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Fichte’s Faustian Modernism:
An Introduction

[1]

Johann Gottlieb Fichte

5,174 words

1. The Greatest Unread Philosopher in History

Chances are you may never even have heard of the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814). If you have heard of him, you probably have the vague idea that he was a follower of Kant who went off the reservation and tried to defend the bizarre position that all of reality is the creation of something called the “Absolute Ego.” This is how he is often treated in histories of philosophy. But this characterization of Fichte is completely wrong. Even to characterize him as a follower of Kant is not entirely accurate (though his philosophy does take Kant’s as its starting point).

In fact, Fichte is without question the greatest unread philosopher in the entire history of Western thought. He is unread chiefly because he has been woefully misunderstood. And he bears some responsibility for this, since his writings are arguably the most difficult in German philosophy (which is really saying something). They virtually invite misunderstanding and incomprehension. Nevertheless, Fichte is a great philosopher for two reasons. First, like the other greats — Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, et al. — his works offer profound and original insights into the nature of man (or, more specifically, Western man — as we shall see). This makes it rather tragic that his work has been neglected and misunderstood for so long.

The second reason Fichte is so important is that in his philosophy the essential characteristics of modernity are laid bare and pushed to a radical extreme. The Fichtean philosophy is like an alchemical retort in which all the dross of modern philosophy is burned away and what we are left with is its quintessence. The result is terrifying. For example, we see in Fichte’s philosophy the roots of much of what we find strange and inexplicable in the political Left today. The study of his philosophy can thus shed a great deal of light on the way the Left thinks, and on the origins of certain ideas that have led to untold suffering in modern history.

More than any other philosopher, Fichte also anticipates the mindset of late modernity, referred to by Heidegger as das Gestell. This is a common German word that is often translated as “rack” or “frame.” Of course, as always, Heidegger uses the word in an uncommon way, and translators have struggled to express what he means. Often, they have translated Gestell as “enframing.” Essentially, it refers to the modern attitude that nature is nothing more than raw material for human exploitation. Nature literally has no being for us, but waits upon us to confer some being (some purpose, some meaning) upon it.

Heidegger scholar Thomas Sheehan eschews a literal translation and interprets Gestell as “the world of exploitation.” He explains this as follows:

Heidegger reads the current dispensation [of Being] as one that provokes and even compels us to treat everything in terms of its exploitability-for-consumption: the being of things is now their ability to be turned into products for use and enjoyment. . . . Earth is now seen as a vast storehouse of resources, both human and natural; and the value and realness of those resources, their being, is measured exclusively by their availability for consumption.[1] [2]

It is not that difficult to see why Heidegger chooses Gestell to convey this modern mindset. It is as if we stretch the Earth and everything on it on a rack, or “frame” everything in such a way that, so far as we are concerned, to be means merely to be “stuff” for human consumption and manipulation (what Heidegger calls Bestand, “stockpile,” or, as translators usually render it, “standing-reserve”). Think of Procrustes and his bed.

[3]

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Das Gestell is the ultimate expression of what Heideggereans call the “metaphysics of presence,” which I have discussed in a number of other essays. In brief, Heidegger argues that the entire history of Western philosophy since the early Greeks exhibits the metaphysics of presence, which is a hidden will to distort our understanding of the Being of beings by accommodating it to the human desire that beings should be (1) permanently present to us, hiding nothing, and (2) available for our manipulation.

For Heidegger, the “metaphysics of presence” reaches a climax with Nietzsche, who gives this mindset its most radical and explicit expression. What Heidegger does not seem to fully perceive, however, is that Fichte paved the way for Nietzsche. With Fichte, however, nature is to be transformed according to what he takes to be universal ideals. Nietzsche’s advance was the realization that those ideals are a fraud, and merely another expression of “will to power.” Nevertheless, there is a plausible case to be made that it is with Fichte, not Nietzsche, that we arrive at the climax of Western metaphysics. This makes it all the more puzzling that Heidegger has so little to say about Fichte — a matter to which I shall return later.

Given all this talk about Heidegger, there is a point that I must now make plain. This essay is the first of several on Fichte, and these essays are very much a continuation of my series “Heidegger’s History of Metaphysics [5].” (The last essay in that series [6] dealt with Kant, and prepared the way for my discussion of Fichte.) I have ceased to refer to these essays as part of the “Heidegger’s History of Metaphysics” series, and to number them, since I gather that many readers assumed that the essays would be incomprehensible to them if they had not read the earlier installments. This is not the case, however. These pieces are relatively self-contained, and the reader will be able to follow the present essay even if he has not laid eyes on the earlier ones.

2. Fichte & the Roots of Modern Madness

Now, to pique the reader’s interest, and also to give him a kind of roadmap for this essay and those to follow, I will now mention, very concisely, some of the features of Fichte’s philosophy that make it so important for critics of modernity, critics of the Left, and students of the history of ideas:

3. Fichte & the Right

[16]

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The reader can now easily grasp why Fichte is so significant for understanding the sources of much of our modern maladies, and for understanding the psychology of the Left. Nevertheless, it would be quite wrong to dismiss him as an unqualified villain. In fact, his thought is much too complex to be easily categorized, and far too challenging to be easily dismissed. For example, while we can see in him the roots of much of the Left’s current mindset, the reader will be surprised to learn that Fichte is frequently taken to be a man of the Right. Later in life, he became a German nationalist, delivering a celebrated series of public addresses collected under the title Reden an die deutsche Nation (Addresses to the German Nation).

Remarkably, Fichte managed to become a German nationalist without abandoning any of his earlier talk about the “family of man” or his rejection of “pathognomic love.” This is because he argues that it is the mission of the German nation to bring about a universal, absolutely just, and rational society. As one Fichte scholar puts it, the content of the Addresses concerns “the foundation of a totalitarian state of universal, but certainly not cosmopolitan, Germanness in which national community eliminates individualism.”[11] [18] And, I cannot resist pointing out, isn’t it the case that many on our side today blame individualism for the West’s current problems, and argue for its elimination (or moderation) precisely through the fostering of “national community”?

It has thus often been argued, rightly or wrongly, that Fichte was a precursor of the National Socialists. His political philosophy does in fact lend some support to this claim. Writing in his celebrated History of Philosophy, Frederick Copleston sums up Fichte’s 1800 work The Closed Commercial State by saying succinctly, “What Fichte envisages, therefore, is a form of national socialism.”[12] [19] It is also worth mentioning that Hitler owned the complete works of Fichte, and how he came into possession of them: The film director Arnold Fanck (father of the German “mountain film”) was a great admirer of Fichte, and gifted Leni Riefenstahl the philosopher’s complete works, bound in white leather by Fanck’s sister. Some years later, Fanck advised Riefenstahl to give this edition to Hitler, in order to curry his favor, which she did. (This story is recounted in Riefenstahl’s memoirs.) This is probably because Fanck had heard that Hitler had some familiarity with Fichte’s writings. (Although Hitler confessed to Riefenstahl that the philosopher he actually felt closest to was Schopenhauer.)

I will explore Fichte’s nationalism in a later essay. For now, I will mention a further reason why my readers may find Fichte’s thought simpatico, despite all the black marks against him mentioned earlier. In the very first essay [20] that launched my series on Heidegger’s history of metaphysics, I discussed Heidegger’s use of a passage from Julius Evola’s Revolt Against the Modern World. I also discussed at length what Heidegger’s critique of Evola and the Traditionalists would likely have been.

Briefly, Guénon and Evola’s anti-modernism is based upon their embrace of a Platonic metaphysics of “timeless truths” existing in a realm beyond the spatio-temporal. However, from Heidegger’s perspective, this metaphysics is actually the foundation upon which modernity is built, for it is an expression of the “metaphysics of presence” discussed earlier. Guénon and Evola believed that Platonic metaphysics is a survival of a still more ancient, perennial wisdom. But not only are there no sound scholarly reasons to follow them in this, if Heidegger is right, then Platonism is actually the rejection of a more ancient and thus more authentic “traditional” standpoint.

Readers familiar with Evola’s thought are likely aware of his early philosophical writings, which put forward a position called “magical idealism.” This theory is entirely dependent upon the theories of the German Idealists, with Evola owing major debts to Fichte (as well as to Schelling and Novalis). From a Heideggerean perspective, however, the German Idealist tradition represents the zenith — or nadir — of the metaphysics of presence in its extreme, modern inflection. Since Evola never really abandoned magical idealism, we are thus faced with the possibility that his thought might be heavily infected by a particularly powerful strain of modern philosophical decadence. In the end, we may be faced with a choice: either to be Evolians or to be Traditionalists — of a different, more authentic sort. In any case, I will discuss magical idealism’s debts to Fichte in a later essay.

Finally, I must note that despite all that is problematic in Fichte’s philosophy, he is also, at times, not only a profound philosopher but an inspirational one. A framed picture of Fichte sits before me on my writing desk (along with pictures of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Evola). Ever since I was an undergraduate, I have been fascinated by this philosopher. He alternately repulses and attracts me. What I believe I find so attractive is his project of infinite moral self-perfection, in which we are allowed no respite and no excuses. More than any of the other German Idealists, Fichte’s own personality comes through clearly in his writings, and it is hard to dislike him. He projects an image of uncompromising moralism and incorruptibility. His constant inveighing against human dishonesty and weakness, as well as the stupidity of his critics, endears him to me. I do not claim that Fichte’s philosophy appeals to what is the best part of my nature. Perhaps this is not the case at all. But he certainly gives voice to a modern spirit which moves me, no matter how much I may try to resist it — since I am, after all, a modern person. (And please don’t imagine that you are any different.)

4. Life & Writings

Like most of the German philosophers, Fichte’s writings are more interesting than his life. Yet his life was much more interesting than most. He was born the son of a humble ribbon weaver in Rammenau, in Upper Lusatia, in 1762. His family had a reputation for Christian piety, and young Johann soon acquired a reputation of his own — for precociousness. One Sunday a certain nobleman, Freiherr von Miltitz, arrived in town but too late to hear the local preacher’s sermon. He expressed disappointment at this but was quickly assured by the locals that they knew a boy who could repeat the sermon word for word. Miltitz was so impressed with young Fichte that he offered to become his patron and to pay for his education. Fichte’s parents quickly agreed to this, though it meant that they would rarely ever see him again.

Miltitz placed Fichte at the celebrated Pforta school near Naumberg, whose other alumni include the Schlegel brothers (Friedrich and August Wilhelm), Novalis, and Nietzsche. There, Fichte fulfilled the promise Freiherr von Miltitz had seen in him. His university studies began at Jena, in the theological seminary, but after a year he transferred to Leipzig. When Miltitz died in 1784, Fichte lost his financial support and had to leave the university without taking a degree. He remained eternally grateful to Miltitz, however, and kept in touch with his family. There followed a period familiar to anyone who has studied the careers of other German philosophers, during which Fichte served as a private tutor to the children of several affluent families. In 1790, while tutoring in Zurich, he met his future wife, Johanna. In addition, he began to read the works of Immanuel Kant and was seized with enthusiasm for the “critical philosophy.”

A starry-eyed convert, the following year he journeyed to Königsberg to meet Kant himself, but was rather coolly received. Determined to make an impression on the great man, Fichte isolated himself for five weeks and produced a short book: Versuch einer Critik aller Offenbarung (Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation). This was later printed, but without the author’s name. The book was well received, and many assumed that it was an anonymous new work by Kant. When Kant read the Versuch and publicly praised it, revealing the real author’s name, Fichte’s career as an academic philosopher took off. (Although Kant would later repudiate Fichte, insisting that the latter’s philosophy was a perversion of his own.)

The year 1793 was a significant one for Fichte. He married Johanna in Zurich, and also published two anonymous pamphlets concerning the French Revolution, of which he was an enthusiastic supporter (to the point of being branded by some a “Jacobin,” an issue to which we will return in a later essay). Finally, in 1793 he also accepted an invitation to become Professor of Philosophy at the University of Jena. There, he began a career as a prolific author and lecturer, developing his own version of “transcendental idealism” (the term Kant had originally used to describe his own philosophy), which he called the Wissenschaftslehre or “Science of Knowledge.”[13] [21]

In 1794/95 he published Foundation of the Entire Science of Knowledge, which is the best-known of all his works, despite its intimidating obscurity. The manuscript (which was not the first of Fichte’s attempts to articulate his basic ideas) was not originally intended for publication at all, but for the use of students attending his lectures. (This practice of lecturing from one’s own writings would later become very famously associated with Hegel.) Most of Fichte’s later works were intended as supplements to the Wissenschaftslehre or as applications of its ideas. The first of these was a political work, Foundations of Natural Right in Accordance with the Principles of the Science of Knowledge (two volumes, 1796/97). The second such work, The System of Ethics in Accordance with the Principles of the Science of Knowledge (1798), set forth Fichte’s moral philosophy. His future as an academic philosopher seemed secure — but then, in 1798, disaster struck.

[22]

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That year Fichte had published an essay titled “Concerning the Ground of Our Belief in a Divine World-Governance.” Here he argued that God is nothing more nor less than the moral order which human beings must work to actualize in the world. The result was that Fichte was publicly accused of atheism. He defended himself against the charge, saying, in effect, that while God is the moral order, we can equally well say that the moral order is God. In other words, Fichte insisted that he had not dispensed with God after all. But this defense was quite weak, given that the moral order clearly has none of the “personhood” that organized religion attributes to God. As a result, in 1799 Fichte was dismissed from his university position. The scandal received a great deal of attention, and both Fichte’s supporters and detractors argued their cases passionately, in countless letters and essays. One of these was F. H. Jacobi, who published an “open letter” to Fichte, labeling his philosophy a form of “nihilism.” (We will explore whether there is any basis to this claim in a later essay.)

In the end, Fichte proved to be his own worst enemy. His responses to his critics were almost comically intemperate. This is actually one of Fichte’s more entertaining and endearing aspects: the regular salvos he fires at the stupidity and dishonesty of his critics. So far as dealing gracefully with criticism is concerned, Fichte is the Ayn Rand of German Idealism.

In one place, he writes of his critics,

I would be sorry if they understood me. Until now it has gone according to my wishes with these people; and I hope even now that this exordium will so bewilder them that from now on they see nothing but letters on the page, while what passes for mind in them is torn hither and thither by the caged anger within.[14] [24]

Referring to an earlier, highly obscure statement of his philosophy, Fichte writes elsewhere, “I cannot explain how people could have failed to understand that exposition; at any rate, it is asserted that some have not understood it.”[15] [25] In another work, he answers the misunderstanding that his philosophy is a form of “egotism” in a huge, Germanic sentence that seems written in a frenzy of righteous indignation:

But if thousands and thousands who know not a word of the Science of Knowledge, nor are fit to know anything of it, who are neither Jews nor their allies, neither aristocrats nor democrats, neither Kantians of the old nor of any newer school, and not even men of brains, whom the author of the Science of Knowledge has dispossessed or distracted from the important discovery they were just about to bring before the public — when these take up the claim with enthusiasm, and repeat and reiterate it, without any concern for its merits, so long as they too shall be thereby held learned and well-instructed in the mysteries of modern literature: then from them one may hope that for their own sakes they will give a hearing to our request, that they bethink themselves better of what they are saying, and the reasons why they say it.[16] [26]

Of course, one of the reasons critics failed to understand Fichte was his notorious obscurity, to which I have already alluded. When he was not lambasting his critics for their stupidity, Fichte was actually well aware that his prose was more than a bit difficult. The result was that he produced fifteen different versions of the Wissenschaftslehre over the course of his career (most of which were published posthumously). In addition, he wrote a number of popular works in which, surprisingly, he does actually succeed in writing in a clear and engaging manner — at least, compared with his academic works. (One of these texts has the poignant and unintentionally amusing title Sun-Clear Report to the Public at Large concerning the Actual Character of the Most Recent Philosophy: An Attempt to Force the Reader to Understand.)

To return to the details of Fichte’s life, having been fired from his Jena job he headed to Berlin in the summer of 1799, where he got a warmer reception. However, at this time Berlin had no university of its own, and Fichte had to support himself through private tutoring. In Berlin he was also initiated into the Masonic lodge Pythagoras of the Blazing Star. The reader may find this surprising, but by the late eighteenth century Masonic lodges had become hotbeds of Enlightenment rationalism and revolutionary sentiment. As a reputed Jacobin, this milieu was perfect for Fichte, and he even produced two lectures on Masonry later published under the title Philosophy of Freemasonry: Letters to Constant (two volumes, 1802/03). In November 1800, Fichte published The Closed Commercial State: A Philosophical Sketch as an Appendix to the Doctrine of Right and an Example of a Future Politics, which dealt with his theory of property, and served as a kind of appendix to the Foundations of Natural Right. Fichte also continued to produce works for a general audience, including The Vocation of Man (1800), which is universally regarded as his most readable book.

In 1805, Fichte accepted a professorship at Erlangen. There, he gave a series of lectures published as On the Nature of the Scholar. He also gave a course of lectures in Berlin under the title The Way to the Blessed Life or the Doctrine of Religion. As the title implies, these lectures signaled something of a change in Fichte’s attitude toward religion, though he insisted that his fundamental positions remained unaltered. In truth, this apparent turn toward religion ought to be wholly unsurprising for a man who, in his youth, could repeat the local pastor’s sermons verbatim. And in an essay to come, I will discuss Christianity’s enormous influence on Fichte’s philosophy.

In 1806, Napoleon’s army invaded the Kingdom of Prussia and defeated the Prussian army on October 14 at the battles of Jena and Auerstadt. It was this event that turned Fichte into a German nationalist. He had offered to accompany the Prussian troops when war broke out, as a kind of lay preacher to boost morale and patriotic spirit. When this request was denied, he returned to Berlin and, despite its occupation by French troops, took the bold step of delivering a series of nationalistic speeches in the winter of 1807-1808 (later published as the volume mentioned earlier, Addresses to the German Nation). We will explore the peculiar nature of Fichte’s nationalism (and, indeed, most aspects of his philosophy) in the essays to come.

In 1810, while still under French occupation, Berlin opened its first university and Fichte was made head of the philosophical faculty. The following year he was also unanimously elected rector of the university. However, his colleagues found Fichte abrasive and were put off by his fanatical zeal for reform. Like Heidegger at Freiburg a century later, Fichte lasted only a year as rector before resigning. In 1813, he cancelled classes so that his students could join the Prussian uprising against the French. When fighting broke out, his wife volunteered as a nurse in a military hospital, where she caught typhus. Though Johanna recovered, she managed to transmit the disease to Fichte, who succumbed to it on January 29, 1814. He had remained active in lecturing and publishing almost until the very end. Their son Immanuel Hermann Fichte (1796-1879) also became a Professor of Philosophy, and edited editions of his father’s writings.

In my next essay, we will begin to explore Fichte’s ideas in greater detail: his conception of the nature of philosophy, his insistence on the “primacy of the practical,” and the foundation he provides for philosophy itself, which is nothing more nor less than the self-assertion of the “I.”

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Notes

[1] [28] Thomas Sheehan, Making Sense of Heidegger: A Paradigm Shift (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 258-259.

[2] [29] Frederick Beiser, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism 1781-1801 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), 294.

[3] [30] For example, Charles Carroll Everett writes: “The relation of the self-assertion of the I to the Categorical Imperative is one in regard to which some mighty assumption must have been made by Fichte, of which he has given us no hint. Kuno Fischer emphasizes what has been called the Faust-like and Titanic character of the I of Fichte. The cry of Faust was, ‘If ever I lay myself quietly upon a bed of rest, it will be all over with me.’ So might the I speak, in the system that we are studying. Its very being is in its activity. Titan-like, it would scale the heavens; it would become infinite. This gives us a sense of awe, as if we were in the presence of some tremendous force of nature. With Fichte, however, the thought of this Titanic struggle suggests something more than awe. It calls for reverence. It manifests the loftiest ethical aspiration. It stands for the moral law itself. Surely, Fichte must have had something in his thought, which he has not yet told us.” See Everett, Fichte’s Science of Knowledge: A Critical Exposition (Chicago: S. C. Griggs & Company, 1884), 245-246. Everett’s citation to Fischer is as follows: Geschichte der Neuen Philosophie, zweite Auflage, V, 491.

[4] [31] J. G. Fichte, The System of Ethics (henceforth, SE), trans. Daniel Breazeale and Günter Zöller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 258.

[5] [32] SE, 244.

[6] [33] SE, 289.

[7] [34] See SE, 130.

[8] [35] SE, 327.

[9] [36] SE, 269.

[10] [37] Merriam-Webster defines “pathognomic [38]” (also: “pathognomonic”) as meaning “distinctively characteristic of a particular disease.”

[11] [39] Alexander Aichele, “Ending Individuality: The Mission of a Nation in Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation,” in The Cambridge Companion to Fichte, ed. David James and Günter Zöller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 248.

[12] [40] Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol. VII: Fichte to Nietzsche (New York: Image Books, 1985), 74.

[13] [41] Wissenschaftslehre would perhaps better be translated as “doctrine of science,” but “science of knowledge” has become the accepted rendering.

[14] [42] Fichte, The Science of Knowledge (henceforth, WL), trans. Peter Heath & John Lachs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 5.

[15] [43] WL, 24-25.

[16] [44] WL, 85.