He went to Königsberg to visit the great philosopher, and while there wrote his first book, Critique of all Revelation, which won for him fame, and marked him out as the true successor of Kant. In this work he develops the idea that the moral law, which is sovereign in us, is changed for us by a demand of our higher nature, into a law-giver, and hence loyalty to duty becomes religion, and theology completes morality. He was called in 1794 to Jena, to succeed Reinhold, where his lectures aroused great interest. After a time of brilliant activity, he was dismissed on a charge of Atheism. Withdrawing to Berlin, he was afterwards appointed Professor at Erlangen, and, finally, at the newly founded University of Berlin, of which he became the rector in 1810. He died in 1814 of fever, which he contracted from his wife, who attended the wounded soldiers in the hospital. While he was in Jena he wrote his principal philosophical works—The Basis of the Entire Science of Knowledge (1794) (Wissenschaftslehre), and his more extended works on Natural Right and the Theory of Morals. The writings which he published in Berlin are of a more popular nature, among which may be mentioned, The Destination of Man (Die Bestimmung des Menschen) (1800); Characteristics of the Present Age; On the Nature of the Scholar (1806); Way to the Blessed Life (1S06); Addresses to the German Nation (1808). These last were delivered as lectures to the general public while the French were in command of the city, and did much to rekindle the patriotism of his countrymen.
His name, indeed, is remembered by many chiefly on account of his patriotic endeavour, and the author of the Wissenschaftslehre is overshadowed by the orator of the Addresses. He was a man of upright and resolute character, gifted with rare natural eloquence, and his lectures, both to his students and the public, were full of fire and inspiration.
"There are few characters," says Thomas Carlyle, "which inspire more admiration than that of Fichte. His opinions may be true or false, but his character as a thinker can be slightly valued only by those who know it ill, and as a man approved by action and suffering, in his life and in his death, he ranks with a class of men who were common only in better ages than ours."
Fichte's philosophy has been usually regarded as falling into two periods, that of Jena and that of Berlin, and it has been maintained by some that the views of the later phase are entirely opposed to those of the earlier. It is true, indeed, that his later writings are of a more popular nature and more positive in their tone and spirit, but there is nothing in the earlier period inconsistent with the later. Fichte himself was conscious of no change; he never regarded his Wissenschaftslehre as containing his whole system. His practical views as to man's vocation and higher life have their roots in his whole conception of human consciousness and activity laid down in The Science of Knowledge. It is true that in his later writings he seems to give a more definite place to the idea of God, but, as has been shown, there is evidence that from the very first he regarded the absolute ego as being prior to and underlying all the manifestations of the particular ego.
A more natural division might be made into theoretical and practical philosophy, for to Fichte all conscious life consisted of thought and action; indeed, thought with him is action. The world can only be comprehended from the standpoint of consciousness, and that again can only be explained through the will. The ego is pure activity, and all reality is its product. The theoretic only exists for the practical. His doctrine is wholly life and action.
The philosophy of Fichte is a system of pure and subjective idealism. "All that is is the ego," all that we know belongs to and takes place within our consciousness. Reality is experience, and it is nothing more. Hence the philosophy of Fichte starts with the demand that the facts of experience shall be examined as facts of self-consciousness. They exist only for a thinking being, and their significance and interpretation for the thinking subject is the business of philosophy. Philosophy, in other words, is the rethinking of experience, the endeavour to reconstruct in a systematic way what ordinary consciousness accepts.
Fichte, therefore, calls his work Wissenschaftslehre, or The Science of Knowledge, for, unlike every particular science which has to do with special objects, the business of this doctrine is to develop from its first principle the plan or complete frame-work of human knowledge generally.
Before showing how Fichte works out this principle, it will be desirable to form a clear idea of the origin and aim of Fichte's theory.
Fichte starts from Kant. He believed that the Critique furnished the material of a consistent view of the world, and that all that was needed was a rearrangement of its principles. Kant had, indeed, traced back everything to the internal constitution of our own thinking faculty. But in so doing he had left in opposition two distinct sources of our knowledge, one of which was to be sought within our intelligent being, and the other without. In other words, Kant seemed to refer the matter of knowledge to the action upon us of a non-ego or "thing-in-itself" absolutely beyond consciousness. Now Fichte felt that here was a duality which must be overcome. How was it to be done? There are only two ways possible. Experience is an activity of consciousness directed towards objects. It can, therefore, be derived only from things or pure thoughts. It must have its source in objects outside of the mind or in the thinking subject itself. The one is the explanation of Dogmatism; the other of Idealism. Dogmatism regards consciousness as a product of things, tracing all the activities of the mind back to mechanical necessity and ending in materialism and fatalism. Idealism, on the contrary, sees in things a product of consciousness in which all the activities of the subject are determined only in and by itself. Between these two explanations a great gulf is fixed. Dogmatism or realism, as it may be called, is shown to be untenable as assuming an absolutely unknown and unknowable thing outside of self-consciousness. Idealism is the only satisfactory standpoint, in that it selects as ground of explanation what is actually in consciousness. But it must not be an imperfect idealism—which takes the ego as the alone real and denies the existence of the non-ego, or multiplicity of experience. Self-consciousness always implies consciousness of something else than self, and could not exist without it. Consciousness, in order to know itself, must be conscious of a limit, but it must be a limit within itself and set by itself. The world which ordinary intelligence regards as outside is really a world within,—a world which, indeed, must be accounted for, and can, therefore, be accounted for only as the product of the ego. The central fact then for Fichte was what Kant called "the unity of consciousness." To reduce, therefore, Kant to consistency and to complete his work, all that is necessary is to drop the "thing-in-itself," which is really an excrescence, and does not belong to the system. To explain knowledge by what is not known is a contradiction. All we know are the determinations of our own self. You may call them, he says, images or representations, but they are the images of nothing external, for we possess nothing else but those images. There can be no thing-in-itself. The wish to represent to ourselves objects as they are is unthinkable; it really amounts to the desire to represent objects without representing them.
Having thus seen Fichte's general standpoint, and having traced the genesis of his doctrine, we may now proceed to give shortly an outline of the development of his system.
We must start with a principle of unity, and show that all things are necessarily related in one complete system of reason. That is the task which Fichte undertakes in The Science of Knowledge. And here it is Fichte's aim to show that theoretic and practical reason coincide. For while the whole system of pure thought can be deduced from one principle, the ground of this principle is explicable only in the region of practical life. The ultimate basis for the activity of thought is to be found in the will. It is only in the practical sphere, in the world of action, that the ego becomes conscious of itself.
What then is this single principle from which Fichte starts, and how does it act? To answer this question we must remember what is the problem of the Wissenschaftslehre. It is to give a complete systematic exposition of the principles which lie at the basis of all reason and knowledge—it is to trace the necessary acts by which consciousness comes to be what it is. This can only be done by the mind reflecting on its own action. "Think thyself." The whole business of philosophy consists in making clear what takes place in that act.
Now, if we examine that act we find that there are three momenta in the process of analysis. These are, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. These three axioms are related. The second is the opposite of the first, and the third is the result of both.
Of these, the first must be fundamental.
(1) The primitive condition of all knowledge is the principle of identity—an intuitive axiom impossible of proof. A equals A, or, we may say, "I am I." I affirm the consciousness of my existence, which is the basis of all reality—I posit myself. This is what Fichte calls a deed-act (Thathandlung). The ego posits itself as real. How it does so we cannot tell, but until it does so there is no consciousness.
(2) But in consciousness there is given an equally primitive act of positing a not-self, which is the negation of that which has been first affirmed. The non-ego is opposed in consciousness to the ego. This is the antithesis of the original thesis. This act is also intuitive. I cannot tell how it occurs. I only know that as soon as I think myself, I think also my non-self. This is the axiom of contradiction.
(3) But, now, there is a third act, which is the union of the two—the synthesis. We have seen that in so far as the non-ego is affirmed, the ego is negated, and yet the non-ego can only be affirmed within the consciousness or mind, and is, therefore, not really negated. How is this contradiction to be solved? How can we think together reality and non-reality without the one destroying the other? Only by each limiting itself. The contradiction is solved in a higher synthesis, which takes up the two opposites into the identity of the one sole consciousness. The ego and the non-ego limit or determine each other. The ego posits itself as limited and determined by the non-ego. And the non-ego is limited and determined by the ego.
From these somewhat abstract principles the entire science of knowledge is developed.
One word of caution must here be given. It must be clearly understood that the ego spoken of by Fichte in these principles is not the individual ego, not any particular self, but the pure ego in general (Ichheit), which is to be presupposed as the prius of the manifold representations of the individual consciousness. It is the pure eternal reason which is common to all and is the source of all thinking, and which is present in all particular manifestations.
1. Theoretic Science of Knowledge. In the theoretic part of his system Fichte asks the question: What is implied in the proposition, the ego posits itself as determined by the non-ego? In so far as the ego is determined it is passive. That is, it is acted upon by the non-ego. Now, if we stop there, and assert only that the ego is determined and passive, we are involved in the view which asserts that the ego gets its presentations or images in a passive manner, as effects of outward things. This is the view of realism, which explains all experience by the category of causality and leads, if consistently carried out, to attributing to the "Thing" sole activity and existence, and denying the same to the ego. On the other hand, if we say that the ego simply posits itself as substance or sum of all reality, all presentations may be regarded as nothing but its own creations, accidents of its nature, like mere dreams. This is the view of Idealism, which as little as Realism can satisfy the conditions of consciousness. Fichte attempts to unite these two extreme positions. Neither the mere action of the ego is ground of the reality of the non-ego, nor is the action of the non-ego the cause of the passivity of the ego. There is a higher category, viz. reciprocity, in which the opposites, causality and substantiality, are united. Fichte calls his system sometimes "critical idealism," or "ideal-realism." This reciprocal determination of passivity in the ego and activity in the non-ego—this mutual limitation presupposes an "independent activity" in the ego, whose function it is to oppose to the infinite activity of the ego an outer break or plane (Anstoss), against which the ego strikes and rebounds. This plane bends back the action of the ego into itself, and thus causes it to be conscious of a limitation. This independent creative activity Fichte calls the "Productive Imagination." It is the power by which objects are given and realized as objects in consciousness. By his famous theory of the "Antoss," or shock of opposition, Fichte explains or explains away Kant's "given" element. What Kant found it necessary to call "a thing-in-itself," Fichte transforms into a necessity of consciousness. Without opposition, the ego would have no object on which to exercise its activity. We have here, as we shall see, the whole rationale of the moral life. If there were no effort and no arrestment, if there were nothing to oppose and nothing to overcome, there could be no self-realization in the moral world.
In conceiving the ego as positing and determining itself, Fichte regards its activity as composed of two opposite elements, a centrifugal and a centripetal. The one is ever seeking to fly off into infinitude: the other to turn back upon itself. "So far as the ego reflects," says Fichte, "the direction of its activity, it is centripetal: so far as it is that which is reflected upon, the direction of its activity is centrifugal, and that to infinity." It is this turning back of the ego's out-going activity by means of the opposition or Anstoss that causes the arresting objects to appear to us as real. As a matter of fact, they are only the creations of our own productive imagination. They are the representations or images which arise through the self-positing and self-limiting of the ego. Fichte now proceeds to develop the functions of theoretic reason—to show, in other words, the stages by which the whole indefinite, unconscious ego rises to a consciousness of definite objects, and, therefore, to a complete consciousness of itself. The entire evolution is the necessary consequence of the determination of the ego by the non-ego. But it must be remembered that there is no reality beyond the ego, and the whole development is a process which takes place within the consciousness.
All objects are given us through and by the action of the productive imagination. By every repetition of its double action, of production and reflection, a special class of representations arises. The development begins with the very lowest stage of unconsciousness, in which there is no distinction as yet between external and internal feeling. This is the stage of mere sensation. In the next, that of perception, the ego distinguishes between itself and its feeling. Here sensations are converted into observed points in space and time. Next, just as sensation becomes perception through limitation, so is the undetermined, indefinite, fluctuating perception fixed into a concept of the understanding. The transition from perception to understanding is made by the reproductive imagination. The intelligence, when it passes beyond the limits fixed for it by the understanding, becomes reflection. Here judgment appears as the power of giving to consciousness a definite content, which points to the last and highest stage of intelligence, that of reason, by means of which we are able to abstract from all objects and attain to complete self-consciousness.
The Theoretic Science of Knowledge has now accomplished its task, which was, to show the process by which consciousness takes place. But now another question arises, what is the cause of the ego arresting its activity? But this question brings us to
2. Practical Science of Knowledge. As yet we have been able to assign no reason why the out-going activity of the ego should meet with opposition, and that of its own making. We have seen that if the infinite activity of the ego were not limited, there could be neither thought nor objective world at all. But why should there be consciousness or world? Why is that "Anstoss" or opposition necessary? The explanation which the theoretic part cannot yield is afforded by the practical. Fichte follows Kant in declaring that the reason limits itself, and is theoretic in order to be practical. The whole apparatus of our consciousness and of the world presented to it exists that we may fulfil our duty. We are intelligence that we may become will. The objective world is necessary for the realization of the ego's activity. The ego creates the world, not for the sake of the world, but for the sake of realizing itself through the conquest of the world. To act, to realize ourselves, and by striving, to overcome the limits of the non-ego—or objective world—that is the reason of our existence. The world is nothing else than the material of our duty. It is there in order that we may act upon it and overcome it. The ego, therefore, asserts itself as will, and the goal of the ego is freedom, the realization of its ideal. If we ask now,—what are Kant's "things-in-them-selves"? the answer is,—they are nothing in themselves. They are only things for us; they are, in short, "what we shall make out of them."
Thus when we ask, how can the ego become conscious of itself? the answer is, only in so far as it is practical, only in so far as it is a striving force, a will. "Will is, in a special sense, the essence of reason." Hence the system of reason culminates in the Categorical Imperative—"fulfil thyself, realize the end of thy being "—that is the vocation of man.
Fichte applies the principles which he has developed in the Science of Knowledge to practical life, and particularly to his theory of rights and duties.
It is quite in harmony with Fichte's idealism that he has no philosophy of nature. He acknowledges nothing really objective, and nature with him is identified with the non-ego, which it is the aim of the ego to overcome. He sees in things not ends in themselves, but means only for the realization of man's moral nature. Both his theory of morals and his theory of rights are connected directly with his Science of Knowledge. Between morals and law there is no relation, the object of law being to supply the means by which its enactments are to be obeyed without the support of moral justice or honesty. If morality were supreme, there would be no need of law.
In his Natur-recht, or Jurisprudence, he deduces the idea of a multiplicity of individuals or rational beings. Man knows himself to be free. But he cannot know himself as a free, active being without assuming the existence of other free, active beings. Individuality is a condition of consciousness, and is, therefore, only conceivable if there be a multiplicity of persons. To each ego is allotted a part of the world as the sphere of its own exclusive freedom, and the limits of these spheres constitute the rights and obligations of the individual. That portion of my sphere of freedom, which is the starting-point of all the changes to be wrought by me in the world of sense, is my body. The world of sense becomes the common ground or means of communication between free individuals. The co-existence of free individuals is, further, impossible without a relation of law, by which each reciprocally limits his freedom. The duty of each is to treat others as beings who have the same aims as himself. Fichte regards the State simply as a relation of compact. It exists for the protection of the individual. It is merely an arrangement of convenience, whose highest aim is to make itself superfluous.
Fichte's special theory of Jurisprudence falls into three parts:
(1) Primitive Rights, or those which belong to persons as such. This yields the rights (a) of personal freedom, (b) of property.
(2) Coercive Rights, or penal laws, which are ordained to deal with the violation of individual rights or freedom. For the establishment of such rights, individuals must enter into a mutual contract. Hence we have:
(3) Political Rights, which exist for the purpose of (a) guaranteeing personal rights, (b) enacting laws for the good of the community.
It is interesting to note that these thoughts culminate in the socialistic view that the State ought to make provision that everyone may be able to live by his work—the doctrine of the so-called "right to work"; and from this principle, again, Fichte projects his ideal of the "Socialistic State" as the complete industrial commonwealth, which is to undertake all home manufactures and all trade with foreign countries, in order to assign to each citizen his work and his wages. He foresees the time when by organization and the division of labour property will be universalized. "Workmen will associate themselves for the production of the greatest amount of wealth with the least possible amount of labour."
His Theory of Ethics is also derived directly from his Science of Knowledge. Here he deals with the individual, not in his external relationships, but as a moral being. The ego is essentially an activity, a striving after independence and freedom. But it would lose itself in infinity and remain without consciousness did it not encounter some resistance. In its effort to overcome this resistance it exercises its will. But resistance limits freedom. Hence it is irresistibly impelled to assert itself and enjoy perfect freedom. As a sensuous being in a world of material things and bodily desires, the resistance which the rational being meets is his own lower impulses or natural tendencies, which impel him not to freedom, but to enjoyment and self-satisfaction. Hence there are in man two sets of impulses, the pure and the natural: the one tends to the realization of his being, the other to the fulfilment of his enjoyment. These seem to be mutually antagonistic, but from a higher point of view they are the same. The lower or sensuous desires must be subservient to the higher, and only be gratified in so far as they further the ends of our being. The moral life is a progressive life, and it consists in gradually rising to independence of nature and freedom from the lower desires. "The ego can never be independent so long as it remains an ego: the finite end of a rational being lies necessarily in infinity, and is, therefore, one never to be attained, but continually to be approached." "Continually fulfil thy vocation" is, therefore, the practical expression of the moral law. We must do our duty only for the sake of duty. Let no man blindly follow his impulses, but act at every moment with clear consciousness according to duty. "Be free." "Act according to thy conscience." "Fulfil thy vocation as a man."
To be virtuous is not to obey some external law, but to fulfil the internal law of one's being.
Such a view of the moral life would seem to make religion superfluous, and in his system there is legitimately no place for a personal God. His views of Religion are contained in his work on The Ground for our Belief in a Divine Government of the World. The moral order of the world is the only divinity in which we can believe. The idea of a God as a being separate from us and from the outer world, as a distinct and self-determining personality, is a contradiction. The moral order is truly a spiritual order, and in it only our life has reality. All life is its life, and the manifestation of this life is the development of humanity. God exists only in our consciousness of Him. By our effort to fulfil our duty and to realize the good, the beautiful, and the true, we are tending towards God, and already, in a measure, live the life of God. True religion is the realization of universal reason.
In his later philosophy Fichte tends more towards a Christian view of life, particularly in his work, Guidance to a Blessed Life. In this new form he attempts to transform his Subjective Idealism into an Objective Pantheism, in which the ego of his earlier speculation becomes the notion of God.
As early as 1797 Fichte began to see that the ultimate basis of his system must be the absolute ego in which the difference between subject and object is annulled. In 1800, in The Vocation of Man, he defined his absolute ego as the infinite moral will of the universe, in whom all individual egos exist, and from whom all have sprung. God is in them the absolute life, who becomes conscious of Himself by expressing Himself in and through individuals. The idea of God, which he had formerly seemed to place at the end of his system, now becomes more expressly the basis and beginning of his philosophy. Religious gentleness now assumes the place of moral severity, and instead of abstract duty he now speaks of life and love. Christianity, the ideal of which is presented in Jesus Christ, is now the supreme form of truth, and the aim of man is to lose himself in God by the spirit of self-abnegation and devotion.