Fichte, Ethics, and Transcendental Philosophy

By Rockmore, Tom | Philosophy Today, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Fichte, Ethics, and Transcendental Philosophy


Rockmore, Tom, Philosophy Today


Some two centuries after Kant, his influence continues undiminished. In many ways the later philosophical discussion consists in a series of reactions to Kant. But Kant's influence on the later debate is uneven. It is his epistemologica! views that continue to remain up to date and whose influence is still widely felt throughout the discussion. His moral theories, however, now seem very much out of date. Many changes have intervened since Kant wrote on moraUty in a way that has tended not to prolong but rather simply to reject Kant's absolutist moral views.

This point is relevant for an understanding of Fichte's conception of ethics. Fichte, who successfully marketed himself as a seamless Kantian, as the only one who correctly understood the critical philosophy, called attention to himself in a way that ensured he would be misunderstood. Though clearly inspired by Kant, though he came to maturity in a period when the debate was dominated by the critical philosophy, his solutions are often very different from, incompatible with, even radically opposed to Kant's. It is crucial, for understanding Fichte's contribution, to grasp the way he differs from Kant. For in the ways that he resembles Kant, his views of ethics are themselves now no longer of interest. But in the ways that he differs from Kant he is often still in the forefront of the discussion, still largely up to date.

Kant, Morality, and the Contemporary Debate

Kantian morality and Fichtean ethics both discuss what one should do. But the debate has changed since Kant to the point where the present interest of Fichtean ethics does not reside in the way it carries the Kantian position further but rather in the way it leaves the latter behind.

Kant's influence, very important in his own day, has never later diminished. In many ways, the later debate consists in a long series of reactions, which are not about to come to an end, to the critical philosophy. The debate in the twentieth century, for instance, can be described in terms of a series of four tendencies that each attempt to carry further a series of Kantian themes.1

The contemporary significance of Kant depends on the domain. It is obviously stronger in epistemology than on the moral plane. Kant calls attention to a deontological moral approach that has grown old in many ways, and which now appears difficult to accept, even out of date.2

Kant believes he has forever resolved questions concerning what one ought to do. However, one is struck by the lack of interest in Kant's wake of an a priori strategy for moraUty or even by a moral strategy at all. In Kant's wake, the discussion about what one ought to do has fragmented into an increasing number of disparate fragments.

At present, the situation is very confused because no single approach dominates with respect to how to act. Here are several examples that are far from exhausting the contemporary debate. Kantian moraUty turns on the possibility of determining how to act without any reference to the social context. This approach is reinforced by Moore's attack in the last century against the so-called naturalistic fallacy consisting in the identification of the good with a natural property.3 Yet well before Moore the discussion was already fragmented. Following Kant, Hegel rejects his moral formalism in turning, in the same way as Fichte, to ethics that refutes universal rules. Marx draws attention to the relation between ethics and economic context. Nietzsche criticizes the concept of value that he reduces to psychology.

In our day, the discussion about how to act is composed of the most varied moral and ethical strategies. The debate runs from a type of neoKantianism represented by Habermas4 to meta-ethics that, in studying the meaning and the significance of moral and ethical judgments appears to leave behind questions of good and evil to eudaimonism. Kantian deontology is countered par utilitarianism, which is a form of eudaimonism, especially act utilitarianism, which suggests that the correctness of an action depends on its contribution to human well being. …

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