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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: February 2013

6 - Fichte and the system of freedom

from III - German idealism


Kant's Critique of Judgement convinced his successors that the integration of nature and freedom under a single, consistent system was the most urgent task facing modern philosophy. The manifesto “The First System-Programme of German Idealism” (1796), probably co-authored by Hegel, Hölderlin and Schelling, sets this out. It begins with:

[A]n Ethics. Since the whole of metaphysics falls for the future within moral theory [which] will be nothing less than a complete system of all ideas or of all practical postulates (which is the same thing). The first idea is of course the presentation of myself as an absolutely free entity. Along with the free, self-conscious essence, there stands forth – out of nothing – an entire world, the one true and thinkable creation out of nothing. Here I shall descend into the realms of physics; the question is this: How must a world be constituted for a moral entity?

(Stewart 2002: 110)

This was precisely what Kant had set out, but failed, to achieve, as his immediate successors agreed. It is in light of this failure that Fichte, in his “science of knowing”, undertook to unify transcendental philosophy under the “postulate” of free action. Yet Fichte achieved this ethical determination of the world at the cost of “descending to physics”, and was criticized accordingly by Hegel (1977a) and later by Schelling: “What is … the essence of his [Fichte's] entire understanding of nature? It is that nature must be employed, used, and … exist no further than it is thus employed” (SW VI.17).

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