Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Two Hundred Years of Solitude: The Failed Reception of Fichte's System of Ethics

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Two Hundred Years of Solitude: The Failed Reception of Fichte's System of Ethics

Article excerpt

Of all the works that Fichte himself saw to publication, the System of Ethics, which first appeared in installments beginning in December 1797 and was completely published at the end of March 1798, probably has received the least attention and has been the least influential of his major writings. In its reception and effective history Fichte's systematic treatment of moral philosophy always has been eclipsed by his companion work on the philosophy of right, the Foundation of Natural Right from 1796/97. Moreover, his ethics has been overshadowed by the keen philosophical interest and the initial and ongoing attention bestowed on the first and only presentation of Fichte's core philosophy pubUshed during his lifetime, the Foundation of the Entire Wissenschaftslehre from 1794/95.

The lack of attention that the System of Ethics received upon its first publication certainly is to a large extent due to the situation at the time. For one, the work had to share the stage soon after its appearance with Kant's treatment of ethics pubUshed the same year, viz., the "Metaphysical First Principles of the Doctrine of Virtue" from The Metaphysics of Morals. Moreover, within a period of six montiis after the publication of Fichte's ethics the eruption of the so-called atheism dispute drew the attention of the philosophical public to Fichte's views in the philosophy of religion and to his apologetic and justificatory writings in this matter. With the loss of his professorship in Jena in early April of 1799, the ensuing move to BerUn and the beginning of his practice to limit the publication of his scientific work in philosophy to oral presentation, Fichte soon vanished from the horizon of the contemporary philosophical readership and its ongoing discussions, in which he only remained present through his earlier writings from the Jena period and through his BerUn lectures series in the popular style on the philosophy of history, culture, and reUgion (1806-08).

It was not until the posthumous edition of the Berlin presentations of the Wissenschaftslehre through his son, Immanuel Hermann Fichte-first the Posthumous Works (1834/35) and then the Complete Works (1845/46) - that a firm basis was provided for an adequate estimation and appreciation of Fichte's entire body of work and its philosophical evaluation and critical discussion. That discussion and evaluation first occurred in the context of the neo-Kantianism at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries and found its continuation and first apex in German and French research on Fichte in the 1920s and 30s (Baumgartner 1968, 122-25; Fichte 1963, 402-08).

During the past five decades the publication of the Bavarian Academy Edition of Fichte's Complete Works (Fichte 1962-), which has been appearing in chronological order and is scheduled to be completed in the next few years, has reinvigorated the historical and systematic study of Fichte's work on an international scale. In the process, the System of Ethics, too, has received increased attention in German, Italian, French, and Spanish research on Fichte, though for the most part in the form of journal articles on individual themes and aspects of this work.

The comparatively little attention that Fichte's System of Ethics has enjoyed is due not only to the problematic reception and effective history of Fichte's philosophy in general but perhaps is also occasioned by the peculiar character of this particular work. For in it Fichte did not present an ethics that could be regarded and treated in separation from the other part of his oeuvre. Rather Fichte had integrated the presentation of his ethics into a comprehensively conceived theory of subjectivity, more precisely a theory of active, practical subjectivity - based on his ambitious encompassing philosophical program of a radically integrated new presentation of philosophy and its various discipUnes erected on the principlefs of subjectivity ("I"). …

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