Johann Gottlieb Fichte was born on May 19, 1762, near Bischoffswerda in Saxony. He was a prolific writer, but space permits only a few of his works to be mentioned here. His ideas on time resolved largely into his notion of history.
Fichte (1762-1814) studied at the prestigious University of Jena and then became a private tutor in Switzerland. Inspired by Kant’s critical philosophy, Fichte published Versuch einer Kritik aller Offenbarung (Attempt at a Critique of All Revealed Religion) anonymously in 1792. Kant praised the work and made public that Fichte was its author. This made Fichte a formidable intellectual in the public mind, but the work’s critical nature aroused suspicions of atheism. Fichte was greatly gifted in rhetoric, and he gained a wide reading audience in a series of publications. In 1793 he was offered a professorship at Jena at the suggestion of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He published a work in the same year designed to sway the German public to support the French Revolution. In the next year, Grundlage der gesammten Wissenschaftslehre (Groundwork for the Entirety of Science) appeared, which contained Fichte’s attempt to turn Kantian metaphysics into a science deriving from a single principle. In their most exact form, Fichte’s metaphysical ideas on time are found in the Groundwork. There followed Das System der Sittenlehre (Science of Right) in 1798, which showed the public that Fichte’s scientific idealism would be a highly ethical, even moralistic and preachy, sort.
When he published Über den Grund unseres Glaubens an eine göttliche Weltregierung (On the Grounds of Our Belief in a Divine World-Order) in 1799, Ficthe ironically came into conflict with the University at Jena over charges of atheism. He had suggested in this work that the divine worldorder requires human agency to become actualized. But the orthodox view was, of course, that the Divine Will of God cannot be thwarted by human free will, and the university officials supported orthodoxy. So Fichte moved on to Berlin.
There he published Die Bestimmung des Menschen (The Vocation of Man) in 1800. This highly popular work made his obscure scientific system accessible to the general reading public. Though The Vocation of Man was short on detail, the reader could discern the outlines of Fichte’s notion of time. Strictly speaking, secular time does not exist, according to Fichte. Time as a metaphysical form and time as all of human history, have an essentially sacred nature. Time, independent of a Divine Will, simply cannot exist, because the internal form of intuition is a tool in the hands of the Creator; further, all historical events are manifestations of his will, for Fichte, but are achievable only if human beings freely choose sacred time. Man’s free will creates the Divine world-order, in short, a notion that alarmed some readers. This insistence that all time is sacred sought to rescue history from empirical (English) science and from Spinozism. In this sense, Fichte’s notion of history is more akin to Herder and Jacobi than Kant.
Fichte was awarded a professorship at Erlangen in 1805. In a series of lectures, Fichte argued against Schelling, among many others. While at Erlangen he also published Reden an die Deutschen (Addresses to the German Nation, 1800) to rally Germans after their defeat by Napoleon. In 1809 he became a professor at the University of Berlin. Fichte died on January 27, 1814.
Reputation as a Philosopher
Among his contemporaries, Fichte’s reputation as a philosopher fluctuated wildly. In his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Hegel judged that Fichte had completed and improved Kant’s system. Fichte’s one-timestudentArthur Schopenhauer, on the contrary, considered Fichte to have been a charlatan capable of advanced rhetoric, but no more. The court of history, at least to date, has largely relegated Fichte to having been a minor idealist philosopher between Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. And Fichte’s status as an important figure in early German nationalism and the proto-Fascist economic system, and as an anti-Semite, has not aided his reputation. For recent scholars more interested in a philosophy of nature, Fichte has been overshadowed by his younger-yet-close friend Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling.
Fichte on the Ego
Once Kant had introduced his “critical philosophy,” thinkers began to question whether he had deduced the transcendental ideal structures of the “noumenal world,” including time and space, correctly. Each post-Kantian philosopher reinterpreted and/or restructured the newly discovered noumenal world according to his own vision. For his part, Fichte reduced Kant’s noumenal structures to the “transcendental ego,” which he considered co-terminal with man and God, or more accurately, absolute ego is the identity of transcendental and empirical ego.
He began with the principle of identity, A = A, which would serve as a foundation for German idealism. Fichte played on the ambiguity between empirical ego and transcendental ego, and took the principle of ego (I = I), or the autonomous free self, to be the supreme principle upon which the rest of his idealist system would be based.
And yet the ego supported only his “science of knowledge.” There is also faith in God, the transcendental ego, which in turn supports the empirical ego. God’s existence is of the greatest certainty, and is the truth transmitting certainty to all other truths, argued Fichte in The Vocation of Man.
God has a Divine Plan, which has been produced through the transcendental ego and empirical ego.
Why this plan, and not another, was chosen by God, Fichte admitted was the great mystery of the world. Still, in Fichte’s deeply religious worldview, the vocation of man is not only to know, but to have faith, too.
Fichte’s Ideas on Time
As for time, Fichte accounted for it, like everything else, as a product of the self-positing I = I. The ego most certainly exists, he argued, in agreement with Descartes. In its second logical moment, however, the ego posits an object (a “non-ego”) outside itself. “Inasmuch as I posit another in opposition to the ego, I posit myself as not posited.” In other words, the ego structures objects that it then places outside itself, as if they were independent of the ego. The ego takes objects not as its own production but as part of an outside world. Yet all determinations of the object are ideal.
Time and space are examples of the division of ego and non-ego, which limit each other. Time limits space, and space limits time. The self views its own mental faculties operating in time but considers objects to exist outside, in space. In terms of identity,
I = Time, whereas Not-I (Object) = Space
In the third moment of his logical system, both ego and non-ego are partially negated to arrive back at the identity of ego with itself. For Fichte, this third moment is always moral and religious in nature. And so in this sort of spiritual insight, the limitations of one’s own empirical ego are recognized, but also the limitations of the outer world constructed by the ego in the form of non-ego. The empirical ego, in its partial negation, comes to understand its own higher identity with the transcendental ego.
This means that the entirety of time has been produced from sensations and transcendental structures for a distinctly religious, moral purpose. (This notion that time is essentially a means toward a hidden divine end can be traced all the way back to Anaximander at the dawn of Western thought, but most directly from Herder.) Human beings are challenged by life not only to learn and know, but also to act—that is, to act morally. Only in this way does humankind bridge the subjective element of its existence with the objective world, which in the moral third moment is an ethical ideal outside one’s self. Thus his idealism ended in a rather uncompromising piety.
From a Hegelian perspective, Fichte set out with the identity of subject and object, but then privileged the subjective as the absolute, after all. There was no final place for nature in his account; the ego produces all of time and space. For Hegel, Fichte came back again and again to only the empirical ego, and so was a subjective idealist. Even though Hegel considered Fichte’s logic much clearer than Kant’s method, history has judged otherwise. Much of Fichte’s obscure argumentation met with criticism among his contemporaries.
To his great credit, though, Fichte’s major contribution, again according to Hegel, was in his insistence that philosophy must become a scientific system following from a single principle.
See also Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Herder, Johann Gottfried von; Hegel and Kant; Idealism; Kant, Immanuel; Schelling, Friedrich W. J. von; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Time, Sacred
Fichte, J. G. (1994). Introductions to the Wissenschaftslehre and other writings, 1797-1800 (D. Breazeale, Ed. & Trans.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Co.
Fichte, J. G. (2005). The science of knowing: J. G. Fichte’s 1804 lectures on the Wissenschaftslehre (W. E. Wright, Trans.). Albany: State University of New York Press.