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The Riddle of Man

Riddle of Man: German Idealism: Johann Gottlieb Fichte

On-line since: 5th October, 2006

German Idealism's Picture of the World

Idealism as an Awakening of the Soul:
Johann Gottlieb Fichte

In his addresses on The Basic Characteristics of Our Present Age and To the German Nation, Johann Gottlieb Fichte seeks to portray the spiritual forces working in the evolution of mankind. Through the thoughts he brings to expression in these addresses, he imbues himself with the feeling that the motive force of his world view streams from the innermost being of the German people (Volksart). Fichte believes he is expressing the thoughts that the soul of the German people must express if it wants to reveal itself from the core of its spirituality. The way in which Fichte struggled for his world view shows how this feeling could live in his soul. It must seem important to someone observing a thinker to investigate the roots from which the fruit of his thoughts have sprung; these roots work in the depths of his soul and are not expressed directly in his thought-worlds, yet they live as the motive forces within these thought-worlds.

Fichte once expressed his conviction that the kind of world view one has depends upon the kind of person one is. He did so out of his awareness that all the life forces of his own personality had to bring forth — as its natural and obvious fruit — the conceptually strong heights of his world view. Not many people want to get to the heart of this world view because they consider what they find there to be thoughts — estranged from the world — into which only “professional” thinkers need penetrate. This feeling is understandable in someone without philosophical training who approaches Fichte's thoughts as they appear in his works. Still, for someone who has the possibility of entering into the full life of these thoughts, it is not strange to imagine that a time will come when one will be able to recast Fichte's ideas into a form comprehensible to anyone who wants, out of life itself, to think about the meaning of this life. These ideas could then be accessible even to the simplest human heart (Gemüt), however far removed from so-called “philosophical thinking.” For, these ideas have in fact received their philosophical form from the character assumed by the evolution of thought in thinking circles at the turn of the eighteenth into the nineteenth century; but these ideas get their life from experiences that are present in the soul of every human being, To be sure, the time has not yet arrived when it is fully possible to recast Fichte's thoughts from the language of the philosophy of his time into a universally human form of expression. Such things become possible only through the gradual progress made by certain ways of picturing things in man's spiritual life. Just as Fichte himself was obliged to carry his soul experiences to the heights of what one usually calls “abstract thinking” — and finds cold and estranged from life — so today also it is only possible to a very limited degree to carry these soul experiences down from those heights.

From his early youth until his sudden death while still in the prime of life, Fichte struggled for ever new forms of expression for these soul experiences. In all his struggles, one basic cognitive impulse is evident. Within man's own soul Fichte wishes to find a living element in which the human being grasps not only the basic force of his own existence, but in which there can also be known — in its essential being — what weaves and works in nature and in everything else outside him. In a drop of water, relative to the ocean, one has only a tiny sphere. But if one knows this little sphere in its character as water, then in this knowledge one also knows the whole ocean in its character as water. If something can be discovered in the being of man that can be experienced as a revelation of the innermost weaving of the world, then one may hope, through deepened self-knowledge, to advance to world knowledge.

Long before Fichte's time, the development of mankind's view of the world had already taken the path that proceeds from this feeling and this hope. But Fichte was placed at a significant point in this evolution. One can read in many places how he received Ws most direct impetus from the world views of Spinoza and Kant. But the way he finally acted in understanding the world through the essential nature of his personality becomes most visible when he is contrasted with the thinker who came forth just as much from the thinking of the Romance peoples as Fichte did from the German: Descartes (1596–1650). In Descartes there already comes to light — out of the feeling and hope described above — the way a thinker seeks certainty in world knowledge by discovering a solid point in self-knowledge. Descartes takes doubt in all world knowledge as his starting point. He says to himself: The world in which I live reveals itself within my soul, and from its phenomena I form mental pictures for myself about the course of things. But what is my guarantee that these mental pictures of mine really tell me anything about the working and weaving of the world in its course? Could it not be the case that my soul does indeed receive certain impressions from the things of the world, but that these impressions are so far removed from the things themselves that in these impressions nothing of the meaning of the world is revealed to me? In the face of this possibility can I say that I know this or that about the world? One sees how, for a thinker in this ocean of doubt, all knowledge can come to seem like a subjective dream, and how only one conviction can force itself upon him: that man can know nothing. But in the case of a person for whom the motive force of thinking has become as alive as the motive force of hunger is in the body: for him the conviction that man can know nothing means for the soul what starvation means for the body. All the innermost impressions about the health of one's soul, in a higher sense, right up to feeling the salvation of one's soul (Seelenheil) are connected with this.

It is within the soul itself that Descartes finds the point upon which he can base conviction: The mental pictures form for myself of the world's course are no dream; they live a life that is a part in the life of the whole world. Even though I can doubt everything, there is one thing I cannot doubt, for to express doubt in it would belie my own words. For is it not certain that when I give myself over to doubt I am thinking? I could not doubt if I did not think. Therefore I cannot possibly doubt my own experience in thinking. If I wanted, through doubt, to kill thinking: it would just rise up living again out of the doubt. My thinking lives, therefore; it does not stand in some dream world; it stands in the world of being (Sein). If I could believe that everything else, even my own body, gave me only the illusion of being, still my thinking does not deceive me. Just as true as it is that I think, it is true that I am, insofar as I think. It was from sentiments such as these that Descartes' “I think, therefore I am” (Cogito ergo sum) rang out into the world. And whoever has an ear for such things will also hear the power of this statement resounding in all subsequent thinkers until Kant.

Only with Fichte do its reverberations cease. If one enters deeply into his thought-world, if one seeks to experience with him his struggles for a world view, then one feels how he too is seeking world knowledge in self-knowledge; but one has the feeling that Descartes' statement, “I think, therefore I am” could not be the rock upon which Fichte, in his struggles, could believe himself secure against the waves of doubt that can turn man's mental pictures into an ocean of dreams. Looking at what Fichte wrote in his book The Vocation of Man (published in 1800), one feels how his ability to doubt lives in a very different part of the soul than with Descartes: “Nowhere is there anything enduring, neither outside me nor within me; there is only unceasing change. Nowhere do I know of any being, not even my own. There is no being. I myself do not know at all and do not exist. Pictures exist: they are all that there is, and they know about themselves in the manner of pictures — pictures that float past without anything there for them float past; pictures that relate to each other through pictures of pictures; pictures without anything pictured in them, without significance and purpose. I myself am one of these pictures; no, I am not even that; I am only a confused picture of the pictures. — All reality transforms itself into a strange dream, without a life that is dreamed about, and without a spirit who is dreaming; transforms itself into a dream that is connected with a dream about itself, My perceiving is the dream; my thinking — the source of all being and all reality that I imagine to myself, the source of my being, my power, my aims — is a dream about that dream,” These thoughts do not arise in Fichte's soul as the ultimate truth about existence, He does not wish, as one might suppose, really to regard the world as a dream configuration, He wants only to show that all the usual arguments for the certainty of knowledge cannot withstand penetrating examination, and that these arguments do not give one the right to regard the ideas one forms about the world as anything other than dream configurations. And Fichte cannot allow that any kind of certainty about being is present within thinking. Why should I say, “I think, therefore I am” since, after all, if I am living in an ocean of dreams, my thinking can be nothing more than “a dream about a dream”? For Fichte, what penetrates and gives reality to my thoughts about the world must come from a completely different source than mere thinking about the world.

Fichte claims that the distinctive spirit (Art) of the German people lives in his world view. This thought makes sense when one brings before one's soul precisely his picture of that path to self-knowledge which he seeks in contradistinction to Descartes. This path is what Fichte felt to be German; and as a traveler on this path, he differs from Descartes, who takes the spiritual path of the Romance peoples. Descartes seeks a sound basis for self-knowledge; he expects to find this sound basis somewhere. In thinking he believes he has found it. Fichte expects nothing from this kind of search. For, no matter what he might find, why should it afford a greater certainty than anything already found? No, along this path of investigation there is absolutely nothing to be found. For, this path can lead only from picture to picture; and no picture one encounters can guarantee, out of itself, its being. Therefore, to begin with, one must entirely abandon the path through pictures, and return to it again only after gaining certainty from some other direction.

With respect to the statement “I think, therefore I am,” one need only say something that seems quite simple if one wants to refute it. This is after all the way with so many thoughts a person incorporates into his world view: they are not dispelled by elaborate objections but rather by noting simple facts. One does not undervalue the thinking power of a personality like Descartes by confronting him with a simple fact. The fable of the egg of Columbus is true forever. [1] And it is also true that the statement “I think, therefore I am” simply shatters upon the fact of human sleep. Every sleep, which interrupts thinking, shows — not, indeed, that there is no being in thinking — but that in any case “I am, even when I am not thinking.” Therefore, if only thinking is the source for being, then nothing could guarantee the being of soul states in which thinking has ceased. Although Fichte did not express this train of thought in this form, one can still definitely say: The power lying within these simple facts worked — unconsciously — in his soul and kept him from taking a path like that taken by Descartes.

Fichte was led onto a completely different path by the basic character of his sense of things. His life reveals this basic character from childhood on. One need only let some pictures from his life arise before one's soul to see that this is so. One significant picture that rises up vividly from his childhood is this. Johann Gottlieb is seven years old. Until this time he was a good student. In order to reward the boy's industriousness, his father gives him a book of legends, The Horned Siegfried. The boy is completely taken with this book. He neglects his duties somewhat. He becomes aware of this about himself. One day his father sees him throwing The Horned Siegfried into the brook. The boy is attached to the book with his whole heart; but how can the heart be allowed to keep something that diverts one from one's duty? Thus the feeling is already living unconsciously in the young Fichte that the human being is in the world as an expression of a higher order, which descends into his soul not through his interest in one thing or another, but through the path by which he acknowledges duty. Here one can see the impulse behind Fichte's stance toward certainty about reality. Perceptual experiences are not what is certain for man, but rather what rises up livingly in the soul in the same way that duty reveals itself.

Another picture from Fichte's life: The boy is nine years old. A landowner near his father's village comes into town one Sunday to hear the minister's sermon. He arrives too late. The sermon is over. People remember that nine-year-old Johann Gottlieb retains sermons in his soul so well that he can completely reproduce them. They fetch him. The boy, in his little farmer's smock, appears. He is awkward at first; but then presents the sermon in such a way that one can see that what lived in the sermon had utterly filled his soul; he does not merely repeat words; he speaks out of the spirit of the sermon that lives within him entirely as his own experience. This ability lived in the boy: to let light up in one's own self what approaches this self from the world. This was, after all, the ability to experience the spirit of the outer world in one's own self. This was the ability to find within the strengthened self the power to uphold a world view. A brightly-lit, evolving stream of personality leads from such boyhood experiences to a lecture by Fichte — then professor in Jena — heard and described by the gifted scientist Steffens. In the course of his lecture Fichte calls upon his listeners: “Think about the wall,” His listeners made every effort to think about the wall. After they had done this for a while, Fichte's next demand follows: “And now think about the one who thought about the wall,” What striving for a direct and living relationship between one's own soul life and that of one's listeners! What pointing toward an inner soul activity to be undertaken immediately — not merely to stimulate reflection on verbal communications, but rather to awaken a life element slumbering in the souls of his listeners so that these souls will attain a state that changes their previous relationship to the course of the world.

Such actions reflect Fichte's whole way of clearing the path for a world view. Unlike Descartes, he does not seek an experience of thinking that will establish certainty. He knows that in such seeking there is no finding. In such seeking one cannot know whether one's discovery is dream or reality. Therefore do not launch forth in such seeking. Strengthen yourself instead, by waking up. What the soul experiences when it wants to press forward out of the field of ordinary reality into that of true reality must be like an awakening. Thinking does not guarantee the being of the human “I.” But within this “I” there lies the power to awaken itself to being. Every time the soul senses itself as “I” — in full consciousness of the inner power that becomes active in doing so — a process occurs that presents itself as the soul awakening itself. This self-awakening is the fundamental being (Grundwesenheit) of the soul. And in this power to awaken itself there lies the certainty of the being (Sein) of the human soul. Let the soul go through dream states and states of sleep: one grasps the power of the soul to awaken itself out of every dream and every sleep by transforming the mental picture of its awakening into the image of the soul's fundamental power. Fichte felt that the eternity of the human soul lies in its becoming aware of its power to awaken itself. From this awareness came statements like these: “The world I was just marveling at disappears before my gaze and sinks away. In all the fullness of life, order, and growth that I see in it, this world is still only the curtain — by which an infinitely more perfect world is hidden from me — and the seed from which this more perfect world is to evolve. My belief goes behind this curtain and warms and enlivens this seed. My belief does not see anything definite, but expects more than it can grasp here below or will ever be able to grasp in the realm of time. — This is how I live and this is how I am; this is how I am unchangeably — firm and complete for all eternity; for, this being is not taken on from outside; it is my own one true being and existence.” (Vocation of Man)

When one looks at the whole way Fichte approaches life and at how permeated all his actions and thinking are with an attitude friendly to life and fostering of life, one will not be tempted to regard a passage like this as proof of a direction in thought hostile to life, that turns away from immediate and vigorous life on this earth. In a letter from the year 1790 there is a sentence that sheds significant light on Fichte's positive attitude toward life, precisely in relation to his thoughts about immortality: “The surest means of convincing oneself of a life after death is to lead one's present life in such a way that one can wish an afterlife:”

For Fichte, within the self-awakening inner activity of the human soul there lies the power of self-knowledge. And within this activity he also finds the place in the soul where the spirit of the world reveals itself in the spirit of the soul. In Fichte's world view the world-will weaves and works in all existence; and within the willing of its own being the soul can live this world-will within itself. The grasping of life's duties — which are experienced differently in the soul than are the perceptions of the senses and of one's thoughts — is the most immediate example of how the world-will pulses through the soul. True reality must be grasped in this way; and all other reality, even that of thinking, receives its certainty through the light shed upon it by the reality of the world-will revealing itself within the soul. This world-will drives the human being to his activity and deeds. As a sense-perceptible being, man must translate into reality in a sense-perceptible way what the world-will demands of him. But how could the deeds of one's will have a real existence if they had to seek this existence in a dream world? No, the world cannot be a dream, because in this world the deeds of one's will must not merely be dreamed; they must be translated into reality.

Insofar as the “I” awakens itself in its experience of the world-will, it attains firm supports for certainty about its being. Fichte expressed himself on this point in his Vocation of Man: “Without any instrument weakening its expression, within a sphere completely similar in nature to itself, my will must work absolutely in and through itself: as reason it must work upon reason and as something spiritual upon something spiritual; it must work in a sphere for which my will nevertheless does not provide the laws of life, activity, and continuity; this sphere has them in itself; my will has therefore to work upon self-active reason. But self-active reason is will. The laws of the supersensible world, accordingly, would be a will ... That lofty will, accordingly, does not separated from the rest of the world of reason — take a path all its own. There is a spiritual bond between this will and all finite reasonable beings, and this will itself is the spiritual bond of the world of reason ... I hide my face before you and lay my hand on my mouth. I can never see how you are for yourself nor how you appear to yourself, just as certainly as I can never become yourself. After living through a thousand times a thousand spiritual worlds, I will still grasp you just as little as now, within this hut of the earth. — What I grasp, through my mere grasping of it, becomes something finite; and this, even through infinite intensification and enhancement, can never be transformed into something infinite. You are different from the finite not in degree but in kind. Through that intensification they make you only into a greater and ever great man; but never into God, the Infinite, Who cannot be measured.”

Fichte strove for a world view that pursues all being into the very roots of what lives in the world, and that learns to know the meaning of what lives in the world: learns to know it through the human soul's living with the world-will that pulses through everything and that creates nature for the purpose, in nature, of translating into reality a spiritually moral order as though in an outer body. Such a world view seemed to Fichte to spring from the character of the German people. To him a world view seemed un-German that did not “believe in spirituality and in the freedom of this spirituality,” and that did not “want the eternal further development of this spirituality and freedom.” In his view, “Whoever believes in a standstill, a regression, or a circle dance, or even sets a dead nature at the helm of world rulership” goes not only against any more deeply penetrating knowledge, but also against the essential nature of what is truly German.


1. The problem was to stand an egg on end. Columbus's table companions tried to do this without breaking the egg and of course failed. Columbus was more realistic. He flattened one end of the egg. – Ed.

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