Fichte on the Highest Good: Agent Unity and Practical Deliberation in the Jena Sittenlehre

By Crowe, Benjamin D. | Philosophy Today, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Fichte on the Highest Good: Agent Unity and Practical Deliberation in the Jena Sittenlehre


Crowe, Benjamin D., Philosophy Today


While the primary occupation of scholars remains the explication of foundational issues in the Wissenschafislehre, Fichte's moral philosophy has also begun to receive the sort of attention that it deserves.1

Fichte is no longer regarded as simply an over-zealous follower of Kant, and has come to be appreciated as an original thinker in his own right. His originality has not, however, been universally recognized or properly understood in the domain of moral philosophy. In his recent Schiller as Philosopher, Frederick C. Beiser expUcates and defends Schiller's own criticism of Fichte as a hyper-Kantian rationalist who excludes natural drives and individuality from the domain of legitimate moral ends. In this essay, I take Beiser's discussion as a starting point for a reassessment of the subtleties and originaUty of Fichte's position.

My argument proceeds in the following stages. First, I argue that, pace Beiser, Fichte does not actually hold the sort of moral ultrarationalism attributed to him by Schiller. Following a brief discussion of the Kantian background to Fichte's moral philosophy, I show that he rejects this ultra-rationalism because it violates the requirements of moral agency, and so furnishes agents with aims that they cannot coherently pursue. Adapting the formal structure of Kant's "highest good" in his own way, Fichte presents what he calls a "real" ethics as an alternative to both rationalism and naturalism. Fichte's overriding concern in both instances is with agent unity, with the harmonization of the two sides of our Uves as moral agents, viz., sensibiUty and rationaUty. This is a concern that runs deep in Fichte's entire philosophical enterprise, and which accounts, among other things, for a largely overlooked aspect of his enthusiasm for F. H. Jacobi's works. This unity or harmonization is what Fichte calls the "highest good." This concern also leads him to adopt a kind of coherence theory of practical deliberation.

Beiser's Fichte

Frederick C. Beiser's latest monograph, Schiller as Philosopher, presents a vigorous argument for the distinctiveness of Schiller's often neglected place in classical German philosophy, as well as for the strengths of Schiller's position. Beiser largely succeeds in giving Schiller back his own philosophical voice in the momentous debates on moraUty and aesthetics that occurred in the 1780s and 1790s. In addition to carefully analyzing Schiller's intellectual development and distinctive views, Beiser also illustrates Schiller's importance by contrasting his views with those of his most famous contemporaries. Given his influence on Schiller, Kant obviously figures large in this story. So, too, does Fichte, with whom Schiller had a difficult relationship.

Beiser carefully documents and explicates the influence of some of Fichte's early Jenaperiod writings on Schiller. However, he also stresses the way in which Schiller's assertion of the intrinsic value of individuality contrasts with Fichte's position.2 He further argues that Schiller's distinctive concept of "culture [Bildung]" is meant, at least impUcitly, as a corrective to the excessive rationalism of philosophers Uke Fichte who seem to downplay the importance of sensibility to human personality and moral life.3 As he makes clear, Beiser's primary concern is to correct the received view of Schiller's famous Ästhetische Briefe as a bald appropriation of Fichte's ideas, devoid of any substantive modification or disagreement.4 According to Beiser, SchiUer specifically takes issue with the concept of culture advanced in Fichte's own famous Einige Vorlesungen über the Bestimmung des Gelehrten (1794), where "Fichte teaches that the goal of culture is to develop our rationaUty to such an extent that all individuaUty disappears and we become one single infinite being."5 Fichtean "culture" therefore seems to entail the suppression natural drives and of sensibility. Beiser summarizes the point in the following passage:

These differences between Schiller and Fichte are so evident for any careful reader of Fichte's Die Bestimmung des Gelehrten that it is possible to to [sic] see an implicit polemic against Fichte in several passages of the Ästhetische Briefe. …

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