Fichte's Science of Knowledge/Chapter XIII
|←Chapter XII||Fichte's Science of Knowledge
Comparison with Schopenhauer and with Hegel;
Criticism and Conclusion
COMPARISON WITH SCHOPENHAUER AND WITH HEGEL; CRITICISM AND CONCLUSION.
THE Will, which, according to the thought of Fichte, works through all things, which is absolute, and, because absolute, unconscious of itself, suggests, naturally, a comparison between the system of Fichte and that of Schopenhauer. The two systems have great points of similarity, and of difference. Both undertake to complete the work of Kant, and to complete it in very much the same direction. Among the passages in Kant to which Schopenhauer refers as marking the point at which his system starts from that of Kant, is one that stands in close connection with that which Fichte refers to as marking the point where his own independent work began. The problems which each undertakes to solve, although at heart the same, yet present certain specific differences, which shaped the activity of each. Both undertook to bring a unity into realms which Kant left divided. While Fichte sought, however, to reduce to a unity the practical and the theoretical reasons, Schopenhauer sought to reduce to a unity the subjective and the objective worlds. The terms by which each described reality are practically the same; both recognized the phenomenal nature of the objective world, and both used the term, Will, to express the ultimate reality in ourselves, and in the universe. The relation to one another of the realities covered by these terms was, however, different in the two systems. With Fichte, the relation between the two was carefully wrought out through the long psychological study which we have analyzed. With Schopenhauer, each was left in the independence in which it originally offers itself to us. Further, with Fichte, the world of objects, exclusive of persons, was simply the creation of the productive imagination, and represented no reality except that of the mind possessing the imagination; while to Schopenhauer, each represented a manifestation of the Absolute Will, similar to that which we find within ourselves. Thus, though the objective world, so far as its appearance is concerned, is in both systems the creation of the mind, the objective world of Schopenhauer has more reality than that of Fichte. It has indeed the same reality that is possessed by the world of persons.
The essential point of resemblance in the two systems is found in the fact that each recognizes the universe in general, and the individual in particular, as the manifestation of an Infinite Will that is never satisfied, and that through all eternity can never become satisfied. Its very being is to will, and it reaches one attainment, only to demand another. This Will demands merely for the sake of demanding—because it is its nature to demand. It can give no reason for its volition. The resemblance of this to the Categorical Imperative of Kant, Fichte, as we have seen, insisted on, and made the basis of his thought. In the case of Schopenhauer, the resemblance is no less striking, though the Will by him is regarded from a different point of view.
The two systems being so similar in this most important respect, it is interesting to consider why one is a system of absolute pessimism, and the other is one, not indeed of optimism, but of hope and courage. This question becomes specially interesting when we consider how near Fichte himself comes to pessimism. In one place he distinctly says that the world, so far from being the best possible, is, on account of its nothingness, the worst possible. The general course of his thought might easily lead to a pessimism precisely similar to that of Schopenhauer. As we have seen, consciousness with him springs from the fact that the will of the individual cannot accomplish itself. It comes from the disparity between the ideal and the actual. If the world conformed to our wish, we should not know it to be a world. Consciousness may thus be said to have its root and its essence in unhappiness. It will be seen how close this comes to the position of Schopenhauer in regard to happiness; namely, that what we call happiness consists only in the removal of pain; that it becomes less, the more the discomfort is lessened, and ceases when the discomfort ceases. How sweet is water to one tormented by thirst! How insipid when the thirst disappears! Happiness thus always nestles in the bosom of unhappiness; it can, therefore, never be positive. It implies only a mitigation of discomfort. It is upon this fact that Schopenhauer bases his pessimism. Fichte’s theory of consciousness, it is obvious, points in the same direction. If our consciousness springs from dissatisfaction, it might be urged that we are conscious only of that which is unsatisfying. We might thus seem to be approaching a pessimism precisely similar to that of Schopenhauer.
When we look more closely at the systems, we find, however, one great point of difference. The system of Fichte recognizes a goal toward which the Will is pressing. This goal, indeed, is infinitely removed, and thus can never be reached; but the movement toward it involves a gain with every advance. The object of its striving is that the life of the individual shall become one with the life of God. Though this can never be accomplished, yet the life of the individual becomes more and more a part of this Divine life, and thus acquires continually more fulness and reality. Its advance cannot be measured by its approach toward an end, for from this it must remain always infinitely removed; it can, however, be measured by its movement away from the point at which it started. As every step forward brings with it such real fruition as has been described, the fact that the progress is an endless one may add to it a new joy. It may become an endless and glad ascent up the heights of being. The Will of Schopenhauer, on the other hand, recognizes no such ideal. It simply presses on without starting point or goal. Its course is movement, but not progress. It wills for the sake of willing. Its action is thus purely formal and without consent. Thus there is no place for the triumphant joy which furnishes its inspiration to the system of Fichte, or for the hope that, according to this system, ever leads on the soul to fresh attainments.
A comparison of the system of Fichte with that of Hegel furnishes many points of interest. The work of Fichte was unquestionably one of the most important factors in the preparation of Hegel for his career. Fichte saw more clearly than it had been seen before, what is the true nature of philosophy, and what should be the ideal toward which it should strive. He adopted the inethod which proved so mighty in the hands of Hegel. The dialectic process which proceeds from simple affirmation, through negation, to that higher affirmation which springs from the negation of the negation, was the pulse beat of the system of Fichte, as it became afterward that of Hegel’s. Thesis, antithesis, and synthesis furnish the formula according to which the thought of Fichte developed itself. This involves a practical difficulty similar to that which so many have found in the study of Hegel. A proposition is given as if it were final. The student rests in that, and thinks he has found something that is fixed. Soon, however, he finds that this was only a temporary result which is to be broken up by some new analysis. In the case of both Fichte and Hegel, many have not discovered the mistake. They have learned their lesson and remembered it; and have supposed that they have thus the final word of the master.
If Fichte was the first to recognize this method, it must be confessed that Hegel has used it with the greatest skill. As so often happens in the case of discovery or invention, the method of Fichte was carried to a greater perfection in other hands than it readied in his own. A single example may illustrate this. It seemed a marvellous audacity in Fichte, that he undertook to create a system out of two propositions, that of identity and that of contradiction. Hegel, however, with an audacity yet more startling, undertook to reduce these two propositions to one: developing the proposition of negation out of the very heart of the affirmation itself. Another illustration, on a larger scale, of the greater fineness and completeness of the work of Hegel, considered in its formal aspect, may be found in the relation of the individual to the universal. Fichte tells us simply that the Absolute Life concentrates itself into points of consciousness. This statement is inclusive of the greater part of the system of Hegel. What Fichte states in a single proposition is thus by Hegel expanded into a dialectic process which taxes our severest thought, as we follow the steps by which Absolute Being becomes spirit. Some parts of his system Fichte, indeed, wrought out with a skill that could not be surpassed; but, on the whole, it is Hegel who makes us feel ourselves most really in the presence of the master of a constructive dialectic.
In regard to the content of the two systems we find also both resemblance and contrast. I shall not undertake to pronounce upon any of the vexed questions in regard to the position of Hegel; and thus our comparison must be less absolute than if we could assume this position to have been in accordance with one or the other of the views ascribed to him. The so-called left wing of the Hegelian school will, however, serve our purpose best. According to the interpretation of this school, Hegel taught that Absolute Being, which is in itself one with Absolute Thought, comes to consciousness of itself only in the individual spirit. This is so far the position also of Fichte. With him, Absolute Knowledge, in which Being or God exists, comes to self-consciousness in the individual. So far as I have noticed, however, the writers of the school of Hegelians to which I have referred, emphasize one side of this relationship, while Fichte emphasized the other. With them, I think, the emphasis is more often placed on the negative side of the statement; namely, that only in man is God conscious. With Fichte, however, the emphasis is wholly different. He wrote under the inspiration of the most sublime consciousness of God. The fact that the life of the individual is a manifestation of the Infinite and the Divine Life, filled him with awe, and was the source, as it was the outcome, of the loftiest religious enthusiasm.
This last point suggests a great difference between the systems of Fichte and Hegel. I refer to the lofty moral sense which is manifested at every page of the writings of Fichte. Tins morality, which, as he developed his Ontology, became love, was, with him, the fundamental principle. Being was not, as with Hegel, thought. Its movement was not a dialectic process merely. Being, in the practical application of that word, was life; it was righteousness, it was love. Hegel thus remains the master in the world of thought; Fichte, in that of life.
In the examination that has been made of the philosophy of Fichte I have rarely paused to criticise his methods or results; nor shall I now enter into any detailed criticism. It is important, however, to recognize in a general way the limitations of his work. It must, then, be stated that no part of his system is presented with the same elaboration and finish that we find in his first statement. The statement of 1801, which students have too little noticed, stands, in my judgment, next to this. His System of Ethics is a noble work. It. opens grandly, and throws new light on the psychology which had been before developed. It is inspiring, from the grand conception of life which it embodies. When we come to the deduction of special duties, we are, however, often disappointed. The principle upon which the duty is based is unequal to its support. Thus the absolute condemnation of falsehood is one of the most marked features of Fichte’s moral system; under no circumstances must a lie be uttered. When Fichte comes to seek the reason for this requirement, he finds it in the fact that, while rationality of life is the demand that is made upon all men, rationality is impossible if men have a false conception of their surroundings. If we lie, we give men a false impression, and take from them the possibility of reasonable conduct. It is easy to see that this principle would prove too much. We as truly make it impossible for men to act with rationality by keeping back the truth, as by saying what is false; and yet such silence is suggested by Fichte as a method of avoiding a lie. Further, the exercise of force takes from the person to whom it is applied the power to act rationally; and yet Fichte admits the right of using force in order to prevent an individual from invading the rights of others. If we may use force to protect the community from a man who is hopelessly irrational, why may we not use a lie to protect the community from one who defies the laws of true living. When we read this deduction, we know that Fichte’s reverence for truthfulness rested on a foundation more deep and more strong than this. Other examples might be given to illustrate the imperfection of the detailed practical application by Fichte of his ethical principles, and to show how the work which begins with a tone as authoritative and inspiring as that of conscience itself, loses much of this power when it would enforce the special practical duties of life.
The later philosophical works of Fichte failed to satisfy himself. He rewrought his system time and again, with each presentation claiming that he had reached a perfection of statement of which he had failed before; each being thus an implied criticism upon its predecessor. The last, in which he makes this claim with special confidence, was broken off midway by the troubles of the times. In his more popular writings are found, as it appears to me, the best fruition of his later years.
Turning now to the content of his works, we meet an antinomy which runs through his whole system like a discord that is never really solved. This is the antinomy that grows out of the relations of the Me and the Not-me. This is at first, as we have seen, openly recognized, and is practically solved by reducing the Thing-in-itself, which is the source of the contrast, to a mere limit; while, later, the impression of dualism is removed by finding that this limit is simply the boundary line that separates the individual from the universal. This limit is needed, as we have seen, because the I, being absolute self-affirmation, could not limit itself by positing, by its own spontaneous act, its opposite. This centre of personal consciousness is produced by the fact that the Absolute Stream of Life concentrates itself into these eddies of individuality, in order that consciousness may be attained. The same question that met us in regard to the individual might be urged in regard to this vaster life. How can this Absolute Life limit itself, as this hypothesis supposes? It is a real limitation of itself that is posited. It not only breaks itself up into these centres of consciousness, but it breaks itself up also in its manifestation. It subjects itself to the limits of time, and presents itself by piecemeal. The difficulty here, had it occurred to Fichte, would have been as great as in the case of the individual. We need here, also, a something the opposite of the Life, against which the Life may dash and be broken into the spray of countless individualities. Thus the ghost of the Thing-in-itself is not yet laid.
The fact that the contradiction between absoluteness and finiteness remains unsolved at the end of Fichte’s discussion, shows that he had not found the secret that he sought. The difficulty with his system is that from first to last it is based, in part, upon mechanical conceptions. We have noticed this, already, in his deduction of perception. From this comes whatever is hard and unsatisfactory in the system of Fichte. In this we find the explanation of the fundamental difficulty to which reference has just been made,—that in regard to the fact of consciousness. Consciousness is looked upon as something accidental, that must be explained from without, and not as something that is involved in the very idea of being. The process which manifested itself in consciousness was not seen to be, in its absolute form, one of self-mediation, but was thought to be something that, in some mechanical way, must be set in motion from without. If Fichte had seen, as he came so near seeing, that the spirit is absolute, not merely absolute spirit, but the Absolute, and that the process by which spirit is spirit, is its very being, he would not have needed these mechanical appliances. He would have seen that the infinite can be conceived only as spirit, because in spirit alone do we find unity and diversity, each growing out of the other. If we start from our finite spirits, the idea of infinite spirit would still be an ideal to be eternally approached, and never reached; but if we start from the idea of the infinite, the infinite spirit must be recognized as an eternal reality. Hegel, by identifying thought and being, broke down the barrier that repressed the speculation of Fichte, and life took the place of mechanism.
Another indication of the limitation of Fichte’s system, or of his nature, may be found in the slight attention that is given to aesthetics. The outer world being only the reflex of the human spirit, there would seem to be little place for a philosophy of beauty. We must not forget, however, the important work done in this direction by Kant, whose system was no more favorable to these results than that of Fichte, and whose circumstances were far less so. Fichte, at one time, hoped to apply his system to aesthetics; but his nature was too ethical and active to feel much real attraction in that direction. He looks at this matter as at all others, from the ethical standpoint. Beauty, in his view, is the manifestation of the ideal in nature; and the ideal belongs to the inner life of the spirit. Thus in the contemplation of beauty, the limitations of the material and the sensuous are broken through, and the spirit returns to itself. The enjoyment of beauty is thus not virtue—it is the preparation for virtue; in which statement we see, perhaps, the result of the influence of Schiller. The profound recognition of the beauty of nature must rather come, one would think, from the recognition of the reality of the ideal, as it is manifested over against the spirit, and is not merely a projection from it. For this, however, the philosophy of Fichte could have no place. In another passage he affirms that the physical expression of a man lost in the contemplation of an idea, is the only object of the art of the sculptor and painter—the word, Idea, being always used by Fichte in its highest sense.
While we thus recognize the limitations of Fichte, we must not fail to recognize the greatness of the results that were reached by him. We may say with Herbart, one of his keenest critics, that he gave to philosophy a new problem, the problem of the I. We may add that he gave to it a new method, that of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; and that he gave to it a new ideal, that of unity of principle and result. He sought to restore to philosophy its old meaning, to make it a love of wisdom rather than of mere knowledge; a power in the life, more truly than a speculation of the thought. An earnest student of Fichte, though the world might have a reality for him that it had not for the master, could never, it would seem, he lost among the sophistries of a superficial materialism; nor could the ideas of freedom and duty ever be wholly without power over his heart.
- Sämmtliche Werke, II, 157.
- Sämmtliche Werke, II.
- Same, IV.
- Sämmtliche Werke, IV, 282, et seq.
- Sämmtliche Werke, III, 137, et seq.
- Compare Sämmtliche Werke, 11, 22: Das Wissen ist nicht das Absolute; aber es ist selbst als Wissen absolute.
- Sittenlehre, Sämmtliche Werke, IV, 355.
- Die Grundzüge, etc., Sämmtliche Werke, VII, 59.
- Herbart's Sämmtliche Werke, III, 266.