Academic journal article Philosophy Today

On Fichte's Concept of Freedom in the System of Ethics

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

On Fichte's Concept of Freedom in the System of Ethics

Article excerpt

The notion of freedom is a central notion of Fichte's philosophical system. In his letter from 1795 Fichte calls his philosophy "the first system of freedom," comparing its theoretical significance with the import and effect that the French Revolution had in the political sphere. He writes, "Just as France freed man from external shackles, so my system frees him from the fetters of things in themselves, which is to say, from those external influences with which all previous systems - including the Kantian - have more or less fettered man. Indeed, the first principle of my system presents man as an independent being."1 For Fichte, freedom is neither an ordinary philosophical notion, a one among others, nor an abstract idea that is conceptuaUzed as merely being opposed to the concept of determinism. Shaped in the context of the thinker's search for the systematical foundation of his Wissenschafislehre, freedom becomes the theoretical principle and also the postulate of his whole philosophy.

It would be thus too ambitious to attempt examining Fichte's concept of freedom in one short essay, even if I choose to Umit myself to only one thinker's work. The aim of this essay is more modest; it will discuss only one, perhaps central and the most significant dimension of Fichte's concept of freedom, his principle of autonomy as it is estabUshed in the System of Ethics. I shall first consider Fichte's general approach to freedom and autonomy and how it differs from that of his predecessors, especially Kant's conception. Then I shall tarn to Fichte's account of autonomy and consider its development in the Sittenlehre of 1798. My main focus will be on Fichte's concept of self-determined agency and its fundamental role for legislation of morality.

On Kant's Approach to Freedom and Fichte's Response to the Challenge

In a general sense, freedom appears for Fichte as a pure self-activity of the (original) I. This, in turn, provides a ground for moral freedom, or freedom of the I that determines itself morally. Kant argued that autonomy was demonstrated by a person who would decide on a course of action out of respect for moral duty. For him an autonomous person acts morally solely for the sake of doing "good," independently of other incentives. Such compliance with moral law creates the essence of human dignity. Following Kant, Fichte too believes that the moral will is the chief characteristic of the self. In his systematic, it also appears as the activating principle of the world. Yet he realizes that moral freedom and linked to it awareness of the moral laws cannot be simply given or postulated; they must rather be derived from plausible and non-contradictory principles. The derivation of moral freedom Fichte sought to present in his System of Ethics. Taken systematically, this substantiation and rational justification of ethics does not belong anymore to the project of the Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschafislehre of 1794/95, but rather to the project of the Wissenschafislehre novo methodo 1796/99. Here Fichte does not any longer assume the three separate postulates, but instead he proceeds from a single principle of the finite I. Furthermore, theoretical and practical Wissenschafislehre are not treated separately, but instead it is considered as the one unified theory. As a result of these changes, Fichte modifies his approach to derivation of consciousness, now attempting to derive it from morality and freedom of the I. Fichte views such a derivation as necessary, because he believes that in philosophicsystematical theory the awareness of the moral laws cannot be taken - like in Kant - as a mere fact of the reason.

In the Sittenlehre of 1798, freedom is present at different levels of system. From its first appearance here it is already inseparable from the principle of morality and in the further derivation it just obtains a concrete determinacy. Fichte attempts to provide a solution to main systematical issues that Kant could not solve in his ethics. …

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