‘My system tears away the chains of the thing-in-itself, or external causes, that still shackle him more or less in other systems, even the Kantian.’ In writing this Fichte was simply emphasising the fact that the Spinozist residuum in Kant, the very ‘thing in itself,’ had to be banished if Kant’s own idea of the final goal of human conduct - the highest good - might ever be attained.
Only total banishment of Spinozism would mean the real fulfilment of Kant’s ‘Copernican Revolution’. That the young student Fichte associated this revolutionary goal with the Jacobins’ apparent struggle against feudalism simply illustrates the fact that he did not initially recognise the Spinozist and neo-feudal nature of the French Revolution. However, differences with the Jacobins were clearly manifest in his early writings.
Fichte believed in the right of everyone to revolution, whereas the Jacobins granted it only to the people as a whole, demanding that the individual subordinate himself to the People. Fichte distanced himself from the radical democracy of the Jacobins by arguing that it led to the worst form of tyranny, mob rule; and how right he was. Manipulation of the mob has always been a route to tyrannical power, a route now possible on a globally digitalised scale.
He believed that actions imposed upon the individual by mob rule were just as tyrannous as those determined by despotic princes. This led to his views on the social contract, which no one has a moral obligation to enter into, or even to keep. The obligation to make and keep a contract is based upon nothing more than the individual’s sovereign will, the conscious decision to limit one’s choice and enter into a specific agreement with others. That is why Fichte believed that humanity must be made self-conscious of its freedom. We could only become free if we first knew that we were so.
With a Promethean metaphor, Fichte argued that to ‘tear away the chains of the thing-in-itself, or external causes’ was to expose and eliminate hypostasis, the reification or objectification of the laws of reason. Subordination to the People was a prime example of submission to a reified external entity that had no actual existence. We can become free only if we first know that we are so, and self-consciousness of our freedom arises out of the exposure and elimination of hypostasis, the reification or objectification of the laws of reason.This was essential to the achievement of freedom, Fichte believed, because of one paradoxical but pervasive fact: that we enslave ourselves to entities of our own creation. What we should consciously and intentionally create as autonomous beings we subconsciously and unintentionally reify and then submit to as heteronomous beings.
Spinoza perpetuated the fallacy by reifying the principles of reason into laws of nature, which seemed to rule over humanity with iron necessity as the new Jehovah. Fichte contended that the idea of God, the Substance, the One, Ein Sof, the Jehovah of the Old Testament, the Absolute as an entity outside, above and beyond the individual, is the hypostasis of the moral law within us, the alienation of our natures as rational beings. Spinoza’s secularisation of Judaism served not to overcome hypostasis, but to preserve it in the face of the Renaissance humanist challenge.
Marx did not eliminate the hypostasis, he reinforced it, supplementing laws of nature with laws of history and economics which, as a materialist, he proposed as the crucially determining forces external to the individual. Freedom had nothing to do with autonomy, but rather was gained through adherence to the Spinozist maxim of recognising necessity, which recalls Weininger’s judgment of Marxism.
In spite of the associative element in it, the Marxian doctrine does not lead in any way towards the State as a union of all the separate individual aims, as the higher unit combining the purposes of the lower units. Such a conception is as foreign to the Jew as it is to the woman.
Fichte’s task then was to confront Spinoza’s originating Substance and overcome hypostasis. Somehow, he would have to banish even the Kantian residue of the thing-in-itself and explain the origin of experience without any inference to a transcendent entity. It was the foundational task of his Science of Knowledge to develop a theory of self-consciousness which would avoid any such reification. Out of this his politico-philosophy grew.
We are now in a position to see why breaking ‘the chains of the thing-in-itself or external causes’ was filled with such political significance for Fichte. The thing-in-itself was not merely the unknowable cause of experience, but much more fundamentally the hypostasis of the highest good. In attempting to de-hypostasise this concept, Fichte was saying that there is no God, no divine justice, except that which we create here on earth. Attaining the highest good prescribes the task of establishing a just society. Working to create ‘the highest good’ was no longer the pursuit of a reified object of belief, but rather a goal for action. Examples of reified objects of belief that can be used to control and manipulate man include belief in Jehovah, but also secular manifestations such as belief in the ‘The Rights of Man’ that was central to the French Revolution. A misdirected belief in God, or human rights are just as much state mechanisms for the control of populations as the secret police and military.
A goal and action-orientated alternative was needed and again in the tradition of More’s Utopia, Fichte’s Foundation of Natural Right (1797) sketched what a just society would be like. In an explication of Right socialism, he described a society where only he who works will eat, where people receive according to their needs and give according to their ability, where the rich do not prosper and the poor suffer, and where everyone will be rewarded according to their efforts and merits. Such a society will only become possible if it is made up of self-consciously free individuals. A post-feudal society, one devoid of Spinozist hypostasis will occur only when each individual can take his place as an individual agent among others: ‘the rational being cannot posit itself as a rational being with self-consciousness without positing itself as an individual, as one among several rational beings’. This differs from Hegel, and therefore Marx, who did not posit the development of individuals who can realise their ends in modern society as voluntary. This is because in the Hegelian/Marxist schema the process of personal development and integration into society takes place outside the control of the individuals involved.
© John Dunn.