The Science of Knowledge: Part One

This is the reading for August 29’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. We are returning to Cafe Boiling Pot.  Directions are here or on the Meetup site.

In the Second Introduction, Fichte described the idea of intellectual intuition, the manner in which the absolute self is both known (via abstraction) and created (via an act).  The book proper begins with a fuller, more technical description of exactly what intellectual intuition entails.  There are three principles introduced here.  The first is is the positing of the I as I, and this is absolute and unconditioned; it is the ground of all judgments and the other two principles.  The second principle is the act of opposition: saying that A does not equal ~A.  It is “conditioned as to content” because its content is determined by what A is.  The third principle is the synthesis of the first two; the contradiction is resolved by saying that self and not-self partially negate each other and are unified in a higher concept.

In short: the first principle is the self as thesis, the second principle is the not-self as antithesis, and the third principle is the combination of the two in a synthesis.

  • 1. First, Absolutely Unconditioned Principle

The task is to find the primordial, unconditioned first principle of all human knowledge.  The catch is that any such absolutely primary principle can neither be proven nor defined, because both proof and definition would attach predicates to it and thus condition it.  Fichte wants to find that act which cannot and does not appear as an empirical state of consciousness, but rather lies at the basis of all consciousness.   

His method will be to reflect on what a first glance takes the act to be, and then abstract away everything that does not belong to it.  Now, not even abstraction can make the act a fact of consciousness, but it can help us recognize this act is the basis of all consciousness.  There is an inevitable bit of circular logic here.  The common laws of logic are what we first use to recognize the necessity of the act; only later will we see they are derived from the act.

He begins with the proposition A = A.  Now, A = A does not say A is the case; A might not exist. It says that if A exists, then it is equal to A.  In claiming that A = A is certain, we establish there is a necessary connection between if and then, and it is posited absolutely.  He calls that necessary connection X.

So now we have two questions: what is that X, and under what conditions does A actually exist?  X is at least in the self, and posited by the self, because it is the self which judges.  As for A, whether and how A is posited we do not know, but since X is a connection between an unknown positing of A and an absolute assertion of that A, then at least so far as the connection is posited, A is in the self and posited by the self, just like X.  X is only possible in relation to a self, so A must also be in the self, insofar as X is related to it.

X is related to A as subject and as predicate, because both subject and predicate are united by the self.  So both, so far as they are posited, are posited in the self.  When subject A is posited, the predicate is posited absolutely, so we can say: “if A is posited in the self, it is thereby posited, or, it thereby is.” (95)

The self asserts, by means of X, that A exists absolutely for the self, and so there is something permanently uniform and unified—so the X can also be expressed as I = I, or I am I.  The expression I am I is a fact, despite being the expression of an Act.  X is posited absolutely; that is a fact of consciousness.  But now X is equivalent to I am I, and this is also asserted absolutely.

But I am I means something different from A is A.  A = A only has content under a certain condition: the subject A has to be posited.  But I am I is unconditionally and absolutely valid both form and content.  The I is posited not conditionally but absolutely, with the predicate of equivalence to itself, so it is really posited, and can also be simply stated I am.

So far, I am has only been founded on a fact and only has factual validity.  If A = A is to be certain, then I am must also be certain.  It is a matter of empirical consciousness that we have to think of X as certain, and also the I am upon which it is founded.  Hence, it is the ground of explanation of all facts of empirical consciousness—prior to all postulation in the self, the self is posited.  Ultimately, he will say that all facts are grounded in X.

“The self posits itself, and by virtue of this mere self-assertion it exists; and conversely, the self exists and posits its own existence by virtue of merely existing.” (97)  It is both the agent and the product of action; I am expresses the primary act of the SoK.  What is posited absolutely is the I as subject, while the predicate is that which exists.  Hence, we can say that the self exists because it has posited itself.   Further, in I am I, the subject and predicate are equivalent; “Hence one can also reverse the above proposition and say: the self posits itself simply because it exists.  It posits itself by merely existing and exists by merely being posited.” (98)

We need to make clear what we mean by I, and this will lead us to an account of the self as absolute subject:  

That whose being or essence consists simply in the fact that it posits itself as existing, is the self as absolute subject.  As it posits itself, so it is; and as it is, so it posits itself; and hence the self is absolute and necessary for the self.  What does not exist for itself is not a self.” (98)

He formulates the act this way: “I am absolutely, i.e., I am absolutely BECAUSE I am; and am absolutely WHAT I am; both FOR THE SELF.” (122/99)  For this account to be the forefront of the SoK, it will have to be stated as “The self begins by an absolute positing of its own existence.” (122/99)

We started with A = A, and it turned out that this was based on “I am”.  If we abstract from “I am” the specific content of the self, we are left with the form only—the form of an inference from being posited to being, we then get A = A as the basic proposition of logic.

It is demonstrated, because the self that has posited A is identical with that in which A has been posited.  It is determined, in that everything that exists does so only insofar as it is posited in the self, and apart from the self there is nothing.  No possible A can be anything other than something posited in the self.  By further abstracting from the activity of judging, and looking only at the general mode of action of the human mind, we get the category of reality: “Everything to which the proposition ‘A = A’ is applicable, has reality, insofar as that proposition is applicable to it.” (123/100)  Kant and Descartes both gestured in this direction, but we would have to change “I think, therefore I am” to “I am because I think.” Spinoza, on the other hand, disagrees.  He does not deny the unity of empirical consciousness, but he rejects pure consciousness.  The self does not exist because it exists; rather, it exists because something else exists (I include this note on Spinoza because Fichte thinks Spinozism is the only alternative to idealism, as it is most coherent form of dogmatism).

  • 2 – Second Principle, Conditioned as to Content

Just as A = A is readily accepted, the statement that A is not equal to ~A will also be accepted. If we had to prove it, we could only do so on the basis of A = A, but no such proof is possible.  If we assume that ~A = ~A (and hence that ~A is identical with a Y posited in the self), this amounts to: “if the opposite of A is posited, then it is posited”, and we’d be asserting the same connection X as before, and it would not be derived or proved from A = A.  Hence, he says, “~A is posited absolutely, as such, just because it is posited.” (126/103)

~A not being equal to A is one of the facts of empirical consciousness, so there is an opposition included among the acts of the self, and this opposition, with regards to its mere form, is absolutely possible based on no higher ground.

The logical form of the proposition ~A = ~A presupposes the identity of the subject (the presenting self) and the predicate (the self presented as presenting).  Even the possibility of counter positing the self presupposes the self, and the procedure of the self in acting is: A (absolutely posited) = A (the object of reflection).  By an absolute act the A as objection of reflection is opposed to ~A, and ~A is judged to also be opposed to the absolutely posited A, since both A’s are the same, a likeness based on the identity of the positing and the reflecting self.   Opposition in general is posited absolutely by the self.

There are two aspects in ~A: its form and its matter.  The form determines that it is an opposite of some X.  When opposed to a specific A, it has matter; it is ~ some specific thing.  The form of ~A is determined by the act.  It is an opposite because it is the product of an opposition.  The matter is governed by A; it is not what A is.

At first, only the self is posited, and it alone is asserted absolutely.  So there can only be an absolute opposition to the self.  That which is opposed to the self is the not-self.  The concept of the not-self is often taken to be a merely general concept, just abstraction.  But no!  To present anything at all, it has to be opposed to the presenting self.  Within the object of presentation, there has to be an X of some sort where it shows itself as something presented and not as that which presents.  He concludes the argument by saying,

“But that everything, wherein this X may be, is not that which presents, but an item to be presented, is something that no object can teach me; for merely in order to set up something as an object, I have to know this already; hence it must lie initially in myself, the presenter, in advance of any possible experience.” (128/105)

  • 3 – Third Principle, Conditioned as to Form

This third section begins by pointing out a contradiction.  What must be counterposited is the not-self. Insofar as the not-self is posited, the self is not posited, for the not-self nullifies the self. The not-self is posited in the self, because all counterpositing presupposes the self; “Thus the self is not posited in the self, insofar as the not-self is posited therein.” However, “the not-self can be posited only insofar as a self is posited in the self (in the identical consciousness), to which it (the not-self) can be opposed.” (129/106)  The not-self is posited in this identical consciousness.  So insofar as the not-self is posited in this consciousness, the self must also be posited.

The two conclusions are opposed to each other; they both arise out the second principle, so it nullifies itself.  But it only nullifies itself insofar as the posited is annulled by the counterposited, to the extent that it is valid.  It is supposed to have nullified itself, so it has no validity.  Thus it does not nullify itself.  The second principle nullifies itself.  The first principle also nullifies itself.  If I = I, everything that is posited is posited in the self.  But the second principle is supposed to be posited in the self, and not posited within. So: I does not = I, but rather self = not self, and not-self = self.

All these conclusions must be correct, but according to them, the identity of consciousness—which is supposed to be the foundation of our knowledge—is eliminated.  So now we get our real task: to find an X, by which all of these conclusions can be correct, without doing away with the identity of consciousness.

The opposites to be unified lie in the self as consciousness.  So the X must also lie in consciousness.  Further, both self and not-self are products of original acts of consciousness.  But according to our previous argument, the act of counterpositing that results in the not-self is impossible without an X.  So X must itself be a product of an act of the original self.  Hence, there must be an act of the human mind = Y, whose product is X.

The form of this act is determined by the task to find an X.  The self and the not-self need to be unified, to be posited together, without mutual elimination. How can A and ~A, being and non-being, reality and negation, be brought together without mutual elimination and destruction? In short, through their mutual limitation of one another.  The act Y is a limiting of each opposite by the other, and the X will denote the resulting limits.

To limit something is to abolish its reality, not in whole but in part.  So part from reality and negation, a limit also involves a divisibility—the capacity for a quantity, but not a quantity in particular.  This idea is the required X, and through act Y, both the self and the not-self are posited as divisible.

Both are divisible, because the act Y cannot follow the act of counterpositing, because mere opposition alone destroys itself.  But the Y cannot precede it either, because it is only undertaken to make opposition possible, and divisibility is nothing without something to divide.  So, it occurs immediately, within and alongside opposition; both are the same, and only distinguished in reflection.

So does the act actually unite all the opposites in question? The first conclusion is that the “self is not posited in the self  to the extent, i.e., with that measure of reality, wherewith the not-self is posited.”  A measure of reality, the not-self, is abolished within the self.    They are both something.  The absolute self of the first principle is not something; it can have no predicate.  It is just what is, and can be explained no further.

But now, consciousness contains the whole of reality; it is something.  The not-self is what the self is not, and vice versa. The self is to be equated with, and yet opposed to, itself.  With regard to consciousness, it is equal to itself, for consciousness is one; but in this consciousness, the absolute self is posited as indivisible, whereas the self which is opposed to the not-self is divisible.  So, insofar as there is a not-self opposed to it, the self is itself in opposition to the absolute self; “And so all these oppositions are thus united, without detriment to the unity of consciousness; and this, in effect, is proof that the concept we proposed was the correct one.” (132/109)

So far, we have three principles.  One that is absolutely unconditioned, one conditioned as to form, and one conditioned as to content. These last two follow from the first, and exhaust its resources.  The basic formula is: “In the self I opposed a divisible not-self to the divisible self”. (133/110) So the self and the not-self have been unified through the concept of divisibility.

If we abstract away from the content of the self and the not-self, leaving only the form of the union of opposites through divisibility, we get the logical proposition Fichte will call the grounding principle: A in part = ~A, and vice versa.  Every opposite is like its opponent in one way: they share the X.  The X is the ground in two ways: conjunction, which is to liken opposites, and distinction, which is to distinguish opposites. This logical proposition is both demonstrated and determined.

The demonstration points out that very counterposited ~A is posited counter to an A, and this A is posited.  By positing ~A, A is both annulled and not annulled.  So it is annulled only in part; in place of the X in A, which is not annulled, we posit in ~A, not ~X, but X itself: so A = ~A in respect of X.  This was our first point.

It is determined because everything equated (= A = B) is equal to itself.  B is posited equal to A, and thus B is not posited through A; for if it was posited thereby, it would = A and not = B.  Meaning, there would be only one positing, not two.  But if B is not posited through the positing of A, to that extent it = ~A, and by the equation of the two we posit neither A nor B, but an X of some sort.

Opposites are equal in only one particular:  

“For if they were opposed in many particulars, i.e. if there were opposing characteristics in the opposites themselves, one of the two would belong to that wherein the equals are alike, and so they would not be opposed; and vice versa.  Every warranted judgment, therefore, has but one ground of conjunction and one of disjunction.  If it has more, it is not one judgment but many.” (134/111)

The logical grounding principle is determined by that principle: its validity is restricted, it holds only for a part of our knowledge.  Different things can only be compared or contrasted because they have some general connection.  This doesn’t mean that everything thought must absolutely be equal to another and in opposition to a third.  A judgment about a thing that nothing can be equated or opposed to is not subject to the grounding principle; it is not grounded, but is itself the ground of all possible judgments.  This is the absolute self.

The act of looking for how things are opposed is the antithetical procedure, commonly described as analytic (Fichte changes the term because analytic implies getting everything out of a concept).  The opposite finds how they are alike, the synthetic.

The logical rules governing all antithesis and synthesis are derived from the third principle, the principle of grounding.  In explaining that principle, we saw that the primordial act it expresses, that of combining opposites in a third thing, was impossible without the act of counterpositing, and that it was also impossible without the act of combination, so that they are totally united, and can only be distinguished in reflection.  From there it follows that the logical procedures based on that primary act are special, more precise determination of the same, and are impossible without each other.  There can be no antithesis without an antithesis, because antithesis is finding opposition between things that are alike, but they would not be alike without a first act of synthesis.

Kant’s question about how a priori synthetic judgments are possible is now answered.  In the third principle we have established a synthesis between two opposites, self and not-self, by postulating them each to be divisible.  All other syntheses must be rooted in this.

But no synthesis is possible without an antithesis, from which we abstract, and only looked at the object. Now that the self and not-self have been united, we have to find the opposing characteristics that remain, which must be united in a new conjunction, which must then be united in the highest conjunction of all, until we find opposites that cannot be combined, and then we move into the practical part.

Just like there can be no antithesis without synthesis, there can be neither without a thesis, which is an absolute positing, whereby an A (the self) is not equated or opposed to anything else.  This is where the unity of the system comes from: “the opposites must be united, so long as opposition remains, until absolute united is effected; a thing, indeed—as will appear in due course—which could be brought about only by a completed approximation to infinity, which in itself is impossible.” (136/113)  The necessity of opposing and uniting rests on the third principle, which is the necessity of combination in general, on the first, highest, unconditional principle.

Just as there are antithetic and synthetic judgments, there should also be thetic judgments, which are in some way oppoed to them. The propriety of the former types presupposes a double ground: first of conjunction, and second of distinction, both of which would have to be exhibited if a judgment could be sound.  For example, “a bird is an animal.”  The ground of conjunction is the concept of an animal, while the grounds of distinction are the specific differences between various kinds of animals.

But a thetic judgment is one in which something is asserted, not to be like or opposed to anything else, but just to be identical with itself, thus it does not presuppose a ground of conjunction or disjunction at all.  The most basic thetic judgment is “I am”, in which nothing is affirmed of the self, and the place of the predicate is left open indefinitely.  All judgments, that is, all statements subsumed under the positing of the absolute self, are thetic.

Another thetic judgment is man is free.  This judgment is on one hand positive: man belongs to the class of free beings).  There would need to be a conjunction between man and free beings, which as the ground of freedom, would be contained in the concept of free beings generally, and of man in particular, but we cannot point to a class of free beings.

On the other hand, it could be read as negative: man is contrasted to all beings that are subject to the laws of natural necessity, but then we would have to give the ground of distinction between necessary and unnecessary, and it would have to be shown that the former is not contained in the concept of man, while it is in that of the contrasted beings; “But man, insofar as the predicate of freedom is applicable to him, that is, insofar as he is an absolute and not a presented or presentable subject, has nothing whatever in common in natural beings, and hence is not contrasted to them either.” (138/115)

Despite all that, the logical form of the judgment requires that both concepts should be united, but they cannot be combined in any concept, but only in the Idea of a self whose consciousness is determined by nothing outside itself, it being rather its own consciousness which determines everything outside it.  But this Idea is unthinkable, because it contains a contradiction.  But it is imposed on us as our highest practical goal.  Man must approximate to a freedom he can never attain. No ground can be given for thetic judgments, but the procedure of the human mind in such judgments is the self’s own absolute positing of itself.

Now he will compare thetic with antithetical and synthetic judgments.  All the opposites in any concept which articulates their ground of distinction occur in a higher—more general—concept, known as the generic concept.  A synthesis is presupposed in which both contain, and are contained in, each other.  For example, gold and silver are alike in the concept of metal, which does not contain their colours. Hence, the logical rule of definition; it has to furnish the generic concept, which contains the ground of conjunction, and the specific difference, which contains the ground of distinction.  “As against this,” all comparisons are opposed in respect of a lower concept.  Every synthesis presupposes a prior antithesis.  For example, in the concept of body we abstract from differences of colour, weight, taste, smell, etc, and so a body is that which occupies space.

With the absolutely posited, the self, things are different.  In the act of opposing a not-self to it, the not-self is equated to it, but not in a higher concept (which would presuppose both contained in it), but rather in a lower one.  The self is degraded into a lower concept, that of divisibility, so that it can be made equal to the not-self and opposed to it.

This is the essence of critical philosophy: that an absolute self is postulated as wholly unconditional and incapable of determination by any higher thing.  A philosophy is dogmatic if it equates or opposes anything to the self as such, and does so by the concept of the thing which includes both self and not-self.  “In the critical system, a thing is what is posited in the self; in the dogmatic, it is that wherein the self is itself posited: critical philosophy is thus immanent, since it posits everything in the self; dogmatism is transcendent, since it goes on beyond the self.  So far as dogmatism can be consistent, Spinozism is its most logical outcome.” (140/117)


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