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Fichte as Avatar of the Metaphysics of Presence

[1]6,383 words

1. Introduction: Remind me, why Fichte?

Readers have been asking me why I am devoting multiple essays to J. G. Fichte, an exceedingly difficult and seldom-read German Idealist born in 1762. The simple answer is that these essays are a continuation of my series on Heidegger’s “history of metaphysics.” [2] Having devoted several essays to Kant, I am continuing with Fichte, then will move on to Schelling and Hegel, and then, finally, to Nietzsche.

But I can imagine two puzzled responses to this. Yes, but why do this? Why write a series of essays covering the entire history of Western metaphysics from a Heideggerean standpoint? I will answer this question in a new essay to be tentatively titled “Why I am Writing about the History of Philosophy,” coming soon. Its intended audience will be readers who have not been following all these essays (perhaps because they found the topic intimidating), and who may be wondering why the author of Summoning the Gods [3] and What is a Rune? [4] is now writing what is effectively a history of philosophy. What, they may be wondering, does any of this have to do with neo-paganism, or Radical Traditionalism, or runes? Quite a lot, actually.

The second response from puzzled readers might be this: “I get why you might want to write about the history of philosophy, but why write so much on Fichte, who is usually treated merely as a transitional figure between Kant and Hegel?” Well, as I discussed in my first essay on Fichte [5], he is most definitely an unjustly neglected philosopher. However, the real reason I am focusing so much attention on Fichte is that — as I claimed at the very beginning of my series on Heidegger’s history of metaphysics — Fichte stands as the quintessential modern philosopher. This claim is my own — though to see the truth of it, one must see Fichte in the light of Heidegger’s philosophy. In Fichte we find all the major themes of modern philosophy coalescing and becoming radicalized.

One thing that makes Heidegger’s account of the history of philosophy unique, however, is that he does not treat modern philosophy as constituting some sort of radical break from what had gone before. To be sure, he does recognize significant differences between modern philosophy on the one hand, and ancient and medieval philosophy on the other. Still, Heidegger does not endorse the oft-made claim that what characterizes modern thought is a radically new “subjective turn.” Instead, he sees the so-called subjective turn as a development of the “metaphysics of presence” that he finds in Western philosophy beginning with Plato and some of the pre-Socratics. I have dealt with the metaphysics of presence in many essays. In brief, it is the “hidden will” in Western intellectual history to distort the Being of beings by accommodating it to the human desire that beings should be permanently present to us, hiding nothing, and available for our manipulation.

The focus of the present essay, the final one I will write about Fichte (for the moment, at least), will be Fichte as “avatar,” if you will, of the metaphysics of presence. I will begin with a discussion of Fichte’s ontology, his account of what Being is. This is obviously crucial to a Heideggerean treatment of Fichte’s ideas. I will then make a case that Fichte’s real significance for the history of metaphysics is that we find in him the culmination of certain lines of thought that go all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. This consists, in fact, in a conscious and explicit affirmation of the metaphysics of presence that had hitherto operated in the philosophic tradition in a purely subterranean fashion. In Fichte, the beast awakens. In Fichte, we find the metaphysics of presence pushed to its second most extreme manifestation. Only Nietzsche will push it further, carrying this entire trend in Western thinking to its ultimate conclusion, and preparing the way for the modern, technological age, the despoilation of nature, and the abolition of man.

2. Being vs. Freedom

In my last essay [6], I explored at length Fichte’s “proof” for the existence of the external world. Ultimately, he offers a moral proof, rather than a theoretical one: Morality commands us to alter what is to bring it into accord with what ought to be. Morality would thus be impossible if there were no existence; if there were no world standing opposed to us which we are obliged to change. Now, morality demands that we believe in whatever is a condition for moral action. The alternative would be disbelief in the conditions that make morality possible, which would be tantamount to giving up on morality, which would be morally unacceptable. Therefore, since the existence of an external world is a condition for the possibility of moral action, we are warranted in believing in its existence (which is not the same thing, as I discussed in the last essay, as a theoretical proof that an external world actually exists).

But let us look a bit more closely at how I have worded the above summary. These are, of course, my own words, but they are true to what Fichte actually says: “Morality commands us to alter what is to bring it into accord with what ought to be.” The rest can be summed up simply like this: since morality commands this, we must believe that there is a “what is”; i.e., that beings are. Now, what does Fichte’s argument suggest about how he regards these beings? Or, we could ask, what does it mean “to be” for Fichte? The answer is quite clear: to be means to be something that stands opposed to the human will. To be means to be an “other” that resists; something that our will must overcome.

And Fichte is absolutely explicit about this. He writes in an explanatory footnote to the Wissenschaftslehre, “all existence signifies a restriction of free activity. . . . [Whatever] restricts [freedom] is credited with real existence. It is a part of the real world.”[1] [7] Later in the text, he writes, “To the idealist, the only positive thing is freedom; existence, for him, is a mere negation of the latter.”[2] [8] In short, Fichte seems to have defined what constitutes “a being” entirely in relation to subjectivity.

In The System of Ethics, he writes, “All being is related to some consciousness, and even the existence of a thing cannot be thought without thinking, in addition, of some intellect that has knowledge of existence.”[3] [9] Later in the same text, he writes, “Our world is absolutely nothing other than the not-I; it is posited only in order to explain the limitedness of the I, and hence it receives all its determinations only through opposition to the I.”[4] [10] And I cannot resist offering a further quotation from The System of Ethics: “Transcendental philosophy not only has no concept of what being without consciousness might mean, it clearly shows that such a thing makes no sense.”[5] [11]

[12]

You can buy Collin Cleary’s Summoning the Gods here [13].

Fichte’s position seems to be a radicalized version of the metaphysics underlying modern “representationalism,” which sees beings as “the objective” and as “the opposed”; i.e., simply as what stands over against the subject. Note that Fichte’s philosophy captures all the senses in which representationalism takes the object to be “opposed”: it both presents itself to us an other, and it presents itself as an obstacle, as an impediment. In an important passage I have quoted in earlier essays, Heidegger describes the representationalist paradigm as follows:

In distinction from the Greek apprehension, modern representing, whose signification is first expressed by the word repraesentatio, means something quite different. Representation [Vor-stellen] here means: to bring the present-at-hand before one as something standing over-and-against, to relate it to oneself, the representer, and, in this relation, to force it back to oneself as the norm-giving domain.[6] [14]

Now, it is absolutely correct to understand Fichte essentially as representationalism on stilts. Nevertheless, there is more here than meets the eye. Early in The System of Ethics, Fichte writes,

[Nothing] is absolute but pure activity, and all consciousness and all being is grounded upon this pure activity. . . . [This] activity appears as an efficacy exercised upon something outside of me. All the things included in this appearance — from, at the one extreme, the end that is posited absolutely by myself, to, at the other extreme, the raw stuff of the world – are mediating elements of the same, and are hence themselves only appearances. Nothing is purely true but my self-sufficiency [Selbständigkeit].[7] [15]

Fichte is saying that the one and only absolute is the activity of the “I,” which is exercised upon something outside itself. This “I,” in all its actions, aims at self-sufficiency. It aims to transform what is “other” according to the designs of the self; to remove the alien quality of the other and to bring it entirely under the control of subjectivity. To completely negate the otherness of the other, if such a thing were possible, would be to absolutize the self, thus making it absolutely self-sufficient (Fichte regards this as a regulative ideal and as an infinite task). Both the designs I impress upon the other and what Fichte calls (significantly) “the raw stuff of the world” keep changing (e.g., natural objects keep being transformed through our constant efforts). As a result, Fichte refers to these things as mere “appearance.” These exist merely so that the I can act and strive for absolute self-sufficiency. Thus, the only thing that truly is is the ideal of the self-sufficient “I” (“Nothing is purely true but my self-sufficiency”).

We can now see that we must amplify our earlier claim that “to be” for Fichte simply means to stand opposed to subjectivity. If “to be” means to be opposed to subjectivity, then obviously Fichte is claiming that the Being of beings is derived purely from their relationship to subjectivity (and, as Fichte states in the above passage, from the ideal of a perfectly realized, self-sufficient subjectivity). Fichte is maintaining that beings (i.e., things in the world) are nothing except in relation to the “I” — i.e., nothing in themselves. It would thus be quite reasonable to conclude from this that the “I” is the Being of beings.

3. Fichte and the Tradition

That this would be Fichte’s position ought to be wholly unsurprising to us. First, it can clearly be understood as a development of Kant. Fichte’s “I” is basically the same thing as Kant’s “transcendental unity of apperception.” For reasons I cannot possibly summarize here (but which I have discussed in detail elsewhere [16]), the transcendental unity of apperception is a necessary condition, for Kant, of the very “objectivity” of the object. But this “objectivity” is precisely what Heidegger identifies as Kant’s (quintessentially modern) understanding of the Being of beings. Thus, Heidegger writes that because the transcendental unity of apperception “makes possible the Being of beings, or in Kantian terms, the objectivity of the object, it lies higher, beyond the object. Because it makes possible the object [Gegenstand] as such, it is called ‘transcendental apperception.’”[8] [17] It is a very short step from this to Fichte’s position that things are nothing except in relation to the “I” (indeed, it is barely a step at all).

But Fichte’s understanding of Being can be seen not just as an outgrowth of Kantianism, but of the entire history of Western philosophy. Do we not see in Fichte’s position a distant echo, a kind of “subjectivization,” of Platonic-Aristotelian metaphysics?

For Plato, sensible things possess only a kind of “derived being” — derived from the forms. In themselves, they are nothing. Thus, they are not “true being”; only the forms are true being. But the forms themselves constitute a hierarchy, with lower forms “participating” in higher (i.e., “more abstract”) forms, in a manner analogous to how sensibles “participate” in forms. The highest of all the forms is the “Idea of the Good,” which is likened to the Sun: In the light of this Idea, all things are, and are intelligible. Thus, Socrates tells us in Book VI of The Republic that this idea is “beyond being” (huperousia).

Surprisingly, there is a precise analogy here to the function of the transcendental unity of apperception and the Fichtean “I.” Because the transcendental unity of apperception makes possible the objectivity of the object, the transcendental unity of apperception makes possible the (Kantian) Being of beings. The transcendental unity of apperception is thus in some sense “higher” than Being itself — or it is “beyond being.” In just the same way, for Fichte the things of our world derive their Being from their relatedness to the “I.”

An even more exact analogy can be found, however, between the Kantian-Fichtean position and the Aristotelean metaphysics. Aristotle retains the “two worlds” ontology of Plato but changes it in a fundamental way. Instead of things deriving a kind of secondary Being from forms — and ultimately from the form of forms, the Idea of the Good –, beings derive their Being (and actualize their forms — now held to be immanent within them) from the imitation of a divine self-knowing subject, the “Unmoved Mover.” This god, who constitutes, for Aristotle, the Being of beings, is a purely self-related act of consciousness. In other words, Aristotle’s god is apperception. Like Fichte’s “I,” the Aristotelean god is not thing-like. It is not, in fact, a thing that acts, it is a pure and perpetual acting; a pure thinking, a pure apperception.[9] [18] Thus, already in Aristotle the Being of beings is identified with a self-sufficient subjectivity.

[19]

You can buy Collin Cleary’s Wagner’s Ring & the Germanic Tradition here. [20]

Of course, there are significant disanalogies. To begin with the most obvious, the Unmoved Mover is a divine act, a divine self-consciousness. If there is an analogy to the Kantian-Fichtean position, what has happened is that the Aristotelean god has been overthrown, and his consciousness has been identified with a merely human apperception. But the seeds of this revolution are actually to be found in Aristotle himself. In Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that the way of the philosopher, the path of Socratic self-understanding, is the terrestrial life that comes closest to that of the divine. What has essentially occurred in the Aristotelian metaphysics is that philosophy has literally become divinized: Aristotle’s god is the perfect self-knower; i.e. the perfect philosopher. But once we have beheld ourselves in the Unmoved Mover there is no going back, and modern Idealism is born.

A further apparent disanalogy between the Fichtean and Platonic-Aristotelean positions is that in both Plato and Aristotle beings are said to derive their Being via “imitation.” In Plato, things “partake of” or “imitate” the forms, which are understood as “paradigms” (paradeigma) for beings. Things “are” to the extent that they realize their form; and they “are not” to the extent that they fail to realize it (and all fail to realize it to one degree or another). In Aristotle’s philosophy, all beings imitate the Unmoved Mover: they strive to imitate god’s perfect self-related self-sufficiency, as well as “his” eternity. Each does this by striving to perfectly realize its own form — which, just as in Plato, it can never fully succeed in doing.

Now, this seems very unlike anything we find in Fichte — until we realize that all of these ideas are present in his philosophy, only the terms have been, as it were, “turned around.” For Fichte, just as for Platonism, things in the world are nothing in themselves, but they become something through imitation. In Fichte’s philosophy, however, mankind is required to “help” things imitate the ideal, and the ideals come entirely from mankind. For Fichte, things are indeed nothing in themselves — until they receive their Being as a result of being transformed by men. For Fichte, as we shall see, nature is nothing but raw material that waits upon us to confer some Being upon it.

Once again, however, the parallel is even clearer in the case of Aristotle’s metaphysics. In Aristotle, beings imitate the Unmoved Mover, a transcendent subjectivity that is perfectly self-sufficient. In Fichte, terrestrial things do nothing at all; it is the “I,” it is finite subjectivity, that transforms things into an imitation of itself. This is an infinite task (meaning it can never be fully or finally achieved), but in essential terms it aims, as I have said before, to negate the otherness of the other by transforming it according to human ideals and purposes. It can easily be seen that the telos of this activity, its ultimate end, would be the complete eradication of otherness and, simultaneously, the absolutization of the “I.” Why? Because if this ultimate end could be achieved, the “I” would be confronted with a world entirely of its own making. Thus, it would, in effect, be confronted only with itself.

This means that, for Fichte, the Aristotelean god of perfect self-awareness and self-sufficiency is something that we strive to actualize in ourselves, through our activity of remaking nature. Recall Fichte’s claim that “Nothing is purely true but my self-sufficiency.” But this pure truth is something that we strive to create. We strive, essentially, for deification, though this is an infinite task. [10] [21] This is the sense in which Fichte has been said to be a “pragmatic idealist.”[11] [22] He is routinely misinterpreted as claiming that the “I” creates the world; i.e., he has been misinterpreted as a subjective Idealist. In fact, what he claims is that the “I” ought to create the world. The vocation of man is to bring the “Absolute Ego” into being through the complete transformation of the world, which would effectively erase the distinction between subject and object. Our task, in other words, is to achieve Idealism; to create a world in which there is no distinction between real and ideal, or between what is and what ought to be.

4. Fichte and the Metaphysics of Presence

Now, let us step from this historical account for a moment. I have said quite a lot about parallels between Fichte and the two great giants of Western philosophy, Plato and Aristotle. (And readers already familiar with the history of philosophy can probably now discern how Fichte sets the stage for Schelling and Hegel.) How are we to explain these parallels? Why are they there?

An obvious suggestion would be that Fichte was influenced by Plato and Aristotle. Perhaps he was consciously drawing on and developing their ideas. This is far too simplistic an explanation, however, and it is also unrealistic. While Fichte had, of course, studied the history of philosophy, he was almost completely lacking in historical sense — meaning any sense of the historicity of his own ideas. (The only predecessor whom he cites repeatedly or to whom he gives credit is Kant.) One would have to look to twentieth-century analytic philosophy to find someone less interested than Fichte in “the tradition.” (It is really only when we get to Hegel that we encounter, for the first time, a philosopher who consciously situates his ideas within the history of philosophy and, furthermore, argues that they are the consummation of that history.)

So what, then, can explain the striking parallels between Fichte’s ideas and those that we encounter in philosophy’s golden age? The answer is that there is an “internal logic,” for lack of a better term, to the Western philosophical tradition. We believe that men created that tradition, but Heidegger would argue that this is naïve. Why did men begin to do philosophy at all? Obviously, philosophy is not something that just occurred to someone one day as a pleasant way to pass the time. No, philosophical thinking is something that came upon men at a certain juncture in history. They felt called to do it, as something that had to be done. And they had not felt this way before. Why? Why was a new way of living and thinking opened up to us? For Heidegger, there is no answer to this question. (Though I have explored one possible answer in my essay “The Stones Cry Out: Cave Art and the Origin of the Human Spirit [23].”) It is a mystery. Ultimately, Western philosophy, which strives to make everything explicable, cannot explain itself.

With the coming of philosophy arrived new ways of looking at the world. A reversal takes place in Plato (though the ground is prepared in Pre-Socratic philosophy), when ideas are declared to have greater being than sensible objects. But what made this reversal possible? It is no answer at all to say that it was the “genius” of a certain man. Plato did not invent this new way of looking at things, he discovered it. But why then? Why was it not possible before? Again, for the Heideggerean perspective there are no answers to these questions. There is an irreducible “facticity” to human history and human life. We do not create this facticity; we find ourselves within it. And it is no different with philosophers (only it takes a philosopher to recognize facticity).

The reason that Fichte’s philosophy appears, on careful analysis, to be a re-working of foundational ideas in the history of philosophy is that Fichte, like everyone else, is in the grip of those ideas. The history of philosophy is not, fundamentally, the history of how certain men thought or lived. No, it is exactly what it is often termed “the history of ideas.” Ideas are the real actors, and their history is the story of how they contend with one another, develop, and put on and take off various disguises. The men involved, the philosophers, are little more than scribes recording what the ideas do. (I’m reminded of Hegel recording the dialectic of the Idea in his Logic and of Pythagoras claiming that philosophers are like the spectators at the Olympic Games.) Seldom is there anything noteworthy about the lives of philosophers aside from their ideas. As Heidegger once said of Aristotle, “He was born, he thought, he died.”

The “internal logic” to the history of philosophy involves certain tendencies becoming more and more explicit and virulent over the course of time. In the beginning, these tendencies function in a largely subterranean way. Though they are implicit or masked, however, they function as very powerful determiners: They give shape to the philosophical tradition itself. Precisely because they are so decisive, it seems that over the course of time they become stronger and begin to rise to the surface — to openly and thoroughly dominate and possess the thinking of men. What I am referring to, chiefly, is the tendency in Western philosophy that we have called the metaphysics of presence. But this really amounts to the claim that underlying the entire history of Western thought is a hidden will to power. Otto Pöggeler writes, explaining Heidegger,

When pushed to extremes, the thought that Being is constant presence requires the thought of will to power. If Being is thought of as constantly presencing and thus as always present, it then comes to be at the disposal of the thinking corresponding to it. Indeed, Being is perhaps thought of only as constant presence because thinking as representing something permanent has always been the guide for the projection of Being, even if it is concealed at first. Being is thought of as constant presence in order that it be at thinking’s disposal.[12] [24]

[25]

You can buy Collin Cleary’sWhat is a Rune? here [26]

The roots of Western rationalism are deeply irrational. Why is it that Western thought was seized and possessed by this metaphysics of presence? Why did it displace what had gone before? (For a discussion of what Heidegger believes was the previous orientation towards Being, see here [27].) Ultimately, there are no answers to these questions — at least none that would satisfy the conventional Western philosophical conception of what an “answer” is. Heidegger’s own peculiar “answer” is das Ereignis (the event): his term for a fundamental shift in the Being of things (which means, essentially, a fundamental shift in the meaning they have for us). Because things are explicable for us only within a horizon of meaningfulness, shifts or changes in the horizon of meaningfulness itself are fundamentally inexplicable. If we examine the history of ideas, we find these shifts taking place, without anyone consciously contriving to cause them. Indeed, not only do we not control these “events,” these shifts in meaning, we find that we are always in the grip of them. We are all “products of our time,” living under the spell of a particular Zeitgeist, even when we are reacting against it.

In previous essays, I have detailed the ways in which the metaphysics of presence changes forms after Plato, and we have followed its twists and turns from medieval philosophy up until Kant. What Fichte does is to lay bare the metaphysics of presence that has been operative in the history of philosophy all along. He bares it with unusual candor, and wholly embraces it, driving the metaphysics of presence to its logical extreme (only Nietzsche will push it further). Fichte no longer proceeds “as if” beings are nothing more than what stands opposed to a subject. No, he explicitly declares that this is the case. Fichte’s philosophy does not seem to somehow imply that objects in the world are nothing more than raw material to be transformed according to human designs. No, he explicitly affirms this as well.

Aristotle, as we have noted already, saw the telos or end of natural objects as imitation of the Unmoved Mover. However, he saw this as their natural end, and maintained that they seek this end unconsciously through striving to achieve their own form. So that, for example, in striving to be the best possible frog he can be (i.e., to actualize the frog form), Kermit unconsciously strives to be like god. Why? Because he strives to perpetuate himself in a state of relative independence and self-sufficiency (just as do the giraffe and the scorpion in striving to actualize the giraffe and scorpion forms). These ends are not set by man, but by nature. In Fichte, however, all such natural ends have been entirely negated.

In The Science of Ethics, Fichte writes, “I am supposed to be a self-sufficient I; this is my final end. I am supposed to use things in any way that will increase this self-sufficiency; that is their final end.”[13] [28] In other words, the final end of natural objects is to be used by us to maximize our self-sufficiency. Whatever ends towards which natural objects might originally strive exist precisely to be negated by us — or, at the very least, harnessed by humanity for its exclusive use. And, just so that there is no misunderstanding, Fichte explicitly states that we have no ethical obligations towards nature at all: “Just as there are no rights with regard to non-rational nature, so too are there no duties regarding nature. [There] does arise a duty to fashion nature, but only for the sake of rational beings.”[14] [29]

Elsewhere in The Science of Ethics, Fichte writes,

As has often been pointed out, self-sufficiency, which is our ultimate goal, consists in everything depending on me and my not depending on anything, in everything that I will to occur in my entire sensible world occurring purely and simply because I will for it to occur — just as happens in my body, which is the starting point of my absolute causality. The world must become for me what my body is. This goal is of course unreachable; but I am nevertheless supposed to draw constantly nearer to it, and thus I am supposed to fashion everything in the sensible world so that it can serve as a means for achieving my final end.[15] [30]

As I have discussed, this “final end” amounts to the elimination of the sensible world entirely, as what is is transformed completely into an image of what ought to be (thus collapsing the distinction). Fichte is generally very explicit about this. In the Wissenschaftslehre, he even writes “Since there is no way of reconciling the not-self with the self, let there be no not-self at all!”[16] [31] Frederick Beiser explains Fichte’s position in the following dramatic terms: “We will know that we are free only when we see that we have succeeded in making nature submit to our control, and indeed only when we make the whole realm of nature disappear.”[17] [32]

Heidegger, it is worth noting, sees that Fichte’s position amounts to the claim that nature has no Being. In his 1936 lectures on Schelling, Heidegger states that “for Fichte, idealism becomes the doctrine in which the representing I has priority in the interpretation of Being, it becomes absolute idealism. Nature, too, and especially nature, is only the non-ego; that is, it is also only egoity, namely what is only a boundary for the ego. Intrinsically, it has no being.”[18] [33] But this position is only the logical outcome of the entirety of modern philosophy (with, as we have seen, roots in ancient philosophy). Heidegger quotes Schelling himself saying that “The whole of modern European philosophy since its inception (through Descartes) has this common deficiency — that nature does not exist for it and that it lacks a living basis.”[19] [34]

But how can one claim that nature “does not exist” for modern philosophy? And how is old Descartes implicated in this? Quite simply, nature is conceived throughout modern philosophy, either implicitly or explicitly, merely as the “external,” the “objective,” the “represented” — merely, in other words, as what stands over against the subject. For Descartes, nature has so little substantiality, and the subject such vast power, that the latter can simply doubt the former out of existence (“I have persuaded myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world: no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies”[20] [35]) and then “prove” it back into existence. We see here the seeds of the Fichtean position, which seeks not to annihilate nature in thought but in deed.

It is a fact of great significance that Fichte opens the “First Introduction” to the Wissenschaftslehre with the exact same epigraph from Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum with which Kant opens The Critique of Pure Reason:

. . . in behalf of the matter which is in hand I entreat men to believe that it is not an opinion to be held, but a work to be done; and to be well assured that I am laboring to lay the foundation, not of any sect or doctrine, but of human utility and power. Next I ask that they fairly consult their common advantage, . . . and themselves participate in the remaining labors.[21] [36]

For Fichte, the significance of the phrase “not an opinion to be held, but a work to be done” consists in the fact that his idealism, as we have seen, is not a doctrine, but a project. It is our task to bring about the ideal; to create a world that is entirely a projection of human subjectivity — not through some magical act of projection, but through the Baconian mastery of nature. Frederick Beiser writes that according to the Baconian tradition, “knowledge is the product of action rather than contemplation, of making the world conform to our demands rather than trying to mirror its essence through rational theorizing.”[22] [37] In an earlier essay, I quoted the rather more famous lines from Bacon’s Temporis Masculus Partus: “My only earthly wish is . . . to stretch the deplorably narrow limits of man’s dominion over the universe to their promised bounds. . . . [Nature will be] bound into service, hounded in her wanderings and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets.”

5. Conclusion

I suppose I am stating the obvious at this point if I say of Fichte that it would be hard to find a thinker who better embodies everything that those of us on the Right despise about “modernity.” Indeed, his philosophy seems at times like a distillation, in purest form, of exactly the poison that is killing us. (Though, as I mentioned earlier and will discuss in a future essay, Heidegger believes that it is Nietzsche who is the ultimate “modern thinker.”) But it gets worse than this. I have so far said almost nothing about Fichte’s radical political views, his support for the French Revolution, his universalism, his belief in the infinite perfectibility of man, and his desire to eradicate the individual (!). By the same token, I have also said little about Fichte’s German nationalism, his advocacy of a kind of “national socialism” in his work The Closed Commercial State, and his subsequent influence on the German Right. Fichte is often an utterly horrifying philosopher, but he is an astonishingly rich and multifaceted one. I have, in addition, still not followed through on my promise, made many essays ago, to explore the indebtedness of Julius Evola’s “Magical Idealism” to the philosophy of Fichte.

To be sure, there is a lot more to be said about Fichte, and perhaps I will write other essays about him in the future. But it is time for this series on Heidegger’s “history of metaphysics” to move on.

Schelling’s advance beyond Fichte will consist in the development of a “philosophy of nature” that purports to accord value to nature in its own right, as opposed to a merely utilitarian value. This seems to strike at the very heart of the metaphysics of presence, for it rejects the idea that beings are nothing more than what opposes the subject. Indeed, what we will find in Schelling (and Hegel) is a return to the Aristotelean idea that beings possess natural ends that have not been posited by men. The transition between Fichte and Schelling has often been characterized, accurately, as the move from a subjective idealism to a neo-Aristotelean “objective idealism,” where “idea” is now found in nature. Does this objective idealism constitute a repudiation of the metaphysics of presence, or yet another of its incarnations? We will explore this question in my next essay, when we turn to Heidegger’s fascinating treatment of Schelling’s Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom.

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Notes

[1] [39] Fichte, The Science of Knowledge (henceforth, WL), trans. Peter Heath and John Lachs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 66. Italics in original.

[2] [40] WL, 69.

[3] [41] J. G. Fichte, The System of Ethics (henceforth, SE), trans. Daniel Breazeale and Günter Zöller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 35. Italics in original. As has been pointed out by more than one scholar, in his 1929 lectures on Fichte, Heidegger seems to basically agree with this point. Jürgen Stolzenberg writes that, for Heidegger, the significance of the ego’s “action of opposing” itself to the non-ego “lies in providing the structural possibility by means of which a horizon of a world is opened up for the ego. The concept of world, which Heidegger identifies as Fichte’s concept of the non-ego, has thus its sense and meaning only in relation to the original positing function of the ego. In this, according to Heidegger, one must agree with Fichte: The sphere of the non-ego, the world, is merely a function of the ego and, to be more precise, of the finite ego.” See 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), 212. And Daniel Dahlstrom writes that “Fichte’s second principle, not derivable from the first [i.e., ‘the ego posits itself’], is the necessary positing of the ‘not I,’ i.e. of something opposed to the ego. As Heidegger reads this principle, it does not refer to an entity or collection of entities standing opposite the ego, itself construed as an entity. Instead, that ‘not I’ in Fichte’s second principle, posited as it is in and for the ego, is essential to the ego. It is the horizon and elbow room within which the ego comports itself as ego.” See Daniel O. Dahlstrom, “Heidegger and German Idealism” in A Companion to Heidegger, Hubert L. Dreyfus, Mark A. Wrathall, eds. (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005), 69. However, this seems to be a classic instance of Heidegger reading Fichte as anticipating his own position. A much more objective assessment from Heidegger is the one I shall quote in a moment from Off the Beaten Track (though it refers not to Fichte specifically but to modernity in general). This impression is strengthened when Heidegger goes on to claim in the lectures that in Fichte’s description of the mutual limitation of the ego and non-ego, we find an affirmation of the finitude of human existence and of the “facticity of the I.” See Martin Heidegger, Gesamtausgabe Band 28 (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klosterman, 2011), 77, 79, 90ff (cited in Dahlstrom, 69). Many labels have been put on Fichte, but a “philosopher of human finitude” is one of the least plausible.

[4] [42] SE, 70.

[5] [43] SE, 129. I have amended the translation slightly by removing a superfluous word.

[6] [44] Martin Heidegger, Off the Beaten Track, trans. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 69. Italics added.

[7] [45] SE, 17. Italics added. Fichte’s italics omitted.

[8] [46] Martin Heidegger, “Kant’s Thesis About Being,” trans. Ted E. Klein, Jr. and William E. Pohl, in Pathmarks, ed. William McNeill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 348.

[9] [47] Though in Aristotle this point is confusing. Aristotle treats the Unmoved Mover as a genuine substance (i.e., being, ousia). This seems to imply that it is “thing-like.” Yet because god has no body, he also has no potentiality; nothing that would impede his complete and perfect actualization (his complete realization of his formal reality). Thus, god is pure actuality, or purely in act.

[10] [48] On this point, see the discussion in Frederick Beiser, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism 1781-1801 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), 258.

[11] [49] See Beiser 218-219. I discuss this idea in my second essay on Fichte [50].

[12] [51] Otto Pöggeler, Martin Heidegger’s Path of Thinking, trans. Daniel Magurshak and Sigmund Barber (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1987), 102-103. I have altered the translation by capitalizing the “b” in “Being.”

[13] [52] SE, 201. Italics in original. The “final end” of the I should not be understood as its natural end. For Fichte, the actualization of human “nature” occurs precisely through the overcoming of the natural.

[14] [53] SE, 263.

[15] [54] SE, 217.

[16] [55] WL, 137. Italics in original. Note the similarity to the words of God in Genesis.

[17] [56] Beiser, 294. Italics added.

[18] [57] Martin Heidegger, Schelling’s Treatise On the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1985), 92-93.

[19] [58] Heidegger, Schelling’s Treatise, 103. Heidegger is quoting Schelling’s Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom.

[20] [59] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1993), 18.

[21] [60] WL, 3. The quote appears as the epigraph to the “First Introduction” and is given in the Latin original. It has been rendered into English by the translators of WL. Kant includes more text from Novum Organum and, like Fichte, omits some material from the lines he uses.

[22] [61] Beiser, 259.