Thursday, July 31, 2014

Fichte and Schelling

These thoughts are prompted by thinking about Andrew Bowie  Schelling and Modern European Philosophy:  An Introduction (Routledge, 1993), particularly Chapter 1 and by an article on Fichte by Dan Breazele (cited below.)  When told that someone is an idealist the natural response is to think that such a person is unrealistic.  In fact there are surprising affinities between the kinds of realism we find in pragmatist thought (of, for example, John Dewey) and the idealism of Fichte and Schelling.  In my last post I discussed Schelling, but let's move back in time to Fichte, who came philosophically right after Kant.  In my view Fichte was right in opposing Kant's dualism:  the idea of a world of things-in-themselves is untenable.  It makes more sense to dissolve the distinction between consciousness and world, or rather, recognize that the world is the object of consciousness and is within consciousness in that sense.  Moreover, Fichte recognized that Kant's own philosophy posited a common ground to his dualistic world:  the transcendental unity of apperception, the "I think" that must be able to accompany all representations.  Whenever I experience something I am at least vaguely aware that there is an I that is doing so: it is the I, my embodied self, that is the active center of my world.   The world is the world we are conscious of, and this includes all of the stuff in the category of "things we can imagine that we are not directly conscious of."  There is nothing inconsistent between this, by the way, and a hearty belief in the methods and conclusions of science.  The "external world" is a  fiction, but it is a useful one. This is also the case for the "internal world."  However, as an overall metaphysical position, monism is preferable to dualism (no embarrassing gaps, not unprovable entities).  Nor do we want to opt for the mechanistic reductionist version of materialism which is the most popular form of monism.  Fichte and Schelling were to be admired for trying to find a role for freedom in a monistic world.  Freedom, as understood by Kant, was an irruption of a thing-in-itself, the soul, into the world of experienced things, one that poses inescapable problems.  There is no real evidence for such a thing as an immaterial soul, for example.  More sensible is to find freedom in the world as we experience it.  How do we experience freedom?  We experience it through a sense of creative flow.  We also experience it through the absence of that experience, i.e. through the blockage of creative flow.  When one feels that one's activity is unlimited, that one has unlimited potential, this is freedom.  (It is possible, however, that one can have a sense of freedom and not be free, as for instance as the effect of a drug.  Feelings are not guarantees of truth.)  For Fichte the essence of the I was spontaneous creative activity unhindered by external forces.  What we today mean by "the I" is certainly a lot more than that, but we feel most ourselves when we have this sense of spontaneous creative and unhindered activity -  so perhaps this is Fichte's point.  This feeling is pretty much the equivalent to the feeling of happiness.  When it is associated with the senses, it is aesthetic.  

Fichte also has a requirement for intersubjectivity.  The I requires recognition of other selves to be conscious of itself.  This goes along with my last post on the goal of the artist who wishes to achieve greatness.  Self-consciousness is a matter of creating one's own self in the context of intersubjectivity in which one follows the Socratic quest of self-examination.  The grasping and articulation of essences is the experience of freedom.

One thing I cannot agree with in Fichte is the notion of pure thing-hood as utter necessity.  First, the experience of freedom is also an experience of necessity, of free necessity as opposed to constrained necessity.  Second, things are participants in our world, having their own meaning-content for us.  When we experience  things as full of potential or as having a certain aura (as being aesthetic) this is also an experience of freedom.  (See
Breazeale, Dan, "Johann Gottlieb Fichte", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

As an atheist, I find it necessary to do some translation when reading the idealists.  When the idealist talks about the Absolute this is usually a thinly disguised notion of God.  The idealists consider The Absolute the ground of existence.  Some, for example F. H. Jacobi, saw it as a ground that cannot be articulated.  A possible translation of this idea into terms that make sense to an atheist is that when we achieve the experience of freedom we sense oneness with the matter at hand, and in a way that cannot be articulated except through metaphor.

In Breazeale's article on Fichte he writes, that for Fichte: 

"the systematic unity of the Critical philosophy—specifically, the unity of theoretical and practical reason, of the First and Second Critiques—was insufficiently evident in Kant's own presentation of his philosophy and that the most promising way to display the unity in question would be to provide both theoretical and practical philosophy with a common foundation. The first task for philosophy, Fichte therefore concluded, is to discover a single, self-evident starting point or first principle from which one could then somehow “derive” both theoretical and practical philosophy, which is to say, our experience of ourselves as finite cognizers and as finite agents. Not only would such a strategy guarantee the systematic unity of philosophy itself, but, more importantly, it would also display what Kant hinted at but never demonstrated: viz., the underlying unity of reason itself." (op. cit.)

This seems right to me, but my question to Fichte is:  why limit the need to combining theoretical and practical philosophy (only the first two of Kant's three great critiques)?  Isn't it necessary to derive theoretical, practical and critical judgment (aesthetic) together:  only this would "guarantee the systematic unity of philosophy itself" and also, I suspect, the "underlying unit of reason itself."  But this would involve experiencing ourselves not just as finite cognizers and agents but as both finite and infinite:  finite, since conditioned by our lives, and infinite insofar as we are able to use our creative imaginations to transcend our lives, inasmuch as we are able to experience creative flow and engage with the world in this way. 

Breazeale also says that Fichte believed that what Kant called “intellectual intuition,” "though certainly justified as a denial of the possibility of any non-sensory awareness of external objects, is nevertheless difficult to reconcile with certain other Kantian doctrines regarding the I's immediate presence to itself both as a (theoretically) cognizing subject (the doctrine of the transcendental apperception) and as a (practically) striving moral agent (the doctrine of the categorical imperative)."  Yes, there can be no intellectual intuition as non-sensory awareness of external objects, but there can be as awareness of essences that are as much constructed as revealed, that awareness being fundamentally tied to the body, i.e. to ourselves as sensing beings, a being that is not only cognizing and practically striving but also self-expressing through making and through active perception. 

I also like Fichte's view, also described by Berazeale, that we need to assume freedom as the starting point of our system of thinking, while at the same time recognizing the legitimacy of skepticism concerning this freedom.  (Of course, I understand freedom not in the Kantian way as acting according the the laws of practical reason, but as experiencing creative flow.  This can also happen in the realm of practical reason however.  It is not limited to art and aesthetic experience.  I am thinking specifically right now of the life of Grace Lee Boggs  Chinese-American philosopher recently featured on the PBS series P.O.V.  "American Revolutionary:  The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs" June 30, 2014.  Boggs is a Socratic hero in that she uses (she is 99 years old!) the power of philosophical dialogue to challenge assumptions as she engages in a lifelong revolutionary struggle.)  

It is a shame that Fichte said nothing original about art or aesthetics since this has led to neglect of his metaphysical position by aestheticians and philosophers of art.


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