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The philosophy of Fichte, resting upon Kant, but, with rigid consequentiality, proceeding beyond him, manifested itself’ predominantly upon the ethical field. Fichte endeavored indeed to complement the formal principle by a material one, but both of them are so absolutely devoid of ethical contents, and the material principle stands even so positively in antagonism to the contents of a really moral consciousness, that an actual ethical development of these principles became impossible; and the occasionally sound and morally-earnest contents of the development in detail could only be loosely associated with these principles, but not scientifically developed from them. The immaturity of the entire stand-point rendered it also impossible that any important ethical tendency in philosophy or theology should arise therefrom. Fichte labored indeed fruitfully in a time which had lost all solid philosophical foot hold, but he formed no school.


Fichte’s “System of Ethics according to the Principles of the Doctrine of Science” (1798) is the most important attempt to apply the ground-thoughts of the “Doctrine of Science” to one particular science. We would do injustice to the Fichtean philosophy were we to consider its unfruitful eccentricities apart from their connection with the immediately-preceding philosophy; his philosophy is a scientifically-justified and necessary advance beyond Kant. As Kant had denied to the pure reason all objective knowledge, and also placed all contents of the practical reason exclusively in the subject, and derived the objective validity of the law of reason simply from the subject; so Fichte simply made the validity of the individual subject, the ego, all-predominant,—conceived all objective existence merely negatively as the non-ego, and based cognition and volitionating absolutely on the individual ego. The ego and the non-ego reciprocally determine each other, and hence stand in reciprocal relation. The ego posits itself as determined by the non-ego, that is, it cognizes; and it posits itself, on the other hand, as determining in relation to the non-ego, that is, it volitionates. The two are only two phases of the same thing, inasmuch as the non-ego in its entire being exists only in so far as it is posited by the ego, so that, strictly speaking, the ego is its own object. The ego should in all its determinations be posited only by itself,—should he absolutely independent of all non-ego. Only as volitionating, as absolutely determining the non-ego, is the ego free and independent. The ego as rational, should not permit itself to be determined by any non-ego independent of it,—should be absolutely independent, should make all non-ego absolutely dependent on itself,—should exercise absolute causality upon the same. In freedom, in volitionating, I am rational; and in that I determine my freedom as an absolutely self-poised power, that is affirm my freedom, I am moral; hence morality is self-determination to freedom. I should act freely in order that I may become free, that is, I should act with the consciousness that I determine myself in absolute independence. Hence the formal principle of morality is: “act according to thy conscience,” or “act always according to the best conviction of thy duty;” and as material principle of ethics, there results this: “make thyself into an independent or free being.” “I should be a 340self-dependent being; this is my destination; and the destination of things is, that I use them in furthering my independence.”

So absolutely void a principle of morality was probably never before proposed. The formal principle expresses nothing other than: act according to a yet unknown material principle. As to what the “conscience” is and contains, we are as yet utterly uninformed; and the material principle gives only the formal presupposition of morality, but not its contents proper; I must in fact already be free, in order to be able to act morally; freedom is not the contents, but the form, of moral action. If this material principle is to be taken in its entire significancy (and according to the philosophical presupposition this is strictly consequential), then the very opposite of all morality would be thereby expressed, namely, the acting absolutely without law, the virtualizing of freedom in its simple form without contents, and hence as mere individual caprice—amounting to a radical absolutism of the individual subject. whereas all morality consists in fact most essentially in a determining of individual freedom by an unconditionally and objectively valid law,—is a subordinating of the subject to a universally-obligating idea standing above the subject. From Fichte’s principle there results, not a system of ethics, but, consequentially, only a theory of license. While it is true that in his examinations of particular moral questions only loosely connected with his system, Fichte shows himself, for the most part, high-minded and earnest though indeed often strangely unpractical, still there lies, at least in his ground-principle and in his general system, no justification thereof. The cold, heartless, non-loving, intellectual character of his discussions, is moreover not very well adapted to awaken a moral interest.

What Fichte says on moral questions in his later, more rhetorical than scientific, writings, bears in general the same unfruitful stamp,— often widely misunderstanding the reality of life; we need only call to mind the new system of education proposed in his much admired “Addresses to the German Nation,” which was presented with the assumption of world-regenerating significancy, but at which, in fact, no experienced educator can avoid smiling, and also his “Doctrine of the State” which is even more than fantastical. The public often allowed itself to be deceived by the ring of his periods, 341and by the loftily enigmatic character of the expression. And it is doubtful whether the fanaticism of the philosopher himself, or that entertained for him by others, was the greater; certain it is, however, that very soon there was a vast sobering-down of both. We will here only refer to the fact that Fichte was personally very far from drawing the very natural consequences of his dangerous moral principle, but that on the contrary in his rhetorical “Direction for a Holy Life” (1807), in which he already largely departs from his earlier views, and takes a rather mystico-Pantheistic turn, he expressly presents, as the goal of morality, complete “self-annihilation”—not, however, in the Christian sense of moral self-denial, but rather in the sense of the religion of India. The belief in our self-existence must be absolutely destroyed; by this course the ego that was, sinks away into the pure divine essence; we should not say: let the love and the will of God become mine, because in fact there are no longer two; but only One, and no longer two wills but simply one. So long as man yet desires to be any thing himself, God comes not to him; but so soon as he annihilates himself fully, utterly and radically, then God alone remains and is all in all. In annihilating himself man continues in God, and in this self-annihilation consists blessedness. The scientific justification of this (in some respects) not unambiguous requirement, is not given.—Notwithstanding the enthusiasm which Fichte’s pretentious philosophy excited, especially among the youth, it was unable to create any long-enduring movements of thought. Feeble attempts to develop it further, or, in fact, to apply it to Christian ethics (Mehmel: “Elements,” 1811), fell very soon into deserved oblivion.

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