Kant and Fichte

I’m taking a course in German idealism with the ever-busy Matt Segall. Below are a few thoughts on Fichte’s advance over Kant’s critical philosophy. I’m finding that there’s much in Fichte’s work that forms something of a historical starting point for my own work on concepts as capacities. There are substantial differences, too. For example, Fichte’s strong separation of the causal order of nature and the normative order of human freedom strikes me as implausible, and it would be hard to imagine a philosopher arguing the point with as much force today (though the exact way to think of this partition—or to not think it at all—continues to give everyone a headache).

That said, as I read them, the primary difference between Kant’s and Fichte’s philosophies lies in their differing starting points, in what a grounding for transcendental philosophy requires. If Kant was correct to say that experience has an a priori structure that conditions all possibilities of experience, he was wrong to suggest that this a priori structure—including the forms of intuition, the categories of the understanding, the ideas of reason, and the transcendental ego itself—could be taken as simply given. That is, in much the same way that Kant’s critical philosophy leads one to reject the mere givenness of empirical experience, this same rejection should be applied to the mere givenness of the a priori concepts and categories of the transcendental itself.Fichte begins his analysis and carrying forward of the Kantian project in this vein, and in this effort he is guided by a more process-oriented, practical, genetic, and intersubjective understanding of the transcendental than was his teacher. Thus while Fichte, in Frederick Beiser’s words, “continued to affirm that the world is constituted by, and appears according to, the activity by which we know it” (220) he would do so in a way that sought to explain the genesis of the transcendental apparatus itself. In this sense, Fichte’s starting point is not given ideas or representations but activities that are more fundamental in nature and that are capable of generating representations, including the forms, concepts, and ideas that Kant had taken as his starting point. In other words, according to Fichte, the entry point for any epistemology is action, not the given facts of experience (i.e., ideas or representations). As Beiser notes of this shift, “Since, however, these acts are the condition of any possible representation, they cannot be representations themselves; rather, they are the manner in which the mind produces representations” (228).

In placing synthetic processes as more primary than given representations—in placing acts over facts—Fichte’s increased emphasis on morality, will, and intersubjectivity as participant driver’s of the transcendental condition comes into view. Beiser’s analysis is instructive here: “The activity by which we know objects is ultimately directed by the will itself, and it takes place not in the mind alone but in its deeds and actions in the external world” (234). In locating the will as central to the synthetic process of creating representations, choice and freedom become increasingly important facilitators of knowledge production, as do the freedom and choice of other individuals. (Notably, this emphasis on freedom and representation has its analogue in Kantian spontaneity, a kind of indeterminate activity for attaching sense to experience.) Indeed, as Beiser notes of Fichte, “We only realize our nature as rational beings, Fichte argues, when we live in reciprocal interaction with others according to freedom, granting others the same rights as we would have them bestow on us” (339).

For Fichte there is thus a normative intersubjective order that aids in lifting the transcendental ego—not a given transcendental ego, mind you, but one that must be created through acts of self-positing—beyond the causal order of nature and into the realm of reason, which is to say, the realm of freedom. It’s pretty easy to see that, once one heads down this path of increasingly intricate accounts of the given, it’s only a short road until many of the primary concepts of a Cartesian-style modern philosophy begin to break, almost under their own weight. One can also see Fichte here as one scene in the ongoing show that unfolds in later works, including Husserl’s Crisis, Whitehead’s Concept of Nature, or Sellar’s Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, texts that deal answers to the natural–normative problem—as the rejoining of primary and secondary qualities (Whitehead), the bringing together of the Manifest and the Scientific images of nature (Sellars), or the repositioning of the theoretical attitude in the context of the life-world (Husserl).


  1. Reblogged this on synthetic zerø and commented:
    Adam with some thoughts on Fichte and Kant. Kant was correct to say that human experience has a priori features that conditions our cognition, but he was mistaken that they are given. The only ground in the project of knowing is that of an unrelenting nihilistic darkness of undifferentiated being. Call it ‘dark immanence’ or call it ‘suchness’ (as in Buddhist mahayana), or whatever caricature you fancy, but our sheer existence in-and-of-the-world is dependent on the pre-linguistic and untranslatable presence of substantial force.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good connections here. It seems like Tom Rockmore is right around the corner, especially his book Kant and Phenomenology, but also his works on Kant and idealism, idealism and analytic philosophy…you get the idea.

    Liked by 2 people

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