Johann Gottlieb Fichte

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Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814 ) came from a German peasant family, a fact which made his future career more remarkable. Aided by a local landowner he went to Jena and Leipzig to study psychology, philosophy and theology. He met Kant in 1791 and became something of a disciple, and indeed was rewarded with a teaching post. However in 1799, in good philosophical tradition, he was thrown out accused of teaching heresies, or atheism in particular.

He was 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 a 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 rumination.

Fichte was an 'ardent' nationalist and urged the 'rebirth' of Prussia after her defeat by Napoleon, and he was soon back in favour, appointed to Berlin University in 1810. His philosophy posits that consciousness must be the starting point, as it is impossible to explain it in terms of anything else, whereas the world around s can be explained by referring to consciousness. Thus Fichte rejected Kant's notion of reality as 'the-thing-in-itself', forever out of reach but still fundamental. This he sets out in the Theory of Knowledge in 1797, and his ethical perspective is in a book a year later entitled the Theory of Morals. Here he argues that the root of morality is conscience, and we can either act so as to boost our self-esteem - or so as to make ourselves feel ashamed. Thus morality becomes rather self-centred, and egotistical. Furthermore, Fichte says some individuals have such good judgement of these matters that others can and should take their lead from them. This is where religion can have a role - training and stimulating moral behaviour. The Science of Rights (1798) attempts to apply his theory to law (ie individuals) , the family, the state, and international relations (ie relations between states.).

There is also a role for the state in ensuring that people also limit their actions not only to seeking to maximise their own interest, but to avoid trespassing on others'. However, in order to judge one individual's proper sphere of action with regard to another person's, the individuals must all have equal rights and powers. This requires in turn an economic revolution, allowing each to be autonomous - that a lesson doubtless drawn by Fichte from his own earlier experience. [1]


  1. Essentials of Philosophy and Ethics, Hodder Arnold 2006, ed. Cohen M. p. 100