Fichte’s Ethical Thought at Central APA

In an ‘Author Meets Critics’ session, author Allen Wood of Indiana University Bloomington met with critics Owen Ware and Douglas Moggach to discuss his book Fichte’s Ethical Thought (Oxford University Press, 2016).  Here, Wood reflects on the session.

Allen, for those who couldn’t make it to your Author Meets Critic session at Central APA, can you give an overview of your book Fichte’s Ethical Thought?

Photo of Allen Wood
Allen Wood

The first chapter of my book is biographical (not a way I even considered beginning my books on Kant’s or Hegel’s ethical thought). The second chapter offers an interpretation of Fichte’s transcendental philosophy, its aims and methods, to provide a context for the discussion of his ethics. The third chapter takes up two crucial themes grounding Fichte’s ethics: radical freedom of the will and intersubjectivity (Fichte’s argument that awareness of other selves and communicative interaction with them is a condition of rational agency and even of consciousness itself). Chapters 4-7 expound Fichte’s System of Ethics. A final chapter deals with Fichte’s philosophy of right and politics, which is related to, but independent of, his ethics.

What do you think is the most important or compelling aspect of your book?  

It is the first exposition in English, and the most complete in any language, of Fichte’s System of Ethics (1798), which is the last work he completed before being forced out of Jena.  But it puts this exposition in the context of his Jena system as a whole, and also of his life and personality.

What intrigues you most about Fichte? 

Fichte held that one’s philosophy is necessarily an expression of one’s personality. He passed this idea on to his followers, the German Romantics, and also to existentialism, for which Fichte’s philosophy is the true source. Scholars of the existentialist tradition, such as yourself, ought to study Fichte, and realize that without him, there could have been no Kierkegaard, no Sartre, no Beauvoir. Most of their ideas were inherited, directly or indirectly, from Fichte.

Fichte’s own personality, however, was far from being wholly admirable. Like most interesting people, he defies our simplistic (and morally reprehensible) tendency to classify people into ‘good people’ and ‘bad people’. Fichte was thin-skinned, abrasive, moralistic, self-righteous. This was directly responsible for his dismissal from his professorship at Jena. But it is a result of the fact that he rose to prominence through a series of improbable events from a background of poverty, and he never forgot his roots, nor did he ever acquire any trust for the upper classes into which he was thrust by his academic success. You have to feel some love (or at least I do) even for the negative side of his personality when you see where it came from. I devote a first chapter of the book to Fichte’s life, because you can’t properly understand his philosophy without it.

Picture of book on Fichtes Ethical ThoughtWhat do you think were the most interesting, contentious, or challenging points that the critics raised in the session?

This Author-meets-Critics session was unusual in that it involved little real controversy over its subject matter. I think Ware, Moggach and I all read Fichte in very much the same way. I tried to introduced a bit of controversy by correcting a misunderstanding (for which I admit I am mostly to blame) of my take on Fichte. They argued that Fichte should be seen as a kind of perfectionist, in contrast to the deontologist they thought I was making him out to be. My reply was that I detest all these labels, that they are used to caricature the thought of great philosophers by shrinking and distorting it. I don’t think either Ware or Moggach disagreed with me when it is put that way.

I suppose the most remarkable thing about the exchanges at the session was that they were not at all tedious or boring despite the almost total absence of real controversy between Ware, Moggach and me. The success was due, I believe, to the fact that Fichte is so unfamiliar and so underappreciated a philosopher, and to the fact that the audience at the session was unusually acute and articulate in their questions. These gave both Ware and myself a chance to talk about different aspects of Fichte’s philosophy that made it available to the audience in an interesting way.

What sorts of discussions took place with the audience?  What aspects were attendees most interested in? 

One question was about Fichte’s place in the history of philosophy and his own view of that history. This was already addressed in one way in Moggach’s very informative account of the history of German ethics from Leibniz to Hegel and Marx, and Fichte’s place in it. Fichte did have an interesting philosophy of history but said little about the history of philosophy.

Another question was about Fichte’s conception of the mentality of non-human animals and our duties regarding them. In fact, Fichte has virtually nothing to say about this, and what he does say about non-human animals is both brief and apparently inconsistent. But this question led to an interesting discussion of Fichte’s insistence on the transcendental importance of embodiment as a condition of selfhood, and of the ways our humanity shows itself to others (especially through the expressiveness of the human face, which Fichte thought to be the most basic characteristic distinguishing all human beings of all ages and races from any other creature). Also touched on here was the difference Fichte sees between our communication with other human beings – something always presupposing their freedom, even when social institutions deny it – and our signaling to animals, as by giving commands to a horse or dog, which is in Fichte’s view only a causal influencing of the animal, never a summons to its free agency, as human communication always is.

One question was about Fichte’s conception of God – a crucial point regarding his career, since he was dismissed from his professorship at Jena on the grounds of ‘atheism’ – despite being in all his writings an obviously religious thinker, who strenuously denied being an atheist. Fichte’s concept of God was, however, not an orthodox one. Until his acquaintance with Kant’s philosophy, which occurred at age 28, he was evidently a Spinozist. I argue that he always remained at least as much a Spinozist as he ever became a Kantian, and that his philosophy is driven by the tension that he is a Spinozist who came through Kant’s influence to believe in radical freedom of the will.  It is not easy to say what Fichte’s concept of God is. In my book I attempted an interpretation of it which I claim has quite a bit of textual support. Fichte thinks that a free agent or person is necessarily finite, confronted by a resisting external material world and in communication with other persons who are moral equals. If ‘God’ is supposed to be an ‘infinite person’, then that concept of God is incoherent, and there could be no such thing. Fichte was declared to be an atheist because he said that “the living moral order” is the only God we need and the only God of which we can form any conception. This was taken by religious conservatives to be a shameless confession of atheism.

As I see it, what ‘God’ refers to for Fichte is the history of the human species and its collective striving for perfection, guided by a never wholly realizable ideal we are forever in the process of defining. But I also pointed out in the book that Fichte would not be at all happy with this characterization, because for him we humans can grasp the collective striving of our species only ‘spiritually’ – that is, only symbolically or through aesthetically charged ways of representing it to ourselves, and that we must represent our humanity to ourselves as if it were a separate being with whom we are in communication – even as we are conscious that no such being as that could literally exist. Traditional religious beliefs, contained in scriptures, traditions and practices, are our symbolic way of relating to our human vocation. I hope you can see from this that it is hard to pin down what Fichte thought God is. A literalistic account might reduce Fichte’s concept of God to a kind of secular humanism. But Fichte would insist that this is absolutely the wrong way to think about our relation to our species. It is essential that we appropriate that relation through symbolic, aesthetic or (as he would say) spiritual ways of thinking.

Fichte’s conception of God anticipates much of what was later associated with Feuerbach and Marx, though Fichte did not understand the “externalization of human nature” in our thought of God as a critique of religion but only a way of thinking about it that religious people themselves need to appreciate.

There were other questions in the session, most of them attempting to clarify the relation of Fichte to Kant. Fichte thought of himself as follower of Kant, but Ware said, and I agree, that when  you follow out what Fichte thought were merely attempts to make Kant more ‘self-consistent’, you see that Fichte’s ethics is quite original and challenging.

But I think I have already written enough in response to your question. I hope you can see why I think the discussion was unusually productive, a tribute as much to our audience as to Ware and myself.

What do you hope participants will take away from your session? 

I hope they gain enough appreciation of how original, influential and philosophically powerful a thinker Fichte is that they will go read Fichte for themselves. I’d like to think reading my book would help them.

What are some areas for further research on this topic?

I hope my book will spur further interest in Fichte’s ethics and his philosophy as a whole. The System of Ethics should be studied much more than it has been.

How can Fichte’s ethical thought shed light on current political discourse and debates? 

Fichte was a believer in radical freedom, radical equality and radical community. He saw these ideals as not the least bit in tension, but rather as a single ideal. To me this is one of the most appealing aspects of Fichte’s thought. Fichte believed the state is responsible for giving each person an independent economic sphere, not involving any dependency on others (as for instance, wage laborers have on capitalists). Moggach discussed this in his comments, and said (something I also said in my book) that Fichte’s conception of a state-regulated economy no longer looks to us like a feasible way of achieving his goals, but the goals themselves are still worthy ones and make a case for radical social, economic and political reform.

What are your top tips for authors and critics when they meet in sessions such as these?

It is often best if there is controversy between author and critics, but also engagement and mutual respect. There wasn’t much of disagreement in this session, which made the mutual respect part easy. I was grateful for the comments by both Ware and Moggach, and the controversy about labeling Fichte was a minor one. This session was successful for the reasons I’ve already described.

What are you working on now? 

I have just completed a text for the Cambridge University Press “Elements” series about Kant’s Formulas of the Moral Law. It offers a conception of what Kant means by a moral principle that puts Kant at odds with most philosophers, and at odds with the way Kant has been (mis-) read both by his defenders and critics. I am also issuing a second revised version of my translation of Kant’s Groundwork to be issued by Yale University Press. My next book-length project will be Religion and Kant, for a series of books about religion published by Cambridge University Press. It will contribute to a growing literature on Kant’s Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason.

Allen Wood was born in Seattle, studied at Reed College (Portland, Oregon) and Yale University, taught at Cornell University, Yale University, Stanford University and Indiana University, Bloomington, with visiting appointments at the University of Michigan, the University of California, San Diego and Oxford University. His career has been spent teaching and writing about philosophy, especially the history of German philosophy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Owen Ware (Simon Fraser University) and Douglas Moggach (University of Ottawa) provided critical comments and Andrews Reath (UC Riverside) chaired the session.

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