Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant
March 24, 2017
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
March 24, 2017

German idealism

Johann Gottlieb Fichte

J ohann Gottlieb Fichte was a German philosopher who became a founding figure of the philosophical movement known as German idealism, which developed from the theoretical and ethical writings of Immanuel Kant. Recently, philosophers and scholars have begun to appreciate Fichte as an important philosopher in his own right due to his original insights into the nature of self-consciousness or self-awareness. Fichte was also the originator of thesis–antithesis–synthesis, an idea that is often erroneously attributed to Hegel. Like Descartes and Kant before him, Fichte was motivated by the problem of subjectivity and consciousness. Fichte also wrote works of political philosophy; he has a reputation as one of the fathers of German nationalism.


May 19, 1762 Rammenau, Saxony


January 27, 1814 (aged 51) Berlin, Prussia


18th-century philosophy


Western philosophy

Main interests

Self-consciousness and self-awareness, moral philosophy, political philosophy

Chapter Ⅶ. German idealism

Johann Gottlieb Fichte


Hayagriva dasa: Fichte is not as important as Kant or Hegel, but he is in the same tradition. He followed pretty much in the footsteps of Kant. In his first work, entitled Our Belief in a Divine Government of the Universe, he writes: "Our belief in a moral world order must be based on the concept of a supersensible world." That is, without the conception of a transcendental reality, morality in the world has no basis.

Srila Prabhupada: First of all, he must define morality. He cannot do this simply by saying, "Our moral principles are...." It is not sufficient to imagine moral principles. Everyone is always saying, "This is moral, and this is immoral." There must be some standard. Following the Vedic scriptures, we say: krsi-goraksya-vanijyam (Bg. 18.44). Cows should be protected. Others claim that cows should be killed in a religious place, in a mosque, synagogue, or whatever. So who is to say what is moral?

Hayagriva dasa: Following Kant, Fichte would emphasize inner reality, intuition, or conscience.

Srila Prabhupada: Fichte may follow Kant, and I may follow Krsna, but if there is a contradiction, who is to decide which is moral? Who is to be our leader? How can we decide? In any case, we cannot avoid following some leader, be this leader Lenin, Krsna, Kant, or whoever.

Hayagriva dasa: Fichte would emphasize the use of individual intuition, or conscience.

Srila Prabhupada: Our conscience is determined according to our association. There is no standard conscience. The conscience of a drunkard says that drinking is good, and the conscience of a devotee says that chanting is good. So which are we to follow? We may follow one definition of God, and others may follow another definition. There must be some standard.

dharmam tu saksad bhagavat-pranitam
na vai vidur rsayo napi devah
na siddha-mukhya asura manusyah
kuto nu vidyadhara-caranadayah

"Real religious principles are enacted by the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Although fully situated in the mode of goodness, even the great rsis who occupy the topmost planets cannot ascertain the real religious principles, nor can the demigods or the leaders of Siddhaloka, to say nothing of the asuras, ordinary human beings, Vidyadharas and Caranas." (Bhag. 6.3.19) The definition of God and the orders of God are standard. We cannot manufacture God or morality.

Hayagriva dasa: For Fichte, the world has no objective reality outside of its being an instrument for the enactment of duty. He sees the world of the senses as the "stuff of duty." He writes, "Our world is the centralized material of our duty....It is our duty that is revealed in the world of the senses."

Srila Prabhupada: If there is no definition of duty, everyone can manufacture his own. Our standard is given by Lord Krsna:

sarva-dharman parityajya
mam ekam saranam vraja
aham tvam sarva-papebhyo
moksayisyami ma sucah

"Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear." (Bg. 18.66) So whatever duties have been manufactured should be given up. It is not necessary to go on speculating, because the instructions are very clear. For our standard, we refer to the Vedas. Sabda-pramanam. If our actions are approved by Vedic injunctions, they will meet the standard and be perfect.

Syamasundara dasa: Fichte believes that the world is a rational unified system directed toward a purpose. It is not a mere machine.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, we agree to that. The material world is created for the pastimes of the conditioned soul, just as the spiritual world is manifest for the pastimes of Krsna. Those who are eternally liberated and enjoy Krsna are called nitya-mukta. The nitya-baddha is a soul conditioned by material nature. These souls, or jivas, are given a chance to play as they like, and they have come here to satisfy their material senses. Ultimately, they should come to their real senses and understand that it is not their business to enjoy material sense objects here but to return home, back to Godhead. This is a good plan, and one who takes advantage of it does not deviate. If one follows the Vedic instructions concerning eating, sleeping, defending, and mating, he can become eligible to return to Godhead very quickly. However, those who manufacture their own way and go against the plan become implicated in karma-bandhana. The word bandhana means "to be implicated."

Syamasundara dasa: Fichte claims that because the world is a rational system, reason has a very important place. Reason is a real entity or power which performs purposeful acts.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, that is so. Caitanya Mahaprabhu pointed out that the living entity is the eternal servant of Krsna. If he utilizes his reason, he can understand very well what he is doing here. He can understand that he is receiving everything through his senses, and by acting in this way and that, has become a servant of his senses. People cannot master their senses, yet they are prepared to try to master the world, or society. The living entity is not the master, yet he artificially attempts to be master. We attain knowledge when we realize that we are not masters but the eternal servants of Krsna. People are trying to serve their senses, their family, their country, society, dog, or whatever. This service is misplaced. By the use of reason, we can come to the understanding that we are eternal servants of Krsna. When we abandon the service of the senses, of maya, and take to Krsna's service, we attain liberation, mukti.

Hayagriva dasa: Fichte believes that true atheism consists in "...refusing to obey the voice of one's conscience until one thinks that one can foresee the success of one's actions and thus elevating one's own judgment above that of God and in making oneself into God. He who wills to do evil in order to produce good is a godless person."

Srila Prabhupada: If you do not know God or His orders, how can you verify your duty? Do you simply manufacture your duty? Anyone can do that. First of all, you must understand what is meant by duty. Duty means following the orders given by your superior, but if you have no superior, if you have no conception of the Supreme and His order, how can you know your duty? Of course, you may imagine your duty. Is this what he advises?

Hayagriva dasa: He is vague on this point.

Srila Prabhupada: Because he does not know. According to the Vedas, we have definite, prescribed duties. Society is divided into eight divisions comprising thevarnasrama-dharma. There are four varnas ( brahmana, ksatriya, vaisya, and sudra), and four asramas (brahmacari, grhastha, vanaprastha, and sannyasa). Whatever you do, you must function according to one of these varnas or asramas, and there are duties prescribed for each. If you follow the principles that are set forth specifically for each stage of life, you are doing your duty.

Hayagriva dasa: For Fichte, our knowledge of God arises from the enactment of our duty.

Srila Prabhupada: That is all right, but what is our duty? God must assign our duty for us to understand God by enacting our duty. But if we have no conception of God, how can we know what our duty is?

Syamasundara dasa: For Fichte, self-consciousness is the basic principle of human knowledge and our means for searching out the Absolute.

Srila Prab hupada: That self-consciousness should be "I am the eternal servant of Krsna." This can be realized by practice, by education, and by study of the Vedas.

Syamasundara dasa: Fichte believes that the philosopher's search for the truth begins with a demand for fulfillment—that is, "Think thyself!"

Srila Prabhupada: We should think, "What am I?" By profound meditation, we can understand, "I am not this body but something else. I am eternal. I existed in the past, I exist now, and I will continue to exist in the future. Whatever I am doing now in the material world is separate and temporary. But what is my eternal duty?" If we understand our position and learn from a spiritual master that we are the eternal servants of Krsna, we will take to Krsna's service—that is, if we are sensible. In this way, we can attain a higher position.

Hayagriva dasa: Fichte was ambiguous and vague when he wrote of God as a personal being. He seemed to lean toward pantheism or impersonalism.

Srila Prabhupada: If he is an impersonalist, he has no understanding of his master, God, who is giving him his duty.

Hayagriva dasa: He looked on the attribution of personality to God as simply a multiplication of oneself in one's own thoughts.

Srila Prabhupada: If our understanding of God is only impersonal, where is God's leadership? Is there any question of leadership in impersonalism?

Hayagriva dasa: Well, he feels that if you attribute personality to God, you are projecting yourself onto God—that is, you are manufacturing God.

Srila Prabhupada: We cannot manufacture God by giving Him imaginary attributes. Whatever attributes we ascribe to Him must be logical. For instance, we say, "God is great" because we have some conception of greatness, and we understand that greatness must be in God, Or we say that God is supremely wealthy, and that also is quite reasonable. We say that God is supreme, and that also logically follows. The attributes of God given by Parasara Muni—knowledge, fame, wealth, strength, beauty, and renunciation—all combine to give a reasonable definition.

Hayagriva dasa: Like many other impersonalists, Fichte believes that if you attribute personality to God, you necessarily limit Him.

Srila Prabhupada: He is thinking that God's personality is finite like his, and that is his mistake. Krsna's personality is not like that of an ordinary man. As soon as it was necessary to protect the inhabitants of Vrndavana from the torrents of Indra, Krsna immediately lifted Govardhana Hill to serve as an umbrella. When He did this, He appeared as a seven-year-old boy. He did not have to meditate for years in order to become God. Presently, rascals are meditating to try to become God, but what kind of God? God is always God. He is the transcendental personality, and there is no need for Him to meditate.

Hayagriva dasa: Fichte rejects the personality of God because he felt that "the concept of God as a separate substance is impossible and contradictory."

Srila Prabhupada: Since God is everything, there is no question of separation. As stated in Bhagavad-gita:

maya tatam idam sarvam
jagad avyakta-murtina
mat-sthani sarva bhutani
na caham tesv avasthitah

"By Me, in My unmanifested form, this entire universe is pervaded. All beings are in Me, but I am not in them." (Bg. 9.4) If everything is in God, how can He be separate?

Hayagriva dasa: He rejects God as a separate person.

Srila Prabhupada: If God is everything, why is He not a separate person also? There is no question of rejection. If he admits that God is everything, how can he reject God's personality?

Hayagriva dasa: Since Fichte's pantheism would not admit that God is more than the creation, he would reject the transcendental personality.

Srila Prabhupada: Then he is trying to create God after his own conceptions. But if he admits that God is everything, how can he reject God's transcendental personality? If God is everything, He is that which is transcendental, as well as what is not. Those who follow the Vedas do not reject any part of God. They see God in everything. Isavasyam idam sarvam ( Isopanisad 1). A real Vaisnava sees everything related to God. If one thinks, "This is matter, and this is spirit," he is speculating. We have to see God in relation to everything. When we do not, everything becomes material. Materialism means forgetfulness of God.

Hayagriva dasa: Most people, including Fichte, would find it difficult to concentrate on the transcendental personality of Krsna, especially when they know nothing about Krsna.

Srila Prabhupada: It requires a little intelligence and purification. Once the impurities are cleansed from the mirror of the mind, we can understand; otherwise, we think of God as a ordinary person.

tabhir ya eva nija-rupataya kalabhih
goloka eva nivasaty akhilatma-bhuto
govindam adi-purusam tam aham bhajami

"I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, who resides in His own realm, Goloka, with Radha, who resembles His own spiritual figure and who embodies the ecstatic potency [hladini]. Their companions are Her confidantes, who embody extensions of Her bodily form and who are imbued and permeated with ever-blissful spiritual rasa." (Brahma-samhita 5.37) God is a person living in Goloka Vrndavana, dancing with the gopis, and playing with the cowherd boys. Despite this, God is everywhere. It is not that because He is dancing, He has no time to go anywhere. Although He dances in Goloka Vrndavana, He is still present everywhere. Isvarah sarva-bhutanam hrd-dese. "The Supreme Lord is in everyone's heart." (Bg. 18.61) By His inconceivable potencies, God can be in one place and everywhere else simultaneously. This is the philosophy of acintya- bhedabheda-tattva—simultaneously, inconceivably one with the creation and different from it.

Hayagriva dasa: Although an impersonalist, Fichte is certainly not an inactivist. In The Vocation of Man, he writes: "Not merely to know, but according to thy knowledge to do, is thy vocation—Not for idle contemplation of thyself, not for brooding over devout sensations—no, for action art thou here; thine action, and thine action alone, determines thy worth."

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, and that is also the philosophy of our Krsna consciousness movement, which maintains that we are meant for rendering daily service to Krsna. We do not believe that you should simply sit down, smoke cigarettes, and speculate on God. What will be the use of such speculation? We advocate a practical life of action devoted to Krsna.

Hayagriva dasa: In this, Fichte seems closer to Vaisnavism than most impersonalists, who advocate inaction and meditation on the void. At the same time, how can you act without directing your action toward some person or specific goal?

Srila Prabhupada: Even in India, the impersonalists have some activities. Sankaracarya gives many vairagya instructions, which are more difficult to perform than the Vaisnava instructions. As far as Vaisnavism is concerned, Caitanya Mahaprabhu taught through His personal example that there is no time for inactivity. We should not sit idly and gossip about God or imagine what He is like. Both personalists and impersonalists are fully engaged: the impersonalists in reading Vedanta-sutra, and the personalists in rendering service unto the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

Syamasundara dasa: Fichte says that in order to understand reality, reason must follow a process called the dialectical method, which involves thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. First comes the thesis, which fails to provide an adequate solution; this gives rise to an antithesis, the opposite, which is also inadequate; the dilemma is resolved by combining the two into a synthesis.

Srila Prabhupada: The thesis is that I am trying to be master of this material world. The antithesis is that my spiritual master informs me that I am the eternal servant of God. The synthesis is that I become master and servant simultaneously, because by serving Krsna, I master my senses.

Syamasundara dasa: According to Fichte, the thesis is the ego; the antithesis is the non-ego; and the synthesis is the unification of ego and non-ego.

Srila Prabhupada: The ego arises when I think, "I am the monarch of all I survey." The antithesis is, "I am not the monarch but the servant of my senses." Through the synthesis, I become a servant of Krsna and simultaneously a master of the senses, a svami, or gosvami.

Syamasundara dasa: For Fichte, this dialectical process is endless, for each synthesis in turn becomes a new thesis, etc. However, the ultimate synthesis is the Absolute, or God.

Srila Prabhupada: It is explained in Bhagavad-gita that those who attempt to attain God in this way, through the process of mental speculation, eventually attain God, but only after many lives. However, one who is intelligent immediately surrenders when he understands God to say, "Just surrender unto Me." This saves time. You can come to the ultimate synthesis, God, by immediately surrendering. If you can perfect your life immediately, why perpetuate this process?

Syamasundara dasa: Fichte states that the original thesis, or the starting point, is the person and his consciousness, the ego. The antithesis is the object of consciousness, phenomena, the non-ego. The synthesis arises with the unification of the subject-object.

Srila Prabhupada: The Vedas admit that there is direct knowledge, then knowledge received from authority. These combine to form transcendental, spiritual knowledge. At present, our ego is false because we are thinking, "I am matter. I am this body." When we come to real knowledge, we understand that we are spirit soul. This is our true identity. The function of the individual spirit soul is to eternally serve the supreme spirit soul, Krsna.

Syamasundara dasa: For Fichte, ultimate reality is the moral ego. This is the pure will, active reason, or the good.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, God is also the ego. We say, "I am," and God also says, "I am." However, God's "I am" is superior to ours. He is the eternal primal living force. We are also eternal living force, but we are subordinate.

Hayagriva dasa: Fichte considered faith to be the real basis of action. He felt that knowledge in itself was insufficient.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, faith must be there. We see faith exhibited even amongst the lower species. We see cygnets following their mother swan into the water to swim and play. Faith is quite natural.

Hayagriva dasa: In Krsna consciousness, does faith or knowledge serve as the basis for action?

Srila Prabhupada: In the last chapter of Bhagavad-gita, Krsna tells us to abandon everything and just surrender unto Him (Bg. 18.66). Now this requires full faith. If we speculate about this, we do not have faith. In Caitanya-caritamrta, faith is described:

sraddha'-sabde—visvasa kahe sudrdha niscaya
krsne bhakti kaile sarva-karma krta haya

"By rendering transcendental loving service to Krsna, one automatically performs all subsidiary activities. This confident, firm faith, favorable to the discharge of devotional service, is called sraddha." ( Caitanya-caritamrta, Madh. 22.62) Faith means believing firmly. If we have firm faith, we will become perfect by surrendering unto Krsna. If we still have reservations, we cannot have firm faith. We may then ask how this faith comes to be, and to this, Bhagavad-gita answers:

bahunam janmanam ante
jnanavan mam prapadyate
vasudevah sarvam iti
sa mahatmasudurlabhah

"After many births and deaths, he who is actually in knowledge surrenders unto Me, knowing Me to be the cause of all causes and all that is. Such a great soul is very rare." (Bg. 7.19) This faith, therefore, is not very easily come by. Piety is also required of a candidate. Krsna appeared on the battlefield of Kuruksetra five thousand years ago, and Bhagavad-gita has recently been studied by many people like Gandhi, Dr. Radhakrishnan, Vivekananda, and Aurovinda. But where is their faith? They have taken advantage of Bhagavad-gita by interpreting it according to their own pleasure. They have never taught complete surrender unto Krsna. That requires firm faith in Krsna. In any case, in this Krsna consciousness movement, we are teaching our students how to capture Krsna through firm faith. There are many faithless people, including yogis and svamis, who are commenting on Bhagavad-gita, but this is useless. In the beginning, there must be firm faith. Faith is the foundation. If the foundation is lost, how can a big building stand?

Hayagriva dasa: Fichte believes that faith is innate in all men. He writes: "So has it been with all men who have ever seen the light of the world. Without being conscious of it, they apprehend all the reality which has an existence for them through faith alone. This faith forces itself on them simultaneously with their existence. It is born with them. How could it be otherwise?"

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, and this faith is also strengthened by experience. For instance, in the world we understand that everything has some proprietor. Since this is the case, why shouldn't the entire cosmic manifestation have a proprietor? We may not see the proprietor, but we accept His existence on faith.

Hayagriva dasa: Concerning the infallibility of conscience, Fichte writes: "This voice of my conscience announces to me precisely what I ought to do, and what leave undone, in every particular situation of life....To listen to it, to obey honestly and my true vocation, the whole end and purpose of my existence."

Srila Prabhupada: As soon as he says that he listens, he indicates that someone is speaking. That someone is God situated in everyone's heart and dictating. This is explained in Bhagavad-gita:

isvarah sarva-bhutanam
hrd-dese'rjuna tisthati
bhramayan sarva-bhutani
yantrarudhani mayaya

"The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone's heart, O Arjuna, and is directing the wanderings of all living entities, who are seated as on a machine, made of the material energy." (Bg. 18.61) Thus God is dictating to everyone. He is telling the thief, "You may go out and steal, but this is not good. If you are arrested, you'll be punished." That dictation is there, and if one disobeys and goes ahead and steals, he commits sin. God is there giving dictations within, the heart, and we may either obey or disobey. If we obey, we become devotees. As I said before, the dictations come from the heart, and also from the scriptures and the spiritual master. If we regularly disobey, how can we be happy?

Hayagriva dasa: Fichte is typical of the impersonalist in his desire to merge into what he calls "the universal Ego." He feels that this should be our ultimate goal.

Srila Prabhupada: In this material world, we all have some ego. We think, "I am the husband of this woman, I am the head of this family, I am the president of this state, and so on." These are different manifestations of ego. However, we cannot say, "I am the master of this entire universe. I am the universal ego." That is also called false ego.

Hayagriva dasa: Fichte thinks that we can go through the universe embracing and assimilating everything until we finally unify with the impersonal Absolute.

Srila Prabhupada: As soon as we speak of "Absolute," there is no distinction between the impersonal and the personal. If there is a distinction, you are not referring to the Absolute. It is contradictory to speak of the "impersonal Absolute."

Hayagriva dasa: More precisely, Fichte would consider the original thesis to be one's own consciousness, or ego; the antithesis to be the object of consciousness, sense phenomena, or the non-ego; and the synthesis to be the unification of these opposites.

Srila Prabhupada: He is distinguishing between the ego and non-ego, and between the personal and the impersonal, but in the Absolute, there are no such distinctions.

vadanti tat tattva-vidas
tattvam yaj jnanam advayam
brahmeti paramatmeti
bhagavan iti sabdyate

"Learned transcendentalists who know the Absolute Truth call this non-dual substance Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan." (Bhag. 1.2.11) In the Absolute, there is no duality. When we search for the Absolute Truth, we may realize it in three different aspects: as Brahman, as Paramatma, and as Bhagavan. Depending on our relationship to the Absolute, the Absolute appears in different ways, but this is not due to some inconsistency in the Absolute. The Absolute is always one, but due to our relative position, we see the Absolute as the impersonal all-pervading Brahman, as the localized Supersoul, or as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Bhagavan. Ultimately, the Absolute is Bhagavan, and the impersonal feature is resting on Him. Brahmano hi pratisthaham. "I am the basis of the impersonal Brahman." (Bg. 14.27) We may attempt to merge with the impersonal aspect, Brahman, but our position will not be permanent. As for merging or unifying with the Absolute Supreme Personality of Godhead, Bhagavan, this is not possible. It is not possible for the finite living entity to become the infinite God.

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