The Subject. Philosophical Foundations. Andy Blunden 2005/6

Johann Fichte: The Subject as Activity

According to Johann Fichte, Kant had failed to overcome Descartes’ dualism and failed to overcome Hume’s scepticism; the source of experience had been consigned to a “beyond” which could not itself be the object of experience. So there was still a dichotomy between conception and things-in-themselves. Fichte sought to resolve this dualism by making the “substance” of his philosophy activity – the free, but also constrained, activity of individual living human beings.

Each of these ‘centres of activity’ he called the Ego or the I, and Ego was thereafter the central category of his ‘theory of science’ [Wissenschaftslehre]. However, Ego was not the fundamental category of his philosophy, but rather, had to be derived from activity.

Because Fichte tried to resolve the subjective/objective dichotomy in philosophy by shifting everything onto the side of the subject, that is, the active individual human being, rather than Nature (Schelling) or Spirit (Hegel), his philosophy has been called ‘subjective’. As part of the current of philosophy known as ‘Transcendental Idealism’, he called himself an idealist, but by ‘idealism’ he meant simply the critical approach to philosophy, in opposition to dogmatism (the doctrine that things are as they are independently of the subject’s activity).

So, he has come down to us as a ‘subjective idealist’, a label which is also applied to Bishop Berkeley. But what a misunderstanding of Fichte this would be! Actually, Fichte saw himself as part of the Kantian school, but regarded Kant as having erred on the side of scepticism.

The world is made up of human activity, and nothing can be said of a world beyond human activity other than that it exists. Kant’s concept of a thing-in-itself beyond experience he held to be self-contradictory; how can we talk of “a thing” which is in principle beyond experience. For Fichte, the world does exist in human activity, but as its limit, initially unknown to the Ego, but discovered through its activity. Individual human activity, or practice, is objective, natural and constrained by necessity, just as much as it is free and determined by the will of the individual. Activity belongs to both the world of freedom and the world of necessity.

Thus the concept of activity is a unity of the objective and the subjective, of freedom and necessity, and provides a substance in which it is possible to describe both the material world and consciousness.

“whether philosophy should begin with a fact [ThatSache] or with an Act (i.e., with a pure activity [Thätigkeit] that presupposes no object but, instead, produces its own object, and therefore with an acting, that immediately becomes a deed) is by no means so inconsequential as it may seem to some people to be. If philosophy begins with a fact, then it places itself in the midst of a world of being and finitude, and it will be difficult indeed for it to discover any path leading from this world to an infinite and supersensible one. If, however, philosophy begins with an Act, then it finds itself as the precise point where these two worlds are connected with each other and from which they can both be surveyed in a single glance.” [Introductions to the Wissensschaftslehre and Other Writings, 1994, p. 51]

Fichte had been largely ignored by students of philosophy other than as a passing step on the way from Kant to Hegel until very recent times. Fichte himself subjected his system to continual revision, and by the time of his later work in Berlin, although he denied it, the system which he had developed in the 1790s and which was the context in which Hegel began his work on the System of Ethical Life, had been altered beyond recognition. However, it is clear that the critique that Fichte made of Kant and the innovations he made were a major factor driving Hegel in the formulation of his ideas. In recent times there has been a resurgence of interest in Fichte in his own right, and Fichte’s ideas prefigure a pragmatic reading of Hegel like those of George Herbert Mead or John Dewey or the Russians of the Vygotsky School, especially A N Leontyev, as well as those interpretations of Hegel stemming from Alexander Kojčve.

Our concern here is with those novel ideas which Fichte introduced to the solution of the riddle of subjectivity, and which were reflected, positively or negatively, in the work of Hegel and his later interpreters. These ideas are of great interest in their own right, a fact which is evidenced by their re-appearance in twentieth century interpretations of Hegel. But the fact is that Fichte had influence on the way philosophy unfolded after him only insofar as he had an impact on Hegel.

Fichte came from a dirt-poor background; an anti-religious essay he was able, thanks to Goethe, to publish anonymously in 1792 attracted widespread attention, initially having been assumed to have been written by Kant. Overnight, he became a celebrity, renowned as a radical young democrat and a Jacobin, actively defending in Germany the principles of the French Revolution. By May 1794, at the age of 32, he published his Wissenschaftslehre (Doctrine of Science) and was appointed Professor of Critical Philosophy at the University of Jena, just at the time when Robespierre’s Great Terror was at its peak in Paris, with accused being tried and sent to the guillotine in batches of 50. He not only used his lectures to develop a comprehensive new philosophical position, but addressed himself to a popular audience and tried to reform university life along democratic lines. Amidst a vicious public controversy in 1798/9, he was removed from his position as an atheist and nihilist and had to flee to Berlin.

Fichte’s philosophy has to be understood as an attempt by an extreme liberal-democrat to found science and ethics on a consistent, monist foundation. That foundation was the independent activity of individual human beings. Instead of founding his ethics, like Kant, in the form of a moral philosophy, Fichte’s ethics was based on the concept of right, and the limitation of individual freedom which is presupposed in social life.

Fichte aimed not only to overcome dualism in epistemology but also the dualism of natural necessity versus human freedom, and the dualist separation between practical philosophy (i.e., ethics) and theoretical philosophy (logic and epistemology). Fichte insisted that it was necessary to found science on a single principle, but held that such a first principle cannot be derived by philosophical means. Whether you choose a given principle to be the founding principle of your theory of knowledge or not “depends on what sort of person you are” he said. The choice of a theory of knowledge is therefore also an ethical act.

Fichte’s strategy was to work out the conditions of possibility for a freely and spontaneously acting Ego (or ‘I’), something which is given (if that is the sort of person you are), but still requires explanation – what are the conditions for the existence of a free individual and what are the conditions for a world in which many such free individuals live in the same time and space?

The ‘I’ was both a striving moral agent and a cognizing activity of awareness. But the Ego is not a substance or original thing; it is the consequence of the act of positing of a self.

Fichte denied that the self-evidence of “I think” proved the existence of an I which thinks. He suggested that this concept leads to an infinite regression: if the activity of perception is conceived of as a subject interpreting incoming sensations, then the products of this activity create a “second order” stream of images or ideas or whatever, which still presuppose an activity of them being interpreted by another subject, and so on indefinitely in infinite regress. The idea of a thought presenting itself to a separately existing subject, accepted by all previous philosophers, is therefore a fallacy.

Fichte asked his students to think of themself; then he asked them to think of the wall opposite them; then he asked them what it was that was thinking of the wall. This was an impossible question to answer, because so long as they were absorbed in thinking of the wall, all that existed in their mind was consciousness of the wall, nothing else. On the other hand, when thinking about themselves all had the conviction that there was an object that they were thinking about, namely the subject.

“Self-consciousness is therefore immediate; what is subjective and what is objective are inseparably united within self-consciousness and are absolutely one and the same. ... This immediate consciousness is the intuition of the I ... at once subjective and objective ... The I should not be considered as a mere subject, which is how it has nearly always been considered until now; instead, it should be considered as a subject-object in the sense just indicated. ... I am this intuition and nothing more whatsoever ...” [Introductions to the Wissenschaftslehre, p. 113-4]

That is, the I is the activity of thinking when it is directed back at itself, it is that activity, just as when we think of the wall, what we are actually conscious of is our own activity of thinking of the wall. It is absurd to posit the existence of an I prior to and independently of the act of thinking “about oneself.” It is equally inadmissible to posit the existence of a wall “in-itself” independently of and prior to the wall as a constraint and component of our activity in connection with the concept of the wall. That something exists outside our activity is self-evident, but of what things it is composed of, abstracted from the forms of our activity which are constrained by it, is a question which cannot even be asked, let alone answered.

The idea of the wall, and the Ego, as things having a continuing existence independently of the activity of an I, and the necessity for us to conceive of these things as having an existence independently of our activity, are things which need to be derived – and indeed they can be derived – but not things which can be taken as given, as first principles.

Thus Fichte continues Kant’s usage of the term ‘subject’ as an individual, cognising moral agent, but he rejects the conception of a transcendental subject. The ‘subject’ in the sense of a knowing moral agent with a sense of its own identity is something which Fichte regards as a construct, as something which comes about, but is not a fundamental given. What is given is activity; activity is the opposite, the negation or cancellation of being. Of course the only activity we know about is that of an I, albeit not necessarily an I that has yet directed its subjective activity back on itself, not necessarily yet a self-conscious individual, a free person.

Thus in its original Aristotlean sense, the Fichtean substance is activity, and self-consciousness, or individual subjectivity, is a product or form of that substance, activity. Thus rather than taking self-consciousness as some kind of first principle or given datum, Fichte opened up the problem of deducing how it is that a human being can come to know, and realise itself as a sovereign individual subject.

In the construction of his whole system, the deduction of the Ego is a crucial staging point. The I is shown to be self-reverting activity, in which subject and object are one and the same, a subject-object. From this new starting point, Fichte will deduce an epistemology, a theory of psychology, a system of ethics and morality, a philosophy of nature, a concept of the state and a theory of natural right. The ‘I’ has to be present in all that follows, not as a detestable self-centredness or subjectivism, but rather in the sense of someone who prefaces everything they say with “I think ...” The result is a kind of pragmatism.

In Foundations of Natural Right Fichte shows that the conditions for the development of a free individual lie, not in the ‘I’ as such, in some substratum of the existence of the “I,” but in intersubjective experience. Further, he shows that for a society in which such free individuals could co-exist, it is not moral law, but mutual recognition which is required. Such a society of free individuals presupposes a coercive state to protect people’s freedom from the intrusion of the activity of other free individuals.

Rather than Kant’s idea of a transcendental subject as the substratum of an I:

“In acting, the rational being does not become conscious of its acting; for it itself is its acting and nothing else.” [Foundations of Natural Right. p. 4.]

Self-consciousness only comes about when this activity is turned inwards making itself the object, but being aware of oneself is still not to know oneself as a free being.

One cannot discover oneself as a free being by looking inward, because that would presume that one was already a free being without knowing it, which is a contradiction in terms. Also:

“Since what is required here is an object, it must be given in sensation, and in outer, not inner, sensation; for all inner sensation arises only through the reproduction of outer sensation; the former therefore presupposes the latter ...” [Foundations of Natural Right, p. 32]

So, the ‘I’ must perceive a free being in the outer, sensuous world, before it is capable of perceiving itself as a free being. To be able to perceive yourself as a free being, presupposes the perception of other free beings in the world around you. Thus the impulse to recognise oneself as a free being must come from outside.

But unless the ‘I’ is already free, it will find everything in the sensuous world constrained and not free. It lives in a world in which everything is determined for it and sees no opportunity for free action, and consequently can have no conception of what a free being is like. So how can the ‘I’ find a free being in the external world without first knowing itself as a free being? We have an infinite regress here. How can a free being come about?

Fichte’s solution to this conundrum he has posed as follows: the ‘I’ can only learn that it is a free being by being “summoned” by another free being calling upon the ‘I’ to exercise and limit its freedom.

“... the object is not comprehended, and cannot be other than as a bare summons calling upon the subject to act. Thus as surely as the subject comprehends the object, so too does it possess the concept of its own freedom and self-activity, and indeed as a concept [activity] given to it from the outside. It acquires the concept of its own free efficacy, not as something that exists in the present moment (for that would be a genuine contradiction), but rather as something that ought to exist in the future.” [Foundations of Natural Right, p. 32]

This happens because another ‘I’ recognises the ‘I’ categorically – for example, that they are a human being, and acts in relation to it as if it were a free and rational being.

“Thus the external being that is posited as the cause of the summons must at the very least presuppose the possibility that the subject is capable of understanding and comprehending; otherwise its summons to the subject would have no purpose at all.” [Foundations of Natural Right, p. 35]

This “summons” begins by the other subject limiting its own freedom:

“The being outside the subject is posited as free, and thus as a being that could also have overstepped the sphere that presently determines it, and could have overstepped it such that the subject would be deprived of its ability to act freely. But the being outside the subject did not freely overstep this sphere; therefore, it materially limited its freedom through itself; that is, it limited the sphere of those actions that were possible for it by virtue of its formal freedom. ... “

“Furthermore, through its action, the being outside the subject has ... summoned the latter to act freely; thus it has limited its freedom through a concept of an end in which the subject’s freedom is presupposed (even if only problematically); thus it has limited its freedom through the concept of the subject’s (formal) freedom.” [Foundations of Natural Right, p. 41]

The ‘I’ is then able to perceive what is a free being, another ‘I’ in the sensuous world, and that other ‘I’ by treating them as a free being, shows them that they are a free being and makes it possible for the ‘I’ to perceive itself as a free being.

Further, a plurality of free beings cannot exist in the same time and space except by limiting their freedom, and giving part of their freedom to other free beings.

“In appropriating freedom for myself, I limit myself by leaving some freedom for others as well. Thus the concept of right is the concept of the necessary relation of free beings to one another.” [Foundations of Natural Right, p. 9]

This is a logical necessity, not a moral law. It is a condition for the existence of free beings in the same time and space. The co-existence of free beings in a common time and space is impossible unless they mutually recognise each other’s freedom.

“Thus the relation of free beings to one another is necessarily determined in the following way, and is posited as thus determined: one individual’s knowledge of the other is conditioned by the fact that the other treats the first as a free being (i.e., limits its freedom through the concept of the freedom of the first). But this manner of treatment is conditioned by the first’s treatment of the other’s treatment and knowledge of the first, and so on ad infinitum. Thus the relation of free beings to one another is a relation of reciprocal interaction through intelligence and freedom. One cannot recognise the other if both do not mutually recognise each other; and one cannot treat the other as a free being, if both do not mutually treat each other as free.” [Foundations of Natural Right, p. 41]

And an ‘I’ must demonstrate its recognition of another person by their external activity.

“Something is given to the [other] individual only by experience, and I give rise to such experience only by acting. The other cannot know what I think.” [Foundations of Natural Right, p. 41]

So mutual recognition is a form of activity of the ‘I’s’ in relation to one another, not just a “state of mind.” In fact a concept is nothing but a form of activity. Such a “state of mind” can exist only once the external material activity of “I’s” who mutually recognise one another exists in the material world. For this, Fichte concludes, an instrument of social control is necessary in order to enforce people’s rights.

Thus Fichte derives natural right from necessity, from the conditions for existence of rational beings, not from a moral law or duty. And he proceeds from there to derive a doctrine of right based on this concept of the individual, free person, who has to limit her/his freedom in order to live in a community with other free beings. A being which does not wish to limit its freedom in that way is simply excluded from any community of free beings.

Fichte in this way derives the need for a state which enforces right by physical force, since, Fichte claims, there is no other way to guarantee rights in a community of free individuals whose beliefs and values will differ from one another.

“Right must be enforceable, even if there is not a single human being with a good will; the very aim of the science of right is to sketch out just such an order of things. In this domain, physical force – and it alone – give right its sanction.” [Foundations of Natural Right, p. 50]

Such a state is responsible not only for promulgating laws and punishing crime, but also for ensuring access to health, education and other welfare necessary for the life of a free being.

For a species of perfected moral beings, there is no law of right. It is already clear that humankind cannot be such a species, from the fact that the human being must be educated and must educate himself to the status of morality; for he is not moral by nature, but must make himself so through his own labour. “ [Foundations of Natural Right, p. 132]


In summary then, for Fichte:

Fichte combines an extreme liberalism with elements which are strongly associated with communitarian trends in ethics and social theory. At the beginning of the third millennium, as modern societies are becoming ever more atomised and dominated by individualism, and Right predominates over the Good in legal and ethical theory, Fichte’s philosophy takes on great significance.

It may be useful to make a couple of observations about the concepts of activity and recognition, which underlay Fichte’s thinking.


In English, the term ‘recognition’ originates in 14th century Scottish law, referring to the resumption of unused land from a vassal by a feudal superior. The word is derived from the same roots as ‘cognate,’ co + gnatus (born), meaning related by birth, akin; thus ‘recognise’ essentially meant ‘bring back into the family estate.’ It was later generalised to mean the registering of something as already known and other derivative usages of this kind.

In the sixteenth century, ‘recognition’ turned from being the act of the ruler in relation to his subjects, to mean the acknowledgment by a subject of a ruler’s rights over them.

By the early 19th century, at the time that Fichte was writing, it was used as a technical term in international law to refer to the explicit acknowledgment of the rights of a state by another state, in particular by a state which formerly exercised sovereignty over the other state gaining recognition.

It is Fichte who introduced the term ‘recognition’ into philosophical usage. The original usage of the term had only been in relation to corporate or social subjects, not individuals. Fichte was innovating the usage of the term “recognition” in relation to ego development. However, his usage of the term in relation to individual subjects was entirely consistent with its usage in law and international law in particular.

As we shall see, Fichte’s term was used by Hegel in his early writings, written while Hegel was still engaged in a critique of Fichte, but faded out of his language after the writing of The Phenomenology of Spirit in 1807, though the general idea is still present in the Philosophy of Right, written in 1821.

The term reappeared in philosophical discourse in the period after World War Two as a result of Alexander Kojčve’s reading of Hegel and the application of these ideas in the national liberation movements of that period and new social movements which followed. It has had a further resurgence from the 1990s in Critical Theory.


By making activity rather than entities or material substances the foundation of his philosophy, Fichte prefigured later developments.

Theories of ethics or “political economy” grounded in the concept of property and value naively take as their basis the elements of nature or matter which are simply playing a mediating role in social relations. “Property” is thereby treated as if it were something existing independently of activity.

By taking of activity as the fundamental category of his philosophy, Fichte exposed this ideological prejudice. Hegel subsequently used a similar approach to ‘deconstruct’ the concept of property in terms of ‘abstract right’ in his Philosophy of Right. Marx later continued this standpoint in making labour the foundation of his critique political economy and his critique of Hegel. Labour is essentially the same category as activity in Fichte’s philosophy. Later, activity became the key concept in theories of psychology, linguistics and social theory.

Also, Fichte rejected Kant’s use of the concept of moral law as the foundation of practical philosophy, holding instead that both theoretical and practical philosophy should have a common foundation in activity. Here again Fichte pre-figures Marx’s problematic attempts to found socialism on “science” without a separate ethical or moral doctrine.

However, all subsequent critiques of Fichte completely pass over the fact that Fichte made activity the absolute in his system, and instead read Fiche as having made the “I” the substance and absolute of his philosophy. Thereby, Fichte was condemned for a bad subjectivism. Now this criticism is not without foundation, for as we have seen, Fichte seems to have used the concept of activity as a kind of ruse to avoid giving his philosophy a subjective foundation, and once having derived the “I” whose activity is both subjective and objective, he makes no further use of the concept of activity as such, and the entirety of his system does indeed rest upon a subjective foundation.

It appears that modern readers of Fichte have presumed that ‘activity’ is ipso facto the ‘activity of the “I"’; all the table of contents in the various English translations of his works, for example, list ‘activity’ only as ‘activity of the “I"’. It would appear to be reasonable question, how can you have activity other than activity of some agency? But to accept such a proof of the prior existence of the “I” is exactly the Cartesian presumption which reasoned from cogito to ergo sum. But Fichte is right here. Ego is the outcome of a process not its starting point and presupposition; an infant child for example as yet has no “I,” but is active, and as a result of its activity, it may gain self-consciousness.