Forgotten Roots of the Left:
Fichte’s Moral & Political Philosophy, Part II
Part 2 of 3 (Part 1 here, Part 3 here)
1. Introduction: Transcendental Idealism as Political Radicalism
In part one of this essay, I covered J. G. Fichte’s moral philosophy, as set out in his 1798 work The System of Ethics. In the present installment, which is largely self-contained, I shall cover his social and political philosophy, chiefly as expounded in The Foundations of Natural Right. Here we will find many ways in which Fichte lays the groundwork for contemporary Leftism, including a surprising anticipation of what Gen Z calls “real Communism.”
In an earlier essay, I discussed what scholars of German philosophy describe as the “primacy of practical reason.” In Kant, this refers to the position that the moral consciousness is justified in holding certain beliefs, even when these cannot be demonstrated to be true by theoretical reason. For example, Kant held that human moral consciousness requires the tacit belief that there is a kind of cosmic justice at work — and that this presupposes some cosmic intelligence that sorts things out. When you see the unjust going unpunished (or the just being punished), you may notice that your thoughts are accompanied by a conviction that seems to say, if it spoke, “Wait. This will not stand. In the end, these wrongs will be righted.” Hence, the moral consciousness seems to presuppose tacit belief in God, divine justice, and providence.
Kant is not saying that God, justice, and providence are true, or that they really exist; he is saying that we are so constituted as to believe that they exist. There is, indeed, no empirical evidence (so Kant held) demonstrating the existence of these things. Yet because these are necessary for the moral consciousness, and because the moral consciousness is the source of human dignity, we are nevertheless justified in believing in them. This is the sense in which “practical” (i.e., ethical) reason has “primacy” over theoretical. Fichte also accords primacy to practical reason, but he departs from Kant’s treatment in a truly radical way: What Kant had treated as “necessary postulates” of the moral consciousness, Fichte transforms into “regulative principles.”
In other words, Fichte rejects the status of God, justice, and providence as mere beliefs, and instead holds that they are ideals we should strive for here on Earth, in this life. A “regulative principle” is an ideal that motivates us to action; one which we work toward, but that may never be fully or completely realized. The reason for this departure from Kant has to do with Fichte’s insistence that absolute freedom should be the goal of all human action — a tenet I discussed at length in the previous installment. Fichte viewed Kant’s “noumenal ideas,” his “necessary postulates,” as creations of the human mind that wind up limiting our freedom. The concept of God, for example, stands over against me as an “other” to which I believe I must answer, and that restricts me. In Fichte’s view, human beings throughout history have arrived at such notions by hypostatizing or reifying what should be seen as ideals, in the sense of goals or aspirations. Kant’s claim that God, justice, and providence are “noumena” — i.e., intelligible (not sensible) objects — is simply yet another instance of this reification.
Fichte is notorious for his desire to eliminate the Kantian “thing-in-itself.” Very briefly, “things in themselves” are things insofar as they do not appear to me. In front of me, there is a coffee mug. I experience only one aspect of it: the mug as it appears to me. The mug as it is in itself, as it is apart from how I perceive it, is completely unknown to me. If we are willing to acknowledge that there is this “unknowable underside” to existence, then there may even be objects that exist, but that I am unable ever to know (at least through the senses). These possible objects Kant refers to as “noumena.” Fichte revered Kant, but he continually inveighed against the thing-in-itself as an abomination. Why? Superficial histories of philosophy claim that he denied the thing-in-itself because he wanted to argue that all reality is actually the creation of subjectivity (of something called the “absolute ego”). This is untrue. Fichte actually rejected the thing-in-itself because he regarded it as an intolerable limitation on human freedom.
When Kant claims that we are so constituted as to believe that God, justice, and providence are real, he is holding that we believe in these things, again, as noumena: as objects that exist, but never appear to the senses. They belong to what we may loosely refer to as the “realm of the in-itself.” Fichte launches such a fierce attack upon the thing-in-itself primarily because the “realm of the in-itself” (often called the “noumenal realm”) contains hypostases like God, justice, and providence — hypostases that, again, constitute a kind of self-created bondage into which human beings place themselves. As Frederick Beiser convincingly argues, the call to eliminate the thing-in-itself is far from being an abstruse theoretical dispute between idealists; it is actually a call to political radicalism. Beiser writes:
In attempting to de-hypostasize [the thing-in-itself], Fichte was saying that there is no Kingdom of God, no providence, no divine justice, except that which we create here on earth. Read as a regulative principle, then, the highest good prescribes the task of establishing a just society.
Fichte’s 1798 essay “On the Basis of Our Belief in a Divine Governance of the World” stated his view that God is actually a hypostasis of the moral order — which does not even exist until human beings bring it into being! It is thus easy to understand why Fichte was accused of atheism, a charge which caused him to lose his professorship at Jena. His enemies saw his position as undermining belief in God, and thus undermining social order. For example, in response to the 1798 essay, F. H. Jacobi published a widely-read “open letter” to Fichte in which he argued that the latter’s philosophy led to “nihilism” (Nihilismus — which resulted in this term entering into general usage for the first time). Jacobi had also been an early critic of the French Revolution, and it is useful to explore Fichte’s own connections to the events in France, for they are quite important for understanding his philosophy.
To say that Fichte was sympathetic to the Revolution would be quite an understatement. It has long been known that the French Revolution was, in fact, the inspiration for Fichte’s major work, the Wissenschaftslehre (Science or Doctrine of Knowledge — discussed extensively in my earlier essays on Fichte). He wrote the following in a 1795 letter:
I believe that my system belongs to [the French] nation. It is the first system of freedom. Just as that nation has torn away the external chains of man, my system tears away the chains of the thing-in-itself, or external causes, that still shackle him more or less in other systems, even the Kantian. My first principle establishes man as an independent being. My system arose through an inner struggle with myself and against rooted prejudices in those [same] years that the French struggled with outer force for their political freedom. It was their valeur that spurred me to conceive it. When I wrote on the revolution there came the first hints and inklings of my system.
Was Fichte a Jacobin? There is considerable evidence that he was. Frederick Beiser, in his article “Fichte and the French Revolution,” mentions that Fichte had contact with Jacobin agents. After his ill-fated move to Jena, Fichte started a pro-revolutionary club call the “Society of Free Men.” One of its members was the Jacobin spy Johann Franz Brechtel, who was in direct contact with the chief French spy in southern Germany. Fichte even expressed the desire to work on behalf of the Revolution. He had even hoped to receive a stipend from the French revolutionary government to support his work on the Wissenschaftslehre. In 1793 he also published a widely-read tract in defense of the Revolution, Contribution to the Rectification of the Public’s Judgement of the French Revolution. In fairness, it should be noted that Fichte distanced himself from the Jacobins after the Terror (which lasted, according to most accounts, from September 1793 to July 1794).
2. Deduction of Right and the State
Now that we have had a glimpse of the spirit behind Fichte’s theory of “right,” we must turn to an examination of its details. The term Recht, cognate with the English “right,” is used by German philosophers more or less to refer to what Anglophone thinkers would call “political philosophy.” It can include “rights theory,” the nature and organization of the state, the nature of law, international relations, and other matters. In Hegel, but not in Fichte, it also includes moral philosophy (see Hegel’s Philosophy of Right). Fichte published Foundations of Natural Right in in 1796, two years before The System of Ethics, thus reversing the usual order of things as found in the works of most philosophers (who usually tackle ethics before politics). This fact alone gives us an indication of how important Fichte’s doctrine of right was for his entire system.
The full title of the work, Grundlage des Naturrechts nach Principien der Wissenschaftslehre (Foundations of Natural Right According to the Principles of the Wissenschaftslehre), signals two things. First, Fichte locates himself squarely within the Enlightenment’s “natural rights” tradition. Second, the Foundations is to be an a priori deduction of the fundamental principles of political philosophy, as derived from Fichte’s transcendental idealism. To say that it is an “a priori deduction” means that it is not based on an examination of empirical evidence, for example knowledge of existing states or communities (such as we find, for example, in Aristotle’s Politics). We will shortly see just how Fichte accomplishes this.
As we have seen in previous essays, the fundamental principle of Fichte’s entire philosophy is the “I” (Ich), or ego, the true nature of which is to be radically free and self-determining. The vocation of the “I” is to bring nature under the control of reason — both the nature “out there in the world,” and the nature “in me”: my inclinations, drives, and emotions. In order for the “I” to be able to do this, to reach its full potential, certain conditions must be satisfied. These include community. No individual can become a free and self-determining being — can realize, in other words, his true nature — except in a community with other beings like himself. Rationality, beyond utterly rudimentary problem-solving on the level of Koko the Gorilla, requires language and a system of symbols, which is the creation of society. Left to his own devices, no single individual could mature into a free, responsible, and rational being except through the tutelage of others who have made the journey before him.
Thus, in order to actualize our full human potential, community is absolutely necessary. Political philosophy — or the theory of “right” — is essentially, for Fichte, a matter of spelling out the necessary conditions without which community would not be possible. Thus, Fichte’s a priori political deductions all have the character of “transcendental arguments,” which have the following form: “We know that g exists or is necessary for community, but we can prove that without f there could be no g, and without e there could be no f,” et cetera and so forth. Ultimately, Fichte will deduce the state as necessary for community, and deduce the characteristics of the state based upon what sort of arrangements would be maximally conducive to human moral development (i.e., the development of our nature as absolutely free beings — see the previous essay).
Everyone wants to express their freedom — to act in the world in various ways — but in community with others, we learn that we must limit our freedom so that others can express theirs. For example, I could express my freedom by enslaving others and keeping them imprisoned in my basement. But such an expression of my freedom would negate the freedom of those others. At a basic level, all rational individuals realize this is wrong, for those others are beings like myself, who wish to express their freedom as well. And to act so as to negate the freedom of others would also make community impossible: It would set us against each other and plunge us into a state of nature, a “war of all against all.” Thus, for real community to be possible (and thus for the realization of our human nature to be possible) we all must limit our freedom, so that we do not violate the freedom of others. Fichte writes that “[community] is possible insofar as each free being makes it a law for himself to limit his freedom through the concept of the freedom of all the others.” In this manner, Fichte deduces that there is such a thing as “right” (or “rights”); he deduces the fact that we owe it to others to treat them in a certain way, if we expect them to reciprocate.
The concept of rights only makes sense in a social context; there is no such thing as “rights” somehow metaphysically inhering in men who have no community (if such even exist outside of fiction). For example, the idea of “property rights” is meaningless outside of a social context where theft is a possibility. And rights do not exist without mutual recognition: We agree to recognize and respect others’ property rights because we sympathize with them and want them to recognize and respect our own rights. This would seem to make the possibility of community dependent upon virtue. In other words, community would seem to be unrealizable without each and every one of its members being men of good will. This is, of course, an impossible ideal.
So if virtue cannot hold us together, what can? Answer: contract. In order for community to be possible, Fichte argues, men must form a compact with one another: an agreement to respect each other’s rights, based purely upon self-interest. This contract could be explicit, and the result of an actual, historical event — but it is usually tacit. In taking such a position, of course, Fichte is following in the footsteps of “social contract” theorists such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. He is (unsurprisingly) closest to Rousseau — but, as we shall see, Fichte’s conception of political order is markedly different from all of these thinkers.
The social contract commits us to respecting the rights of others, on pain of coercion or punishment. In other words, built into the social contract is the provision that anyone who breaks the contract can be coerced — censured, fined, imprisoned, or even executed. However, if the right of coercion were vested in individual men, the result would obviously be chaos; what would literally be “taking the law into one’s own hands,” and community would, once again, be imperiled. To avoid this problem, Fichte argues quite reasonably that the right to coercion must be vested in the state — which would be a group of citizens given special rights to make judgments in cases of conflict, and to use coercion to preserve or restore order. Fichte conceives the state as the voluntary union of all individual wills into one will, which would be embodied in the sovereign power. Therefore, when the state acts, it does not (or should not) act on behalf of the individuals who administer the state, but on behalf of the “general will” — the will of the people.
3. The Perfectibility of Man
As is implied by the above, Fichte regards the state as necessary only because not all men are morally advanced enough to respect the rights of others, and thus to live without the threat of coercion. So far, there is little here that differs from Hobbes and Locke, but Fichte breaks with the tradition of classical liberalism in holding that the state should work tirelessly towards the perfection of all men: meaning, their moral and rational perfection. This is the “regulative ideal” of the state itself — a goal it should strive for, even though it may never be fully or completely reached. What is fascinating about this claim is that Fichte is actually arguing that the state should work toward its own abolition! If the state is only necessary because men are not morally perfect, then to work toward the moral perfection of all men is to work toward a point at which the state would simply “wither away,” to use Marx’s famous phrase.
Fichte is, indeed, as vocal an advocate of the “perfectibility of man” as has ever lived. It is this issue, more than any other, that defines the difference between “liberalism” and “conservativism,” and Fichte definitely stands with the liberals (we will explore his thoughts about conservatives in a moment). For Fichte, there can be no debate about whether man is perfectible; he holds that we have a moral obligation to believe that he is. He makes this very clear in a striking passage from The System of Ethics, worth quoting at length:
[I]n recent times some extremely unintelligent people . . . have raised a hue and cry and have suggested that belief in the unlimited perfectibility of humanity is something extremely dangerous, utterly contrary to reason, and the source of God knows what horrors. First of all, the question is not whether one has to decide on the basis of purely theoretical rational grounds for or against the perfectibility of humanity. This is a question we can totally ignore. The moral law, which extends to infinity, absolutely commands us to treat human beings as if they were forever capable of becoming perfected and remaining so . . . One cannot obey such a command without believing in perfectibility. Consequently, the latter constitutes the first article of faith, something one cannot doubt without surrendering one’s entire moral nature. Consequently, even if it were to be proven that the human species had not advanced a single step from its first beginnings to the present day, but had instead always fallen further behind. . . even if all this were the case, we would still not be permitted nor be able to give up [this] belief that is implanted in us inwardly and inextinguishably.
Fichte’s position is identical to that taken by modern liberals: We have a moral obligation to believe in man’s perfectibility, and that all men have the potential to be “raised up” into perfect equality with one another. Therefore, facts do not matter, and he who raises inconvenient facts is morally corrupt. (Fichte says a little later, “Let everyone judge for himself what kind of people these are who consider a belief that is absolutely commanded by the moral law to be a piece of folly.”) This is why you cannot make any headway with Leftists by mentioning, for instance, facts about race and IQ, or race and crime. Even if Leftists acknowledge these facts (which they sometimes do, though not often), they will condemn you for having mentioned them at all. Right-wingers find this utterly perplexing, but the reason is simple, and Fichtean: Leftists hold that they have a moral obligation to go on believing in certain ideas, even when those ideas are completely contradicted by the evidence.
As the above quotation makes clear, Fichte has no patience for those who would deny the perfectibility of man. He calls them “unintelligent,” and he dismisses their claims that the doctrine of perfectibility is “dangerous” and would lead to “God knows what horrors.” Fichte is clearly alluding here to conservative critics of the French Revolution, such as Edmund Burke. Indeed, Fichte was prompted to write his Contribution to the Rectification of the Public’s Judgement of the French Revolution by an author who was an admirer of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (published in 1790).
Fichte’s treatment of conservativism is extremely similar to that of today’s liberals. He claims, for example, that a conservative is nothing more than a “fuddy-duddy” (Schlendrian) and a “hypocrite” (Gleisner). One commentator remarks that both terms “imply that one can be a social conservative only by suppressing one’s awareness of human freedom and dignity, and in this way being fundamentally dishonest with oneself as well as with others.” One of the major differences between conservatives and liberals is that the former have learned to lower their expectations of other men. Predictably, Fichte denounces such a standpoint as immoral: “[A] moral human being simply does not allow such low esteem [of his fellow human beings] to arise within him; he always sees in human beings more what they ought to be and what they ought to become than what they actually are.” And just like today’s liberals, Fichte does not think that debate with such people is possible: “One must not dispute with them but should instead cultivate them, if that were only possible.” In short, the conservatives are damned.
Fichte is careful to note that making all men morally and rationally perfect is an infinite task, as is the creation of the perfectly just society. In other words, these are the ultimate goals of our actions, and while we may approach closer and closer to these goals, they will never be fully achieved. However, making all men perfectly rational and creating a perfectly just society are not, in fact, two separate goals for Fichte. The achievement of perfect rationality would actually be the achievement of perfect equality. We will explore the reasons for this in the next, and final, installment. And we shall also explore Fichte’s surprising influence on the Right: the “national socialism” of his work The Closed Commercial State, and his belief in the historic destiny of the German people as expressed in Addresses to the German Nation.
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 I am sure you have heard them say that “Real Communism has never been tried.”
 Frederick Beiser, “Fichte and the French Revolution” in The Cambridge Companion to Fichte, ed. David James & Günter Zöller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 56. This entire article is well worth reading.
 Quoted in Beiser, 38.
 See Beiser, 41-42.
 And it should also be noted that Beiser does not consider Fichte to be a Jacobin. I respectfully disagree.
 See, for example, J. G. Fichte, Foundations of Natural Right (henceforth, FNR), ed. Frederick Neuhouser, trans. Michael Baur (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 249.
 FNR, 85. Italics omitted.
 For Fichte, as for Kant, there is no real distinction between moral perfection and rational perfection. A perfectly rational person would also be perfectly moral, since morality involves always acting in a manner consistent with the nature of a free and self-determining rational being. See Part One of this essay.
 J. G. Fichte, The System of Ethics (henceforth, SE), trans. Daniel Breazeale & Günter Zöller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 228-229.
 SE, 229.
 See Allen W. Wood, “Fichte’s Philosophy of Right and Ethics,” in The Cambridge Companion to Fichte, 194.
 SE, 297. Italics added.
 SE, 130. Italics added.
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Thanks so much for this. Your discussion of Fichte’s teaching about the universal obligation to believe in perfectibility and equality — despite all evidence to the contrary — sheds much light on the secular moral religion that holds sway today. I am now curious as to what Fichte thinks about “freedom of thought” and “speech.” I vaguely recall that he discusses this in “Lectures on the Scholars Vocation.” From what you say here it would seem that he would reject the notion that opinions opposed to his doctrine are either “free” or forms of genuine “thinking” (all being some sort of slavish dogmatism).
Thank you for being a faithful reader. In general, when Fichte explicitly discusses freedom of expression, he comes across like a typical Enlightenment thinker: i.e., he seems to be for it. However, he does affirm limits on speech. For example, in The System of Ethics he states that preachers can be prohibited from expressing certain opinions from the pulpit. Also, as I will discuss in my next essay, he holds that the ultimate goal of society is complete unanimity — and that all fully rational people are in agreement with each other. He explicitly states that the goal is the abolition of all individuality. Stay tuned.
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