Today even ambitious philosophers are ironic about pretensions to wisdom. Perhaps their single most characteristic pose in this age of debunking criticism is as "conversationalists" in the "great conversation of mankind" anxious "to help the argument along." The metaphor of culture as a conversation is telling in itself. It has replaced the "enlightened" image of "the republic of letters," that lost common homeland of intellectuals. The polity of ideas has given way to the marketplace on the one hand and the "private" conversation on the other. It is, then, immensely difficult for us to understand a thinker like Fichte who saw himself as not only a sovereign citizen in the Republic of Letters, but as one of its magistrates, who perceived his thinking not as a "voice in the conversation of mankind" but as a "science of sciences," the embodiment of "reason's own self-produced knowledge of itself," the articulation of a principle from which all other sciences must be, in principle, strictly "deducible."(1) It would be utterly quixotic for a contemporary philosopher to write a Wissenschaftslehre.
How, then, are we to understand the work of a thinker like Fichte? It is not just that, unfashionably by today's standards, he produced a philosophical system. Our difficulty in understanding him lies more deeply yet in the kind of system he articulated, namely, a system echoing the Cartesian ideal of a philosophy more geometrico, in which all knowledge was conceived as founded in a single, self-evident principle. Our philosophical imaginations can hardly comprehend what Fichte could have meant by saying that "every science requires a first principle," and further, that "a science can have no more than one first principle, for if it had more than one it would be several sciences instead of one."(2) Even more alien to us is Fichte's conviction that such a relentlessly theoretical enterprise as transcendental science could be necessary not only to cognition generally, but to our prospects of fulfilling our "vocation" as human beings.(3)
We are closer, temperamentally, to the therapeutic philosophizing of a thinker like Wittgenstein, who held that "the real discovery is one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to,"(4) than to a thinker with Fichte's combative determination to achieve a philosophical archimedean point on which not only his system of philosophy, but the whole modern age, indeed, the fate of humanity itself, can pivot. For us, the stakes in philosophizing are less; we are more likely to anticipate the dissolution rather than the necessity of philosophizing. For us, philosophy has lost its preeminence among the attractions of civilized life. As Hegel would recognize in the years shortly after Fichte's death, for modern thinkers "their philosophy is only by the way, a sort of luxury and superfluity." Modern philosophers are no longer the "self-sufficing individualities" that ancient thinkers were, but, for the most part, academic bureaucrats, their calling sunk in "the ordinary commonplace of state or class relationships."(5) Unlike Fichte and his compatriots in the heroic age of the German Aufklarung and the French Revolution, we cannot seriously see our philosophical labors as a master key to a total transformation in human nature. Fichte's contrary, and in his day, unremarkable, attitude inevitably makes him seem archaic.
It is, then, hardly possible to reflect on the tasks of philosophy as Fichte understood them without situating him in historical context. This requires not only that we stimulate some sympathy for the system building of classical German philosophy, and recollect something of the intellectual struggles of the Aufklarung, but more fundamentally that we reflect on Fichte's self-understanding of his own historical position. When we do this, the central fact that confronts us is that Fichte saw himself as, in essence, the first post-philosophical thinker, the thinker who successfully completed the Kantian project and substituted Wissenschaftslehre for "mere" philosophy, science for the aspiration to it. …