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Truth and Science
GA 3

VI. Epistemology Free of Assumptions and Fichte’s Principles of Science

With what has been presented so far, we have clarified the idea of knowing. This idea is now given in human awareness without any mediation, insofar as it is limited to knowing itself. The ego (without mediation the center of awareness) is given external perception, internal perception, and perception of its own self-existence (sein eigenes Dasein). (It hardly needs to be said that we do not want the term "center" to be associated with a theoretical view of the nature of consciousness, but rather that we are only using it as a stylistic shorthand for the overall characteristic features of awareness.) The ego feels the urge to find more in what is given than what is immediately given. It goes beyond the given world to the second world of thinking, and it combines the two through a free decision (about possible reality) which we have settled on as the idea of knowing.

Herein lies a fundamental difference between (firstly) the way, in objective human awareness, in which concept and immediately-given show themselves bound together in total reality, and (secondly) that which has value regarding the remaining world-content. With every other part of the world picture, we must imagine that the connection is original and necessary from the outset. Only at the beginning of knowing does an artificial separation occur for knowing, which ultimately will again be uplifted (aufgehoben), by means of the appropriate recognition of the original nature of what is objective.

Things are different with human awareness. Here the connection is only present if it is carried out consciously in actual activity. With any other object, the separation has no meaning for the object, only for knowing does it have meaning. The connection is the first thing here, the separation is the derivative. The act of knowing only carries out the separation, because in its own way, it cannot take possession of the connection unless it has separated first. But the concept and the given reality of awareness are originally separate. The connection is what is derived, and that is why knowing is described here in this way.

Because in consciousness the idea and the given necessarily appear separately, the whole of reality is split into these two parts, and because consciousness can only bring about the combination of the two elements mentioned through its own activity, in this way it arrives at full reality through bringing to reality the act of knowing. The remaining categories (ideas) would necessarily be linked to the corresponding forms of the given, if they were not included in knowing; the idea of knowing can be united with the given related to it only through the activity of awareness. A real consciousness exists only when it realizes itself, when it brings itself to reality (sich selbst verwirklicht). I believe that I am sufficiently prepared to expose the fundamental error of Fichte's Principles of Science (Wissenschaftlehre) and at the same time to provide the key to understanding it.

Fichte is the philosopher who felt most vividly (among Kant's successors) that the foundation of all scientific thinking (Wissenschaft),65t/n In this sense science is consciously thinking about experiences with clarity and logic could only stand within a theory of consciousness, but he never realized why that was so. He felt that what we call the second step of epistemology, and to which we give the form of a postulate, must really be carried out by the ego. We see this for example, in his following words. “The Principles of Science (Wissenschaftslehre), insofar as it is intended to be a systematic science (just like all possible sciences insofar as they are intended to be systematic), arises through a stipulation of freedom, which here in particular stipulates the art of handling intelligence in raising it to consciousness at all.— Through this free handling (Handlung), the necessary action of intelligence, already itself a form, will now be taken up substantially as the new form of perception of experience (des Wissens) or aware existence (Bewußtseins)..." 66Fichte, Über den Begriff der Wissenschaftslehre oder der sogenannten Philosophie, Collected Works, Berlin, 1845, Vol. I, p. 71. What is here understood by the art of handling of intelligence, expressing what is darkly felt in clear terms, is nothing other than fully bringing into awareness the idea of knowing. If Fichte had been fully aware of this, he would simply have had to formulate the above sentence like this: The Principles of Science (Wissenschaftslehre) must raise knowing, insofar as it is still an unconscious activity of the ego, into awareness-existence (Bewußtsein). It must show that the objectification of the idea of knowing is carried out in the ego as a necessary action.

In his attempt to define the activity of the ego, Fichte concludes, "Whoever’s existence (essential being) consists solely in the fact that it assumes itself as being, that is the ego, as an absolute subject.” 67Ibid. Vol. I, p. 97. For Fichte, this positioning of the ego is the first unencumbered active handling that “lies at the basis of all other awareness of existence.” 68Ibid. Vol. I, p. 91. In Fichte's sense, the ego can only begin all its activity through an absolute decision. But for Fichte it is impossible to help this activity (which is absolutely done by the ego) to find any content for its actions. For it has nothing upon which to direct this activity, and by which it should determine itself. His ego is supposed to carry out an act, but what should it do? Because Fichte did not establish the concept of knowing that the ego should realize, he struggled in vain to find any progression from his absolute act to a further determination of the ego. Yes, he finally declares regarding such a progression, that the investigation into this lies outside the limits of theory. In deducing what the mental picture is, he assumes neither an absolute activity of the ego nor of the “non-ego”, but takes his start rather from something determined and at the same time determining, because nothing else is or can be contained directly in consciousness.

What determines this determination remains completely undecided in theory, and through this indeterminacy we are driven beyond theory into the practical part of scientific theory.69Ibid. Vol. I, p. 178. With this clarification, Fichte destroys knowing altogether. For the practical activity of the ego belongs to a completely different arena. Clearly, the postulate I made above can only be realized through a free action of the ego, but if the ego is to behave in a way of knowing, then it is important that the determination of the ego is to realize the idea of knowing. It is certainly true that the ego can do many other things of its own free will. But the epistemological foundation of all sciences is not based on a characteristic of the free ego, but rather on a characteristic of the knowing ego. However, Fichte allowed himself to be influenced too much by his subjective tendency to place the freedom of the human personality in the brightest light. Harms rightly remarks in his speech on Fichte's philosophy S.15, "His world view is predominantly and exclusively ethical, and his epistemology has no other character." Cognition would have absolutely no task if all areas of reality were given in their totality. But since the ego, so long as it is not integrated by thinking into the systematic whole of the world picture, is nothing other than something directly given, simply showing what it does is not sufficient. Fichte, however, is of the opinion that everything is already done for the ego by simply looking for it. “We must seek out the first principle (absolutely without presuppositions) of all human knowing. It cannot be proven or determined if it is to be the absolute first principle.” 70Ibid. Vol. I, p. 91.

We have seen that in proving and defining, only the content of pure logic is out of place, not required. The ego, however, belongs to reality, where it is necessary to determine the presence of this or that category in the given. Fichte didn't do that. And this is the reason why he gave his scientific theory such a wrong shape. Zeller notes 71Eduard Zeller (1814–1908), Geschichte der deutschen Philosophie seit Leibnitz, History of German Philosophy Since Leibnitz, Munich, 1871–75, p. 605. that the logical formulas through which Fichte wants to arrive at the concept of the ego only poorly disguise the fact that Fichte wants to achieve the already preconceived purpose of getting to this starting point at all costs. These words refer to the first form that Fichte gave to his scientific theory in 1794. If we hold on to the fact that Fichte, based on the whole nature of his philosophizing, could have wanted nothing other than to have science begin through an absolute power decree, then there are only two ways in which this beginning appears understandable. One was to touch consciousness in some of its empirical activities and to crystallize the pure concept of the ego by gradually peeling away everything that does not originally follow from it. The other way, however, was to start with the original activity of the ego and to reveal its nature through self-reflection and self-observation. Fichte took the first path at the beginning of his philosophizing, but as his philosophizing coursed along, he gradually moved on to the second.

Building on Kant's synthesis of “transcendental apperception”, Fichte found that all activity of the ego consisted in the assembly of the material of experience according to the forms of judgment. Judging consists in linking the predicate with the subject, which is expressed in a purely formal way by the sentence “a” = “a”. This proposition would be impossible if the unknown factor “x” that connects the first and second “a” were not based on an absolute ability to posit. Because the sentence does not mean: “a” is, but rather: if “a” is, then “a” is. There can be no question of postulating “a” absolutely. There is nothing left to arrive at something totally valid, other than to declare the positing itself to be absolute. While the “a” is conditional, the positing of the “a” is unconditional. But this setting is an act of the ego. The ego therefore can posit absolutely and unconditionally. In the sentence “a” = “a”, one “a” is only posited by presupposing the other; namely it is set by the ego. Fichte states, “If ‘a’ is posited in the ego, then it is posited.” 72Fichte, Sämtliche Werke, Collected Works, Berlin, 1845, Vol. I, p. 94. This connection is only possible under the condition that there is something in the ego that is always the same, something that moves from one “a” to the other. And the “x” mentioned above is based on this constant. The ego that posits one “a” is the same as that which posits the other. And that means “I” “I” This sentence expressed in the form of the proposition: “If I am, then so it is”, but this proposition has no meaning. The ego is not placed under the presupposition of another, but rather it presupposes itself. But that means it is absolute and unconditional.

The hypothetical form of the judgment, which belongs to all judgments without the presupposition of the absolute ego, is transformed here into the form of the absolute existential sentence: “I simply am”. Fichte also expresses this as follows: “The ego originally posits its own being.” 73Ibid. Vol. I, p. 98. We see that Fichte's entire derivation is nothing but a kind of pedagogical discussion to lead his readers to the point where the knowledge of the unconditioned activity of the ego dawns on them. The purpose is to make clear to his readers, that without this activity of the ego, there is no ego at all.

We now want to look back at Fichte's train of thought. If you look more closely, it turns out that there is a crack in it, and one that calls into question the correctness of the view of the original act. What really is absolute in the positing of the I? The judgment is made: If “a” is, then “a” is. The “a” is placed by the ego. There can be no doubt about this setting. But even if it is unconditional as an activity, the ego can only set something. It cannot posit “activity in and of itself”, but only a specific activity. In short: the setting must have a content. But it cannot take this from itself, otherwise it could do nothing but set forever. There must therefore be something for the positing, for the absolute activity of the ego, which is realized through it. Without the ego taking hold of something given and positing it, it can posit nothing, and therefore cannot posit. This is therefore shown by a Fichte-like sentence that the ego posits its existence, this existence is a category. We are back to our statement: The activity of the ego is based on the ego positing the concepts and ideas of the given out of its own free decision. Only because Fichte unconsciously sets out to establish the ego as something that has existence does he reach his conclusion. If he had developed the concept of knowing, he would have arrived at the true starting point of the theory of knowing (epistemology), that the ego posits knowing. Since Fichte did not make it clear to himself what determines the activity of the ego, he simply described the positing of existence as the character of this activity. But in doing so he also limited the absolute activity of the ego. For if only the “existence-positing” of the ego is unconditional, then everything else that emanates from the ego is conditional. But every path to get from the unconditional to the conditional is also cut off. If the ego is unconditioned only in the direction indicated, then the possibility for it to posit something other than its own being through an original act immediately ceases. The need therefore arises to give the reason for all other activity of the ego. Fichte searched for one in vain, as we have already seen above.

Therefore, he turned to the other path described above to derive the ego. As early as 1797 in his First Introduction to the Doctrine of Scientific Awareness he recommended self-observation as the right thing to do to recognize the ego by its very own character. “Pay attention to yourself, turn your gaze away from everything that surrounds you and peer into your inner self. This is the first demand that philosophy makes to its apprentices. There is no talk of anything outside of you, but only of yourself.” 74Ibid. Vol. I, p. 422. This way of introducing the Principles of Science (Wissenschaftslehre), however, has a great advantage over the other. For self-observation does not in fact deliver the activity of the ego one-sidedly in a certain direction, it does not merely show it as positing existence, but rather it shows it in its all-round development, how it tries to think and understand the immediately given content of the world. Introspection shows the ego how it builds its worldview from the combination of the given and the concept. But for anyone who has not gone through the consideration above, who does not know that the ego only comes to the full content of reality when it approaches the given with thinking, for him the process of knowing appears as the world spinning out of the ego. For Fichte, the worldview becomes more and more a construction of the ego. He increasingly emphasizes that what is important in scientific teaching is to awaken the sense that can overhear the ego constructing the world. Anyone who can do this appears to Fichte to be at a higher level of knowing than someone who only sees the constructed, the finished existence. Anyone who only looks at the world of objects, does not recognize that they are created by the ego. But whoever looks at the ego in its construing sees the basis of the finished world picture, and knows how it came about, for it appears to him due to certain given prerequisites. Someone with ordinary consciousness only sees what is posited, what is determined in this or that way. He lacks insight into the antecedents, into the reasons why it is set this way and not otherwise. According to Fichte, the conscious experience of perceiving with logic and clarity (das Wissen) is the task of a completely new sense. I find this most clearly expressed in his Introductory lectures on his Principles of Science (Wissenschaftslehre) that he read aloud in the fall of 1813 at the University of Berlin: “This doctrine presupposes a completely new inner sensory tool through which a new world is created that does not exist at all for the ordinary person." 75Ibid. Vol. I, p. 422. Also: “The world of the new sense (and thereby itself) is for the moment clearly determined. It is seeing the antecedents on which judgment is based. It is something that itself grounds the grounds of existence, which is exactly why, because it is this, is not itself again and is an existence.” 76J. G. Fichtes Nachgelassene Werke. Herausgegeben von J. H. Fichte, Bd. 1, Bonn 1834, S.4 und S.16.

Here too, Fichte lacks a clear insight into the content of the activity carried out by the ego. He never got through to it. That is why his Wissenschaftslehre could not become what it otherwise would have had to become given its entire structure, which is a theory of knowing as basic philosophical science. Once it was recognized that the activity of the ego must be determined by the ego itself, it was obvious to think that it also receives its determination from the ego. But how can this happen other than by giving content to the purely formal actions of the ego. But if this is really to be introduced by the ego into its otherwise completely undetermined activity, then it must also be determined according to its nature. Otherwise, it could at most be realized by a “thing in itself” lying in the ego, whose tool is the ego, but not by the latter itself. If Fichte had attempted this definition, then he would have arrived at the concept of knowing, which is to be realized by the ego. Fichte's teaching of science is proof that even the most astute thinker will not succeed in having a fruitful impact in any field if one does not arrive at the correct thought form (category, idea), which when supplemented with what is given, gives reality. Such a thinker is the same as a person who listens to the most wonderful melodies, but doesn't hear them at all, due to having no feeling for melody. Consciousness, as a given, can only be characterized by someone who knows how to put himself in possession of the “idea of consciousness”.

Fichte came quite close to the correct insight. In 1797 he found in his Introduction to the Principles of Science that there were two theoretical systems, dogmatism,77t/n The meaning of dogmatism here is unclear. Here it sounds like materialism, but with the recent growing acceptance of materialism, dogmatism has come to be seen as something like Bishop Berkeley’s spiritism. In the modern view (see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on idealism), idealism is often paired with its opposite realism, and materialism with its opposite spiritism. Anyone holding a specific world-view usually accuses those holding different views of being dogmatic, that is, holding beliefs that are unquestioned, undefended, and unsubstantiated. in which the ego is determined by things, and idealism, in which things are determined by the ego. In his view, both stand as possible worldviews. Both allow consistent implementation. But if we give in to dogmatism, then we must give up the independence of the ego and make it dependent on the thing-in-itself. We are in the opposite situation when we pay homage to idealism. Which of the systems one or the other philosopher wants to choose, Fichte simply leaves it up to the discretion of the ego. But if it wants to preserve its independence, it would suspend belief in things outside of us and surrender to idealism.

All that Fichte had needed was to have considered that the ego cannot come to any real, well-founded decision and determination if it does not presuppose something that helps it to make one. All determination from the ego would remain empty and contentless if the ego does not find something full of content and thoroughly determined that makes it possible for it to determine what is given and thus also allows the choice to be made between idealism and dogmatism. But this thoroughly full-of-content world is the world of thinking. And determining what is given through thinking means knowing. We may linger on Fichte’s work wherever we want, but everywhere we will find that his train of thought immediately takes root when we think of the completely gray, empty activity of the ego as being filled and regulated by what we have called the process of knowing.

The ego can put itself into activity through freedom, which makes it possible for it to make real the category of knowing through self-determination. In the rest of the world, the categories are linked to the given that corresponds to them through objective necessity. Investigating the nature of free self-determination will be the task of ethics and metaphysics based on our epistemology. This task will also have to discuss the question of whether the ego is also able to realize ideas other than knowing. it is already clear from the comments made above, however, that the realization of knowing occurs through freedom. For if what is immediately given and the associated form of thinking are united by the ego in the process of knowing, then the unification of the two elements of reality that otherwise always remain separate in consciousness can occur only through an act of freedom.

Through the preceding discussion, light will be thrown on critical idealism in a completely different way. To anyone who has studied Fichte's system in detail, it appears to be a matter close to the heart of this philosopher to maintain the principle that nothing can enter the ego from outside, nothing that is not originally posited by the ego itself. But this entails that no idealism will ever be able to derive from the ego that form of world content that we have described as the immediately given. This form can only be given, never construed from thinking. Just consider that even if we were given the rest of the color gamut, we would not be able to add even one shade of color purely from the ego. We can form a picture of the most distant areas of the country, areas that we have never seen, if we have experienced similar elements individually as given. We then combine these individual elements we have experienced into a picture based on the descriptions given to us. But we will strive in vain to spin out of ourselves even a single element of perception that never lay in the realm of the “given”. It is quite different to simply to become acquainted (kennen) with something in the given world. it is also different to recognize (erkennen) the essential nature of something or someone. The latter, although it is intimately linked to the content of the world, is not clear to us unless we build reality ourselves from what is given and from thinking. The actual “what” of the given is posited for the ego only by the ego itself. But the ego has absolutely no reason to put the essential nature of a “given” inside itself, for it sees the matter first in a totally unencumbered way. Therefore, what is posited by the ego as the essential nature of the world is not posited without the ego, but through it.

It is not the first form in which reality confronts the ego that is its true form, but the last form that the ego makes out of it. That first form has no meaning at all for the objective world, and only has such a meaning as a basis for the cognitive process. Therefore, the shape of the world that theory gives to it is not the subjective one, but rather that which is first given to the ego. If one wants to continue along with Volkelt’s followers, who call this given world experience, one must say that scientific knowing completes the organization of our awareness that appears in subjective form as experience, as emerging world-picture as what it essentially is.

Our epistemology provides the basis for an idealism that understands itself in the true sense of the word. It establishes the belief that the essence of the world is conveyed in thinking. The relationship between the parts of the world's content can be shown by nothing other than thinking, whether it is the relationship of the heat of the sun to the heated stone, or of the ego to the outside world. Thinking alone is the element that determines all things in their relationships to one another.

The objection that Kantianism could still make would be that the essential determination of the given as characterized above is only one for the ego. In the spirit of our basic conception, we must reply to this that the split between the ego and the external world only exists within the given, and therefore that “for the ego” has no meaning when compared to the thinking observation that unites all opposites. The ego as something separated from the outside world is completely lost in the thinking world view, so it no longer makes any sense to speak of determinations solely for the ego.