- Vorlesungen über die Bestimmungen des Gelehrten 1811, Rechtslehre 1812, Sittenlehere 1812
This volume is the third in a series of six which, when completed, will make available in less expensive and more practical pocket-book format Fichte’s 1810–1812 Berlin lecture notes, otherwise also available in the now completed Gesamtausgabe. The series was conceived, however, with more than just this practical aim in mind. Since the editors do not present it as a “critical edition,” they can afford to take liberties that were not permitted in the Gesamtausgabe, yet render the text much more accessible to the reader. For instance, the editors regularly complete words and sentences that Fichte leaves abbreviated; make explicit otherwise ambiguous references; and also include in the series the student transcripts that we have of some of the lectures, which in places greatly help to decipher their meaning. The first published volume was devoted to the new versions of the Wissenschaftslehre presented by Fichte in 1810–1811; the second to student transcripts of these lectures. The present volume, as its title indicates, includes three cycles of lectures dedicated to ethical and religious subjects.
All of them are reprises of themes on which Fichte had earlier already lectured and published. The first, “On the Vocation of the Scholar,” had two antecedents, in 1789 and 1806. The second, “On the Philosophy of Right,” had its antecedent in the Grundlage des Naturrechts of 1797; and the third, “On Ethics,” in the Sittenlehre of 1798. However, despite this thematic continuity with the past, and in the case of the first two cycles (but definitely not the third) also the similarity of content, there was a wide difference that separated them from the earlier works—a difference due to the fact that while the themes remained nominally the same, their place within the architectonic of the Wissenschaftslehre had nonetheless changed, for that architectonic had shifted in the meantime. It is this shift, and the break with the past that it entailed, that make these lectures especially significant.
To see this difference, one must read the lectures in conjunction with the 1810–1811 versions of the Wissenschaftslehre reproduced in the series’s first volume. Even better, one should read them also in conjunction with the 1804 version of the Wissenschaftslehre, and the related Anweisung zum seligen Leben oder auch Religionslehre of 1806, two texts dating back to a time when Fichte was rethinking his position, defining it with respect to both Schelling and Jacobi. The result of this self-reappraisal was that Fichte dropped the egological structure that he had previously given to his Science: he dropped it because of the insurmountable difficulties inherent in it, replacing the “I” that governed it with the idea of the Absolute. In this, he seemed to be imitating Schelling. The big difference, however, was that whereas Schelling spoke of the Absolute in positive terms (as if, in Heinrich Heine’s cynical assessment, the Absolute had spoken to him in person), Fichte undertook the task of developing the phenomenology of a mind that knows that its experiences are conditioned by the presence of a transcendent One, which it cannot however comprehend; that in trying to comprehend this One in itself, it in fact never reaches further than a subjective idea of it. Accordingly, Fichte began to tread a via negativa, constructing a system of concepts that, in being constructed, deliberately deconstruct themselves, precisely in order to be true to themselves. [End Page 132]
One can see how, in such a context, old themes would have acquired new meaning. This is a turn that, at least so far as the lectures on ethics are concerned, is palpably visible. The lectures differed entirely from their 1798 antecedent, both in content and structure. In the economy of the new Wissenschaftslehre, where true existence amounted to recognizing one’s nothingness, ethics could be no more...