The philosophy of Johann Gottlieb Fichte

ABOUT 1790 Fichte came under the influence of Immanuel Kant, whose philosophy inspired in him a reverential enthusiasm, and in 1792 he published his Essay Towards a Critique of All Revelation. As professor of philosophy at Jena, his success was complete owing to his rare powers as a lecturer, proof of which is contained in his addresses, published under the title The Vocation of the Scholar. While at Jena he produced a series of works which placed him in the very front rank of German thinkers, the most important being The Foundation of the Whole Theory of Science (1795). The most notable of his later publications was The Vocation of Man (1800), which for beauty of style, richness of content, and elevation of thought has been ranked with the Meditations of Descartes.


AT last, then, I may hope that I am tolerably well acquainted with the world that surrounds me. In the unanimous declaration of my senses, in unfailing experience alone, have I placed my trust. Therefore am I now as well assured of the accuracy of this part of my knowledge as of my own existence

But what, then, am I, and what is the aim and end of my being? The question is superfluous. It is long since I have been made well acquainted with the various phenomena of being, and it would take much time to recapitulate all that I have learnt concerning them. But how could I persuade myself that I really possessed this knowledge? I know merely what others profess to know, and all that I can really be assured of is that I have heard them speak so and so upon these things.

I have attributed to others an interest in the highest affairs of humanity and earnestness and accuracy which I by no means discover in myself. I have regarded them as indescribably superior to me. How much have I undervalued myself!

It shall be no longer thus. From this moment. I will enter on my rights, on the dignity to which I have a claim. Let all that is foreign to my own mind be renounced ! I will examine for myself I will know.

I am surrounded by objects which I am compelled to regard as wholes, subsisting for themselves, and separately from each other. I behold plants, trees and animals, and I ascribe to each individual certain signs and attributes by which I distinguish it from others. Every object has its appointed number of attributes, neither more nor less. Every object possesses its properties in an appointed degree, which it neither exceeds nor falls short of. Everything that is, is definite, determined; is some one thing, and is not something else.

Not that I am unable to conceive an object hovering between opposite limitations. I am certainly able to do this, for half of my thoughts consist of such. I think of a tree in general, for my thought is undetermined, and does not represent any particular tree, but a tree in general, which has no real existence, for whatever really exists has its appointed number of attributes, and each of those in its appointed measure.

Nature, however, hastens on through her everlasting transformations, and while I am speaking of the present moment it is gone and all is changed. Why, then, and from what cause, does nature, amid infinite possible varieties of conditions, assume precisely some, and not others? Why do the things in which we look become so?

Nature follows undeviating laws. I find myself in a close chain of phenomena, in which every link depends on that which has preceded it. I see a flower that has sprung out of the earth, and I conclude that a formative power exists in nature. A flower, and precisely this flower, could exist in this place only so far as all circumstances united to make it possible.

I am compelled to assume a peculiar original power in nature, and precisely a flower producing power, for another power of nature, under the same circumstances, might have produced some-thing entirely different.

When I contemplate all things as one whole, I perceive one nature, one force; when I regard them as individuals, many forces, which develop themselves according to their inward laws and pass through all the forms of which they are capable; and all the objects in nature are but those forces under certain limitations.

Every manifestation of every individual power of nature is connected with all the other powers, for nature is one connected whole. Its manifestations, therefore, are strictly necessary, and the logical conclusion at which I arrive is that it is absolutely impossible that anything should be other than what it is.


I MYSELF, with all that I call mine, am but a link in this chain of rigid natural necessity. I have not come into existence by my own power. I have been called into being by a power out of myself. And what should this be but the universal power of nature, of which I form a part? It was impossible that instead of me another should have arisen; it is impossible that at any moment of my existence I should be other than what I am.

Thought is assuredly a far higher and more subtle operation of nature than the formation of a plant or the motion of an animal. I cannot explain how the power of nature can produce thought, but can I better explain its operation in the production of a plant, in the motion of an animal? Thought exists in nature, as well as the creative power which gives birth to the plant. To attempt to deduce thought from any mere organization of matter, however, is an extravagance into which I shall not easily fall. There is in nature an original thinking power, as well as an original plant-creating power.

This form, this motion, this thought, this duration of all essential qualities amidst many non-essential changes belong to me as to a being of my species. But the man-forming power in nature has manifested itself, at the time of my production, under manifold conditions and circumstances. By these conditions and circumstances it was determined that I should become. I am that which I am because no other was possible, and all that I am and shall be, I am and shall be of necessity.

I do, indeed, feel an inward consciousness of independence; of having on many occasions in my life exerted a free agency. But this is perfectly reconcilable with the principles I have laid down. I am myself not the man-forming power of nature, but only one of its manifestations. This manifestation, however, is certainly the production of an original and independent force, and must appear as such in my consciousness. For this reason do I appear to myself as a free agent in those occurrences of my life in which the independent force falling to my share manifests itself without hindrance; but as subject to constraint when, by any combination of circumstances, I cannot do what I might otherwise be capable of doing.

BESTOW consciousness on a tree, and let it grow freely, and it will be aware of no limits to its existence in being only a tree and a tree of a certain species. But let unfavourable weather, insufficient nutrition, or other causes, hinder its growth, and it will feel itself confined, restrained, because an impulse of its nature cannot be satisfied. Bind its free and waving branches to a wall, force foreign branches on it by the process of grafting, and it will feel itself constrained.

In my immediate consciousness I appear to myself as free; by meditation on the whole of nature I discover that freedom, a free agency, is impossible for me; the former must be subordinate to the latter, for it is only to be explained through it.


SORROW and anxiety corroded my heart. I cursed the day which recalled me to an existence in whose truth and significance I could no longer trust. I awakened in the night from unquiet dreams, but I sought in vain for a ray of spiritual light that might lead me out of the labyrinth of doubt in which I had become entangled.

Once, at the hour of midnight, a wondrous spirit appeared to pass before me, and to address me.

"Poor Mortal!" I heard it say. "Thou heapest error upon error, and fanciest thyself wise. Take courage to be truly wise. I bring thee new revelations. Listen! Thou wilt admit that the objects round thee really have an existence out of thyself? Dost thou see thy sight, and feel thy touch, or has thou a higher sense, by which thou perceivest the affections of thy organs of sense?"

I replied that I had not, but that I knew immediately and absolutely what I saw and felt.

Then said the spirit, "Therefore, thou canst not know anything without knowing that thou knowest it. Remember that in all perception thou perceivest only thine own state of being. But knowledge of the qualities and attributes of objects outside of thy self can be obtained merely through thy consciousness of the various conditions of thine own being. By calling things red, blue, sweet, or bitter, thou dost really mean only that thou art affected in a certain manner by them."

I assented, saying, "I perceive that transposition of what is in me to something out of myself is very strange, though, nevertheless, I cannot refrain from it. My sensations are in myself and not in the object, for I am myself and not the object. But sensation is always definite. We never merely see, hear, or feel; but always see colour; feel cold, warm, rough, smooth; hear sound."

But the spirit said, "Thy hand is a surface. How dost thou attain consciousness of thy hand at all? That thy hand should appear to thee as a surface is just as inexplicable as the idea of a surface in general. The truth is that there is something interior in thee which thou hast not perceived by any sense. All thy perceptions of qualities in outward things are only certain affections of thine own organs of sense. Thou art obliged to speak of something beyond the senses and not perceptible to them. That is to say, by the idea of causality thou art enabled to add to a knowledge which thou hast, another which thou hast not.

"Thou hast therefore an organ or faculty, that of consciousness, by which thou perceivest these affections. In fact, thy real knowledge, that of thy sensations and affections, is to thee like an imperfect knowledge, which requires to be completed by another."

Then said I, "I do, indeed, add to the consciousness of sensation, which is simultaneous with that of existence, another which I do not find in myself; and as by this I double and complete my real consciousness, I may be said to perform a mental act. But of the mental act which, according to thy assertion, I perform in the representation of an object out of myself, I am not conscious at all."

And the spirit replied, "An act of the mind of which we are conscious, as such, is called freedom. An act without consciousness of action is called spontaneity. This act of mind is called thought; and it is said that thought is a spontaneous act, to distinguish it from sensation, in which the mind is merely receptive and passive. But thou knowest that for the sensation that arises in thy mind concerning any object there must be a cause. How knowest thou, and how can it be proved, that thy sensation must have a cause? Thou knowest it not mediately, but immediately. Thou hast it absolutely in thyself; for the representation of an object, according to the law of causality, is simultaneous with the sensation. It appears, then, that all thy knowledge is merely a knowledge of thyself, that thy consciousness never proceeds beyond thyself, and that what thou hast regarded as a consciousness of the real existence of the object is no more than a consciousness of thine own representation or conception of an object, produced according to an inward law of thought, and necessarily coexisting with thy sensation. But, now, what art thou?"

I answered, "To answer that question in the most general manner, I must say I am I, myself. I can only make myself understood by opposition. And external existence--a thing--is something out of me, the intelligent being cognisant of it. Of what I am, I know no more than what I am."

Then exclaimed the spirit, "Short-sighted mortal! Thou hast sought to know, and thou hast chosen a wrong path. Thou hast sought knowledge where no knowledge can reach. I found thee in this state of mind, and I wished to free thee from thy false knowledge. Thou wouldst know thy own knowledge. Thou seekest, as I well know, something real and permanent beyond mere appearances. But in vain dost thou seek this through knowledge. Hast thou no other organ by which to apprehend it? Thou hast such an organ; let it be thy care to awaken and vivify it, and thou wilt attain the most perfect tranquillity."


TERRIBLE spirit, thy words have crushed me. But thou hast referred me to myself, and what were I, could anything out of myself irrecoverably cast me down? How is it that my heart revolts at a system against which my understanding can object nothing? It is that I require something beyond these mere mental images and conceptions.

And what, then, is this something lying beyond all conception towards which I look with such ardent longing? Not merely to know, but according to thy knowledge, to do, is the destiny of man.

Now I know the organ by which to apprehend this reality, and probably all other. It is not knowledge, for knowledge can only demonstrate itself; every knowledge supposes some higher knowledge on which it is founded, and of this ascent there is no end. It is Faith, that voluntary reposing on the views naturally presenting themselves to us, because through these views only can we fulfil our destiny. It is no knowledge, but a resolution of the will to admit this knowledge. This same inward voice opens to my spiritual vision a prospect into another and a better world than that which is sensually present to me; it makes me aspire after this better world, live in it, and in it alone find satisfaction and tranquillity.

It is the destiny of our race to become united in one great body, thoroughly connected in all its parts, and possessed of similar culture. Nature, and even the passions and vices of man, have from the beginning tended towards this end.

The present is the beginning of our existence. The future life will be its continuation, and our station there we must earn for ourselves. This then, is my true nature, my whole sublime destination. The Infinite Will unites me with Himself, and with all finite beings such as myself. All that happens in God's world happens for the best; but what in that world is germ, what blossom, what fruit, I know not.

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