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Fichte’s Absolutization—and Overcoming—of Self-Reflection

The reconceptualization of God or the infinite as a degree of intensity of being, which we have found in Duns and essentially in Dante alike, reaches to Fichte and shapes his “original insight.”[1] Fichte’s theory of self-consciousness is called forth by the aporias of the reflection theory of self-consciousness: he pointed out that the “I” must already know itself in order to recognize itself in reflection. It is therefore impossible for self-consciousness to be the result of reflection. Since every act of consciousness presupposes this self-conscious “I,” the “I” is always already consciousness of itself. For Fichte, furthermore, the whole world is posited by this “I.” Kant had discovered this “I” as a “transcendental apperception” necessarily accompanying every perception or thought whatsoever. However, Kant had deemed it to be knowable by self-reflection, and this is what Fichte “discovered” to be impossible. Fichte’s philosophy in the end is a radical breaking out of the circles of self-reflection presupposed by previous philosophy in the modern mode leading up to Kant. For Fichte, the “I” can never be properly seized as an object of self-reflection. It is always already there as a subject. It is also inherently practical, a “deed-doing” (“Tathandlung”) actively shaping its reality as the purely free subject that is not graspable as a reflected object because, instead, it is always already presupposed as the ground of every object.

Fichte’s radical formulation of the immediate self-positing of the “I” (“unmittelbare Sich-selbst-Setzen des Ich”) was epoch-making. Fichte formed the idea of the self-positing “I” simply as the completely unmediated identity of subject and object. It required no reflexive philosophical operation and no pre-reflexive transcendental action or mediation of any kind. Fichte’s discovery resonated as an unconditional affirmation of the “I” in the age of blossoming bourgeois liberalism. The newfound sense of the absolutely unlimited freedom of the ego was posited as always present at the base of any reality, always already inherent in its meaning

Fichte’s Absolutization and Overcoming of Reflection 163 and possible significance for consciousness. The “not-I,” which is also recognized by Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre (1804), was always thought only in relation to the “I” as a pure positing of self. There could be no other basis whatsoever behind it.

Fichte understood this non-self-reflective activity of the “I” as the true sense of religion, its moral core and basis, which necessarily preceded and underlay any kind of edifying knowledge given by revelation. This was the point of his earliest treatise—An Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation (Versuch einer Critik aller Offenbarung, 1792). In this work outlining the essential starting point for his thinking and its pivot in unlimited human freedom, Fichte appropriated and radicalized the Kantian understanding of religion as based on practical reason. He recognized the act of the “I” affirming itself as the purely positive foundation of any religious belief. Whereas the dogmatics of theological revelation in Lutheran Protestantism typically claimed the Word of God in Scripture as a prereflexive truth demanding simply to be accepted, Fichte highlighted the pure activity of the thinking “I” as the prior condition for any experience or encounter even with the Word of Scripture.

In a striking reversal—but coming out of the same milieu of early Jena Romanticism and partially in response to Fichte—Friedrich Schleiermacher, in The Christian Faith (Der christliche Glaube, 1830), found the universal spring of religion rather in the feeling of absolute dependence. But Schleiermacher’s subordination of the individual self to a higher being and greater whole was disempowering by comparison with the proclamation of the unconditional freedom of the self in its rational activity as origin of all in the “gospel” according to Fichte. Consequently, Fichte’s compelling insight proved irresistible at a historical moment, after Rousseau, of coming to consciousness of the human individual as the fundamental reality underlying all the artifices of society. It was a potentially revolutionary age that awoke to the intuition of the conscious “I” as itself the abiding reality immediately present in every reality. Everything else was mediated in its way of being and of manifesting itself by the “I,” who abided as itself the only immediacy.

This at first seems fully aligned with Descartes’s insight as formulated in the cogito—“I think therefore I am”—positing the self-consciousness of the “I” as first principle. However, for Fichte, the “I” was no longer just a principle for establishing truth and securing the method of inquiry in the sciences, as in the Cartesian Discours de la méthode: Pour bien conduire sa raison, et chercher la vérité dans les sciences. The conscious “I” turned its awareness self-consciously on itself as the very matter and essential substance of every possible cognition. This immediate identity of the “I” with all became integral and infinite—without limits. The “I” was not just the foundation of knowledge, lying at the bottom of the pyramid, as for Descartes. Instead, the self-positing of the “I” became the essential content of all knowledge and the key to every possible experience. We enter into everything knowable and doable in and through the self-positing of the “I.” There is nothing that is not originated in and from and with this “I.”

Fichte had such a sensational effect because he expressed the fully discovered and realized infinity of the being of the individual self that would define a whole epoch—the narcissistic age of modernity, in which we are still entangled, to a considerable extent, today. It has consequences for political economy and capitalism that have been made manifest in ugly forms such as the “me” generation characterized by sheer consumerism, acknowledging no higher moral or spiritual imperatives. Fichte’s treatise on the modern state and its self-reflectively enclosed economy clairvoyantly adumbrates the direction of these future developments.[2]

In this outlook, the self-positing (and finally self-serving) “I” is the only truly fundamental, underived reality. The discovery of a power vested in oneself as simple individual able to take consciousness of oneself—not as king or priest, or as qualified by any other station conferring special prerogatives, but simply as the “I,” unconditionally powerful in its own sphere—proved to be not only seductive, but revolutionary. This unlimited empowerment of the “I” remains in untold ways the purely speculative foundation of the democratic revolution of the last two and more centuries. An emancipation of the individual self from all higher purpose or extrinsic directedness brings in its train our own destiny with all its dilemmas in the age of unbridled personal self-realization.

However, this is not the only direction in which such insight could be turned. It could also be directed toward the alternative modernity that is projected in these pages from Dante. Christian Moevs discovers in Dante and his medieval metaphysics essentially the same insight that “Everything except the subject is unnecessary and contingent.” This “metaphysical subject,” variously called One, Being, Intellect, God, etc., is the only “ground of experience.” The common sense of a duality between self and other was abrogated by this uncommon wisdom, which, nonetheless, is also the common property of virtually all mystical religions. “All is one” can express the will to self-annihilation, for example, in Buddhist religion, but it can also signify the coincidence of the “I” with the All. “Thou art that” (tat tvam asi), “you are Brahman, the Existent,” as Hindu scripture says.

  • [1] Dieter Henrich, Fichtes urspriingliche Einsicht (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1967), trans. David R. Lachterman as “Fichte’s Original Insight,” in Contemporary German Philosophy, vol. 1, ed. Darrel E. Christensen (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982), 15-53.
  • [2] Fichte, Der geschlossene Handelsstaat (1800), trans. Anthony Curtis Adler as The Closed Commercial State (Albany: SUNY Press, 2012). 2 Moevs, The Metaphysics of Dante’s Comedy, 170. 3 Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7 of the Sama Veda.
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