Fichte's Idealism

This course will involve a close reading of Fichte's Foundation of the Entire Wissenschaftslehre (henceforth FEWL). This is the work in which Fichte first presented his revolutionary philosophical system, the Wissenschaftslehre (meaning "Doctrine of Science" or "Theory of Scientific Knowledge", but usually left untranslated in English-language discussions).

The book was issued in two instalments, September 1794 and July/August 1795. The text was composed as a handbook for students, on the basis that the material would be elaborated and explained in the lectures Fichte was then giving at the University of Jena. Initially Fichte didn't want the work to be published, but as copies of the privately printed versions he'd distributed to his students were being passed round more widely, he somewhat reluctantly agreed to the publication of the first part, and was then committed to also publishing the second part. Three important facts then to note: (i) the text was not intended to be read as a free-standing book but rather was meant to be orally explicated by its author; (ii) the first part was published before the second had even been written, and so composed before Fichte had worked out exactly what the second part was going to say; (iii) the requirement to get the second part published in time for his students to be able to use it meant that it was written in considerable haste (as becomes very apparent in the final section. These three facts then in part explain - that is, in addition to the intrinsic difficulty of Fichte's ideas - the obscurity of much of what we find in the book.

Fichte quickly became dissatisfied with the manner in which he'd presented his system in FEWL, and in later works from the 1790s sought to convey his ideas more adequately, also extending his system into the areas of moral and political philosophy. These works, whilst still difficult, are much better composed than FEWL and also contain some of Fichte's most interesting ideas (e.g. the idea of mutual recognition). And yet the 1794-95 version remained the most complete exposition of the system, and Fichte was happy for it to be republished (twice) in 1802. And for all its flaws, it was the main work of his which his contemporaries read and responded to, and so is crucial to an understanding of the great explosion of philosophical thinking which took place in German in the 1790s and 1800s, taking in Schiller, Hölderlin, Novalis, Schelling, Jacobi, Hegel and others.

I have taught a course on Fichte's idealism before, taking in the full range of his work during the Jena years (1794-1799) and featuring three classes on the FEWL. This approach has much to recommend it: reading Fichte's more "popular" writings certainly makes the FEWL more intelligible, as does looking at his subsequent rethinkings of his system. But it also means giving insufficient attention to the FEWL itself. So in this new course I am going to take a different approach, and try, in my own way, perhaps rather foolhardily, to replicate the original course that Fichte himself gave in 1794-95 on the basis of the FEWL.

We will be using the new edition edited and translated by Daniel Breazeale (the relevant part of this volume will be made available to participants). Each week there will be pre-recorded one-hour lecture presenting the text and a live one-hour video discussion session. The recordings will probably be less polished than has been the case with my previous online courses, as perhaps befits the material.

For an introduction to Fichte, see Breazeale's SEP article on Fichte.

Updated: 5th December 2021