Johann Gottlieb Fichte

Portrait of Johann Fichte

Johann Gottlieb Fichte was a German philosopher and founder of German Idealism and the concept of self awareness. He was born on 19 May 1762 in Rammenau, Saxony, Germany and died on 29 January 1814 in Berlin, Prussia, Germany aged 51. 

Major Works

An Attempt at a Critique of all Revelation” (1792)
Grundlage der Gesamten Wissenschaftslehre” (Foundations of the Entire Science of Knowledge) (1794)
The System of Ethical Theory Based on the Wissenschaftslehre” (1798)
Der Geschlossene Handelsstaat. Ein Philosophischer Entwurf als Anhang zur Rechtslehre und Probe einer Künftig zu Liefernden Politik” (The Closed Commercial State: A Philosophical Sketch as an Appendix to the Doctrine of Right and an Example of a Future Politics) (1800)
Reden an die Deutsche Nation” (Addresses to the German Nation) (1808)

Biography Timeline

Johann Gottlieb Fichte was born on 19th May 1762 in Rammenau, Upper Lusatia, Germany. His parents were ribbon makers and he was educated at home by his father Christian Fichte as they were too poor to send him to school even though he was seen as very intelligent. Baron Freiherr von Miltitz, a country landowner, arrived in the village too late to hear the local pastor preach and villagers said, talk to the boy Johann Fichte for he will be able to recite the sermon verbatim. The baron was so impressed that he paid for his future tuition and sent him to live with Pastor Krebel at Niederau, near the town of Meissen, who taught him the classics.

1774: In October he is sent to the foundation-school at Pforta near Naumburg with the support of von Miltitz, who sadly died during the year.

1780: He begins his studies at the University of Jena’s Lutheran theology seminary. His money was always tight without the help of von Miltitz. 

1781: He transfers to Leipzig University.

1784: He has to end his studies without gaining his theology degree due to lack of funds. He supports himself by tutoring various families in Saxony.

1788: He returns to Leipzig hoping to find a better job but has to accept a position with the family of an innkeeper in Zurich, Switzerland. He meets Johanna Rahn there who would later become his wife.

1790: In the spring he gets engaged to Johanna but her family experience a financial setback and the marriage his to be postponed. He agrees to tutor a university student in Kantian philosophy. He knew little about the subject but read everything he could and the works changed his viewpoint on life from a religious deterministic standpoint towards critical philosophy. Fichte returns to Leipzig in May. 

1791: Early in the year he tutors a family in Warsaw, Poland but he has his contract terminated soon afterwards. Fichte then decides to travel to Königsberg to meet Immanuel Kant himself which he does on 4th July. Kant however is not impressed by his visitor and so Fichte decides to right a work on an essay the relation of Critical philosophy to the question of Divine Revelation which he knew Kant was interested in.

1792: Once his work is completed under the title of “An Attempt at a Critique of all Revelation” Kant reads it and is very impressed and asks his own publisher to publish itFichte’s name and preface are omitted from the first edition for some reason and readers assume it is a work by Kant himself. Only afterwards do they realise it was written by Fichte and he instantly becomes an influential philosopher. Fichte continues working as a tutor whilst trying to formulate his own philosophical system. 

1793: He anonymously publishes two works, “Reclamation of the Freedom of Thought from the Princes of Europe, Who Have Oppressed It Until Now” and “Contribution to the Rectification of the Public’s Judgment of the French Revolution”. It wasn’t long before he became known as the author and was associated with radical causes and views from then onwards. In October he marries his fiancée Johanna in Zurich where he is living with his in-laws and then unexpectedly receives a request in December from the University of Jena to take over the chair in philosophy that Karl Leonhard Reinhold had recently left. He also becomes a Freemason in the same lodge as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

1794: He arrives in Jena in May. He gives lectures on Transcendental idealism which were later published under the title “Einige Vorlesungen über die Bestimmung des Gelehrten” (The Vocation of the Scholar). Fichte always saw himself as a scholar and populariser of philosophy rather than just an academic. He begins to outline his philosophical system in “Grundlage der Gesamten Wissenschaftslehre” (Foundations of the Entire Science of Knowledge – often just shortened to “Wissenschaftslehre”). His lectures become extremely popular with students especially his concept of the Ich or I. He states that people should think for themselves in order to become mature. Fichte states that the “Ich” is not a static thing with fixed properties but rather a self-producing process but it must be free as it owes its existence to nothing but itself. He describes the Anstoss as an essential impetus that sets in motion activities which finally result in conscious experience and Fichte argues that das Nicht-Ich (Not-I) is posited by the I in order to explain to itself the Anstoss in order to become self-conscious.

1796: His son Immanuel Hermann Fichte is born on 18th July. He begins writing “Foundations of Natural Right Based on the Wissenschaftslehre”.

1797: In the “Foundations” Fichte argues that self-consciousness is a social phenomenon and a necessary condition of every person’s self-awareness is the existence of other rational subjects. These summon the person out of their unconsciousness and into an awareness of themselves as a free individual. 

1798: “The System of Ethical Theory Based on the Wissenschaftslehre” concerns itself with political philosophy and moral philosophy. He outlines the legitimate constraints that can be placed on individual freedom in order to produce a community of free individuals who simultaneously respect the freedom of others. His lectures on this subject were published posthumously as “Wissenschaftslehre nova Methodo”. Meanwhile Fichte becomes involved in the so called “Atheismusstreit” (Atheism Controversy) beginning with his essay in reply to Friedrich Karl Forberg, “Ueber den Grund unsers Glaubens an eine Göttliche Weltregierung” (On the Basis of Our Belief in a Divine Governance of the World). In it he claims that God has no existence apart from the moral world order, which is not the prevailing view at the time.

1799: Kant publicly dismisses the “Wissenschaftslehre” for mistakenly trying to infer substantive philosophical knowledge from logic alone. Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi also accuses the “Wissenschaftslehre” of nihilism producing reality out of mental representation, and thus from nothingness. These comments severely dent Fichte’s philosophical reputation and he is finally dismissed from the University of Jena later in the year for atheism.

1800: He moves to Berlin where he is safe from cries of atheism and continues his philosophical work. As there is no university in the city at the time, he is forced to earn a living by giving private lectures and publishing more works. His first is known as “The Vocation of Man”. He continues to revise the “Wissenschaftslehre” but is reluctant to publish anything due to the criticism he received in Jena. His Berlin lectures were not published until after his death. He continues to meet up with August Wilhelm Schlegel, Friedrich Schlegel, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Friedrich Schelling and Ludwig Tieck. Fichte is initiated into a new Freemasonry lodge and presents two lectures on the philosophy of Masonry. In November he publishes “Der Geschlossene Handelsstaat. Ein Philosophischer Entwurf als Anhang zur Rechtslehre und Probe einer Künftig zu Liefernden Politik” (The Closed Commercial State: A Philosophical Sketch as an Appendix to the Doctrine of Right and an Example of a Future Politics) which is an expounding of his property theory and an analysis of European economic relations and his reform proposals.

1805: He is appointed to a professorship at the University of Erlangen.

1806: He publishes two lecture series. The first, “The Characteristics of the Present Age”, uses the “Wissenschaftslehre” to describe the philosophy of history. The second, “The Way Towards the Blessed Life” treats morality and religion in a popular form. On 14th October the Battle of Jena-Auerstadt, where Napoleon Bonaparte defeats the Prussians, makes him leave for Konigsberg.

1807: He returns to Berlin where he writes “Über Machiavell, als Schriftsteller, und Stellen aus Seinen Schriften” (On Machiavelli, as an Author, and Passages from His Writings) in June. 

1808: He delivers his famous “Reden an die Deutsche Nation” (Addresses to the German Nation) in which he attempts to define the German nation as a whole and to explain that education will play a vital part in it.

1810: The Prussian University in Berlin is opened and Fichte is made the head of the philosophy faculty. He publishes “Die Wissenschaftslehre, in ihrem Allgemeinen Umrisse Dargestellt” (The Science of Knowledge in its General Outline).

1811: He is unanimously elected as the first rector of the university.

1812: He publishes “Das System der Rechtslehre” (The Science of Rights) and “Das System der Sittenlehre nach den Principien der Wissenschaftslehre” (The Science of Ethics as Based on the Science of Knowledge). Fichte resigns from the Prussian University in protest at his colleague’s refusal to punish the harassment of Jewish students.

1814: The War of Liberation against the French breaks out and Fichte cancels his lectures and joins the militia. His wife Johanna contracts a life-threatening fever whilst serving as a volunteer nurse but survives however soon after Fichte becomes sick himself.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte died on 29th January 1814 of typhus. He was buried in the Dorotheenstaedtischer Cemetery in Berlin.