Fichte's Science of Knowledge/Chapter V
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The Not-me and its Relation to the I
THE NOT-ME AND ITS RELATION TO THE I.
WE have thus examined the one absolutely unconditioned proposition which lies at the foundation of philosophy. From this alone, however, no system of philosophy can be constructed. The affirmation of identity is complete in itself. It leaves no opening through which new thought can be developed. No movement can proceed from it. If we have only the Proposition of Identity we must remain fixed at it; we cannot move from the spot. There is needed, therefore, another proposition which, in connection with the Proposition of Identity, shall give the possibility for the development of thought and the impulse to this development. We may illustrate this by the logical syllogism. The major proposition is a simple affirmation leading to nothing; with the minor proposition comes the possibility of reasoning. We must now seek that second proposition which we need.
It will be obvious that this second proposition cannot, like the first, be wholly unconditioned. It must be in one sense dependent upon the first. If the second were wholly isolated there could be no connection between it and the first, and thus no development of thought would be possible. The proposition, A is A, and the proposition, B is B, could stand side by side forever. No system could be evolved out of the two, more than out of either by itself. On the other hand, this second proposition must not be wholly dependent upon the first. It must introduce some new element; otherwise we should not have got beyond the first, and there would be no possibility of progress.
We started with the proposition of affirmation, the Proposition of Identity. The formula, B is B, or, C is C, would be only different expressions for the formula, A is A. If our second proposition is to be distinct from the first, it must then be not a proposition of identity, but one of contradiction; we will then lay down the proposition, Not-A is not A.
This proposition will be accepted as absolutely as the first. No one would demand a proof of it any more than of that. Suppose that a proof should be demanded, it could be found only in our first proposition. We can say that according to this, Not-A = Not-A. This, however, would be simply another form of our first proposition. The negative would not be proved; it would simply be changed to a positive.
In this proposition, a Not-A is not affirmed. Whether there is a Not-A or not, is left wholly doubtful. What is affirmed, is simply the fact of contradiction. This remains the same, whether the contradictory elements do or do not exist.
In this proposition it will be seen that the form is independent, while the content is dependent.
By the statement that the form of the proposition is independent, is meant that as soon as the two elements are brought face to face, their contradictory nature is at once recognized.
So far as the dependence of the material or content is concerned, it is evident that there must be an A before there can be a —A, or a Not-A. That is, a contradiction implies something that is contradicted. The Not-A might very well, when taken by itself, be an X or a Y; but it is the recognition of the A as real or possible, that makes of it a Not-A. Further, it is obvious that within itself alone does the I find authority to pronounce the Proposition of Contradiction as well as that of Identity. It will be noticed, thus, that the identity of the I is as truly involved in the proposition of negation as in that of affirmation. Both elements, A and Not-A, must be found by the I in its own consciousness. If either were wholly in another sphere, the comparison would be impossible.
Fichte maintains that, in order to furnish a basis for the absolute certainty of the Proposition of Negation, there must underlie it a universal proposition like that which underlies the Proposition of Identity. As the absolute form of this latter is the affirmation of itself by the I, so the absolute form of the negative proposition would be the exclusion, by the I, of the Not-me from itself. As the only absolute affirmation is that made by the I of itself, so the only absolute negation would be that of what is opposed to the I.
The assumption of this absolute and original recognition of the Not-me is based by Fichte upon the fact that in no other way would the recognition of the Not-me be possible. He maintains that the common belief as to the origin of the notion of the Not-me is wholly false. This belief is that we find various objects which we recognize as not ourselves, and that from these we reach the general idea of externality. This, Fichte argues, cannot be the case, for in every object of each perception there must be something which marks it as foreign to ourselves; therefore, by no process of generalization can the idea of the Not-me be reached. This idea forms rather the basis of the recognition of the objects upon which the generalization is assumed to depend.
It will be seen that we have thus deduced the Category of Negation and the Proposition of Contradiction, as we have before deduced the Category of Reality and the Principle of Identity.
We have so far reached two results. The first is that the I posits itself, or the Me; the second is that the I posits the Not-me. These two, the Me and the Not-me, are absolutely opposed to one another; and we find ourselves involved in a contradiction that threatens to make impossible any further advance. So far as the Not-me is posited, the Me is not posited; for the Not-me is wholly opposed to the Me, and thus excludes it. On the other hand, the Not-me can only be posited so far as the Me is also posited; for the Not-me is meaningless and impossible except so far as there is a Me to which it may be opposed. From the one point of view, then, the Not-me excludes the Me; from the other, it requires the Me. We have thus two propositions that are mutually contradictory. They are, however, both involved in our second proposition; namely, that the I posits the Not-me. They are both involved in this, for the I, by its very nature, assumes its own reality. The I has no existence except so far as it posits itself. To say that the I posits the Not-me, is, then, equivalent to saying that the I posits both the Me and the Not-me. Therefore, this proposition contradicts itself, and thus is its own refutation. But it refutes itself only so far as a part of itself has validity against the other part.
The first proposition involves similar contradictions. The I in affirming itself affirms all that is posited in itself. But our second proposition is posited in the I, and since it has proved its own destruction, it is not posited in the I, therefore the identity of the I is broken up, and the proposition that affirmed it is proved false. But our first proposition must be true. The unity of consciousness is involved in it, and the unity of consciousness, which is our starting point, must be recognized and preserved through our whole discussion.
Our problem, then, is to unite elements that are absolutely opposed. To posit the Me and the Not-me, is like positing X and —X, the result of which would be zero. The result, however, is not zero. Each step of our progress has been taken carefully; the results are absolutely founded. We can give up nothing. We must reconcile the elements as best we can.
We can find the solution of the problem by no analysis. We must proceed by way of experiment; that is, we must take some method, such as seems best adapted to the purpose, and try whether it will or will not serve our need. The method that most naturally occurs to us is to qualify the antagonism, and to make of it a partial contradiction. The one element shall not wholly cancel the other; it shall only limit it. The Me, which was at first regarded as absolute and co-extensive with the absolute subject, shall be limited by the Not-me; and the Not-me shall be limited by the Me. But the idea of limitation implies divisibility. It does not imply a definite quantity, but the capacity for a definite quantity. Divisibility, then, is the means by which our problem shall be solved and the contradictories reconciled. The Me and the Not-me are each regarded as divisible. We thus reach our third fundamental proposition; namely, A divisible Not-me is posited over against a divisible Me.
Through this process does each element become something. The absolute I is not anything. It has and can have no predicate. To say of an unknown substance that it is, is to say nothing. We need to say what it is, to apply to it predicates. A predicate, however, implies a distinguishing, and thus a limiting. Through the process which we have followed, we have something definite. By means of it, there comes into consciousness all reality, the reality of the Me and the reality of the Not-me. Whatever reality does not pertain to the one, does pertain to the other. Besides the Me and the Not-me there is nothing.
We just deduced the Category of Reality, next that of Negation, and have now deduced that of Limitation.
These three propositions are so fundamental to the system of Fichte, that it may be well to bring them together, and state them in a somewhat clearer form.
The first is this: The I posits itself; or, in other words: The I posits the Me. This proposition is absolute, both as regards its form and its content.
The second proposition is this: The I posits the Not-me. This proposition is limited as to its content, but absolute as to its form.
The third proposition, in its most abstract form, is this: The I posits the Me and the Not-me as limiting one another. This last proposition is determined, so far as its form is concerned. This means that the nature of its form was forced upon it by the nature of the problem of which it is the solution. In its content, it is absolute and free, because the solution of the problem is the result of an original and independent judgment.
Perhaps, before going farther, we should make perfectly clear the meaning of these propositions. Their meaning is so simple as hardly to need explanation, were it not that their very simplicity is misleading. The danger, as Fichte himself says, is not that the reader shall not think in regard to these propositions that which they really mean, but that he shall think a great deal that is foreign to this meaning. We have in these propositions simply an analysis of the facts of consciousness; of consciousness, not as it exists in the mind of the philosopher alone, but as it is universal, as it is found even in the mind of the simplest and the most ignorant. Yet these propositions have been misunderstood even by careful students, as well as by that general public where misunderstanding might be expected.
Perhaps the first proposition has been sufficiently explained. That the I affirms itself, is simply the central fact of all self-consciousness. That it thereby creates itself, that it thereby constitutes itself an I, is a simple truism growing out of our ordinary definition of the I; namely, that it is the self-conscious subject.
The second proposition has caused the most serious misunderstanding. To say that the I posits the Not-me, has been understood to mean that the I creates its own world. By the Not-me has been understood the realities of the universe; and to make these dependent upon any individual consciousness has seemed absurd, if not impious. Kuno Fischer has well stated these misunderstandings, and has shown how foolish and baseless they are. That the Not-me, as such, is dependent upon the I is, he urges, a simple truism. The negative, as such, always depends upon the positive. The inorganic world, as such, depends upon the organic, that is, the inorganic world is only such in contrast with the organic. If there were no organs, real or imagined, the world might consist of stones and water, or whatever other elements might be blended with these, but the word inorganic would never be applied to it. Fischer goes a step further. He shows that the world of objects, as such, is dependent upon the I. By objects we do not mean things in themselves; we mean things as they appear to us. Without the sight, there would be no color; without the ear, no sound; without the sense of feeling, that which we know as resistance would not exist for us; yet out of these elements is formed our whole world of objects,—trees and rocks, or whatever else goes to the making up of the world in which we have our conscious being. By such reasoning does Fischer seek to make clear the meaning of Fichte’s fundamental propositions, or at least to take away their apparent absurdity. Fischer, however, though in general so competent an interpreter of Fichte, does not in this discussion bring out the real simplicity of the propositions under consideration. I have referred to his exposition rather to complete the list of possible misunderstandings than as in any sort an explanation.
What Fischer says, is strictly in accordance with the general thought of Fichte, but it is not the thought that Fichte expresses in the proposition under discussion. We may even find that Fichte teaches that, in the phrase used above, the I does create its own world. This is not, however, what he teaches here. It must be repeated that by the word, posit, as here used, is meant simply to recognize or assume. To say that the I posits the Me, is simply to affirm the fact of self-consciousness. To say that the I posits the Not-me, is simply to say that we recognize a world that is not ourselves. To say that the I posits the Me and the Not-me as mutually determining or limiting one another, is simply to say that we posit ourselves, or seem to find ourselves, in a world in which we have power to affect our environment, and in which our environment affects us. To understand these propositions, is not needed the analysis of the psychologist. We have presented in them that which is the content of the consciousness of the peasant and philosopher alike. The only fear that one can have in regard to them, when rightly understood, is, that they shall appear truisms too familiar for formal utterance. We must bear in mind, however, the results that have already been gained by the analysis, and must remember, also, that the elaboration of the system of Fichte, the real sweep of his method, has not yet been reached. When we come to analyze still further these propositions, it will be found that, however simple they may appear, they contain contradictions that may challenge, if they do not set at naught, our profoundest thought.
One other point needs explanation. The infinite I is not infrequently spoken of by Fichte, in contrast with the finite or the limited I. This term, the infinite I, has furnished matter for much misunderstanding. The term is so large and imposing that it has seemed to many that it must represent that absolute being in which all finite spirits are contained. Here, however, we have to do simply with the results of the analysis of self-consciousness. The meaning of the words, the infinite I, can, perhaps, be best illustrated by some proposition of which I is the subject. We will take the proposition: I am bound by these chains. There is implied by this the recognition, by the speaker, of the fact that, if he were not bound by the chains, he would be free; as well as of the fact that he is actually bound. He could not be bound, in the sense in which he uses the term, if, unbound, he would not be free. The potentially free and the actually bound I are both recognized by the proposition; and both are equally necessary for its meaning. Similar elements are assumed in every act of consciousness. All states of consciousness imply limit. It matters not whether the state of consciousness be pleasant or disagreeable, voluntary or involuntary, this state implies that I am in some way acted upon, or determined by something foreign to myself. The self is divided; a part of it is excluded and is replaced by the object of consciousness. In this, there is implied the recognition of a self that, but for this, or some other limitation, would be unlimited. This is what Fichte means by the infinite self as contrasted with the self that recognizes itself as limited or determined by some foreign element. This infinite self does, however, sometimes affirm itself as unlimited. When it is conscious of freedom, when it recognizes or utters the demands of the moral law, it then acts from itself alone. It utters not what it has received from without, but that which it has found within itself.
The infinite I will be the subject of further discussion as we advance.
- Fischer: Geschichte der Neuen Philosophie, Second Edition, V, 438.
- Sämmtliche Werke, I, 144.