Apriority from the Grundlage to the System of Ethics

By Rand, Sebastian | Philosophy Today, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Apriority from the Grundlage to the System of Ethics


Rand, Sebastian, Philosophy Today


This essay addresses the general topic of apriority in Fichte's writings in the mid- to late 1790s; more specifically, I will be asking what we can learn about the Fichtean conception of apriority from its deployment in the System of Ethics. This means I will be using the System of Ethics to answer a question not entirely "within" the Sittenlehre. But the relation is not strictly one-way - while the System of Ethics can help us understand Fichtean apriority in general, such a general understanding of Fichtean apriority can help us understand the System of Ethics.

Before getting started, I would like to say something about the larger research project in which this present sketch finds its home. My larger project is focused on theoretical philosophy in German Idealism, and in particular on the philosophical treatment of the natural sciences. Kant's approach to theoretical philosophy by means of the question: "How are synthetic judgments a priori possible?" already indicates the central role apriority and the a priori/a posteriori distinction in general will play in his treatment of the constitution of ourselves and of the objective world. And then there is the fact that the most prominent postKantian Idealist philosophers of nature Schelling and Hegel - are both commonly taken to have erected more-or-less fantastical a priori systems of nature. Understanding these Idealist philosophies of nature correctly, whether to agree to disagree with this common assessment, requires understanding the significance of the a priori/a posteriori distinction across the German Idealist tradition. Such a broader understanding must not only grasp apriority as it is deployed in theoretical philosophy, but also in practical philosophy, in each of the four major Idealists. Finally, given the general theme of the primacy of the practical uniting the thought of the four major Idealists, the use of the a priori/a posteriori distinction in their varying conceptions of practical philosophy takes on particular importance, even for someone with expressly theoretical interests.

Fichte plays a very important role in this aspect of the story of Idealism, insofar as he dismantles the specifically Kantian conception of apriority. Ultimately, apriority and the entire a priori/a posteriori distinction will lose much of its philosophical force for the post-Kantians, and will finally be abandoned by Hegel. Indeed, the term barely appears in Hegel's work at all when he is not summarizing Kant. This trajectory makes sense only when we see that in this respect, Hegel was following Fichte's lead. Note, for instance, that Fichte only deploys the term in six passages in the System of Ethics, and mat (I would claim) only two of those uses manifest important doctrinal characteristics of apriority.1 Now, compare that with Kant's frequent use of the term in the Groundwork and the Metaphysics of Morals. The a priori/a posteriori distinction does some heavy lifting for Kant, so to see it so thoroughly demoted by Fichte should pique our interest.

In what follows I will say something brief about Kant, and then lay out what I take to be the gradual development of Fichte's position on apriority from the mid- to late 1790s, and the way in which this development is evidenced in the System of Ethics. I will close witii some reflections on the larger philosophical significance of this development.

Kantian Apriority

Kant establishes the criteria for apriority early in the Introduction to the B-edition of the first Critique. These criteria are independence from experience, universality, and necessity. But because of the way he divides this discussion between sections 1 and 2 of the Introduction, Kant leaves the impression that apriority can be characterized in two distinct ways (both of which he endorses, of course, and which he thinks are interrelated in various ways): independence from experience (hereafter Kantian Apriority 1, or KAl), and universality and necessity (hereafter Kantian Apriority 2, or KA2). …

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