— Counter-Currents —

Fichte & the Primacy of Practical Reason


J. G. Fichte meets Immanuel Kant, 1791

6,194 words

1. “The circumference of my world is equivalent to the limits of my will.”

In my last essay [2], we established that for Fichte self-consciousness is an ultimate fact. We saw via our own experiments in introspection that the “I” — this “presence” that says, in effect “I am” — is not simply a feature of the self, it is the self. As such, it cannot be doubted. To doubt it is for the self to doubt the existence of the self, which is absurd (again, as I have noted before, we hear echoes of Descartes in this). But recall how we arrived at self-consciousness — recall how our experiment began. We first had to be aware of the computer in front of us, of the feel of the chair underneath us, etc. Then we “turned inward” and became aware of our awareness.

Thus, a fundamental condition for the possibility of self-awareness is a prior awareness of what is not self, but other — an awareness of a world “out there.” Fichte expresses this idea in the Wissenschaftslehre, when he tells us that the philosopher “will have to show, firstly, how the self is and may be for itself [i.e., aware of itself]; then, that this existence of itself for itself would be impossible, unless there also at once arose for it an existence outside itself.”[1] [3] Now, in my first Fichte essay [4] I noted his notorious usage of the verb “to posit” (setzen). As so often happens in the works of philosophers, Fichte’s own preferred terminology simply manages to get in the way. This is the reason why, so far, I have avoided any mention of “positing.” But let us just briefly decipher how he uses this term in expressing the ideas just mentioned, because it may prove helpful.

When Fichte says in the Wissenschaftslehre that “the self [or ego; Ich] posits itself,”[2] [5] he is simply referring to the act of self-consciousness we have already discussed at length: the act of presence whereby the self makes itself actual. Setzen in German is usually translated as “to put” or “to place,” but it can also mean “to establish.” So “the self posits itself” just means something like “the self asserts itself.” It is when Fichte claims that “the self posits the not-self” and “the self posits itself as determined by the not-self[3] [6] that interpreters tend to go astray. These statements have invited the misunderstanding that Fichte is claiming that the self creates the not-self; i.e., it creates the world that stands opposed to the self.

As discussed in my second essay [7] on Fichte, however, this is an untenable reading of the Wissenschaftslehre. What Fichte really means is that the self recognizes or affirms the existence of a not-self that stands opposed to it. Further, he does not mean that we affirm the not-self in some abstract or intellectual sense, or even that we put this realization into words. He means that our conscious experience itself is marked at all times by a tacit affirmation that there is something else other than ourselves. At all times, both my lived experience and my behavior exhibit a fundamental commitment to the belief in an “external world.” For example, when I almost step off the curb and into the path of an oncoming car but pull myself back at the last moment, breathing a huge sigh of relief, I have demonstrated my belief in a not-self.

The existence of the not-self — or, rather, the self’s experience of a not-self — is a necessary condition of self-awareness. Extrospection (engagement with the not-self) always precedes introspection. The naïve state of consciousness is always other-directed, engaged with the world. Generally speaking, introspection happens in ordinary life when something goes wrong with our engagement with the world, especially our expectations about things. For example, I am convinced that my friend Johann would never lie to me. On that basis, I trust him with a secret. But then I receive evidence that suggests that he has lied to me. Now I must “turn inwards” and re-examine my assumptions about Johann, and possibly my assumptions about other people in general. On the other hand, in a purely philosophical context, introspection comes about as I described earlier: I begin with awareness of something around me, then I deliberately become aware of my awareness. Either way, the experience of the not-self precedes self-consciousness as its necessary condition.

So far, it appears that Fichte has provided us with a demonstration of the existence of a world external to consciousness, and thus that he has answered the question he regarded as the most fundamental in all of philosophy: “Why do we believe that there are real things outside our representations?” We know that self-consciousness exists but, as we have argued, self-consciousness would be impossible without the experience of a not-self. QED. However, we must mention an important caveat: Fichte makes clear that his distinction between the self and the not-self is one that is made within consciousness.

This means that when Fichte speaks of a not-self he is speaking of a fundamental feature of conscious experience: within consciousness, something shows up, or as experienced by me as not me. Strictly speaking, Fichte has not proved the existence of anything literally external to consciousness (i.e., an “external world”). And how, indeed, could he do that? Since all we are conscious of is what appears to consciousness, wouldn’t Fichte have to “get outside” consciousness to prove the existence of something external to it? And if he did (somehow) become conscious of what is outside consciousness, wouldn’t this “outside consciousness” actually be within consciousness, since he has become conscious of it?

So, in what sense, then, has Fichte answered the “problem of the external world” that he himself posed? Well, let us look a little more closely at the way he phrases the problem. Perhaps we have misunderstood him. As I noted in my second essay on Fichte, he phrases his fundamental question in different ways. I have just quoted one formulation: “Why do we believe that there are real things outside our representations?”[4] [8] Elsewhere he puts it like this: “What is the source of the system of presentations which are accompanied by the feeling of necessity, and of this feeling of necessity itself?”[5] [9] And elsewhere: “What is the basis for our claim that there is something outside of us which corresponds to our representations?”[6] [10] Note that, in fact, none of these questions literally asks whether we can prove that there is something outside consciousness.

Instead, if one reads these formulations carefully, one will see that they all inquire about the basis of our belief in something external to consciousness — they inquire exclusively about the source of a subjective state. They ask about “belief,” “feeling,” and “our claim.” These are all ways of expressing the point made earlier: that we demonstrate our commitment to the belief in a not-self in our every act of consciousness; this is a fundamental feature of consciousness. Fichte is simply asking, why is it this way? Now that we have understood what Fichte is really asking about, how does he go about finding an answer?

First, we must note that, both in posing and in answering his own question, Fichte stays strictly within the bounds of what we can describe as the features of conscious awareness (since, as we have argued, it is absurd to think that we can get “outside consciousness” to talk about what is “really” there). In doing so, he lays the groundwork for the phenomenological method that will be developed in the twentieth century by Edmund Husserl and his student, Martin Heidegger. This method limits itself to a precise description of the features of experience, as they show up to us, and prescinds from making metaphysical commitments about what lies beyond experience.

Fichte argues that the basis for our belief that there is something external to consciousness lies in our experience of resistance. To illustrate this point, he offers a famous analogy:

Imagine a compressed steel spring. Within this spring there is undoubtedly a striving to push back against what presses upon it; hence this striving within the spring is directed outward. This would be an image of actual willing, as the state of a rational being; but this is not what we are talking about here. Now what is the proximate ground (not the condition) of this striving, understood as an actually determined manifestation of the steel spring? The proximate ground in question is undoubtedly an inner effect of the spring upon itself, a self-determination. Surely the ground for the opposing action of the spring does not lie in that body outside the steel spring, which exerts pressure upon it. This self-determination would be [analogous to] what, in a rational being, is the sheer act of willing. From both, there would then arise — if only the spring of steel could intuit itself — a consciousness of a will to push back what exerts pressure on it. But all this would be possible only on the condition that there actually occurs a pressure on the spring from outside.[7] [11]

Within the scope of conscious experience, we continually encounter an element of resistance that appears to us as something alien — as not emanating from the self at all. This resistance is resistance to our will. Some simple examples can easily make Fichte’s point clear. For instance, I lay my hands on the table on either side of the keyboard. I then push against the table, willing that my hands should go through the surface — but the table resists, and my hands stay put no matter how much they strain against it. Or: I open my eyes and see that the shrubbery is green. If this offends me, I can shut my eyes and will that the shrubbery appear red, but when I open my eyes again I find that it is still green. Or: I may be convinced that I know exactly what course of action my friend Johann should take, but he stubbornly refuses to take it (I know the truth, in other words, but reality won’t bend to what I know). A final example: I see that there is injustice in the world, and I proclaim that this should not be. But the injustices continue to mount up. In each case, my will is frustrated by resistance to it.


You can buy Greg Johnson’s From Plato to Postmodernism here [13]

We believe in a world “out there” precisely because of this resistance to will. Thus, as one commentator puts it, “for Fichte, the circumference of my world is equivalent to the limits of my will.”[8] [14] In other words, Fichte is claiming, fairly explicitly, that “the world” is defined just as what resists human will. Readers who have followed my series on Heidegger’s “History of Metaphysics [15]” (of which these essays on Fichte are effectively a continuation) ought to immediately sense that we are dealing here with yet another variant of the so-called “metaphysics of presence.” For Heidegger, the metaphysics of presence characterizes the entire metaphysical tradition from Plato to Nietzsche. It is the “hidden will” in Western intellectual history that accommodates our understanding of the Being of beings to the human desire that beings should be permanently present to us, hiding nothing, and available for our manipulation. I will have much to say about this in my next essay, when we discuss Fichte’s own conception of Being.

For now, it must be emphasized that while “resistance” to will is an ever-present feature of conscious experience, Fichte holds that it can be overcome to some extent, by transforming what resists in various ways — or at least by trying to. I can cut holes in the table. I can paint the shrubbery red. I can find a clever way to convince my friend to take my suggestions about how he should act. I can try to right some of the wrongs that I see in my immediate surroundings. But the resistance of the “other,” or the not-self, will never be wholly eliminated. I can stick my arms through the holes in the table, but I’ll encounter the same resistance all over again when my fists reach the floor. The paint will wash off and the shrubbery will be green again. My friend will ignore the next piece of advice I give him. Fresh injustices will be committed. And so forth. Resistance can never be entirely overcome — and, to repeat, this is precisely the basis for our believing that something exists “out there” beyond the self.

2. “Practical reason is the root of all reason.”

However, the reader might object as follows: If Fichte maintains that resistance is only encountered within consciousness, and if he never claims to have somehow exited consciousness to establish what exists outside it, then isn’t he a subjective idealist after all — i.e., someone who believes that the world is really the creation of subjectivity? Early on in these essays on Fichte, I claimed that this is a misreading. However, given the above, it would be reasonable for our objector to ask how else we could read him. The truth is that there is much in Fichte’s writings that does indeed lend itself to this interpretation. For example, he is notorious for having often railed against the Kantian “thing-in-itself,” asserting that it was Immanuel Kant’s worst mistake and had to be eliminated in order to make Transcendental Idealism true to itself.

For example, in the 1797 “Second Introduction” to the Wissenschaftslehre Fichte says of the thing-in-itself that it is “the uttermost perversion of reason, and a concept perfectly absurd; all existence, for us, is necessarily sensory in character, for we first derive the entire concept of existence from the form of sensibility; and are thus completely protected against the claim to any connection with the thing-in-itself.”[9] [16] In the same text he writes a little later,

[This] noumenon, or thing-in-itself, what further use do these commentators wish to make of it? This thought of a thing-in-itself is grounded upon sensation, and sensation they again wish to have grounded upon the thought of a thing-in-itself. Their earth reposes on a mighty elephant, and the mighty elephant — reposes on their earth. Their thing-in-itself, which is a mere thought, is supposed to operate upon the self! Have they again forgotten what they first said; and is their thing-in-itself, which a moment ago was a mere thought, now something other than that?[10] [17]

The “commentators” Fichte refers to (by whom he means Kant, Karl Reinhold, and Gottlob Schulz) said that we cannot experience a thing-in-itself (by definition), but we can think or infer its existence. As Kant argues in The Critique of Pure Reason, “we must yet be in a position at least to think [objects] as things in themselves otherwise we should be landed in the absurd conclusion that there can be appearance without anything that appears” (B xxvi). So, from the fact that there is sensation, we infer the thought of a thing-in-itself. This seems to make sensation the “ground” of (belief in) the thing-in-itself. But the same philosophers then either explicitly or implicitly explain sensation as caused by the thing-in-itself, a mere idea. This seems to be the substance of Fichte’s objection, so far as I understand it.

In other places, however, Fichte makes it clear that he rejects the thing-in-itself only insofar as he takes it to refer to an absolutely unknowable object.[11] [18] For Fichte, there are no such things as absolutely unknowable objects; there is only an ineliminable but shifting aspect of unknowability to every object. In other words, no matter what object I am dealing with, there is always something about it that is unknown at any given time. For example, we know some things about the psychology and abilities of dogs, but other things remain to be discovered. Or, to take an especially simple example, when I am looking at one side of the dog biscuit, the other side is concealed from me.

All knowledge, all experience is like this. There is always something that remains unknown or concealed. But what is unknown today, or right now, may be known tomorrow, or in the next moment. In time, we will learn new things about the dog. And I can just flip the dog biscuit over and look at the other side. For Fichte, knowledge is in principle infinitely expandable. This is what is known as a “regulative ideal”: We strive to know, as if infinite or complete knowledge were possible. It is not ultimately possible, however, because of the ineliminable element of an “unknown” in the experience of all objects. Still, there is no such thing as an object that cannot be known at all. Fichte rails against the idea of the thing-in-itself with such vigor because he sees any absolute limitation on knowledge as an affront to human dignity.

For Fichte, the boundary between subject and object is always moving.[12] [19] Now, we might consider this a very strange claim indeed. Isn’t there always a hard and fast separation between subject and object? Fichte challenges this assumption, however. “The object” in the subject-object divide signifies an “other,” but for Fichte the otherness of this other is overcome (progressively) in each act of knowing it. The object constitutes a challenge to us; it may even be feared. But this is only insofar as we do not know it. In knowing it, it becomes the familiar. And in Fichte’s Baconian conception of knowledge (something to which we will return later), knowledge is power.

To know something, to be able to categorize it or explain what makes it tick, constitutes a kind of mastery. Knowledge and will are intimately connected: to know something makes possible its manipulation, according to our own designs. Here we have a distant echo of Leibniz’s identity of representation and “appetition” or appetite (equivalent to desire or will), which Heidegger also finds in Kant. This is, in fact, the primary form in which the metaphysics of presence expresses itself throughout modern philosophy. (For Gottfried Leibniz, see here [20], and for Kant see here [21].) According to Fichte, because knowing an object and manipulating it are so intimately connected, knowing constitutes an overcoming of the subject-object distinction (though this overcoming can never be complete or absolute). If I am able to use my knowledge to alter the object according to my will, according to what I want it to be, then when I confront the transformed object I am confronting myself. The otherness of the other is canceled. To draw an analogy, I confront a piece of bread as an other. But when I eat and digest it, the bread is transformed (literally) into my body. Knowledge works the same way.


You can buy Collin Cleary’s Wagner’s Ring & the Germanic Tradition here. [23]

The end of all knowledge is to be confronted only with oneself: with what one has perceived, defined, categorized, penetrated, transformed, or literally created. Thus, ultimately, all accomplished knowledge is self-knowledge. I said a moment ago that the overcoming of the subject-object divide can never be complete or absolute. But self-knowledge (discussed at length in my last essay) is the one exception to this. In self-knowledge, the subject is the object, and the object is the subject. There is literally no distinction between them. Self-knowledge, for Fichte, thus serves as the paradigm for all knowledge. It is the Platonic ideal that all other acts of knowledge strive to imitate, but always imperfectly.

For Fichte, the skeptical problems generated by Cartesian-influenced modern philosophy are due to its contemplative model of knowledge. According to the representationalist paradigm (which I have discussed extensively in earlier essays [24]), the mind generates representations (or “ideas”) of external objects, which it gazes upon in a kind of internal theater. The only thing we know directly is those representations; we remain forever cut off from direct knowledge of external objects. This generates the so-called “problem of the external world.” Now, Fichte certainly seems to buy into the representationalist paradigm. Recall once more how he formulates what he regards as philosophy’s central problem: “What is the basis for our claim that there is something outside of us which corresponds to our representations?”

Nevertheless, while Fichte does seem to accept the assumptions of representationalism, he has put forward a conception of knowledge that constitutes a radical challenge to that theory. In place of the Cartesian contemplative model, Fichte advances what we could call a “voluntarist” model of knowledge: The basis for our claim that there is something outside us which corresponds to our representations is desire or will.[13] [25] Essentially, what we know ourselves to be is desire and striving. Fichte writes in The Science of Ethics that “the sole manifestation [of the I] that I originally ascribe to myself is willing. Only under the condition that I become conscious of willing do I become conscious of myself.”[14] [26] The analogy offered earlier between eating and knowing is extremely apt. We are, at root, a striving outwards — a striving to overcome or cancel the not-self. Will, or desire, is originally unconscious: it has its source in the deepest, pre-rational part of ourselves. Every level of our being, from the primitive desire to destroy and absorb the other in eating, right up to rocket science, is a manifestation (in increasingly sophisticated forms) of the primal striving that characterizes the I.

Frederick Beiser writes of Fichte’s revolutionary conception of knowledge:“Rather than seeing desire as a function of representation we should now regard representation as a function of desire. Such a conclusion involved a complete reversal of classical rationalism, and a total break with the separation of theory and practice in the subjectivist tradition.”[15] [27] Once we understand the intimate tie between knowing and willing, or knowing and striving — indeed, once we see that knowing is a form of striving — it is impossible to seriously entertain the skeptical doubts that modern philosophy gives rise to. We are not removed from things, gazing at images that may or may not be representations of anything real. We are eating food, carving wood, building fires, making babies, taking things apart to see how they work, dodging predators and other threats, etc. And we do all these things as a result of desires we feel — desires we did not choose and cannot expunge. Our incessant striving convinces us of the reality of the world, regardless of whatever contrived thought experiments we might entertain twice a week in philosophy class.

As Fichte puts it in his most accessible work, The Vocation of Man (1800), “Something comes to be food and drink for me not through concepts but through hunger, thirst, and satisfaction.”[16] [28] The position he has taken is to prioritize practice, or practical knowledge, over theoretical knowledge. This stance is often referred to in scholarship on German philosophy as the “primacy of practical reason,” and it has its roots in Kant, though Fichte radicalizes Kant’s position. As he writes later in The Vocation of Man, “We do not act because we know, but we know because we are meant to act; practical reason is the root of all reason.”[17] [29]

Paul Waggener [30]

3. “The absolute tendency toward the absolute.”

However, there is another, crucial sense in which Fichte can be said to give primacy to practical reason. If we are true to our experience, then we must qualify the claim made earlier that what we know ourselves to be, essentially, is desire, striving, or will. This is entirely true — but human beings are also characterized by the feeling that desire must be constrained by moral laws that we affirm as binding upon all of us. In other words, while do experience ourselves as will, we don’t think that it’s permissible to will just anything.

Human beings who don’t ever feel that their will must be constrained by moral rules are so strange to us that we have invented special psychiatric categories to describe them (e.g., psychopath, sociopath). So-called “relativists” are not true exceptions to the rule, however. Relativists affirm relativism only when the topic of morality is discussed in the abstract. In their daily lives, relativism drops away and they make moral judgments about themselves and others, just like the rest of us do (usually completely oblivious to the fact that their deeds contradict their words).

Because we possess a moral consciousness, which affirms that we must impose boundaries upon the will, Fichte’s conception of “practical reason” cannot be disengaged from morality. The influence of Kant upon Fichte here is enormous. Indeed, readers familiar with the history of philosophy are probably aware that the term “practical reason” is most famously associated with Kant’s 1788 work The Critique of Practical Reason (the so-called “Second Critique”), which was devoted to the foundations of ethics. Further, for both Kant and Fichte it is precisely in feeing that the will must be contained within moral bounds that we reveal our humanity.

Imagine, for a moment, what it would be like if it were otherwise. Suppose that we were characterized by an outward-striving will to cancel otherness, but that this was not accompanied by any moral consciousness. We would be purely destructive creatures — no better than animals, and quite possibly worse. For Kant and Fichte, humanity arises precisely in our sense that while we can do all manner of things, there are many things that we ought not do. When we say that there is a moral law that we feel bound by, this is not an empirical claim. It is useless to insist that philosophers produce some empirical proof of morality — and indeed, it is sophistry. For while morality rests on no empirical grounds (i.e., its injunctions are not “proved” by observation or experiment[18] [31]), our feeling that we are bound by moral rules is absolutely basic to human experience and cannot be denied. As Fichte states in the Wissenschaftslehre, “Only through the medium of the moral law do I behold myself.”[19] [32]

Thus, when Fichte tells us that we are, in essence, a will striving to transform the not-self according to our own designs — to cancel the other and be confronted only with ourselves — he is not endorsing some kind of Nietzschean will-to-power that has gone beyond good and evil and claims the right to ride roughshod over everything. Instead, those designs according to which the not-self will be transformed are always moral ideas (or, at least, they are never wholly disengaged from a concern with morality). It is Fichte’s position that we will the transformation of the real into the ideal (i.e., the moral ideal); the transformation of what is into what ought to be. While this means that our willing is constrained by moral rules and that we cannot do just anything we want to the world around us, Fichte believes we are subject to an imperative to master and remake nature according to our ideals. Indeed, he holds that we have no obligations to nature at all, only to other men. And, in Beiser’s words, Fichte believes that we know ourselves as truly free “only when we make the whole realm of nature disappear.”[20] [33] (We will return to this rather chilling point in the next essay.)

Kant’s version of the “primacy of practical reason” had involved the claim that belief in God, freedom, a moral order (i.e., cosmic justice), and human immortality are all justified, since they are all “necessary postulates” of the moral consciousness. To take one example, the human moral consciousness requires the tacit belief that eventually justice will be done, even if we do not see justice done here and now. Kant is not saying that God and a moral order exist; he is saying that we are so constituted as to believe that they exist. If we did not, we might quickly give up on trying to be moral, since experience shows us that injustice very frequently goes unpunished. Because belief in God, a cosmic moral order, etc., are necessary conditions of morality, and since morality is precisely what makes us human, what separates us from the beasts, Kant held that we are justified in believing in them (even if we cannot prove their existence, either empirically or through pure reason).


You can buy Collin Cleary’s What is a Rune? here [35]

That was Kant’s modest claim — which Fichte now radicalizes. Fichte transforms Kant’s noumenal ideals, his “necessary postulates” of morality, into regulative ideals. In other words, for Fichte, God, freedom, and the moral order become ideals that we should strive to achieve here, now, in the world around us. We strive, for example, to achieve perfect justice in society, even if, ultimately, this is an infinite task. Our task is not to prepare ourselves for a heaven after death, but to try and build heaven here on Earth. This position is one of the reasons Fichte is a foundational figure for the modern Left. And Fichte’s contemporaries clearly recognized that the implications of his moral philosophy were politically radical. I will have much more to say about this issue in a later essay.[21] [36]

But a very simple question may occur to the reader at this point: Where do Fichte’s moral laws or moral ideals come from? How do we know what the moral law enjoins? Here I must also ask for the reader’s patience, for a full discussion of Fichte’s ethics is something I am also going to undertake in a later essay. For now, I will just briefly indicate that we can approach Fichte’s answer to these questions by once more considering how he characterizes the will. If it is indeed an outward-striving desire that seeks to cancel otherness, then a further implication of this is that the will seeks to be completely independent. To cancel otherness, needless to say, would render the subject absolutely alone. Now, as we have already seen, Fichte does not believe this is fully and finally achievable, but the will strives towards this goal, as a regulative ideal. Thus, in The System of Ethics he characterizes will as “the absolute tendency toward the absolute,” where being “absolute” would mean being the one thing that exists (like Spinoza’s substance or Parmenides’s “it is”). Fichte then immediately glosses this as “‘[the tendency toward] absolute indeterminacy through anything outside itself’; or ‘the tendency to determine itself absolutely, without any external impetus.’”[22] [37] In short, the ultimate goal of the will is absolute freedom; the state of being wholly self-determined; not being determined by anything outside oneself.

This is exactly what we would expect, given how Fichte characterizes idealism in contrast to what he calls “dogmatism” (a contrast I discussed at length in my second Fichte essay). Idealism, he tells us, is the theory that explains our experience entirely in terms of the free activity of the subject, thus affirming the subject’s absolute freedom. But, one might ask, how is this compatible with the idea that we feel constrained to limit our will according to moral laws? Must not that constraint come from outside ourselves? Fichte’s answer to this is essentially the same as Kant’s: There is no incompatibility between freedom and moral constraints if moral laws are derived from the nature of the rational subject itself, and affirmed by the subject as its own. In Fichte’s version an action is moral, ultimately, if it “lies in a series [of actions] through the continuation of which the I would have to become independent.”[23] [38]

In other words, an action is moral if it is compatible with, or promotes, the subject’s freedom. He says elsewhere in The System of Ethics, “The principle [i.e., source] of morality is the necessary thought of the intellect that it ought to determine its freedom in accordance with the concept of self-sufficiency, absolutely and without exception.”[24] [39] How this would involve such things as obligations to other subjects is a topic I will have to take up another time. Among other things, a full discussion of Fichte’s ethics would have to treat the importance he places upon conscience.

Now, I will conclude this essay by briefly introducing the reader to what is truly one of Fichte’s most striking ideas. We saw earlier that Fichte argues that our striving, our will, convinces us of the reality of a world external to consciousness — and that no amount of theoretical philosophy could disabuse us of this conviction. This is what I termed “the primacy of practical reason” in Fichte’s philosophy. But now we have seen that a full understanding of practical reason involves a discussion of its moral dimension: I do indeed feel a desire or a will to act on what shows up as the not-self, but at least some of the time I feel the weight of moral responsibility in so acting. And this for Fichte (and for Kant) is just what it means to be human.

This observation allows Fichte to put forward what amounts to a “moral proof” of the external world. We experience some acts, some exercises of will, as morality obligatory. In other words, we feel obliged to take moral action; to will — meaning, to actually perform — moral acts upon the world of the not-self. That world of the not-self can thus be understood to be a condition of the possibility of moral action. To put it very simply: no external world, no moral action. Now, as we have just seen, Fichte holds the very Kantian position that our moral consciousness and capacity to act morally constitute our very identity as human beings; they are the source of human dignity. The moral consciousness is the one unconditionally good thing in the world, the one thing we cannot deny on pain of denying our very humanity.

Thus, for Fichte, we are morally obligated to believe in moral obligation; to affirm the reality of that which we already feel in every fiber of our being: the moral consciousness. But if we are morally obligated to believe in the moral consciousness, then we are morally obligated to believe in anything that is a necessary condition of that consciousness. It follows, therefore, that we are morally obligated to believe in the existence of an external world. Just as Kant had argued that we are morally obligated to believe, for example, in God and in human freedom, since they are necessary conditions of the moral consciousness, so Fichte argues that we are obligated to believe in a world “out there.” Can we actually prove that there is an external world? No, but Fichte’s answer to this, put crudely, is that only a bad person would deny the existence of that world. Are you catching here, perhaps, yet another whiff of the modern Left?

In my next essay on Fichte, I am going to delve more deeply into his conceptions of human freedom and “infinite striving,” so that we can then turn to an account of Fichte’s conception of Being, and of our relationship to nature. In doing so, we will explore in more detail how Fichte exhibits the Heideggerean “metaphysics of presence,” and we will find ourselves further excavating the foundations of the modern Left, and of the modern despoilation of nature. To be continued . . .

*  *  *

Counter-Currents has extended special privileges to those who donate $120 or more per year.

To get full access to all content behind the paywall, sign up here:

Paywall Gift Subscriptions

[40]If you are already behind the paywall and want to share the benefits, Counter-Currents also offers paywall gift subscriptions. We need just five things from you:

To register, just fill out this form and we will walk you through the payment and registration process. There are a number of different payment options.


[1] [41] Fichte, The Science of Knowledge (henceforth, WL), trans. Peter Heath and John Lachs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 33.

[2] [42] WL, 97, and elsewhere. Italics omitted.

[3] [43] WL, 138. My italics.

[4] [44] Quoted in Frederick Beiser, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism 1781-1801 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), 224.

[5] [45] WL, 6.

[6] [46] Quoted in Beiser, 224.

[7] [47] J.G. Fichte, The System of Ethics (henceforth, SE), trans. Daniel Breazeale and Günter Zöller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 32. Interpolation by the translators. My italics.

[8] [48] Beiser, 321.

[9] [49] WL, 45-46. Italics in original. We can understand the claim that all existence is “sensory” as equivalent to the claim that we are only aware of what exists, including the “not-self,” within consciousness.

[10] [50] WL, 55. Italics in original.

[11] [51] We will set aside here the question of whether Fichte has misunderstood Kant. It may be that Fichte falls into the error of reading Kant’s distinction between appearances and things-in-themselves as a distinction between two different objects, rather than a distinction between two ways in which the same object can be regarded. For a discussion of this issue in Kant’s interpretation, see my essay “Heidegger’s History of Metaphysics, Part Nine: Kant and the Perils of Representationalism [52].”

[12] [53] See Beiser, 316, for a discussion of this idea.

[13] [54] This is very ably discussed in Beiser, 219-220; see also 228-229.

[14] [55] SE, 26.

[15] [56] Beiser, 232.

[16] [57] Fichte, The Vocation of Man, trans. Peter Preuss (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987), 77.

[17] [58] Vocation of Man, 79.

[18] [59] Indeed, moral claims are counterfactual. For example, our belief that we ought not deny the truth out of fear of the disapproval of others is not a generalization derived from how others actually behave. In fact, life teaches us that the vast majority of people do not follow this rule. But that has no relevance at all to the validity or bindingness of the rule itself. Morality frequently enjoins us to behave in a way that is the exact opposite of how others tend to behave. And even unanimous agreement to jettison the aforementioned rule would have no bearing on its validity, or the hold it has over us.

[19] [60] WL, 41. Italics in original.

[20] [61] Beiser, 294.

[21] [62] For a discussion of why Fichte’s philosophy was seen in his own time as politically radical, see Beiser, 57. See also Allen W. Wood, “Fichte’s Philosophy of Right and Ethics” in The Cambridge Companion to Fichte, ed. David James and Günter Zöller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 194.

[22] [63] SE, 33. Italics in original.

[23] [64] SE, 142. Italics omitted. Interpolation by the translator.

[24] [65] SE, 60.