Terry Pinkard on Normativity in Fichte

This was the reading for October 2nd’s meeting.

In Terry Pinkard’s German Philosophy 1760-1860: The Legacy of Idealism, he initially situates Fichte’s as a response to a specific issue in Kant: the paradox that we are only subject to those norms for which we can regard ourselves as the author.  This paradox arises arises out of two elements in Kant.  First, there is the subject/object dichotomy: we encounter ourselves as subjects making judgments about objects (i.e. substances interacting in space and time) and those judgments, if true, answer to the objects.  Second, there is the Kantian turn away from the question of what hold does the world have on us? to the question of what reasons do we impose on ourselves?

As we have seen, Fichte argued that the distinction between subject and object was itself subjectively established.  In Pinkard’s terms, it is a normative distinction that subjects themselves institute.  In order to explain this insight, Fichte wove together a standard rationalist argument—that truth consists in the unity of thought and object—with the Kantian account of autonomy.

The rationalist insight can be cashed out as saying that the only possible account of justification involved the mind as capable of grasping a priori features of reality through intellectual intuition; we use intuition to grasp a truth to justify another claim.   While our incomplete reading of the Science of Knowledge (SoK) appears to limit intellectual intuition to the intuition of the absolute I, Fichte apparently offered other examples of intuited objects, such as geometry: intellectual intuition tells us how to supply the missing side of a triangle.  Pinkard gives the non-Fichtean example that no object can be both green and red all over.

Fichte repeatedly said that a basic first principle can only be given by intuition.  No further support could be possible. In A Crystal Clear Report to the General Public Concerning the Actual Essence of the Newest Philosophy: An Attempt to Force the Reader to Understand, he said that a first principle can only appear this way:

“[I]n a fortunate flash of insight, which, however, when, found, neither requires nor is capable of further proof, but makes itself immediately clear”, and “is incapable of being proven.  It is immediately evident”, and is the “absolute intuition of reason through itself.” (122-123)

In Pinkard’s interpretation of Fichte’s intellectual intuition, we get an exactly right view of the things in themselves.  However, he points out that this is a controversial interpretation: “The more traditional reading sees Fichte as denying that there are things-in-themselves at all. . . Wayne M. Martin [claims] that ‘the [SoK] is best construed as renouncing existential claims (whether positive or negative) about things-in-themselves.’” (Ft. 9, 111)  Pinkard believes this downplays the Platonic aspects of Fichte’s thought—it is a shame he does not expand on this, because it is difficult to see where Pinkard finds this Platonism.

While the results of an intuition are certain, we can be mistaken about whether or not we are actually have an intuition.  It also does not mean that we cannot give reason for the truth of an intuition, only that we do not need to.  Some critics figured these intuitions were mysterious, but Fichte would reply they are clear an obvious—like intuiting that a triangle has a particular third side. He thinks they are no more mysterious than standard perceptual judgments.

The necessity of these intuitions, and their fallibility, lead to a problem: was there something so basic that other intuitions would rest on it?  This is Fichte’s version of Kant’s “fact of reason”.  For Kant, a fact of reason had two sides.  First, we must be aware of such facts simply by virtue of being free, rational agents, and without it, we would not be agents at all.  Second, a fact of reason could not be derived from any more fundamental metaphysical principle.  In short, a fact of reason is a brute fact that goes along with being a rational being.

The normal rationalist answer was to find an entity to function as this fact of reason, like Plato’s forms or God; but Kant got rid of that stuff.  Fichte presses the point that only our own spontaneity can do this job.   At first, Fichte formulated it as “I = I” and argued this was even more basic than A = A.  Fichte took A = A to be a conditional: if A is posited, then A is posited.  A statement of identity is what we now call an inferential license, something that normatively entitles an agent to a particular inference.

To hunt for inferential licenses in the physical world would be an instance of dogmatism.  From the physical standpoint, A = A just causes sound waves through the air; only from the normative standpoint does it mean anything.  Normativity must be instituted and not discovered; these licenses cannot be facts in any ordinary sense.

Identity statements, like A = A, derive their necessity from a prior licence (if A, then A).  More basic than the licence itself is the issuing of the licence.  Licenses could only be issued not from a fact but an act; since natural things cannot act in a normative way, “the subject that institutes the license must itself be such an ‘act,’ indeed, an act that somehow institutes the license and also simultaneously authorizes itself to institute such licenses.” (113-114)

The self is a purely normative status; it has no existence outside of the act of positing.  There is nothing beneath the self; there may be bodies with brains, but these have no normative status until the I attributes this status.

The criteria for what the I posits can only be that which is necessary to maintain a normative conception of ourselves.  To adopt any kind of normative stance is to commit oneself to the possibility of negation, of asserting not-A.  Since normativity involves doing something correctly or incorrectly, there must be the possibility of denying or affirming A:

Negation, like normativity in general, is not a part of the natural world but is the result of subjects instituting certain normative statuses, and this act of negation is, like the first principle of I = I, ‘an absolutely possible and unconditional act based on no higher ground.’ (115)

Since the I first attributes/posits a normative status to itself—or more specifically, it attributes to itself that it is nothing more than a normative status—it has to be able to entertain a not-I, something whose normative status does not consist in being authorized by the “I”.  So: that means the I’s self-authorizing acts are constrained by something that is not the result of its own self-authorization; so the most basic inference to which we are entitled would be “I am by virtue of positing myself, and there is something whose normative status is not posited by me.” (115)

That is a contradiction; Fichte takes it to mean something like “All normative status is instituted by the ‘I’, and the ‘I’ must (at least possibly) institute some things as not having their normative status instituted by the ‘I’”. (115)   This is meant to be resolved by Fichte’s grounding principle, which inaugurates an infinite task of figuring out what is really necessary, i.e. those which are proper objects of intellectual intuition, and which only seem to be necessary.  This is his foundationalist project, the science of knowledge.  Everything that is necessary, including math and logic, needs to follow from more basic principles involved in assertion and negation, and they should be distinguished from contingent empirical truths.   

The activities of assertion and negation need to be derived from the necessity of a self’s coming to think of itself as having an absolute normative status that it confers on itself; “absolute” in that nothing other than itself could confer that status on itself.  Through the rest of the SoK, Fichte shows how the activity of the self—the act of normatively positioning oneself—is the activity through which the I constitutes a thinking self through the acts  of assuming a set of justificatory responsibilities with respect to the assertions one makes.

Our ordinary experience of a given world does not undermine this transcendental idealist picture.  Take a non-Fichtean example: in ordinary perception, we see a tree and no act of will can change the fact that the tree presents itself to us and causes a belief to arise in us; there is no apparent activity on our part.  The world presents a series of “checks” or “stimuli” in the form of experience whose status is not posited by us.

Fichte agrees with that, but points out that something can only function as data if we take it up as data, as having cognitive significance: no activity of the self, no check:

Fichte’s point was that everything that has been said to exist—the Greek gods, natural objects, sensations, monarchies—is to be regarded as a ‘posit’ and what we ultimately take to exist has to do with which set of inferences are necessary in order to make the most sense of those ‘checks’ found in our consciousness. (117)

Fichte almost immediately revised all this, however.  After the publication of the SoK, two misunderstandings arose.  Some took him to be saying that the I creates the empirical world by positing it, and that was an easy misunderstanding to make.  Others took him to be claiming that one could deduce from identity and negation all of the a priori concepts concerning knowledge, action, and objects of experience.

In 1799, Kant wrote a letter to Fichte accusing him of all that and of violating all the basic principles of the first critique. So Fichte added two new introductions and focused on how the subject of thinking and doing is a normative status established in the act of positing itself and its other.  He tried to make it clear that the ordinary I and the transcendental I are different.  In the ordinary sense of the I, introspection tells us what we think and feel.  But introspection does not show us the original act of positing—the act of licensing norms and authorizing oneself to performing such licensing—since this positing is presupposed by all acts of consciousness:

The intentionality of consciousness–its character of being ‘about’ anything, including itself and objects in the natural world–has its original source in a self-bootstrapping act of self-authorization, and without this act there would be no consciousness to introspect (or no act of introspection itself ). (118)

The self is not an item within experience, but presupposed by it. He stressed that his point was “I can be consciousness of any object only on the condition that I am also conscious of myself, that is, of the conscious subject.  This proposition is incontrovertible.”  Self-consciousness was capable of “returning back into itself”, and was a form of immediate consciousness, an act of intellectual intuition.  He was not arguing that we are immediately conscious of mental states, but that the necessity of this act of licensing could only be grasped in an act of intellectual intuition.

It was immediate, i.e. non-inferential, because the possibility of making any inference at all depending on this original act of constituting oneself as a subject of thought and action, and the possibility of being a subject had to be unconditioned by any natural object, since we can only be conscious of these objects on the basis of such a normative stance:  

Thus, all consciousness is conditional on our acquiring the ability to make inferences, and the ability to make inferences is conditional on our self-authorization, on a type of self-relation we freely establish to ourselves, and the necessity and nature of this self-relation… can only be grasped in an act of intellectual intuition. (119)

Later, Fichte published Foundations of Natural Law According to the Principles of the Wissenschaftslehre in which he said that self-consciousness requires the positing of other self-conscious entities; he said “a rational creature cannot posit itself as such a creature with self-consciousness without positing itself as an individual, as one among many rational creatures”.  The existence of a world independent of our self-conscious activities is a necessary posit.  Further, that world must exercise an influence and “make a solicitation (Aufforderung) to the subject that prompts him to realize himself as a free agent possessing a certain effectiveness in the world.” (12)  The word translated solicitation could also be translated as provocation.   

In the System of Ethics, Fichte said “freedom is the sensuous representation of self-activity”—or in other words, “freedom is the ability of the agent effectively to respond to his (ultimately self-authorized) normative commitments by acting in the ways required by those commitments.” (120) He said this can happen only if another free agent performs that solicitation.  The relation between cognition and practice is circular. That is, the nature of our normative commitments can only be cashed out insofar as acknowledgment of those commitments results in a performance—e.g. making an assertion in an epistemic case, or act in the world in a practical case—and that characterizing something as a performance requires we have a prior understanding that would entitle us to characterize something as being that kind of performance.

Another way to describe the circle is to say that we cannot attribute a commitment/belief to somebody except on the basis of a performance (like an assertion) that would make it appropriate to attribute that commitment, but we can’t understand something as a performance without attributing prior commitments to that agent.

The solicitation to this effective freedom, the ability to form normative commitments and to perform the appropriate actions in light of those commitments – is education.  So Fichte says “All individuals must be educated into being persons, otherwise they would not be persons”.  This ties in to what he says in the SoK: “[T]he kind of philosophy one chooses thus depends on the kind of person one is. . . Someone whose character is naturally slack. . . will never be able to raise himself to the level of idealism.”

So while the I is a self-authorizing entity, it only becomes one through acts of mutual, social recognition.  The word recognition should indicate the attributing or conferring of a normative status.

Fichte says, “I can ask of a determinate rational creature that he recognize me as a free agent only to the extent that I treat him as such a free agent.”  His basic principle of right is “limit your freedom so that the others around you can also be free”, which yields a “primordial right” which entitles people to sanction the behaviour of others that violates their freedom.  The primordial right is the ability to be the cause of what takes place around oneself, not to be the effect of other’s actions.


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