In the English-speaking world Johann Gottlieb Fichte (17623-1814) is treated as what one might call a footnote philosopher, mentioned—if at all—only in connection with someone or something else. He is seen as a stepping stone on the road between Kant and Hegel, which was Hegel’s own self-serving view, an enemy of the Enlightenment (Isaiah Berlin’s claim), an early German nationalist, or an off-the-wall solipsist. None of these characterizations stands up if he’s read without presuppositions, but they’ve been repeated so often and Fichte’s own writings can be so hard to grasp that they’re hard to shake off.

Even admitting to an interest in Fichte can be suspect. A young New School graduate once looked at me with suspicion and said, “You don’t think Fichte was right, do you?” I was once introduced to the chair of the philosophy department of a major university in the American Midwest, and when I told him I wrote about Fichte he rolled his eyes and said, “Oh, no!”

In the rest of the world, or at least on the European continent, Fichte is thought of differently. Students bandy about his name and scholars treat him as one of the major philosophers, not just historically important but of striking contemporary relevance. The philosopher and anthropologist Jean-Christophe Goddard, for one, sees his teaching as a decolonizing psychotherapy, undoing the pathologies specific to the European tradition and opening towards “the invention of a new native people.” He draws a line not from Fichte to Hegel but from Fichte to Deleuze, who in fact invoked Fichte in the very last piece he wrote. Even in North America the tide may be turning. Scholars like Owen Ware, Allen Wood, and Michelle Kosch have joined pioneers like Dan Breazeale, showing the importance of Fichte’s thought and how it anticipates, and often goes beyond, much present-day continental philosophy. There is increasing interest in his later texts, too long neglected here but widely studied in Europe; this essay draws on the full range of his work.

Yet, it’s easy to understand the skeptics. Reading Fichte for the first time is both frustrating and disorienting. I remember puzzling over the 1795 Foundations of the Entire Wissenschaftslehre and wondering when the philosophy would start. All I saw was endless fiddling around with epistemological problems of little or no interest to me—how the Kantian categories were generated out of our own activity, how we come to our unshakable conviction that we are active rational beings in a real physical world, and so on. Where were the deep thoughts? Where were the insights into reality, into the predicaments of human finitude and longing? Why was there nothing but the self-positing the self, and the not-self, and their interactions, and the dialectical consequences of those acts? Why bother?

It took me a while. Part of the problem was the book itself. It’s the customary starting point for the study of Fichte, but it is not really a book at all—more of a “compendium” designed to supplement his lectures at the University of Jena. An even bigger part of the problem, though, was that Fichte wasn’t trying to impart ideas so much as he was trying to get us to see ourselves and the world differently. If you could shift your understanding in a certain way, you could “become” his teaching, and you could work everything else out for yourself, all the details he would elaborate throughout his too-short career.

This is not what most philosophers do, and Fichte didn’t even give his work the label “philosophy.” It was—well, something else that he described as “Wissenschaftslehre.” Translating this into English raises its own problems. Does it mean “Theory of Knowledge?” “The Science of Knowing?” “The Doctrine of Knowledge?” All? None?

It’s common now to give up and use the German, but the translation problem is actually a fruitful one, especially as the meaning isn’t clear even in German. “Wissenschaft” means “science” now, but in Fichte’s day it had a broader meaning, and from an etymological perspective it suggests the making (schaffen) of knowledge (Wissen). “Lehre” can mean doctrine, theory, or a teaching about something. What Fichte was suggesting, then, was that he was showing us how we make knowledge. There’s no philosophy in it, at least not at first, because he wants us to look behind the scenes, to observe the elementary movements of sensation, awareness, desire, and self-making that must take place before there can be self-conscious minds thinking explicit thoughts, philosophical or otherwise. And he takes “movements” seriously. A great admirer of the prologue to the Fourth Gospel, Fichte once translated Wissenschaftslehre as Logologoia, the Word about the Word, and, like John, he meant the living, creative Word, through which everything is made.

The difference between his thinking and all previous philosophy, he said, was that his was a philosophy of seeing, not a philosophy of being. He was concerned with processes instead of products. A philosophy of being focuses on fixed entities: the self, for instance, the objects we perceive, or even God Himself. And these are all static and dead, the deity included, like the day-old fish on the ice, soon to be useless and obnoxious and unable to give us any hint of the silvery, purposeful, enchantingly fluid life it once led.

A philosophy of seeing, on the other hand, places us within the movements of intention and interaction, not to elucidate objects and pin down relationships but to open us to the deep and unsettling insight that this is what we are, too, and this is what we show to ourselves as experience. More than that, it is the process out of which selves emerge who can have those experiences.

Fichte sees all lives, ours included, as manifestations of a drive. Biological drives were prominent in the science of his day, and they played an important role in his thought from the beginning. Their full significance, though, is best seen in his 1798 System of Ethics, the most important of his early texts and a gateway to his later, more metaphysical ones.

His discussion relies, surprisingly, on a kind of theoretical biology, using the notion of drives to develop and enliven Kant’s thoughts on the subject. Organisms act to maintain their integrity, through feeding, self-defense, and so on. And since all of their acts respond to the actions of other living beings, all life is linked together in an incessant flow of activity from being to being. Instead of a competitive struggle among independent agents, Fichte sees the reciprocal movements of a drive to shape and to allow oneself to be shaped. This universal drive can take the form of competition for resources or mates, or cooperation for nutrition, defense, pleasure, or the raising of young; its back-and-forth flow constitutes an organic whole, interwoven in a “meshwork” of lines, as anthropologist Tim Ingold calls it, where lives are laid down in the living and each individual manifestation has intention and agency but no fixed essence.

We are animals, too, and we act, no less than they do, from the reciprocal movement of this drive. But we do something more. We claim a place outside that process. We make ourselves into subjects. We see ourselves at one remove from everything and everyone else, able to pick and choose our ends and our means. We posit our selves, which in Fichte’s German implies that we place ourselves in front of ourselves, which is the first step in becoming self-conscious.

We are selves only when we imagine ourselves as separate individuals; if we did not do this, there would be neither subjects nor objects. And if we were merely thinking beings, and not agents, we would experience no self and no world; we know and see objects by their resistance or response to our acts, so trying to change the world is what brings it to life. (In Fichte’s words, no striving, no object.) Yet, through those same acts we strive to reunite ourselves with the not-self. Each individual life constantly moves towards the world and the community that it pulls away from.

Fichte chooses a jarringly violent term for this bootstrapping. The self, he writes, tears itself away from itself. And this is an internal violence, because no act can ever really remove us from the drives and the “lower capacity of desire.” We are still always acting to form and to be formed, to separate and to join together. Yet our self-consciousness is not entirely an illusion, because it gives us unique access to another aspect of the universal drive.

Other animals embody the dance of life and death with matchless grace, and they are fully present in each moment, but they cannot lift their eyes above the horizon. We can. In the space opened up by our imagined withdrawal we find the world to be a morally ordered whole. Fichte identifies this with the divine, but it can also be naturalized as the implicit logic of the totality, which is always and ever towards spontaneous and unconstrained creation and interaction. The universal drive is a drive towards freedom, which can be realized only if all are free. And since Fichte is a Kantian (if a sui generis one), freedom and morality are inextricably intertwined. What we find within ourselves as a “higher capacity of desire” is a universal movement towards the good.

How this works as a theory of ethics—and it does—can only be hinted at in this essay. For Fichte, each ethical act unites both aspects of the drive, fulfilling our biological needs at the same time as it furthers the liberatory impetus of the whole. The specific feeling of this harmony is how conscience manifests itself, speaking through the flesh rather than through some disembodied inner voice. And every such act frees ourselves and others, not into a preconceived better world but into a conversation of word and deed in which selves and world—which are our own collective creations—are made and remade anew.

This vision is deeply embodied and is just as deeply social. One of Fichte’s greatest contributions may be this turn from contemplation to action, from the stance of a disembodied observer and interpreter of reality to that of a committed participant in the task of realizing the moral image of the world, making it genuinely rational—not ruled by a logical system, but, as Dieter Henrich says, embodying “a rationality that, without a fundamental orientation towards the contents of the world or toward eternally fixed, given rules, spontaneously generates ways of organizing thought and the dynamics of rational life.”  The problems of philosophy are not to be resolved in thinking or writing but in the creation of a just and egalitarian society, and in the selfless cultivation of morality that leads, beyond politics and even beyond words, to a vision of a single life which “leaps and dances as spontaneous activity in the animal, and manifests itself in each new form as a new, peculiar, self-subsisting world: – the same power which, invisibly to me, moves and animates my own frame.” [ii]

Passages like these inspired Deleuze. Others anticipate Marx’s early writings as much as anything in Hegel. Even Fichte’s biology is fruitful, as an influence on autopoietic cognitive science. But his importance goes farther, and deeper. He never showed any interest in non-Western thinking, but he mounted a powerful internal critique of the guiding ideas and unconsidered assumptions of Western thought. His “non-narcissistic anthropology,” to use Goddard’s words, points beyond the aporias of the European tradition, the oppositions of self and other, individual and society, and subject and object; as many Chinese, Indic, and indigenous practices do, it shows these to be inevitable but insubstantial consequences of the making of self-consciousness. To read and “become” the Wissenschaftslehre releases us from their spell, and it frees us into a genuinely transformative and non-Eurocentric politics. It has much to teach us still.


[i] Henrich, Dieter. “The French Revolution and German Philosophy,” in Aesthetic Judgment and the Moral Image of the World (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), 91.

[ii] Fichte, Johann Gottlieb, tr. William Smith. “The Vocation of Man,” in Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s Popular Works (London: Trübner, 1873), 376.