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Ideas of Johann Fichte, by Text

[German, 1762 - 1814, Born Leipzig. Taught at the University of Jena. In 1810 the first Professor of Philosophy at the new University of Berlin.]

1792 Review of 'Aenesidemus'
p.107 The thing-in-itself is an empty dream
     Full Idea: Fichte said that the thing-in-itself (which both Reinhold and Schulze accepted) is only "a piece of whimsy, a pipe-dream, a non-thought".
     From: report of Johann Fichte (Review of 'Aenesidemus' [1792]) by Terry Pinkard - German Philosophy 1760-1860 05
     A reaction: This seems to be a key moment in German philosophy, and the first step towards the idealist interpretation of Kant.
Wks I:22 p.62 Mental presentation are not empirical, but concern the strivings of the self
     Full Idea: The intelligence has as the object of its presentation not an empirical perception, but rather only the necessary striving of the self.
     From: Johann Fichte (Review of 'Aenesidemus' [1792], Wks I:22), quoted by Ludwig Siep - Fichte p.62
     A reaction: The embodiment of Fichte's idealism. The 'striving' is the spontaneous application of concepts described the Kant. Kant looks outwards, but Fichte sees only the striving.
1794 The Science of Knowing (Wissenschaftslehre) [1st ed]
p.58 The Self is the spontaneity, self-relatedness and unity needed for knowledge
     Full Idea: According to Fichte, spontaneity, self-relatedness, and unity are the basic traits of knowledge (which includes conscience). ...This principle of all knowledge is what he calls the 'I' or the Self.
     From: report of Johann Fichte (The Science of Knowing (Wissenschaftslehre) [1st ed] [1794]) by Ludwig Siep - Fichte p.58
     A reaction: This is the idealist view. He gets 'spontaneity' from Kant, which is the mind's contribution to experience. Self-relatedness is the distinctive Fichte idea. Unity presumably means total coherence, which is typical of idealists.
p.59 Judgement is distinguishing concepts, and seeing their relations
     Full Idea: For Fichte, to judge means to distinguish concepts from one another and to place them in relationship to one another.
     From: report of Johann Fichte (The Science of Knowing (Wissenschaftslehre) [1st ed] [1794]) by Ludwig Siep - Fichte p.59
     A reaction: This idea of Fichte's seems to be the key one for Hegel, and hence (I presume) it is the lynchpin of German Idealism. It seems to describe mathematical knowledge quite well. I don't think it fits judging whether there is a snake in the grass.
p.71 Fichte's logic is much too narrow, and doesn't deduce ethics, art, society or life
     Full Idea: Only Fichte's principles are deduced in his book, that is, the logical ones, and not even these completely. And what about the practical, the moral and ethical ones. Society, learning, wit, art, and so on are also entitled to be deduced here.
     From: comment on Johann Fichte (The Science of Knowing (Wissenschaftslehre) [1st ed] [1794]) by Friedrich Schlegel - works Vol 18 p.34
     A reaction: This is the beginnings of the romantic rebellion against a rather narrowly rationalist approach to philosophy. Schlegel also objects to the fact that Fichte only had one axiom (presumably the idea of the not-Self).
p.72 Novalis sought a much wider concept of the ego than Fichte's proposal
     Full Idea: Novalis aimed to create a theory of the ego with a much wider scope than Fichte's doctrine of knowledge had been able to establish. ....Without philosophy, imperfect poet - without poetry, imperfect thinker.
     From: comment on Johann Fichte (The Science of Knowing (Wissenschaftslehre) [1st ed] [1794]) by Novalis - Logological Fragments I vol.3 p.531
     A reaction: [in his 'Fichte Studies] Since this is at the heart of early romanticism, I take the concept to embrace nature, as well as creative imagination. There is a general rebellion against the narrowness of Fichte.
p.72 Fichte reduces nature to a lifeless immobility
     Full Idea: Fichte reduces the non-Ego or nature to a state of constant calm, standstill, immobility, lack of all change, movement and life, that is death.
     From: comment on Johann Fichte (The Science of Knowing (Wissenschaftslehre) [1st ed] [1794]) by Friedrich Schlegel - works vol 12 p.190
     A reaction: The point is that Fichte's nature is a merely logical or conceptual deduction from the spontaneous reason of the self, so it can't have the lively diversity we find in nature.
p.114 The self is not a 'thing', but what emerges from an assertion of normativity
     Full Idea: Fichte said the self is not a natural 'thing' but is itself a normative status, and 'it' can obtain this status, so it seems, only by an act of attributing it to itself. ...He continually identified the 'I' with 'reason' itself.
     From: report of Johann Fichte (The Science of Knowing (Wissenschaftslehre) [1st ed] [1794]) by Terry Pinkard - German Philosophy 1760-1860 05
     A reaction: Pinkard says Fichte gradually qualified this claim. Fichte struggled to state his view in a way that avoided obvious paradoxes. 'My mind produces decisions, so there must be someone in charge of them'? Is this transcendental?
p.115 Normativity needs the possibility of negation, in affirmation and denial
     Full Idea: To adopt any kind of normative stance is to commit oneself necessarily to the possibility of negation. It involves doing something correctly or incorrectly, so there must exist the possibility of denying or affirming.
     From: report of Johann Fichte (The Science of Knowing (Wissenschaftslehre) [1st ed] [1794]) by Terry Pinkard - German Philosophy 1760-1860 05
     A reaction: This seems to be the key idea for understanding Hegel's logic. Personally I think animals have a non-verbal experience of negation - when a partner dies, for example.
p.116 Necessary truths derive from basic assertion and negation
     Full Idea: Fichte thought that everything that involves necessary truths - even mathematics and logic - should be shown to follow from the more basic principles involved in assertion and negation.
     From: report of Johann Fichte (The Science of Knowing (Wissenschaftslehre) [1st ed] [1794]) by Terry Pinkard - German Philosophy 1760-1860 05
     A reaction: An interesting proposal, though I am struggling to see how it works. Fichte sees assertion and negation as foundational (Idea 22017), but I take them to be responses to the real world.
p.134 Fichte's idea of spontaneity implied that nothing counts unless we give it status
     Full Idea: Fichte placed emphasis on human spontaneity, on nothing 'counting' for us unless we somehow bestowed some kind of status on it.
     From: report of Johann Fichte (The Science of Knowing (Wissenschaftslehre) [1st ed] [1794]) by Terry Pinkard - German Philosophy 1760-1860 06
     A reaction: This idea evidentally arises from Kant's account of thought. Pinkard says this idea inspired the early Romantics. I would have thought the drive to exist (Spinoza's conatus) would make things count whether we liked it or not.
p.142 Fichte's subjectivity struggles to then give any account of objectivity
     Full Idea: For Fichte 'subjectivity' came first, and he was then stuck with the (impossible) task of showing how 'objectivity' arose out of it.
     From: comment on Johann Fichte (The Science of Knowing (Wissenschaftslehre) [1st ed] [1794]) by Terry Pinkard - German Philosophy 1760-1860 06
     A reaction: The best available answer to this problem (for idealists) is, I think, Nietzsche's perspectives, in which multiple subjectivities are summed to produce a blurred picture which has a degree of consensus. Fichte later embraced other minds.
p.219 Fichte's key claim was that the subjective-objective distinction must itself be subjective
     Full Idea: Fichte's key claim was that the difference between the subjective and the objective points of view had to be itself a subjective distinction, something that the 'I' posits.
     From: report of Johann Fichte (The Science of Knowing (Wissenschaftslehre) [1st ed] [1794]) by Terry Pinkard - German Philosophy 1760-1860 09
     A reaction: This seems to lock us firmly into the idealist mental prison and throw away the key.
p.112 p.119 Consciousness of an object always entails awareness of the self
     Full Idea: I can be conscious of any object only on the condition that I am also conscious of myself, that is, of the conscious subject. This proposition is incontrovertible.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Science of Knowing (Wissenschaftslehre) [1st ed] [1794], p.112), quoted by Terry Pinkard - German Philosophy 1760-1860 05
     A reaction: [from the 1797/8 version of Wissenschaftslehre] Russell might be cross to find that his idea on this was anticipated by Fichte. I still approve of the idea.
p.8 p.119 We only see ourselves as self-conscious and rational in relation to other rationalities
     Full Idea: A rational creature cannot posit itself as such a creature with self-consciousness without positing itself as an individual, as one among many rational creatures.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Science of Knowing (Wissenschaftslehre) [1st ed] [1794], p.8), quoted by Terry Pinkard - German Philosophy 1760-1860 05 n25
     A reaction: [1796 book about his Wissenschaftlehre] This is the transcendental (Kantian) approach to other minds. Wittgenstein's private language argument is similar. Hegel was impressed by this idea (I think).
1797 The Science of Rights
p.87 p.64 Effective individuals must posit a specific material body for themselves
     Full Idea: Rational beings cannot posit themselves as effective individuals without ascribing to themselves a material body and determining it in doing so.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Science of Rights [1797], p.87), quoted by Ludwig Siep - Fichte
     A reaction: To be free entails a belief that one is 'effective', and a body is our only concept for that. This seems to be a transcendental proof that the body must exist, which is a neat inverted move! The Self sustains the body, for Fichte.
1798 works
p.29 For Fichte there is no God outside the ego, and 'our religion is reason'
     Full Idea: For Fichte there is no God outside the ego, and 'our religion is reason'.
     From: report of Johann Fichte (works [1798]) by Ludwig Feuerbach - Principles of Philosophy of the Future §17
     A reaction: Fichte was not an atheist, but this seems to be a supreme aphorism for summarising our image of the Englightenment. Personally I subscribe to the Enlightenment ideal (the best life is the rational life), despite doubts about 'pure' reason.
p.69 The absolute I divides into consciousness, and a world which is not-I
     Full Idea: Fichte's very influential idea is that the subject becomes divided against itself. The absolute I splits into an I (consciousness) and a not-I (the objective world) that are relative to each other.
     From: report of Johann Fichte (works [1798]) by Andrew Bowie - Introduction to German Philosophy 3 'Fichtean'
     A reaction: This is German Idealism in action. Is there a before and after the split here? I can't make much sense of this idea. It is said that babies spend a while deciding which bits are them and which aren't. There is more to the world than 'not-I'.
p.165 Fichte believed in things-in-themselves
     Full Idea: Fichte retained a broadly Kantian conception of how things are in themselves.
     From: report of Johann Fichte (works [1798]) by A.W. Moore - The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics 07.2
     A reaction: The contrast is between those who believe in the thing-in-itself, while admitting that we can't know it, and those who deny such a thing. The debate returned 130 years later as verificationism in language.
I p.425 p.64 We can deduce experience from self-consciousness, without the thing-in-itself
     Full Idea: We can abandon the thing-in-itself, and aim for 'a complete deduction of all experience from the possibility of self-consciousness'.
     From: Johann Fichte (works [1798], I p.425), quoted by Peter B. Lewis - Schopenhauer 3
     A reaction: German Idealism now looks to me like a weird abberation in the history of philosophy, though no doubt it has (like every philosophical theory) some supporters out there somewhere. Schopenhauer called this 'raving nonsense'.
I:298 p.149 Reason arises from freedom, so philosophy starts from the self, and not from the laws of nature
     Full Idea: Not by any law of nature do we attain to reason; we achieve it by absolute freedom. ...In philosophy, therefore, we must necessarily start from the self. The materialists' project of deriving the appearance of reason from natural laws is impossible.
     From: Johann Fichte (works [1798], I:298), quoted by A.W. Moore - The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics
     A reaction: I blame Descartes' Cogito for this misunderstanding. The underlying idea (in Kant, and probably earlier) is that pure reason needs pure free will. Modern thought usually sees reason as extremely impure.
I:501 p.154 Abandon the thing-in-itself; things only exist in relation to our thinking
     Full Idea: We must be rid of the thing-in-itself; for whatever we may think, we are that which thinks therein, and hence nothing could ever come to exist independently of us, for everything is necessarily related to our thinking.
     From: Johann Fichte (works [1798], I:501), quoted by A.W. Moore - The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics 06.3
     A reaction: Some statements of idealism are understandable, or even quite plausible, but this one sounds ridiculous. The idea that if human beings die out then reality ceases to exist is absurd humanistic vanity.
I:512 p.159 Philosophy attains its goal if one person feels perfect accord between their system and experience
     Full Idea: If even a single person is completely convinced of his philosophy; ...if his free judgement in philosophising, and what life obtrudes upon him, are perfectly in accord; then in this person philosophy has completed its circuit and attained its goal.
     From: Johann Fichte (works [1798], I:512), quoted by A.W. Moore - The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics 06.4
     A reaction: Interesting to hear a famous idealist offering accordance with real life as a criterion for philosophical success. But that is real life, but not as you and I may know it.... His criterion is very subjective. A bad philosopher might attain it?
I:513 p.149 Spinoza could not actually believe his determinism, because living requires free will
     Full Idea: Spinoza could only think his philosophy, not believe it, for it stood in immediate contradiction to his necessary conviction in daily life, whereby he was bound to regard himself as free and independent.
     From: Johann Fichte (works [1798], I:513), quoted by A.W. Moore - The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics 06.2
     A reaction: This seems to be invoking Kant's idea that we must presuppose free will, rather than an assertion that we actually have it.
1800 The Vocation of Man
1 p.5 Each object has a precise number of properties, each to a precise degree
     Full Idea: Each object has a definite number of properties, no more, no less. …Each of these objects possesses each of these properties to a definite degree.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], 1)
     A reaction: Quine flatly disagrees with this. Fichte offers no grounds for his claim. On the whole I think of properties as psychologically abstracted by us from holistic objects, so there is plenty of room for error. The underlying powers are real.
1 p.8 The principle of activity and generation is found in a self-moving basic force
     Full Idea: The principle of activity, of generation and becoming in and for itself, is purely in that force itself and not in anything outside it…; the force is not driven or set in motion, it sets itself in motion.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], 1)
     A reaction: A good account of primitive powers, as self-motivating forces. I can't think what else could be fundamental to nature. This whole passage of Fichte expounds a powers ontology.
1 p.10 Nature is wholly interconnected, and the tiniest change affects everything
     Full Idea: Nature is an interconnected whole; …you could shift no grain of sand from its spot without thereby, perhaps invisibly to your eyes, changing something in all parts of the immeasurable whole.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], 1)
     A reaction: Sounds like idealist daydreaming, but might it actually be true with respect to gravity?
1 p.12 Nature contains a fundamental force of thought
     Full Idea: There is an original force of thought in nature just as there is an original formative force.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], 1)
     A reaction: I think this idea is false, but it helps to understand Fichte.
1 p.14 I immediately know myself, and anything beyond that is an inference
     Full Idea: Immediately I know only of myself. What I am able to know beyond that I am only able to know through inference.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], 1)
     A reaction: A direct descendant of the Cartesian Cogito, I assume. Personally, if I bang my head on a beam I take the beam to be a full paid-up member of reality. Is it not possible that he also knows himself through inference? Do animals infer reality?
1 p.16 Sufficient reason makes the transition from the particular to the general
     Full Idea: The principle of sufficient reason is the point of transition from the particular, which is itself, to the general, which is outside it.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], 1)
     A reaction: Not sure I understand this, but it seems worth passing on. Personally I would say that we have a knack of generalising, triggered when we spot patterns.
1 p.17 The will is awareness of one of our inner natural forces
     Full Idea: To will is to be immediately conscious of the activity of one of our inner natural forces.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], 1)
     A reaction: A more Nietzschean view would be that to will is to be conscious of the victor among our inner natural drives. It can't just be awareness of one force, because the will feels conflicts.
1 p.19 I cannot change the nature which has been determined for me
     Full Idea: I cannot will the intention of making myself something other than what I am determined to be by nature, for I don't make myself at all but nature makes me and whatever I become.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], 1)
     A reaction: I take this to be a lot more accurate than Sartre's claim that we can re-make ourselves, but Fichte doesn't seem quite right. Don't I get any credit at all if I give up smoking, or train myself to treat someone more sympathetically?
1 p.21 I want independent control of the fundamental cause of my decisions
     Full Idea: I want to be independent - not to be in and through another but to be something for myself: and as such I want myself to be the fundamental cause of all my determinations.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], 1)
     A reaction: I think this sums up the absurdity of the concept of free will. The only reason he gives for his passionate belief in free will is that he desperately wants some imagined 'fundamental cause' for his action, and he wants full control of that chimera.
1 p.22 Freedom means making yourself become true to your essential nature
     Full Idea: I want to be free means: I myself want to make myself be whatever I will be. I would therefore …already have to be, in a certain sense, what I am to become, so that I could make myself be it.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], 1)
     A reaction: This is much closer to the existenial picture of the malleable self, which Fichte arrives out once he commits to his desperate desire to have free will. [Not sure if my gist captures what he says].
1 p.23 The capacity for freedom is above the laws of nature, with its own power of purpose and will
     Full Idea: This capacity [for freedom], once it exists, is in the servitude of a power which is higher than nature and quite free of its laws, the power of purposes, and the will.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], 1)
     A reaction: You would think this could only refer to God, but he in fact is referring to the power of human free will. The clearest statement I have found of the weird human exceptionalism implied by a strong commitment to free will.
1 p.24 If life lacks love it becomes destruction
     Full Idea: Only in love is there life; without it there is death and annihilation.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], 1)
     A reaction: He gives not context of justification for this sudden claim. Watching from a melancholy distance the current 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, I take this idea to be a profound truth. If you let go of love, you float away down a dark stream.
1 p.25 The self is, apart from outward behaviour, a drive in your nature
     Full Idea: This 'you' for which you show such a lively interest is, so far as it is not overt behaviour, at least a drive in your own peculiar nature.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], 1)
     A reaction: I assume this use of 'drive' is the origin of Nietzsche's picture of such things, focused on the basic will to power. I like Fichte's emphasis on active forces as the basis of nature.
2 p.29 We can't know by sight or hearing without realising that we are doing so
     Full Idea: Q. Could you not perhaps know an object through sight or hearing without knowing that you are seeing or hearing? A. Not at all.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], 2)
     A reaction: A nice statement of the traditional view which seemed to be demolished by the discovery of blindsight. In the light of modern brain research, the views of the mind found in past philosophers mostly seem very naïve.
2 p.31 I am myself, but not the external object; so I only sense myself, and not the object
     Full Idea: I sense in myself, not in the object, for I am myself and not the object; therefore I sense only myself and my condition, and not the condition of the object.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], 2)
     A reaction: I'm not clear why anyone would have total confidence in internal experience and almost no confidence in experience of externals. In daily life I am equally confident about both. In philosophical mode I make equally cautious judgements about both.
2 p.44 Consciousness has two parts, passively receiving sensation, and actively causing productions
     Full Idea: My immediate consciousness is composed of two constituent parts, the consciousness of my passivity, the sensation; and the consciousness of my activity, in the production of an object according to the principle of causality.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], 2)
     A reaction: Kind of obvious, but unusual to make this sharp binary division. Modern neuroscience strongly militates against any and every simple binary division of brain activities.
2 p.53 Consciousness of external things is always accompanied by an unnoticed consciousness of self
     Full Idea: Q. So that constantly and under all circumstances my consciousness of things outside of me is accompanied by an unnoticed consciousness of myself? A. Quite so.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], 2)
     A reaction: He should be more cautious about asserting the existence of something 'unnoticed'. The Earth's core is unnoticed by me, but there is plenty of evidence for it. Not so sure about unnoticed self. Still, I think central control of the mind is indispensable.
3.I p.69 Forming purposes is absolutely free, and produces something from nothing
     Full Idea: My thinking and originating of a purpose is in its nature absolutely free and brings forth something from nothing.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], 3.I)
     A reaction: Modern fans of free will are more equivocal in their assertions, and would be uncomfortable bluntly claiming to 'get something from nothing'. But that's what free will is! Embrace it, or run for your life.
3.I p.71 Faith is not knowledge; it is a decision of the will
     Full Idea: Faith is no knowledge, but a decision of the will to recognise the validity of knowledge.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], 3.I)
     A reaction: What matters is the grounds for the decision. Mad conspiracy theories are decisions of the will which are false. Legitimate faith is an intuition of coherence which cannot be fully articulated.
3.I p.71 Knowledge can't be its own foundation; there has to be regress of higher and higher authorities
     Full Idea: No knowledge can be its own foundation and proof. Every knowledge presupposes something still higher as its foundation, and this ascent has no end.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], 3.I)
     A reaction: A metaphor that's hard to visualise! He must have in mind a priori as well as empirical knowledge. The 'higher' levels don't seem to be God, but some region of absolute rationality, to which free minds have access. I think.
3.I p.79 The need to act produces consciousness, and practical reason is the root of all reason
     Full Idea: Consciousness of the real world proceeds from the need to act, not the other way around. …Practical reason is the root of all reason.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], 3.I)
     A reaction: Strongly agree with the last part. In my conceptual scheme 'sensible' behaviour (e.g. of animals) precedes, in every way, rational behaviour. Sensible attitudes to quantity and magnitude precede mathematical logic. Minds exist for navigation.
p.37 p.150 Self-consciousness is the basis of knowledge, and knowing something is knowing myself
     Full Idea: The immediate consciousness of myself is the condition of all other consciousness; and I know a thing only in so far as I know that I know it; no element can enter into the latter cognition which is not contained in the former.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], p.37), quoted by A.W. Moore - The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics 06.2
     A reaction: This strikes me as false, and a lot of intellectual contortion would be needed to believe it. Is knowing this pen is in front of me a case of knowing that I have knowledge of this pen, or is it just knowledge of this pen? [cf Kant 1781:A129]
p.74 p.154 There is nothing to say about anything which is outside my consciousness
     Full Idea: Of any connection beyond the limits of my consciousness I cannot speak. ...I cannot proceed a hair's breadth beyond this consciousness, any more than I can spring out of myself.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], p.74), quoted by A.W. Moore - The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics 06.3
     A reaction: I can't see that this is any different from the idealism of Berkeley, although they get there from different starting points. Idealist seem unable to even begin explaining consciousness.
p.98 p.157 Awareness of reality comes from the free activity of consciousness
     Full Idea: It is the necessary faith in our freedom of power, in our own real activity, and in the definite laws of human action, which lies at the root of all our consciousness of a reality external to ourselves.
     From: Johann Fichte (The Vocation of Man [1800], p.98), quoted by A.W. Moore - The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics 06.4
     A reaction: I'd love to know what the 'laws of human action' are. Is it what Hume was trying to do? Moore says there is an 'element of self-creation' in Fichte's account of the source of reality. This is Descartes' dream argument biting back.