J. G. Fichte and a priori Providentialism

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
17 min readMay 20, 2024

Sunday 19 May 2024 is the 262nd anniversary of the birth of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (19 May 1762–29 January 1814), who was born in Rammenau, Saxony, then part of the Holy Roman Empire, on this day in 1762.

Fichte is often remembered in histories of philosophy as an immediate successor to Kant in the German idealist tradition. While still a young man Fichte wrote and anonymously published Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation. This was in 1792 when Fichte was 30 years old. Many believed that Kant had written this work, given Kant’s earlier critiques of pure reason, practical reason, and judgment, so when Kant denied authorship and identified Fichte as the actual author, Fichte experienced the philosophical equivalent of being an overnight sensation.

But Fichte’s life was an unsheltered as Kant’s life was sheltered. He was a born trouble-maker and was willing to touch the third rail of Enlightenment politics by writing and speaking openly about matters of religion, as revealed by his work on revelation. Fichte is sometimes called inflexible and rigid, though we could also say (a little more charitably) that he was principled and not inclined to compromise. Partly as a result of this temperament, Fichte became embroiled in a controversy in German intellectual life remembered as the Atheismusstriet, or Atheism Controversy.

During this controversy Friedrich Jacobi published an open letter against Fichte in which Jacobi coined the term “nihilism” to describe what he took to be Fichte’s position:

“Truly, my dear Fichte, I would not be vexed if you, or anyone else, were to call Chimerism the view I oppose to the Idealism that I chide for Nihilism. I have paraded my not-knowing in all my writings; in my non-knowledge I have prided myself so to be with knowledge, so perfectly and completely, that I am certainly allowed to be contemptuous of the mere doubter. — I have wrestled for truth with zeal and fervour since childhood as few others; as few others have I experienced my powerlessness — and my heart has grown tender for that — yea, very tender, my dear Fichte — and my voice so gentle! Just as I have deep compassion for myself, as human being, so I have it for others. I am patient without effort; but that I am truly patient without effort costs me a lot. The earth will be light above me — it won’t be long.”

Nihilism was to go on to have quite a career as an idea after Jacobi’s letter. While for Jacobi, the nihilism he attributed to Fichte was the inevitable outcome of reason, nihilism did not remain centered on Jacobi’s critique of Kantian philosophy, but came to signify belief in nothing at all.

Fichte’s controversial stance created a problem for the authorities at the University of Jena, where Fichte was employed at the time. Fichte wouldn’t budge, and this was one of the episodes responsible for his reputation for inflexibility, so the University of Jena dismissed him in 1799. At this point, with little to his name and few prospects, Fichte walked from Jena to Berlin — Google Maps says it takes 55 hours to complete this walk — and eventually he became part of the philosophical scene in Berlin.

Fichte attempted, semi-successfully, to support himself with popular books and lectures. For a philosopher coming from a background of Kantian philosophy — the most technical philosophy of its day — this was a bold project, but he gamely attempted to bring his interpretation of Kantianism to the masses. One of the outcomes of this effort was Fichte’s short book The Vocation of Man (1800). Fichte’s academic work was riddled with jargon, but The Vocation of Man is written in plain language and was intended for a popular audience. However, it’s still a demanding philosophical argument. In it, Fichte articulated a conception of human destiny that is universalistic, rationalistic, teleological, and even infinitistic:

“Let us not ask of history if man, on the whole, have yet become purely moral. To a more extended, comprehensive, energetic freedom he has certainly attained; but hitherto it has been an almost necessary result of his position, that this freedom has been applied chiefly to evil purposes. Neither let us ask whether the aesthetic and intellectual culture of the ancient world, concentrated on a few points, may not have excelled in degree that of modern times! It might happen that we should receive a humiliating answer, and that in this respect the human race has not advanced, but rather seemed to retrograde, in its riper years. But let us ask of history at what period the existing culture has been most widely diffused, and distributed among the greatest number of individuals; and we shall doubtless find that from the beginning of history down to our own day, the few light-points of Civilization have spread themselves abroad from their centre, that one individual after another, and one nation after another, has been embraced within their circle, and that this wider outspread of culture is proceeding under our own eyes. And this is the first point to be attained in the endless path on which humanity must advance.”

Notice that Fichte implies a distinction between two kinds of progress: there is progress toward the highest degree of excellence, and here humanity may have backslid, but there is also progress toward broadly distributed high culture, and here Fichte thinks that his time definitely surpassed previous history. Fichte also says that progress, by which he means moral progress, is an endless path, and we have already seen that it is possible for humanity to experience retrograde moral progress, so the pathway to man becoming purely moral, as Fichte sees it, is endless, it can incorporate reversals, and it can be striving to new heights or to wider diffusion.

This and many other passages point to the infinite perfectibility of man, which shows us the extent to which Fichte had imbibed the ideals of the French Revolution — or, we might say, he had imbibed the ideals of the French philosophers who were instrumental in laying the foundations of the French revolution, and were later arguably co-opted by the revolution, as in the case of Condorcet, who wrote this paean to the infinite perfectibility of man while on the run from the revolutionary gendarme. But the infinite perfectibility of man as Fichte imagines it is a teleology with a real history: things can go wrong, we can get sidetracked, we might pursue one form of moral excellence or another, and so on.

And Fichte also transmuted the French concept of the infinite perfectibility of man in the image of German idealism, producing a kind of philosophical spiritualism. Part of this transmutation of ideals came about because of the direction that Fichte saw the French revolution take as it developed. Many philosophers at the time initially supported the ideals of the French Revolution, but came to see it in a different light after the Terror and the Napoleonic Wars. Fichte as well.

Seeking to rally his countrymen after defeats inflicted by Napoleon, Fichte gave a series of public lectures later published as Addresses to the German Nation. This was more than a half century before the unification of Germany as a nation-state. In the twentieth century this work was savaged by George Santayana in his book Egotism in German Philosophy, which I mentioned in my episode on Wars and Rumors of Wars. Santayana called Fichte “an uncompromising puritan” and in Santayana’s fever dream of German expansionism he imagined Fichte as the source of it all:

“…Fichte gives us prophetic glimpses of an idealistic Germany conquering the world. The state does not aim at self-preservation, still less is it concerned to come to the aid of those members of the human family that lag behind the movement of the day. The dominion of unorganised physical force must be abolished by a force obedient to reason and spirit. True life consists in refashioning human relations after a model innate in the mind. The glorious destiny of Germany is to bring forth and establish the world anew. Natural freedom is a disgraceful thing, a mere medley of sensual and intellectual impulses without any principle of order. It is for the Germans to decide whether a providential progress exists by becoming themselves the providence that shall bring progress about, or whether on the contrary every higher thought is folly. If they should fail, history would never blame them, for in that case there would be no more history.”

Many others also have seen Fichte’s work through the lens of the wars of their time, which were the world wars of the twentieth century, rather than through the lens of the wars of Fichte’s time, which were the Napoleonic Wars.

Fichte knew that he was putting his life on the line by publicly speaking out against the French, as he at one time referenced the fate of Johann Philipp Palm. Palm, a book seller, was connected to a pamphlet, Germany in Its Deep Humiliation (Deutschland in seiner tiefsten Erniedrigung), that angered Napoleon. Napoleon ordered his subordinates to try and execute Palm within twenty-four hours. Palm was tried on 26 August 1806 by a French military tribunal, found guilty, and shot within hours of the verdict. Four other book sellers also were tried were not executed. Fichte knew that the same thing could happen to him in publicly speaking out on behalf of the German people. We can see from incidents such as this that Fichte was in the thick of the history of his own time, sometimes riding the wave and sometimes making waves.

Roberta Picardi notes both the derivation and dependence of Fichte’s views from Kant, as well as Fichte’s divergence from Kant:

“Fichte explores the epistemic status and method of history with an aim which is clearly taken from Kant: the purpose of introducing a systematic and scientific method in the infinite field of the empiricism, of which history is a part, together with experimental physics. As we can read in The Characteristics of the Present Age he wants to obtain ‘a sure progress according to rule instead of an uncertain groping in the dark’ from history, i. e., instead of the ‘Herumptappen’ (this is the German word for ‘groping’) that in the second Preface to the Critique of Pure Reason Kant contrasts with the ‘secure path of a science’.”

But the secure path of science isn’t always all that secure, given that there are multiple scientific pathways, and not all pathways lead to the same end. This is the distinction within Fichte’s philosophy of history noted by Angelica Nuzzo:

“Fichte builds his idea of a philosophy of history upon a paradoxical argument. He pushes to the extreme the claim of the bare factual nature of history as a realm of irrational, not-conceptual, and thoroughly contingent reality. Yet he also maintains that philosophical knowledge of history is possible — although neither as deductive, nor conceptual, nor genetic knowledge. Against the fictitious notion of historical Wahrscheinlichkeit (plausibility, probability), Fichte holds on to the notion of ‘historical truth’ and to its ‘logic.’ Despite its radically empirical character, history can be construed a priori.”

Some of the flavor of Fichte’s a priori approach to history can be gained from his primary work on the philosophy of history Characteristics of the Present Age (Der Grundzüge des gegewärtigen Zeitalters, 1806), in which he decomposes history into Five Principal Epochs, based not on historical contingencies, but rather upon human destiny and moral development:

“…we endeavoured to pre-figure the whole Earthly Life of Man by a comprehension of its purpose; — to perceive why our Race had to begin its Existence here, and by this means to describe the whole present Life of humankind: — this is what we wished to do, — it was our first task. There are, according to this view, Five Principal Epochs of Earthly Life, each of which, although taking its rise in the life of the individual, must yet, in order to become an Epoch in the Life of the Race, gradually lay hold of and interpenetrate all Men; and to that end must endure throughout long periods of time, so that the great Whole of Life is spread out into Ages, which sometimes seem to cross, sometimes to run parallel with each other: — 1st, The Epoch of the unlimited dominion of Reason as Instinct: — the State of Innocence of the Human Race. 2nd, The Epoch in which Reason as Instinct is changed into an external ruling Authority; — the Age of positive Systems of life and doctrine, which never go back to their ultimate foundations, and hence have no power to convince but on the contrary merely desire to compel, and which demand blind faith and unconditional obedience: — the State of progressive Sin. 3rd, The Epoch of Liberation, — directly from the external ruling Authority — indirectly from the power of Reason as Instinct, and generally from Reason in any form; — the Age of absolute indifference towards all truth, and of entire and unrestrained licentiousness: — the State of completed Sinfulness. 4th, The Epoch of Reason as Knowledge; — the Age in which Truth is looked upon as the highest, and loved before all other things: — the State of progressive Justification. 5th, The Epoch of Reason as Art; — the Age in which Humanity with more sure and unerring hand builds itself up into a fitting image and representative of Reason: — the State of completed Justification and Sanctification. Thus, the whole progress which, upon this view, Humanity makes here below, is only a retrogression to the point on which it stood at first, and has nothing in view save that return to its original condition. But Humanity must make this journey on its own feet; by its own strength it must bring itself back to that state in which it was once before without its own coöperation, and which, for that very purpose, it must first of all leave.”

We can call Fichte’s Five Principal Epochs a “stadial” philosophy of history, since “stadial” refers to stages. In this passage we gain an appreciation of the necessity of the five stages of history as a developmental process that cannot be gotten around: there is no royal road to the end of the history.

In the Second Lecture from Fichte’s Some Lectures Concerning the Scholar’s Vocation, he makes explicit both the a priori developmental history of humanity and the utopian picture of the ultimate end of human development:

“…a very great man has said, life in the state is not one of man’s absolute aims. The state is, instead, only a means for establishing a perfect society, a means which exists only under specific circumstances. Like all those human institutions which are mere means, the state aims at abolishing itself. The goal of all government is to make government superfluous. Though the time has certainly not yet come, nor do I know how many myriads or myriads of myriads of years it may take (here we are not at all concerned with applicability in life, but only with justifying a speculative proposition), there will certainly be a point in the a priori foreordained career of the human species when all civic bonds will become superfluous.”

The editor says in a footnote that the “great man” mentioned was probably an allusion to Kant’s Idea of History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View. We saw in my episode on Kant how Kant saw the teleology of humanity as establishing the perfect civil constitution, though I also speculated that, if we take Kant’s later writings on history in the context of his early pre-critical work on natural history, this Kantian teleology for humanity is nested within a larger cosmological teleology. By my reading, then, Kant is actually the more naturalistic position, while Fichte is the more anthropocentric, and his ideal is a purely spiritual ideal, even an a priori idea. For example, Fichte isn’t in the least interested to even give an estimate of the period of time that will be required for humanity to abolish all government, but he only points out that this is the ultimate end.

Marx also predicted the withering away of the state after communism had been achieved, and Marx, too, emphasized definite stages in human development that would lead to this outcome. With Kant, Fichte, and Marx all predicting the end of formal human governments we might take this prediction as a distinctive feature of a certain class of philosophies of history. Toynbee, too, saw not exactly the end of the state, but the end of universal civilizations, which would cede their place to universal churches, which sounds to me a lot like Kant, Fichte, and Marx anticipating the ultimate abolition of government in a perfect society.

This we can understand as a kind of inverse teleology, in which it is not (or not only) the advent of some future eventuality that is foreseen, but the abolition of some present state-of-affairs in the future as the goal of human development. For Kant, Fichte, Marx, and Toynbee, there is a dual teleological movement, in which some novel state-of-affairs is to unfold, while a present state of affairs is to give way and disappear as the new order comes to replace it. We could call this a stadial philosophy of history, but it is as much a substitutional philosophy of history: one social order is substituted for another; familiar institutions are to be replaced by novel institutions that take their place.

As far as the new institutions are expected to be an improvement over the old, this is also a melioristic philosophy of history. All progressivist philosophies of history are also melioristic, but we can distinguish between gradualistic meliorism, in which iterated reform eventually converges on a perfect society, which could be a finite or an infinitistic process, and stadial meliorism, in which there is a replacement rather than reform of a social order, and this replacement is an improvement.

For a non-stadial, non-teleological philosophy of history, we can turn to Leopold von Ranke, who was critical of Fichte’s five epochs:

“One of the ideas with which philosophy again and again confronts history as an irrefutable claim is that mankind is on an uninterrupted road to progress, in a steady development toward perfection. Fichte, one of the foremost philosophers in this field, assumes five epochs, a world plan as he says — reason ruling through instinct, reason ruling through law, emancipation from the authority of reason, reason as science, and reason as art. If this or a similar scheme were to any extent true, then general history would have to follow the road of progress which the human race followed in the indicated direction from one age to the next. The sole subject matter of history would then be the development of such concepts as they appear and manifest themselves in the world of phenomena. But this is by no means the case. For one thing, the philosophers themselves have extraordinarily varied opinions about the nature and selection of these supposedly ruling ideas. But they very wisely focus only on a few peoples in world history while considering the lives of all the rest as nothing, as a mere supplement. Otherwise it could not be hidden for a moment that from the beginning to this day the peoples of the world have been in the most varied conditions.”

We saw earlier that Fichte by no means argued for an uninterrupted road to progress, but we can set that aside as being of secondary importance. The antagonism between Fichte and Ranke runs deeper. Ranke is often associated with the emergence of historicism, and sometimes he is identified as the source of historicism. Ranke even was willing to express his historicism in theological terms when we said that all ages are equidistant from God. With this view of history as consisting of co-equal periods each with their own integrity it would be difficult, though not impossible, to argue for progress. In Characteristics of the Present Age Fichte rejects the view that an age can be assessed on its own terms:

“Should our view of the Present Age prove to have been a view taken from the standing-point of this Age itself, should the eye which has taken this view have been itself a product of the Age which it has surveyed, then has the Age borne witness to itself and such testimony must be set aside.”

Fichte, then, needs some criterion for his view of the present age other than the present age itself, and he finds it in religion:

“…what has been the nature of this theory, considered in its essential elements, and to what chief department of human thought it has belonged? I answer: — It was a Religious Theory; all our contemplations were Religious contemplations, and our view of things, and the eye which embraced that view, were Religious.”

Fichte goes one better and actually gives a definition of religion in the next paragraph:

“RELIGION consists in regarding and recognising all Earthly Life as a necessary development of the one, original, perfectly good and perfectly blessed Divine Life.”

Both Ranke and Fichte, then, invoke theological sanction for their conception of history, though this conception is starkly different, with Ranke taking each age to be sufficient unto itself, and no less related to the divine than any other age, while Fichte took each age to be dependent upon a larger framework for its meaning. While Ranke the historian insists on the individual uniqueness of each age, while Fichte the philosopher sees each age in relation to the whole of which it is a part. It is the task of Fichte’s Characteristics of the Present Age to provide for his contemporaries this larger framework so that they can understand their place in history, which for Fichte means understanding their place in the moral development of humanity.

Even Fichte’s conception of religion and moral development is strikingly abstract, as we find a little further on in the last chapter of Characteristics of the Present Age: “…Religion is nothing external, — it never clothes itself in any outward manifestation.” And, “…True Religion does not manifest itself outwardly, and does not impel man to any course of external conduct which he would not otherwise have adopted, but that it only completes his true Inward Being and dignity.” This is not necessary an orthodox position, and we’ve already seen how Fichte got himself in trouble with authorities with his views on religion.

It would seem strange to call Fichte’s philosophy of history a providential philosophy of history, as it seems to have little in common with, say, St. Augustine, but by Fichte’s own account, his is a pervasively religious perspective, and his philosophy of history is an account of humanity’s progress toward moral perfection. This progress is a purely inward fulfillment, without any observational consequences, again, by Fichte’s own account. I’ve run into this view in one other thinker, and that is Simone Weil. In my episode on Weil I quoted her criticism of providentialism of a kind that I called vulgar providentialism:

“Divine Providence is not a disturbing influence, an anomaly in the ordering of the world; it is itself the order of the world; or rather it is the regulating principle of this universe. It is eternal Wisdom, unique, spread across the whole universe in a sovereign network of relations.”

I think Fichte would have agreed with this, and with the examples of both Fichte and Weil we can see that there is a place within the conceptual space of philosophy of history for what we could call a pure providential philosophy of history, or, if you like, an a priori providentialism.

Ranke’s criticism of Fichte is predicated upon the necessity of a vulgar providentialism that is reflected in the empirical world. But if, as Fichte said, religion is nothing external, and it does not impel man to any course of external conduct, neither should it impel any course of external conduct on the world. This also resolves the paradoxical argument that Angelica Nuzzo found at the heart of Fichte’s philosophy of history, since the bare factual nature of history can be distinguished from the providentialism that can be construed a priori.