The Science of Knowledge: Second Introduction

This is the reading for August 15’s meeting.  You can download a copy here.

Two important announcements:

  1. The club is moving to an RSVP system on  A link to the club’s Meetup site is in the previous entry. 
  2. The location is changing.  We will now be meeting at Meeple, a study cafe beside Sinchon station.  Directions are here or on the Meetup site.

On with the show. . .

In the first introduction, Fichte gave a broad overview of his transcendental idealism.  We can divide our thoughts about the world—which he calls presentations—into two categories.  First, there are the free presentations that depend wholly on our imaginations, like when we think of a fictional character.  Second, there are necessary presentations that do not depend on our imagination; these are the thoughts of things that really exist outside us.  He calls them necessary because these presentations are constrained by the world outside us; I am constrained against saying the Earth is flat (so basically, anything you might want to call an “objective fact” is a necessary presentation).  The complete set, or system, of necessary facts is what Fichte calls experience.

He thinks of himself as following in Kant’s footsteps, so he says there are only two possible explanations for where the feeling of necessity comes from: from the intellect, or from the objects themselves.  The first option is idealism: the mind structures experience on its own initiative, out of its own freedom.  The second option is dogmatism, in which experience is structured by the world (dogmatism is basically synonymous with realism).  He favours idealism, partly because an object abstracted from our experience of it makes no sense, and partly because dogmatism simply cannot explain freedom or even thought.  Since experience is generated by the intellect, the intellect is the primary object of idealism.

This second introduction is about intellectual intuition, the act by which the self is both known and created.  Intellectual intuition accompanies all of our experiences of the world, and he argues it is the basis of all experience.

The Two Series of Mental Acts

Fichte begins by contrasting his work with other (unnamed) “system makers”.  He describes them as beginning with a concept, without caring where it came from, and then haphazardly combining it with other concepts to produce a heavily air quoted “philosophy”.  They build artifacts, lifeless objects.  A dead mass of concepts is fashioned in order to match an arbitrary set of preconceived concepts. Fichte says that The Science of Knowledge (SoK) is different.  Its object is not a lifeless concept; it produces insights from and through itself, and the philosopher only contemplates it.  The goal of this observation is to grasp its object—the intellect—as an “inner, self-active force”, and as a unity.

In the SoK, there are two sequences of mental acts: those of the self, which the philosopher observes, and that of the observations themselves.  In other words, the book is concerned with both thoughts and thoughts about thoughts.  He says other philosophies only concern themselves with the second series, the observations.

Realism and Idealism

In a footnote, he says it is also a confusion to think there can be a consistent realism alongside and extraneous to idealism.  We all act like realists and all fall into the assumption that there are objects which exist independently of us—but that realism is itself rooted in idealism.  The philosopher says, “Everything that exists for the self, exists through the self” but the self says something exists outside me which is not there by my own doing.  Statements about how things exist for the self is speculation, while statements about what exists is everyday experience and empirical science.  The second is only intelligible on the basis of the first.  We are constrained to realism by our own natures.  But the first only exists to make the second intelligible: “Idealism can never be a mode of thought, it is merely a speculative point of view.” (Ft 1, p 31)

Explaining The Experience of Existents

There is where the meat of the introduction begins.  Since he is arguing for an idealism in which all objects the result of a subjective act, he needs to explain why we attribute objective validity to what is actually subjective, or “since objective validity is describe as existence: How do we come to believe in an existent?” (31)  This question appears when we look at consciousness:

[F]rom observing that the immediate object of consciousness is in fact only consciousness itself, it can refer to no other existence than an existence for us; and it would be perfectly absurd to assimilate it to the question as to an existence unrelated to consciousness. (31)

In other words, the closest-to-hand object of consciousness is consciousness itself; the first and most obvious thing we think about is thinking itself.  It is the first thing–or existent—that appears to us.

Explaining how “an existent is possible for us” requires us to abstract away from experience; to explain how a table can appear for us, we cannot begin by talking about the table.  Explaining experience “inquires as to the ground of the predicate of existence in general, imputed or withheld, as the case may be; but the ground is always external to the grounded, that is, it is opposed to the latter.” (32)  So we need to get outside experience, which means abstracting away from it. To say that abstraction is impossible is to say that asking about the ground of reason is not a demand of reason, but deciding on whether or not this is possible is a matter of inclination, not objective reason.

Intellectual Intuition

This is Fichte’s basic contention:

Though the self may exist only for itself, there necessarily arises for it at once an existence external to it, the ground of the latter lies in the former, and is conditioned thereby; self-consciousness and consciousness of something that is to be—not ourselves,—and necessarily connected; but the first is to be regarded as the conditioning factor, and the second as the conditioned. (33)

In other words, the self exists because it observes itself, and something outside of it necessarily appears.  The two are connected, but the self comes first and conditions the outside object.

Fichte explains this by asking the reader to do a simple thought experiment: just think about yourself, and notice that in order to do so, you have to turn yourself into an object of thought.  Suddenly, we have two things: the self that is thinking, and the self that is thought about.  The self that is thought about is the first thing that arises outside of the self that thinks.

The self [as object] has nothing beyond the reversion into itself; everything else pertains to the relation thereto of the philosopher, for whom the entire system of experience is already given as a mere fact, which is to be brought into being before his eyes by the self, so that he may come to know the manner of its genesis. (34)

When you think of your self, you are not fashioning a concept of your self, that is, observing the self is not a conceiving, because it only becomes a concept through contrast with a not-self.  Rather, it is an intuition.  Remember that Fichte considers this a Kantian project; for Kant, a concept is the set of logical conditions for seeing an object as an object (e.g. a table as a table), while an intuition is what presents an object to our mind in the first place.  In colloquial terms, stripped of any technical significance, a concept is an idea, while an intuition is a direct experience.  He goes on to explain:

It is also, accordingly, no consciousness, not even a consciousness of self; and simple because no consciousness comes about through this mere act, we may indeed infer further to another act, whereby a not-self arises for us. . . . By the act described, the self is merely endowed with the possibility of self-consciousness, and therewith of all other consciousness; but no true consciousness comes into being as yet. (35)

Consciousness requires ideas, or concepts, of objects; this initial intution of the self is therefore not consciousness.  Consciousness requires a contrast with something that is not the self.  What this act of thinking about the self does is show the condition of the possibility of self-consciousness, and therefore all other kinds of consciousness.

The philosopher—i.e. the person attempting to see the whole—intuits the act of the self freely.  One must choose to do it.  If this is all a choice, how is it not just a fancy of the brain?  We need to ensure the objectivity of this subjective act.  It must be shown that this free thought, occurring at an empirical point in time, in a series of presentations, corresponds to a necessary thought whereby he and all his presentations come to exist in the first place.

The act is subjective.  That I exist for myself is a fact.  But that fact, that I exist for myself, only comes about by acting:

The act in question is simply the concept of the self, and the concept of the self is the concept of the act; both are exactly the same; and by means of this concept nothing else is thought, nor can be thought, save what we have referred to.  It is so, because I make it so.  The philosopher merely makes clear to himself what he actually thinks, and always has thought, when he thinks of himself; that he thinks of himself is, however, an immediate fact of consciousness for him. — The query about objectivity is based on the strange assumption that the self is something over and above its own thought of itself, and that this thought is underlaid by something else—Heaven knows what!—apart from the thought itself, and whose true nature is a matter of concern. (36)

All you need to be able to do is think of yourself in a self-affecting action.  It is the opposite from thinking about something outside yourself, because here, thinker and thought are the same.  And this is the only way for the thought of yourself to appear in you; the word “I” designates nothing other than the act of thinking of the self.  For transcendental idealism, the self-reverting act has to precede and condition all other acts of consciousness.

This act of intuiting one’s self is intellectual intuition.  “It is the immediate consciousness that I act, and what I enact: it is that whereby I know something because I do it.” (38)  We cannot prove from concepts that it exists, or get it from them.  You have to discover it for yourself.

That intellectual intuition is attached to all our acts: “I cannot take a step, move hand or foot, without an intellectual intuition of my self-consciousness in these acts; only so do I know that I do it…” and distinguish it from the acts of things outside me.  But the intuition never occurs in isolation, just like sensory intuition is never isolated; both must be brought under concepts.  And intellectual intuition is always conjoined with an intuition of sense: you can’t have an action within yourself without an object upon which you act.

Because the intellectual and sensory intuitions are tied together, there is no isolated, immediate consciousness of intellectual intuition.  We can get an isolated presentation of the self by inference from the obvious facts of consciousness: think of something, present it to yourself as a fact.  From the perspective of sensory consciousness, it is just a sequence of presentations, and that is all I would be conscious of.  Without intellectual intuition, I could not tie them into a whole.  It would make me a passive viewer.  

The dogmatist can still call all this a delusion.  Fichte’s argument against this will eventually be the exhibition of the moral law within us:

[W]herein the self is presented as a thing sublime beyond all original modifications affected by the law; [it] is credited with an absolute activity founded only in itself and nothing else whatever, and is thus characterized as an absolute agency. (40-41)

He wants to make it clear that “Intellectual intuition is the only firm standpoint for all philosophy.” (41) From that, we can explain everything in consciousness, and only from there.  Without self-consciousness, there is no consciousness, and self consciousness is possible because “I am simply active.”  We can’t go any further than that, and we may not:

[T]ranscendental idealism thus appears at the same time as the only dutiful mode of thought in philosophy, as that mode wherein speculation and the moral law are most intimately united.  I ought in my thinking to set out from the pure self, and to think of the latter as absolutely self-active: not as determined by things, but as determining them. (41)

The concept of action is what unites the intellectual and the sensible.

A Brief Note on His Relation to Kant

The remainder of the second introduction is a defence of his claim to be continuing Kant’s project.  As noted last week, the proper interpretation of The Critique of Pure Reason (CPR) was a matter of raging controversy.  Fichte says that all he has said, so far, “is perfectly in accordance with the teaching of Kant, and is nothing other than Kantianism properly understood.” (43)  It is important that this be clear, because of a rumour that Kant himself said that The Science of Knowledge has nothing to do with his work, but Fichte questions whether Kant really said this, and if he did, whether he really read the SoK closely enough.  Fichte thinks Kant probably just relied on a hatchet job of a secondary source.

It is undeniable that Kant hated any idea of intellectual intuition, Fichte points out that the same word might mean two different things in the same philosophy.  In Kantian terms:

[A]ll intuition is directed to existence of some kind (a posited or permanent); intellectual intuition would thus be the immediate consciousness of a nonsensuous entity; the immediate consciousness of the thing-in-itself, and that by way of pure thought; hence a creation of the thing-in-itself by means of the concept . . . (45)

Kant needed to ditch intellectual intuition in order to get rid of the thing-in-itself, but the SoK got rid of it by other means: by saying it is a stupid idea:  “[A]ll existence, for us, is necessarily sensory in character, for we first derive the entire concept of existence from the form of sensibility, and are thus completely protected against the claim to any connection with the thing-in-itself.” (45)

In the SoK, intellectual intuition does not refer to existence but to action, and this does not appear in Kant, except maybe as pure apperception.  However, Kant should have mentioned intellectual intuition, when he spoke of the categorical imperative.  That was his opportunity to really tie together the theoretical side of philosophy (as in the first Critique) and the practical side (as in the second Critique).

Fichte quotes a friend’s commentary on the CPR, explaining that we cannot confuse the active self-consciousness that every self has with the faculty of intuition.  Intuition gives an immediate presentation of the object, but pure self-consciousness is not a presentation – rather, it is what makes presentations presentations.  Fichte identifies the unity of apperception with intellectual intuition, and for Fichte, that is enough to show there is no strong contradiction between his work and Kant’s.


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