to theological beliefs.
Regarding his political doctrines, Fichte considers that economical Liberalism, by itself, cannot end with misery or economical crisis, and he proposes, in The Closed Commercial State (1800), the intervention of the State in the Economy. The State cannot allow the free exchange of goods, in the same way as it doesn't allow the free circulation of individuals, but rather it must intervene controlling their production and flux, with the end of avoiding economical crisis. The citizens are defined by the property they acquire with their job, but such property must not be understood in the substantialist way of Locke, or Kant, for example, of a thing possessed, but rather of something only necessary in accordance to the capacity or operatory activity of he who possesses it. Fichte, unlike Kant, doesn't accept the death penalty as an unilateral right of the State. For when the citizen accepts the Social Contract on which the State is based, he cannot renounce to an non-renounceable right, the right to live, putting his life on the hands of the State. Against a Kant who is a convinced supporter of the death penalty, Fichte claims that the penalty is not an end in itself, only a mean to reintegrate the individual in society, reestablishing the reciprocal acknowledgement of his rights. In the situations in which the dialectic of the reciprocal acknowledgement among citizens as human beings, with equal rights, becomes impossible, with the risk of the destruction of the moral order, the offender, in so far as he declares himself an outlaw, must be condemned to live outside of human society, either being expelled to live in the jungle or in the not colonized lands. Only when this is not possible, as it still was in the nineteenth century, the death penalty is exceptionally justified. But then, according to Fichte, there is no proper penalty, but shame, for we are not talking any more of an individual but of a social enemy, a parasite. This way society treats the criminal with his own law, the law of the jungle.
Fichte was always a defender of the rational political principles that had arisen in the French Revolution, but he opposed Napoleon when he invaded Prussia in the sense that he did not represent the expansion of the French Revolution, but rather its involution to feudal despotism. In this he agrees with Auguste Comte, who saw Napoleon, in his attempt to restore Imperial Monarchy, like Julian the Apostate who aimed to restore paganism against Christianity, opposing to the general progress that which was civilizing. Unlike Hegel, who saw in Napoleon the incarnation of the universal spirit, Fichte proposed his destruction. For this reason he fought against him courageously in his Address to the German Nation (1808) pronounced in front of a crowded auditory in the Academy of Sciences in Berlin, under the occupation of the Napoleonic troops.
The revolutionary France, as the civilizing torchbearer, had failed and Germany had to take over, according to Fichte. This was a surprising claim, for at that moment Germany was not more that a decadent aggregate of small principalities resulting of the decadence and fragmentation of the Holy Roman Empire. Germany had been, as Fichte points out in his famous Address, the origin of European civilization, mixing the Christian of Roman origin with the ancestral traditions of the Germanic people. However, during Kant´s time, Fichte saw that the Germans started to show certain traits of cultural supremacy in Europe. For this reason Germany would be, once its unification as a modern and democratic nation had been done, Humanity´s new civilizing engine, after France. Nevertheless, Fichte remains cautious, warning his people that, if Germany failed, the only one who could take over was the country which according to the democrats of the time could harbor such hope and avoid a regression to political despotism: the USA. In such a sense Fichte's political ideas are those of a democratic reformer, far from the political totalitarianisms with which he is usually related.
Fichte's philosophy produced a great impact during his time. Friedrich Schlegel said that the three most important events during his time had been the French Revolution, Fichte's philosophy and Goethe's Wilhelm Meister. He was a very deep philosopher and, although Hegel and Schelling understood what was essential to his philosophy in Jena, they ignored great part of his later evolution offered in his courses of the University of Berlin. University known as “Humboldt”, which he himself contributed to found and of which he was the first Rector. He died on the 29th of January of 1814 from a virus transmitted by his wife, Johanna Maria Rahn, niece of the poet Klopstock, which she got during her service as a volunteer nurse in the War of Liberation of Prussia from the Napoleonic occupation.
(Translated into English by Luis Fernández Pontón)