Who Was Johann Gottlieb Fichte?

18th century German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte was a founding member of German idealism, whose work was widely influential.

Apr 5, 2024By Maysara Kamal, BA Philosophy & Film

who was johann gottlieb fichte


Johann Gottlieb Fichte was a key figure of German Idealism. His philosophical works on subjectivity and consciousness took Kantianism in a new direction and influenced the works of Schelling, Hegel, and Schopenhauer, among others. Although the genius of his original contributions was celebrated, it has also stirred enormous controversy in Germany during the 18th century. 


Early Life and Education

A statue of Fichte in his birthplace Rammenau by Walter Sintenis. Source: Wikidata
A statue of Fichte in his birthplace Rammenau by Walter Sintenis. Source: Wikidata


Fichte was born in 1760 in a small village in Saxony called Rammenau. His family were very religious Lutherans. His father, Christian Fichte, was a ribbon weaver, and although he married a woman from a relatively higher social class, his family did not enjoy financial stability. Given his economic situation, Fichte was unable to receive a good education in his early childhood. He attended the local school of his village where he only studied basic subjects such as reading and writing, etc. Nevertheless, the young boy was intellectually gifted and he was well-reputed in the village for his remarkable intelligence. It is precisely this reputation that allowed him to meet Freiherr von Miltitz, a wealthy man who became so impressed with Fichte’s intellectual aptitude that he decided to invest in his education.


Pforta boarding school. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Pforta boarding school. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Now having a sponsor, Fichte was able to attain more sophisticated learning opportunities. Miltitz sent him to live in another village with a pastor named Krebel, where he learned the Greek and Latin classics. When Fichte turned 12, he entered a very prestigious boarding school called Pforta, where Friedrich Nietzsche would later also be a student. At the age of 18, he started studying philosophy and theology at the University of Jena, where he was first introduced to the works of Immanuel Kant, and later continued his studies at the University of  Leipzig. Fichte described his introduction to Kantian philosophy as a revolutionary moment in his intellectual life.


Fichte and Kant

<yoastmark class=

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

After the death of his sponsor, Fichte couldn’t continue his education without making a living. In 1784, he started working as a private philosophy tutor for the children of wealthy families in Germany. As his fascination and investment in Kantian philosophy grew, Fichte journeyed to Immanuel Kant’s house in Königsberg in 1791 in order to make his acquaintance. The great philosopher was not impressed by Fichte’s thoughts on his works. Unhappy by this encounter, Fichte attempted to prove himself by writing a book on a topic that Kant had not previously explored: Divine Revelation.


immanuel kant german philosophy transcental
A portrait of Immanuel Kant by Johann Gottlieb Becker, 1768. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Whether Kant intended to steal credit for the work of a young and unknown philosopher like Fichte or to encourage him is up for debate. What we know for sure is that he offered to have his publisher print Fichte’s manuscript in 1972 under the title Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation without writing Fichte’s name as the author or including his preface. Consequently, everyone thought that this was Kant’s own work. The popularity that the book gained when it was mistaken as Kant’s fourth Critique is what opened the doors of fame to Fichte when he came to be known as its author. Such was how Fichte came to be recognized as a philosopher.


Fichte’s Journey as a Philosopher

A Portrait of Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Source: Anthro Wiki
A Portrait of Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Source: Anthro Wiki


Fichte continued to develop and publish his original thoughts, building on his Kantian background and applying himself to political philosophy as well. Much drama was unfolding on the German philosophical scene, where philosophers such as Solomon Maimon and Gottlob Schulze were fiercely attacking Immanuel Kant, and his interpreter, K. L. Reinhold. In an attempt to address their critique of Kantian philosophy, Fichte developed his famous Wissenschaftslehre (The Theory of Science) in 1794 where he sets forth a new philosophical system that takes human freedom and subjectivity as its first principle. In the same year, the University of Jena offered for him to take Reinhold’s place as a professor and department chair of philosophy.

Later Years and Legacy

Fichte Residence in Erlangen. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Fichte’s Residence in Erlangen. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Although Fichte attributed his work to the Kantian philosophical framework, Kant completely disowned it in an open letter in 1799 where he wrote: “I hereby declare that I regard Fichte’s Theory of Science as a totally indefensible system”. In the same year, Fichte attempted to develop a philosophy of religion that is in accordance with his Wissenschaftslehre. His essay ‘On the Basis of Our Belief in a Divine Governance of the World’ stirred a great controversy in the history of German thought known as the ‘Atheist Dispute’, or the ‘Atheism Controversy’. Fichte was charged with atheism and heresy, and immediately dismissed from the University of Jena.


The tomb of Fichte and his wife, Johanna Marie Fichte. Source: Wikimedia Commons
The tomb of Fichte and his wife, Johanna Marie Fichte. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Despite this setback, Fichte continued to publish various works in the fields of philosophy and politics. He started working as a professor at the University of Berlin in 1805, where he remained until his death 9 years later. Meanwhile, Fichte’s contributions to transcendental and political philosophy left an important imprint that has influenced many great thinkers after him.

Author Image

By Maysara KamalBA Philosophy & Film Maysara is a graduate of Philosophy and Film from the American University in Cairo (AUC). She covered both the BA and MA curriculums in the Philosophy Department and published an academic article in AUC’s Undergraduate Research Journal. Her passion for philosophy fuels her independent research and permeates her poems, short stories, and film projects.