Fichte’s Evolution

Fichte was constantly revising the presentation of his core Wissenschaftslehre or “teaching of science”. He was very dissatisfied with the rushed writing of the 1794-95 Foundations of the Entire Wissenschaftslehre, translated as The Science of Knowledge, which was the only one published during his lifetime. The 1796-99 Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo, now translated as Foundations of Transcendental Philosophy, does seem more accessible and has many points of interest, but in broad outline carries forward the main theses of his earlier work. His 1804 lectures on the other hand, now translated as The Science of Knowing, contain major innovations.

The goal of both of the earlier works seems to be to elaborate a consistent philosophy based on radical “subject-centeredness”. The second introduction to the 1796-99 work develops a vivid polar contrast between “idealism” (which he says grounds everything in the subject) and “dogmatism” (which he says unsuccessfully attempts to ground everything in being or reality). “Idealism begins with the representing subject; dogmatism begins with the thing” (p. 93).

Kant had famously criticized dogmatic versions of realism with rather broad strokes, but called himself both a transcendental idealist and an empirical realist. Whatever one’s opinion of the Kantian “thing in itself” that would exist in spite of our failure to grasp it, it was clearly part of his concern to retain a notion of objective reality while rejecting its dogmatic use. Normally we contrast idealism with realism, and a critical attitude with dogmatism. By the clever rhetorical device of mixing up these two polarities, Fichte implies that all philosophically “realist” concerns are dogmatic. At this point, Fichte was a radical subjectivist (even though he was never a vulgar subjectivist, since his “subject” was always a subject of reason). In the same work, he further confirms this by talking in an unqualified way about the subject’s “absolute freedom”. He rejects the modest assertion of an unknown thing-in-itself, but claims to have an infallible intellectual intuition of the “I”. “Self-reverting activity and the I are one and the same” (p. 112). “All consciousness is accompanied by an immediate self-consciousness, which is called ‘intellectual intuition’, and this immediate self-consciousness must be presupposed if one is to think at all” (pp. 119-120).

I’m now looking for the first time at his 1804 lectures. Here he significantly modifies aspects of his stance. There is much less emphasis on the I. Instead, “the essence of philosophy would consist in this: to trace all multiplicity (which presses upon us in the usual view of life) back to absolute oneness” (p. 23). “[A]bsolute oneness can no more reside in being than in its correlative consciousness; it can as little be posited in the thing as in the representation of the thing. Rather, it resides in the principle, which we have just discovered, of the absolute oneness and indivisibility of both, which is equally, as we have seen, the principle of their disjunction. We will name this principle pure knowing, knowing in itself, and, thus, completely objectless knowing…. It is distinct from consciousness, which posits a being and is therefore only a half. This is Kant’s discovery, and is what makes him the founder of Transcendental Philosophy. Like Kantian philosophy, the science of knowing… does not posit the absolute in the thing, as previously, or in subjective knowing — which is simply impossible, because whoever reflects on this second term already has the first — but in the oneness of both” (pp. 25-26). “[F]or this kind of philosophy the difference between being and thinking, as valid in itself, totally disappears” (p. 30).

So he seems to have moved from a highly asymmetric view of subject and object to a much more symmetrical one. Unfortunately, the idea of reducing the Many to the One, even if he handles it in less cavalier fashion than Schelling, still leads to what Hegel called the “night in which all cows are black”.

Fichtean Mutual Recognition

Having heard that Fichte anticipated Hegel in developing a concept of mutual recognition, I was anxious to learn more. That was actually why I went to examine his Ethics. Then I was surprised to find it mostly absent from that work, which in the main is still squarely based on a version of Kantian autonomy, even though he mentions “reciprocal communication with others” in his remarks on religion. Mutual recognition appears explicitly in his philosophy of law, Foundations of Natural Right.

There he says “One cannot recognize the other if both do not mutually recognize each other; and one cannot treat the other as a free being, if both do not mutually treat each other as free” (p. 42).

“[T]he concept of individuality is a reciprocal concept…. This concept can exist in a rational being only if it is posited as completed by another rational being. Thus this concept is never mine” (p. 45). “The concept of individuality determines a community, and whatever follows further from this depends not on me alone, but also on the one who has… entered into community with me…. [W]e are both bound and obligated to each other by our very existence. There must be a law that is common to us both” (ibid).

“What holds between me and C also holds between me and every other rational individual with whom I enter into reciprocal interaction” (p. 47). “I must in all cases recognize the free being outside me as a free being, i.e. I must limit my freedom through the concept of the possibility of his freedom” (p. 49).

“Therefore, in consequence of the deduction just carried out, it can be claimed that the concept of right is contained within the essence of reason, and that no finite rational being is possible if this concept is not present within it — and present not through experience, instruction, arbitrary human conventions, etc., but rather in consequence of the being’s rational nature” (ibid).

Fichte is in effect grounding his version of social contract theory in the very essence of reason. Mutual recognition grounded in the dialogical nature of reason is presented as turning out to be a necessary postulate underlying social contract theory, or a Kantian condition of its possibility.

He does not seem to see mutual recognition as in any way subsuming and improving upon autonomy as a criterion, or in a constitutive account of values. Thus he gives it a rather more limited role than Hegel.

But Hegel convincingly argues that autonomy, while important, is insufficient as a principle. It implicitly has to be supplemented by respect for others, which arguably has a lot more real ethical content than formal autonomy. Autonomy alone is ultimately a version of the “independence” whose weaknesses Hegel exposes.

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.

Room for Faith

Kant famously spoke of leaving room for faith in his philosophy, but also wrote a historically important essay on “Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone”. He tended to see religion mainly in ethical terms, and Fichte and Hegel did so likewise. Fichte lost his Jena philosophy chair over accusations of atheism he strenuously repudiated. The generation after Hegel was notoriously divided into “Left” and “Right” Hegelians, who both attributed (nearly opposite) views on religion to Hegel that I think he would have called very one-sided. It is difficult to meaningfully comment on this kind of controversy without offending someone, or perhaps both sides.

With Hegel and other historic philosophers who lived in communities with a commonly accepted orthodoxy of some sort, it is often relevant to carefully distinguish the sometimes unspoken implications of their thought from their explicit rhetorical stance, without assuming in advance that these are perfectly aligned. In my older age though, I have come to consider that what I just called the philosopher’s “rhetorical stance” may reflect important practical, social considerations that may have merit of their own. While we should not necessarily take everything a historic philosopher says on these delicate topics at face value, if we are engaged in charitable reading we certainly ought not to assume that the philosopher’s rhetorical stance is “mere” rhetoric that need not be taken seriously.

In medieval terms, I am for the complete independence of philosophy. At the same time, I want to treat the world’s religious traditions (not just one of them) with respect. When touching on theological topics, I try to balance occasional focused sharp remarks with a general live-and-let-live policy, inspired in part by the stances of Leibniz and Paul Ricoeur.

A Moral Self?

The next stop on our Hegelian journey takes us back into Kantian/Fichtean territory. From merely legal rights and pure Utility we advance to a higher concept of moral action.

“In the national fraternity of True Spirit the agency of the singular self receives recognition only after death. The emergence of the singular self as a recognized bearer of legal rights is the death-knell of this beautiful harmony…. The Roman armies replaced this rather chancy and disorderly harmony of life with one universal human law, and one continuum of humanly recognized ‘rights’. But the universal continuum was soon shown up as a mere cloak for the age-old ‘law of the stronger’; ‘natural law’ and ‘natural rights’ have to pass through the long and painful dialectic of the Self-Estranged Spirit in order to become fully rational; and now finally the rational self who is the conscious bearer of moral rights has come to birth” (Harris, Hegel’s Ladder II, pp. 413-414).

Already the Real Individual saw herself as exercising something like Kantian autonomy, but only now do we meet with Kantian duty. Absorbed in its new-found sense of duty, “The moral self cares only for its own moral integrity, its membership in the ‘moral world-order’…. This self has no private purpose distinct from the ‘general will'” (p. 414). This is consistent with Kant’s Stoic-like emphasis on a radical separation of morality from any natural personal inclination.

“Moral Insight is ‘absolutely mediated’; it is culturally self-made, through the complete sublation of the natural self. But it will soon show itself to be the knowledge of membership in a spiritual community; and this knowledge does not have the ‘estranged’ character of a promise or a hope. Nor does it have the ‘split’ aspect of an insight that is obliged to be self-contemptuous. In the moral knowledge of duty, the rational community of the moral world-order is a living presence…. The moral agent acts consciously for the whole community of moral agents. Reason no longer takes itself to be Utility” (p. 415).

“But the dominance of Utility continues in a sublated way. I must use the order of Nature for the rational purpose of actualizing the Moral World-Order. This ‘estrangement’ of the two ‘orders’ remains to be overcome” (p. 417).

“There is a lot about the empirically external world that I do not know when I act; but that is morally irrelevant. It is what I actually do know that constitutes the situation in which my duty determines itself. What I know ‘absolutely’ when I act morally is that my intention is good. In the moral perspective this is all that counts” (p. 415).

“I can know and do my duty independently. But Nature does not care. I may be dutiful but unhappy, or undutiful yet happy anyway. So I am bound to complain that it is just not right” (ibid).

“In this parlous situation, the founding of moral knowledge upon the attitude of Faith represents the only hope” (p. 419).

“Actual morality is the perpetual making of an accord, which is not, and can never be, finally made. We must forever be ‘making progress in morality'” (p. 421).

“So moral consciousness does not develop its own concept. Instead, it postulates a world…. The moral self does not know that in its postulation it is developing its own concept of its self…. Unlike simple Faith, the moral consciousness does know that it is thinking. But it does not know how to express the fact that what it thinks is ‘necessarily true’, except in terms of the ordinary standard by which we determine the truth of our thoughts” (p. 427). “We shall soon see that this necessary opacity of what is supposed to be purely ‘intelligible’ puts the sincerity of the moral consciousness — the very thing that has emerged as the truth of its self-certainty — in question” (p. 428).

“When we begin with moral self-certainty in this Fichtean perspective, we have to take the ‘primacy of the practical’ with mortal earnestness…. We are no longer caught up in the dualism of Cartesian thought…. [Hegel’s] whole ‘speculative’ standpoint rests on this Fichtean unification of the natural and the moral world-order. From this moment onwards we are truly in the ‘kingdom of the Spirit'” (p. 429).

But Hegel will not rest content with the Fichte’s practical postulation of a moral God. On the one hand, “The harmony is experienced in fact; to speak of it as postulated is a pretense” (p. 435). On the other, “No matter how much good we actually do, the world remains essentially nothing but an infinite complex of moral problems. The perfect ‘harmony’… is never completed” (ibid).

Harris also points out that Hegel was far from accepting Fichte’s claim of an intellectual intuition of the self that Kant rejected. “It is Fichte’s categorical claim that the whole critical philosophy must be placed in the context of the intuitive self-certainty of the dutiful self that comes to grief here. When we drag it through the ‘experience’ of its own postulational thinking, the moral self-intuition is shown not to be an ‘intuition’ at all” (p. 434).

“I can always give up on the phenomenal world, and insist on my own unity with God; and when I shift back to this position after a practical defeat in the outer world, it is not the same position as it was initially. It is less optimistic, but it is inwardly deepened by the experience.”

“The deepening comes from the awareness that the actual transformation of the natural order is essential to the moral order” (p. 436). “So the retreat into the inner sense of a dutiful union with God must again be displaced in favor of Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative. Here the ‘harmony of morality with nature’ is stated as a duty: ‘Act as if the maxim of your action were supposed to become through your will a universal law of nature‘” (ibid).

“We have now reached the point where the dogmatic hypothesis that ‘moral consciousness is actual’ must be replaced by the hypothesis that it is only a project to be realized, it is ‘what ought to be’. Having got back to the Garden of Eden we have understood that the Fall is the necessary presupposition of the salvation that we seek” (ibid).

“The ‘as if‘ in Kant’s formula (‘Act as if the maxim of your action were supposed to become…’) is crucial. It is not the perfect organization of the natural world that is the real goal of moral action…. Rather it is the perfect development of every moral self that is the goal; and for the fulfilment of that purpose, the natural world needs to remain a problem” (p. 437).

“But even the perfection of the moral self as an integrated will to put the world in order involves the same paradoxical unacceptability as a goal. Its achievement would eliminate the necessity for any moral striving” (p. 438). “So the goal of moral action has not been adequately formulated as moral self-affirmation in the sensible world; again the goal must be displaced” (p. 439).

“What we are now saying is that the condition of being between the successful ‘activity of the pure purpose’ (where we experience the harmony of will and inclination) and the struggling awareness of a natural antithesis needing to be transcended and conquered, is the true moral goal. For this ‘in-betweenness’, this cycling from perfection to imperfection and back again, is the only way in which morality can be both ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’ (p. 440).

“[A] postulated ‘harmony between is and ought’ cannot count as ‘absolute knowledge’. The postulated object of knowledge is not knowable at all; it is simply an evasion” (ibid).

“‘Experience’ shows that the moral self does not need any postulated intelligible world” (p. 446).

”When we postulate the noumenal world, we find ourselves forced to say contradictory things both about our phenomenal world and about the noumenal one. Phenomenal nature is morally null; but also it is this world that must be reshaped to display the noumenal reality; and the Good Will is the absolute essence, whose noumenal reality is all that counts; but it is not a will at all if it does not act in this phenomenal world, where its existence can be recognized” (p. 449).

Ethical Substance to Personhood

We have now reached the beginning of Hegel’s “Spirit” chapter. Hegel writes, “Reason is spirit, when its certainty of being all reality has been raised to the level of truth, and reason is consciously aware of itself as its own world, and of the world as itself…. When reason ‘observes’, this pure unity of ego and existence, the unity of subjectivity and objectivity, of for-itself-ness and in-itself-ness — this unity is immanent, has the character of implicitness or of being; and consciousness of reason finds itself. But the true nature of ‘observation’ is rather the transcendence of this instinct of finding its object lying directly at hand” (Phenomenology, Baillie trans., p. 457).

H. S. Harris in his commentary notes that “Historically, the transition at the beginning of this chapter is a great leap backwards. From Kant’s Categorical Imperative we go back to a world of custom where there was no critical Reason at all” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 147). “The ‘advance’ from the world of Fichte to the world of Sophocles is a logical development” (p. 148). Harris thinks Hegel did regard the post-Kantian Hellenism of Schiller and Hölderlin as at least a partial advance over the ethics of Kant and Fichte. In any case, Hegel goes on to discuss the ethical message of one of the greatest of the Greek tragedies, Sophocles’ Antigone. Goethe had apparently also considered Antigone very important.

Antigone deals with a conflict between Antigone, whose brothers had fought over the throne and who wanted to give a proper burial to her brother who lost after attacking the city with foreign troops, and the regent Creon, who treated her brother as a traitor to the city and prohibited normal burial rites. Antigone asserts an unconditional family loyalty, claims the support of ancient custom, and openly defies the explicit edict of the duly appointed ruler, which was also supported by a majority of the citizens. In the play, there is no reconciliation, and Antigone and Creon are both “tragic” figures.

Hegel treats Antigone as taking her stand in what he calls Ethical Substance and True Spirit, which in a simple and sincere way identify with values they simply “find”. He sees a great virtue in this simplicity, and argues that it provides something that is missing from the purely critical perspective of Kant and Fichte that wants to judge everything by formal criteria. But he still thinks the critical perspective was a great advance.

The bottom line Hegel wants to bring out is that we need something of both. True Spirit, while genuinely admirable, is limited by the simplicity of its attitude. The critical perspective is limited by its formalism and by the inherent bounds of one individual’s isolated attempt to judge everything for herself.

Hegel next turns to a historical consideration of how the Roman empire tended to dissolve the Ethical Substance of traditional cultures, replacing it with considerations based on legal “personhood”. This is not the broad notion associated with Kantian respect, but a narrow one associated with property ownership that actually excluded women, children, and slaves. Hegel has a generally negative view of Roman culture, and speaks sarcastically about the abstraction of legal persons. This sets the stage for his famous discussion of “alienation”.

Idealism?

The next stop in our odyssey through Hegel’s Phenomenology is a discussion of “Idealism”, which Harris in his commentary associates especially with Fichte. Though Kant is sometimes called a “German Idealist”, he never simply characterized his views as idealist, and often used the term in a negative way. It was Fichte who mainly gave “Idealism” a positive sense. Because of the extreme subject-centeredness of his better known early works he is easy to caricature, but recent scholarship shows him to be a serious and interesting philosopher in spite of that. Paul Ricoeur also saw value in his work.

Hegel says “Now because, in this way, the pure essential being of things, as well as their aspect of difference, belongs to reason, we can, strictly speaking, no longer talk of things at all, i.e. of something which would only be present to consciousness by negatively opposing it” (p. 277). Here the qualification “strictly speaking” is essential.

Without questioning the relevance of the ready-made objects of common sense to everyday life, Kant had already decisively shown the weakness of attempts to treat objects as philosophically foundational. As Hegel put it, Perception in discerning identifiable objects still takes the immediate presentations of Sense Certainty largely for granted.

The most distinctive feature of Fichte’s early work was his concentration on a rational “I”. This already distinguishes him from garden-variety subjectivism, which subordinates everything else to a particular empirical “I”. Kant had contrasted a moral ideal of reason with the effective subjectivism of a particular “I”. Fichte boldly asserted that what really deserves to be called “I” is actually a universal, rational “I” and not the particular “I” of my wants. Fichte’s “I” just is a concretely instantiated reflexivity of pure Reason, to which he claims we all in principle have access.

It is this notion of a concretely instantiated reflexivity of Reason that Hegel takes up here. From Hegel’s point of view, this rational “I” is a big step forward, but still very abstract and in need of further development.

Harris in his commentary contrasts this with the point of view of the Unhappy Consciousness, and suggests that Hegel at least in part wants to suggest that the point of view of “Reason” has a historical connection to the religious perspective of Luther and the Protestant Reformation, as distinct from the Catholic tradition. This is consistent with Hegel’s valorization of Luther elsewhere, which seems to me to reflect a somewhat one-sided charity of interpretation. Hegel contrasts a greater attribution of authority to the Church and its human representatives in the Catholic tradition with a more self-determining direct personal relation to God and the Bible in the Protestant tradition, and wants to connect the latter with what he sees as the self-determining character of Reason. This is not without some validity, but ignores the fact that Luther’s point of view has also been a wellspring of fundamentalisms that have nothing to do with reason or good ethics.

Harris also connects the point of view of “Reason” with the scientific revolution (p. 456). “Hegel is using the terminology of Critical Idealism (Kant and Fichte) for what the consciousness that we are observing expressed in the language of Bacon and Descartes” (p. 455). “From the historical references that Hegel gives, it is clear that ‘Reason’ comes on the scene before ‘Idealism’; and it appears immediately as the certainty of being all reality” (p. 456). This abstract, “dogmatic” Reason has “forgotten” the long previous development we have been following.

“[P]rimitive self-consciousness does not really want any definite object at all; it just wants to get its own way about whatever objective occurs to it…. This self just wants to be master” (p. 457). In contrast, “the Stoic regards those who do not dwell in the light of Reason, as brothers and sisters nonetheless — sparks of the same divine fire…. But their goals are irrational… For the consciousness of ‘Reason’, on the other hand, every goal it can recognize at all, it recognizes as reasonable” (ibid).

“The great critical reasoner, Kant, declared that they are all dogmatists, and that their disagreements must continue forever, until they admit that Reason cannot say what is in any absolute sense” (ibid). But nonetheless “The Phenomenology aims to validate Kant’s hope by showing how the dialectic of Pure Reason [of which those disagreements are a symptom] can be overcome” (p. 459).

“Reflective Reason must begin again with Sense-Certainty, at the extreme of the ‘It is’, and traverse once more the forgotten path to self-possession…. But Fichte’s idealism will reveal itself as an error that turns round into a much higher truth than the philosophy of nature can give us…. ‘Idealism’ is handled almost as sarcastically as Stoicism was, and for the same reason: it has only a formal truth. But that formal truth is the actual concept of Spirit” (p. 460).

“My forgotten history is myself; it is the substance, or foundation, of my subjectivity…. It is the objective self from which self-conscious singular Reason has emerged, because the logical destiny, or the rational Bestimmung [calling] of the Spirit, is to be cognizant of what it has been. In the light of that cognizance we shall finally be able to know the not-self (in which subjective Reason will here strive unsuccessfully to find itself) as the necessary ‘otherness’ of my ‘absolute’ self” (p. 461).

“Reason is ‘all reality and all truth’ in the sense that it is the categorical structure and motion of all experience. In its moving aspect, Reason itself is ‘singular’. There is more to it than purely universal categories, because it is active, it is a principle of change in the world” (p. 464).

“As a ‘schema’ — an intellectual ‘middle’ between ‘thought’ and ‘sense’ — the thinking ego necessarily refers… to the world of experience that is to be comprehended. This ‘referring’ is the reflective (or transcendental) repetition of the naive ‘pointing’… of sense-certainty…. The formal ‘schema’ that Hegel derives from Fichte has a long way to go before its ‘certainty’ will become ‘truth'” (p. 465).

“Hegel fixes our attention here on the way that Fichte took over Locke’s empiricism wholesale” (p. 467). For Locke, “What we can know is only ‘our own ideas’; and our rational certainty is that they are indeed all ours. This is the return of sensible certainty at the level of Reason” (ibid).

“Actual Reason is… bound to abandon this empirical, observational stance, and to move on from its naive expectation that truth is to be discovered or found” (p. 468).

Being All Reality

Here we are transitioning to the “Reason” chapter of the Phenomenology. Hegel here famously says that “Reason is the certainty of being all reality” (Baillie trans., p. 276). This difficult phrase relates to the “living unity” he had contrasted with the self-divided, alternatively serf-like and lord-like attitudes of the Stoic, the Skeptic, and the Unhappy Consciousness. It harkens back to Aristotle’s thesis of the identity of thought and the thing thought, which in Aristotle’s Greek are two different grammatical forms of the same word. Hegel has been one of the few to explore the meaning of this without shackling it to some very non-Aristotelian notion of immediate intellectual intuition, as Plotinus and others did. A lot of work is required to make sense of it.

As with Sense Certainty, the “certainty” here does not imply anything that I would call knowledge. Sense certainty gave us a purely nominalistic “this” that strictly speaking could only be pointed at. An initial condition of Reason’s self-certainty is its abstraction from any specific content or presumed truths. A certainty of Reason can contain no prejudice. It has nothing in common with the arrogance and ownership claims of the lord, though we need to be very careful to be really free of all that. As Hegel might say, the certainty of Reason is “purely negative” and “infinite”. Eventually, through social processes of mutual recognition, it will begin to acquire concrete form again.

For now, the point is that the standpoint of Reason is founded on a kind of nonseparation of self and other. This I think is what Hegel meant earlier in saying “the truth is the whole”. Contrary to the stances of the Stoic, the Skeptic, and the Unhappy Consciousness, “I” cannot be sharply separated from my circumstances and the whole world I inhabit, but rather exist in “living unity” with them.

Harris introduces his comments on this part saying “Between the last sentence of chapter IV and the first sentence of this chapter, an enormous step forward is taken: Self-Consciousness moves from the intellectual Vorstellung [representation] of itself to the pure thought of itself” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 447).

Representation and reference presuppose sharp separation between the object and “us”. Reason and inference on the other hand focus on the mediating adverbial relations that give substance and meaning, while cutting across the divide between self and other.

Already with the Unhappy Consciousness, Harris observes “We have seen how this free supersession of its own singular self-will establishes the free self as the universal identity of thought and being; and even the consciousness we are observing knows that it has become united with God, although this happens (for it) only in God’s kingdom of thought, and only by God’s grace” (ibid).

“Since we have now reached the self-conscious identity of the thinking self with God as Universal Reason, we really do have Fichte’s Ego before us (or at least a plausible interpretation of Fichte’s Ego). But we are not yet in Fichte’s world. We are still in the world of the Unhappy Consciousness, the world of Divine Authority. ‘Reason’, as an immediate phenomenon, is the revolutionary critic of that world. It knows that it has within itself the absolute authority of Faith. This is the same sort of immediate certainty that the natural self-consciousness had about the universe of natural life which it had comprehended as Understanding; and it is destined for the same sort of disappointment, though one that is less radical. The singular natural self-consciousness sacrificed itself finally in order to bring God’s Will into the world; singular Reason will perish when it recognizes its identity with the rational will of the human community. At that point the Concept of Spirit will emerge” (p. 449).

Aristotle said that Reason of all things most deserves to be called divine, and Hegel sometimes speaks of “identity” in cases where he also recognizes distinction, as when he speaks of the “identity” of inner and outer, which I have interpreted as a kind of continuity. To my ear it’s still a bit jarring to speak straightforwardly as Harris does here of “identity” of the self with God. The Self that is explicitly one with God in the Upanishads is already a kind of microcosmic divinity, very different from the nascent reflexive mediation that has been been developed at this point in the Phenomenology. Al-Hallaj was stoned to death for the more ambiguous saying “I am the Real”, which seems closer to the “certainty of being all reality”. What I think Hegel is really saying here is that we are “not separated” from that which deserves to be called divine, not that there is no distinction between it and us.

Hegel says, “From the fact that self-consciousness is Reason, its hitherto negative attitude toward otherness turns around into a positive attitude. So far it has been concerned merely with its independence and freedom; it has sought to save and keep itself for itself at the expense of the world or its own actuality…. But qua reason, assured of itself, it is at peace so far as they are concerned” (Baillie trans., p. 272-273).

Harris comments “Reason is ‘all reality’ because it establishes the continuum between the unknown concept and the self-knowing one” ( Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 453).

I actually want to argue that there is nothing intrinsically immodest about identifying with all of reality, which has nothing at all to do with self-will, but rather quite the contrary. Self-will is bound up with narrow identification. Furthermore, even if it is ec-static in the etymological sense of taking us out of our empirical “selves”, identification with the other as Hegel presents it is distinguished above all by a kind of sobriety, rather than any kind of ecstasy of enthusiasm.

Time and Eternity in Hegel

H. S. Harris in Hegel’s Ladder I points out that Hegel took an unprecedented view of the relation between time and eternity in the Phenomenology. He argues that Hegel’s later advertisement of his logic as characterizing “the mind of God before creation” is extremely misleading with respect to Hegel’s actual views. According to Harris, detailed examination of texts suggests Hegel retained the novel view of time and eternity expressed in the Phenomenology.

Harris notes that from around 1801, Hegel came to agree with Reinhold and Bardili that logic should be “objective” in the sense of being neutral with respect to subject-object distinctions, even though he sharply rejected their formalism.  Logic for Hegel should not be subjective in the sense of Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre or Schelling’s work before his break with Fichte.

“Hegel was able to make history subordinate in his speculative Logic precisely because he allowed it to be predominant in the lengthy formation of subjective consciousness for truly logical ‘objectivity’, which is the theme of the Phenomenology….  ‘The experience of consciousness’ is necessarily a psychological experience of the singular subject, since only singular subjects are ‘conscious’, but the ‘phenomenology of Spirit’ is the biography of God, the metaphysical substance who becomes ‘as much subject as substance’ when He is comprehended as ‘Spirit’.  The ‘experience of consciousness’ must happen in a single lifetime; the ‘phenomenology of Spirit’ cannot happen so.”

“We might remark that neither can become ‘Science’ except through the recollection in a singular consciousness of a historical process that is necessarily not confined (or confinable) within a single lifetime.  This is a way of saying that God cannot be ‘spirit’ without man being ‘spirit’ likewise — which is, of course, quite correct…. [N]ot the comprehension of ‘self’ but the comprehension of the whole social history of selfhood [is the topic of the Phenomenology]” (p. 11). 

Harris says the Phenomenology was Hegel’s “decisive divergence” (p. 13) from the whole tradition of intellectual intuition and cognitive immediacy.

“The implication is that ‘the eternal essence of God’ is not ‘outside of time’ in the way that God’s thought and action have traditionally been supposed to be.”

“We cannot mediate the problem of how logic is in time, unless we shift our attention from the ‘real philosophy’ that comes after logic (in every sense) to the ‘real philosophy’ that goes before ‘logic’, as a comprehension of the time in which it was shown finally that logic itself is as much in time as out of it and that it must come to be self-consciously ‘in’ time in order to be properly ‘out’ of it….  [F]rom Heraclitus and Parmenides to Kant and Fichte, no one has managed to formulate a consistent theory of human experience as a rational whole on any intuitive basis.  Instead of simply taking it for granted that eternity comprehends time, just as ‘possibility’ comprehends ‘actuality’, we must start from the other end and ask how time comprehends eternity.”

“There is no intuitive answer to this question” (p. 14).  The project of the Phenomenology “involves a total inversion of the intuitive assumption of all the ‘philosophers of experience’ before Hegel….  But the history of religion is more important to the argument than is the history of philosophy, in any case, because it is in religion that the natural assumption is inverted for the natural consciousness itself.  It is Hegel’s predominant concern with the actual experience of the natural (i.e., nonspeculative) consciousness that makes it hard for us to see and understand what happens to Descartes, and to the ‘philosophers of experience’ proper, in Hegel’s argument” (pp. 15-16).

Harris speaks of an “explicitly Fichtean self…. But his self makes no Fichtean assumptions, and has no absolute ‘intuitions’.  It merely observes; and what it learns, in the end, is precisely what the standpoint of philosophical ‘observation’ is and means. This observing consciousness leaves Fichte behind decisively when it leaves moral judgment to the valets and aligns itself with the Weltgeist [world Spirit] in its evaluation of all the experience it recollects.”

“This all-accepting and all-forgiving alignment with the Weltgeist is the logical standpoint, the eternal standpoint concretely established in time and now, at last, comprehensively understood” (p. 17).  What is shown is “Spirit’s eternity in time” (p. 18), but “The ‘hero’ is the finite consciousness — Jacob wrestling with the angel” (ibid).

Harris is here using the word “consciousness” in an equivocal way to refer to something that is far beyond what Hegel described as the standpoint of Consciousness.  It is already Spirit.  The standpoint of Consciousness is inseparable from assumptions of immediacy and of what philosophers from Locke to Schelling have called “intuition”, as some sort of immediate grasping.  Emphasizing some underlying continuity where something underwent a transformation is a common way of speaking, but I would rather identify the continuity with “us” rather than an abstracted property like consciousness.

Harris properly distinguishes between “natural consciousness” and “the philosophers of experience” who purport to speak on its behalf.  Hegel sharply rejects the philosophers of experience as propounding a bad notion of experience focused on immediacy, but he wants to entice common sense to become philosophical. 

The Fichtean self is already a difficult topic.  Fichte, in his better known early writings at least, propounded a very extreme “subject-centered” point of view, but he was a brilliant writer and serious philosopher who cannot be simply reduced to that.  His “self” is certainly not an empirical matter of fact, and seems constitutionally incompatible with petty egocentrism or self-seeking (certainly a far cry from the acute vulgarization of Max Stirner in The Ego and His Own), even though it seems like he had some bad ideas about German cultural superiority.  I think the Fichtean self not so much “has” intuitions as Harris suggests, but rather is itself an “absolute intuition” (the only one) for Fichte.  But Fichte also in his later writings formulated a notion of ethical mutual recognition.

Harris alludes to Hegel at a certain early point turning back from Schelling’s mystical intuitionism toward Fichtes’s practical philosophy.  Although I think this is historically accurate, if taken out of context or connected with stereotypes of Fichte, it could lead to serious misunderstanding. 

Harris himself does not make this mistake.  He clearly indicates that Hegel cannot be reduced to Fichtean subjectivism, as the young Marx and some others have done or precipitously claimed others had done. He goes on to discuss the fundamental role of “otherness” in Hegel’s thought, particularly in regard to constitution of self.  This is as far from an “absolute intuition” of self as could be.  But Fichte’s practical-ethical orientation and sharp mind tower above not only the woolly-minded forgotten Schellingian epigones who so irritated Hegel, but also the superficial dazzle of Schelling himself.  I would also note that to ground the social in concrete relations rather than abstract collectivity is in no way to reduce the social to actions of individuals.

Fichte was accused of atheism and drummed out of Jena for identifying God with the moral order. Now I can’t find the passage, but I think Harris somewhere says Hegel put God as the moral order historically in between God as law and God as love.

The explicit idea that the eternal is constituted in time that Harris highlights is, I think, original to Hegel. Others had denied the eternal, but I don’t recall anyone arguing that a genuine eternal originates in time. Harris relates this novel aspect of Hegel’s thought to his inversion of the Kantian priority of possibility over actuality. Aristotle of course also maintained that actuality comes first, but never explicitly suggested a temporal origin of the eternal.

I think a temporal constitution of the eternal — especially when connected with logic, as Harris suggests it was for Hegel — actually makes a lot of sense. After a temporal process of experience and learning that may involve reversals and twists and turns, it is possible to construct a static logical theory (not logical in Hegel’s sense, but in the formal sense) of all the lessons learned, but not before. What Hegel calls logic is a lot closer to the twists and turns of experience. Formal logic obviously has no temporal element, but the “logic” of experience and learning does. Formal logic comes “after” Hegelian logic. Hegelian logic can be read as an account of the constitution of formal logic, through the constitution of meaning.

Schelling

F. W. J. von Schelling (1775-1854) is my least favorite of the major German idealists. He is the one most strongly associated with Romanticism, and has been considered a precursor of existentialism, which does not seem to me like a recommendation. He lacked Hegel’s grounding in Aristotle and more serious engagement with Kant. Even Schelling’s admirers don’t claim much for his rather undisciplined attempt at a Romantic philosophy of nature. He castigated Hegel for his rationalism, while reviving metaphysical use of the pretentious claim of intellectual intuition that Kant and Hegel fought against.

Like Fichte whom he at first followed, Schelling expressed himself in simpler and more approachable terms than Kant or Hegel, but at the cost of sacrificing the multidimensional richness Kant and Hegel both achieved. Like Fichte, he erred in making self-consciousness an immediate intellectual intuition rather than a dialectical development, but unlike Fichte, he also revived general use of intellectual intuition in metaphysics. Fichte is largely antithetical to me due to his hyper-strong subject-centeredness, but he was principled and had a razor-sharp intellect. Schelling is superficially more balanced, but what he balanced his Fichteanism with was a shallow Romantic pseudo-neoplatonism. Having spent a few years in close study of the real Greek neoplatonists, I am very unimpressed by Schelling’s heavy-handed forays into this territory.

Schelling is the one who really does ignore Kant’s warnings about unbridled speculation. Armed with intellectual intuition, he simply leaps into a (pseudo-neoplatonic rather than Hegelian) Absolute. Among his criticisms of Hegel was that Hegel made the Absolute a result attained from a finite starting point. Schelling said this was impossible, since the Absolute is infinite. This reflects a complete failure to understand the misleadingly named Hegelian Absolute, which was precisely not a humanly unachievable theological infinite, but carefully developed in terms that made it an Aristotelian perfection after a kind achievable in an understandable way by a finite rational being without intellectual intuition. (See also “Absolute” Knowledge?; Kantian Discipline; Copernican.)

Schelling in his “Identity philosophy” naively propounded the broadly neoplatonic theme of an original self-division of an infinite Absolute, without all the nuances developed by the Greek neoplatonists that made their version more interesting. (For both Aristotle and Hegel, in contrast to Schelling and the neoplatonists, the “first” principle is really an attractor and an end, not the metaphysical-theological origin of everything. I would not say “just” an end, because for both Aristotle and Hegel, ends are more important than origins.)

The late Schelling’s “Positive” philosophy again pitted intellectual intuition against reason, while also appealing to religious revelation. Early in his career, he had been influenced by the fideist F. H. Jacobi’s proto-Kierkegaardian idea that there is an uncrossable gap between “the conditioned” and “the unconditioned”, requiring a leap of faith. But at least after Jacobi publicly attacked him, Schelling distinguished his view from Jacobi’s more extreme anti-rationalism. (See also Being, Consciousness.)

In profound contrast to Kant, Fichte, and Hegel, across his career Schelling seems to have had no real interest in ethics. His Romantic reliance on intellectual intuition rather than dialectic also means that although he shares some core vocabulary with Hegel, the same terms have very different meanings. (See also Pure Thinking?)