Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Empirical I in the System of Ethics

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Empirical I in the System of Ethics

Article excerpt

Fichte has a reputation outside of Fichte scholarship for being individualistic, even solipsistic. Within Fichte scholarship, however, he is well known for the importance placed on intersubjectivity as the condition for the possibility of individual freedom. This emerges in the Foundations of Natural Right, with its treatment of the relations between individual persons, which makes it seem as though Fichte's priority is individual freedom. Wimin the System of Ethics, however, the focus is no longer on particular individuals, or even the empirical I (der empirische Ich), but rather upon morality itself, and the pure I of moral reasoning. Given the universalism of his ethics, which, Uke his philosophy in general is Kantian in spirit though not in letter, this is not surprising. Since the System of Ethics develops the nature of human subjectivity in great detail in order to ground Fichte's moral theory, it also tells us a great deal about how Fichte sees individual human beings within his system - in other words, even though the focus is on the pure I, we still learn something about the empirical I here.

In order to be clear, let me make a brief statement about my terminology. Fichte speaks in various places about the empirical I, the determinate individual (das bestimmte Individuum), the empirical temporal being (das empirische Zeitwesen), the empirical self (das empirische Selbst), and the "entire sensible and empirically determined human being" (der ganze sinnliche empirischbestimmte Mensch) (SWTV, 231). For the purposes of this essay, I will simply refer to "the empirical F or "empirical individuaUty" as a way of grouping these together. Primarily this empirical I is to be distinguished from the pure I, and it is this distinction that Fichte thinks is key for ethics, as the vocation of human beings is to strive to harmoniously unify the two.

This essay will consider the ways that empirical individuality is dealt with within the System of Ethics. Fichte has attracted some attention for his defense of individual freedom in the Foundations of Natural Right, but this needs to be placed in conjunction with his treatment of individuaUty in the System of Ethics, where whatever is merely particular to the individual ought to be transcended.

Particularly, I will address the question of how to interpret Fichte's statements about the empirical I and its relation to the pure I in terms of actual human beings. I will consider whether there is an ontological claim being made, beyond the injunction that we take a universaUst stance in our moral reasoning. If there is such a claim being made, how can we make sense of it? If the claim is one that we would not want to endorse, could an argument be developed against it on Fichtean grounds?

What 'the Empirical Self, for Fichte?

Fichte's ethics depends on the contrast between the empirically determined I and the pure unconditioned I of radical freedom. The relationship between them is, in many ways, similar to the Aristotelian distinction between form and matter, and between form and the particular instantiation ofthat form, which exists as a compound of form and matter.

In Aristotelian philosophy, individuation occurs by matter. Individual instances of a form are not individuated except by being embodied in particular compounds. It appears that Fichte adheres to this same principle, with empirical determination taking the place of matter. We are differentiated by empirical determination, not by what is part of universal human reason. The empirical I is simply the human being in his or her particularity. Without that empirical determination, there is no person, no self.

We can only exist as being particular - as being empirically determined in various ways: as being this person, at this stage in history, with this job, this nationaUty, this gender, this collection of talents, manifest in this particular physical body. As Fichte writes, "I, [individual] A, am only insofar as I am A. …

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