Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought, 1790-1800

By Frederick C. Beiser | Go to book overview

3
PHILOSOPHY AND POLITICS IN J. G. FICHTE'S 1794 WISSENSCHAFTSLEHRE

3.1. Fichte's Historical Significance

The task of resolving the tensions in Kant's political thought fell to his most renowned disciple, Johann Gottlieb Fichte ( 1762-1814). All the radicalism latent in Kant's thought burst forth in Fichte's early political philosophy. 1 Fichte embraced the fundamental principles of Kant's political theory, but he never compromised them by bowing to the status quo. Rather, he radicalized them, pushing them to their final conclusions. Thus he used Kant's concept of autonomy to justify the right of revolution; he appealed to Kant's social contract doctrine to defend the right of a people to change its constitution; and he invoked Kant's ideal of the unity of theory and practice to demand direct and immediate political action. Like Kant, Fichte insisted that the principles of morality are absolutely binding in politics; but, unlike Kant, he denied that we can expect Providence to overcome the gap between theory and practice for us. Rather, he stressed that we can surmount the gap only by taking our fate in our own hands and engaging in political activity. In sum, Fichte wanted not to console Lampe but to liberate him.

Nowhere is Fichte's radicalization of Kant more apparent than in his early epistemology. Fichte took Kant's critique of hypostasis to its radical conclusion. It was the chief aim of Fichte's 1794 Wissenschaftslehre to remove the last vestiges of hypostasis still clinging to the Kantian system. Hence Fichte insisted that we eliminate the thing-in-itself as the cause of experience; he stressed that the highest good is not a heaven beyond earth but only an ideal to be realized on it; and he argued that the noumenal self is not an entity existing prior to self-consciousness but only the activity of coming to self-consciousness. In Fichte, no less than in Kant, the critique of hypostasis is motivated by a political end: the removal of human self- enslavement. But Fichte argued that Kant failed to realize this ideal by introducing new transcendent entities into his philosophy. It was only by eliminating these entities, Fichte believed, that the critical philosophy could

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