Fichte's Science of Knowledge/Chapter XI
CHAPTER XI. 
TRANSITION TO ONTOLOGY.
We have thus considered Fichte’s earliest statement of his philosophy. It is, for the most part, concerned with psychological studies. It analyzes consciousness, and constructs a phenomenology of the human spirit. The problems, which, as we have seen, presented themselves in relation to the system of Kant, are, to a large extent, solved. The Categories and the faculties of the mind are shown in their organic relations to one another, and to the mind itself. The theoretical and the practical reason are also seen in their relation to one another. Each is seen to be dependent upon the other; thus the three absolutes which Fichte found in Kant, namely, the Practical Reason, the Theoretical Reason, and the Principle of Unity,—the supernatural element which manifests itself in both—are reduced to one. The I itself, with its infinite possibilities, is the supernatural element in which the theoretical and the practical reason coexist in an organic relation to one another. The Thing-in-itself is put at least in a somewhat clearer light. The contradiction, which was latent in the system of Kant, has at least been brought to consciousness. Kant, by a seeming oversight, applied, contrary to his fundamental principle, the Category of Causation to a thing outside the mind, upon which the objective world, created by the mind itself, had a certain dependence. Fichte makes clear the contradiction involved in this process, while he denies that Kant was guilty of the inconsequence. He shows, however, that this is an inconsequence that we cannot help committing. The difficulty that admits of no theoretical solution he solves practically. At least, he cuts the knot which he cannot untie. He believes that he has found the nature of the Categorical Imperative, and the ground of its absoluteness. It is the infinite nature of the I, asserting itself, and seeking to make itself wholly free of the limits by which it is confined. So far as these results are concerned, we are wholly within the sphere of Kant’s system. Indeed, Fichte regards his own system as furnishing in some sort the prolegomena to that of Kant. He leaves the student where Kant may take him up.
In all this there appear, however, indications of another side to the system of Fichte. We have only a psychology; but this, when we examine it closely, appears to involve an ontology. Difficulties still meet us, which could hardly have escaped the keen vision of Fichte. There are obvious contradictions. There is, in many aspects of the system, an incompleteness, which, it would seem, Fichte himself must have felt.
One difficulty that strikes every reader is the seeming solitariness of the I. We have been studying a single individual. We have had no hint of any reason why we should recognize other individuals, or of the relation in which we might stand to them. The world of men would seem to be, like the world of things, the creation of the productive imagination. At the same time, Fichte speaks, as a matter of course, of other individuals, thus showing that he recognized this world of men, of which his system itself would tell us nothing. Here, certainly, is a point that needs explanation.
The relation of the self-assertion of the I to the Categorical Imperative is one in regard to which some mighty assumption must have been made by Fichte, of which he has given us no hint. Kuno Fischer emphasizes what has been called the Faust-like and Titanic character of the I of Fichte. The cry of Faust was, “If ever I lay myself quietly upon a bed of rest, it will be all over with me.” So might the I speak, in the system that we are studying. Its very being is in its activity. Titan-like, it would scale the heavens; it would become infinite. This gives us a sense of awe, as if we were in the presence of some tremendous force of nature. With Fichte, however, the thought of this Titanic struggle suggests something more than awe. It calls for reverence. It manifests the loftiest ethical aspiration. It stands for the moral law itself. Surely, Fichte must have had something in his thought, which he has not yet told us.
The solution of the problem concerning the Thing in-itself is certainly very unsatisfactory. It is unsatisfactory in the same sense as is the statement last referred to, in that it gives us the feeling that the whole story is not yet told. Here, too, Fichte would seem to have had a background, or basis, for his thought. He tells us that this unknown something, against which the activity of the I impinges, may be only a limit. In fact, it is as a mere limit that this something is all along regarded. In his paper upon The Ground of Our Faith in a Divine Government of the World, Fichte states that these limits are, so far as their origin is concerned, indeed incomprehensible. “But what does this concern thee?” says the practical philosophy; “the meaning of them is the clearest and the most certain thing that there is; they form thy special place in the moral ordering of the world.” This definite and confident speaking of what was at first spoken of so vaguely, shows that the whole matter was, from the beginning, much more clearly mapped out in the thought of Fichte than might appear from his language.
The System of Ethics published in 1798—and thus included in the period of Fichte’s life at Jena, and in what is known as his earlier period—brings us some steps nearer to the Ontology. It does tins simply by presenting in a sharper contradiction the elements that have already seemed so discordant. This work, so far as its relation to the philosophy of Fichte is concerned, covers ground which had been, in part, occupied by his treatise on Natural Rights. The work begins with a fresh analysis of consciousness. We are told that the I perceives itself only under the form of will. There are but two elements of our inner life; namely, consciousness and will. This being so, there remains as the object of consciousness only the will. The I, then, is intellectual; the Me represents the act of willing. Although we recognize the I and the Me as one, we cannot unite them in a single thought. Each is precisely what the other is not. They are antithetical, and we cannot reconcile them so that they shall become one. The real self is an X. It is the unknown and unthinkable somewhat that manifests itself in both the theoretical and practical reason, in the I and the Me. The I, however, as we have said, finds the Me represented by volition. We therefore assume that the nature itself consists of will. By will, is here meant what we have before known as the longing, or the activity, which constitutes the nature of the I.
We now see how we arrive at this conception. But how do we know that this idea is not a delusion? Other things that make up the world of objects, we know, are not that for which they would pass themselves. How do we know that this perception of the self, as will, is not also delusive? This is something that we cannot know. There is no reason that we can give why, so far as our being is concerned, there may not be an unknown background of the reality, which is something wholly different from the will. Fichte here lays down the somewhat startling proposition that we stop with the will, because we will to do so; that this practical activity really constitutes our nature, is a matter of faith. This faith we accept by an act of voluntary determination. This position Herbart refers to as taking all rational basis from the system of Fichte. It is, however, only the extreme application of the same principle that has been accepted by Fichte, as it was accepted by Kant, as the solvent of all ultimate difficulties. It is the principle of the Postulate. The practical aspect of life is seen to be so imperative that we postulate whatever is needed for its realization. This principle is here carried so far that the absoluteness of this practical element of life is itself postulated. It is felt that no other view of life would be worthy of the grandeur which, we feel, must belong to it. Therefore, we determine that we will accept this, and abide by it.
In the treatise on Ethics, and especially in that on Natural Rights, the deduction of the outer world is more fully carried out than in the earlier work; though what is stated in these is in accord with the views before expressed. As we postulate, on the one side, the active element of life as constituting its essence, so, on the other side, we postulate whatever is needed to make this activity real. This activity tends to causation; therefore we must assume an outer material world upon which it can act. Further, this activity is the living according to reason. Reason, however, is impossible to the subject, unless it has already found not merely reality, but rationality, outside itself. Through rationality in the object, does the subject, itself reach rationality. Thus we must assume rational beings as existing around us. Again, in order to act upon the outer world, we must have an instrument that is identified in a special manner with ourselves. We thus postulate an articulated body.
We have thus reached the basis upon which rests our faith in the external world. This basis is that impulse to activity which has before been identified with the moral law. We assume the existence of a world of persons and things outside of us in order that the impulse of duty may be fulfilled. Duty is thus the one reality upon which all else depends.
It, is from these considerations that Fichte, by a change of phrase, speaks of duty as the Thing-in-itself.
Hegel compares the process of construction which we have thus considered, to the method adopted by Natural Theology. In this, each thing is considered in reference to some special end, which is, for the most part, directly or indirectly related to human well-being. In another connection Hegel satirizes this method in Natural Theology, by saying that if the vine is made that man may have wine, the cork tree exists that he may have corks for his wine bottles. The point of Hegel’s criticism in both cases is the clumsy and piecemeal character of the work. Each thing is taken by itself, and finds its relation to the universe to consist in some special aptitude to meet some special need. There is no sweep of one grand movement of deduction in which each has its place, no organic unity resting upon some universal principle. Such simplicity and organic unity is the aim of the system of Hegel. In comparison with this, the method of Fichte seemed to consist in the use of one makeshift after another.
We now meet a turn in the thought of Fichte more sudden and startling than any which has yet presented itself. It is, indeed, the turning point of his system, and thus the real transition to his Ontology. To make this clear, we must return for a moment to our central principle. The end of our being is complete independence. The I tends to assert itself absolutely. This self-assertion is the substance of duty itself. It is also that which we mean by reason. The I alone is to be the subject of this independence; thus the impulse is a striving after I-hood. Now it lies in the nature of I-hood that every I must be an individual; the requirement, however, is for individuality in general. It is not necessary that I-hood should he represented by this individual or that—by A, B, or C. It must he represented by an individual, but by no individual in particular. So far as I-hood is concerned, it is perfectly indifferent that I, the individual A, am A rather than B. The absolute independence of A, therefore—that is, of myself as A—is a matter of indifference. Absolute rationality, absolute I-hood, is our final goal, but not rationality and I-hood as connected with any particular individual. Thus I myself, considered as an individual, am not the end in which the impulse of duty is to he fulfilled. I am but an instrument for this end. My striving after self-assertion is only the method by which the absolute demand for I-hood, or independence, is accomplishing itself. Before, we regarded the body as the instrument for the attainment of the independence of the I. Now, we see that the whole individual is this instrument. We have thus separated the individual and empirical I from the pure I, or from I-hood in general.
The impulse to the fulfilling of I-hood. or of perfect independence, is equivalent to the demand of the moral law or rationality. I demand morality—that is to say, rationality or independence—absolutely. Whether this end is reached within me, or outside of me, is a matter of indifference. The end of my being is accomplished as truly when others act morally, as when I act morally.
Elsewhere in the same treatise, The System of Ethics, Fichte speaks of the end toward which the impulse to independence is ever working, as the complete annihilation of the individual, and its absorption into the pure form of rationality, or into God. But, though this is the final goal of finite reason, it is a goal that can never become actually reached.
The apparent contradiction which is here uttered is nothing new to us. We have traced this from the very beginning of the development of the system of Fichte. We found it in the fact that the assertion of its independence by the I, is made synonymous with duty. It shows itself in the fact that the pursuit of independence is called the living according to reason. We here find only the climax of the contradiction, when it is openly stated that the end of self-assertion is self-effacement.
We may now see how mistaken is the impression which one would receive from a superficial examination of these earlier statements of the system of Fichte. We might, at the first glance, suspect that his eagerness for independence sprang from the influence received by him in his youth, from the French Revolution. We have seen how far the independence of which Fichte speaks, is from the Revolutionists’ dream of liberty. It is an independence that is one with self-surrender. The individuality with which we start becomes transformed to a universality in which all have their place. We have thus the indications of a philosophy of religion that has not as yet been fully stated.
It is now possible to understand better than before what Fichte means by the infinite I. To do this perfectly, it is necessary to compare the statements which he makes in different connections. Earlier, we have found him affirming that the limited I and the infinite I should be one. Later, in a letter to Jacobi, Fichte affirms that the infinite I is not the individual, but that the individual I should be deduced from the absolute.
One of the most instructive passages on this subject is the following:
“The object of the moral law, that in which it can alone find its goal set forth, is nothing individual. It is reason in general. The moral law has, in a certain sense, itself for its object. I, as an. intelligence, place this reason outside of me. The whole community of reasonable beings outside of me is its manifestation. This exclusion of the absolute reason from myself is the act of the moral law, considered as a theoretical principle. This exclusion of the pure I from myself must then be insisted upon in the system of ethics; therefore the empirical I or the individual I will alone be called I.”
The absolute reason and the pure Tare here identified. This, by whichever term we name it, is placed outside of myself, and is manifested by all men taken together, except myself. Our first thought would, perhaps, be that the universal reason is regarded as having broken itself up into individuals, all of whom manifest it more perfectly than any one can do. The pure reason would be then behind all and in all. This cannot be the meaning; for why should I, as an individual, not be included in this manifestation? We remember that the individual who speaks—thus representing any individual—was himself the one in whom, as he believed, the absolute thought was more nearly uttered than it had been by anyone before or beside him. Why is not he a part of this manifestation? One is tempted further, in a vague and general way, to regard this pure reason, or pure I, as God. This cannot be, for if anything is maintained from first to last by Fichte, it is the doctrine that an infinite I is a contradiction in terms. The infinite I is the goal of my being, a goal that it can never reach; it is in no sense the source of my being. Holding fast to this principle, we find a meaning in the passage: “The goal of my activity is, by the moral law, placed outside of me. I am to live not for myself, but for others.” We now understand why, for each, the manifestation of this pure reason, or this pure I, is found in all men but himself. Duty requires that he should forget himself. We can now understand, also, the difference between this statement and the earlier. When our business was psychological, we recognized the power of the pure I in the thrusting aside of all limit. The ideal was as if within us, longing to be fulfilled. Now that our business is ethical, we regard the ideal as outside of us, summoning us to its accomplishment. Both forms of statement mean the same thing, only each regards it from a different point of view. For, accord wig to the former point of view, the term I could be used vaguely and indifferently to cover either or both forms of the I; according to the latter, the I is regarded as the individual seeking that universal element which is its true self, as if it were something foreign to itself.
The development, by Fichte, of his Philosophy of Religion, or, what is the same thing, of his Ontology, is very gradual. In these earlier works we have only hints of it. In his impassioned utterance in regard to the Dignity of Man, which was delivered about the time of the publication of the first statement of his system, Fichte shows that he has such a philosophy, though he gives little indication of its real nature. The utterance is an exaltation of the individual man. It concludes, however, with the statement that all individuals are included in the one great unity of the pure spirit. In a note, he guards against confounding this view with that of Spinoza. The unity of the pure spirit, he says, is, with him, an unattainable ideal. In the passage from the System of Ethics to which reference has already been made, some light is thrown upon the expression, Unity of the Spirit. The unity of the spirit will be reached when all individuals are lost in God; but this can only be at the end of an eternal progress. Unity of the spirit is then oneness with God. We can now understand how the position of Fichte differs at this point from that of Spinoza. With Spinoza, all beings are one with God; with Fichte, they tend to become so.
In his article on The Ground of Our Faith in a Divine Government of the World, and in the publications in which he defended this, Fichte takes a step forward in the development of his Philosophy of Religion. God, we are here told, is the moral ordering of the universe. This is a phrase which is naturally misunderstood. Not only our common habit of thought, but even the system of Kant, tends to suggest a false explanation of it. By a moral ordering of the universe we might naturally understand that relation of things by which, in Kant’s phrase, happiness is made proportionate to well-doing. It would be, then, an ordering by which poetic justice is rendered to all; the wicked are punished, and the good rewarded. Nothing could be farther from the thought of Fichte. With him, morality is severed from all that is foreign to it. It is not designed to minister to happiness. It is its own end; and everything must minister to it. By the moral ordering of the universe, Fichte means the fact that morality constitutes the essence of the universe. He means that the moral impulse forms the very substance of our own nature, and that it shapes for us the external world; that all without us is the postulate of duty, and that all within us is the impulse of duty. That power which works in all toward the accomplishment of the highest demand of duty is what ho here calls God. God is the power in us that makes for righteousness. That mighty impulse by which all are borne on toward this common end is the power and the presence of God. He constitutes the whole of this mighty movement, as we constitute, each in his place, a part of it. Religion that contains anything foreign to this element of duty is superstition. Fichte makes light of the common arguments for the divine existence. He mocks at those who base their faith upon the fact that the world ministers to the happiness of man. “Yes,” he cries, “keep on, pious soul, tasting how sweet are these grapes and how spicy this apple, that you may learn to prize aright the goodness of God! Poor, perhaps well meaning, but blind babbler, all the pleasantness that is scattered through your sensuous existence is not there that you may brood piously over it; but that your strength may be increased, animated, exalted, in order that you may joyfully perform the work of God on earth.”
Other forms of argument for the divine existence fare no better at his hands. He urges that, if the world is a real and solid fact, it is, once for all, what it is, and needs no explanation, and admits of none. If, on the other hand, the world is, as the idealist believes, not an external, solid fact, but the product of the imagination, then there is left no place for reasoning, based on the idea of its creation. The failure of these arguments need, however, cause no uneasiness to the devout mind. He who has once felt the impulse of the moral life, which is the life of God in the soul, needs no argument to prove the reality of the Divine Being. He is as sure of it as he is of his own consciousness.
The thought of Fichte in regard to the being of God differed from that ordinarily held, as widely as the ground upon which he believed in the divine reality differed from that upon which this faith is ordinarily based. We have only two schemata, or forms of conception and representation of reality. We conceive of reality, either under the form of activity, or that of extended matter. We can think of God only under the form of activity. Such words as substance and being, belong under the second of the schemata. Both are abstractions from the experience of material things. We cannot, then, in strictness, speak, as I have just spoken, of the Divine Being. In the phrase of the schoolmen, God is actus purus.
He denies consciousness to God; but, when he does this he means, he tells us, “our own consciousness, such consciousness as we can understand.” Materially speaking, if we may express the incomprehensible in such manner as is possible to us, the divinity must be affirmed to be pure consciousness. It is intelligence, pure intelligence, spiritual life and activity. We have here a thought like that of the Hindu philosophers of the Upanishads and the Vedanta. According to these philosophers, God is the pure intelligence, but, being infinite, has not consciousness, for there is no consciousness without duality. In Fichte’s phrase, with which we are already familiar, there can be no knowledge of the Me, without that of the Not-me; and to the infinite there can be no Not-me, and thus there can be no Me.
We have here another indication that Fichte had in his mind a scheme of ontology, which he has so far not communicated to us. God, he tells us, is intelligence without consciousness. We have before seen that the moral life within us is a manifestation of the divine life; and we might suppose that this statement exhausted the thought of the life of God. The distinction that we have just noticed, shows that this would be an error. We possess intelligence, existing under the form of consciousness. If our higher life exhausted, at any one moment, the life of God, it would be as true to say that he possesses consciousness, as that he is intelligence. The fact that pure intelligence, and not consciousness, is ascribed to him, shows that there is a divine reality above and beyond our little existences. The thought of Fichte is thus seen not to be, as yet, fully stated.
We have thus examined the more important statements of Fichte in regard to God, as they are contained in the works of his “earlier” period. We approach his later works, not expecting to find a new philosophy, but expecting the completion, and thus the explanation, of his earlier writings.
- Sämmtliche Werke, I, 411.
- Sämmtliche Werke, I, 122 (Grundlage): Nur dass eines Jeden Ich selbst die einzige höchste Substanz ist.
- Fischer: Geschichte der Neuen Philosophie, zweite Auflage, V, 491.
- Sämmtliche Werke, V, 184, et seq.
- Das System der Sittenlehre, Sämmtliche Werke, IV.
- Grundlage ties Naturrechts. Sämmtliche Werke. III.
- Sämmtliche Werke, IV, 42.
- Sämmtliche Werke, IV, 26 and 53-4.
- Same III, 23-85.
- Sämmtliche Werke. V, 211.
- Sämmtliche Werke, IV, 231.
- Sittenlehre, Sämmtliche Werke, IV, 151.
- “My absolute I is obviously not the individual. So have angry courtiers and disgusted philosophers explained me, in order to fasten upon me the shameful doctrine of a practical egoism. But the individual must be deduced from the absolute I. This deduction the Science of Knowledge will soon accomplish in the system of rights.”—Fichte’s Leben, etc., II, 166.
- Sämmtliche Werke, IV, 254-5.
- Sämmtliche Werke. I, 412, et seq.
- Sämmtliche Werke, V.
- Same, V, 186, 261.
- Sämmtliche Werke, V, 261.
- Same, V, 221.
- Sämmtliche Werke. V. 179-80.
- Same, V, 210-11.
- Same, V, 259-60.
- Same, V, 261.
- Sämmtliche Werke, V, 266.