Fichte's Absolute. Grounds for Mysticism?
By Martin Jenkins
The Absolute. Such an enigmatic term. It is found in mystical thinking and philosophy. It is taken to be the 'Ultimate', the 'highest', the Ground and Foundation of all being, of being knowable or unknowable and in certain accounts, only accessible by means of 'mystical' experiences. 1 The term 'the Absolute' is cited in the Idealism of J.G. Fichte (1762-1814). The latter's Idealist Philosophy espouses the efficacy of Reason yet, is it paradoxically also inviting non-rational mystical insights? In the following, I will explore the Absolute as espoused in the writings of Fichte and, opportunities for the claims of mysticism, if any.
Fichte & his Wissenschaftslere
With the Absolute 'I', Fichte believed he had secured the unconditional first principle, an indubitable foundation upon which human knowledge could be built. Without such a foundation, human 'knowledge' would be deemed to be precarious, uncertain and unaccountable. The Absolute I is an activity which posits itself and its negation - the Not-I (objects in the world, other people and the like). Without the limiting activity of the Not-I, the Absolute I would be unlimited activity like a line reaching to infinity. Intermediation between the two is the Grounding Principle and this (objects in the world, other people and the like) allows individual I's to come forth. The dialectical synthesis or intermediation between the Absolute I, through Individual I's and the Not-I, is the productive site upon which human knowledge and the intellectual categories which conditions it, develops. The Absolute I is distinct from individual 'I's or consciousness' yet is the prerequisite of their existence. How is it known? It is known by what Fichte terms 'Intellectual Intuition'. The example he gives in The Science of Knowledge (1794) centres around the proposition that A=A. 2 That A is identical with A is a necessary relation Fichte terms 'X'. Revealingly, the very understanding of this necessary relation or judgement X is the act of the Absolute I. Further, the positing of consequent A with antecedent A provides an analogous insight into how the Absolute I posits itself. As Fichte writes:
"That where being or essence consists simply in the fact that it posits itself as existing, i s 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 i s not a self." 3.
The Absolute I posits itself. As it so posits itself, it exists. Positing is activity. This positing activity is the Absolute I and this activity is the foundation of all being. Accordingly, the Absolute I is a 'deed-act' (Tadhandlung). So, the Absolute I is precisely, spontaneous, perpetual positing activity. To elaborate further, the positing activity can be understood as when a person thinks about what they are thinking. As Fichte supposedly said to his students: "Gentlemen, think the wall. Gentlemen, think of him who is thinking the wall". 4 For, in Intellectual Intuition, the I can reflect upon itself to discover the activity of the Absolute I. Or to phrase differently, the finite I can access the infinite, Absolute I. This can elicit two responses. Firstly, this line of reasoning could invite the accusation of committing an infinite regress in that thinking about who is thinking the wall is itself subject to thinking and this would be subject to thinking and so on ad infinitum. Thus contrary to Fichte's fundamental thesis, no unconditional first principle such as the Absolute I could ever be reached. Fichte would retort that Intellectual Intuition does not invite an infinite regress but reveals a circular action. Underpinning the thought of the individual I is the positing activity of the Absolute I, as revealed by a reflective, act of Intellectual Intuition performed by the individual thinker itself. This reflexive movement does not entail an infinite regress. Secondly, an Absolute I is superfluous. Intellectual intuition reveals at most, a transcendental ego, an 'I Think' that accompanies all my representations (pace Kant). For this 'I Think' (reflexive self-consciousness) is either already existing prior to being consciously recognised in Intellectual Intuition or facilitated by the awareness of the Not-I (this is what I understand Fichte's Absolute I to be) or; it is a socially acquired 'I Think'. The latter position seemingly does not require an Absolute I. 5 The first position is Fichte's position. The second position is however, also endorsed by Fichte in a later work marking a tension between the two. In his Foundations of Natural Right (1797), Fichte argues that human beings can only achieve self-consciousness in a social environment of other, self-conscious human beings. 6 This apparently offsets any requirement of an Absolute I. However, in the aforementioned text, Fichte states how the self, prior to achieving self-consciousness is pure activity. So individual self-consciousness is acquired via the activity of the Not-I in the guise of other individuals and objects. This is the position of The Science of Knowledge. As such, there is no tension between the Absolute I and socially acquired consciousness as charged above.
What is the Absolute?
To recap. The Absolute I is a positing activity which posits itself/being. It simultaneously posits a Not-I which limits its activity. The dialectical intermediation between Absolute I and Not I furnishes knowledge about the world by means of transcendental categories and, the Absolute I and Not I divide, creating individual objects in the world, including individual, self-conscious human beings. Through self-consciousness, humans can grasp the Absolute I by means of Intellectual Intuition. So far, the Absolute I has been defined as a 'deed-act' of 'perpetual positing activity'. An unconditional principle that allows the possibility of human consciousness and knowledge to manifest themselves. Alexandre Guilherme proposes three feasible interpretations of the Absolute I: The Classical Reading, the Strong Idealist reading and the Modern Reading. 7
The Classical Reading. In his On the I Principle of Philosophy (1795), a text heavily influenced by Fichte, F.W.J. von Schelling (1775-1854) defines the Absolute I as God, whose condition is unconditioned and unknowable. In a letter to philosopher Karl Reinhold, (2nd July 1795), Fichte wrote that Schelling's interpretation was correct. Further, in later writings, Fichte actually does replace the term Absolute I with the term God.8 In this Classical reading, the Absolute I is, following Spinoza, an immanent God which creates the whole of reality including the Not I (Nature) and all particular existents. Through the Absolute I/God, knowledge of the Not-I and finite existents is made possible. This reading further allows exploration on the subject matter of Spinoza upon German Idealism, particularly upon the thinking of Fichte and Schelling. This is too broad a subject matter to be entered into here.
The Strong Idealist Reading.
This view contests the equating of the Absolute I with Spinoza's pantheistic God/ Nature (Deus sive Natura.) The Absolute I might play the same role as God/Nature as a foundational principle but it is not God/Nature. The Absolute I is pure spontaneity and positing activity, it is the basis for individual, human consciousness. Without the former, the latter could not exist; without the latter, the former could not be known. The Absolute I is the spontaneous activity of Rationality that allows the individual self to arise. This individual self opposes the Not-I. Intermediation between the two produces knowledge. Or in other words, the Subject I dialectically intermediates with the Object. Terry Pinkard reads the positing acts of the Absolute I as the normativity of Reason. 9This position of Strong Idealism seems not dissimilar to that which I have outlined earlier in this paper.
The Modern Reading.
The Absolute I is pure positing activity as known through Intellectual Intuition performed by the individual. Yet knowledge can only be acquired through and by, intermediation with the Not-I. Contrary to the above reading, the Absolute I does not create the I and Not-I, it is the 'I Think' that accompanies the individuals experience of the Not-I furnishing categorical cognition of it.
"Note here that according to this reading the Absolute I does not create the not-I as the strong idealist reading holds. In other words, according to this interpretation the mind is sheer activity and it is spontaneous, that is, one cannot switch off the activity and spontaneity of one's mind. This activity and spontaneity gives rise to one's particular self, that is, through this activity and spontaneity one comes to realise that one is always thinking. But in order for one to gain knowledge and achieve self-consciousness one needs contact with a not-I, with reality, so that the subject-object relation is established and the proper conditions for knowledge and self -consciousness is well grounded." 10
The limiting activity (Anstoss) of the Not-I is highlighted here. By means of such limiting, human knowledge arises. Without such limiting, the Absolute I would remain an act of infinite compulsion, of pure spontaneity totally unaware of itself. Fichte describes this process:
"The Anstoss (which is posited by the positing I) occurs to the I insofar as it is active and, i s thus an Anstoss only insofar as the I is active. Its possibility is conditioned by the activity of the I: no activity of the I, no Anstoss. And vice versa' the I's activity of determining itself would, in turn, be conditioned by the Anstoss: no Anstoss, no determination." 11
This modern reading appears to me, to be very close to Kant's original Transcendental Idealism; save it rules out the problematic Noumea or thing-in-itself. For the intermediation between the individual I and the objects of the Not-I (or subject and object) fully provides the scope for human knowledge. The Absolute I is not God, it is not an ontological entity of any sort, it is an epistemological condition for the possibility of human knowledge.
Mysticism: No Thanks.
The Strong Idealist reading has the Absolute as an ontological foundation for human knowledge. It is further qualified as Reason or Rationality. The Modern Reading has the Absolute as an epistemological phenomena actualised through negation. With both readings, the Absolute is explicable in intellectual terms i.e. through Intellectual Intuition. There are no grounds for any claims of 'mysticism' tout court. So perhaps the Classical reading provides the most favourable approach for the Absolute to be interpreted in a mystical or crypto-mystical manner. With this position, the Absolute is identified with the underlying substance that is God/Nature in Spinoza's Ethics and the I and Not-I are understood as the finite attributes of Mind and Extension respectively. 12 Whether Spinoza's avowedly intellectual conception of God and his larger epistemology lends itself to mysticism is highly unlikely in my opinion. Any claims of 'mysticism' may find the Identity Philosophy of FWJ Schelling more amenable.
1. The Absolute. Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absolute_(philosophy)
2. JG Fichte. The Science of Knowledge. Cambridge University Press. 1991.
3. ibid. p. 98.
4. F. Coppleston. A History of Western Philosophy. Continuum. 2003. p.40.
5. The thesis is that the existence of individual self-consciousness, presupposes and requires socialisation by other, existing conscious beings. Self-consciousness is not self-developing nor is it possible to exist in an isolated, per-social individual.
This theme is found in Schelling and Hegel and in post-German Idealism philosophers such as Karl Marx. Viz:
"Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations." Karl Marx. Thesis on Feuerbach VI. The German Ideology. Lawrence & Wishart. 1996. Ed. CJ. Arthur. P. 122.
"It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence but, their social existence which determines their consciousness" Karl Marx. Preface. A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy. Foreign Languages Press. Peking. 1976. Pp.3/4.
6. J.G. Fichte. Foundations of Natural Right. 29. Cited in Will Dudley. Understanding German Idealism. Acumen. 2007. p.97.
7. Alexandre Guilherme. Fichte and Schelling: The Spinoza Connection. The Influence of Spinoza on the Fichtean and Shellingian Systems of Philosophy. VDM Verlag. 2009.
8. ibid Pp. 83/4. Further, in Fichte's later writings, the Absolute I is explicitly referred to as God. See for example his The Way Towards a Blessed Life. 1806. Biblio Life. 2009
Outlines of the Doctrine of Knowledge. 1810. https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/fichte.htm
9. Terry Pinkard. German Philosophy 1760-1860. The Legacy of Idealism. Cambridge University Press. 2002. P. 114.
10. Guilherme. Op cite. p.94.
11. Fichte. Science of Knowledge. Op cite. p. 212.
12. B. Spinoza. The Ethics. Penguin. 1996.
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