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What ought to be

Monday, 25 Mar 2019

Fichte on Dr John Dunn. Johann Gottlieb Fichte

Both Fichte and Schelling laid claim to fulfilling the spirit of Kant’s philosophy. Both saw themselves as pursuing a revolutionary system of philosophy in the cause of man’s freedom.

For Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), banishment of the Spinozist residuum meant only one thing - that the ground of being is the absolute I. This turned Spinoza completely on his head. The ground of being for Spinoza, remember, had been the absolute Substance within which the I of the individual consciousness was wholly subsumed.

Coleridge recognised the significance of this momentous inversion, proclaiming that ‘Fichte assuredly gave the first mortal blow to Spinozism.’1

Fichte began with the affirmation of the self-positing I, followed by its negation in the Not-I of the external world, or nature.

It was the inability to arrive wholly at the absolute that created the demand for overcoming the oppositional tension. This demand was articulated in Fichte’s use of Sollen (what ought to be). He made a heroic case for the absolute autonomy of the subject, whose field of victory would be found in practical life. The vocation of man must be to strive to overcome the opposition by becoming master over nature and to make a better world. ‘I simply cannot think of the present situation of mankind as the final and permanent one’, wrote Fichte, ‘simply cannot think of it as mankind’s whole and final destiny’.2

Fichte’s system was the offspring of Kant’s divorce of sensuous from intelligible nature, with the former dictated by necessity, the latter governed by freedom. Fichte’s focus was the free realm of the intelligible, that is, of consciousness. He determined to disclose the mind's own dynamism and its totalising capacity to be the ground of being. Given the oppositional interface between I and Not I, this meant that Fichte had to account for the unity of human experience within consciousness.

Schelling disagreed with Fichte about man’s relationship to nature, the Not-I. In many respects, Schelling was a precursor of Vernadsky, in that his concept of Mitwissenschaft presented humanity as the essential active agent in a larger organic and thus reflexive system. The dynamic at work in this development defines the episteme of Mittwissenschaft, in which humanity is an organ of nature, perhaps even its eye, whereby nature comes to know itself, thereby initiating a new phase of development in the self-organising feedback loop of the world we humans find ourselves in.

However, Schelling had only offered a halfway measure as far as Fichte was concerned, which was a backward move in the direction of Spinoza.

Fichte would not have the mind as an aspect of anything. He had turned Spinoza on his head and that was an end to it. Spinoza’s great presupposition was the absolute Substance, the hypostasis, whereas Fichte’s was the absolute I.

To ensure the freedom of the human subject, the role of subjective human consciousness had to be defended. Rather than open the gates of consciousness to foreign invaders, our imperative is to control and make that which is beyond the subject an aspect of the subject.

Fichte’s substantive criticism is that the I is not opposed to an equal reality of nature (Schelling’s position), but rather that the status of the I, as found in his Science of Knowledge and clearly articulated in his Vocation of Man, stands above nature.

In order to understand fully the nature of Fichte’s reaction to the philosophically dominant Spinozism of his day, it is worth at this point recalling the cultural and political significance of Renaissance humanism and Spinoza’s Counter-Renaissance role in pulling it down.

Fichte will then be seen as a key contributor to the Romantic movement (which was itself a late re-emergence of Renaissance humanism), and the struggle for the autonomy of the individual that arose in reaction to the necessitarian and determinist principles of a Spinozist and Lockean worldview.

The Romantic Movement in turn will then be seen as an emanation of the Promethean struggle for freedom against a mind-independent reality, ‘the struggle between good and evil the essential wheel in the working of things’, first articulated by Zarathustra.

1 Biographia Literaria

2 The Vocation of Man

© John Dunn.

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