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Summoning and synthesis

Foundations of Natural Right on Dr John Dunn. In the Foundations of Natural Right, Fichte described the process by which individuals must be educated into becoming human beings before they can participate fully in a de-hypostasised post-feudal society.

The summons to engage in free self-activity is what we call up-bringing [Erziehung]. All individuals must be brought up to be human beings, otherwise they would not be human beings.

Here we come to Fichte’s concept of encounter, which would become ever more important to my own search for an answer to the ‘what am I?’ question.

Fichte argued that up-bringing, or education, amounted to a summoning, a call to encounter in the ‘outer’ world an instance of subjectivity other than oneself. He invited his readers to imagine the first encounter of two human beings, i.e. how otherwise entirely solitary human beings would react upon meeting one another for the very first time. The summoning to a mutuality of the experience, a ‘reciprocal interaction,’ leads to a synthesis that is uniquely human, with potential for change on a cosmic scale.

An encounter with the unpredictable other leads to a recognition of ‘me as a rational being in conformity with his and my consciousness, synthetically united in one (i.e. in conformity with a consciousness common to both of us) such that – just as surely as he wants to be regarded as a rational being – I can compel him to acknowledge that he knows that I am one as well’.

Before the synthesis there was self and not-self. Each was in a state of hypostasis without the other. But in a chance encounter, thesis (self) meets antithesis (not-self) resulting in synthesis (the triadic progression later commandeered and adapted to their own ends by Hegel, Marx and Engels).


Out of the web of syntheses comes the uniquely human capacity to transcend the confines of the natural world and realise freedom. Such is the basis of human creativity that in the words of Dante’s Beatrice makes man ‘the odd one out’.

Fichte’s illustration concerns two human beings. The encounter is open to chance. A lifetime might be spent without a truly summoning encounter, leaving the individual to lead a sub-human life, a Hellish life. Not everyone will meet his Virgil or Beatrice. The prospects of a humanising encounter might be limited by cultural insularity for example. Fichte argued that government institutions, education, the law etc should exist to nurture and protect the conditions that foster the summoning encounter and synthesises.

This sentiment was expressed most fully in his Addresses to the German Nation (1808), in which he argued for ‘a total change of the existing system of education.’ In its place there should be a system of national education to apply to ‘every German without exception, so that it is not the education of a single class, but the education of the nation, simply as such and without excepting any of its individual members.’

What passes for education under neo-feudalism (or modern capitalism, under its current misnomer), is prescription, with a certificate issued to whomever is adequately prescribed upon, i.e. pre-scribed, pre-written, pre-programmed. At its best education is the summoning of children by their teachers to discover and exercise their faculties and capacities in ways that they cannot on their own. At its most sinister, ‘education’ is the deliberate stifling of the summoning process in order that the potential for change, a threat to the interests of dominant interest groups, does not emerge. The blocking of the summoning process and the deliberate feeding of ‘acceptable’ information through the controlled media was central to the development of propaganda methodologies by Edward Bernays in the twentieth century, which amounted to the subjugation of the individual’s free will by the manipulation of the mob. In such circumstances it is only through the chance encounter with a fully human being that the slave will realise that he is being subjected to an injustice by a third party, otherwise he thinks the present state of affairs is the natural order of being. In short, there is no guarantee of escaping from the ‘dark wood', à la Dante.


© John Dunn.

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