The Science of Knowledge: First Introduction

This will be the reading for Saturday, August 1’s meeting.  We will meet at 4:30 at Cafe Boiling Pot.  Directions are in the sidebar.

If you are interested in joining the group, I suggest looking up Seoul Contemporary Philosophy Club on  We have many new members and will be moving to an RSVP system. 

In this introduction, Fichte explains his goal and offers initial arguments for it.  The goal is to explain why we experience a stable world of objects in space and time, or it what comes to the same thing, why we find ourselves constrained to describe the world in such and such a way.  Explaining this kind of experience involves finding the ground of experience, which can be done in one of two ways: either experience is grounded in our cognitive faculties, which is the idealist option, or it is grounded in the objects of experience themselves, which he calls the dogmatic option.  Fichte favours idealism for two reasons: first, it is only under idealism that we can consider ourselves free agents, and second, only idealism can explain the existence of consciousness.

A Kantian Project

Fichte portrays this book in two ways: it is an extension of Kant’s project, and it corrects mistaken readings of Kant (and perhaps some of Kant’s own mistakes).  There are two immediately relevant elements of Kant’s work: his “Copernican Revolution” and the phenomenal/noumenal distinction.  Regarding the former, earlier modern philosophers often portray ideas as being abstractions of objects.  I look at a table and the table causes an impression within me which I abstract into an idea.  Kant reversed this; my idea of a table is the result of an interaction between my temporal/spatial intuitions and the logical conditions of seeing a table as a table, both of which are activities of the subject.  Second, since my awareness of an object is the result of my subjective interaction with it, there must be two possible perspectives on the world: there are the phenomena, the thing in the world we actually see and interact with, and the noumena, the way the thing is without our subjective interaction, a.k.a the thing-in-itself.

These two moves caused a host of interpretive problems, first among them: what actually causes our ideas and impressions?  Does our cognitive apparatus cause it all, or do objects themselves cause our thoughts?  Since the phenomenal spatio-temporal world was meant to be the result of subjective cognitive work, then causal relations, which are part of that phenomenal world, cannot apply to the things-in-themselves and they cannot be causing our thoughts about them.  On the other hand, Kant tries to make it quite clear that our thoughts are about something outside ourselves; he altered The Critique of Pure Reason to include a criticism of idealism which relied on the nature of our spatial intuitions.

Fichte, in his description of how Kant’s work was understood by others, suggests that most commentators thought Kant was arguing that our thoughts are caused by the things in themselves, that is, dogmatism. Fichte has a clear opinion of these Kantians: they are idiots and should probably just kill themselves.  The Science of Knowledge is his attempt to defend, extend, and sometimes correct the “real” idealist Kant, to show that “. . . the object shall be posited and determined by the cognitive faculty, and not the cognitive faculty by the object.”

Necessary and Free Presentations and Philosophy’s Job

Fichte’s term for the contents of consciousness, our thoughts about the world, is presentations (Vorstellung).  If we think about our presentations for a moment, we will see they can be divided into two classes.  Some are are clearly dependent upon our freedom; I can imagine any number of things without constraint, and I can exercise my will any number of ways.  However, imagination and will have nothing to do with the world outside me.  Batman does not exist, but I can still imagine him; I want to eat ice cream, but that that desire tells me nothing true about the world.

Other presentations appear to refer to a reality which is independent of us, and we are limited in determining these presentations, since they must correspond to this reality.  Somehow, I am constrained against thinking that coffee tastes like strawberries, or that I am currently wearing a suit.  In this sense, our cognition is unfree

So some presentations feel free, others feel necessary.  The question of why free presentations appear as they do is not worth asking; they appear as they do because I determined them to be such.  Necessary presentations are different; we need to know the source of both these presentations and the feeling of necessity that goes with them.  This is philosophy’s entire job (he prefers the word Science because the word philosophy carries with it a lot of baggage). The system of necessary presentations is experience, hence philosophy needs to furnish the ground of experience.

You can only ask for a reason for something if that thing is contingent, if it is assumed that thing could have been otherwise.  The tasking of “seeking the ground of something contingent” means to show something else whose properties reveal why the thing has the properties it does.  The ground, or explanation, has to fall outside the thing to be explained; the ground of experience must fall outside experience.

Idealism and Dogmatism

Because we are finite beings, we have no access to anything beyond our experience.  But we just said what we are looking for falls outside experience.  Fichte resolves this contradiction by relying on our ability to abstract away from experience.  The philosopher can use their freedom of thought to separate things that appeared combined.  The thing, which must be determined independently of our freedom and to which our knowledge must conform, and the intelligence, which must know, are in experience inseparably connected.” (8) 

The philosopher can leave one to the side.  If you leave out the thing, then you get an intelligence in itself as the basis for explaining experience.  If you leave out intelligence, you get a thing-in-itself as the basis of explanation.  The first is idealism, the second dogmatism.  For idealism, the presentations accompanied by the feeling of necessity are the products of intelligence; for dogmatism, they are the products of a thing-in-itself.  To deny this, you would have to say there is a way other than abstraction to rise above experience, or that consciousness is composed of more than those two parts.

Everything of which I am conscious is an object of consciousness.  An object can have three different relations to consciousness.  First, an object can be created by the intellect (like Batman).  Second, an object can exist without the aid of the intellect (like this table).  The third is an extension of the second: it either determines itself, or is determined by intellect.  Only the third is relevant, and it only applies to a single object: the self.

I can think about my self, abstracted away from any experience.  I appear to myself to be in such and such a way, as an object.  But I have not made my self as it is in itself; I have to presuppose my self as something to be determined by self-determination: “I myself, however, am an object for myself whose nature depends, under certain conditions, on the intellect alone, but whose existence must always be presupposed.” (10)

The object of idealism is the self-in-itself; so the object of the system occurs in consciousness, not as a thing-in-itself, since that would make it a dogmatism.  The self-in-itself is not an object of experience, but as something raised above experience.

The object of dogmatism is produced by free thought; the in-itself is a pure invention and has no reality.  It does not occur in experience, for experience is thinking accompanied by the feeling of necessity.  The dogmatist wants to prove its reality, but cannot without presupposing it.  The object of idealism has an advantage over the object of dogmatism: it can be demonstrated – not as the ground of the explanation of experience, which would be contradictory, but in consciousness in general.

Neither of the two systems can directly refute its opposite, because they are fighting about the first principle.  If one’s first principle is granted, the other is refuted. While idealism cannot refute dogmatism, it has the advantage of being able to demonstrate the presence in consciousness of the freely acting intellect, which it claims is the explanation of experience.  The dogmatist has to concede this, but through a valid inference, can say this is just an illusion.  A dogmatist can say that everything which appears in consciousness, along with our supposed freedom, even the belief we are free, can be the product of a thing-in-itself.   We think we are free, but we just do not know the cause.  So every consistent dogmatist is a fatalist; he does not deny the feeling of freedom, but denies its reality.  He can only be refuted on the basis of freedom, but it is precisely freedom that he denies.

The dogmatist cannot refute the idealist, either.  The thing-in-itself, the basic object of the dogmatist, “is nothing and has no reality, as even its exponents must concede, apart from what it is alleged to acquire through the circumstance that experience can be explained only on its basis.” (13) The idealist denies this proof by explaining experience in another way.

Since the two systems are totally incompatible, their fusion always leads to inconsistency.  Any attempt at such a fusion would presuppose “a continued passage from matter to spirit or its reverse, or what is the same, a continued passage from necessity to freedom.” (13)

The Critique of Dogmatism

How could we ever prefer one over the other?  Why should we surrender the independence of the thing to the independence of the self, or the other way around?  Or why not skepticism, as a surrender of the problem? To begin with, we have to deal with our intuitions that 1) We are free and 2) There are determinate things outside us.  But we cannot just stop there; this is only the fragment of a thought.  “Something must be superadded which corresponds to the presentation independently of the presenting.” (14)  The presentation can’t exist for itself alone; so we have to ask what is the ground of presentations? We can imagine both objects being independent, but not at the same time.  Reason cannot help us choose, on pain of antinomy.  Yet we have to choose, and choosing means depending upon freedom of thought:

Hence the choice is governed by caprice, and since even a capricious decision must have some source, it is governed by inclination and interest.  The ultimate basis of the difference between idealists and dogmatists is thus the difference of their interests. (14-15)

There are two kinds of people, or perhaps two levels of life.  Some have not raised themselves to full consciousness of their freedom and independence.  They are trapped in the presentation of things; “they have only that dispersed self-consciousness which attaches to objects, and has to be gleaned from their multiplicity.” (15)  They are only products of things, and will never be anything other than things: “Everything they are, they have really become through the external world.  Whoever is in fact a product of things, will never see himself as anything else; and he will be right so long as he speaks of himself and of others like him.” (15) On the other hand, the man who becomes conscious of his self-sufficiency does not need things; “he believes in his independence out of inclination, he embraces it with feeling.  His belief in himself is direct.” (15)

Dogmatism has to explain presentation, and it has to do this by making the thing-in-itself intelligible.   It cannot do this by denying what our immediate consciousness tells us about presentation: “The intellect as such observes itself; and this self-observation is directed immediately upon its every feature.” (17)  Intelligence is this immediate unity of being and seeing.  When I think of Batman, I create the determinations within myself; when I think of something real, the determinations are present without my aid.  The two are unified by observation: I observe the creation of Batman and the being of the table.  Both are only in me because I observe them; again, seeing and being are united.

A thing has many qualities, but for whom?  The answer cannot be for itself, because it needs to be attached to that which sees.  But the intellect is already for itself; it needs nothing subjoined to it. By being posited as intellect, that for which it exists—an observer—is already posited with it.  In the intellect, there is a “double series, of being and seeing, of the real and the ideal; and its essence consists in the inseparability of the two (it is synthetic); while the thing has only a single series, that of the real (a mere being posited).” (17)

Dogmatism tries to explain all this by the principle of causality – the intellect has to be an effect and the second member in the series.  However,

[T]he principle of causality holds of a single real series, not of a double one.  The power of the cause is transferred to something else that lies outside it, opposed to it, and creates a being therein and nothing more; a being for a possible intellect outside it and not for the being itself. (17-18)

The dogmatist cannot explain the passage from being to presentation.  They can explain the ground of a being, but not of presentation, which is the opposite of being.  They take a leap.  They try to hide this leap in a variety of ways.  Since consistent dogmatism always becomes a materialism, they try to deny that the soul is really a thing, that it is only a product, an interaction of things.  However, “this means there arises something in the things only, and never anything apart from them, unless an intellect, which observes things, is supplied in thought.”  Dogmatists try to use analogies like harmony, the concord of several instruments, but this makes their irrationality obvious: the concord and the instruments are not the harmony; they are only in the mind of a listener who unifies the manifold in himself.  Without a listener, they are nothing.

The dogmatist could assume the soul is a thing-in-itself as a solution for the problem; the things could act upon the soul and produce thought.  The acting thing is supposed to be able to produce presentations, like God in Berkeley.  But this explains nothing – “we understand only mechanical action, and it is absolutely impossible for us to think of any other; the above proposal, therefore, consists of mere words without any sense.” (19)  The idea that the soul is such that actions upon it become presentations makes no sense.  Action is only mechanical, and presentation never comes about through mechanism. 

Transcendental, Critical Idealism

Idealism explains the determinations of consciousness on the basis of the activity of the intellect.  The intellect is absolute and always active, never passive.  It cannot be passive because it is postulated to be first and highest, and nothing precedes it which could make it passive.  However, the obvious comparison with Spinoza seems to end there:

“For the same reason, it also has no being proper, no subsistence, for this is the result of an interaction and there is nothing either present or assumed with which the intellect could be set to interact.  The intellect, for idealism, is an act, and absolutely nothing more; we should not even call it an active something, for this expression refers to something subsistence in which activity inheres.” (21)

We need to be able to deduce specific presentations out of the intellect—a world of spatially located objects existing without our aid, which notoriously occur in consciousness.  But a determinate thing cannot be deduced from an indeterminate; the grounding principle, which is the rule of all deduction, cannot be applied here.  So the primordial action of the intellect needs to be a determinate one, and since the intellect is the highest ground of explanation, it is an action determined by the intellect and nothing outside it.

The basic presupposition of idealism is that the intellect acts, but only in a particular way.  There are necessary laws of the intellect.  This also makes the feeling of necessity intelligible—the intellect is not registering an external impression, but feels in action the limits of its own being.  So long as idealism makes this one and only one assumption, then it is critical, or transcendental, idealism.   

In transcendental idealism, all presentations are deduced from the totally lawless action of the intellect.  He just said there are necessary laws, but the principle of grounding is inapplicable here (the intellect is not grounded in anything else), so it is not contradictory.

The intellect’s laws of operation must constitute a system.  That fact that it performs in a certain way under certain conditions means that it is answering to systematic generalities.  The intellect gives itself laws in the course of its action, and this legislation occurs through a higher necessary action, or presentation.  For example, the law of causality is not a primordial law, but only one way of connecting the manifold.

Critical idealism can now proceed in two different ways.  On one hand, it can deduce the system of necessary modes of presentation, and with it the objective presentations created.  How can the second sort – who does not deduce the laws of the intellect from its nature – even get a material knowledge of them, that they are precisely these laws?  This second idealist can only get the laws by abstracting from the objects, and so only from experience.  This opens up this first kind of idealist to the dogmatic claim that presentations are properties of things.  On the other hand, it can think of these laws as already applied to objects, and say this is why objects are ordered and determined:

“We know well enough that the thing comes into being surely through an action in accord with these laws, that it is nothing else but the totality of these relations unified by the imagination, and that all these relations together constitute the thing; the object is surely the original synthesis of all these concepts.  Form and matter are not separate items; the totality of form is the matter, and it is through analysis that we first obtain individual forms.” (23) 

Real idealism “proceeds from a single fundamental principle of reason, which it demonstrates directly in consciousness.” (25)  If you think about a concept freely, you have to do so in a certain way.  We have to distinguish between two things.  First, the mode of thinking, which is accomplished through freedom.  Second, the fact that it must be necessarily done this way, which has nothing to do with the will, but instead the nature of the intellect – “it is something necessary, which emerges, however, only in and upon the occurrence of a free action; something found, though its discovery is conditioned by freedom.” (25)

That necessity is the fundamental law of all reason, from which we can deduce all of our presentations.  Not only of the world of objects which are determined by judgment, but also of ourselves as free practical beings.

Idealism’s method is not concerned with experience, though it must match up with it.  It proceeds from a starting point in accordance with a rule.  Fichte explains this with a mathematical analogy.  Suppose you are given a certain number.  You take it to be the product of certain factors.  The task is to seek out the product of these factors.  Whether or not it agrees with the given number you will discover later.

The given number is the entirety of experience, and the factors are the principle demonstrated in consciousness and the laws of thought.  The multiplication is the activity of philosophizing.  Those who insist that we pay attention to experience are recommending that you change the factors and multiply falsely, so that the numbers you get definitely match.

The final results of idealism, which are the consequences of reasoning, are the a priori in the human mind.  So the extent that they are where reasoning and experience agree, they are a posteriori.  For a completed idealism, the a priori and the a posteriori are unitary, distinguished only by mode of approach.  Philosophy anticipates the entirely of experience and thinks it as necessary.

The course of idealism runs from something that occurs in consciousness to the entirety of experience.  The distance between these two things is philosophy’s proper field, and does not lay within experience.  This distance is covered by free but law-governed thought.

Both the necessity and freedom of presentations is present in consciousness, and that freedom is either lawful or capricious.  “The whole is given to it from the standpoint of necessary consciousness; it discovers it, just as it discovers itself.  The series created by the unification of this whole emerges only through freedom” (28)


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