On the Unity of Theoretical Subjectivity in Kant and Fichte

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THE BODY OF TEXTS THAT FORMS Fichte's Jena Wissenschaftslehre is among the most significant products of that immensely fertile period spanning the publication of Kant's first Critique and Hegel's Phenomenology. Like many of Kant's earliest disciples and critics, Fichte was preoccupied with puzzles that arose in connection with certain distinctions presupposed or drawn by Kant throughout the writings of the Critical period. Among the many distinctions developed with great care in the three Critiques, the most important for Fichte were those drawn between the various powers or faculties of the human mind. (1) Fichte came to recognize that a well-grounded philosophical science would have to account for the complex structure of human subjectivity without dividing the mind into a mere aggregate of lifeless mental faculties. (2) As Fichte famously put it in the Grundlage, the aim of the Wissenschaftslehre is to introduce into "the whole human being that unity and connection that so many systems lack." (3) Despite obvious Romantic overtones, this quest for a single, unified account of the human mind amounted to the demand for a strictly scientific reconstruction of the Critical philosophy. On Fichte's view, philosophy would be able to come forward as a rigorous science of living subjectivity, with the force and evidence of geometry, only as a closed system of propositions derived from a self-evident first principle. (4)

Fichte's rather idiosyncratic Kantianism has always been somewhat enigmatic, no less problematic to his contemporaries than to subsequent students of German Idealism. (5) In response to early critics like Friedrich Schlegel, Fichte insisted that the Wissenschaftslehre is "none other than the Kantian system," that it contains the same subject matter as the Critical philosophy, and differs only in method or manner of presentation. (6) Although it cannot be denied that the details of Fichte's Kant-interpretation do not always square easily with the letter of Kant's own texts, it is equally true that Fichte's relation to Kant has been obscured by several misconceptions about the project of a "doctrine of science" and its relation to human life. Two views in particular will be targeted in what follows. The first concerns the status of the absolute I that Fichte places at the head of philosophical science. On one account of the concept of subjectivity developed in the Jena Wissenschaftslehre, the I that "originally posits simply its own being" is to be understood as an impersonal intelligence, responsible for creating nature and finite human minds in a mysterious process ex nihilo. (7) The second view, closely related to the first, concerns Fichte's various attempts to derive the various mental faculties and their "objects"--space, time, and the pure concepts of the understanding--from the absolute act of self-positing expressed in the first Grundsatz of the Grundlage tier gesamten Wissenschaftslehre. According to one prevalent and influential interpretation of this project, Fichte's derivation of the structures and necessary operations of finite reason from the principle of self-positing subjectivity is tantamount to a reduction of the various powers of the human mind to a single basic power (Grundkraft). (8) In both cases, the epistemological and moral trajectory of the Wissenschaftslehre is construed as a pre- or post-Critical "metaphysics of subjectivity" that stands in sharp contrast to Kant's modest version of transcendental idealism. (9)

Fichte himself is partly to blame for the misunderstandings that have long surrounded his work. Throughout his writings and correspondence from the Jena period (1794-99), Fichte often criticizes as "dogmatic" the view, usually associated with Kant, that the primary object of thought is simply given to the mind. In a letter to Jacobi Fichte writes, "Kant clings to the view that the manifold of experience is something given--God knows how and why. But I straightforwardly maintain that even this manifold is produced by us through our creative faculty. …