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GERMAN IDEALISM

What is German idealism?

It was the philosophical perspective developed in the nineteenth century that reality is not physical but psychic, or mental. Its main author was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). There were also British and American versions of Hegelian thought.

How were nineteenth century German idealists different from Plato or George Berkeley?

Before the nineteenth century, idealism tended to be a train of thought in individual writers who posited the existence of unseen entities and claimed greater reality for them than the things in the world that could be sensed. Except for Plotinus (205-270) and other Neo-Platonists, idealism before the nineteenth century was limited to positing entities or structures that existed in a separate realm, independently of perceived reality, as humans perceive reality.

The nineteenth century idealists, in contrast, posited ideal entities and structures and also described their functions in ways that directly influenced the perceived world and events within it. A medical analogy is that before the nineteenth century, idealists were like philosophical "anatomists," whereas in the nineteenth century, idealists also worked as philosophical "physiologists." This last is especially true of Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), although he could not have constructed his system without Immanuel Kant's (1724-1804) work before him, and the directions in which Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) and Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854) tried to take Kant's work.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte

Who was Johann Gottlieb Fichte?

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) is regarded as an intellectual bridge between Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), as well as the founder of the nineteenth century school of German idealism.

What are some highlights of Johann Gottlieb Fichte's career?

As a student at Leipzig University, Fichte studied Benedict de Spinoza's (1632-1677) philosophy. After he discovered Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), he wrote An Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation, (1792) in which he tried to show that morality was the major part of religion. This was inspired by Kant's view that an understanding of morality requires an understanding of religion.

How did Johann Gottlieb Fichte become famous?

Soon after Fichte met Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in Königsberg, his first book, Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation (1792), appeared. It drew connections between religious revelation and Kant's philosophy. Fichte had not shown it to Kant before publication, and Fichte's name did not appear as the work's author, so the book was assumed to be by Kant. Kant generously cleared up this misunderstanding, giving high praise to Fichte, who immediately became famous. The accolades were hyperbolic. One reader wrote: "The most shocking and astonishing news ... nobody but Kant could have written this book. This amazing news of a third sun (the other two being Kant and René Descartes [1596-1650]) in the philosophical heavens has set me into such confusion."

What are some important facts about Johann Gottlieb Fichte's career?

Fichte was appointed professor of philosophy at the University of Jena in 1794, where he extended his Kantian idea of duty to criticize the drunkenness, lewdness, and brawling of the students. In 1795 he became an editor of the Philosophiches Journal, and in the preface to an article he was going to publish that had been written by a friend of his, he wrote that God was the moral order of the universe. There were complaints that this was an atheistic view, and so the governments of Saxony and other German states suppressed the Philosophiches Journal and demanded that Fichte be kicked out of Jena.

Fichte defended himself in writing and then threatened to resign his university position. The Jena University authorities interpreted his threat as an offer, which they immediately accepted, so he lost his position there. Much later, in 1810, he became the first professor of philosophy at the University of Berlin.

Fichte's independent philosophy was first stated in Foundation of the Science of Knowledge (1794) and popularized in The Vocation of Man (1800). In 1796 he wrote Foundations of Natural Right, which was his treatment of natural law. In 1808 he gave a series of "Speeches to the German Nation" in French-occupied Berlin (published as "Addresses to the German Nation" in 1922). In those talks, Fichte supported resistance against French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte, arguing for the common good.

What were the main original ideas that were important to Johann Gottlieb Fichte's philosophy?

Fichte was opposed to what he called dogmatism, or the idea that there was an external world that was independent of human beings and what they valued. He thought that atheism, materialism, and determinism were the results of such beliefs in objective reality, and this was to the detriment of morality. Even Immanuel Kant's (1724-1804) system had a dogmatic strain in his positing of things-in-themselves, which could not be known. Fichte's solution to these problems of dogmatism was idealism: mind creates everything.

How was Johann Gottlieb Fichte's idealism connected to freedom?

Fichte thought that our spontaneity is something we can become aware of through reflection on ourselves as active beings, who think, as well as do things in the world. This entails that the ultimate reality is a "transcendental ego," a locus of pure activity. Following Kant, Fichte meant that behind the self of which a person is aware while thinking, there is an unperceived self. Fichte believed that maturity was required to realize this freedom of the self. Those who were immature would cling to dogmatism.

What was Johann Gottlieb Fichte's political philosophy?

In his Foundations of Natural Right (1796), he supported individualism, but his views changed over time. His "Speeches to the German Nation" (1808) advocated concern for the common good and condemned selfish acts. He argued that egoism was untenable, morally, but that the German people could rise to a higher level because of the innate excellence of their character and language.

 
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