J. G. Fichte: Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812)

Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812) Book Cover Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812)
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Translated, edited and with an introduction by Benjamin D. Crowe
SUNY Press
2016
216

Reviewed by: Robert Seymour (University of Essex)

 

Fichte´s 1812 Lectures on the Theory of Ethics belong to the final stage of his so-called late philosophy. This is the first time they have been translated into English and they now form the single book length publication available to anglophone scholars from the productive last years of Fichte´s activity (the only other document is the translation of the very brief text ‘The Science of Knowledge in its General Outline’ from 1810 in Idealistic Studies). Given that the subject matter neither corresponds to ‘ethics’ in any conventional sense nor is it self-standing, but rather a component part of an unfinished ontological system which is itself not well understood, some contextualization is required.

Fichte´s early philosophy, with the publication in 1794 of the Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre, immediately sparked a period of extraordinary intellectual effervescence, making Jena the centre of European philosophy and forming the basis for both German Idealism as well as philosophical romanticism. Subsequently it became to be considered, even in more sympathetic cases, as a mere prelude to Hegel. Fichte´s thought largely had no independent purchase for most of the twentieth century. In a reversal of philosophical fortunes, the early work from the Jena era has, in the last few decades, become an important resource for work in strands of “post-analytic” philosophy in the anglosphere, and in areas of anglo-american style “Diskursethik” as well as in Critical Theory, both of German provenance. Although the use to which Fichte has been put is in each case different, one point of convergence is a general interest in Fichte´s practical philosophy and particularly in his pioneering account of intersubjectivity and recognition.

By contrast Fichte´s late philosophy, despite comprising a disproportionately large amount of his output (roughly speaking from 1801 to the year of his death 1814 – the major breakthrough usually being located in the second version of the 1804 Wissenschaftslehre), never received serious attention during his lifetime. Discounting the reception of the so-called “popular writings” in the formation of German nationalist ideology, Fichte´s later thought remains along with Schelling´s late Berlin lectures, the only body of work of major significance within German Idealism which remains more or less unexplored even in its country of origin. There are some contingent reasons for this neglect, chief among which is the fact that much of Fichte´s later work was delivered in the form of private lectures which were never redacted for publication. The lack of a reliable critical edition which draws on Fichte´s manuscripts as well as audience transcriptions has only been rectified relatively recently (this edition provides the relevant pagination meaning it can be used for scholarly work).

Nonetheless, as is obvious from reading these lectures, any attempt to introduce Fichte´s later philosophy faces some major difficulties which are inherent in the thought itself. First is the daunting form in which it is presented. Unlike Schelling´s later thought, expressed in a potentially off-putting theological idiom which is arguably detachable from its philosophical import, the difficulty of Fichte´s later writing goes deeper. As is evident from these lectures, Fichte repetitively employs an obscure set of half-phenomenological, half-metaphysical terms (for example: Seeing (Sehen), Image (Bild), and Gesicht, meaning both ‘face’ and ‘that which is seen’ – Fichte considered this to be the literal translation of Plato’s idea) in an attempt to capture a process which resists objectification. This approach perhaps partly explains why Fichte´s attempts never crystallized into a satisfactory final form.

Secondly, part of the attraction of Fichte´s early philosophy is its apparently anti-metaphysical register which allows it to dovetail with contemporary soft-naturalist concerns. But if we take Fichte´s vocabulary at face value, his later work looks like a return to the problems of classical metaphysics. The form which Fichte´s early philosophy takes is determined by his commitment to reorganize Kant´s revolutionary findings into a single deductive system, sloughing off the empirical and inductive contaminations which had prevented Kant himself from undertaking this task and by avoiding any appeal to positive ‘facts of consciousness’ in the manner of the Populärphilosophen. The absolute ground of reality which Fichte locates is the ideal activity of the thinking self. However, as this starting point is not absolute in the sense of creating all reality ex nihilo out of itself, it immediately runs up against the inexplicable fact of the self’s limitation. This basic contradiction, the dialectic of the claim to absolute status of the self and of its finitude, is the motor which drives the development of his early thought. In its most polished form, the 1797/8 Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo, Fichte constructs from this basis a phenomenological account of the entire development of consciousness.

However, in line with his resistance to acceptance of brute facts Fichte became more preoccupied with finding an explanation for why the absolute should appear in the finite at all. Thus further developments of the Wissenschaftslehre led Fichte to search for a more basic starting point, a move which necessarily runs counter to his metaphysically neutral starting point of self-consciousness. By 1804, his answer to this question is that the absolute posits itself, and this self-positing is disclosed in the thinking self. The thinking self as such is no longer primary. This further involves, in a seeming contradiction, retaining the primacy of consciousness as the locus for the disclosure of the absolute whilst proposing the deduction of what can count as a phenomena. Concomitantly, while in the Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo ‘being’ was still a purely negative concept, restricted to the objective/sensible realm – the obverse of the absolute non-objective ideal activity of the self – with the progressive ‘deepening’ of his starting point this begins to change. By 1806 he can affirm that the absolute is being, which one must conceive “as of and through itself absolutely unvarying and immutable.” The radicality with which Fichte approaches the problem of the manifestation of the absolute as well as its subsequent return to its original state in his later works makes his thinking look deeply neo-platonic. A further problem is that Fichte uses fundamental terms such as ‘being’ equivocally. Even in the final years of his lecturing there appears to have been considerable instability in his terminology.

An anglophone scholar has no opportunity to form a complete opinion on these developments as the substance of the last theoretical work, the Wissenschaftslehre from 1811, 1812, and 1813, are untranslated (although only the 1812 WL ever received complete formulation). Likewise untranslated are the important introductory lectures, Die Tatsachen des Bewußtseins, and those on transcendental logic (which were held in 1812 concurrently with the lectures on the theory of ethics, and are occasionally referred to in the latter). Given these considerable lacunae, what grounds are there for thinking that the 1812 lectures on the theory of ethics are a plausible candidate for introducing the final stage of Fichte´s thought? After all, from 1805 onwards Fichte not only maintains, as he did in the Jena era, that the theory of ethics does not constitute an autonomous science. But rather that, strictly speaking, conceived under the aspect of the Wissenschaftslehre qua pure science of the absolute, the subject matter of the theory of ethics disappears entirely and is revealed as deficient, constrictive presentation of the absolute.[i] Whereas the 1798 System of Ethics is probably Fichte’s most accomplished composition, the 1812 version cannot compare in this respect. The lectures were not edited for publication. They retain little of the stringency and lucidity of the earlier text; the style is elliptic, the arguments are highly compressed, laid out in short lectures of a few pages each, and the plan of the lectures is only thematic in a loose sense and does not follow a pronounced linear development. The alternative formulations from the two main transcriptions which the editor has helpfully included at key junctures often provide a less involuted formulation of Fichte´s idea than does the manuscript. The force of the lectures is cumulative rather than strictly deductive.

Nonetheless, one can make a positive case for these lectures as a plausible introduction to the thought world of the very late Fichte that goes beyond the fact that they form the late pendant to that aspect of Fichte´s early philosophy which currently enjoys the most interest. The editor´s main focus on this count is not the most obvious. He plays up the importance of the lectures´ role in Fichte´s pedagogical thought. It is certainly true that the importance of education is central to Fichte, and that as this part of his philosophy takes on a more historical cast Fichte begins to have more concrete proposals in this regard. There are two fascinating, if rather authoritarian, proposals “to create an academy, that truly is an academy, properly for the first time anywhere”[ii] which Fichte drew up for the University of Erlangen as well as the newly founded University of Berlin. It is likewise the case that the great importance of pedagogical theory in the wider intellectual climate as well as the specific role of Fröbel and especially of the Swiss educational reformer Pestalozzi in the development of Fichte´s thought is not always appreciated. It is also worth stressing, as is evident from the last part of these lectures, that Fichte´s concept of education differs considerably from the Weimar-classic ideal of Bildung – its final end is not betterment of Verstand but of the will, i.e. insight into moral vocation. However given the highly abstract nature of much of the text, as well the fact that several of the popular writings which touch on this more directly are already translated, there are perhaps some more promising places to start.

A more conventional approach would indicate that while the theory of ethics is a derivative science it has special status given the importance of practical reason in the development of Fichte’s idealism. Understanding the transformation of the role of practical reason is thus important for understanding the shift from the early to the late work. It is perhaps because of the preeminent importance of practical philosophy for Fichte that it is arguably easier to track continuities and differences in his thinking on this domain than between the earlier and later Wissenschaftslehre (the continuities are also more pronounced). Unsatisfied with Kant’s appeal to the Faktum der Vernunft, both the early and later accounts of ethics aim to provide a complete deduction of the ground of the categorical nature of the “ought.” In order to do this, the early System of Ethics draws on the basic contradiction mentioned above: on the one hand the encounter with another self-consciousness discloses the absolute nature of the self, on the other the finite self is confronted with a world in which must be rationalised in order to reflect this nature. Moral obligation stems from the necessity of overcoming this contradiction. It is the impossibility of finite agency ever achieving such a total overcoming which invited Hegel’s famous “bad infinity” objection to moral duty being conceived as an infinite task not admitting of stabilisation in a concrete form of Sittlichkeit.

The 1812 lectures approach the same task: “the ‘ought’ is not to be simply assumed,” in the following way: the first stage is a lengthy and complicated discussion of the fundamental claim that “the concept is the ground of the world” – for Fichte this claim is the content of the statement that reason is practical and likewise expresses the assertion of the Wissenschaftslehre that the concept is the ground of all being. Fichte’s task is to explain how these two statements relate to one another. Here one sees clearly both the continuity and development in Fichte’s thinking. Fichte asks: “What if it were not the I that possessed consciousness but rather consciousness that possessed the I and that produced it out of itself?…What if the first principle of the theory of ethics that we have set forth were one of the points at which one could grasp this in the most compelling way?” This is presented as the major insight of the theoretical philosophy which determines the remit of the theory of ethics. One might read this as a radicalization of his earlier criticisms of Kant’s method – he claims Kant understood that the concept is ground but on the basis of a deficient starting point, namely “[w]ithin an I. This is the tacit assumption. He already possesses consciousness as something that is familiar. [his theory is founded on] mere facticity. We do not proceed this way; we allow the I and consciousness to first come into being, hence the completely different result.” However, this is equally valid against Fichte’s position in the earlier System of Ethics – in accordance with the primacy of the absolute, ideality is basic and no longer constrained.

The next stage is the synthesis of the concept with ‘life.’ In Fichte’s later thought ‘life’ becomes one of his key concepts, initially functioning as an alternative designation for the absolute. In these lectures it is used to introduce the self-determination of the concept, now that the starting point of the theory of ethics is no longer the self-consciousness of the individual agent (which itself has to be derived). As mere ideal being, on its own, the concept possesses no real effect. In order to realise the ideality of the concept – parallel to the disclosure of the absolute in the self – the I must exist to bring it about: “…the I, regarded as free and self-sufficient (which it only is as the power of self-determination), exists for the sake of furnishing the concept with causality.”[iii] As the I qua I thus only exists as a phase in the realisation of the concept, as its “proxy,” realising it in fact is what constitutes the basis of categorical obligation: its “essence is the ought.” Far from being a Faktum “categorical nature [Categoricität] is merely a criterion = external image of the concept” which presents itself to the I in consciousness, announcing its vocation. The self-determination which synthesises the concept with life is freedom. The I has the formal choice of being able to determine itself in accordance with the concept or not.

It is here that we see most clearly how the theory of ethics depends on the Wissenschaftslehre. Ethics essentially has to do with the appearance of the concept and a theory of ethics is thus for Fichte a “phainomenologia.”[iv] Fichte’s discussion of the – deficient – status of moral phenomena helpfully clarifies the role of freedom in his later work. The issue of how formal freedom relates to the absolute is initially thematized in the 1801 Wissenschaftslehre, the first major work which contains at least some of the main problems of the late philosophy. It often looks as though Fichte is drawn to assert, incoherently, that the necessary manifestation of the absolute is dependent on a contingent act of freedom. Here, however, despite the difficulty of the discussion, there can be no doubt that formal freedom is ultimately valid only at the level of appearance [Erscheinung], but from the deeper perspective of the theory of being it is illusory. Freedom is not a basic datum, but something itself which must be derived: “The theory that we set forth here does not assume freedom but rather derives it as a mere form of appearance… not as something that belongs immediately within being but rather only within the visibility of being; it is a synthetic member of a relation, namely, the relation between what in fact does not exist (the expression of life in an image) and that which alone exists in an absolute way (the life of the concept itself).”[v]

Although the earlier practical thought is motivated by a contradiction between the striving of the self to overcome the barriers to its full rationalization of the world and the impossibility of ever achieving a definitive rationalisation, one of its main achievements from Fichte´s perspective was to have dissolved the dualistic account of moral psychology in Kant´s moral theory. On the latter account the moral subject is torn between the demands of reason and heteronomous determination grounded in natural desires for satisfaction. A complaint raised against Fichte´s move here is that whatever other benefits it might have, it appears to reduce radically the significance of the individual and its moral life. Thus in the Jena System of Ethics, we read: “The drive towards self-sufficiency aims at self-sufficiency as such [überhaupt]. All individuality has for the system of ethics, considered at its highest standpoint, only this meaning: that individuality is for us qua sensuous beings the exclusive condition of the causality of the pure will, the single organ [Werkzeug] and vehicle of the moral law.” From the perspective of the 1812 lectures, we can see how definitively uninterested Fichte’s ethical thought is interested in the travails of particular finite existence. Alluding to, and tacitly arguing against, the seventh of Reinhold’s Letters on the Kantian Philosophy, Fichte explicitly denies that the will can be divided against itself.[vi] As with the earlier System of Ethics, the criterion for ethical action comes down to whether reason is used or whether it is not. Although now his focus on the question of how the will corresponds to the ideal being of the concept leads him to assert that any failure to do so is so ontologically unimportant as to be unworthy of consideration. As a result of this there is no equivalent discussion of evil to rival section sixteen of the Jena System of Ethics. The one goal of ethics is the annihilation of its proper domain, appearance, and the dissolution of the latter into truth.

One question these lectures raise is then to what extent this position is merely a working out of ambiguities latently present in the earlier practical philosophy. For example, in the Foundations of Natural Right Fichte provides a deduction of the institutions of the Rechtsstaat which corresponds to an ideal-type of liberalism (social contract, primacy of freedom of contract, Urrechte – the latter correspond roughly to human rights, rights which are ascribed to one simply in virtue of being a rational agent). However, these institutions are derived from a theory of self-consciousness and agency which is strikingly at odds which the traditional intellectual basis of liberalism. The corollary of the Wissenschaftslehre’s account of self-consciousness, according to which the latter can only be known contrastively, at the level of practical philosophy is that an inter-subjective relationship is the condition of possibility for subjectivity. This result immediately rules out the idea of unmediated rational self-awareness (Locke) and throws Fichte´s position with regards to traditional social contract theory into sharp relief. The latter assumes a fully formed individual in the state of nature who is able to enter into the contract. Fichte on the contrary argues that the status of being an individual is only attained on the basis of being in a mutually recognitive Rechstverhältnis with another – explicitly arguing that state of ‘nature’ is brought about by the state insofar as it guarantees and formalizes these relationships.

In his later practical thought, the priority of being over the individual seems to correspond to a prioritisation of the communal over the individual – but in light of these ambiguities one might argue that Fichte’s earlier commitment to individualism was arguably merely formal. One can see in the 1812 theory of ethics how these contradictions are worked out in tandem with the theoretical development of the Wissenschaftslehre: the strict separation between the domain of ethics and the legal sphere is subsumed into “one commanding Ought.” The general will replaces the moral law and the stress is clearly on the collective. In the Rechtslehre of the same year, Fichte writes that Kant is mistaken “when he says that each man is his own end…the ends of each is everyone else, because the realisation of the collective end of all depends on the cooperation and commitment of each.”[vii]

While the denial of concrete individuality seems to be both in line with and more radical than the earlier practical philosophy, this assessment needs to be qualified. Fichte strenuously denies the existence of a collective consciousness that transcends that of the individual, a point overlooked in some of the unsympathetic commentary on the late work. As Hans Freyer points out in his suggestive essay “Das Material der Pflicht” (one of the few pieces which explicitly deals with the 1812 theory of ethics, unfortunately not included in the editor’s bibliography), it is precisely Fichte’s move towards a metaphysical deduction that leads him to pose the question of individuation for the first time: “The inclusion of the individual into concrete totalities is constitutive of its individuality. These concrete totalities are themselves (in formal logical terms) individuals. Both of these facts motivates individualising concept formation and drives Fichte in this phase of his philosophy to the problems of community and history.”[viii] The last discussion of the lectures concerns precisely these issues. Examination of Fichte’s later ethical thought from this perspective may provide an adequate Fichtean defence against the Hegelian criticism mentioned above.

One major theoretical advantage of the earlier SL was its ability to account for deviant moral phenomena in terms other than simple heteronomy/pathological determination as Kant had to do. Here we see Fichte is able to present a somewhat more developed account of such phenomena as well as, importantly, their historical import. In line with his account of community as the condition of the individual, Fichte also develops a positive historical account. Of particular interest is his conception of rational religion and its church for sustaining Sittlichkeit. The comparison with Schelling, who entertained similar thoughts in his later work, is instructive here. Fichte allows that a religion which is not based on explicit awareness of the concept may help cultivate moral action, but if this happens it is merely accidental. Schelling, on the other hand, is much more interested in the idea that such awareness must first be brought about historically.

The link to Schelling’s work more broadly is a final reason for interest in these lectures. They contain one Fichte’s clearest appreciations of his objections to Schelling´s philosophy of nature. This is something that the editor notes (although he inaccurately calls Schelling´s philosophy of nature “vitalist”) and will hopefully be particularly useful given that this is the area of Schelling´s thought which is currently generating the most scholarly interest. Although Fichte was familiar with the different stages of Schelling´s early work, his discussion is generally restricted to the philosophy of nature – unfortunately he appears never to have read Schelling´s major discussion of freedom in Freiheitsschrift (this is all the more unfortunate as he elsewhere expresses some – albeit very qualified – praise for the ideas in the 1804 Philosophy and Religion which is the precursor to the 1809 text). Nonetheless his discussion provides an instructive vantage point for the comparison of the Fichte´s and Schelling´s philosophies as a whole.

Initially a partisan of Fichte´s project, by the mid 1790´s Schelling had become convinced of a deficiency in Fichte´s approach. According to Schelling, the idealism of the first Wissenschaftslehre documents only the highest stage (or what Schelling calls ‘potentiality’) of spirit and hence requires a more comprehensive ontological account of its own conditions of possibility – one which would indicate how freedom and subjectivity fit in to nature. This led Schelling to balance Fichte´s ‘practical’ idealism with a corresponding ‘theoretical’ philosophy of nature which tracks the development of spirit out of the organization of matter as it prefigures its highest realization in human subjectivity; the ‘practical’ and the ‘theoretical’ are shown to be mutually implicating, forming a complete philosophical system. When it became clear to Fichte that Schelling´s proposed ‘filling out’ of transcendental philosophy could not ultimately be subsumed under the practical idealism of the Wissenschaftslehre, philosophical collaboration between the two promptly ended. From Fichte´s perspective at the turn of the century, Schelling´s smooth transition from nature to the sphere of consciousness annihilates the sui generis status of freedom and hence amounts to a reformulation of the Spinozistic determinism which Fichte had wrestled with in his youth and had devoted his philosophical career to overcoming (a striking account of what Fichte takes to be the psychological correlate of such a system is given in the first book of the 1800 text The Vocation of Man).

Whilst the correspondence between Fichte and Schelling provides first hand evidence of their disagreements, it is often hard to identify precisely what is at issue given that both of their positions are in a phase of rapid development. In these late lectures, Fichte doubles down on the charge that the philosophy of nature is incompatible with the theory of morality – the concept must be pure and not a copy of the world, precisely what philosophy of nature must assert of the concept. His insistence on this is strengthened by the denial of any (even irrational) independent existence of non-ideal being. However despite continuities in the terms of Fichte´s criticism, there is a certain irony in the way Fichte´s and Schelling´s thought matured after their acrimonious disagreement insofar as the two thinkers appear to swap basic intuitions. Schelling was driven to the philosophy of nature (and thence to his Identity System) by the thought that being is deeper than subjectivity and that the post-Kantian systematizing project necessitated a critical reformulation of this metaphysical idea. As we have seen Fichte continues, more radically even than in the Jena period, to deny any reality to nature. Yet his attempt is clearly supposed to be some sort of answer to Schelling´s objections and performs an analogous depotentiation of self-consciousness. The slogan of the Wissenschaftslehre 1812 is “only one is [nur Eins ist]” – suspiciously close to the adage of hen kai pan that he condemned in Schelling´s earlier work.

Similarly, whilst Schelling stood accused of resurrecting a mix of neo-platonic and Spinozistic ‘dogmatism’ in his youth, his later work is centred around a reformulation of the understanding of practical reason – the rupture initiated by the Freiheitsschrift precisely concerns the unsystematisable sui generis status of freedom which institutes a gulf between the human and natural world. As is evident from these lectures, by the end of Fichte´s career, the reality of freedom seems to be simply coterminous with the being of the absolute whilst human – formal – freedom is reduced to an illusory appearance covering up what is in fact a necessary stage in the manifestation of the absolute. In other words, Fichte substitutes Schelling´s interlocking system of nature and spirit with a system of the self-realization of ideal/spirit – both cases clearly prioritize the idea of a teleology of being leaving the reality of practical reason in doubt. Whether this is a necessary development from Fichte´s earlier System of Ethics, which itself insists on the unity of reason, and whether Fichte´s late account of the absolute is preferable to the Schellingian alternative are questions which are still little discussed in the secondary literature. These lectures pose them in a way that is hopefully accessible to those who have hitherto focused their attention on the more accessible early debates of German Idealism. Whether Fichte´s resolution of the theory of ethics into a subsidiary aspect of a theory of being will generate equivalent excitement to his early privileging of the practical is doubtful. However, Fichte’s revision of the earlier position in this direction does not amount a total break from the System of Ethics and is, like the later Wissenschaftslehre with respect to its earlier counterparts, never presented in these terms but rather as a progression in terms of formulating the basic starting point. As such, despite their occasional opacity, these lectures should also raise some difficult questions for the project behind the recent reception of the Jena period insofar as it assumes that Fichte’s early work can provide a completely systematic account of normativity independent from ontology.


[i] Cf. the first lecture of Die Prinzipien der Gottes- Sitten- und Rechtslehre (1805).

[ii] Cf. Ideen für die innere Organisation der Universität Erlangen (1805/6) in Fichtes Werke (I.H. Fichte ed.), vol. XI, 277.

[iii] Lectures on the Theory of Ethics 1812, 33.

[iv] Ibid., 53.

[v] Ibid., 51.

[vi] Unfortunately the editor has left out some of the information provided in the German critical edition on Fichte’s less obvious references.

[vii] Rechtlehre 1812 II, 501.

[viii] H. Freyer, ‘Das Material der Pflicht: Eine Studie über Fichtes spätere Sittenlehre’ in Kant-Studien, 1920, 151.

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