May 022017

Daniel Breazeale, Thinking Through the Wissenschaftslehre: Themes from Fichte’s Early Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013; xxii + 460 pp.; ISBN: 978-0-19-923363-2

Reviewed by Jane Dryden, Mount Allison University

J.G. Fichte is a frustrating but exciting philosopher to spend time with. His early work, during his period at Jena and immediately thereafter (1794–1801), speaks to many contemporary concerns. But in each text, Fichte treads his own distinct path, unassimilable to other positions, resisting obvious philosophical destinations in favour of whatever will further develop his conception of human freedom and refine his system of philosophy. He is wonderful to teach and share with students, and a rewarding interlocutor for research. For this, however, help is needed, and this is why we owe Dan Breazeale a great debt. In addition to his many translations of Fichte’s writings, Breazeale writes with clarity and care about puzzles in Fichte’s thought.

This book started as a collection of Breazeale’s essays on Fichte, but—characteristic of Breazeale’s scholarly conscientiousness—each chapter has been further developed and updated, with some positions or points of emphasis reconsidered. For example, chapter 5, “The Spirit of the Early Wissenschaftslehre,” is substantially reworked from its early article form, drawing out the methodological comments about how one does philosophy to further emphasize their cautionary tone. Noting that “the responsibilities as well as the pleasures of interpretation are unavoidable” (96; compare to Breazeale 2000, 172), Breazeale instructs us that “One of those responsibilities is that one must begin by reading widely and carefully. Only then can one begin to read critically, that is, begin to evaluate and even to challenge specific claims made by an author in the light of one’s emerging grasp of the spirit that animates his overall project.” (96–97) This serves to guide us toward Breazeale’s scholarly ethos.

As Breazeale notes, “few philosophers have been as insistent as Fichte upon the importance of distinguishing ‘the letter’ from ‘the spirit’ of their own philosophy.” (97) This does not mean that we can read anything into that spirit, thereby betraying “an attitude of cavalier indifference to what a particular thinker may actually have written.” (96) The virtue of Breazeale’s work is to provide us a well-researched account not just of Fichte’s published texts, but of his texts in the context of his letters and lectures, thus giving us the strongest possible tools for discerning the spirit of Fichte’s philosophy. Given Fichte’s frequently-changing presentations of his ideas (with the injunction to the reader to “think it for oneself”), Breazeale’s work is highly valuable.

The book is thus an excellent resource for what one might need for seriously struggling with Fichte. Breazeale and his editor are to be heartily thanked for the decision to provide extensive footnotes, rather than burying the scholarly apparatus in endnotes. In these notes, Breazeale provides sources, full contexts for quotations, historical details about Fichte and his critics and allies, and updated accounts of scholarly debates. Each of these is provided with efficient clarity. Chapters also include extensive cross-references to help the reader pursue a particular theme.

Fichte famously rejects the Kantian thing-in-itself in favour of building his system upon the activity of a radically free I. He describes his system as idealist, in contrast with a position beginning outside of human freedom, labelled “dogmatist.” Breazeale articulates the relationship between idealism and dogmatism in Chapter 11, noting and attempting to resolve the tension between Fichte’s famous line, “The kind of philosophy one chooses depends upon the kind of person one is” (300) and his belief that idealism is “the only ‘true’ or tenable system of philosophy.” (320) Fichte observes that opponents of idealism fail to be motivated by the importance of freedom, due to what he calls a “subjective incapacity,” a failure to have raised the question for themselves. (325) As Breazeale notes, Fichte recognizes both “practical as well as theoretical requirements for the successful pursuit of philosophy.” (324) These include not just the ability to think but the ability to will and the apprehension of the importance of freedom, which no one can have imposed upon them.

This can make Fichte sound like a proto-existentialist, for whom the question of our freedom is based on a kind of leap, or groundless choice to adopt freedom as philosophical orientation. (313–4) Breazeale explicitly rejects this interpretation and its potential linkage to William James or Friedrich Nietzsche, and his carefully-articulated Chapter 11 helps to disentangle this by examining Fichte’s account of how a person can come to learn and be educated into the Wissenschaftslehre. This opens up potential for exploring how we can convince others without attempting to force them how to think, while yet recognizing the ways in which others may be unconvinced by our arguments. (327–333)

While dialing down the existentialist reading of the choice between idealism and dogmatism, Breazeale describes the existential import of Fichte’s philosophy in helping us overcome our alienation with ourselves in Chapter 6, “The Divided Self and the Tasks of Philosophy.” We are both thinking and willing creatures, creatures of “head” and “heart,” who experience the limitations of the world and yet strive to make it otherwise. (133) While Fichte believes that we must strive to overcome this division through our activity (“practical action”)—to make the world over in accordance with reason—he nonetheless recognizes this striving to be endless, the task uncompleted. As Breazeale writes, “only insofar as one is not in fact self-determined can one be aware that one ought to be self-determined, and only a person conscious of his own dual nature can strive for a unified one.” (136)

This existential conflict is at the core of the Jena Wissenschaftslehre, as Breazeale describes it. Describing a distinction between the “existential” and the “scientific” tasks of Fichte’s system, Breazeale concludes that

the central practical or existential task of the Wissenschaftslehre is to address and to help satisfy the longing for unity that grows out of each person’s sense of his own profoundly divided condition and that a scientific system of philosophy ‘addresses’ this condition (and hence satisfies its primary existential task), not by eliminating the division in question, but rather, by demonstrating its transcendental necessity, thereby reconciling one to the practical realities implied by the ideal of ‘endless striving.’ (125)

In other words, philosophy helps us to make sense of our divided condition, by showing it to be both necessary and the root of our vocation in the world. The feeling of a “painful lack of unity within one’s everyday experience” or the sense of “guilt” both help drive us toward transcendental philosophy, playing into the kind of subjectivity required to be an idealist. (145)

Fichte’s philosophy might then seem deeply personal, geared toward addressing a subjective need; further, he enjoined his students to “Act! Act! That is what we are here for.” (quoted on 129) He writes to Jacobi, “What is the purpose of the speculative standpoint, and indeed of philosophy as a whole, if it does not serve life?” (quoted on 128)

But, Breazeale reminds us, this speculative standpoint must not be confused with everyday life. As Breazeale quotes a letter from Fichte to Reinhold,

I, in contrast, believe that one of the distinctive advantages of scientific idealism is that it knows itself very well and humbly renounces the exalted goal of improving and instructing mankind. Life can be improved only by those things that themselves proceed from life. Idealism, however, is the true opposite of life. The proper goal of idealism is knowledge for its own sake. It is of practical benefit only indirectly—that is, its utility is pedagogic, in the broadest sense of the term. (quoted on 148)

This letter was written in the wake of the Atheism Controversy, in which Fichte was accused of atheism, due in part to his 1798 essay, “On the Foundation of Our Belief in a Divine Government of the Universe,” in which God seems to be identified with the moral world-order itself. During the course of this controversy, it is hardly a surprise that Fichte would want to make a strong distinction between the philosopher’s privilege of freely following an idea wherever it might lead and the concrete individual’s concern for their own situation. By situating the one as pure and the other as impure, he can cast his accusers as hostile to philosophy itself.

For Breazeale, this is not simply a reaction to a particular chain of events, but essential to understanding Fichte’s philosophy. In chapter 14, “The Problematic Primacy of the Practical,” he discusses the ways in which Fichte has been taken to be a philosopher pursuing the Kantian principle of “the primacy of practical reason” and described primarily as an “ethical idealist.” (404) Those interpreting Fichte in this way have over-emphasized Fichte’s emphasis on practical activity, argues Breazeale, and thus suggest that Fichte was not trying to provide a better account of consciousness and the possibility of experience but “to forward his own political and moral aims.” (406) Regarding the slogan of the “primacy of the practical,” Breazeale writes “I am convinced that the unthinking application of this familiar Kantian formula to the Wissenschaftslehre überhaupt has done more to hinder than to facilitate an accurate understanding of Fichte’s early system.” (407) In the conclusion to the chapter, he deems the slogan “as misleading as it is revealing.” (437)

After discussing a range of meanings of “the practical” in Fichte’s philosophy, Breazeale explains that

The practical function of philosophy is therefore to serve the fundamental practical interests of humanity, both at the individual and the societal level. Somewhat paradoxically, however, transcendental idealism, according to Fichte, can serve such a practical function only if it rigorously preserves its own independence from the practical standpoint and proceeds entirely in accordance with the laws and methods of pure theoretical speculation. (429)

The philosopher should first abstract from the standpoint of everyday experience, then pursue the investigation, and only afterward return; further, “once one has committed oneself to any philosophical project it is utterly inappropriate to appeal to extra-philosophical criteria for advancing or correcting one’s deductions.” (420) Now, the freedom of the philosophizing subject is a starting point that cannot itself be grounded within the system, and Breazeale acknowledges that this is “one of Fichte’s bolder and more original thoughts.” (423) But he then goes on to warn that recognizing this “does not provide the theoretical philosopher with carte blanche to invoke purely practical/moral considerations.” (423)

The distinction between the standpoint of philosophy and that of everyday life allows Fichte’s idealism to be unchallenged by seemingly common-sense objections based in experience. For instance, it is quite helpful in defending Fichte’s denial of the thing-in-itself—something that seems to make no sense in our everyday encounters with the world, but which may make a great deal of sense when built into a transcendental account of the conditions of those encounters, particularly when compared with Kant’s invocation of the noumenal thing-in-itself.

But the effect of this distinction can seem limiting, as though we were promised a wholesale revolution and only got a new system of logic, which we then had to promise not to use on anything real. This raises questions about what we are doing when we do history of philosophy that go beyond this particular collection. How can Fichte’s idealism serve life, as he told Jacobi it should, if it cannot serve our life? Even aside from contemporary discussions of historicism and non-ideal theory, it is worth recalling Fichte’s contemporary Friedrich Schlegel, who wrote, “The French Revolution, Fichte’s philosophy, and Goethe’s Meister are the greatest tendencies of the age.” (quoted in Millán 2007, 86) As Elizabeth Millán notes, Schlegel believed that “Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre had revolutionized the field of philosophy, setting it on a path that celebrated human freedom, a path which every subsequent philosopher would have to traverse.” (Millán 2007, 86) Schlegel is not satisfied, however, with Fichte; as Millán summarizes, Fichte “must take account of history and science so that his view of knowledge is not isolated from human reality. Idealism is empty if it is not connected to the concrete realities of the world.” (Millán 2007, 89)

This may be the case, but, recalling Breazeale’s comments regarding responsibility in reading, if I am going to develop my own ideas in conversation with Fichte, it is important not to attribute to him things he does not say. This, in turn, gives me the best opportunity for having him challenge my own contemporary philosophical assumptions, since I am not reading my own preoccupations back into his text. Breazeale makes clear that “however attractive the Wissenschaftslehre might seem as a means for overcoming certain contradictions in the minds and hearts of its readers, this has little if any relevance to assessing the philosophical—which is to say, strictly theoretical—value of his system.” (438)

Breazeale is concerned primarily, in this chapter and in the book as a whole, to provide an honest and accurate scholarly account of the details of Fichte’s philosophy, and where there is ambiguity, to clarify it with reference to Fichte’s own publications, lectures, and letters. This collection is thus an essential companion for navigating Fichte’s thought and for understanding and interpreting the seeming tensions between Fichte’s revolutionary language and his deflationary separation of philosophy from life. Whatever we choose to do with Fichte’s thought, at least may we do it with the conscientiousness and care modelled for us by Dan Breazeale.


Additional Works Cited

Breazeale, Daniel (2000), “The Spirit of the Wissenschaftslehre,” in The Reception of Kant’s Critical Philosophy: Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, (ed.) S. Sedgwick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 171–198.

Millán, Elizabeth (2007), Friedrich Schlegel and the Emergence of Romantic Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press).