Between the Ideal and the Ego Ideal: Collective Evil from Fichte to Freud

By Farr, Arnold L. | Philosophy Today, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Between the Ideal and the Ego Ideal: Collective Evil from Fichte to Freud


Farr, Arnold L., Philosophy Today


It seems that post 9/11 me topic of evil and particularly collective evil has been on almost everyone's mind. Although philosophers have always inquired about the origin and nature of evil, since 9/11 there has been an unprecedented increase of philosophical literature on evil. However, collective evil is nothing new to the human condition. By collective evil I mean acts of violence or acts that are destructive of human persons carried out by one social group against another. By social group I mean an aggregate of individuals who bond with each other on the basis of some recognizable identity trait or marker such as race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. Human history, well before 9/11 is filled with not only conflicts between social groups, but also attempts by some social groups to enslave or even obliterate others. Evil here goes well beyond the lack of impulse control by individuals. In this context, evil may be systematic, systemic, well-organized, and may even appear to be rational.

The purpose of this essay is to explore the origin of collective evil in the structure of human consciousness. I will put two unlikely thinkers (Fichte and Freud) in dialogue to this end. It is my belief that while Fichte and Freud may seem radically opposed to each other on many issues, nevertheless, they both offer important insights for understanding collective evil that are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Drive Theory and the I

At first glance the attempt to create a dialogue between Fichte and Freud on the topic of evil and the human condition in general may seem a bit foolish. Indeed, such an attempt seems like something that would occur only in me final competition for the title of academic court jester. However, it seems to me that such an investigation is worthwhile. Therefore, if I am awarded the title academic court jester I will count my losses and move on to the next thing.

What makes this conversation between Freud and Fichte seem fool-hearted is that in these two theories we have two entirely different approaches to the study of the human subject. With Freud we have a commitment to empirical research and almost a form of biologism in the early Freud. Also, in spite of certain persistent philosophical explorations in Freud we still get an attempt to avoid philosophy altogether. Further, Freud seems to have no specific ethical orientation. Like his contemporary Husserl, Freud takes himself to be engaged in a purely descriptive science.

Fichte on the other hand is committed to the project of transcendental philosophy. Rather than occupy himself with empirical science and research, Fichte, in ways that also reminds one of Husserl, explores the necessary conditions for empirical science by investigating the necessary conditions for experience. Hence, the Wissenschaftslehre is not empirical science but rather a system that discloses the possibilities of such.

The question that motivates this essay is, "can Freud and Fichte help us understand the origin and nature of collective evil?" After examining both theories the stark differences become clear; however, also revealed is the need to think about the problem of collective evil through both Fichtean and Freudian frameworks. I think that at the end of the day we may not have a happy marriage between the two but we can have an interesting first date. The key differences and the point of connection between Fichte and Freud lie in their drive theories. I will begin with Fichte.

In the Introduction to the Sittenlehre Fichte claims that the task of philosophy is to explain how something objective can become subjective. That is, how something objective can become an object for human consciousness. The point or system of unification for the objective and me subjective is I-hood. However, there is no unification without distinction. The process of unifying and distinguishing the subjective and the objective is dependent on the I's activity. …

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