Academic philosophy’s self-conception has long been dominated by divisions: between “analytic” and “Continental,” Frege and Husserl, Russell and James. In Pragmatism and the European Traditions, editors Maria Baghramian and Sarin Marchetti offer an alternative narrative of 20th-century philosophy, one defined by meaningful exchanges and intersections rather than clearly defined opposing camps. Analytic philosophy, pragmatism, and phenomenology are presented as “three philosophical revolutions,” as the editors write in their Introduction, whose “comprehensive story” of “multivoiced conversations” has gone untold (3). As the title suggests, the editors unite these divided histories by emphasizing pragmatism’s historical role “as a facilitator” of “dialogues and exchanges” (5). This structure lends welcome coherence to the collection: pragmatism’s influence on both phenomenology and analytic philosophy allows a narrative that intertwines all three traditions to naturally unfold.
But the editors do not see pragmatism’s role as mediator as an accident of history. Rather, they argue, pragmatism “possesses a distinct intellectual temperament that lies equidistant between the analytic demand for clarity, rigor, and respect for the natural sciences and the Phenomenological emphasis on lived experience and its subjective manifestation” (2). The implication seems clear: pragmatism as a methodology may serve us today in bridging the silent chasms that still divide academic philosophy. This volume’s purposes are thus both descriptive, as a history of forgotten connections, and normative, as a guide to forging new connections today.
I believe that Pragmatism and the European Traditions largely succeeds in its first task but less so in its second. I accept their distinction between analytic philosophy, pragmatism, and phenomenology as three traditions as articulating a reality of how philosophy is often taught. For a scholar of any of the three traditions under discussion, many chapters are thus illuminating, particularly Chapter 5, by James Levine on Russell, and Chapter 9, by James O’Shea on Lewis and Sellars. It is also understandable to position pragmatism as a mediator: this is pragmatism’s self-conception. But several articles on classical pragmatism are undermined by their lack of attention to neopragmatic criticisms. The editors intend to write a “companion volume” (6) that focuses on neopragmatism. But in this volume, they neglect a pressing problem for their normative task of mediation: as the volume exposes, pragmatism itself remains a house divided.
In Chapter 1, Richard Cobb-Stevens argues that the divergent readings of William James by Husserl and Wittgenstein better explain the methodological differences between phenomenology and analytic philosophy than the more commonly cited Husserl-Frege debate over psychologism. Cobb-Stevens convincingly shows not only the well-known connections between James’s concept of “fringes” and Husserl’s “horizons,” but between their accounts of time-consciousness. The “first-person” methodology beginning in lived experience which the pragmatist and phenomenologist share in this account is contrasted with Wittgenstein’s claim that linguistic competence better explains our sense of time. Wittgenstein’s approach yields a “third-person” methodology that rejects intuition, in Wittgenstein’s quoted words, as an “unnecessary shuffle” (34). Cobb-Stevens bridges this divide by defining a concept as “the intuited intelligibility of a thing or situation (its look) as disclosed in language” (32) and suggesting, following Thomas Nagel, that the task of philosophy is to reconcile these two methodologies, perhaps thereby reconciling the traditions under discussion.
I note two criticisms. First, Cobb-Stevens’s discussion of Husserl and James’s views on the ego does not distinguish between the transcendental and empirical egos, a distinction central to Husserl’s transcendental method and arguably in tension with Jamesian pragmatism. The notion of a “first-person” methodology may be overly reductive if it blurs this difference. Second, Cobb-Stevens’s criticism of Wittgenstein misses the distinction between causal mechanism and normative justification. It may be that the structure of perception has some causal effect on the structure of predication. But does “intuitive intelligibility” count as knowledge? Is a discursive appeal to it necessary to make the use of a concept count as correct? If not, isn’t inserting intuition into the definition of a concept an “unnecessary shuffle”? This is the gist of Sellars’s critique of the “myth of the given.” Cobb-Stevens cites Sellars positively without acknowledging the possibility of this Sellarsian criticism. Cobb-Stevens claims that James, unlike the British empiricists, is not vulnerable to Wittgenstein’s similar “shuffle” objection, but his defense of James centers on claims like: “We have something to say only because we have pre-linguistic experiences that we bring to language” (32). This is a claim about how knowledge originates, not how it is justified. At stake in this methodological divide is the justification of knowledge claims. If what counts as knowledge is settled in the public domain of linguistic concepts without appeal to intuition, then “first-person” philosophy will take at best a subordinate role in this philosophical reconciliation.
In Chapter 2, Kevin Mulligan shifts the focus from Husserl’s reception of pragmatism to Scheler’s lesser-known but comprehensive response. Mulligan neatly categorizes Scheler’s position: distinguishing between the “world of common sense and the world of science” (37), Scheler concedes to pragmatism that objects in both worlds are relative objects, the former relative to human bodies and drives and the latter to living beings in general. This “essential interdependence of types of act and types of object” (46) is for Scheler a truth of phenomenology and an insight for which he praises pragmatism. However, Scheler counters pragmatism by claiming that truth and knowledge are absolute and, moreover, that the objects of philosophy are these absolute and essential truths.
I welcome Mulligan’s sophisticated analysis of Scheler’s still-relevant perspective on classical pragmatism, long untranslated into English. As to Mulligan’s legitimate concerns with the epistemic or ontological status of existential relativity in Scheler, it may help to consider that the objective truth that Scheler defends against pragmatism is what grounds his ethics. If Scheler is thinking of values when he discusses existentially relative objects of which we have absolute knowledge, then Mulligan might look to Manfred Frings, who cites Scheler’s dissertation to claim that there cannot be for Scheler an ontological account of value. I add only a gentle note that in rigorous scholarship, I hope authors will cease to use, or editors will question, phrasing like “crazy” (37) and “wears the trousers” (59).
Chapters 3 through 5 are thematically linked and so I will not consider them individually, but instead reflect on how their authors might inform one another’s positions. In Chapter 3, Colin Koopman sidesteps the traditional conflict between classical pragmatism’s emphasis on experience and neopragmatism’s emphasis on language, asserting that James and Wittgenstein’s most relevant commonality is their emphasis on conduct. To think in terms of conduct is to think contextually and, in contrast to metaphysical idealism, to think of context-change or expansion as contingent and not logically necessitated. Koopman contrasts this resistance to idealism and emphasis on contingency in Wittgenstein and the early James against Brandom’s focus on the semantic. Conduct is for Koopman not reducible to speech-act pragmatics: there is “conceptual richness” even where we “remain rapt in our silence” (81). But he also claims that this comparison exposes a divide between the earlier pragmatic James and the later metaphysical James, whose radical empiricism succumbs, like classical empiricism, to the Sellarsian critique of the myth of the given. If pragmatism “cashes out metaphysics into practical differences” (73), then, according to Koopman, James should reject his Bergsonian appeal to pure knowledge disconnected from use.
In Chapter 4, Tim Button considers the contrasting responses of James and Schiller to the Russell-Stout objection and concludes that Schiller’s humanism falls to the objection whereas James surmounts it by an appeal to naïve realism, at the cost of undermining a pragmatic argument for God’s existence. The Russell-Stout objection concerns an account of the content of the claim “Other minds exist”: if the validity of this claim depends on a fact external to my own experience, and if its truth is distinct from that of the claim “For me, other minds exist,” then a “locked-in phenomenalist” (86) account of truth and meaning which cannot appeal to external facts is erroneous. Button argues that Schiller is effectively a locked-in phenomenalist and that his distinction between primary (internal) and secondary (external) reality is an inadequate defense against Russell-Stout because, for Schiller, references to secondary reality are still references to what I have constructed. James, despite some mixed messages, overcomes the objection by identifying as a naïve realist and enabling reference to a reality external to the individual subject’s constructions. However, Button continues, if the claim that other minds exist appeals to an external reality, then plausibly so too does the claim that God exists. To be consistent, then, James must reject a pragmatic justification of claims for God’s existence.
In Chapter 5, James Levine provides a comprehensive history of the evolution of Russell’s thought that portrays him not as an implacable foe of pragmatism, but as eventually and intentionally incorporating pragmatic ideas to become a forerunner of linguistic pragmatism. Levine categorizes Russell’s thought into three periods: after his Moorean break with idealism, in which he strongly opposes pragmatism; after the Peano conference, wherein he rejects the foundationalism of his Moorean epistemology in favor of fallibilism and coherentism; and during and after prison, in which he begins to privilege use over meaning and, further, claim that meaning “’distilled out’ of use” is ineluctably “’vague’ or indeterminate” (112). Russell initially makes a strict distinction between the meaning and the criterion of truth, arguing that the latter depends upon the former’s having precise content. But this hierarchy inverts as Russell comes to reject his theory of acquaintance, for which acquaintance with an entity is a prerequisite for labeling it, “thereby securing a precise meaning for the word we now use to stand for that entity” (130). By claiming that meaning follows use, Russell trades precision for vagueness and anticipates the insights of Quine and the later Wittgenstein by taking a, in Quine’s words, “’behavioral view of meaning’” (112). On this basis, Levine challenges Brandom’s history of philosophy, which emphasizes Russell’s early views in opposition to pragmatism.
Taking the previous three chapters together raises two questions for Button. First, if Koopman is right that James’s radical empiricism conflicts with James’s pragmatism, then does naïve realism not also conflict with pragmatism? If so – if one of the strengths of pragmatism is its rejection of what Rorty calls “sky-hooks,” guarantees of discursive truth that are external to discourse, which naïve realism serves to provide and which are notoriously vulnerable to skepticism – then the problem that ascribing to naïve realism raises for a pragmatic justification of God’s existence extends to pragmatic justification in general. Moreover, if James’s overcoming of Russell-Stout comes at the cost of an unwitting rejection of pragmatism, I would hesitate to call it a success. Second, does not the weight of the Russell-Stout objection depend implicitly on Russell’s theory of acquaintance, which secures the precise content of “Other minds exist”? If we reject the theory of acquaintance, as Levine says that Russell eventually does, then the proposition “Other minds exist” may not be functioning as a direct reference to an external reality, in which case I suspect that the objection could be defused. Perhaps pragmatism must reject naïve realism to remain coherent, and perhaps that is a strength.
In Chapter 6, Cheryl Misak discusses Ramsey’s reception of Peirce’s pragmatism and how, were it not for Ramsey’s untimely death, the analytic reception of pragmatism and the debate over the relation between truth and success might have been reshaped for the better. Misak compares Peirce’s account of truth to deflationism and claims that Peirce contributes the normative insight that asserting truth means also “asserting that [the belief] stands up to reasons now and we bet that it would continue to do so” (159). Ramsey, following Peirce, does not think that claiming that one’s belief is true is merely redundant, but distinguishes between what Misak refers to as “the generalizing and endorsing functions of the truth predicate” (164). Ramsey thus teaches the contemporary disquotationalist to become a pragmatist and to consider the multiple functions of the concept of truth. Misak’s account is a succinct and compelling summary of a neglected and informative intersection between pragmatism and the analytic tradition.
In Chapter 7, Anna Boncompagni hones in on an overlooked 1930 remark by Wittgenstein on pragmatism and develops the historical account of Wittgenstein’s reception of pragmatism and of Ramsey’s influence on Wittgenstein. In the remark, Wittgenstein identifies “’the pragmatist conception of true and false’” with “the idea that ‘a sentence is true as long as it proves to be useful’” (168). Boncompagni explains that Wittgenstein is concerned with accounting for the “hypothetical nature of sentences” (170) in ordinary language: propositions point to the future, not to the present moment of verification, because they embody “expectations of future possible experiences” (172). She concludes that though Ramsey’s conversations with Wittgenstein likely induced the latter to be more receptive to pragmatism, considering Ramsey’s positive reception of Peirce, Wittgenstein continued to reject pragmatism as “an encompassing vision of the real meaning of ‘truth’” (179) due to the influence of the prevailing Cambridge response to Jamesian pragmatism. Boncompagni adds nuance to the historical account of the analytic reception of pragmatism and encourages greater attention to Ramsey’s role, which Misak’s previous chapter elucidates.
In Chapter 8, John Capps refocuses the relation between pragmatism and expressivism away from Dewey’s rejection of Ayer’s emotivism and toward C. L. Stevenson’s 1944 Ethics and Language, which was shaped by Deweyan pragmatism. Dewey’s Theory of Valuation objects against Ayer that ethical assertions do not merely express feelings because there is no “mere” expression of feeling that does not also involve a response to circumstances and a request for a response. Capps rightly observes that this conflict comes down to the fact/value distinction: whereas for Ayer science “deals with facts alone” (194), for Dewey science can play a normative role in developing ethical judgment. Capps positions Stevenson as reconciling this conflict: though ethical judgments are primarily attitudinal rather than expressions of beliefs, ethical judgment may also serve a “descriptive function” that is “sensitive to evidence and argument” and “tempers the idea that ethical assertions are neither true nor false” (Ibid). Capps attributes Dewey’s strong position on science’s ethical relevance, and thus his greatest difference from Stevenson, to his working with the logical empiricists on the topic of unified science.
While I appreciate Capps’s attention to this philosophical juncture, I worry that he underrates the significance of the divergent Deweyan and logico-empiricist views of science. This divergence arguably drives the rise of neopragmatic accounts of normativity. It is tellingly Rortyan for Stevenson to turn to persuasion over science as driving the rational development of ethical judgments. Consider: How is Dewey’s belief that science can drive ethical development to be understood? It’s one thing to claim that science is a practice of inquiry itself normatively structured by values such as coherence, undermining a strict fact/value distinction. But it would be another thing, which does not follow from the first, to be able to leap from a scientific conclusion to an ethical conclusion. For example: No matter how precise an account of climate change a scientist offers, that account alone will not show that climate change is “bad.” That value judgment is justified otherwise. So how exactly does scientific explanation bear on ethical (or political) justification? It may be that a broad definition of science-as-inquiry obscures more about ethical judgment and deliberation than it reveals. As a Deweyan, I think the burden is on the Deweyan to carefully distinguish naturalizing ethics from committing the naturalistic fallacy.
In Chapter 9, James O’Shea offers a highlight of the volume: a clearly presented account of how Sellars improves on C. I. Lewis’s Kantian epistemological account of alternative a priori conceptual frameworks. The possibility of change in conceptual frameworks does not square easily with Kant’s claim for the universality and necessity of synthetic a priori principles. Lewis affirms the possibility of holistic conceptual redefinition that “must ultimately appeal to broadly pragmatic grounds” (208) while also recognizing that some generalizations have the status of inductive hypotheses open to falsification by evidence, not a priori criteria. However, O’Shea argues, contra Misak, that Lewis relies upon a flawed analytic/synthetic distinction that blurs the line between logical analyticity and the pragmatic a priori, and further upon an immediate grasp of a “real”/”unreal” distinction in experience, which is vulnerable to Sellars’s critique of the myth of the given. Sellars replaces the Kantian synthetic a priori with “material inference principles” that rest on his view of conceptual content, whereby having a concept is a “a matter of one’s perceptual or ‘language entry’ responses … and one’s relevant intentional actions, conforming to certain overall norm-governed patterns” (219). O’Shea concludes that Sellars provides a plausible alternative to Lewis and Quine’s views on analyticity and a priori knowledge. The chapter demonstrates significant historical and theoretical links between thinkers sometimes divided between pragmatic and analytic camps.
In Chapter 10, Alexander Klein defends a Jamesian epistemology of discovery against Quine’s epistemology of justification, stating approvingly that unlike Quine, “James cannot draw a sharp distinction between discovery and justification” and that this is essential to pragmatism itself: “all pragmatists share an emphasis on discovery as a (perhaps the) crucial locus for epistemological inquiry” (229). Though both Quine and James view knowledge as holistic and agree that “pragmatic considerations like simplicity and elegance” (228) may determine what beliefs to adopt, Quine rejects James’s position that emotions may also play a role in adopting beliefs. Klein rightly notes that this is because Quine is concerned with the justification of beliefs and does not see the emotional appeal of a belief as an acceptable justification for it. Klein argues for a “strong reading” of James as a “wishful thinker” that is incompatible with Quine: emotion is not only “useful for hypothesis generation” but may influence “belief choices” (236). In defense, Klein cites the example of Barry Marshall, a scientist who was emotionally driven to take a personal risk on research that led to his earning a Nobel Prize. According to Klein, this demonstrates that an epistemology of justification must not reject the emotion that can be central to discovery: he compares such a dispassionate epistemology to “an evolutionary explanation of a biological trait” (243) that does not account for that trait’s history and so is incomplete.
I am persuaded that Klein’s “strong reading” of James is correct, but I am not persuaded that James’s position is defensible. There are three major problems with Klein’s argument. First, even if Marshall was led to his scientific discovery by his emotions, his emotions played no obvious role in justifying his findings as true to the scientific community, which is the process of “belief choice” that concerns Quine. If I make a lucky guess about a fact, the reasons why I make the guess have nothing to do with what makes the guess true or false. Only if one denies this claim does one blur the discovery-justification distinction and engage in “wishful thinking.” Second, in defense of his view of justification, Klein cites an explanation, which is not a justification. This confusion is an unfortunate pattern in this volume. Explanations involve descriptive claims about causal mechanisms, not normative accounts of why one should take those claims to be true. If I’m asked why it rains, I describe the rain cycle; if I’m asked how I know, only then am I called to make normative claims about what one should believe and why. This double conflation of the descriptive and the normative intensifies the third problem: the implication that “all pragmatists” define epistemology in terms of discovery excludes neopragmatists like Rorty. Intentional or not, this gatekeeping serves to preserve the aforementioned confusion and evade a critical challenge. Do emotions themselves make scientific claims true? If not, how is it epistemologically relevant if emotions happen to lead to someone making scientific claims that come to be otherwise verified as true?
I cannot overstate the importance of pragmatists taking these questions, and the distinction between the descriptive and the normative, seriously in our current intellectual climate. Consider, as Klein does, evolutionary biology. The claim that values like fairness or mating preferences might causally trace their origin to our evolutionary history does not straightforwardly justify those values or preferences in any way. Why, absent a teleological (anti-Darwinian) view of nature, should what is natural be what we take to be good? This question is left unasked by influential public intellectuals such as Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson. It is worth our asking.
In Chapter 11, Sami Pihlström develops a historical narrative that presents logical empiricism as developing pragmatic ideas and themes, focusing on the less-considered relations between neopragmatism and logical empiricism. Pihlström considers what he calls “Putnam’s residual Carnapianism” (253): though Putnam rejects the logical empiricist doctrines of the analytic/synthetic and fact/value dichotomies, Putnam inherits his critique of metaphysics from that philosophical legacy. Pihlström argues that scientific realism unites the concerns of pragmatism and logical empiricism, citing the Finnish logical empiricist Eino Kaila, whose embrace of James’s “will to believe” highlights the tension shared by those traditions between advocating for scientific realism and a “romantic” concern with “the possible dominance of science over other human practices” (260). This chapter weaves together seemingly disconnected themes in an intriguing and illuminating manner. I was, however, left unsure why Pihlström takes it to be necessary that pragmatists reinterpret and engage in metaphysical theorizing.
In Chapter 12, Dermot Moran surveys two intersections between phenomenology and pragmatism, detailing the Husserlian reception of James on consciousness and the neopragmatic reading of Heidegger’s analytic of Dasein. Moran notes that both intersections involve a shift toward greater contextuality, the former away from Brentano’s theory of object-intentionality toward Husserl’s horizon-intentionality and the latter away from “Cartesian style representationalist ‘spectator’ thinking” (270) toward Dreyfusian skillful coping. Moran is also careful to point out tensions between pragmatism and phenomenology. He cites Schutz’s observation that Husserl’s transcendental method is antithetical to James’s empiricism, and on neopragmatism, he emphasizes that the analytic of Dasein involves more than Zuhandenheit or readiness-to-hand: Heidegger’s “contrast between authenticity and inauthenticity” (280) suggests he is less concerned with the functioning than with the overcoming of implicit practices of the sort that Brandom theorizes or the “socially established and mutually accepted norms” (282) that operate in Rorty’s ethnocentrism. This balanced piece would have served well as an introductory chapter. Unfortunately, Moran only hints at the deeper tension between pragmatic naturalism and the transcendental phenomenological method or Heidegger’s later anti-humanism. He might have elaborated on what Husserl and Heidegger share: a transcendental move away from the starting point of everyday experience, from which one departs to discern the structures that constitute said experience.
For many analytic philosophers and neopragmatists, those experience-constituting structures are linguistic. From their perspective, an appeal to lived experience in defining a concept can be an “unnecessary shuffle” when that experience only informs discursive practices to the degree that it is already subsumed under linguistic concepts. There are potential counters to this criticism: perhaps not all relevant practices are discursive or not all of what we should call knowledge is conceptual. But this conversation can only be developed to the degree that tensions are taken seriously: not only between pragmatism, phenomenology, and analytic philosophy, but within pragmatism itself.
The normative project of this volume is vital and promising. I think its promise can only be fulfilled in the coming companion volume, where neopragmatism is said to take center stage. If pragmatism’s intersections with analytic philosophy and phenomenology are more than historical curiosities, if pragmatism also provides a method for meliorating current divides between philosophical traditions, it must show that it can meliorate the divide between classical and neopragmatism still visible in this volume.
 Frings, Manfred. S, The Mind of Max Scheler: The First Comprehensive Guide Based on the Complete Works (Marquette University Press, 1997), 23.
 Pinker was challenged on this point directly by Rorty in “Philosophy-Envy,” Daedalus, Vol. 133, No. 4, On Human Nature (Fall, 2004): 18-24.
 This critique of classical pragmatism by neopragmatism parallels the post-structuralist and deconstructionist critiques of phenomenology. I hope this parallel is considered in the companion volume to come.
The first phenomenologist?
Recent years have seen a growing interest in the works of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) among English-speaking philosophers. New and reliable translations of Fichte’s major works from the so-called Jena-period (the years between 1794-1800 when Fichte was employed at the University in Jena) and of his subsequent writings and unpublished manuscripts from his years in Berlin (the period from Fichte’s dismissal from Jena in 1800 to his death in 1814) have made his philosophy available to a different and broader audience than previously. Furthermore the tireless work of especially Daniel Breazeale, who have translated and written about Fichte in English for many years, has done much to dispel traditional misinterpretations and misgivings about Fichte’s philosophy.
Though Fichte is not yet (and may never be) as well-known or respected among English-speaking philosophers as e.g. Kant and Hegel, his reputation today is far better than it was just 15 or 20 years ago. Fichte is no longer viewed as merely a transitory figure within the development from Kant to Hegel, or as a radical subjective idealist who subscribes to the implausible idea the world is nothing but a projection of the human mind, but as an important and influential philosopher in his own right. In a recent book Allen Wood even goes so far as to claim that Fichte “is the most original figure in the development of post-Kantian German idealism. In fact, Fichte is the most influential single figure on the entire tradition of continental European philosophy in the last two centuries”. According to Wood most, if not all, distinctive ideas within the continental tradition can thus plausibly be traced back to Fichte (Wood 2016, Preface).
One does not necessarily have to agree with Wood in order to acknowledge the importance and influence of Fichte on the development of post-Kantian and continental European philosophy. One important, but also neglected and somewhat obscure, aspect of Fichte’s influence, is his role in the development of phenomenology as a distinct and significant philosophical approach. As is well-known there are strong links between modern-day phenomenology in the tradition from Husserl and Heidegger, and the philosophy of Kant and Hegel, although there is little agreement on the precise nature of these links. On the one hand Kant and Hegel are historical figures which phenomenologists often explicitly seek to somehow transcend or move beyond. On the other hand Kant, and perhaps in particular Hegel, presents a view of the relation between mind and world which seems to open up the possibility of, perhaps even invite, a phenomenological interpretation.
The importance (be it positive or negative) of Kant and Hegel for the development of contemporary phenomenology is thus often explicitly acknowledged. Fichte’s contribution to this development on the other hand is most commonly either ignored or simply overlooked. However a number of philosophers have recently begun to emphasize the inherent phenomenological character of much of Fichte’s work. Tom Rockmore for instance has argued that Fichte’s reformulation of Kant’s Copernican Revolution makes three important contributions which subsequently influenced the development of phenomenology: 1) a decisive elimination of the thing in itself; 2) a revisionary account of the subject; and finally 3) an incipient turn to history. (Rockmore 2006). According to Rockmore the first point leads to a theory of knowledge based on phenomena, not on appearance; the second point heralds a philosophical anthropology of human finitude incompatible with Kant’s strict anti-psychologism and the third point implies a conception of human beings, and thus also of human knowledge, which sees them as situated within and limited by their historical context.
For Rockmore Fichte’s main contribution to the development of phenomenology thus consists in his radical reformulation of certain basic Kantian presuppositions; reformulations which indirectly “opens the way for phenomenology understood as a science of phenomena that are not appearances since they give up any claim to represent things in themselves or again the mind-independent reality.” (Rockmore 2006, p. 24). Fichte may not have been a phenomenologist himself, but he paved the way for subsequent philosophical developments which ultimately resulted in the full-blown phenomenological theories of the 20th century.
There is however good reasons to think that Rockmore does not go far enough in his reassessment of Fichte’s phenomenological credentials. Most of Fichte’s work thus has an implicitly phenomenological character in so far as it is concerned with detailed analyses of the relation between human mindedness and the way certain phenomena necessarily must appear to human consciousness. For Fichte, as for later phenomenologists, world, phenomena and mind are necessarily and inextricably intertwined and the primary tasks of the philosopher is to reflect upon and describe the intricate operations and activities of the human mind through which these dependencies and relationships are simultaneously constituted and become apparent to us. This (at the very least proto-)phenomenological approach can, to some extent or another, be found already in Fichte’s major work from the 1790’s (Science of Knowledge(1794/95); Foundations of Natural Right (1795-96) and The System of Ethics (1798)), but seems to become more prominent and distinctive in his later, post-Jena writings.
One clear example of this approach can be found in Fichte’s notes for his final series of lectures on his system of ethics from 1812, which have recently been translated into English by Benjamin Crowe. As Crowe notes in his ‘Editor’s Introduction’ to Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812) Fichte himself explicitly views his own account of moral normativity as a form of phenomenology (p. xx). More precisely Fichte believes that in order to account for the “ought” of morality we first need “a theory of appearance of the true and real I; a theory of the I, hence, a phenomenology that, since previously we were dealing with a theory of being, is nevertheless an absolute phenomenology, not simply a phenomenon of a phenomenon as is physics.” (Lecture 11, p. 61). To understand moral normativity we first need an account of what it is for an I to be an I, and of what it means for an I to appear to itself as an I.
For Fichte such an account is an “absolute phenomenology”, since it concerns a phenomenon, namely the I or (self-)consciousness, whose existence is defined by and constituted through its own self-appearance. The I thus differs from other phenomena (e.g. the phenomena described by physics) in that there is no difference between the appearance and the reality of the I. The I exists because and in so far as it appears to the I as an I. This, of course, is simply another way to spell out Fichte’s original insight from § 1 of the 1794 Wissenschaftslehre, which defines the I as a self-positing activity which “posits itself by merely existing and exists by merely being posited” (Fichte 1991, p. 98; I, 97). “a theory of the I” is thus “an absolute phenomenology”, because it concerns a phenomenon which exists precisely because and in so far as it is a phenomenon, and not with “a phenomenon of a phenomenon”, which is what physics deals with.
What then more precisely is the relation between moral normativity and the phenomenology of the I? This question brings us directly to the center of Fichte’s ethical theory. Unfortunately Fichte is not as clear on this point as one might have wished. In fact many of the passages in the Lectures on the Theory of Ethics1812) which deals with this topic are so difficult to interpret and understand that they border on the obscure.
In the 1798 System of Ethics Fichte derives the normativity of morality at least partly from the I’s eternal striving for absolute self-determination. The I is a self-positing activity which strives to free itself from all external determination by gradually incorporating and transforming all externality so that it becomes an extension of (or at least coheres on a deep level with) the I. It is this striving for unity between subject and object, self and other, which ultimately accounts for the inherent normativity of morality. (See Fichte 2005, Part 1 (pp. 19-63; IV 14-63)).
This idea also makes an appearance in the 1812 lectures in the form of the idea of “the pure concept” as the determining ground of both the world and the I. The pure concept is “pure” (or “absolute” because it is not derived from the world but is a necessary precondition for there being a world (and an I) in the first place. The distinctive moral significance of this pure, absolute concept is, that Fichte defines “will” as self-determination through and in accordance with this concept, and believes that such self-determination necessarily involves the capacity to effect changes in the world; to bring about through one’s actions particular states of affairs. (Lectures 1, 3 and 5). Moral actions are thus actions which are determined solely by the pure concept. And since only actions determined by the pure concept are free, self-determining actions, moral actions simultaneously both determine and serve to unite the world and the I.
One problem with the pure concept is that it is purely intelligible and hence beyond what human beings can rationally cognize. Moral actions are thus only possible if the pure concept somehow appears before or presents itself to the I. In the Lectures on the System of Ethics (1812) it is this “appearance” of the pure concept which constitutes the basic “ought” of morality. The pure concept, Fichte argues, appears before the I as an image of a specific form of determination, which the I is to retroactively apply to itself. “This image of its determination is supposed to become its actual determinacy. […] The image of determination is supposed to become the actual being; the image is supposed to make itself into a being immediately and through itself.” (Lecture 7, pp. 39-40). Differently put: The pure concept appear as an image of a formal norm of self-determination; a norm through which the I ‘ought’ to determine its own activity.
Fichte’s account of moral normativity thus consists in a phenomenology of the appearance of the pure concept in and for consciousness, and an analysis of the I simultaneous self- and world-constituting activity. Fichte’s lectures thus represent (one of) the first explicit attempts to ground man’s practical (and, Fichte would probably argue, his cognitive) relation to and engagement with the world on an explicitly phenomenological analysis of consciousness. This is what makes (or at least ought to make) the Lectures on the System of Ethics (1812) of great and enduring interest to phenomenologists.
As already mentioned Fichte’s arguments and formulations in the lectures are often extremely difficult to follow. This makes it exceedingly hard for even an experienced philosophical reader to get a grip on the text. To some extent this is because Fichte’s original text is not a finished manuscript but is precisely a set of lecture notes; notes which Fichte used as a guide-line and starting point for his lectures on ethics. As Crowe notes in his introduction “Fichte’s manuscript often reads more like a series of shorthand notes to himself than a polished text. The 1812 lectures on the theory of ethics is a challenging text; indeed, it represents some of the most difficult prose Fichte ever produced.” (pp. xxiv).
Crowe’s translation goes some way towards remedying these defects. First of all Crowe supplements his translation of Fichte’s own notes with substantial excerpts from two student transcripts: One by Jakob Ludwig Cauer, the other by an unknown author. These excerpts are included in the text as footnotes and often throw an illuminating light on the darkness of particular passages of Fichte’s own text.
Secondly Crowe’s lengthy introduction not only places Fichte’s lectures within the social, political and philosophical context in which they were originally presented, but also locates the lectures within Fichte’s own philosophical system. This makes the lectures relatively accessible to non-Fichte scholars, although the inherent difficulty of the text remains. Unfortunately Crowe only provide a brief summary of the lectures, which does not go into much argumentative detail. Furthermore Crowe’s introduction seems to suggest that Fichte’s educational theory and account of the structure and hierarchy of academic disciplines at the university somehow provides an interpretative key to the 1812 lectures on ethics. I personally do not agree with this, and while I found many of Crowe’s remarks on these topics interesting and illuminating in their own right, they did not really help me find my way through the text.
Thirdly Crowe provides a comprehensive bibliography of selected English and German literature on Fichte’s philosophy, in particular his ethics. The references to the German literature on Fichte’s later writings are particularly useful, since there is hardly any English literature available on these texts.
Finally of course Crowe’s translation itself serves to open up Fichte’s text to the reader. Crowe has done a lot of work to fill in the blanks in Fichte’s text. This of course means that he has had to make a lot of interpretative choices along the way. I have not done an extensive or systematic comparison between Fichte’s original German version and Crowe’s translation, but my general feeling, based on the overall coherence of the text, is that Crowe has gotten things more right than wrong. Given the state of the original text and the difficulty of Fichte’s thought Crowe’s translation is at any rate an impressive accomplishment which should be applauded.
In conclusion: Fichte’s Lectures on the System of Ethics (1812) should be of interest to both phenomenologists, students of German Idealism in general and Fichte-scholars. The text presents Fichte’s last words on ethics, a topic which Fichte himself viewed as central to and crucial for his own philosophical system. It also represents one of the first, if not the first explicitly and recognizably phenomenological analyses of (moral) consciousness, and raises a number of interesting questions and problems which should be of interest to contemporary phenomenological discussions. The text is extremely difficult, but Crowe has done an excellent job in making it accessible to a contemporary, English-speaking audience.
Fichte, J. G. 1991. The Science of Knowledge. Edited and translated by Peter Heath and John Lachs, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Fichte, J. G. 2005. The System of Ethics. Edited and translated by Daniel Breazeale and Günter Zöller, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Rockmore, Tom. 2010. ‘Fichte and Phenomenology’. In Fichte and the Phenomenological Tradition, ed. by Violetta L. Waibel, Daniel Breazeale and Tom Rockmore, De Gruyter: Berlin.
Wood, Allen. 2016. Fichte’s Ethical Thought, Oxford University Press: Oxford.