Johann Fichte was a student of Kant’s philosophy. Although little known in the English-speaking world, Fichte was one of the most important philosophers in 1790s and early 1800s until his death in 1814. If English-speakers have any awareness of Fichte, it will likely be through his “Address to the German Nation,” given during the Napoleonic Wars, which was part speech on the need for education and educational reform as well as a call for German unity against the French occupiers, or as one of many names mentioned by Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace. Fichte, apart from being a philosopher, a metaphysician and epistemologist, was also a political philosopher and civil servant. His work of political economy, Der Gessloschen Handelstatt, led him to becoming an advisor to the Prussian minister of Commerce in 1800. In fact, Fichte’s “Address to the German Nation” is the logical derivative of his larger philosophical projects.
Fichte considered himself a Kantian, a Kantian in spirit, as all the post-Kantian idealists did. That is, while they disagreed with the substance of Kant’s limited metaphysic and epistemology, they nevertheless took up the project of defending mind, consciousness, reason, against its potential enemies: the materialists and solipsists.
In 1794 Fichte entered the world of philosophical dialectic with the writing of his Science of Knowledge (Wissenschaftslehre) In the introduction he laid out the two main schools in which all philosophies could be boxed in to. One school he called the dogmatists. The other school he called the idealists. The dogmatists were those scientistic materialists, materialists stretching as far back as the pre-Socratics, to the materialists of today, now known as the empiricists. The dogmatists were those whom Fichte opposed; for these mechanical materialists were dogmatic in their insistence that all life and laws could be reduced to the determinacy of the laws of motion. According to Fichte this reductive materialism moves us to an acceptance of determinism which has sweeping implications—all in the negative—as it relates to ethical life.
Fichte, in this sense, also wishes to actualize the Kantian ethical imperative. Fichte was, in a word, a moralist. He believed humans had duties and responsibilities to each other, to act, in the Kantian manner, in a way in which we would wish our actions to become universalized throughout the world. The dogmatists, in reducing knowledge to properties of mechanical laws of motion which deny free will and, therefore, responsibility, leave no room for morality. For morality hinges upon responsibility; for ethics is not a singular, solipsistic, endeavor. Ethics involves the other. That means ethics involves relationships with others. Which means ethics involves how we interact with others.
The idealists, whom Fichte considered himself part of, would have included the likes of Plato, Plotinus, Augustine—the broader Christian tradition—and, most importantly, Kant. The idealists, Fichte claimed, were concerned the perception. Today we call this phenomenology. From perception arises the concern for consciousness. From consciousness self-consciousness. From self-consciousness the subject, from the subject other subjects as we come to recognize that other thinking-subjects (persons), exist, and from this moral responsibility.
Fichte’s philosophy is grounded in the self. Which he calls the ego. And the ego is desire, movement, energy, creativity, moving to moral joy which is found in absolute knowledge and absolute freedom which is tied to responsibility; but we’ll get to that issue later.
Fichte’s break with Kant rested with Kant’s assertion that the human mind was cut off from the thing in itself; the noumenal realm. According to Fichte, while this does provide a clear foundation for some knowledge, it is nevertheless insufficient to achieve what Kant had earlier set out to achieve: to ward off the dangers of the mechanical philosophers. Accordingly, if objects (the things in themselves) remain separate and known to us, the mechanical philosophers will seize this opening and maintain that the objects (those things in themselves in the noumenal world) are the cause of our sensations and this once again reduces humans to objects. For if the mind cannot perceive or have experience of these things-in-themselves this means we cannot be sure that everything exists and can be perceived through the mind as Kant argued. Thus, Fichte is a true son to the Kantian tradition. He wants to produce a philosophy of mind, which is the philosophy of ego, which is all-encompassing and all-knowing, which will prevent any crack and crevice for the mechanical materialists to exploit. Like Kant, Fichte is concerned with (re)establishing a foundational philosophy for the apperceptive unity of the I and Not-I to exist. Things as they are must be tied to self.
Fichte’s philosophy is therefore not only grounded in the self, it is grounded in the heroic self, the heroic ego which strives for encounter and conquest, to encounter and conquer the noumenal world, the world of others, the world of the Not-I, the world of objects and other egos different than that of my own. In this way too, he hopes to resolve the Cartesian solipsistic dilemma even though, in his own life, Fichte was accused of being a solipsist.
The charges that Fichte was a solipsist rest on unfamiliarity of the Christian psychological and ontological tradition which Fichte was, himself, unknowingly inheriting. In the Christian tradition humans are images of the Trinity. The Trinity is simultaneously pluralistic yet united, three in one, Father (Memory), Son (Intellect), and Spirit (Love). Fichte’s movement of ego to Absolute ego, or the Absolute-I, which is the unity of the I with the Not-I, i.e. ego with other egos, follows this basic Christian framework. There must be a unitive link that binds egos together into the Absolute, just as the three persons of the Trinity are bounded together by, and through, love. This binding together is knowledge. I come to know you, that which I am not, the Not-I, through knowledge. This knowledge is achieved through encounter and engagement. Recognition.
The ego, Fichte, asserts, is moved by an insatiable quest, a desire, for knowing. Roland Kany and Dieter Hienrich, two contemporary scholars of German idealism, have written how Fichte inherits and builds upon “Augustine’s original insight of man,” the se cogitare and se nosse. Man thinks so as to come to know. His thinking is motivated by deep existential impulses and desires. Man is, as Spinoza said, in riffing from Augustin, a creature of desire. Thus, Augustine’s will which seeks after God is now the Fichtean ego seeking after the absolute (the temporalization of God).
The ego encounters other egos (the not-I) and in these encounters grows mutual recognition and understanding. It is in the phenomenal realm, nature, that the I-Not-I encounter develops; the social ego begins to emerge through these encounters of the I and Not-I to the point of the I and Not-I fusing together as one, two become one, in absolute knowledge of each other, to form the Absolute-I.
The ego’s transformation to absolute ego, the I to Absolute I, is by the I’s conquest of the unknown. That engagement, encounter, and recognizing the unknown—the noumenal, or the Not-I—leads to its absorption into the self. Self-knowledge is only possible through this coming to understanding of the totality of the whole. Fichte’s epistemology of the heroic ego is like the adventurous traveler, who is the ego, climbing—indeed struggling—up the mountain top to get to the peak to look over the vast horizon of wholeness. Only in completing this journey does the ego absorb all, understand all, and becomes one with totality. At the mountain top the ego is transformed into the absolute ego which has broken down the barrier of the unknown and that which was previously unknown has now revealed itself to the heroic ego.
This ego-to-ego-to Superego, or I-Not-I-to-Absolute-I movement, is simultaneously the movement to absolute knowing where the thing-in-itself (the not-I) previously unknown and unknowable to me becomes known, and the unveiling of oneself to the other (and vice-versa) like two loves unclothing to share their most intimate secrets with each other. I know you and you know me, and this only came about by encounter and recognition; not the domination and exploitation of putting the other up on the rack of scientific interrogation as Bacon speculated. This is, as Fichte asserts, the very heart—desire—of the ego. That two become one in absolute knowledge. It is a mutual journey; it entails the other to participate as much as it does the self.
This I-Not-I to Absolute-I movement is only possible in the phenomenal realm of nature. In Fichte’s reimagining, nature is that barrier that separates the I and Not-I, nature is the barrier to the noumenal realm that must be slowly broken down and penetrated into through this dialectic of encounter and adventure. As this barrier is broken down, and the ego becomes socialized and loving, the I and Not-I grow closer together and fuse as one, becoming the Absolute-I. This is the restoration of the apperceptive unity that was lost in Bacon and Descartes.
Moreover, and in agreement with Kant, the I-Think knows through consciousness. Fichte’s epistemology is not only grounded in the self, it is founded upon self-consciousness; the logical exhaustion of any epistemology grounded in the self. I come to know through coming to know the other not as object but as subject; I can truly come to know its essence, its inner self, itself; because we are now one. This occurs in the mind, the ego, the absolute ego. Not as a detached observer but as an intimate participater. That participation, of course, was through the encounter and recognition of the I and Other. If this sounds familiar to Hegel’s dialectic of master-slave, of I and Other, in the Phenomenology you would be correct; for Hegel, a contemporary of Fichte who taught as the same university, was influenced by Fichte though Hegel subsequently took Fichte’s I-Not-I encounter and historicized it.
Fichte’s alteration of the Kantian gives of mind and the phenomenal realm of space and time is at once a stronger return to nature than with Kant but also a stronger sublation of nature through the ego-to-ego encounter en route to the harmonization of the ego-to-ego dialectic of encounter and recognition. Nature, the space existing as a barrier to the free creativity of the go, must be made in our image. Much like how Freud said where id is ego shall be, where nature is I shall be. Nature, at once, is that which allows for the encounter of the I and Not I to move to Absolute I, and nature is that space which allows for the moral community, the ethische Gemeinshaft, to actualize itself. But in this development to moral community nature is altogether overcome in the realization of moral community.
This returns us to Fichte’s ethical imperative. If the reductive deterministic materialists are right, there is no moral order. All is atoms, particles, in motion following the laws of motion until they dissipate in atrophy.
The unity which is achieved in the movement to Absolute I, or Absolute Ego, is not merely based on the newfound and absolute knowledge we have of each other, but based on the responsibilities and duties we now share to each other. In order to retain this unity I have responsibilities to you as you have responsibilities to me, because it is through responsibilities to each other that the eternal iteration of the I-You encounter perpetuates itself. The I-Other becoming I-You which is really I to myself as two have become one, relationship is the continuous and eternal dialectic of engagement which self-perpetuates the unity now shared. Again, if Fichte had drawn upon Christian theology more explicitly he would have had better grounds to defend himself against charges of atheism; charges Fichte disputed and charges his son, a famous Lutheran theologian and philosopher himself, always defended his father from. For if the unity of love which binds the Trinity together ceased, the Trinity would fall apart. In the same manner, the love which now perpetuates and holds the Absolute I together must perpetuate itself through the duties and responsibilities we share to one another otherwise that unity which fused I and Not-I together would dissipate.
All self-consciousness, freedom, and reason, is bound together through rational engagement and counter. We subsequently become accountable to the other because in being accounted to the other I am also accountable to myself; I have a responsibility to the other which means I, the ego, have a duty within me to uphold these responsibilities. My well-being, as well as the other’s, depend upon this. To shirk responsibility is to become detached. To embrace responsibility is to become engaged. True freedom, according to Fichte, is the freedom to choose responsibility. It is the freedom to be dutiful and loving to those who constitute the Absolute-I. And, in total knowledge, I know I have these responsibilities which led me to action. Responsibility upholds the unity of relations which have been forged in the I-Not-I, ego-to-ego, movement to Absolute-I: The moral community manifested on earth.
Furthermore, this synthesis of egos leas to the moral joy consummated in love. The “I replacing God” is the Fichtean temporalization of divinization. I embody divinity and the Absolute I is the embodiment of divinity realized as all I’s, as part of the Absolute-I, becomes the Godhead incarnate in the world. The I-Not-I have become Absolute-I in love.
However, Fichte’s philosophy posed new problems. These problems were subsequently dealt with Friedrich Schelling, a student of Fichte. But before we can move to Schelling we need to pivot to intellectual precursors and influences on Schelling: Johann Gottfried von Herder and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.