Some Small Notes On Fichte

The concept of freedom in Fichte

The mere mention of the name freedom my heart opens and flowers, and with the word necessity, it contracts painfully. For I feel that I am free, and I hate the thought that I am not so. (Fichte Foundations of Natural Right 1796)

Fichte’s concept of freedom founders on the notion of the individual ego, his own. Hegel notes Fichte being “depressed” by the “hideous order” and “unbreakable symmetry” of the natural world. Fichte saw freedom as a way of escaping from the deterministic laws of nature.

Fichte, however, was not satisfied with this. He felt gloom, horror, and abhorrence at the mere thought of the eternal laws of nature and their strict necessity. He felt that they were something foreign to him, and that he was not at home in them. (Hegel Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1830) —

Fichte’s contribution to romantic thought

Fichte’s philosophy was a major influence on the Romantic movement. He argued that knowledge is not a passive state of mind, but rather an active process of creation. This idea was central to the Romantics’ belief that the individual is capable of transforming the world through their own creative activity.

Fichte also emphasized the importance of action in the pursuit of freedom. He argued that freedom is not something that can be achieved through contemplation, but rather through constant striving and engagement with the world.

If you are simply contemplative being, and ask for the answer to what to do or how to live in the realm of knowledge you will never discover an answer simply because knowledge always presupposes some larger knowledge. At best you might end with some like Spinoza’s system where there is a rigid logical unity in which there is no room for movement. (Fichte Science of Knowledge 1794)

Our lives do not depend on contemplative knowledge. Life doesn’t begin with disinterested contemplation of nature. Life begins with action. Action is the first and fundamental condition of all knowledge. (Fichte The Vocation of Man 1794)

The double-edged nature of freedom

Things are what they are not because they are what they are but because I make them so. They depend upon the way in which I treat them, what I need them for. (Fichte Science of Knowledge 1794)

Fichte’s claim is that our lives do not depend on contemplative knowledge. Life doesn’t begin with disinterested contemplation of nature. Life begins with action. Knowledge is an instrument for an affective life of action. Knowledge is knowing how to be, knowing what to do etc. knowing how to live and what to do in order not to perish. This knowledge as arbitrary acceptance some part of the world, as the aspects presupposed by the biological urge in the necessity of living - is for Fichte an act of faith.

“We do not act because we know, we know because we are called upon to act. Knowledge is not a passive state. External nature impinges upon us and stops us. In it’s clay of our creation we have freedom again.” “things are what they are not because they are what they are but because I make them so”. “Things depend upon the way in which I treat them, what I need them for”.

Food is not what I hunger for, it is made food by my hunger. I do not hunger for food because it is laid beside me, the object becomes food. I do not accept what nature offers because I must, I don’t simply register what occurs like a machine, I believe it because I will. Who is master, nature or I? I am not determined by ends, ends are determined by me. “The world is a poem dreamt out in my inner life”. Experience is something which I determine because I act. Robins are romantic because I make them romantic, nothing is romantic in nature. 

But freedom is double edge. Because I am free I am able to exterminate others.

Savages exterminate each other, and civilized nations, using the power of law, unity, and culture, will go on exterminating each other. Culture is not a deterrent of violence. (Fichte Addresses to the German Nation 1807)   The statement comes in contradiction with a united 18th century idea, that culture was a deterrent of violence, because culture is knowledge, and knowledge proves the ‘inadvisability’ of violence.

Fichte’s nationalism

The world cannot be half slave and half free. If we are a free nation, if we are great creators engaged in creating those great values which in fact history has imposed on us since we happen not to have been corrupted by the great decadence which has fallen upon the Latin nations. Germany happens to be in some sense healthier and more vigorous if perhaps more barbarous than those decadent peoples who are nothing but the debris of what was once no doubt a very respectable roman civilization, if that is what we are then we must be free no matter what the cost. Since the world cannot be half slave and half free we must conquer the others and absorb them into our texture. (Fichte Addresses to the German Nation 1807)

Fichte’s philosophy was eventually used to justify German nationalism. He argued that the German nation was a unique and superior entity that had a special destiny to fulfill. He also argued that the German nation had a right to expand and conquer other nations.

Here lies the quite difficult problem in Fichte’s worldview, how to square his defence of German colonialism and his romanticism. That only contravention of violence was some higher moral regeneration. “Man shall be and do something.” For Fichte man is a ‘continuous action’. He must constantly create. A man who accepts what nature gives him is dead. This was equally applicable to human beings and of nations.  The thread that Fichte follows to end up with a justification of colonialism, Individuals become Free Individuals, but they cannot become free while they are an object in space because of nature’s unbreakable limitations on the object (gravity, time, transcendental etc), therefore the free being is larger than man, the body is cast off in favour of spirit. Spirit is not the spirit of the individual, it is common to many men because each individual spirit is imperfect, it is confined by the particular bodily form, then it becomes pure spirit as some mystical entity, like God, in which we are all sparks of its central fire, and here it ends in a kind mysticism.  Once nationalist sentiment in Germany had risen, Fichte began to confer with Handel arguing that ‘man is made a man by other men’, by language, education, culture etc. inventions of others. Man is an element of this common stream and man is in an organic unity with other men. This marked the movement from the individual, as an empirical unit in space to the individual as something larger, a nation, a class, a sect, etc. This movement implies a transition on every level. Man is necessity of action because it’s necessity of action (circular). A nation’s necessity to be free means it to be free of other nations and if other nations obstruct it it must make war.