Owen Ware, Fichte’s Moral Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020; xv + 244 pages. ISBN: 978-0190086596.

Reviewed by Jane Dryden, Mount Allison University.

In recent years we have been fortunate to see a number of new English-language books on Fichte’s philosophy, including Allen Wood’s Fichte’s Ethical Thought (2016) and Michelle Kosch’s Fichte’s Ethics (2018). In conversation with these new texts, Owen Ware’s book focuses on The System of Ethics from 1798, situating it within the structure of Fichte’s system, the Wissenschaftslehre, as a whole. His interpretation focuses on an ethics of wholeness, which allows him to challenge more dualistic readings of Fichte, including readings that echo Hegel’s presentation of Fichte in the Differenzschrift, in which the I seeks to dominate over the not-I, subordinating everything to a tyrannical version of reason. As the not-I is identified with one’s own sensible nature and with nature more broadly, this kind of reading implies that there is always a split within the self as well as between (rational) humanity and the natural world. Ware argues that this reading is rarely challenged (three exceptions are cited in an endnote) and that this is “one of the primary causes for the reluctant reception of Fichte’s moral philosophy.” (18) On his account, this reading misconstrues the development of Fichte’s dialectic of agency. Seeing oneself as separate from and above the not-I (or nature) is just a stage. For Ware’s Fichte, our ethical vocation is not to subjugate the not-I, but to achieve self-unity, to reunite what was separated through the act of reflection. This framing, combined with highlighting the role of organicism in Fichte’s thought, has implications for our relation to and treatment of nature and for our understanding of ourselves as natural beings.

While Ware challenges the dualism of the I and not-I, he maintains the well-known distinction in Fichte’s work between the standpoint of philosophy and that of everyday life. This distinction between two different ways of perceiving and understanding the world allows him to make sense of Fichte’s account of the origin of the moral law (75–76) as well as the structure of our conscience (110–113). It allows Ware to separate the arguments of The System of Ethics, as a philosophical work, from those of The Vocation of Man, a popular text published two years later. (112) He also uses it to clarify the aspirations of Fichte’s ethical theory—that “the vocation of the philosopher is one of defending, rather than deflating, the commitments of common consciousness”—arguing that Fichte gives the “standpoint of life primacy over the standpoint of philosophy.” (191)

All these moves make Fichte a somewhat less prickly character than he often seems. Ware solidly grounds them in the text as well as in historical and contemporary debates. The first three chapters (“Origins,” “Freedom,” and “Morality”) situate Fichte’s philosophy in its historical context, discussing Kant, Reinhold, Creuzer, and Maimon. These chapters clarify Fichte’s arguments, as well as helpfully present the 18th-century development of the concept of freedom and the genesis of the moral law. For Fichte, freedom and morality turn out to be “a real synthetic whole,” whose separation “is merely a product of philosophical reflection.” (68)

This structure—re-establishing a whole after being separated through reflection—repeats itself in the relation of the drives, discussed in the fourth chapter. This is where the key components of Ware’s interpretation come together. For Fichte, a drive is a “real ground of activity” and is “the essence of the I.” (87) We have a fundamental drive, an Urtrieb, which is separated through the activity of reflection into a “natural drive” (Naturtrieb) and “pure drive” (reine Trieb). The natural drive is composed of what Fichte describes as “lower expressions” of the Urtrieb, those which are not characterized by reflection; in examining it I view myself as object. (Ethics, 125) The pure drive, on the other hand, is characterized by self-sufficiency and self-determination; in examining it I view myself as subject. (Ethics, 125) As Ware writes, “What we regard as a dualism at the root of our nature as sensible and rational beings is nothing more than a difference of perspectives. My natural drive and my pure drive are expressions of one and the same activity, either considered before or after the boundary line of reflection.” (87) The source of moral worth, the ethical drive, is a “‘mixed drive’ (gemischter Trieb)” (94–95), not the pure drive on its own. Emphasizing Fichte’s characterization of the natural drive, which desires natural things but does not seek to assimilate them, Ware writes: “what the natural drive seeks is not to absorb an object (which would result in its elimination) but rather to relate to it.” (92)

The discussion of the natural drive is connected to Fichte’s organicism, reciprocal interaction in which “each part works in coordination with all others.” (91) Ware emphasizes the role of organicism in the System of Ethics, drawing a connection to the imagery of a tree used in Fichte’s Foundations of Natural Right. (91) This emphasis on organicism allows Ware to describe the relationship of the I and the not-I in a way that does not rest on domination, but rather reciprocity. (79) It also allows him to connect the structure of our agency to Fichte’s account of “the entire system of nature.” (89, 190)

Ware builds on this account of the drives in the following chapter (“Conscience”). He argues that “feelings of conscience express a relation of harmony (or disharmony) between one’s actual willing and the ‘original drive’ (Urtrieb).” (100) Given the distinction between the standpoint of philosophy and the standpoint of everyday life, conscience can be experienced as a “feeling of certainty” without being merely a feeling. (110–113) The next chapter, “Evil,” continues to unpack Fichte’s conception of agency (this chapter also includes a helpful sketch of the stages of agency (122–124)). Here, Ware explores the issue of “inertia” or “laziness” as a cause of evil and argues that on Fichte’s account this inertia is itself something that is willed by us as a kind of “will to passivity.” (135) Because it is willed by us, we are free to improve ourselves. (138) Further, in distinction from contemporary Kantian accounts, Ware emphasizes that Fichte argues that we have “limited reflexive authority”—we cannot fully step back from ourselves, and so cannot put our agency itself into question, but only what we will do. (139–141)

The context for our agency is discussed in the seventh chapter (“Community”). Here, Ware asks about where we derive moral content. The pure drive, which aims at independence, cannot give us moral content alone, unless it were merely “continuous self-denial.” (146) The natural drive seeks enjoyment, but must be ordered in some way. Our ethical vocation is to bring these into harmony; our ethical drive is thus mixed, with the natural drive supplying content and the pure drive supplying form. (147) Ware highlights the role of our embodiment and sociality as further determining the content of the moral law (148–155). We must be able to assess that moral content, and so the eighth and final chapter (“Perfection”) contains a metaethical discussion of Fichte’s ethics as well as continuing to reveal the importance of community. After contrasting consequentialist and deontological readings, Ware develops his own “perfectionist” reading, which he characterizes as deontologist at the level of ordinary moral reasoning, teleological at the level of human reflection, (178) and which emphasizes the goal of the harmony of all members of the community (180–2) through “free, rational, and reciprocal interaction.” (186) In his brief conclusion, Ware connects this social and intersubjective vocation back to the reciprocity found in the drive system and its connection to nature. (189–190)

Ware’s text engages with a number of debates within Fichte scholarship, and the endnotes, particularly for chapter eight, are detailed and would be excellent guides for anyone trying to get a foothold in the literature. The threads within the text are mostly connected by his emphasis on wholeness structured by reciprocal relationship. This appears in the structure of Fichte’s system as a whole, the structure of our drives, the structure of moral community, and the system of nature. Interpreters of Fichte have generally agreed that Fichte intends his system to work as a whole. However, attention to Fichte’s organicism has largely been confined to his political work, Foundations of Natural Right, which connects to a lineage of organic conceptions of the state. Ware’s connection of the organic to the structure of our system of drives and thus to our agency allows him to establish a unity for a self that otherwise seems quite divided. To justify this connection, Ware draws attention to “a largely overlooked section of the System of Ethics: Fichte’s derivation of the natural drive from the ‘entire system of nature’ in §§8-9.” (189)

Absent the connection to organicism, the I and not-I appear as two opposed poles, and reading the I as seeking domination seems inevitable, particularly in relation to nature. This reading is supported by passages in Fichte’s popular text, The Vocation of Man, published just two years after The System of Ethics. In that text, Fichte describes nature in terms of plagues and disasters, calling for its resistance to be exhausted by science and cultivation such that “human power, enlightened and armed by its discoveries, shall control it without effort and peacefully maintain any conquest once it is made.” (Vocation, 83) Ware acknowledges this, but points out that the negative language about nature found in The Vocation of Man is not in The System of Ethics. In an endnote, he provides parallel language from The System of Ethics: that if humanity is to progress, “nature must become mild, matter must become pliant, everything must become such that, with only a little effort, it will grant human beings what they need and the struggle against nature will no longer be such a pressing matter.” (224n14) Ware notes that the practice here will involve “directing” or “modifying” nature; “talk of ‘controlling,’ ‘dominating,’ or ‘mastering’ nature is absent.” (224n14)

Ware’s argument does not merely depend on this wording. Rather, within the context of his ethics of wholeness, the relationship of the I and not-I is reconfigured. The urge for domination or mastery is construed as merely a stage of the development of the pure drive, whose drive for independence should eventually be checked. We fulfill our ethical vocation “by preserving and perfecting our embodiment, our cognition, and our sociality” (185); Ware argues that that interaction with other members of the moral community “is the social core of his entire system of ethics.” (186) Given this social dimension, individual mastery or domination is both impossible and wrongheaded.

Of course, a reader might argue that rendering something “pliant” is still a form of domination even if not using that word. And while Fichte’s social and intersubjective ethics precludes aiming at individual domination or mastery over another, collective human mastery over nature or over unreason is different, even considering an organicist structure. Consider the language of the Foundations of Natural Right, the source of the organicist tree metaphor. Here, Fichte argues that the source of evil in ordinary states is disorder, and he employs a tightly regulated police state to preserve order. (Natural Right, 254–63) The success of the organic structure of the state depends on the domination of unreason by reason. Fichte’s concern for order might be in tension with the process of coming to achieve intersubjective accord, which often turns out to be somewhat messy.

Still, at least within the space of The System of Ethics, Ware has opened a line of interpretation that presents a less austere Fichte, a Fichte for whom we are fully embodied and situated in a world. The ethics of wholeness Ware emphasizes will be congenial to many contemporary philosophers. Fichte’s Moral Philosophy should become a key text in coming years, and I look forward to seeing how Fichte scholarship builds upon this work.


Additional Works Cited

J. G. Fichte (2000), Foundations of Natural Right According to the Principles of the Wissenschaftslehre, tr. M. Baur. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

J. G. Fichte (2005), The System of Ethics, tr. and ed. D. Breazeale and G. Zöller. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

J. G. Fichte (1987), The Vocation of Man, tr. P. Preuss. Indianapolis: Hackett.

G. W. F. Hegel (1977), The Difference Between Fichte’s and Schelling’s System of Philosophy, tr. and ed. H.S. Harris and Walter Cerf. Albany: State University of New York Press.