Fichte's Science of Knowledge/Chapter XII
THE work of Fichte entitled, The Way to the Blessed Life, has been generally accepted as the best exponent of what has been often regarded as his later philosophy. In this work, he insists upon the idea of absolute being, as contrasted with existence. For this idea there seemed no basis in his earlier writings; and therefore it has been supposed that Fichte was here taking a position largely, if not wholly, different from that which he had before occupied. This view has been held, in spite of the fact that Fichte, in the preface to this work, insists that his system has undergone no change since its first utterance.
In deciding the question whether or not the assumption of a change in the philosophy of Fichte be correct, everything depends upon the sense in which the word, Being, is used. The needed explanation is found in more scientific statements, which belong also to the later period. These show that being is affirmed in a sense wholly different from that in which its reality had earlier been denied, and in a sense wholly in accord with the system of Fichte, as it had been taught from the beginning.
We can best reach the thought of Fichte, by affirming with him the absoluteness of knowledge. By knowledge, he means not subjective knowledge, mine and yours, but something independent of all individual existence, the sphere in which, and through which, all individual consciousness exists. All being, he tells us, is knowledge. By this affirmation, he excludes everything that is foreign to thought. We have what Fichte was pleased to hear described as an “inverted Spinozism.” Spinoza made thought an attribute of being or substance. Fichte found being in thought itself. Fichte insisted upon the absurdity that was involved in the attempt of Spinoza to have a philosophy of being, independent of thought, whereas, so soon as we speak of being, or think of it, it has become a thought. This idea of absolute knowledge, we have already found involved in Fichte’s earlier discussion.
When we look at the matter more closely, however, we find that knowledge itself cannot be the Absolute. As Fichte phrases it, it is absolute knowledge, but not the Absolute. The Absolute has no limiting epithet. It is not absolute anything; it is simply itself. When we look at the matter closely, we see that this distinction here insisted upon is nothing formal or artificial, but one to which we are driven by the processes of our own thought. The Absolute, in the strict sense of the word, must be regarded as a perfect unity. Knowledge involves, by its very nature, a dualism. Knowledge implies both subject and object, even although these may not be consciously separated. If we regard our own consciousness as representing, in a concrete form, the knowledge of which Fichte speaks, the point under consideration will become clear. In consciousness we have two elements, the I and the Me. The I is not the real being manifested by the personality. It represents this being. It is its image. It is the form under which it exists: but of this being itself, we can have no conception, except that we may consider it as the ultimate reality which manifests itself through the I and the Me. Thus the absolute knowledge of which Fichte speaks is merely the existence or manifestation of the real Absolute, which can be thought of only as manifesting itself under this form. To this Absolute Fichte gives the name of God, when he uses this name in its highest and most distinctive sense. He still speaks, however, of life in that knowledge which forms the Divine existence, as life in God. The relation between knowledge—which is the form of the Divine existence—and the Absolute Being, is thus expressed in The Way to the Blessed Life: “The real life of knowledge is therefore in its root, the inner being and essence of the Absolute itself; and there is between the Absolute, or God, and knowledge, in the deepest root of its life, no difference; but the two become lost in one another.”
It will be seen that we are still in the sphere within which the system of Fichte would confine us from the first. There is no reality but thought, and that which is involved in the very fact of thought itself. Although the phraseology of the system sometimes resembles that of Spinoza, the difference between Fichte and Spinoza is as wide as ever, and every criticism upon Spinoza, in Fichte’s earlier works, would be wholly in place in these later ones.
The relations that have been described, and those which grew out of them, are presented by Fichte with great freedom, and under various forms. These presentations become, in some respects, more and more elaborate; the latest—those connected with his teaching in the University at Berlin—being the most marked in this respect. While the form varies, however, the point of view and the central thought remain the same.
We have, in all presentations, the distinction between being and existence or manifestation, the nature of which I have already explained. In the more elaborate statements we have this existence presented under three forms, or stages, sometimes called the images of Himself projected by God, and sometimes the schemata under which He is manifested. The first of these is pure existence, or, more definitely, pure knowledge.
This is absolute, unchanging, and unbroken. This, Fichte more than once compares to the Word, which, according to St. John, was with God and was God. This knowledge does not extend to itself. It does not involve consciousness. To the very close of his philosophical work, Fichte insisted that for consciousness there must be limitation; but this absolute knowledge has no limit, and thus no consciousness. Not only has it no consciousness; it has no power of activity—for action, no less than consciousness, implies duality.
The second of the schemata under which the Absolute Being finds its manifestation, is that by which, alone, activity and consciousness can be attained. This is Life. It, is spoken of as an endless stream which concentrates itself into points of consciousness. This life, in order to attain to complete self-consciousness, requires not only the subjective element manifested in these points of concentration; it needs, also, an objective element. It must manifest itself to itself. If, for the subjective factor, it needs to concentrate itself into points, for the objective element it needs also to be broken up, to assume the form of quantification. The infinite, as such, can no more be perceived than it can perceive. This life must, therefore, manifest itself by degrees and piecemeal. It must exist under the form of time. Time is the unrolling of the panorama of endless existence. In this process of life, each individual has his place, and thus his special work, in relation to the great whole.
We have thus presented two schemata; knowledge, and knowledge of knowledge, which is consciousness. This is developed under the form of life. One more step is, however, to be taken. In life, we have self-knowledge; but it is not conscious of itself as self-knowledge. This self-knowledge must itself be raised to a higher power. To state this more fully: In life, the individual has knowledge. The universe of thought and life is open to it. It stands, however, more or less as a stranger. It feels itself surrounded by objects that are more or less foreign to itself. It knows; but it does not know that the object of its knowledge is itself. The third of the schemata under which absolute being is manifested, is thus the consciousness of self-consciousness. This highest stage is reached by philosophy. More especially is it first fully reached by the Science of Knowledge. This first attains to the thought that knowledge, not being, is the only object of philosophy. It first, therefore, reaches the thought of the absoluteness of knowledge; and thus does it reach the full idea that in knowledge the I finds only itself—that thereby it comes face to face with the absoluteness of its own nature.
In the study of Fichte’s earlier works we were gradually approaching the results just stated. In doing this we were conscious of moving with difficulty. At every step elements were introduced that could not have been deduced from earlier stages. We started with the expectation that the system was to grow as if from a single root. At every step we have been disappointed. Independence or self-assertion was made synonymous with duty. Why this was so we could not see. Next, we were startled with the statement that self-assertion, carried out to its absolute result, became self-effacement. Further, as the thought of the I was developed as if it stood alone, we could not understand whence came the other I’s to which reference was made. Then, without explanation or preparation, appeared the great name of God. Finally, an explanation of this name was given, but one which left contradictions still to be explained.
The trouble was that we were starting at the wrong end of the system. We began, indeed, where Fichte began; but he began with what most interested him at the time, and with what he had most thoroughly wrought out. Indeed, of all his statements, none is so perfect as his first. We have seen, in the short sketch of the life of Fichte, how continually he was interrupted in his philosophic work. It must be confessed, too, that Fichte could not easily put himself into the point of view of his readers. He could not realize that they did not know all that he knew, and that, for them, there was not the same background of philosophic thought that there was for him. Thus he was surprised at misapprehensions for which he himself was largely responsible.
However all this may be, when we have reached the Ontology we have found a point of view from which the system becomes a unit. Whatever difficulties or contradictions may remain, at least ail those that have thus far troubled us disappear.
We now see the true nature of the I. It consists of two elements. It is at once the universal and the individual. It is one of the points of concentration at which the Absolute Life becomes conscious of itself. Its being is, then, at heart, this Absolute Life, of which it is a manifestation. We understand now something of the nature of that limit which suggests to the I, whose activity impinges upon it, the thought of the Not-me. We see now that Fichte had a definite meaning when he said that this might be only a limit. If the Absolute Life concentrates itself into a point of consciousness, this concentration implies a limit. The limit exists by the very act of concentration. We see now how it is possible that this limit should become enlarged; and whence comes the content of the endless life that shall fill out the expanding limit into infinitude. We see how it is the destiny of the soul thus to enlarge itself, to make itself free of the Not-me, which represents to it the limit within which it is inclosed. We understand thus the meaning of the demand for absolute self-assertion, and how this self-assertion is one with the absolute law of morality. The individual, affirming himself, affirms this larger life, of which he is the manifestation. Making himself free of the outward shows of things that he first takes for reality, and turning toward his own central life, he finds himself; and. finding himself, he finds that Absolute Life which is his true self. We thus understand the nature of the fundamental truths of the reason—those which furnish the basis for all a priori affirmation; and we see thus how such affirmation brings with it an absolute authority, such as no a posteriori reasoning, based upon no matter what accumulation of phenomena, can ever have. These truths are the expression of the Absolute Life, which forms the essence of all individual life. Since, however, this Absolute Life is a life, it will manifest itself chiefly under the form of activity. It will be not so much something to be believed, as something to be done. Since that which is to be done is the demand of the Absolute Life, it will admit of no explanation or justification. It will be a categorical imperative. It will be something original and spontaneous that requires implicit and unquestioning obedience. Thus the paradox that baffled us is removed. Self-assertion tends to self-effacement. Independence is rationality and morality in one. It is the entrance, more and more perfectly, into the Divine Life.
The so-called earlier and later systems of Fichte are seen thus to be the complemental elements of a single system. The great difference between them is found in the fact that, in his earlier works, Fichte started from psychological analysis, and moved toward an ontology; in his later works, he started from the ontology, and based his psychology directly upon this.
The Ontology, it must be noticed, does not form the substance of the later statements of the Science of Knowledge. It forms simply the introduction to what is really in its aim as in its title, a Science of Knowledge. The later works, like the earlier, find their real inspiration in the thought of the moral law, as manifested under the form of the Categorical Imperative. If the precise forms of the earlier are not reproduced, the I and the Not-me, the impinging upon a limit, and the rest, it is because these have been, once for all, developed, and are henceforth taken for granted.
I will now state more fully the general view of the universe, upon which is based the system of Fichte. He recognized no reality except that of God, and of finite spirits. In rejecting the imputation that he was an atheist, he claimed with right that he might more truthfully be called an akosmist. What we call the material universe is the creation of the productive imagination. By this is not meant that it is produced arbitrarily, and is thus the production of fancy. It results from the laws of the spiritual life.
The I is doubly limited. It has, first, that limit which makes it finite, that limit against which its activity impinges, and from which it is reflected back toward its source; and. secondly, it has a limitation within its nature, according to which the imagination, if it work at all, must work under such and such forms. It is this fact which gives to the external world the permanency that we recognize. It is upon this that depends the fact that we all recognize the same world. Fichte affirms that it is a mistake to understand him to maintain that the external world is posited merely by the individual. It is, in fact, posited by the life, which is manifested through the individual. It is thus something permanent, something in which the individual can make changes, which shall endure beyond his own life. By this is meant that the external world is posited according to a law of harmonious activity, to which all individuals are subject.
The stream of life is, as we have seen, one form of the existence or manifestation of God. The world is thus such a manifestation. In order to be such, it must obviously contain that which is Divine. It must also contain that which is not Divine; for that which is Divine can be recognized only by contrast. As has been already stated, this manifestation must be under the form of time; that is, it must be progressive. Every generation has thus its place in the great movement. There is thus a duty laid upon every period in the history of the world. We have here the foundation for a Philosophy of History, such as is indicated in the Characteristics of the Present Age, and in the Theory of the State. In this development every individual has his place. Each has a special duty and a special ideal. If he fulfils these, then he will at last have learned the lesson of this world, and will be introduced into another and a higher; and thus shall he press on from world to world in an endless progress. If he fails of his duty, he drops out of the grand movement, and others take his place.
The power working through this grand progress of the individual and of the race, Fichte calls the Divine and Eternal Will. The word, Will, must not be understood as referring to any conscious act of Divine volition. It is taken as the best word which our human speech can offer for that which it cannot fully name. This Eternal Will manifests itself in the will of the individual, so far as this chooses the highest. In this finite will, the Absolute Will comes to a consciousness of itself. This higher Will manifests itself, indeed, in every act of the individual will; for action, so far as it goes, is life; only it is life that has not yet reached the absoluteness that belongs to it. This Infinite Will, and these finite wills in which it is embodied, furnish all the reality that there is in the world of existence. All things else are appearances that offer occasion or scope for the manifestation of this Will.
The fact that the objects that make up our world are merely appearances created by our own imagination, does not, Fichte is careful to insist, make of them illusions. He objects to Kant’s use of this term. They would be illusions if there were anything more real with which to com ware them. As it is, they are the ultimate reality, and thus may be truly accepted as such.
It may be interesting to call attention to certain aspects of Fichte’s view of the world that made it attractive from the point of view of religion. If it lost the help that comes from the a posteriori argument, it escaped the difficulties that are involved in this. The world is the projection of human spirits, and represents the stage which they have reached. God is practically recognized as an ideal, and may thus be seen in absolute beauty and completeness. One can doubt His reality and His perfection no more than one can doubt his own being. At the same time, it is affirmed, from the beginning, that it is by the Divine Life within it that the spirit presses on toward the Divine Ideal. In regard to this impulse within us, there can be as little doubt as in regard to the ideal toward which it points. God is thus recognized as the most certain of realities.
The ideal to which the soul aspires is infinite. So soon as one form has been attained, another and higher takes its place. In the fact of its impulse to attain to this ideal, the spirit finds the pledge of its own immortality.
- Die Anweisung zum Seligen Leben: oder auch die Religionslehre.
- Alles Seyn ist Wissen.—Sämmtliche Werke, II, 35.
- Nachgelassene Werke, II. 326, et seq.
- Sämmtliche Werke, II, 12, 22.
- Sämmtliche Werke, V. 443.
- The best introduction to Fichte’s Ontology, is, perhaps, the statement of 1801—Sämmtliche Werke, II. The idea of the Absolute is, however, brought out most fully in that of 1804—Nachgelassene Werke, II, 87 et seq.
- Nachgelassene Werke.
- Sämmtliche Werke, II, 6.
- This part of the subject was most fully treated by Fichte, under the heading, Facts of Consciousness,—Die Thatsachen des Bewusstseyns.—Sämmtliche Werke, II, 535, et seq.—Nachgelassene Werke, I, 401, et seq.
- Sämmtliche Werke, II, 607.
- Die Grundzüge des gegenwärtigen Zeitalters.—Sämmtliche Werke. VI.
- Staatslehre. Sämmtliche Werke, IV.