Fichte’s Ethics

Fichte’s System of Ethics (1798) has been called the most important work of moral philosophy between Kant and Hegel. Unavailable in English till 2005, it is apparently a source for some key themes in Hegel’s Phenomenology. It also shows the more nuanced side of Fichte that impressed Paul Ricoeur. Fichte was an unusually powerful speaker, reportedly electrifying audiences with his intensity and bold rhetorical strokes. His thought greatly influenced German Romanticism.

Fichte begins by asking, “how can something objective ever become something subjective; how can a being for itself ever become something represented (vorgestellt)?” (p. 7). He continues, “No one will ever explain how this remarkable transformation takes place without finding a point where the objective and the subjective are not at all distinct from one another…. The point in question is ‘I-hood’ [Ichheit], intelligence, reason, or whatever one wishes to call it.”

“This absolute identity of the subject and the object in the I can only be inferred; it cannot be demonstrated, so to speak, ‘immediately’, as a fact of actual consciousness. As soon as any actual consciousness occurs, even if it is only the consciousness of ourselves, the separation [between subject and object] ensues…. The entire mechanism of consciousness rests on the various aspects of this separation of what is subjective from what is objective, and, in turn, on the unification of the two” (ibid; brackets and emphasis in original).

Fichte revives an explicit appeal to “intellectual intuition” that Kant had proscribed and I find untenable, but carefully limits its scope, mainly using it for the existence of “the I”. Importantly, as the above quote shows, he does not claim to have a direct intuition of the identity of subject and object.

Next he asks, “how we ever come to take some of our representations to be the ground of a being” (p. 8), and answers, “I find myself to be acting efficaciously in the world of sense” (ibid).

This seems like a good pragmatist insight. Here and above, he asks questions about the status of representation and how it comes to be that anticipate aspects of Brandom’s work in this area.

“Insofar as I know anything at all I know that I am active” (p. 9). “I posit myself as active” (p. 10). Hegel criticized Fichte’s reliance on “positing” or postulation of various key notions.

Fichte goes on to specify that “I ascribe to myself a determinate activity, precisely this one and not another” (p. 11), and determinate activity implies resistance. “Wherever and whenever you see activity, you see resistance as well, for otherwise you see no activity” (p. 12). “[F]reedom can never be posited as able to do anything whatsoever about this situation, since otherwise freedom itself, along with all consciousness and all being, would fall away” (p. 13).

Throughout his career, while picking up and intensifying Kant’s occasional voluntarist rhetoric and even aiming to build a system around it, Fichte made things more interesting and complicated by emphasizing that objectivity always involves a resistance to free action. Fichte goes on to specify that activity involves a kind of agility — i.e., ways of acting successfully in spite of the the object’s or the world’s resistance. Here we find ourselves on the threshold at least of the territory more fully explored by Ricoeur in Freedom and Nature (see Ricoeurian Choice; Voluntary Action).

“I posit myself as free insofar as I explain a sensible acting, or being, as arising from my concept, which is then called the ‘concept of an end'” (p. 14). “[T]he concept of an end, as it is called, is not itself determined in turn by something objective but is determined absolutely by itself” (p. 15).

Freedom here is acting in accordance with concepts or ends. While Kant and Fichte both tended to identify this with a kind of exemption from the natural order, this second move is separable from the first. The need to treat freedom as an exemption presupposes a view of natural causality as completely rigid. But more fluid “tendencies” also exhibit the resistance that Fichte makes characteristic of objectivity.

He then claims in effect that the resistance we encounter in the world of sense is actually nothing but an appearance. “[N]othing is absolute but pure activity…. Nothing is purely true but my self-sufficiency” (p. 17). I think Hegel and Ricoeur would each in their own way regard formulations like this as one-sided, and as a step back from his previous acknowledgement of resistance to our action as a basic fact of life, but that is in part because Hegel and Ricoeur both in a sense vindicate appearance itself as being something more than mere appearance.

Fichte is not actually contradicting himself or going back on a promise here, but moving to a different level. I think his point is that objects as separate are ultimately always a matter of appearance. I would agree as far as strictly separate objects are concerned, but I see objectivity in the first instance as a resistant but non-rigid sea of non-separate relations, tendencies, and currents that is not just an appearance, and is only secondarily divided into separate objects that insofar as they are separate are just appearances.

He comes a bit closer to Hegel again when he says “it is the character of the I that the acting subject and that upon which it acts are one and the same” (p. 28; emphasis in original).

But a few pages later he concludes that “all willing is absolute” and that the will is “absolute indeterminability through anything outside itself” (p. 33). “As an absolute force with consciousness, the I tears itself away — away from the I as a given absolute, lacking force and consciousness” (p. 37). One of Hegel’s main concerns in the Phenomenology was to show the inadequacy and undesirability of this ideal of total “independence”. I take “absolute force” as a kind of poetic language in Fichte’s rhetorical style that I would not adopt.

He repeats Kant’s claim that the will has “the power of causality by means of mere concepts” (p. 41). I agree that concepts can have a kind of efficacy in the world, though I would not call it causality in the narrow modern sense. On the other hand, I think talk about will as if it were a separate power not encompassed by the union of feeling and reason is misguided. I don’t think there is any will-talk that doesn’t have a better analogue in feeling-and-reason talk. So the question of the will’s causality does not even come up for me.

“According to Kant, freedom is the power to begin a state [Zustand] (a being and subsistence) absolutely” (p. 41). I don’t consider formulations like this to be typical of Kant’s thought as a whole. It rhetorically recalls voluntarist views in the Latin medieval tradition that saw human freedom as a sort of microcosmic analogue of creation from nothing. The notion of literal creation from nothing, though it achieved wide circulation in the monotheistic traditions, is actually an extreme view in theology whose main use has been to support radically supernaturalist claims of all sorts that are entirely separable from the broader spiritual purport of the world’s religions. Scholars have pointed out that creation from nothing is not inherent to the Old Testament text, and only emerged as an interpretation in the Hellenistic period with figures like Philo of Alexandria. One of Kant’s great contributions was actually to have developed other ways of talking about freedom that do not presuppose any of this kind of strong supernaturalism. (I adhere to the view commonly attributed to Aristotle in the Latin tradition that nothing comes from nothing in any literal sense.) Fichte of course was not at all a supernaturalist like Philo; but like Kant and even more so, in relation to freedom he nonetheless used some of the same rhetorical strategies originally developed to “rationalize” supernaturalism. (And if nature already participates in divinity, supernaturalism is superfluous.)

Fichte improves things by specifying, “It is not the case that the state that is begun absolutely is simply connected to nothing at all, for a finite rational being thinks only by means of mediation and connections. The connection in question, however, is not a connection to another being, but to a thinking” (ibid).

Much as I welcome this emphasis on mediation and connections, it is important to mention that he earlier strongly relied on the claim of a limited kind of direct intellectual self-intuition (pp. 25ff). Fichte was honest enough to acknowledge that he did not have inferential grounds for his strong notion of “I-hood”. The texture of his thought is a unique hybrid of a sort of inferentialism about things in general with an intuitionism about self. The points at which he relies on intuition are the same places where he applies the bold rhetorical strokes for which he initially became famous and popular with the Romantics. But in the long run, it is his emphasis on mediation — both in the form of inference and in the form of resistance to our projects — that holds the greatest value.

In a somewhat Kantian style that seems both more abstract and more simple and direct than that of Kant himself, Fichte sets out to “deduce” first the principle of morality, then the reality and applicability of the principle. For Fichte, the single principle of morality is the “absolute autonomy of reason” (p. 60). Reason is finite, but depends on nothing outside itself. Consciousness is always limited and in that sense determined by the objects it “finds”, but in conscience there is a pure identity of subject and object. Here again we can see how Hegel was in part taking up Fichtean ways of speaking.

Unlike Hegel, though, for Fichte “Conscience never errs and cannot err, for it is the immediate consciousness of our pure, original I, over and above which there is no other kind of consciousness. Conscience is itself the judge of all convictions and acknowledges no higher judge above itself. It has final jurisdiction and is subject to no appeal. To want to go beyond conscience means to want to go beyond oneself and to separate oneself from oneself” (p. 165).

From this it seems clear that Fichte recognizes no standpoint higher than that of Conscience. He identifies morality with good will (p. 149). Hegel on the other hand regards mutual recognition as a higher standpoint than that of the autonomy of Conscience. Although Fichte briefly refers to the concept of mutual recognition he had developed in Foundations of Natural Right (1797), the System of Ethics revolves mainly around a version of Kantian autonomy: “the formal law of morals [Sitten] is…. do what you can now regard with conviction as a duty, and do it solely because you have convinced yourself that it is a duty” (p. 155).

Surprisingly, he says “all free actions are predestined through reason for all eternity” (p. 216), and claims to have reconciled freedom with predestination. This provides a noteworthy additional perspective on his earlier love-hate relation with Spinoza.

“The world must become for me what my body is. This goal is of course unreachable; but I am nevertheless supposed to draw constantly nearer to it,…. This process of drawing nearer to my final end is my finite end.”

“The fact that nature placed me at one point or another and that nature instead of me took the first step, as it were, on this path to infinity does not infringe upon my freedom” (pp. 217-218). This theme of “drawing nearer” and the “path to infinity” was sharply criticized by Hegel, but I rather like it.

I worry a bit when he says “The necessary goal of all virtuous people is therefore unanimous agreement [and] uniformity of acting” (p. 224). He did however also say that “anyone who acts on authority necessarily acts unconscionably” (p. 167; emphasis in original).

“I possess absolute freedom of thought… freedom before my own conscience…. [I]t is unconscionable for me to make the way in which I tend to the preservation of my body dependent on the opinions of others” (p. 225).

“What lies outside my body, and hence the entire sensible world, is a common good or possession” (ibid). “[I]n communal matters, I ought to act only in accordance with the presumptive general will” (p. 228). “I should… act in such a way that things have to become better. This is purely and simply a duty” (ibid). “As a means for bringing about the rational state, I have to take into account the present condition of the makeshift state” (ibid). In the case of unjust tyranny and oppression, “every honorable person could then in good conscience endeavor to overthrow this [makeshift] state entirely, but only if he has ascertained the common will” (ibid; emphasis in original).

“How then can one become aware of that upon which everyone agrees? This is not something one could learn simply by asking around; hence it must be possible to presuppose something that can be viewed as the creed of the community or as its symbol.”

“It is implicit in the concept of such a symbol or creed that it presents something not in a very precise or determinate manner, but only in a general way…. Moreover,… the symbol is supposed to be appropriate for everyone…. [T]he symbol does not consist in abstract propositions but rather in sensory presentations of the latter. The sensible presentation is merely the costume; what is properly symbolic is the concept. That precisely this presentation had to be chosen is something that was dictated by need… because they were not yet capable of distinguishing the costume that the concept had received by chance from the essence of the concept” (p. 230).

“[W]hat is most essential about every possible symbol or creed is expressed in the proposition, ‘there is something or other that is supersensible and elevated above all nature’…. What this supersensible something may be, the identity of this truly holy and sanctifying spirit, the character of the truly moral way of thinking: it is precisely concerning these points that the community seeks to determine and to unify itself more and more, by mutual interaction” (pp. 230-231).

Here we see some anticipation of Hegel’s account of religion in the Phenomenology.

“Not only am I permitted to have my own private conviction concerning the constitution of the state and the system of the church, I am even obliged by my conscience to develop this same conviction just as self-sufficiently and as broadly as I can.”

“Such development… is possible, however, only by means of reciprocal communication with others.” (p. 233).

Like Hegel, he makes mutual recognition a foundation of religion.

“The distinguishing and characteristic feature of the learned public is absolute freedom and independence of thinking” (p. 238). “Since scholarly inquiry is absolutely free, so must access to it be open to everyone” (p. 239).

“No earthly power has the right to issue commands regarding matters of conscience…. The state and the church must tolerate scholars” (ibid).

“All of a person’s efficacious acting within society has the following goal: all human beings are supposed to be in agreement; but the only matters that all human beings can agree on are those that are purely rational, for this is all they have in common” (p. 241).

“Kant has asserted that every human being is himself an end, and this assertion has received universal assent” (p. 244).

“The moral law, which extends to infinity, absolutely commands us to treat human beings as if they were forever capable of being perfected and remaining so, and this same law absolutely prohibits us from treating human beings in the opposite manner” (p. 229). Fichte argues at some length that this last point would be true no matter how dismal we might judge actual history to be.

Unfortunately, Fichte retained some of the prejudices of his time and place. He thought women should be subordinate to men, and his contribution to early German nationalism was not without a chauvinistic side.

Ricoeurian Choice

Part 1 of Ricoeur’s Freedom and Nature is devoted to a rich discussion of choice. He says that to will is to think (p. 41), and that deciding is a kind of judging (p. 43). But also “I project my own self into the action to be done. Prior to all reflection about the self which I project, the myself summons itself… it becomes committed…. Prereflexive self-imputation is active, not observational” (p. 59; emphasis in original).

He develops at length how the interdependence of the voluntary and the involuntary can be seen in processes of choice. “The circle of ethics and practice repeats the more basic circle of motive and decision” (p. 77). Motives partially determine us in certain directions, but in deciding we choose which motives to put first. Deciding involves a combination of analysis and judgment with creativity and risk.

We should not think of a decision as an atomic act coming from nowhere. Hesitation and indecision are valid moments of a genuine process of considering alternatives, and this has implications for the self as well. “[T]his inchoate, problematic mode of myself must be grasped as it presents itself. We have no right to substitute for it the image of the triumphant self which is invariably one” (p. 140). The ambiguity inherent in our embodiment means that our decisions cannot be simply governed by a present totality of inclinations or an evident hierarchy of values (p. 143).

Neither an intellectualist approach that tries to reduce decision to air-tight determination from reasons nor a voluntarist one that turns decision into a creation from nothing is valid. “A living dialectic constantly brings us back from one aspect of choice to the other: choice as the peak of previous growth and as the surge of novelty” (p. 164; emphasis in original). “Thus we must say simultaneously that ‘choice follows from the final practical judgment’ and ‘a practical judgment is final when choice irrupts‘” (p. 181; emphasis in original). “Determination of the act and indetermination of the power do not actually represent two separate moments” (p. 186). (For more on the same book, see Phenomenology of Will; Ricoeur on Embodiment; Voluntary Action; Consent?. In general, see also Fallible Humanity; Ricoeurian Ethics; Oneself as Another; Choice, Deliberation; Practical Judgment; Potentiality, Actuality; Brandomian Choice.)

The Importance of Potentiality

I think modern philosophy generally is handicapped in its thinking about the empirical world by its lack of a notion like Aristotelian potentiality. To build context, I need to first say a bit more about the role of actuality.

The modern concept of a factual, existing world is relatively close to Aristotelian actuality, but the first big difference is that it is not paired with anything. The modern concept of a factual world is something that is supposed to be complete in itself, whereas for Aristotle, actuality in the world is always complemented by some correlative potentiality. Aristotle did not consider actuality alone to be sufficient to account for the world as we experience it.

Actuality also does not exactly correspond to a state of things, but rather expresses what is effectively operative. This is semantically a bit deeper than a notion of state. At the same time, it does not have state’s strong implications of complete determination. It also does not have the monolithic unity of a state. Actuality in the world consists of many coexisting things. Further, it is not intended by itself to provide all the resources needed to account for change and what happens next. This is related to the fact that for Aristotle, the operative determination of things is not entirely univocal. (See also Equivocal Determination.)

Enter potentiality. Potentiality is exactly what is not univocal in the actual determination of things. It corresponds to multiple alternative concrete possibilities of realization already implicit in current reality. This is a far more specific notion than mere logical possibility. Potentiality is closely tied to and informed by the current actuality, in that it exactly occupies the real gaps or holes in the actuality’s incompletely univocal determination. For each aspect of things where there is not univocal determination, there are instead multiple potential alternatives. This correlates with the fact that, for Aristotle — in contrast to Poincaré’s classic formulation of modern determinism — the present does not completely determine the future.

Poincaré famously claimed that from the state of the universe at any arbitrary point in time, its entire future is completely determined. This resembles the Stoic notion of fate, transferred to a modern event-based model of causality. For both the Stoics and Poincaré, the world is completely univocally determined. Like Aristotle, they emphasized the intelligibility of the world and of change in the world, but they made the very strong assumption of complete univocal determination. Aristotle did not.

Aristotle’s notion of intelligibility was broadly semantic, whereas Poincaré’s was mathematical. With semantic interpretation, there is always a question of how far we develop the account, which in principle could be extended indefinitely. It thus naturally lends itself to an account of incomplete determination, corresponding to some stopping point. Aristotle does not claim any more determination than he can show. Poincaré’s approach, by contrast, requires that we assume there is a complete univocal determination of the world by mathematical laws, even though we can never even come close to knowing enough to show it. This assumption leaves no room for anything like potentiality. Potentiality, it seems to me, could only have a place in a semantic approach to intelligibility.

The modern factual world is usually considered as something that just is, without modal qualification, but I have increasingly begun to doubt whether for Aristotle there is any non-modal account of the world. I read actuality and potentiality both as modal concepts, and everything in the Aristotelian world as parsable into actuality and potentiality.

What’s important about this is that potentiality is not just some mysterious “metaphysical” concept that we could maybe do without. It is a distinct logical/semantic modality supporting multiple virtual alternatives for the same thing. It allows us to intelligibly account for the incomplete determination we really experience, rather than treating real-world incompleteness and ambiguity as if it were a kind of flaw. (See also Structural Causality, Choice; Values, Causality; Structure, Potentiality.)

Brandomian Choice

Aristotle had a reasonable, noninflationary concept of real choice. Choice is up to us, but it is far from arbitrary. Unfortunately, later treatments have largely oscillated between extremes of voluntarism and determinism, making choice either arbitrary or only an unreal appearance.

One of Brandom’s great contributions to ethics is a new account of choice that is reasonable and noninflationary like Aristotle’s. Aristotle developed a notion of real but nonarbitrary choice by defining it as the result of an open deliberation subject to normative standards of inquiry. Brandom reaches a complementary conclusion following a different path. The core of it is a combination of two theses. First, there is a view he associates with the Enlightenment that makes values binding on us only when we have implicitly or explicitly endorsed them. This secures the practical reality of choice, without any ontological assumptions. Second, there is Brandom’s own view that the meaning of the values we endorse is not up to us, but depends on articulation in the space of reasons. As with Aristotle’s notion of deliberation, this establishes the nonarbitrary nature of choice. (See also Intentionality; Self, Subject; Fragility of the Good; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

Equivocal Determination

Even though in hindsight it is possible to find reasons why things turned out as they did, the past does not completely determine the future. In general, ahead of time, multiple outcomes are possible. There are many possible ways to meet a requirement, need, or desire, and there are chance intersections and collisions of different, mostly independent vectors of determination. This is all to say that the determination of things is in some measure equivocal (i.e., not univocal). (See also Efficient Cause; Free Will and Determinism; Kantian Freedom.)

A related point is that there is such a thing as objective ambiguity in the world. This means not just that we are unsure or conflicted about something, but that the best or most complete evidence available in a particular case may have more than one reasonable interpretation. (See also Aristotelian Identity; Things in Themselves; Copernican; The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle.)

Kantian Freedom

Brandom’s 2007 Woodbridge lectures (reprinted in Reason in Philosophy) opened my eyes to a new and much more positive appreciation of what Kant was trying to say about freedom. Brandom’s treatment is a marvel of clarity in comparison to the tortured arguments of a text like the Critique of Practical Reason. Kant was among the greatest of philosophers, but much of the second Critique seems occupied with producing a square circle, in its attempt to reconcile overly strong Newtonian determinism with the legal and political voluntarism popular among 17th and 18th century theorists like Pufendorf and Rousseau, and related talk about an incompatibilist notion of free will.

Brandom charts a middle path between the extremes of determinism and voluntarism, highlighting Kant’s key insights into freedom as essentially normative and positive and involved with reason, while deemphasizing Kant’s questionable invocations of will and causality in this context. This turns the ugly caterpillar into a butterfly.

The kind of determinism Kant was sympathetic to was the univocal sort, which wants to say not only that that there are sufficient reasons why everything is the way it is, but also that it could not have turned out any other way. I want to say that in hindsight there are always sufficient reasons why everything turned out the way it did, but that in advance, multiple outcomes are possible. (See also Equivocal Determination.)

In terms of the classic medieval debates about the priority of reason or will, Brandom’s reading puts Kant squarely on the side of the priority of reason. Talk about freedom as positive and related to specific capabilities, rather than negative and “infinite”, already rules out voluntarism. Kant’s deep concern with the autonomy of reason is also materially incompatible with any subordination of reason to will.

I think understanding of Kantian freedom should focus on the autonomy of reason, as well as applying something like the Critique of Judgment notion of the free play of the imagination and understanding in reflective judgment to the synthesis of unities of apperception.

After clearing away univocal determinism and voluntarism, we are left with ethics, which seems a good outcome. (See also Structural Causality, Choice; Values, Causality; Kantian Will.)