J. G. Fichte: Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812)

Carsten Fogh Nielsen

Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812) Book Cover Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812)
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Translated, edited and with an introduction by Benjamin D. Crowe
SUNY Press
Paperback $26.95

Reviewed by: Carsten Fogh Nielsen (Department of Education, Aarhus University)

The first phenomenologist?

Recent years have seen a growing interest in the works of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) among English-speaking philosophers. New and reliable translations of Fichte’s major works from the so-called Jena-period (the years between 1794-1800 when Fichte was employed at the University in Jena) and of his subsequent writings and unpublished manuscripts from his years in Berlin (the period from Fichte’s dismissal from Jena in 1800 to his death in 1814) have made his philosophy available to a different and broader audience than previously. Furthermore the tireless work of especially Daniel Breazeale, who have translated and written about Fichte in English for many years, has done much to dispel traditional misinterpretations and misgivings about Fichte’s philosophy.

Though Fichte is not yet (and may never be) as well-known or respected among English-speaking philosophers as e.g. Kant and Hegel, his reputation today is far better than it was just 15 or 20 years ago. Fichte is no longer viewed as merely a transitory figure within the development from Kant to Hegel, or as a radical subjective idealist who subscribes to the implausible idea the world is nothing but a projection of the human mind, but as an important and influential philosopher in his own right. In a recent book Allen Wood even goes so far as to claim that Fichte “is the most original figure in the development of post-Kantian German idealism. In fact, Fichte is the most influential single figure on the entire tradition of continental European philosophy in the last two centuries”. According to Wood most, if not all, distinctive ideas within the continental tradition can thus plausibly be traced back to Fichte (Wood 2016, Preface).

One does not necessarily have to agree with Wood in order to acknowledge the importance and influence of Fichte on the development of post-Kantian and continental European philosophy. One important, but also neglected and somewhat obscure, aspect of Fichte’s influence, is his role in the development of phenomenology as a distinct and significant philosophical approach. As is well-known there are strong links between modern-day phenomenology in the tradition from Husserl and Heidegger, and the philosophy of Kant and Hegel, although there is little agreement on the precise nature of these links. On the one hand Kant and Hegel are historical figures which phenomenologists often explicitly seek to somehow transcend or move beyond. On the other hand Kant, and perhaps in particular Hegel, presents a view of the relation between mind and world which seems to open up the possibility of, perhaps even invite, a phenomenological interpretation.

The importance (be it positive or negative) of Kant and Hegel for the development of contemporary phenomenology is thus often explicitly acknowledged. Fichte’s contribution to this development on the other hand is most commonly either ignored or simply overlooked. However a number of philosophers have recently begun to emphasize the inherent phenomenological character of much of Fichte’s work. Tom Rockmore for instance has argued that Fichte’s reformulation of Kant’s Copernican Revolution makes three important contributions which subsequently influenced the development of phenomenology: 1) a decisive elimination of the thing in itself; 2) a revisionary account of the subject; and finally 3) an incipient turn to history. (Rockmore 2006). According to Rockmore the first point leads to a theory of knowledge based on phenomena, not on appearance; the second point heralds a philosophical anthropology of human finitude incompatible with Kant’s strict anti-psychologism and the third point implies a conception of human beings, and thus also of human knowledge, which sees them as situated within and limited by their historical context.

For Rockmore Fichte’s main contribution to the development of phenomenology thus consists in his radical reformulation of certain basic Kantian presuppositions; reformulations which indirectly “opens the way for phenomenology understood as a science of phenomena that are not appearances since they give up any claim to represent things in themselves or again the mind-independent reality.” (Rockmore 2006, p. 24). Fichte may not have been a phenomenologist himself, but he paved the way for subsequent philosophical developments which ultimately resulted in the full-blown phenomenological theories of the 20th century.

There is however good reasons to think that Rockmore does not go far enough in his reassessment of Fichte’s phenomenological credentials. Most of Fichte’s work thus has an implicitly phenomenological character in so far as it is concerned with detailed analyses of the relation between human mindedness and the way certain phenomena necessarily must appear to human consciousness. For Fichte, as for later phenomenologists, world, phenomena and mind are necessarily and inextricably intertwined and the primary tasks of the philosopher is to reflect upon and describe the intricate operations and activities of the human mind through which these dependencies and relationships are simultaneously constituted and become apparent to us. This (at the very least proto-)phenomenological approach can, to some extent or another, be found already in Fichte’s major work from the 1790’s (Science of Knowledge(1794/95); Foundations of Natural Right (1795-96) and The System of Ethics (1798)), but seems to become more prominent and distinctive in his later, post-Jena writings.

One clear example of this approach can be found in Fichte’s notes for his final series of lectures on his system of ethics from 1812, which have recently been translated into English by Benjamin Crowe. As Crowe notes in his ‘Editor’s Introduction’ to Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812) Fichte himself explicitly views his own account of moral normativity as a form of phenomenology (p. xx). More precisely Fichte believes that in order to account for the “ought” of morality we first need “a theory of appearance of the true and real I; a theory of the I, hence, a phenomenology that, since previously we were dealing with a theory of being, is nevertheless an absolute phenomenology, not simply a phenomenon of a phenomenon as is physics.” (Lecture 11, p. 61). To understand moral normativity we first need an account of what it is for an I to be an I, and of what it means for an I to appear to itself as an I.

For Fichte such an account is an “absolute phenomenology”, since it concerns a phenomenon, namely the I or (self-)consciousness, whose existence is defined by and constituted through its own self-appearance. The I thus differs from other phenomena (e.g. the phenomena described by physics) in that there is no difference between the appearance and the reality of the I. The I exists because and in so far as it appears to the I as an I. This, of course, is simply another way to spell out Fichte’s original insight from § 1 of the 1794 Wissenschaftslehre, which defines the I as a self-positing activity which “posits itself by merely existing and exists by merely being posited (Fichte 1991, p. 98; I, 97). “a theory of the I” is thus “an absolute phenomenology”, because it concerns a phenomenon which exists precisely because and in so far as it is a phenomenon, and not with “a phenomenon of a phenomenon”, which is what physics deals with.

What then more precisely is the relation between moral normativity and the phenomenology of the I? This question brings us directly to the center of Fichte’s ethical theory. Unfortunately Fichte is not as clear on this point as one might have wished. In fact many of the passages in the Lectures on the Theory of Ethics1812) which deals with this topic are so difficult to interpret and understand that they border on the obscure.

In the 1798 System of Ethics Fichte derives the normativity of morality at least partly from the I’s eternal striving for absolute self-determination. The I is a self-positing activity which strives to free itself from all external determination by gradually incorporating and transforming all externality so that it becomes an extension of (or at least coheres on a deep level with) the I. It is this striving for unity between subject and object, self and other, which ultimately accounts for the inherent normativity of morality. (See Fichte 2005, Part 1 (pp. 19-63; IV 14-63)).

This idea also makes an appearance in the 1812 lectures in the form of the idea of “the pure concept” as the determining ground of both the world and the I. The pure concept is “pure” (or “absolute” because it is not derived from the world but is a necessary precondition for there being a world (and an I) in the first place. The distinctive moral significance of this pure, absolute concept is, that Fichte defines “will” as self-determination through and in accordance with this concept, and believes that such self-determination necessarily involves the capacity to effect changes in the world; to bring about through one’s actions particular states of affairs. (Lectures 1, 3 and 5). Moral actions are thus actions which are determined solely by the pure concept. And since only actions determined by the pure concept are free, self-determining actions, moral actions simultaneously both determine and serve to unite the world and the I.

One problem with the pure concept is that it is purely intelligible and hence beyond what human beings can rationally cognize. Moral actions are thus only possible if the pure concept somehow appears before or presents itself to the I. In the Lectures on the System of Ethics (1812) it is this “appearance” of the pure concept which constitutes the basic “ought” of morality. The pure concept, Fichte argues, appears before the I as an image of a specific form of determination, which the I is to retroactively apply to itself. “This image of its determination is supposed to become its actual determinacy. […] The image of determination is supposed to become the actual being; the image is supposed to make itself into a being immediately and through itself.” (Lecture 7, pp. 39-40). Differently put: The pure concept appear as an image of a formal norm of self-determination; a norm through which the I ‘ought’ to determine its own activity.

Fichte’s account of moral normativity thus consists in a phenomenology of the appearance of the pure concept in and for consciousness, and an analysis of the I simultaneous self- and world-constituting activity. Fichte’s lectures thus represent (one of) the first explicit attempts to ground man’s practical (and, Fichte would probably argue, his cognitive) relation to and engagement with the world on an explicitly phenomenological analysis of consciousness. This is what makes (or at least ought to make) the Lectures on the System of Ethics (1812) of great and enduring interest to phenomenologists.

As already mentioned Fichte’s arguments and formulations in the lectures are often extremely difficult to follow. This makes it exceedingly hard for even an experienced philosophical reader to get a grip on the text. To some extent this is because Fichte’s original text is not a finished manuscript but is precisely a set of lecture notes; notes which Fichte used as a guide-line and starting point for his lectures on ethics. As Crowe notes in his introduction “Fichte’s manuscript often reads more like a series of shorthand notes to himself than a polished text. The 1812 lectures on the theory of ethics is a challenging text; indeed, it represents some of the most difficult prose Fichte ever produced.” (pp. xxiv).

Crowe’s translation goes some way towards remedying these defects. First of all Crowe supplements his translation of Fichte’s own notes with substantial excerpts from two student transcripts: One by Jakob Ludwig Cauer, the other by an unknown author. These excerpts are included in the text as footnotes and often throw an illuminating light on the darkness of particular passages of Fichte’s own text.

Secondly Crowe’s lengthy introduction not only places Fichte’s lectures within the social, political and philosophical context in which they were originally presented, but also locates the lectures within Fichte’s own philosophical system. This makes the lectures relatively accessible to non-Fichte scholars, although the inherent difficulty of the text remains. Unfortunately Crowe only provide a brief summary of the lectures, which does not go into much argumentative detail. Furthermore Crowe’s introduction seems to suggest that Fichte’s educational theory and account of the structure and hierarchy of academic disciplines at the university somehow provides an interpretative key to the 1812 lectures on ethics. I personally do not agree with this, and while I found many of Crowe’s remarks on these topics interesting and illuminating in their own right, they did not really help me find my way through the text.

Thirdly Crowe provides a comprehensive bibliography of selected English and German literature on Fichte’s philosophy, in particular his ethics. The references to the German literature on Fichte’s later writings are particularly useful, since there is hardly any English literature available on these texts.

Finally of course Crowe’s translation itself serves to open up Fichte’s text to the reader. Crowe has done a lot of work to fill in the blanks in Fichte’s text. This of course means that he has had to make a lot of interpretative choices along the way. I have not done an extensive or systematic comparison between Fichte’s original German version and Crowe’s translation, but my general feeling, based on the overall coherence of the text, is that Crowe has gotten things more right than wrong. Given the state of the original text and the difficulty of Fichte’s thought Crowe’s translation is at any rate an impressive accomplishment which should be applauded.

In conclusion: Fichte’s Lectures on the System of Ethics (1812) should be of interest to both phenomenologists, students of German Idealism in general and Fichte-scholars. The text presents Fichte’s last words on ethics, a topic which Fichte himself viewed as central to and crucial for his own philosophical system. It also represents one of the first, if not the first explicitly and recognizably phenomenological analyses of (moral) consciousness, and raises a number of interesting questions and problems which should be of interest to contemporary phenomenological discussions. The text is extremely difficult, but Crowe has done an excellent job in making it accessible to a contemporary, English-speaking audience.


Fichte, J. G. 1991. The Science of Knowledge. Edited and translated by Peter Heath and John Lachs, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Fichte, J. G. 2005. The System of Ethics. Edited and translated by Daniel Breazeale and Günter Zöller, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Rockmore, Tom. 2010. ‘Fichte and Phenomenology’. In Fichte and the Phenomenological Tradition, ed. by Violetta L. Waibel, Daniel Breazeale and Tom Rockmore, De Gruyter: Berlin.

Wood, Allen. 2016. Fichte’s Ethical Thought, Oxford University Press: Oxford.


Leave a Reply