Johann Gottlieb Fichte

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
8 min readMay 19, 2023
Johann Gottlieb Fichte (19 May 1762–29 January 1814)

Today is the 261st 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 known 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 (1792). Many believed that Kant had written this work, so when Kant disclaimed authorship and identified Fichte as the actual author, Fichte experienced the philosophical equivalent of being an overnight sensation.

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 this way of construing his behavior may be more of a reflection of our own time than an accurate window into Fichte’s time. Fichte became embroiled in a controversy in German intellectual life remembered as the Atheismusstriet, or Atheism Controversy. This was the occasion of Jacobi publishing an open letter against Fichte in which Jacobi created the term “nihilism” to describe what he took to be Fichte’s position.

Fichte’s controversial stance created a problem for the authorities at the University of Jena. Fichte wouldn’t budge (hence 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, and eventually became part of the philosophical scene in Berlin, where he 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 Kantian to the masses. Eventually he was appointed a professor again at Erlangen in 1806.

Like many philosophers of the time, he supported the ideals of the French Revolution, but came to see it in a different light after the Terror and the Napoleonic Wars. 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. In the twentieth century this work was savaged by George Santayana (in his book Egoism in German Philosophy) and others, who saw Fichte’s work through the lens of the wars of their time (the world wars of the twentieth century) rather than through the lens of the wars of Fichte’s time (the Napoleonic Wars). Fichte knew that he was putting his life on the line by publicly speaking out against the French, as he referenced the fate of Johann Philipp Palm, who was shot on 26 August 1806 on Napoleon’s orders because this book store had sold a pamphlet critical of the French.

Fichte, then, 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, insofar as 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 The 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.”

In a passage from Some Lectures Concerning the Scholar’s Vocation (Second Lecture), Fichte makes explicit the a priori developmental history of humanity while at the same time presenting a utopian picture of the 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 Perpetual Peace. One can gain a sense from this passage of Fichte’s early sympathy for the French Revolution, which was utopian in its aims while being dystopian in its outcome. Also, 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. 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.

Further Resources


Picardi, R. (2013). The “Guiding Thread” of Universal History: Kant’s Legacy in Fichte’s Philosophy of History.

Nuzzo, A. (2019). Fichte’s Philosophy of History: Between A Priori Foundation and Material Development. The Palgrave Fichte Handbook, 373–394.

Reichl, P. (2021). The Role of First Principles in Fichte’s Philosophy of History. In The Enigma of Fichte’s First Principles (pp. 288–308). Brill.

Serrano-Marín, V. (2020). Ethics, history and philosophy of history in Fichte. Discusiones Filosóficas, 21(36), 105–121.