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Johann Gottlieb Fichte: The System of Ethics According to the Principles of the Wissenschaftlehre.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte

The System of Ethics According to the Principles of the Wissenschaftlehre.

Trans. and eds. Daniel Breazeale and Gunter

Zoller. New York: Cambridge University

Press 2005. Pp. 446.

US$75.00 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-521-57140-1); US$29.99 (paper ISBN-13: 978-0-521-57767-0).

It has long been Fichte's misfortune to have fallen between Kant and Hegel in the history of philosophy, and thus to have assumed the status of a bridge between them that many have felt free simply to jump over. Within the past generation, however, there has been a major revival of interest amongst both Anglophone and continental European scholars. A reasonable date for its commencement is 1964, when the Bavarian Academy of Sciences began its modern critical edition of J.G. Fichte-Gesamtausgabe; Volume 10, the last in the series to include writings Fichte published himself, appeared in 2005. In 1987 the now flourishing Internationale Johann-Gottlieb-Fichte-Gesellschaft was established, and in 2005-6 conferences and seminars devoted to Fichte's work were held in locations as varied as London, Vienna, Berlin, and Poitiers.

This translation of the System der Ethik (1798) for the series Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy is a major milestone in this ongoing revival. It is the first in English since 1897, and the editors could hardly be better suited to their work. Breazeale was a co-founder of the North American Fichte society (1991), and co-edited Fichte: Historical Contexts/Contemporary Perspectives (1994); Zoller, as well as being one of the editors of the Gesamtausgabe, is author of Fichte's Transcendental Philosophy (1998). The results go a considerable way towards re-establishing Fichte in the eyes of English readers as what he always claimed himself to be, a major philosopher in his own right, and not merely a disciple of Kant.

The importance of the volume is underlined by the fact that the System of Ethics is only one of several of Fichte's works recently to have received a fresh English rendering. The Foundations of Natural Right, which immediately preceded the Ethics, has already appeared in the same series (2000), and the private lectures Fichte gave in Berlin in 1804 on the Wissenschaftslehre have just been edited as The Science of Knowing (2005). Moreover, these volumes will shortly be followed by a collection of texts on The Atheism Dispute which cost Fichte his position at Jena in 1799, and his Addresses to the German Nation (1808), again to be published in the Cambridge series.

Somewhat belatedly, then, Fichte seems to have assumed the place in the canon which he coveted. Indeed, there can be no doubt of the importance of his response to Kant, whose fundamental mistake, he believed, was to have left morality and the will marooned in the mysterious unknowable world of things in themselves. Fichte was convinced that the conditions of this hitherto noumenal world were as susceptible of articulation as the categories Kant had shown to underpin the world of sense experience. Accordingly, the first two parts of the Ethics, slightly less than half of the whole, were devoted to a deduction of the principle of morality from the nature of the 'I', and to a demonstration of its reality in experience.

This 'I', or ego, was entirely distinct from the 'I' of ordinary experience; it was accessible only to transcendental philosophy, and encompassed what is normally called the objective or natural world as well as the subjective world of the self with which the 'I' is ordinarily associated. These intricate pages on the necessary occurrence of the self-division of this transcendental ego, and the resulting emergence of a realm of rational and universal freedom with a distinctive structure of its own to set alongside the realm of natural necessity, represented a genuine advance on Kant, and without Fichte's work a variety of later philosophical movements--including Absolute Idealism, phenomenology, and existentialism--would have lacked a rich source of inspiration.

The third and final part of the work applied the conclusions of the earlier sections to the conditions of Fichte's own society, and his philosophical brilliance is less and less in evidence as it progresses. Arguing that the moral law dictates that 'for every determinate human being, in each situation, only one determinate something is in accord with duty' (158), Fichte proposed an ethic that he himself acknowledged was really a version of Protestantism (233), with all the dogmatic encumbrances that entailed. He unintentionally left open paths to moralism (or worse, moral fanaticism) in insisting that conscience offered an absolute criterion of correctness in respect to one's duties (159), and to self-disgust in his belief that enjoyment of the body, its use as anything other than a tool of the moral law, was absolutely prohibited.

Declarations like 'In its raw state, a woman's sexual drive is the most repugnant and disgusting thing that exists in nature, and at the same time it indicates the absolute absence of all morality' (312-13) may well strike contemporary readers as saying more about Fichte himself than about their subject-matter, something that is all the more ironic because Fichte achieved an insight into the nature of the self unsurpassed until Nietzsche and Freud nearly a century later. What Fichte was opposing, of course, was the hedonistic eudaimonism of Helvetius; but what he fell back on ultimately was a parochial Christianised variety of Platonism, as unsuited to the eighteenth century as it is to the twenty-first (307, 337).

As well as the obvious benefit of a translation that renders Fichte into English as lucidly as possible given the nature of the text on which it is based, anyone using this edition will have the advantage of a short but insightful editorial introduction that sets the Ethics in the context of Fichte's own life, works, and relationship to Kant; a chronology of his writings; useful suggestions for further reading; an extensive glossary covering both German-English and English-German terms, occupying some thirty pages; and last but by no means least, a comprehensive index. The whole work has been prepared to the highest standards, and should do countless inquiring students and grateful scholars sterling service for generations to come.

Luke O'Sullivan
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Author:O'Sullivan, Luke
Publication:Philosophy in Review
Date:Oct 1, 2007
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