A Left of the Thing-in-Itself

This is not a reading for any upcoming meeting; we discussed it a year ago and I did not get around to posting it until now.

The editor’s introduction to The Science of Logic draws a line from Kant through Fichte to Hegel.  The guiding issue is the constraint placed on mental activity; does it arise from the thing-in-itself, or from the freedom of the cogito?  Fichte pushed Kant in the direction of an absolute freedom, but did so at the cause of grounding that freedom in a fundamental mystery.  Hegel’s project, as this editor has it, was to make that freedom non-mysterious and fully conceptualized.  I have also tacked on a political side note.

Mental Space

Early in The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant gives a colourful description of the problem he was trying to solve:

“The light dove, in free flight cutting through the air the resistance of which it feels, could get the idea that it could do even better in airless space. Likewise, Plato abandoned the world of the senses because it posed so many hindrances for the understanding, and dared to go beyond it on the wings of the ideas, in the empty space of pure understanding.”(1)

Philosophy – and reasoning in general – operated without any sense of constraint, and so produced many fantastical metaphysical systems.  By critiquing, or limiting, the power of reason, Kant sought to create a firm ground for philosophy.  If one knows one’s limits, then one knows what one can and what one cannot talk about.

This critique took place through a description of exactly how mental space works.  The mind’s mental space holds the presence of things to the mind, just like Newton’s space holds objects.  There are two kinds of mental space.  First, there are intuitions, which are the immediate presence of objects as we perceive them in space and time.  Second, there are concepts, which are the minimum logical conditions of seeing an object as an object.  

The test of whether the two adequately define an object is whether or not the subject can maintain a self-identity, or a distinction from the object.  That identity can either be the general “I think” or an individual who differentiates what is given to him – that is, to be able to say X is not Y.  This test boils down to whether or not the third form of mental space, reason, is functioning properly.

Reason is where we find the Kingdom of Ends (i.e. moral values) and the thing-in-itself.  The thing-in-itself is what allows the subject to differentiate between self and object.  Appearances originate in that transcendent “other”, and hence they are different from the subject, and hence reason can function properly.

This is the framework that Fichte sought to reform.  He asks why we feel a need for an a priori constraint; why can’t we say anything?  What is the basis of the system of representation, i.e. the constraints placed on thought and experience, and why does it feel necessary?   The necessity of constraint could result from one of two sources: some element of the cogito, or the thing-in-itself.  The first is idealism, since constraints on thought arise from thought itself.  The second is dogmatism, since the constraints arise from the “world” itself.  Choosing one affects how one interprets givenness.

We tend to say givenness is a property of the objects themselves, but it involves the subject from the start, since objects stymy the subject’s attempt to a priori control mental space.  Kant’s model made the senses passive and gave the thing-in-itself causal power, a point which encouraged dogmatic interpretations.  But, an appeal to causality on the part of the thing-in-itself is inconsistent with Kant’s restriction of causality to phenomena, which was the basis of his critique of Hume.

The appeal to causality on the part of the thing-in-itself It does not explain brute appearance.  To fix this, Fichte asked his readers to think only about thinking.  The attempt has to be a failure, because one can’t think without thinking about something – but not only that – also because the “difference between the intended infinite thought and the thought (now an object), de facto finitely apprehended is precisely what creates the distance  between the subject of experience and his object that makes the experience a conscious one.  Without that distance, there is no consciousness.” (32)  

In other words, there can be no pure thought because any such thought would be unconstrained, and that lack of constraint would collapse the difference between subject and object, ruining reason.

Therefore, the constraint is the work of the cogito.  “Without the original attempt at purely autonomous activity, there would be no sense of ‘being constrained.’”  The constraints thought encounters only arise because thought first attempts to be totally unconstrained.  

“The net result is that the whole realm of experience becomes coloured with a moral tinge…”  Experience is about turning “brute facts” into products of freedom, and that requires knowing/remembering that the brute facts are originally the products of freedom.

Fichte is still using something like Kant’s Transcendental Logic, in that it is about the a priori space of representation.  But Kant needs the transcendental deduction to show the categories are found in experience, Fichte does not.  Kant had an absolute difference between understanding and reason; Fichte relativizes it.  For Kant, conceptualization was only norm-setting for morals; but for Fichte, concepts are norm-setting for all of experience.  Instead of applying categories to nature, we interpret nature in terms of a priori constructs.  It is all interpretation for Fichte; “This is of course the price to be paid for setting as the norm of truth the attainment of a freedom which, if ever attained, would transcend consciousness altogether.” (33/34)

This lets us see that there is a moral satisfaction in dissatisfaction with the world – it indicates one’s commitment to freedom.  But such an a priori commitment to freedom can never match up with experience, because attainment of that freedom would involve an infinite thought and the collapse of experience itself.  The gap between this ontology and everyday experience must be filled in with a mix of pragmatism and moral rhetoric.

Let’s summarize:

  1. All of experience is a product of freedom, as the cogito is responsible for the gap between subject and object.
  2. The driving force of the intellectual project is to remember (1).
  3. Dissatisfaction with the world, therefore, has its own kind of moral satisfaction.
  4. Pragmatism and rhetoric fills the gap between the a priori and experience.

Here is the point I’d like to raise: how much leftist sentiment does this describe?  Our economic system is not a product of unshakeable rules of human economic behaviour, but arises from past and present actions.  Gender roles are not prescribed by an actual ontological difference between men and women, but arise from contingent choices, past and present.  Racial conflicts are not the result of fundamental differences between races, but rather the very idea of “race” is a construct, i.e. a product of freedom.  How much leftist activity is about focussing on the contingency – i.e. the free creation – of our economic, sexual and racial representations?

Our political situation is the result of freedom, and dissatisfaction with it is a sign of moral seriousness.  This gives us a way to diagnose two ills on the left: the fact that so often, leftist projects give way to pragmatic concerns, or never get beyond moral rhetoric.  Is leftism always idealism, in Fichte’s sense?

Perhaps it goes without saying that a lot of right wing thinking is a mirror image of this; our economic system tends toward accepting the inherent constraints placed on economic activity by economic laws, gender relations answer to an inherent sexual difference, and for the brave, there’s always “race realism”.  Right wing thought would be an instance of dogmatism, based on the constraints of economic behaviour, sexual difference and race as they are in themselves.

Left vs right, idealism vs dogmatism.  There’s one more question to be asked: is there a leftism of the thing-in-itself?  This brings us back to Hegel.

A long quote:

On Hegel’s analysis of both Kant and Fichte, the problem is that the “I” that figures so prominently in their theories is too abstract a product of conceptualization. It means to say much but in fact says nothing. Therefore, according to Hegel, it lets the content of experience for which it is supposed to provide the unifying space, its conceptual a priori, escape from it and fall, so to speak, on the side of a beyond from which it is retrievable only by means of such non-conceptual means as intuition. But intuition, whether of the Kantian or the Fichtean type, is ultimately inexpressible and therefore a source of irrationality. This is not to say that Hegel does not recognize that facticity is an irreducible element of experience. This is the lesson that he had indeed learned from Fichte. Hegel’s canonical term for it, about which more in just a moment, is “immediacy.” But the point is that such a facticity, this immediacy of experience, ought to be absorbed conceptually even as facticity. It has to be comprehended positively. To avoid Fichte’s inevitable slide from logic into rhetoric, one needs a kind of conceptualization that permeates that facticity. And if Hegel did not want to travel the way of Schelling, which would have taken him to a pre-Kantian Spinozism, then the only avenue still open to him was to comprehend facticity discursively, without intuition or myth-making. How this is to be done is the problem of the beginning of the Logic.

For Hegel, Kant and Fichte’s “I” is too abstract; it says nothing.  Kant’s unifying mental space – transcendental apprehension – is only reachable by intuition; but that’s ultimately irrational.  For Fichte, interpretations are grounded in the individual’s ultimately mysterious facticity, the world one finds themselves thrown into.  Hegel thought both Kant and Fichte, in their own ways, allowed the source of constraint on thought to fall on the side of the ultimately mysterious or irrational.  Hegel’s project, as initiated in The Phenomenology of Spirit, is to combine the thing-in-itself’s constraints with the pure freedom of the cogito.  

Is there a leftism of the thing-in-itself?

(1) Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. 129. Print.


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