Week 5: Fichte


Fichte considers the systematicity and soundness of every science to stem from the fact that it has one completely certain proposition: a ‘first principle’.  By ‘science of science as such’ (§ 1) or ‘doctrine of science’ (Wissenschaftslehre) Fichte refers to the mode of philosophy that establishes the general certainty of the first principles of all the sciences, and which guarantees that all sciences can base their certainty on a first principle.  The doctrine of science should itself rest on an indubitable foundation.


(38-41). What are the key characteristics of a science on Fichte’s account? Why is a systematic natural history of ethereal spirits not a science?


A systematic form, all its propositions joined together in a first principle, that serves as a unified whole; these are key characteristics of a science. Fichte also uses a metaphor of a building with a sound foundation to describe science and also, ‘in science merit is based not on the luck of discovery, but rather on the integrity of the search – which is something in regard to which everyone can only judge and reward himself. […]’ A natural history of ethereal spirits is not a science because for Fichte a proposition such as in the air there exist ‘creatures with human desires, passions, and concepts, but with ethereal bodies’ is groundless and indemonstrable and so could not possibly be a science.


(40-41). How does a ‘first principle’ provide certainty for a science?


A first principle provides certainty for science because science demands that all its propositions unite into a whole, therefore for the science to contain certainty, validity, and truth it has to have at least one proposition, a first principle which contains these qualities and can be demonstrated as being so…

‘This undoubtedly occurs because the individual propositions were not scientific propositions by themselves, but only became scientific in the context of the whole -through their position within and relation to the whole. But merely by connecting parts we can never produce anything which is not already present in one of the parts of the whole. So if among the propositions which were bound together there had not been one which was certai, then the whole which was produced by binding these propositions together would not be certain either. ‘


(47-48). Why is it not possible for the doctrine of science to prove its first principle?


Such a thing is not possible because as Fichte demonstrates by articulating that the proofs within systems presupposes the certainty of first principles and this is referred to as the inner content, then the way this is communicated to the other propositions is termed as the form of the science. Following this Fichte asks a question: how is science possible? He answers by stating, ‘It would take a science to answer these questions: The science of science as such. […]’. This science is precisely for Fichte what philosophy is, but we are told this has not happened yet (here we should be aware of the history of philosophy in that from Aristotle it in the form of metaphysics was thought of as the first science). Fichte’s explanation shows clearly this process of philosophy becoming a doctrine of science, in German Wissenschaftslehre.

 ‘It is immaterial whether or not people have always meant precisely this by the word “philosophy.” Afterward, this science (if philosophy ever becomes a science) will be justified in casting off a few names which it has previously assumed out of (a by no means exaggerated) modesty: the names “esoteric amusement,” “hobby,” and “dilettantism.” The nation which discovered this science would deserve to give it a name in its own language, in which case it could be called simply “science,” or “Theory of Scientific Knowledge” [that is, Doctrine of Science]. And accordingly, what has previously been called “philosophy” would be “the science of science as such”.

(End of 71). By the act that is not “included among those acts of the mind which are all necessary,” Fichte refers to the act of reflection that is carried out by the philosopher alone. This reflection on the essential elements of thought is itself a free act.


  • . ‘It is however… is not itself’. How does Fichte diverge from Descartes’ approach here?


Where Descartes offered God as an explanation for res cognitas as its often translated as a thinking thing where the intellect is seen as close to God. This contrasts with Fichte because God is absent and so is a reflection on the body. Moreover we can read a divergence when we appreciate that Fichte saw the “I” as self-positing but placed no importance of being conscious of this process, compared to Descartes extreme reductionism, ‘Nor is it necessary that we ever become clearly conscious of this act of self-positing, or that the intellect be capable of thinking simply “I am,” without at the same time thinking of something which is not itself.’


(70-72). Which aspects of Kant’s practical philosophy are you reminded of here?


Fichte discusses “the acts of the mind” existing independently of the science and providing a what in advance. Going on to say that acts happen in specific ways distinguishing them one from the other which shows the how of what is in the mind. He concludes by saying that ‘content and form are present in the mind prior to our knowledge.’ This is strongly reminiscent of Kant’s assertion that humans have an understandable autonomy of will, and following this our existence in the world of sense creates a synthetic a prioi “ought to”, a universal imperative. Therefore the content would be the will, and the form would be sense in Kant’s Practical Philosophy.


(§8). This section (‘Hypothetical Division…’) can be elucidated by referring to Kant’s idea that thinking itself (the I) brings about the conditions under which something can appear as an object of knowledge (not-I). For Kant, these conditions are space, time, and the twelve categories. Seen in this dynamic way, Kant is concerned not so much with an opposition between subject and object, but rather with the activity that is carried out by the subject and brings about the very opposition between the two. Fichte calls the I that is not part of that opposition, but rather brings it about, the ‘absolute I.’


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