Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Finite and Absolute Reason in (and beyond) Fichte's System of Ethics

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Finite and Absolute Reason in (and beyond) Fichte's System of Ethics

Article excerpt

Systematically central to properly practical philosophy, for Fichte, are conceptions of reason as such, and of finite rational being qua finite, which together entail that "the complete annihilation of the individual and the fusion of the latter into the absolutely pure form of reason or into God is indeed the ultimate goal of finite reason."1 In what follows, I pursue the rather more moderate goal of working out a well-founded understanding of that arresting assertion. To that end, two main questions seem especially apropos. First, what exactly is "the absolutely pure form of reason," on Fichte's account, and what precisely is finite reason, qua specifically finite? An answer to that question should equip us to understand exactly what it would be for the finite rational being to achieve or undergo the envisioned ultimate "fusion . . . into the absolutely pure form of reason or into God." This may also help to clarify in what sense finite reason may be said to have this self-annihilating "fusion" as its ultimate goal. And we should then be well-positioned to take up a second main question. Namely, what exactly is supposed to warrant the assertion that the finite rational being, as such and necessarily, has as an "ultimate" aspiration some sort of self-extinguishing rational apologosis or apotheosis?

This essay proposes some answers to the above questions. Here, in outline, is what I will suggest. First: for Fichte, reason in its "absolutely pure form," reason as such, is the autonomous origination and world-organizing instatement of pure, organically articulated, order-inducing form. Second: finite reason, qua specifically finite, is the autonomous origination and world-organizing instatement of pure, organically articulated, order-inducing form, confronted and qualified by unchosen, arational empirical givens. Accordingly, then, the "complete annihilation of the individual" that would coincide with its "fusion . . . into the absolutely pure form of reason" signifies not the end of its being in general, nor the cessation of its rational being specifically, but the transcendence of its finitude qua rational. This means its becoming a being in whom pure, autonomous world-ordering form-giving is no longer conditioned by unchosen givens that could arationally constrain the shape that its world could take. (Ergo the theological tone often taken by descriptions of this ontological metamorphosis.) Equally, this means its becoming a being that no longer experiences itself as this or that extrinsically conditioned, factically situated individual - and, indeed, that no longer undergoes anything that can be rightly called "experience" at all, inasmuch as experience necessarily comprises unchosen, empirically given elements.2 (Ergo the description of this transformation as one involving the "annihilation of the individual" "individual" here denoting the rational being understood not only as numerically individuated, but also as concretely, and therefore empirically, qualified.)

Fichte maintains that we must philosophically figure the finite rational being, per se, as a being that necessarily, but also autonomously, articulates, as its own "ultimate goal," precisely the self-effacing, experience-extinguishing, condition-transcending "fusion" just described. Why? Because the claim that the finite rational being transcendentally has "fusion . . . into the absolutely pure form of reason" as "its ultimate goal" is, for Fichte, effectively equivalent to the thesis that pure reason is primordially practical. (The reasons for saying this should become clearer below. To be sure, for Fichte pure reason is also and equiprimordially theoretical, but here the focus is on pure reason in its distinctly practical aspect.) Moreover, and most importantly, on Fichte's account, if we do not figure pure reason as primordially practical in precisely this way, then we cannot philosophically explain how or why any experience at all actually occurs. …

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