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Justin Horky German Idealism Paper 2

Fichte and the Origins of the Manifold of Intuitions

In his introductions to his Wissenschaftslehre, J.G. Fichte sets out the ambitious
goal of explaining the origin of those presentations which we feel with a sense of
certainty or, in other words, our experiences. Fichte emphatically rejects what he refers to
as 'dogmatism' (i.e. realism) in favor of a thoroughgoing idealist framework which
attempts to draw upon both Kant's theoretical and practical philosophies to argue that we
are freely-acting agents who, through this very freedom, posit the world around us which
makes up our experiences. Only such a system as this, Fichte believed, can explain the
origin of our experiences and affirm our status as moral agents. However, it is not quite
clear just exactly how Fichte envisioned such a system unfolding. I will argue that it must
be the case that Fichte's goals point him in the direction of affirming that all of our
intuitions must be unfolded from our own selves according to rational principles even
though Fichte himself, at a critical juncture, seems to waver from wanting to do so.
Fichte's entire philosophy is founded upon the notion of self-consciousness, which
centers around the act of an I positing itself. For Fichte, since the point of the
Wissenschaftslehre is to explain how our experiences are possible, it becomes necessary
to abstract from such experiences in order to find the cause for them which must, of
necessity, lie outside of them in order to serve as their explanatory ground. But once this
process has been completed, for the philosopher, the only thing now remaining is the
reader's self-consciousness which now becomes the object of our enquiry and which,
through this abstraction process, takes on a primordial nature that sheds it of any unique
characteristics that would make it unsuitable for a general philosophical inquiry: "the sole

thing to which the person who undertakes this act of abstraction continues to cling and
proposes to employ as the basis for explaining everything that has to be explained is the
conscious subject" (Fichte, pg. 40). From this point on, it is then Fichte's goal to carry out
a transcendental argument demonstrating that there are preconditions which are necessary
for the existence of this conscious subject which explain our experiences.
Fichte argues that this conscious subject must be an I which posits its own self
and through that act, gains its very being. This I posits itself by 'reverting' its own thought
upon itself and making its own self the object of its thought. Fichte's argument here
seems to be this: an I is necessarily something which is self-conscious because something
which is not self-conscious could never recognize its own self as a subject, as an I to
begin with. An 'I' which is not self-conscious would not in fact be an I because it would
not be able to understand its own subjective nature. But this self-consciousness can only
come from its own self. It is not as if it can be created by adding up and arranging
constituent parts together. Someone is self-conscious only through his consciousness of
his own self. It is thus this act of being conscious of one's self, of reverting one's thoughts
upon one's self, that constitutes and creates the self-conscious subject which was the only
thing to emerge from the abstraction process as the only thing which resides outside of
experiences and thus can explain them: "The I originally comes into being for itself by
means of this act, and it is only in this way that the I comes into being at all...this specific
determinate way of acting is not preceded by any sort of "acting as such"..." (Fichte, pg.
It is important to note at this point that the I for Fichte is not at all some passive
res cogitans or mental substance as Descartes imagined our minds being. Rather, it is

itself the very act of thinking of its own self. The question now is, what other acts
necessarily follow from the nature of this act? It is here that we begin to see Fichte
arguing that the I itself must be the source of its own feelings and affections. Fichte refers
to the immediate consciousness or awareness of one's self that makes up the I's
self-consciousness as an 'intellectual intuition' and then notes that this intellectual
intuition can never occur without a sensory intuition and vice-versa: "Like sensory
intuition, which never occurs by itself or constitutes a complete state of consciousness,
this intellectual intuition never occurs alone, however, as a complete act of
consciousness...intellectual intuition is always conjoined with some sensory intuition"
(Fichte, pg. 47). The point which Fichte seems to be trying to make here is this: the I
must necessarily be self-conscious but in order to be self-conscious, it must be conscious
and it cannot be conscious unless it is conscious of some object given to it via sensory
intuitions: "I cannot discover myself to be acting without also discovering some object
upon which I act; and I discover this object by means of sensory intuition..." (Fichte, pg.
47). In other words, the I recognizes itself as an I only insofar as it recognizes itself
acting in some way upon an object so that it can acknowledge "it is I who am doing this!"
Likewise, the I cannot act upon an object without recognizing that it is what is acting
upon that object. In order to be aware of itself as an I, the I needs a sensible object and in
order to be aware of a sensible object, the I must be aware that it is in contact with that
object. Both subject and object are mediated through one another. But if this is the case,
then this means that the I, qua act of self-positing, must posit a sensuous object for itself
in order to carry out that act of self-positing as well. The positing of sensory intuitions is
a necessary correlate for the intellectual intuition which constitutes the I in the first place.

This is what I take Fichte's argument here to be. One may ask, however, when
Fichte says that "I cannot discover myself to be acting without also discovering some
object upon which I act; and I discover this object by means of sensory intuition..." why it
is not possible for the I to discover itself to be acting merely through its act of positing its
own self. Perhaps the point here is that it is impossible to be conscious of one's own self
apart from being conscious of some external object and that therefore, in order to be
conscious of its own self, the act which constitutes its own existence, the I must posit
something else along with itself, the interaction with which allows the I to thus gain the
awareness of itself that makes up its own being. Otherwise, if there were no such external
object, then the I would be akin to a comatose patient that is completely cut off from the
world and thus deprived of any consciousness whatsoever. With absolutely no external
objects to focus its own awareness of itself, the I would have no means by which to
generate the self-consciousness that constitutes it.
Furthermore, Fichte also notes that in the act of positing itself, the I must
necessarily posit itself as a limited being: "Just as certainly as I posit myself at all, I posit
myself as limited, and this occurs as a consequence of my intuition of my own act of
self-positing. I am finite in virtue of this intuition" (Fichte, pg.74). The argument here
seems to be that in order to posit itself as an I, the I must limit itself in some way for
otherwise, if it had no limitations whatsoever, then it would be completely pure being
which, as Hegel argues in the Science of Logic, is conceptually equivalent to nothing at
all. In order to be an I, the I must be determinate, but in order to be determinate, the I
must have a boundary which closes it off from that which it is not, thus creating an
opposition which defines its identity, just as red has its essential nature or being by being

a determinate property that is opposed to white, green and so on. The I cannot be an I
without being finite and in order to be finite in nature, the I must oppose a sensuous
object against itself to create a limit for itself which maps the contours of its own identity.
It is thus clear that the very act of self-positing which constitutes the I requires the
I to also posit external objects with which to juxtapose itself. However, Fichte then writes
that "[a]s we can see, the necessity of some limitation of the I has been derived from the
very possibility of the I. The specific determinacy of this limitation is, however, not
something that can be derived in this way; because, as we can also see, such determinacy
is itself what provides the condition for the very possibility of all I-hood" (Fichte, pg. 75).
What Fichte seems to be saying here is that while the very nature of the I's self-positing
can allow us to deduce that the I must posit some external object to limit itself, it is only
the notion of a limitation in general which can be culled from this process, not some
specific object even though the I would have to posit a particular object against itself. It is
determinacy itself which provides the condition for the possibility of the I and not, say, a
tree or some other specific manifestation of determinacy. And Fichte here does seem to
be correct in saying this. How can we go on to derive a specific external object when any
such object would do for the I's purposes? It seems as if it could simply posit at random.
Unfortunately, this cannot be the case. We must consider the objection of a shared
world. Because he is not a solipsist, Fichte will eventually want to admit that there are
other I's besides the model I with which we have been dealing. If they are all positing
objects randomly, then how can it be possible for them to share a common world?
Perhaps only one I is doing the positing and the other I's draw upon the objects posited by
this I. But it is not at all clear how one I could posit an object for another and, in any case,

if this were the case, then this would seem to undermine the autonomy of the I's which
are receiving their objects from the one positing I. Finally, there is something disturbing
about the notion of an I randomly positing objects for itself; if it is doing this randomly,
then it is not acting according to any inner principle and if it is not acting according to an
inner, rational principle, then in what sense can it be said to be free?
Fichte himself seems to contradict the point he has made here when elsewhere, he
argues that from the standpoint of his idealist structure, the distinction between the a
priori and the a posteriori is one of perspective rather than substance: "For a full-blown
idealism, a priori and a posteriori are not two different things but are one and the same
thing, simply looked at from two different sides and they can be distinguished from each
other only in terms of the different means one employs in order to arrive at each" (Fichte,
pg. 32). For Fichte, the a priori is what we experience after traveling through the train of
arguments in the Wissenschaftslehre whereas the empirical is the same thing given to us
independently of such elaborations. Fichte, if he truly wants to honor his commitments to
deriving experience while confirming our intuitions of a common world, needs to show
that there is in fact a way to cross the bridge from the necessity of determinacy in general
to the positing of a specific, determinate object. Doing this would essentially mean that
everything which we experience we do so because it is logically necessitated by our inner
principles of reason (though we would still be free in the Kantian sense that we are giving
these rational laws to ourselves). It is this account which Fichte owes to us if we are to
accept his subjective idealism.


Fichte, J.G. Introductions to the Wissenschaftslehre. Trans. Daniel Breazeale.
Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 1994. Print