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Fichte on Self-Consciousness as the Foundation of All Knowledge


J. G. Fichte

4,888 words

1. Fichte’s Foundationalism

J. G. Fichte holds that the human self has no intrinsic identity, aside from that which we create for it. He completely rejects the notion that our identity is in any way determined by nature. This is the modern “blank slate” theory pushed to a radical extreme. It is to Fichte that we must look if we wish to find the philosophical origins of current intellectual fashions such as “gender fluidity,” “social construction” of race and gender, and radical egalitarian claims about human perfectibility. In this essay, we will take our first steps towards understanding Fichte’s revolutionary understanding of the nature of the self.

In my last essay [2], we saw that Fichte holds that the so-called “problem of the external world” is the most important problem in philosophy. He maintains that there are only two possible ways of answering it: idealism, which holds that the world is the result of the activity of the subject, and dogmatism, which treats subjectivity as just another thing in the world, shaped by objects external to it. Fichte sides with idealism — but not because he thinks there are better arguments in favor of it. Instead, he holds that these two positions flow from two radically different sorts of human character, and that the choice between them is not made, and cannot be made, on rational grounds.

Fichte sides with idealism because his character inclines him toward belief in freedom — in the absolute freedom and self-sufficiency of human consciousness. He abhors dogmatism because it negates that freedom through its commitment to determinism. Fichte’s entire idealistic philosophy is simply a theoretical expression of what we might characterize as his own heart’s “reasons,” which are deeper and more powerful than any rational convictions. In the present essay, we are going to examine Fichte’s idealism in greater detail. It is, without question, one of the most thought-provoking and influential intellectual constructions in the entire history of ideas.


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As I have argued in previous essays, Fichte is a quintessentially modern thinker, in multiple ways. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his conviction that philosophy has to begin with a foundation, which he insists must be a first principle that is absolutely certain. In this, he follows Descartes, the father of modern philosophy itself, whose philosophical foundation was the indubitability of his own existence as a “thinking thing.” “‘I am, I exist’ is necessarily true every time I utter it or conceive it in my mind,” Descartes had argued (“I exist” cannot be doubted, since the attempt to doubt proves the existence of the doubter).[1] [5] We will see that Fichte’s own first principle is remarkably similar, though his treatment of it is far more complex and profound than Descartes’.

Fichte makes his methodology clear in the 1797 “First Introduction” to the Wissenschaftslehre: “This idealism proceeds from a single fundamental principle of reason, which it demonstrates directly in consciousness.”[2] [6] Note this choice of words: Fichte does not tell us that this “fundamental principle” will be logically deduced from some starting point, or supported by argument. Instead, he seems to be appealing to some version of the idea of “self-evidence”: the fundamental principle will be demonstrated “directly in consciousness” in the sense that it will be shown to be self-evidently true. But how? Later, he reiterates his position, saying that his idealism “demonstrates its claims in immediate consciousness.”[3] [7] He seems to mean that somehow this principle will be immediately experienced by us, not grasped in theoretical or intellectual fashion as the conclusion of a chain of reasoning. Of course, this calls into question Fichte’s choice of the term “principle” — unless we understand “principle” in its literal meaning as “source” or “beginning” (from the Latin principium).

Once the fundamental first principle has been demonstrated, Fichte indicates that the rest of his system will be deduced in the following manner:

[The system] shows that what is first set up as fundamental principle and directly demonstrated in consciousness, is impossible unless something else occurs along with it, and that this something else is impossible unless a third something else takes place, and so on until the conditions of what was exhibited are completely exhausted, and this latter is, with respect to its possibility, fully intelligible. Its course is an unbroken progression from conditioned to condition; each condition becomes, in turn, a conditioned whose condition must be sought out.[4] [8]

Here Fichte is describing the method of “transcendental argument” employed by Kant in his Critical philosophy. The basic form of a transcendental argument (often called by Anglo-American philosophers a “meta-argument”) can be represented as follows:

We already know that Z exists or takes place.

However, Z could not exist or take place without Y.

Therefore, Y must also exist or take place.

To apply Fichte’s language to the above formula, Z would be the conditioned, and Y the condition. Such an argument demonstrates that Y is a necessary condition for Z. We can go further in some cases, and argue that Y is also conditioned, and could not exist or take place without X, and so forth. In this fashion, Kant argued for the existence of what we can loosely call “structures of consciousness,” which were the conditions for the possibility of objects being given to consciousness in the first place. All consciousness, Kant argued, involves judgment or the use of judgment forms, but these would be impossible without the categories of the understanding, which in turn could not be employed at all without the schematism (or schematized categories), and so on and so forth.

Therefore, Fichte’s “fundamental principle,” which shall be demonstrated in “immediate consciousness,” is going to be some kind of absolutely basic experience which will constitute the foundation of his idealism — but this experience is impossible without a series of conditions which this idealism has as its task to lay bare. Or, as Fichte puts it (writing, once more, in unusually clear language), in this manner “one can deduce the whole system of our necessary presentations — not only of a world whose objects are determined by the subsuming and reflective judgment, but also of ourselves as free practical beings under laws.”[5] [9]

We might challenge what we have heard so far with a basic question: Why must the first principle be drawn from consciousness? Why can’t it be some fundamental fact about the world? To see why Fichte rejects such a possibility, we must remember his assertion that the most basic task of philosophy is to solve the “problem of the external world”: Why do I believe there is a world “out there” that corresponds to my representations? Since the very existence of that world has been bracketed, our first principle cannot be some claim about the world drawn from experience. But if our principle cannot make reference to the world (“out there”), then the only alternative is that it must be drawn from subjectivity itself (“in here”), which, Fichte claims, is the only thing of which we are “directly” aware.[6] [10]

2. The Nature of Self-Consciousness

Early in the Wissenschaftslehre, Fichte reveals that his first principle will be a pure act of consciousness — not an idea or “concept” at all. Fichte writes that

[i]t [i.e., the principle] is intended to express that act which does not and cannot appear among the empirical states of our consciousness, but rather lies at the basis of all consciousness and alone makes it possible. . . . [We] must necessarily think this act as the basis of all consciousness.[7] [11]

What is this act? Rather than define or describe it, Fichte commands us to perform it, and gives us explicit instructions.

“Attend to yourself,” he says at the very beginning of the “First Introduction,” “turn your attention away from everything that surrounds you and towards your inner life; this is the first demand that philosophy makes of its disciple. Our concern is not with anything that lies outside you, but only with yourself.”[8] [12] In asking us to “turn inwards,” he is asking us to direct attention away from the things in the world that we are conscious of and towards consciousness itself. In his System of Ethics (which re-presents the standpoint of the Wissenschaftslehre before moving on to moral philosophy), Fichte is even more clear about this point:

The easiest way to guide someone toward learning to think and to understand the concept I in a determinate manner is as follows: think for yourself of some object, e.g., the wall in front of you, your desk, or something similar. In doing this you undoubtedly assume a thinker or thinking subject, and this thinker is you yourself. In this act of thinking, you are immediately aware of your thinking. . . . Now think of yourself.[9] [13]

The conscious act that Fichte is describing is, of course, what we call self-awareness or self-consciousness. Fichte will argue that this is not only the fundamental act of human consciousness, but also identical with what we think of as having a “self.” He writes further in the Science of Ethics (in the caustic tone for which he was noted):

In philosophy . . . everything depends on becoming acquainted with the subject as such, in order to judge its influences on the determination of the object. This can happen only by making the mere reflection [that is, the act of thinking of the object] into the object of a new reflection. — To the non-philosopher, the project of becoming conscious of consciousness may seem strange and perhaps even risible. This, however, merely demonstrates the non-philosopher’s ignorance of philosophy and his complete incapacity for the latter.[10] [14]

Fichte’s emphasis on the fundamentality of self-consciousness is a development of Kant’s doctrine of the “transcendental unity of apperception” (which I have discussed at length here [15]). “Apperception” means the act of perceiving that we perceive. For example, I perceive the laptop in front of me. But I can also perceive that I am perceiving the laptop. The first instance of “perceive” refers to perception using the five senses (e.g., I see the laptop). However, when I say that “I perceive that I perceive,” this other sort of perception is obviously not sensory. It is what Fichte refers to as “intellectual intuition,” borrowing more terminology from Kant.[11] [16] And it is the same thing as self-awareness or self-consciousness. To be self-aware, as distinct from aware of the world, means to be aware of my awareness of the world: aware that I am having, right now, a visual perception of this laptop, or an emotion connected with it, or the physical sensation of the keys on the keyboard, etc.

Kant characterizes apperception by saying that it is as if the thought “I think” accompanies all of my experiences. He does not mean that we are always engaged in conscious apperception. Obviously, I am not always consciously aware that I am aware of the laptop; sometimes I am completely absorbed in the laptop. Nevertheless, Kant insists that “I think” must potentially accompany all of my experiences, and he argues that this is one of the transcendental conditions that makes experience possible. Experience is always my experience (there is no such thing as a free-floating experience that does not belong to any subject). And I am tacitly aware of this at every moment; at all times I am aware (even if this does not come to conscious expression) that these experiences are my experiences. For Fichte, since apperception is self-awareness, this means that at all times I am tacitly aware that I am. The awareness that I am, that I exist accompanies all my experiences; it lies at the very foundation of experience itself.

Now, Fichte’s next step leads him to a difficult but profound claim. He takes the position that the “I” just is this act of self-awareness, this act that says (tacitly) “I am.” In other words, I am only when, in effect, I say “I am.” The words “I am” do not have to be literally spoken or thought; but it is only in the act of self-awareness (or apperception) that what I call my “self” or “I” exists. Indeed, it is this act. “Commonsense” will balk at this, but for Fichte commonsense is a literal-minded way of thinking — the standpoint of what we saw him refer to earlier, derisively, as “the non-philosopher.” Commonsense tells us that there is a “self,” an “I,” which is a “thing” that is around at all times, and only sometimes performs the act of reflecting on itself; only sometimes does this “thing” say “I am.” Fichte completely rejects this.

Early in the Wissenschaftslehre, Fichte writes that “[t]he intellect, for idealism, is an act, and absolutely nothing more; we should not even call it an active something, for this expression refers to something subsistent in which activity inheres.”[12] [17] Here, Fichte emphasizes that the self is not a “thing” that “does” something; it just is the doing; it as an act “and absolutely nothing more.” (Unfortunately, Fichte is sometimes sloppy in his choice of words, using such terms as “intellect,” “mind,” and “self” interchangeably.[13] [18]) Later on, he writes that “[t]he act in question is simply the concept of the self, and the concept of the self is the concept of this act; both are exactly the same; and by means of this concept nothing else is thought, nor can be thought, save what we have referred to.”[14] [19]

Again, commonsense will object: “How can the self not be thing-like? After all, for an act to be performed, must there not be a thing that performs it? For self-consciousness to occur (for this act to be enacted), must there not be a thing, which we call the self, that does self-consciousness?” But Fichte steadfastly rejects this position, and he has powerful arguments for doing so. Let us consider for a moment the nature of consciousness as such; not self-consciousness specifically, but the consciousness that is meant when I say that I am conscious of the laptop or of the wall. In every act of consciousness, there is an opposition between subject and object. As Fichte puts the matter, there is always an object “posited over against or in opposition to [the subject].” These two are related (consciousness itself is the relation), but they are separate. I (the subject) am not the laptop; I am not the wall.


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But in self-consciousness this opposition is cancelled. In self-consciousness the subject is the object — and we can equally well say that the object is the subject. In self-consciousness, I am aware of my self; the self is aware of itself; the I is aware of the I. Fichte tells us that in this act, “thinker and thought are the same,”[15] [22] and he refers to what he calls the “absolute identity of the subject and object in the I.”[16] [23] Thus, in self-consciousness there is no separate thinglike “self” that “does” self-awareness, that exists prior to its awareness of “the self” as distinct object. In self-consciousness, there is absolutely no distinction between subject and object, self and other.

But let’s consider a further argument against the commonsense misunderstanding of self-consciousness, just for the benefit of those who might still be sitting on the fence. Suppose we did assume the existence of a subsistent, self-knowing self that is around all the time, even when it is not “knowing itself.” Real, true, or complete self-consciousness would require that we come to know that self as well — the self1 that knows the self2. But to know the self1 we would have to posit the existence of a further self, the self3 that knows self1. And to know self3 there would have to be a self4 . And so on and so forth. In other words, we would be landed in an infinite regress — an infinity of “knowing selves,” which is absurd.[17] [24]

3. Experiment in Introspection: An Attempt to Force the Reader to Understand[18] [25]

I am aware that my readers may find all of this more than a bit puzzling, so I would like to try a different tack. To really understand Fichte’s position, we have to make an effort to fully appreciate the sheer strangeness of self-consciousness. Only then can we understand why he insists on this “absolute identity” of subject and object.

Consider the sentence “I am aware of myself.” Nothing about it seems particularly unusual, until we break it down. “I am aware of myself” implies the usual opposition that we take to always be involved in consciousness: I am aware of X, where X is something different from I. In fact, however, this can’t be how self-consciousness works. If the standard model were correct, then the “I” that is aware is different from the “self” that it is aware of. But, of course, they are not different; they are the same. In self-consciousness, my self is not some “thing” that I am aware of, and there is no thing-like I separate from “my self” that is pointed toward that self as an other. We now begin to realize how misleading the simple sentence “I am aware of myself” is, and, indeed, how misleading the term “self-consciousness” is.

We are confronting a profound mystery — one which Fichte struggled to express, again and again. He points us towards that mystery, but, in the end, he never manages to express it clearly enough. We are placed in the position of having to assist Fichte, always with the danger that we may misrepresent him, superimposing our own preconceptions onto him. Fully aware of that danger, I am nevertheless going to borrow a term from the Gurdjieff tradition [26] and suggest that what is meant by the inadequate term “self-consciousness” is a peculiar kind of presence. (Here I should note that I am not using the term “presence” as Heideggereans use it in referring to the “metaphysics of presence,” which I have discussed at length in earlier essays [27].) I will help the reader to see what I mean by asking him, just as Fichte does, to perform an experiment in introspection.

Right now, you are reading this article on a computer. You are looking at the screen. Perhaps your hands are touching the table on which the computer sits, or the arms of the chair in which you are sitting. There may be some ambient noise in the background, such as music or human voices. Perhaps you can smell dinner cooking. These are all objects on which you can focus your awareness — and I want you to do just that: simply be aware of these things. Now, however, I want you to shift your focus from these things of which you are aware, to your awareness itself. Be aware of your awareness of the computer, of your visual experience — and so on. Be aware of “your self.” We don’t need to define that; you know what I mean.

But here is an important caveat: I want you to become aware of your awareness, aware of your self, without verbalizing the experience in your mind. In other words, I forbid you to think the words “Now I am aware of my awareness,” “Now I am aware of my tactile experience,” “Now I am aware of myself,” or any variations thereof. No words are allowed. Just experience awareness of yourself, without insisting on thinking in words. We are not writing a report here; we are having a pure experience.

Please do this. If you perform the experiment just as I have asked you to, and then seriously reflect on it, you will realize the complete inadequacy of characterizing “self-consciousness” as awareness of an “object”; the complete inadequacy of the sentence “I am aware of myself.” You will also realize the complete inadequacy of understanding the “I” that is aware as some kind of a “thing” — and to understand “self-awareness” itself as some kind of thing is too absurd for words. What we are dealing with is a peculiar sort of act — just as Fichte says. We could also characterize it as a “state,” though it is not at all passive. What happens when “self-consciousness” occurs is that a kind of presence comes into being. We might want to say “I become present,” but really isn’t “I” just the same thing as this presence (again, just as Fichte says)?

Now, I want to ask you another question: How did you feel when you experienced this presence? But take note of how problematic this question is. Presence was not a “thing” that you “experienced”; presence, in fact, wasn’t something distinct from you, or from the experience. Presence was you — your “I” — coming into being. And I submit to you that the “feeling” you had when you performed this exercise was a feeling of being. If this feeling spoke (if, to violate my own rules, we put things into words), it would say “I am.”

As we have said, Fichte takes the radical position that “I” am nothing other than this presence that says, in effect, “I am.” “I am this [intellectual] intuition,” he says, “and absolutely nothing further, and this intuition itself is who I am.”[19] [28] Elsewhere he is equally emphatic: “[The] thought of [myself] is nothing other than the thought of this act, and the word ‘I’ nothing other than the designation thereof; that self and self-reverting act are perfectly identical concepts.”[20] [29] This position has an even more strange and radical implication, one which Fichte will push very hard and which will have enormous consequences in the modern world: The self is nothing other than what it conceives itself as being. In other words, it is wholly free and undetermined by anything outside itself. It is self-determining. “I determine myself,” he writes in the System of Ethics. “What is this determining I? Without doubt, this is the one I that arose from the union of the I that reflects and the I that is reflected upon; and this same I is, in the same undivided act and in the same regard, also what is determined [by myself].”[21] [30]

To make this position plausible to the reader, let us once again consider the experiment in introspection we performed a moment ago. How exactly did you do this? How did you make presence present, this sense of the “I,” this “sensation” of “I am”? No one can answer this question. But do it you can, again and again. (Try it and you will see that this is true.) You can do it at will, and you do it freely. Nothing makes you do it, and nothing can make you do it. This presence, or choice to become present, is absolutely free and unnecessitated. And perhaps, in a peculiar sort of way, this is the real answer to the question, “How exactly do you do this?” When we ask that question, we are looking for a cause or a mechanism that “makes” presence happen. But I am the “cause”; I am the “mechanism.” It is in this presence that my freedom consists. Even in this way of putting things, of course, there is an inadequacy, for “I” do not “cause” presence. I am this presence. So what, then, can we say about this act? Presence happens; presence presences. This is “I,” my “self.” And it happens freely, without cause, without “why.”

4. Conclusion: Self-Consciousness as Foundation of Idealism


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We began this entire discussion by noting that Fichte is a foundationalist, who seeks to ground his philosophy on some fundamental truth, from which his system will be “generated” in quasi-geometrical fashion. We have now seen that this principle is self-consciousness, understood in a radically new manner. But how, exactly, will self-consciousness serve as the foundation of the system?

We have already noted that for Kant, apperception was one of the transcendental conditions that makes experience possible. Fichte follows Kant in this, stating that “all consciousness rests on, and is conditioned by, self-consciousness.”[22] [33] Where Fichte departs from Kant, and radicalizes Transcendental Idealism, is in his claim that his system can accomplish

the complete deduction of all experience from the possibility of self-consciousness. . . . [The reader] will thereupon grasp, let us hope, that he is then obliged to think of this self-reversion [of self-consciousness] as preceding and conditioning all other acts of consciousness, or — what comes to the same — must think of it as the most primordial act of the subject.”[23] [34]

In other words, Fichte’s idealism begins from the fact of self-consciousness, which we have taken such great pains to understand. He then asks how self-consciousness is possible. What are the conditions that must be satisfied for self-consciousness to exist at all? This is the application of the method of “transcendental argument” I defined much earlier. Self-consciousness is “the conditioned,” and it is the task of Transcendental Idealism to spell out the conditions that allow us to realize it. This will be equivalent to the “complete deduction of all experience.”

But if Fichte intends to unveil the conditions that make self-consciousness possible, why then does he refer (in the above quotation) to consciousness as “preceding and conditioning all other acts of consciousness,” and (in the quotation before that) to “all consciousness” as “resting on” and “conditioned by” self-consciousness? This is because self-consciousness is the telos, the ultimate end of all human consciousness. It is that for the sake of which all consciousness exists. Self-consciousness and “all other acts of consciousness” can thus be seen as reciprocally conditioning each other. Self-consciousness is made possible by other acts of consciousness. But those acts exist for the sake of bringing self-consciousness into being, as their ultimate end. Thus, when Fichte speaks of self-consciousness as “preceding . . . all other acts of consciousness,” he does not mean that self-consciousness precedes those other acts in time. Instead, self-consciousness is logically prior to other acts of consciousness, as the reason why they exist at all.

So, let us consider the first steps Fichte takes in “deducing” these other acts of consciousness — in deducing, in other words, the rest of his system. The reader will recall that Fichte claims that the fundamental question of philosophy is, “Why do we believe that there are real things outside our representations?” (though, as I noted in my last essay, he formulates this in different ways). We are now in a position to approach Fichte’s answer to this question. In our next essay, we will confront his surprising solution to the “problem of the external world.”

*  *  *

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[1] [36] Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1993), 18.

[2] [37] Fichte, The Science of Knowledge (henceforth, WL), trans. Peter Heath and John Lachs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 25

[3] [38] WL, 25. Italics added.

[4] [39] WL, 25. Fichte’s italics omitted.

[5] [40] WL, 25.

[6] [41] With this claim, as I noted in the last essay, Fichte locates himself squarely within the representationalist tradition. Furthermore, Fichte is also insistent that the mind or subjectivity cannot be understood at all “from the outside,” as it were. This is the approach taken by modern science (an approach heartily endorsed by the “dogmatist”), and we see this in our own time. All current scientific approaches to consciousness attempt to study it “from the outside” (or, we might say, from a “third person perspective”) — as for example, when cognitive scientists try to understand the mind with the aid of CT scans. The problem with this approach, however, is that we all know that “from the inside” mind is something quite different. The experience of having a mind (or, better yet, being a mind) — an experience shared, presumably, by scientists — simply cannot be understood by looking at tomography images of the brain. Thus, Fichte insists that, in the words of one commentator, “we must interpret [mind] from within, according to its own self-conceptions or self-understanding.” And, in Fichte’s own words, “everything which occurs in the mind can be completely explained and comprehended on the basis of mind itself.” For both quotations, see Frederick Beiser, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism 1781-1801 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), 246. In his 1929 lectures, Heidegger endorses this position taken by Fichte. This is unsurprising, since Heidegger followed all the other major thinkers of the German tradition of transcendental philosophy in holding that transcendental subjectivity (a.k.a. “Dasein”) is nothing “natural” and therefore cannot be understood through the approach of the empirical sciences. For a discussion of this, see Daniel O. Dahlstrom, “Heidegger and German Idealism” in A Companion to Heidegger, Hubert L. Dreyfus, Mark A. Wrathall, eds. (Hoboken, N. J.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005), 68.

[7] [42] WL, 93. First italics added.

[8] [43] WL, 6.

[9] [44] J.G. Fichte, The System of Ethics (henceforth, SE), trans. Daniel Breazeale and Günter Zöller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 24.

[10] [45] SE, 36. Interpolation in square brackets added by the translator. My italics.

[11] [46] “Intuition” translates the German Anschauung and does not carry the sense of a “hunch”; it simply means “perception”

[12] [47] WL, 21. Italics added.

[13] [48] For example: “The point in question is ‘I-hood’ [Ichheit], intelligence, reason — or whatever one wishes to call it” (SE, 7). But surely these are distinct things.

[14] [49] WL, 35-36. Italics added.

[15] [50] WL, 37.

[16] [51] SE, 7.

[17] [52] This point is very clearly explained in Beiser, 304.

[18] [53] One of Fichte’s popular works was titled Sun-Clear Report to the Public at Large Concerning the Actual Character of the Most Recent Philosophy: An Attempt to Force the Reader to Understand (1801).

[19] [54] Quoted in Beiser, 304. In his 1929 lectures on Fichte, Heidegger gives special attention to this point. See Martin Heidegger, Gesamtausgabe Band 28 (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klosterman, 2011), 65-67. And see the discussion in Jürgen Stolzenberg, “Martin Heidegger Reads Fichte,” in Fichte and the Phenomenological Tradition, Violetta L. Waibel, Daniel Breazeale, and Tom Rockmore, eds. (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016), 210-211.

[20] [55] WL, 37. Italics in original.

[21] [56] SE, 131.

[22] [57] WL, 37.

[23] [58] WL, 37.