The Philosophy of Fichte in its Relation to Pragmatism

The Philosophy of Fichte in its Relation to Pragmatism  (1907) 
by Ellen Bliss Talbot


IN recent discussions of pragmatism and humanism, occasional references have been made to resemblances between Fichte’s doctrine and that of the pragmatists. In view of this fact, it seems to me that it may be worth while to consider some of the aspects of Fichte’s philosophy which are most closely related to pragmatist modes of thought. The consideration will naturally be made from the point of view of my understanding of Fichte’s philosophy as a whole, and, for lack of space, I must sometimes content myself with stating my interpretation dogmatically instead of pausing to defend it. For the defence, I must refer the reader to my more detailed study of Fichte.[1]

The fundamental conception of Fichte’s philosophy is that of the ‘Idea of the Ego’ or the ‘divine Idea,’ which is gradually realizing itself in the history of the human race. What is actual, what really exists, is simply the world of consciousness, the whole of concrete, individual experience.[2] Fichte does not recognize, beyond this world, any realm of transcendent reality, of which it is the reflection or copy. The world of finite consciousness is itself the whole of actuality.[3] This world of human experience is a temporal world; time is a fundamental characteristic of consciousness and hence a necessary form that actuality wears. Thus reality is not something static; it is in continual process. What the present age produces has never been before and will never be again. Change, uniqueness, is characteristic of all that is actual.

But reality, according to Fichte, is not merely changing; it is also developing. The world-process is at the same time a world-progress, a continual approximation to a far-distant goal, the ‘Idea of the Ego’ or the ‘divine Idea.’ If one must characterize the Idea of the Ego in a single phrase, the best that can be suggested is ‘organic unity.’ The world as we apprehend it is obviously not unitary. It is characterized both by pluralism and by dualism. If you say that it is in a certain sense one, in that it is all consciousness and nothing but consciousness, Fichte would readily admit this. But, in the first place, as he would point out, consciousness means, apparently, many consciousnesses. And, in the second place, it is essentially dualistic, involving the distinction of self and not-self. Both qualitatively and quantitatively, the existent world fails of unity; qualitatively speaking, it is dualistic; quantitatively speaking, pluralistic.

In the earlier writings, it is the dualistic aspect that Fichte especially emphasizes.[4] Human life, in all its phases, he tells us, is characterized by the opposition of subject and object.[5] Not even Kant sees more clearly than he that the thing which we try to know is other than the knower and persistently evades our attempt to penetrate the secret of its being; that the material world thwarts our purposes and opposes its brute resistance to our most earnest efforts; that within the realm of moral and spiritual experience, there is ever the conflict of warring impulses, the incompatibility of moral ideal and natural desire. All this Fichte sees clearly and emphasizes sharply. Nay, he even insists that without this inherent strife, consciousness could not be, that the opposition of subject and object, in its various phases, is the indispensable condition of intellectual life, of practical endeavor, of moral and spiritual achievement.

But reality is characterized by pluralism, as well as by dualism. The actual world is not a single consciousness, but a number of consciousnesses, a multiplicity of finite beings. And these finite consciousnesses are all more or less opposed to one another. Again, in the sense-experience of each individual we have a multiplicity of external objects. The sense-world is not an organic whole, but an aggregate; not a universe, but a ‘multiverse.’[6]

But duality and plurality are not Fichte’s last word. For this life of ours, with its inherent oppositions and multiplicities, is yet continually guided by the ideal of unity, the Idea of the Ego. The deepest thing in man, the centre and core of his being, is a persistent striving after unity and harmony. This striving reveals itself in all departments of human life. The effort of natural science to understand and explain is most commonly described as an attempt to discover the underlying unity in the multiplicity of isolated facts, or even in apparently irreconcilable happenings. Until we can see the relations which bind the many into one, until we can show that the apparently diverse happenings are workings of the same principle, we say that we have failed to understand. Unity is thus the goal of the knowing process. But it is equally the ideal of all that we commonly call ‘practical,’ as distinguished from ‘intellectual,’ endeavor. The attempt to use the forces of nature for the welfare of oneself or of mankind, is an attempt to realize the purposes of the subject in the objective world, and thus to bring about a unity of subject and object in which they work together for a common end. Similarly, moral endeavor is the striving to bring the warring impulses of our nature into agreement, to weld into one the ‘two souls which dwell in every breast.’ And, once more, on the aesthetic side of life, we see the same striving to realize the ideal of unity. The artist seeks to mould his objective material,—language, tone, color, whatever it may be,—into the form which shall express his purpose, seeks to make the object express the subject. In like manner the ideal of appreciation, as distinguished from creation, in art is the merging of the subject in the object; the sense of ‘me and not-me’ disappears; the soul becomes one with the beautiful object.

In this general way, I think it may be said that the striving for unity characterizes all aspects of our life. In a passage in the Theory of Morals (1798), Fichte distinguishes between the practical and the intellectual life by saying that in the knowing process the subject conforms itself to the object, whereas in the practical life it makes the object conform to it.[7] “The whole mechanism of consciousness,” he says, “is based upon the various aspects of the separation of subjective and objective and upon the subsequent uniting of the two. They are united, or seen as harmonizing, sometimes in such a way that the subjective is to follow from the objective, is to direct itself by the objective; in this case I know.” Again, “they are seen as harmonizing in such a way that the objective is to follow from the subjective, that a being is to follow from my concept (the concept of purpose); in this case I act.”[8]

The distinction which is here made between knowing and doing suggests some considerations that are of interest in connection with the doctrine of the pragmatists. Obviously this account falls short of being an adequate description either of knowing or of doing. In regarding knowledge as the conforming of the subject to the object, Fichte apparently overlooks that more active aspect of thought in which we put questions to nature, set traps for her in the shape of cunningly devised experiments, force her to surrender her secrets. Thus he does not bring out the thought that there is much that we must do if we would know, and that this doing is not a mere preliminary, but an essential part of the knowing process itself; that every real act of knowledge is, to a certain extent, a subduing of the objective world, an imposing of our will upon it.[9]

And just as Fichte here ignores the fact that in knowing we force the world, to a certain extent, to conform to our purposes, so, on the other hand, he fails to point out that in all our doing we have to take account of the nature of things. There is a certain stubbornness on the part of objects which makes the realization of our purposes dependent upon our ability to adapt ourselves to the material with which we are to work. If it be true that observation is usually futile without hypothesis, it is equally true that docility and adaptability are an important element in practical success.

But while it will readily be conceded that Fichte’s description is far from furnishing an adequate account of the thought-process, it emphasizes a difference between knowing and doing that we cannot afford to ignore. In every intellectual process that reaches completion, we come, at some stage or other, face to face with a ‘not-ourselves’ which constrains us, and to which we must conform if we would know. In the field of natural science, this constraint is an important factor in the testing of hypotheses, and, for that matter, in all observation. In the realm of mathematics, we find ourselves similarly bound or forced at certain stages of our reasoning. We may, at the outset, assume what we like; we may will that the space with which we are to deal shall be of three dimensions, or of four dimensions, or of dimensions. But when we have once made our choice, we are no longer free to think what we will. It is not merely that, having agreed to think in terms of Euclidean space, I ought not to deny the truth of the Pythagorean proposition; it is rather that I cannot deny it. I can refuse to think about it, can turn my attention to something else; or I can go through the form of denying it, can declare, in so many words, that the proposition is untrue; but, supposing that I see the geometrical relations involved, I cannot make a real denial.[10]

From this point of view, then, Fichte is right in maintaining that in knowledge the subject conforms itself to the object, whereas in action it forces the object to conform to it. And we might carry out the parallel in the aesthetic realm by saying that, in the creation of an art-product, one brings the object (the plastic material) into harmony with the subject (the artist’s conception), whereas, in the contemplation of a work of art, the contemplating subject surrenders himself to the object. Both in Fichte’s distinction and in that which we have just drawn, the difference is between the more receptive attitude involved in knowledge and in aesthetic enjoyment, and the more creative attitude involved in our everyday activity and in the labors of the artist.

This suggests an important difference between Fichte’s theory of knowledge and that of the pragmatists; for it is in its attitude toward this element of constraint in the thinking process that many critics of pragmatism see one of the great weaknesses of the theory. This aspect of knowing is not indeed altogether overlooked by pragmatism.[11] But, as Professor Rogers has said:[12] “It is not enough simply to point to the fact that the process of experience is actually to an extent determinate and constrained, in order to overcome the force of the objection that on the principle of pragmatism it ought not to be so.” The pragmatist does not give “sufficient weight to the insistence of the problem that arises in connection with that apparent character of sensation through which it seems determined from the outside.”[13]

But is Fichte in any better situation than the pragmatists? We said above that, according to his theory, nothing is actual except this world of finite consciousness, that there is no other realm of transcendent actuality of which this world of ours is a copy. How, then, can we say that he comes any nearer than the pragmatists to solving the problem involved in the determinateness of our experience? It must be admitted that his position is not wholly free from difficulty; still it seems to me that he contributes something to the solution of the problem. We have seen that he regards human life as the striving to realize various ideals, all of which may be viewed as so many different forms of the ideal of harmony or organic unity. But why has it this character? Are we simply to accept this as a fact, or can we hope, in some measure, to understand it? As is well known, Fichte is not content merely to accept the fact; he is bent upon explaining it. And his explanation is found in the doctrine of the Idea of the Ego.

Heretofore we have spoken of the Idea chiefly as the goal of the infinite world-process. But this is only one aspect of its nature. According to Fichte, it is at once the goal of the world-process and the indwelling force which directs this process. In spite of his frank recognition of the dualistic and pluralistic aspects of experience, he conceives the universe, after all, as in a certain sense one. He seems not to recognize an absolute consciousness as distinct from the finite consciousnesses, and yet he maintains that there are in the world a common life and a common purpose. The world-process is the gradual realization of the Idea, and the Idea itself is conceived as the directive force, the indwelling law of the process.

This doctrine, whatever may be said in criticism of it, furnishes a certain explanation of the determinateness of our experience. If all reality were actually created by the individual finite wills and the thought-processes of individual finite subjects, much of the determinateness of experience would, as Professor Rogers has shown, be inexplicable. There would be nothing to guide my individual will and my individual thought-processes save the previous acts of thought and will of myself and other finite subjects. And while this might suffice to explain some of the determinateness which we experience, there is certainly much which it would leave without explanation. According to Fichte, however, reality is not simply the product of the thinking and willing of individual finite subjects; it is the product of a force which works in and through these subjects, guiding their lives and their thought toward the far-distant goal.

From this point of view, Fichte seeks to explain the determinateness of experience. The world exists for the sake of realizing the Idea of the Ego (the supreme value, of which all other values are subordinate forms). This Idea, since it is organic unity, rather than abstract identity, can be realized only in the concrete and individual, in the lives of finite subjects. The sense-world, which these subjects apprehend and with which they stand in relation, furnishes the medium for their activity, and thus for the realization of the Idea. This objective world is, in a sense, constructed by the finite subjects; each builds up his own world. But these various worlds harmonize, because there is one force at work in all the subjects. And because there is this guiding force, the sense-world exercises constraint upon the individual.

There is no question that this conception involves difficulties. In particular, how one is to conceive of a force which helps to mould the experiences of the finite subjects in a definite direction, and yet attains to consciousness only in these subjects, is a serious problem. And many, doubtless, will feel that this difficulty compels us to go farther than Fichte has gone, and assume that this force is itself a consciousness, a supreme Will.[14] But whether one can rest content with Fichte’s doctrine or not, it has at least the merit that it makes a definite attempt to explain the factor of constraint in experience.

We now pass to another question,—the relation between the practical aspects of life and the theoretical. The pragmatists attempt “to overcome the antithesis of theory and practice” by showing that “theory is an outgrowth of practice and incapable of truly ‘independent’ existence.” “Properly speaking,” they tell us, “such a thing as pure or mere intellection cannot occur. What is loosely so called is really also purposive thought pursuing what seems to it a desirable end.”[15]

The doctrine that all real thinking is for the sake of some result, that judgment is purposive thought, pursuing an end, seems to me sound, and I think it is fully in harmony with the teachings of Fichte. His insistence that human life is throughout activity, and that all activity is purposive, is a distinctive feature of his philosophy. But the assertion of the purposive nature of thought may signify two rather different things. It may mean that all thinking exists for practical ends, in the strictest sense of the word ‘practical.’ According to this view, we never theorize except for the sake of producing some change, either in the external world or in the affective tone of our own consciousness. ‘Not to know, but to do’ and to feel, ‘is our vocation,’ and we neither could nor should wish to know except as a means to doing and feeling. There is, however, a second sense in which we may assert the teleological nature of thought. We may distinguish between ‘theoretical’ purposes and ‘practical’ ones, and may maintain that, while all thinking is for some purpose and would lose its distinctive character as thinking if it lost its purpose, still its conscious end,—and its proper end,—may often be a knowing, rather than a doing or a feeling. Thinking undoubtedly presupposes desire and will, but in certain cases these may be simply the desire and the will to know.

I am not quite certain which of these two positions the pragmatists would take, but they seem to me to show an inclination to adopt the former.[16] If they would not, the doctrine of the purposiveness of all judgment is not in any sense peculiar to pragmatism. There are, I suppose, comparatively few philosophical thinkers to-day who would not maintain that intellectual activity, like all other activity, is for some end.

When we inquire which of the two positions Fichte would take, we are reminded at once that he says repeatedly that we are, above all, practical beings, that we are essentially will. But it may be well to ask what we mean by ‘will.’ And as soon as we raise the question, it becomes clear to most of us, I think, that we do not mean something utterly devoid of an intellectual aspect. ‘Mere will,’ in this sense, would be as much an abstraction as ‘mere thought.’[17] And if it be, as I readily grant, a serious error to take ‘mere intellect’ as the clue to the meaning of human experience, it is equally a mistake to regard ‘mere will’ as furnishing the clue. What we commonly call ‘will’ contains an intellectual element, crude or developed. The higher forms of volition involve judgment and reasoning, just as truly as the higher forms of intellection involve desire and will. And in the lower forms of volition, a crude intellectual element,—image, idea, or at least sensation, or perception,—is as noticeably present as the crude volitional element in the lower forms of intellection.

In other words, ‘mere will,’ uninformed by intellect, would be action without any purpose, a mere doing which was not meant to do anything, a blind striving. But this is not at all what we ordinarily mean by ‘will.’ Strictly speaking, there is no thought which is not also will, and no will which is not also thought. All real thinking is for the sake of an end, and is initiated, and to some extent directed, by will. But, on the other hand, all true volition looks toward the realization of some idea, toward the making actual of what is at present only conceived or imagined, i.e., of a thought-product.

The points which I am chiefly concerned to make are: that an ideal contains, not only a volitional and an affective factor, but also an intellectual one; and that the assertion of the purposive character of human life does not necessarily involve the doctrine that thinking exists simply for ‘practical’ ends, in the narrowest sense of the word. Both of these points, it seems to me, are in agreement with the general principles of Fichte’s philosophy. There can be no doubt that the concept of the ideal is fundamental for him. But I see no reason to think that he conceives the ideal as purely volitional and affective. Man’s life is in all its phases a striving. But the striving, far from being blind, is constantly illuminated by conception and idea,—by intellectual factors. And, further, I see no ground for supposing that Fichte conceives all action to exist for the sake of practical ends in the narrow sense. Much, at any rate, of what he says about the scholar and the artist suggests the opposite interpretation.[18]

There is, however, another problem involved in the question of the relation of intellect to will. Fichte asserts more than once that he follows Kant in teaching the doctrine of the primacy of the practical reason, and it is important for us to understand what he means by this. In his Theory of Morals (1798) there is a very interesting discussion of the question.[19] Professor Rickert has a suggestive article, which is based, in large measure, upon this passage.[20] Its purpose is twofold. In the first place, Rickert seeks to show that his own doctrine of judgment as involving the recognition of a norm, and hence as essentially practical, is also taught by Fichte. In the second place, he contrasts Fichte’s theory of the relation of will to belief with the doctrine of ‘voluntarism’ as represented by Professor James and Professor Paulsen. In a general way I am much indebted to this article; but my interpretation of Fichte’s discussion differs in some important respects from that of Professor Rickert, and I have considered Fichte’s relation to pragmatism from another point of view.

Fichte starts with the formulation of the moral law: “Act solely in accordance with your conviction of your duty.” But, he says, if there is any possibility of my conviction being a mistaken one, morality is dependent upon chance. And if I reflect upon this when a moral question arises, I must either take the chances and act blindly,—which is contrary to the moral command,—or must remain in a state of inaction. If, then, the type of action commanded by the law is to be possible, there must be an absolute criterion of the correctness of my conviction of duty.

The step which we must take is now apparent. Since the law commands that we shall act solely in accord with our conviction of duty, and since conviction is possible only if there be an absolute criterion of its correctness, there must be such a criterion. “From the existence and the necessary causality of the moral law, we infer something in the faculty of cognition. We assert, accordingly, a relation of the moral law to the theoretical reason,—a primacy of the former, as Kant expresses it. That without which there could be no duty is absolutely true, and it is duty to accept it as true.”[21]

This does not mean, however, that the moral nature of itself can discover our duty for us. The search is the task of the “reflective judgment.” When, however, the theoretical faculty, in its effort to learn our duty, hits upon the right thing, we know this, not through the theoretical faculty itself, but through the practical, through an immediate feeling of conviction or approval. Here we come to an important point in Fichte’s doctrine. This feeling of conviction or approval is a factor, not only in moral judgment, he says, but in all judgment whatsoever.[22] “What is thus approved, we call right in the case of actions, true in the case of cognitions.”[23]

There are two points which I wish to consider in connection with this passage. One is the conception of judgment as involving the recognition of a norm. The other is the assertion that whatever is a necessary condition of duty is absolutely true. We shall take up these points in order.

I agree with Rickert that Fichte teaches that all judgment, no matter of what sort, implies a reference to a norm or value. In judgments which explicitly evaluate some aspect of our experience, declare it to be true or false, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, this reference is obvious. But Fichte maintains that even those judgments which are concerned with the establishment of matters of fact have this aspect. And a little reflection shows that he is right. Even the simplest of our factual judgments,—if it be a real judgment, i.e., if it be meant as an assertion and not as the expression of an opinion,—implies the recognition of an ought. In making any statement of fact, I virtually say: ‘This is not merely what I believe; it is also what I and all other men ought to believe.’ There is the same reference to a norm in such a judgment of fact as in the moral judgment, ‘This course of action is right.’ Fichte brings out the similarity in the two cases by saying that “what is thus approved, we call right in the case of actions, true in the case of cognitions.”

But, before we go farther, we must consider what is meant by ‘the recognition of a norm.’ Rickert’s discussion does not seem to me perfectly clear, either in his article upon Fichte or in his Gegenstand der Erkenntnis. Some of his statements seem to indicate that he teaches, and represents Fichte as teaching, that judgment involves the recognition of a norm, and is consequently a moral act. The first of these two propositions I fully accept, as a description both of the nature of judgment and of Fichte’s conception of it. It is the second that gives me pause. The fundamental difference, I think, between that recognition of a norm which is an aspect of all judgment and a moral act is, that the latter involves an act of will, while the former does not. Both involve, if you like, the taking of a position with reference to something which we recognize as authoritative. But, in the case of moral choice, I adopt this position by an act of will, whereas, in the case of judgment, my will seems not to enter into the matter at all. That the judging process involves, as its necessary antecedent, the desire and the will to know, we have already said. But judgment itself, considered apart from these antecedents, contains no element of choice. For, in so far as it is a real judgment, there is for me no alternative. When I recognize something as true, I am conscious of it as something which ought to be believed; but also I actually believe it, and cannot help believing it. In other words, that reference to a norm which constitutes the essence of judgment involves, at least theoretically, an element of constraint of the will.[24] I do not judge what I would; I judge what I can and must.[25]

When I say, then, that judgment contains a reference to a norm, all that I mean is,—I am speaking simply for myself,—that in all judgment, as distinguished from opinion, we have the sense of there being no alternative. But this is precisely the sense of something supra-individual, of something that is independent of individual opinion, or desire, or choice. This characteristic I may, if I wish, express by saying that this is what all men ought to believe; but the ‘ought’ here certainly does not indicate moral obligation.

As I have said, Professor Rickert seems to regard this recognition of the norm as involving an act of will.[26] Our concern, however, is not with his theory, but with Fichte’s. It is true that Fichte employs certain expressions which might suggest that he too conceives judgment as an act of will. When, e.g., he says, “Certainty is possible for me only in so far as I am a moral being,”[27] or “There is no cognition which is not related, at least mediately, to our duties,”[28] it seems not unnatural to adopt this interpretation. But, on the other hand, we have statements like this: Whenever I pass a judgment, I have a feeling of certainty. “The imagination is now bound and forced, as it always is when we come into contact with reality. I cannot view the matter in any other way than this.”[29] And again: “He who is certain of the matter in hand” feels “that in regard to this point his freedom is utterly lost.”[30] In view of these emphatic statements, I incline to think that Fichte believes that in the judgment we apprehend something to which we cannot but conform, and that therefore judgment, though initiated by will, is not itself volitional in its nature.[31]

Just here, it seems to me, the pragmatist account is open to criticism. Pragmatism lays emphasis, and rightly, upon the doctrine that our desires and choices influence our judgments, that the intellectual nature cannot act altogether independently of the rest of the self, so that we can always be sure of having intellectual products, pure and undefiled, free from any admixture of feeling and will. That every judgment that an individual can make must be, in a sense, an individual matter, that it is his judgment, his reaction upon the material furnished by experience, is certainly true; and the philosophical world owes a debt to Professor James and others for having emphasized it. But in their zeal for showing that our volitional and emotional nature inevitably colors our intellectual life, the pragmatists have sometimes failed to take sufficient account of that element of constraint in judgment, which, to my thinking, is its most distinctive characteristic. The fact that I desire certain things and have chosen to order my life in a certain way, may indeed help to explain why my judgment, in a particular case, differs from yours. But it remains true that what makes it a judgment, rather than a desire or a choice, is precisely the sense, distinct or vague, that I cannot think otherwise.

Thus, by a quite different path, we are led once more to the conception, which we have already considered, of constraint as an important element in knowing. That pragmatism does not wholly ignore the validity of this conception, we have already admitted; but we also pointed out that it fails to take sufficient account of this aspect of the knowing process, and, in particular, fails to make a place for it in its explanation of experience.

There is a minor point in Fichte’s doctrine, which we can notice only briefly, that would probably commend it to the pragmatists. This is his insistence that certainty, like doubt, is a feeling, and that therefore feeling, if not volition, enters into the act of judgment. Whenever I recognize that something ought to be believed, i.e., whenever I feel certain, my state of mind is not purely intellectual. A feeling of certainty is the criterion,—and, Fichte believes, the infallible criterion,—of truth. We shall come back to this point for a moment in connection with our next question, to which we now pass.

This question has to do with the primacy of the practical reason. If we interpret Fichte as not recognizing in judgment an act of the will, what becomes of his doctrine of the primacy of the practical reason, of his assertion that whatever is necessary in order that duty may be is absolutely true? Does not this assertion involve the doctrine that there are some propositions which owe their truth to an act of our volition?

It is this assertion, rather than the statement that conviction is a feeling, which contains Fichte’s doctrine of the primacy of the practical reason. For the feeling of certainty is simply what indicates to us that we have found the truth. It is a test of truth, but in no sense constitutive of truth. Our concern, then, is with the question as to the meaning of the statement that that without which we could have no duty must be true.

It should be noted that Fichte expressly rejects the doctrine that the moral law itself can give us any theoretical propositions “which must be accepted as true without further investigation, whether one can convince oneself of them theoretically or not.”[32] The law simply commands us to do our duty; it does not tell us what that duty is. But,—and this is Fichte’s point,—it assures us that this knowledge is attainable. If we search for it earnestly[33] and refuse to act without it, the knowledge will certainly be gained,—must be, for otherwise we cannot obey the law. This I cannot doubt, because to doubt it would be to reject the foundations of morality.

From this we see that Fichte’s doctrine of the infallibility of conscience rests upon the proposition that, if conscience is not unerring, life has no moral significance. Since this proposition would hardly be granted by many thoughtful men to-day, it seems to me that we may pass by the question as to the possibility of an erring conscience, and consider simply the general principle that whatever is necessary in order that life may have moral significance is true. For it is this which really constitutes Fichte’s doctrine of the primacy of the practical reason. But to say that everything is true which must be in order that duty may be, is only to say that we live in a moral universe. And this, at the very least, we have a right to say. The one thing which I cannot,—nay, if you like, which I will not,—doubt is that this is a moral universe, that we have duties and the ability to perform them. This belief in the significance of our sense of moral obligation is the fundamental act of faith. To this extent, at any rate, the ‘will to believe’ is justifiable.

But it is important to understand wherein the justification lies, because this will help us to see in what cases the ‘will to believe’ may properly be invoked. The declaration that the universe is moral, if it represents a real belief, is not so much a theoretical as a practical attitude.[34] It is, in its essence, the expression of a will, more or less steadfast, to conform one’s life to the requirements of the moral ideal. Fichte brings out this point in his essay, On the Ground of Our Belief in the Divine Government of the World. The most certain of all beliefs, he says, is the belief in God, if by ‘God’ you mean, not a person, but the moral world-order. But the declaration that the universe is moral “is not a wish, nor a hope, nor a considering and balancing of reasons for and against, nor a free resolve to assume something the opposite of which one regards as possible.[35] The assertion of the moral world-order is absolutely necessary, if you presuppose the resolve to obey the law which speaks within you; it is immediately contained in this resolve, is, in fact, this resolve itself.”[36]

This, then, is what Fichte understands by ‘the primacy of the practical reason.’ His doctrine does not mean that our moral nature can establish for us theoretical propositions which the intellect is unable to establish. It means that certain propositions which we are wont to call ‘theoretical’ are not theoretical after all,—that doubt in regard to them is a disease of the will. The man, who doubts whether it is worth while,—I do not mean, of course, from the pleasure-pain point of view,—to cherish ideals and try to act worthily of them, is one whose will and whose attitude toward life are in need of healing. But he whose deepest purpose is to be faithful to his highest ideals never raises the question,—whatever other problems may vex him,—whether life has meaning.

Ellen Bliss Talbot.

Mount Holyoke College.


  1. The Fundamental Principle of Fichte's Philosophy, New York, 1906.
  2. It is unfortunate to have to use a word of so doubtful meaning as ‘experience,’ and Fichte himself seldom employs it to indicate the whole of actuality. In using the word in this paper, I take it in its broadest signification, as including all phases of conscious life.
  3. In denying that Fichte posits a transcendent realm, I am running counter to much that he himself says, if we take him literally, and to the opinion of many careful students of his philosophy. For a discussion of this question, see my monograph (op. cit., chap, iii, especially pp. 77 ff., 83 ff., 106 ff.).
  4. The reason for this is easily found in the historical relations of his system, particularly in his opposition to the Kantian dualism.
  5. “Wherever there is actual consciousness, there is this separation” of subject and object (Werke, Bd. IV, p. 1).
  6. This second case of pluralism, the multiplicity of external objects, is not, so far as I recall, especially emphasized by Fichte. The multiplicity of individuals he not only recognizes, but tries to ‘deduce.’ That is, just as he tries to deduce the dualism by showing that it is a necessary condition of consciousness, and thus of the realization of the world-purpose, so he attempts to deduce the pluralism by showing that a multiplicity of consciousnesses is necessary as a means to this same realization.
  7. The description of the knowing process which we have already given considers it as an attempt to get beyond pluralism. In this account of Fichte’s, it is represented as an effort to overcome dualism. It will readily be seen that it can be looked at in both these ways.
  8. Werke, Bd. IV, pp. 1 ff.
  9. The two aspects which we have distinguished in knowing may easily be identified in the ordinary description of scientific endeavor as an effort after unity. Scientific explanation, we say, tries to unify phenomena by referring them to a single general principle. But what is the procedure here? Are we trying to impose upon the facts a unity which has its source within ourselves, or are we trying to discover a unity which is hidden in them? If we accept the first alternative, we bring out the essential activity of thought; if the second, we emphasize the fact that, after all, we are constrained by a not-ourselves.’ Both of these things are true. The unity which we seek to impose upon the facts is our unity; man himself formulates the principles by which he tries to explain ‘the given.’ But ‘the given’ will not always accept the principles which we formulate. Some of our hypotheses will not ‘work’; we discover facts which compel us to abandon them. Thus the particular unitary principle which we at first devised is rejected by the facts, and we are forced to invent another. Nature herself frames no laws; she cannot initiate legislation. But she has the power of vetoing any ‘law of nature’ that man, the lawgiver, sees fit to make. Thus, in one sense, we ourselves create the unity and impose it upon the objective world, and in another sense, we find it within this world.
  10. I said, just above, that in the knowing process we meet something to which we must conform if we would know. This condition does not, however, require me to modify my present statement, that, under the circumstances supposed, I cannot deny the truth of the Pythagorean proposition. For all real affirmation and denial,—‘real,’ in the sense of judgment, as distinguished from the mere uttering of a sentence,—involve the ‘will to know.’ Cf. Rickert, Der Gegenstand der Erkenntnis [2nd. rev. ed.] (1904), pp. 139 ff.
  11. Cf. James, Mind, N. S., Vol. XIII, pp. 463 ff.; and Schiller, “Axioms as Postulates,” in Personal Idealism (1902), pp. 91 ff.
  12. In his admirable discussion of “Professor James’s Theory of Knowledge,” Philosophical Review, Vol. XV, p. 581. [ Arthur Kenyon Rogers (1868-1936)—Wikisource contributor note]
  13. Loc. cit., pp. 583 ff.
  14. Fichte himself sometimes designates it as the “supreme and living Will.” In my monograph (pp. 108-122), I have given the reasons which have led me to adopt the interpretation suggested in the text.
  15. Schiller, Studies in Humanism (1907), p. 128.
  16. Mr. Schiller, e.g., having said that what we call ‘pure thought’ is really purposive, adds: “Only in such cases the ends may be illusory, or may appear valuable for reasons other than those which determine their value” (loc. cit.). If the disjunction here is intended to be complete, he would seem to be committed to the position that, while the actual purpose of the individual inquirer may be simply to know, this is not, strictly speaking, a reasonable purpose.
  17. A truth whose full force is perhaps not everywhere recognized today.
  18. Cf. Werke, Bd. VI, p. 436; Bd. VII, p. 110.
  19. Werke, Bd. IV, pp. 163 ff.
  20. “Fichtes Atheismusstreit und die kantische Philosophie,” Kant-Studien, Bd. IV, pp. 137 ff.; also printed separately.
  21. Werke, Bd. IV, p. 165.
  22. Ibid., p. 170.
  23. Ibid., p. 167.
  24. I say “at least theoretically,” in order not to exclude those cases in which the judgment that we are compelled to make is in no way inharmonious with our desires.
  25. The question may be raised whether this statement holds also of the moral judgment. But it will readily be seen that it does. The moral law, we commonly say, demands obedience, but does not enforce its demand. But here, again, we must make a distinction. The moral law, regarded as calling for a certain type of action or character, does indeed command and not enforce. But, regarded as a standard of evaluation, it compels assent. Whenever I make a moral evaluation, I have the consciousness, more or less explicit, of being constrained to judge in a certain way. I cannot, e.g., disapprove this course of conduct, however much my distaste for certain of its consequences may make me loath to enter upon it.
  26. I do not find his statements perfectly clear. On the one hand, he says: “When I will to judge, I feel myself bound by the feeling of evidence; . . . i.e., I cannot affirm or deny at will” (Gegenstand der Erkenntnis, 1904, p. 112). On the other hand, he tells us that “the necessity which is involved in judgment is not . . . a necessity of the Must . . . We can best designate it as a necessity of the Ought. It stands over against the judging subject as an imperative, whose rightfulness we recognize in the judgment, and which we, to a certain degree, take up into our will” (op. cit., pp. 114 ff.).
  27. Werke, Bd. IV, pp. 169 ff.
  28. Ibid., p. 170.
  29. Op. cit., p. 167.
  30. Op. cit., p. 169.
  31. The statement that all knowledge is, at least mediately, related to our duties presents no great obstacle to this interpretation. The human race exists, according to Fichte, for the sake of realizing the supreme value, of which the moral ideal is one aspect. Now if we view human life thus ideologically, it is natural enough to say that it is throughout moral. And if by ‘moral’ we mean ‘standing in relation to an ideal,’ ‘having value (positive or negative) with reference to a supra-individual norm,’ the statement is perfectly true. In this way one might be led to say that all our knowledge is related to our duty. But the statement does not require us to interpret Fichte as teaching that judgment is essentially an act of will. We can explain in a similar way the assertion that conviction is possible only in so far as we are moral beings.
  32. Werke, Bd. IV, p. 165.
  33. This search is the task of the theoretrical faculty (loc. cit.).
  34. The pragmatist may protest that all judgment is, primarily, a practical attitude. But even if we should grant this, there would still be reason for making the distinction here. .What I should then say is, that the declaration is not theoretical in the degree in which, e.g., an enunciation of the principle of the conservation of energy would be.
  35. The italics are mine.
  36. Werke, Bd. V, p. 183.


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