J. G. Fichte: an attempt at deifying Subject

Johann Gottlieb Fichte is another classic of the philosophy of Modern Times.

His childhood is in many respects reminiscent of that of his great predecessor, I. Kant. He was born on May 19th, 1762, in one of the villages in the Electorate of Saxony into a poor German peasant family. His father was a ribbon weaver, while mother descended from impoverished nobles. Both parents were profoundly religious, and a village church was for the young Fichte a window to the world.

The philosopher-to-be was noted for some outstanding abilities. But he would become a weaver, too, if it was not for an interference of a good genius. One day, a local landlord was late for a church service, and he was very much upset over his failure to listen to the pastor’s sermon. But the parishioners calmed him: there is a lad hereabouts who will retell you any sermon in every detail and with genuine expression. The landlord listened to the 8-year old Fichte and took him under his patronage.

The parents were happy about such a turn of events and started to prepare their son for a pastor’s career. Fichte embarked on his many years of education. Initially, it was primary school. At the age of 12, he entered the elite school at Pforta (which F. Nietzsche would be attending later on). After finishing Pforta, in 1780, Fichte continued his education at the faculty of theology at the University of Jena, then of Leipzig.

In 1784, his patron died, so Fichte had to terminate his studies and make a living by giving private lessons.

In the meantime, the truths of religion were gradually losing their obviousness for Fichte. The truths of philosophy, instead, were increasingly getting hold of him. Before long, he became an adherent of B. Spinoza’s teaching.

In 1790, one of his pupils asked him to tell something about Kant. To his shame, Fichte had so far a rather vague idea of who Kant was. Having run round book shops and sat reading at libraries, Fichte gathered the needed information about this philosopher who was his contemporary. But the deeper he dug into the study of his works, the more his astonishment grew. It turned out that Nature, Which he had worshipped, being under Spinoza’s influence, was, in fact, not so obvious a Reality, as It might seem to be. It turns out that It, to a large extent, depends on the One Who perceives It. And not only depends. Nature emerges and exists not “by Itself,” but thanks to Human’s activity. Its cause is not “It Itself”. Its true cause, Its Natura Naturans, is Subject.

As a matter of fact, Fichte’s rendition of Kant already differed from what Kant really meant. From the very start, Fichte tended to overestimate the capabilities of Subject, towards Which Kant was much more skeptical than towards Nature perceived by It. But as yet, the difference between the two philosophers was not pronounced.

In 1791, Fichte came to Königsberg to see Kant in person. Their meeting did take place. But Kant failed to understand what his young admirer actually wanted from him. All in all, Fichte was disappointed with the meeting. Still, it did not have any impact on his philosophical convictions or his attitude towards Kant. In order to prove his adherence to Kant’s “critical method”, Fichte wrote an essay, “The attempt at a critique of all revelation”. In it, he, in the spirit of Kant, elaborated on the idea of limiting knowledge so as to “make room for faith”.

Fichte’s work was published anonymously and was initially taken by the scientific community for the work of Kant himself. The confusion was soon cleared. Kant praised Fichte, and the latter started being referred to as a worthy successor of Kant’s “critical” philosophy. He was invited to teach at the University of Jena.

Fichte was rebellious by nature and, he did not really feel like limiting his mind. In 1792, his works appeared titled “Reclamation of the freedom of thought from the princes of Europe, who have oppressed it until now” and “Contribution to the correction of the public’s judgment of the French Revolution…” In them, he justified revolution and advocated the freedom of thought and speech as an inalienable human right and important condition for the development of human personality. Those works were published anonymously. Still, Fichte made no secret of his authorship, and somehow he managed to emerge unscathed so far.

Fichte lectured at the University of Jena in 1794-1799. It was exactly in those years that Fichte developed his own philosophical and religious teaching. He felt uneasy not only within the confines of total necessity implied in Spinoza’s doctrine; Kant’s “critical” philosophy did not seem to give him enough room to manoeuver, either. Fichte regarded Kant’s delicate suggestion of the existence of Subject as patently insufficient. He made up his mind to reinstate Subject’s rights in full and raise It to the level of the Spinozian Substance. First of all, according to Fichte, one has to do away with the remnants of “dogmatism” in the Kantian philosophy. He referred to as “dogmatism” the recognition of anything that can be inaccessible to Subject, namely, the existence of “things-in-themselves”. What kind of Subject is It, if It is faced with some obscure “things-in-themselves?” Subject cannot be considered full-fledged until they exist. If “critical” philosophy is to be consistent to the end, it should repudiate these vestiges of “dogmatism”. In other words, nothing can exist in Nature, except through Subject.

Subject is an acting Agent. Its primary, unconscious activity consists in Its self-objectification, self-materialization, Its outward projection. Accordingly, accounting for Its secondary, conscious activity is Its awareness of Itself as the “I”, and also the awareness of Nature as the “not-I”. Thus, Nature appears as something opposed to Subject, as some impediment to be overcome, as some challenge to be accepted. Here begins the cognition of Nature, Which, despite Its apparent independence, is truly Subject’s innermost Product. Therefore, cognition is essentially the recognition by Subject of Himself in Nature.

If there are no “things-in-themselves,” there is no longer any need in the “practical reason”, in the sphere of “what is due”. Then all the “unsolvable” metaphysical questions, of the freedom of will, the immortality of the soul, and the existence of God will solve themselves, for Subject is free, He is immortal, and He is God.

I. Kant did not accept such a development in his philosophy. He keeps on sticking to the purely human point of view, i. e. that of consistent skepticism. All things related to “absolute” he refers not to the sphere of what is existent, but to what is due. So, however much he would extol Duty and all that, “what is due” will always be rated lower than “what is existent”. Surely, God has to exist – otherwise the Universe will go to pieces. But never Kant asserted that “God exists”. And yet, What Truly Exists does exist. Moreover, It yearns to know what It is. Philosophy is qualified to give an unequivocal answer to this question, for it is an attempt by God to become aware of Himself, it is the science of What Truly Exists. Kant’s delicate treatment of the Latter as Something Which is “due” to exist, certainly, does him credit, but that was clearly not enough. After a timid attempt made by Kant, the philosophical Subject, thanks to Fichte’s efforts, rises to Its full height.

In 1799, after publication of Fichte’s another work, executed in the spirit of “freethinking”, he was accused of atheism and had to abandon his lecturing at the university. Surely, Fichte’s undisguised support of the French Revolution, interpretation of God as “Subject”, or even the “moral world order created by the efforts of the free human will” could please only few in the peaceful Electorate of Saxony. However, another “condemnation of Socrates” went off with no casualties this time around. Luckily, Germany was then a formation of many faces with a good variety to choose from. So, Fichte moved to Berlin, the capital of the neighbouring kingdom of Prussia, where he was received with open arms. Here, he was treated most kindly by the King of Prussia Friedrich-Wilhelm III (who, incidentally, would be grandfather of the Liberator tsar Alexander II of Russia).

Fichte plunged into the thick of cultural and social life of the Prussian capital city. He delivered public lectures and met with the theoreticians of German Romanticism, including his colleague, F. W. J. von Schelling. The Romanticists, influenced by Fichte, started emphasizing the exclusive role of Subject in artistic creativity. Fichte, in his turn, became more and more inclined to the idea of art being the supreme expression of human spirit. Also in Berlin, Fichte joined a masonic lodge.

Having developed Kant’s teaching, Fichte tried to advance his own teaching. Now, he was preoccupied with moral issues. Where, indeed, does morality come from, if Subject deals only with Nature? In other words, why should Subject, possessing free will, be good? Fichte supposes that Subject is faced not only by Nature. At some time, He finds out that He is not alone. That was an interesting turn in Fichte’s philosophy. However, he would not elaborate on the dialectics of the “One” and the “Other”. Instead of it, he posits the existence of a multitude of Subjects, Which his Absolute Subject falls into. Regarding the Latter, Fiche, thereby, turned out to be both Spinoza and Leibniz, all in one.

According to Fichte, Subject’s self-will is voluntarily limited for the sake of Its co-existence with other self-determining Subjects, other “I-s” Whom one cannot treat as ordinary objects of Nature, but only as Its own Self. Thus, Fichte’s Absolute Subject increasingly acquires the characteristic features of Humankind, or Human Society. Surely, each human person is unique. Nevertheless, all people, in essence, make up a single Subject, therefore, they all are brothers. Hence, Man’s mission is to improve Himself and Nature, actively streamline the Environment into What It is due to be, jointly transform Chaos into Cosmos, execute a grandiose leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom, from “what exists” to “what is due to exist”. Actually, Fichte’s Humankind is endowed with the powers of the Biblical God.

To accomplish the above mission, the fusion of all human wills of the entire world community will be needed. Certainly, this cannot be achieved right away. To start with, it is necessary to create the relevant “rational state”. Philosophers adherent to Fichte’s teaching must place themselves at the head of such a state. They should establish control over the production and distribution of material welfare and also limit contacts with other countries so as to completely concentrate on bringing up citizens in the spirit of “true philosophy”, aiming Man at transforming the World. The ideals of the French Revolution, according to Fichte, had been betrayed by Napoleon, so Frenchmen appeared unable to lead mankind forward. Now, the most educated, German nation was due to become a springboard for the future liberation of humankind. With that end in view, the German nation should achieve political unity and become a Collective Whole. And the time was not far off, when a man should appear, who was to lead such unification.

Thus, Fichte’s Absolute Subject, in point of fact, turns out to be a fairly natural, that is, objectified entity, namely, Humankind, or Human Society. In the final analysis, this “Subject” appears to be the German Nation, Who transforms Himself and Nature, driven by “rational”, that is, “moral” will. In the meantime, the true Subject, again, was omitted and overlooked. After all, Subject Proper is something, which entirely and intimately abides within us, and in no way outside us, even if “other egos” are at issue (except for the unique “other I”). In general, any plurality is indicative of the Object, or Nature, being there. Verily, Subject is Human, but only as a stage in the development of God. Therefore, exalting Him immediately to the level of the Creator God, or His more down-to-earth interpretation as “Humankind” is, although historically justified, but still not quite correct.

It looks like Fichte did not notice the substitution. True, he did not come to inferring Human from Nature and was not apt to go into the details about how Nature and Man had arisen, just mentioning that “reason could not have originated from unreason”. At the same time, he admitted the primordial existence of some “civilized race” amidst “savage peoples”.

In 1805, Fichte taught at the University of Erlangen. In 1806, after the Battle of Jena, in which Prussian and Saxon troops were routed by Napoleon, the philosopher moved to Königsberg. The next year, however, he had to return to the occupied Berlin, where his family was staying. There, Fichte would bravely speak out against the occupation regime. In his ardent speeches, he would glorify the cultural mission of the German people. He would call on the Germans for the overcoming of the spiritual crisis and for moral revival. After the University of Berlin was opened in 1809, Fiche headed the chair of philosophy there, and even was its rector for some time.

Napoleon’s defeat in the Russian campaign of 1812 caused widespread patriotic enthusiasm in Prussia. The next year, Prussia entered into a coalition with Russia against Napoleon, and in 1814, the German lands were completely cleared of the Napoleon’s troops.

Gradually, Fichte came to realize that he had gone too far in his patriotic ardour. Now, he changed his mind and admitted the incorrectness of the substitution of Absolute Subject for “Natural Human” in general, and for the German Nation, in particular. In his declining years, he no more referred to Absolute Subject as “I”, and increasingly tended to interpret It as some infinite, all-encompassing, rational (moral) and life-giving Will. Being de-humanized and de-personalized, Absolute Subject was inevitably being displaced into the Basis of Nature. It becomes the Latter’s Origin, Its Beginning, or, as Spinoza would put it, the Natura Naturans of Substance.

In the meantime, Fichte’s days were already numbered, and we will never know where he would have been led by the flight of his thought, had he lived any longer. His wife (incidentally, a niece of the eminent poet F. G. Klopstock) worked as a nurse at a hospital during the war against Napoleon. One day, Fichte contracted typhus from her. She managed to recover, while he proved less lucky. The philosopher died on January 29th, 1814. Their son, Immanuel Herman Fichte, so named after I. Kant, also became a philosopher. He failed to create his own philosophical teaching. He just tried to systematize the then existing philosophical doctrines.

Antique philosophy had posed the question of the Origin of Nature right away. The philosophy of Modern Times, however, started with positing the independence of Nature as a Whole. Only eventually, via skepticism, via subjectivity, it approached the question of Its Origin. Thus, philosophy returned, as it were, to the Spinozian Substance. This time around, it was not Substance proper, but Its “Free Cause”, Its Natura Naturans. Further development of philosophy would consist in the fact that Each of the Attributes of Substance, namely, Its Mind, Soul, and Body would find Itself in the capacity of Such.


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