YouTube video here: Chapter 3 – Fichte’s Choice
Welcome to Lecture 4 and Chapter 3 (Part 1) in Less Than Nothing titled “Fichte’s Choice”. In this episode we will be approaching the second figure in the quartet of German Idealism: Johann Fichte. Fichte represents a break with the Kantian metaphysical tradition, a break represented in a choice that introduces a fundamental separation that would structure not only the rest of the German Idealist path, but also the post-Kantian divide in philosophy related to interpretations of subjectivity. In order to fully go into the depths of this chapter we will approach it in two parts, so that we do not miss any crucial distinctions that will be necessary for us to understand in order to properly dive into the “Hegelian Thing-in-itself”.
If you have not read [or watched] the first lecture essays [videos] I would recommend starting at the beginning and working your way up to Fichte’s Choice. In the Introduction we covered some fundamental concepts, in the Chapter 1 we covered Platonic truth; in Chapter 2 we covered a reinterpretation of Christianity; and now we are diving into the core of German Idealism. As mentioned this episode, along with many future chapters, will be separated into two parts for the pragmatic reason that there is a lot of depth and we want to be able to cover it in its full depth.
In the opening Žižek asks us to contemplate the major or official couples of philosophical history, from Plato and Aristotle, Wagner and Nietzsche, Hegel and Marx, Husserl and Heidegger. In these couplings we always or at least typically tend think about them in a linear trajectory with Aristotle “correcting” Plato; Nietzsche “correcting” Wagner; Marx “correcting” Hegel, or Heidegger “correcting” Husserl. In this systematic view of meta-philosophy there is a type of teleological underpinning where we assume that knowledge is a progressive endeavour of one thinker building on the next, where errors by the first thinker are updated and improved by the following thinker. Thus, we may say that Plato’s crazy realm of Ideas was corrected later by Aristotle who fully embedded such a realm in the actual; or we may say that Hegel’s crazy idea of an Absolute State at the end of history was corrected later by Marx who recognized the end of States in a liberated worker’s revolution.
However, against this standard form of progressivist interpretation Žižek offers that we do precisely the opposite. Instead of thinking in terms of a linear progression of knowledge with one thinker following the next, we should instead turn our reflection into a type dynamical circle where we challenge ourselves with the highest philosophical task of thinking what the “out-dated” thinker would say to his “intellectual successor”. In this mode philosophy gets flipped upside down because we are able to think of the impossible. Of course, Plato could not actually respond to Aristotle, Hegel could not actually respond to Marx, and so forth. But, in a properly dialectical act of speculative philosophy, what would Plato say to Aristotle? What would Hegel say to Marx? Is it simply that the earlier thinker would accept the presuppositions of the later thinker? Or is it that perhaps the earlier thinker would see the holes and gaps in the later thinker that our progressivist epistemological ideology prevents us from accurately identifying? What if the truth of Aristotle is precisely that he misunderstood Plato’s deepest insights? What if the truth of Marx is that he abandoned Hegel’s deepest insights? In that situation could we say that the “problems with Plato” or the “problems with Hegel” are precisely due to misinterpretations of their intellectual successors?
This brings us to reflections on the Idealist quartet within German Idealism. In the traditional line we have Kant followed by Fichte, Fichte followed by Schelling, Schelling followed by Hegel, and so forth. In his linear narrative Kant introduces the world to a properly transcendental philosophy worthy of the Newtonian scientific world; Fichte takes a subjectivist idealist break from Kant and dives into the world of the radically engaged subject; Schelling articulates the transcendental genesis of Nature in the primordial emergence of subjectivity; and Hegel understands the motion of historically constituted subjectivity with properly dialectical methods. But in this line we see post-Kantian and post-Hegelian historical ruptures internal to philosophy. We see philosophical schools which only accept Kant and reject the others; we see philosophical schools which privlege Hegel over all others; we see philosophical schools which identify the Kantian turn as a major mistake in philosophical history, and so forth. In this intellectual mess we miss, perhaps, the properly dialectical reversals between the thinkers. What would Fichte say to Schelling? Or, perhaps most interesting, what would Kant say to Hegel? Of course, by the time Hegel developed his most mature system of spirit, Kant had long since passed away. Would Kant accept the development of idealism under Fichte-Schelling-Hegel as major revolutions in philosophy? Or would Kant see this as a regression back into the pre-critical philosophies that he sought to destroy with pure reason?
In this context consider the following (1):
When the Old is attacked by the New, the first appearance of the New is, as a rule, flat and naive — the true dimension of the New arises only when the Old reacts to (the first appearance of) the New.
True revolutionaries are always reflected conservatives. […] True “progress” emerges from reaction of the Old to progress.”
“To grasp philosophy at its most radical, one should imagine, for example, how Kant would have answered Hegel […], how Hegel would have answered Marx[.]
With this in mind let us dive into the work of Johann Fichte. Fichte is often dismissed as a false subjectivist turn or regression into pre-critical Absolutist philosophy. But is this really the case? What is the core of Fichte’s philosophy and how is it relevant to us today?
In Fichte’s work we see the emergence of a philosopher who was first and foremost concerned with something that few philosophers had been concerned about before him: the actual lived experience and the actual life of the mind. Towards this end Fichte was interested in developing a philosophy that was worthy of the lived mind. In this perhaps simplistic sense, Fichte can be seen as a precursor to the phenomenology and to existentialism as a school.
One of Fichte’s central claims in developing this philosophy was the point that each philosophical gesture, each figure of consciousness in the history of philosophy, should not be seen as a neutral or naively objective view of the world, but a reflective appropriation of a lived attitude that is fundamentally pre-theoretical, a lived attitude that precedes abstraction in an existential mode. Thus, in this view, a philosopher like, for example, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, William Blake, Parmenides, or Democritus, should not be read independent from an understanding of their lived experiences, their existential attitudes, and their embedded life history in the world. The philosophical worldview is not just an objective gaze, but a dynamical screen that functions as a pragmatic aid for subjectivity in the world.
Moreover, such a conjecture is maintained throughout within the idealist school. Indeed, the idea that every philosophical worldview reflected the existential attitude of the particular observer’s real lived mind, is an idea that is carried by Hegel in a dialectical systematization. For Hegel, the unity of the notion in its totality is nothing but all existential attitudes in their historical becoming; the becoming of the spirit. Here we see that what Kant set free in the idealist tradition with a post-Newtonian frame became monstrously radical. In Newtonian science there is no room for a proper understanding of the subject, in Newtonian science we start with fundamentally “dead” physical matter and its motion according to laws of physics. However, in the post-Kantian philosophical break we are engaged in an activity that is basically its opposite, we are dealing with the activity of minds themselves and the nature of their worldviews as emergent from lived existential attitudes in historical becoming.
In this way we can say that what Fichte became most focused on is not simply the object, or simply the subject, but the division between the subject and the object. Thus Fichte was not just interested in a noumenal outside that we could observe, nor just the structure of a priori conceptual systems that represent a phenomenal inside, but the very division that separates them, a division that allows for a movement.
Here Fichte attempts to explicitly reintroduce God or the Absolute into philosophy, and not in some naturalist Spinozan substantialist sense. For Fichte, God or the Absolute was what emerged internal to the division between subject and object in a transcendental Image that was experienced by the mind itself as Absolute. Here we have a container as a perfect circle that completes the subject internal to its own motion, the pure and immovable being that can be found universally to subjectivity. In that sense we can say that Fichte’s Absolute was not a naturalist substantialist God but a trans-subjective God, a God that emerged in the gap or division internal to subjectivity.
Thus, if we consider the Fichtean perspective the very nature of the “I-form” or the “self-consciousness” as a “historical conscious figure” is all a part of the imagistic becoming of the Absolute itself. Every I-form in its self-positing structures the horizon of the world and the horizon of being and this is the becoming of Absolute understanding. In that sense Fichte makes a clear distinction between pre-critical Absolute God and the I qua I-form (2):
“The ground is no longer identified with the I qua absolute I but with something prior to and originally independent of the I (“God”). By contrast, the I qua I-form is the basic mode for the appearance of the absolute, which does not appear itself and as such.”
Here we can capture the crucial Fichtean distinction if we pay close attention. In the pre-critical form we have I qua Absolute God that pre-exists the subjectively lived mind. In contrast, in Fichte’s world such notions of the “Absolute” do not precede the form that is given by the self-positing I. The self-positing I qua I-form gives the form of the Absolute as the immoveable ground of all being.
Now let us compare Fichte with Hegel when it comes to both the Absolute and historical becoming. The first thing one should keep note of is that Fichte’s structure in no way should be interpreted in a naive or simplistic Platonic representation. Fichte was fully aware of the historicity of the Absolute and its dynamism. However, Fichte was also not ready to conceive of a substanceless Absolute, Fichte was not ready to conceive an Absolute that had no positive ground, an Absolute that was totally abyssal (or recall Plato’s horror vacui which threatened philosophy with sophistic language games; or Parmenides radical assertion of Absolute Being against the unbearable forceful negativity of Absolute Nothing). Thus Fichte’s absolute as I qua I-form maintains a historical Absolute Being, where the subjective appearing in history occurs between its two “mad poles” of Absolute Being; of a Fall from the One and Return to the One in the self-positing of the I qua I-form which grounds a positive Absolute Being.
In contrast, for Hegel, we have Fichte flipped upside down. For Hegel, Fichte was not able to see that the appearance of the Absolute Being in the I-form was the Absolute’s own abyssal self-reflection in a negative image. In that sense Hegel is saying that we do not need to make an extra ontological assertion of Absolute Being, of a positive Oneness that ties together the beginning and the end; that there is merely the realm of limited subjective appearing in history; and that the appearance of the Absolute (as a trans-subjective immovable being) is nothing but the subjective appearing in history of subjectivities own self-limitations over an abyssal freedom of negative images. Thus, Hegel’s point is that there is no positive “Other” that is consistent and complete for all eternity; there is no positive “Other” that will always stay the same in every universe; that is holding the place of eternity; there is nothing but our negativistic “Absolute” reflections (I-forms) in this absence.
In this way Hegel would critique Fichte as a step backwards in terms of philosophical metaphysics proper, a step backwards due to a desire to project self or internal incompletion (Fichte’s own “existential attitude”) into the incompletion of subjective forms themselves (the totality of all possible “existential attitudes”). In that sense Hegel would say that Fichte was all too quick to project an absolute positive container which would hold all historical subjectivity, i.e. a “trans-subjective” Absolute immovable Being. From this point of view Fichte is a precise reversal of Kant in a “crazy subjectivist stance” since Kant had to ground subjective appearances in a positive noumenal beyond outside or external to subjectivity, and Fichte had to ground subjective appearances in a trans-phenomenal or internal positive being beyond mere historical subjectivity.
What we here have to confront is a strange irony of the archetypal subjective idealist, in some sense, reducing subjectivity to the Absolute Being. Historical subjective appearances are nothing but the lower level reality of the Absolute’s fall and return. Here we could reverse the claims that modern atheists often make about pre-critical religious belief: that subjectivity is reduced to an appearance of a pre-existing Absolute God. In contrast, Fichte could be said to reduce subjectivity to the becoming appearances of an Absolute God that emerges in the I-form. For Fichte, when we experience a transcendental vision, this is not “appearance qua appearance” (or I-form qua I-form) in a suprasensible realm, but an “appearance qua Absolute Being”.
In this precise sense Hegel would say that Fichte makes the mistake of confusing his Absolute Image for the Absolute Being; and that this distinction really does matter in the context of understanding the subjective appearance of historical becoming.
Here is a formulaic critique in its totality from Newton to Kant to Fichte (3):
“First from objective reality to the transcendental I, then from the transcendental I to the absolute Being”
This is where we situate the critique that (4):
“the I’s self-positing is an image of the divine Absolute, not the Absolute itself”
In that sense it is totally unnecessary to labour under the presupposition of Absolute Being; it actually prevents us from making progress in our knowledge and understanding. Consequently, Hegel is not a philosopher who “builds up the Image of absolute Being” but precisely the philosopher who puts into dialectical motion the image itself.
Thus Fichte’s attempt to understand the life motion of subjectivity in history failed to understand that the Absolute’s appearing in history is not an appearance of an Absolute being but a self-actualization in an image; and that this self-reflection of the Absolute is the becoming of the Absolute in its immanent negativity. In this language it is crucial to emphasize that the Absolute is an imagistic shining through internal to the appearances; that there is no Absolute Being behind or beyond them that would ground them forever and for always.
Finally, this brings us to the Hegelian axiom of the Absolute: the Absolute is not just a Substance (in the Spinozan sense); but it is also a Subject (with no Absolute Being that would ground it absolutely). Here we are able to think the pure negativity of the Absolute, the way in which the Absolute appears as the exact opposite of the pre-critical Absolute God, as a self-effacing of Absolute Being. In this way we are able to think subjectivity as inscribed in the core of the Absolute’s self-revelation. In this way, Hegel’s ultimate critique of Fichte is not that Fichte is “too subjective” but not able to think the way in which subjectivity is at the very core of Absolute self-revelation (5):
“‘God’ is not an absolute Being persisting in itself, it is the pure virtuality of a Promise, the pure appearing of itself. In other words, the ‘Absolute’ beyond appearances coincides with an ‘absolute appearance’, an appearance beneath which there is no substantial being.”
Here let us take a first look at the structure of Hegel’s Absolute in its most precise descriptions. First we start with objective idealism; this is not “objectivity” in a naive classical scientific sense or a Kantian noumenal sense; but an “objective idealism” that is a pure speculative “philosophy of nature”. Second we move to subjective idealism; which, as we have covered, has no absolute ground in being, but is simply the realm of imagistic ideals in-themselves, what we can call a “transcendental philosophy”.
Now in this opposition between objective idealism and subjective idealism, crucially, we do not have a third term in order to deal with the division between the two. And this is constitutive of Hegelian dialectics proper. As Žižek states (6):
“There is no need for a Third element, the medium or Ground beyond the subject and object-substance. We start with objectivity, and the subject is nothing but the self-mediation of objectivity. When, in Hegel’s dialectics, we have a couple of opposites, their unity is not a Third, an underlying medium, but one of the two.”
In this dialectical procedure, of course, the “one of the two” is on the side of the subject. The subject is mediating the object, the object is not mediating the subject. The subject is processing objectivity, attempting to understand its objective ideality in a philosophy of nature; and the genesis of this mediation can be found in the transcendental philosophy where we can study empirically the ideas. In that sense we affirm totally the asymmetry of the absolute, of the way in which there is no symmetry that would allow for a higher permanent being. And, as we will see throughout the lectures on Hegel’s system in later lectures, this is a very general principle that can be taken into the realm oppositional determination as such.
Thus, in the next analysis of the Hegelian Absolute we have a triadic structure that is radically open. This means that any Hegelian “third term” is the term of an openness that emerges from a closure of the asymmetrical relation between the Two. In geometrical terms the Hegelian triangle is never complete and closed in on itself.
In the first term we are dealing with what Hegel calls metaphysics proper. In metaphysics proper we are simply dealing with the fact that we perceive reality out there, Nature, in all of its complexity. In this way the task of a good philosopher is to analyze the structure of this being. This is to analyze simply the universal structure of being. As we covered in the first lecture, the task of understanding the universal structure of being was the only realm of philosophy proper before the Kantian break; philosophy was the universal meditation on being, whereas science was the particular mediation on aspects of being.
In the second term, we move into transcendental philosophy, and thus we affirm the asymmetry internal to the poles of the Hegelian Absolute. In this affirmation the philosopher’s task changes from understanding the universal structure of being to understanding the subjective conditions of the possibility of objective reality. This is really the breakthrough of Kant. In this transcendental turn we are not so much interested in the appearances of being, but understanding how it could be that a reality appears to us as it does in the first place. Again, in our modern context, what must be necessary for a universe to emerge from a singularity? What must be necessity for a universe to have the spatial and temporal qualities that it does? What must be necessary for a universe with spatial and temporal qualities at all? What must be necessary for a universe to locally produce self-reproducing living systems or self-referential beings? Of course, this a subtly but important distinction from understanding the structure of the big bang, the structure and function of life, or the structure and function of the mind. Even if we have total descriptions of universe, life, and mind; we still have not approached the properly transcendental question.
Third, we move into the Hegelian speculative realm of the Absolute. In this third level, we encounter a radical openness. This radical openness involves the fact that subjectivity itself is re-inscribed into reality, but not simply reduced to an objective aspect of reality. In that sense subjectivity is the introduction of something new and critical into the becoming of the Absolute. Subjectivity, or the subject, is not just another object. The subject is something more like a radical hole in being. In this sense, if subjectivity is a hole in being, then what we are dealing with is a failure of Absolute identity, a failure of recognition internal to being, a gap between the I (self-identity) and being itself.
Now let us return to Fichte. In Fichte’s philosophy at its highest moments we find the desire to break from deterministic materialism. In that sense if Kant prepared the ground for a post-Newtonian philosophy, it was Fichte who was bold enough to think the the consequences of this post-Newtonian philosophy. Of course, the opposite of a deterministic materialism is the subjective autonomy of freedom, the reality of freedom. Freedom, our most basic experience that we are agents who can make choices about our lives, that we are not just determined from all time by physical laws, is the basic presuppositions that structured Fichte’s analysis of our existential life world, and the reality of the mind.
However, if we think through the consequences of both deterministic materialism in the Newtonian frame, or the deterministic idealism of a classical religious frame, we find that there is no space, no real space, for freedom in either frame. In the Newtonian frame we are reduced to physical law, and the religious frame we are reduced the God’s law. Where is the space for a free choice? Where the space for the subject to bring about the new?
Thus, here we should consider the fact that Fichte’s more practical view of philosophy as being embedded in an existential life world that allows for the emergence of a philosophical stance, can be wedded with Hegel’s open triad of the Absolute, where speculative philosophy takes the place of either a reduction to deterministic materialism or a deterministic idealism (7):
“Both materialism and idealism lead to consequences which make practical activity meaningless or impossible. In order for me to be practically active, engaged in the world, I have to accept myself as a being “in the world”, caught in a situation, interacting with real objects which resist me and which I try to transform. Furthermore, in order to act as a free moral subject, I have to accept the independent existence of other subjects like me, as well as the existence of a higher spiritual order in which I participate and which is independent of natural determinism.”
Fichte builds his practical existential worldview on the basis of a break from Kant that there is an irreducible gap between our philosophical knowledge as we understand it in transcendental philosophy, and our practical-ethical engagement with the world. In other words, no matter how much knowledge a philosopher has about the world and the conditions for its appearance, this in no way reduces to our knowledge of how to act in the world. What the world is made out of and its processes and its conditions of appearances; is fundamentally different from how we should act in the world and how we should engage with complex psychosocial conditions in the world.
Here Fichte introduces a crucial distinction building on Kant. This is in relationship to Kant’s fundamental claim of transcendental philosophy that a subject’s knowledge is constructed from given sensations into a notional unity in a free action. In this system we have the idea that the transcendental synthetic imagination is a structure that takes a multiplicity of phenomena and reduces it into a coherent unity.
What Fichte adds to this notion of transcendental philosophy is the idea of the gap between the multitude of sensations and the synthetic unity, what he calls “Anstoss” (which can be translated into obstacle or hindrance). Consequently in this gap Fichte discusses the nature of a primordial obstacle internal to the formation of a subjective unity. According to Fichte, this primordial obstacle is what sets in motion the free act of a synthetic unity, the process of subjective self-limitation; this is how Fichte is capable of building a philosophy where the existential attitude of the philosopher precedes the philosophical system building itself. In this sense whenever a philosopher or a scientist constructs a metaphysical system we should always ask ourselves what is the underlying Anstoss, what is the underlying obstacle, that set the construction of this system in motion?
This is an irreducible paradox. What Fichte introduces here is “objective” and, actually, trans-subjective. What is objective and trans-subjective is the internal encounter with an obstacle, something that gets in the way, something that prevents things from running smoothly. This insubstantial obstacle (since it is not a thing, or a positive being) is also what the subject comes to understand as something formless, something like an irreducible otherness that is preventing it from fully actualizing itself. Thus, what Kant suggests: that the transcendental synthetic imagination constructs a unity in a free act; what is missing, according to Fichte, is that this construction activity is preceded by the anstoss: by the formless and irreducible otherness which precedes the emergence of a unified form. In this sense, Žižek claims, that Fichte was the first philosopher to consider the “uncanny contingency at the heart of subjectivity” (8), that every necessary notional form (in its unified light) is preceded by its chaotically contingent formlessness (its anti-unified darkness). Here the “existential attitude” is formed in relation to this anstoss, in relation to this obstacle that precedes the constructed form.
This paradox requires a lot of thought. How does this structure between the inside and outside, between obstacle and self-positing, manifest itself, precisely? One thing is clear, the Anstoss is not simply what the I qua I-form posits for itself out of nothing in order to stimulate its activity. This is the Kantian presupposition that becomes impossible after Fichte. The subjective construction, with its idealized background, does not just emerge in a de-existentialized vacuum.
Thus, the question is rather “Does [Anstoss] ‘provoke/disturb’ the I from the outside, or is it posited by the I itself?’ (9) The problem identified by Fichte is that the Anstoss is neither produced by the activity of the I, and neither is it an outside externality in the world. At the same time it is in a sense “purely subjective” in the sense that Anstoss only exists in relation to the formation of a subjectivity. In that sense it is an “objectivity” (in the form of a formless non-assimilable real, or foreign entity) that structures subjectivity from within, that stimulates an activity.
From this perspective we can only say that the subject-object division is constituted in its simultaneous overlapping between positing and obstacle, they co-emerge in a (broken) circular motion where the self-positing (in its self-delimitation) creates or requires an obstacle; and an obstacle (in its limiting otherness) creates or stimulates self-positing. In that way what we naively think of as reality emerges from this (broken) circular relation between the self-positing and the obstacle.
In that sense the I is always something that forms in relation to (what becomes) a non-I. The I, in its irreducible finitude, has a fundamental background or anti-background (the non-I; the inability to be a full identity with itself), and this background as the non-I gets various names in relation to self-posited obstacles that can change throughout the existence of a life-mind. This non-I preventing full self-identity can be conceived as an infinite otherness all around me that is definitely not me but which surrounds me. I did not put it there, it appears as my contingent background. I do not know its limit or its nature outside of me, it is just there appearing to me, and changing in relation to my repetitive self limitation.
However, paradoxically, the non-I, as purely subjective, is thus ultimately the consequence of subjective positing. Or said in another way, there is no non-I before the emergence of the I. The I qua I-form produces in its self-limitation (stimulated by the anstoss) the non-I. Or as Žižek claims (11):
“the [infinite] non-I and the finite I are mutually limiting opposites in order to resolve the immanent tension of its processuality. […] The non-I is nothing but the non-positedness of the I. Or, the non-I is active only insofar as I render myself passive and thus let it act back on me.””
In other words, the I, in the transcendental synthetic power to delimit itself in an I-form, can overdetermine the structure of the non-I, what is non-I is something that forms in the I qua I-form. Thus what non-I acts on my I-form is something that, asymmetrically, the I-form determines.
From this knowledge Fichte proposed the formula for the subject as I=I; or Identity (I) is equal to the impossible image. As we have already covered the impossible image in-itself, for Fichte, was Absolute Being, and this is what Hegel refused. However, the crucial distinction in Fichte’s understanding of the formation of the I is that we can study the horizon of impossible images. The horizon of these impossible images are emergent I-forms that structure their unities in relation to the primordial Anstoss; and then, only later, receive a retroactive material label of “the obstacle” out there (the non-I) which is preventing the full self-actualization of the I-form.
In that system, we have to reflect on the idea that Fichte himself, must have thought that there was some objective non-I that was somehow in the way of his (re-merger) with Absolute Being. Otherwise, how would he not already be in a state of Absolute Being? Could this Absolute Nothing as obstacle be Death itself? Paradoxically, in this sense, Fichte’s Absolute Being could be interpreted as a monstrous non-I that was acting back on Fichte’s being due to a presupposition on the side of Fichte’s I-form. It was Hegel’s brilliance to know that there was no such positivity of the non-I, no such substantial externality that could be removed or transformed by the I-form in order to re-unite with Absolute Being. In that sense the way in which the subject relates to the impossible image of its own self-formation is the most crucial aspect of its becoming and the self-actualization of the Absolute.
Here from Žižek (11):
“The subject’s identity with itself; the formal-logical notion of (self-)identity comes second, it has to be grounded in a transcendental logical notion of the self-identity of the I. The subject is the result of its own failure to become a subject: I try to fully actualize myself as a subject, I fail (to become a subject), and this failure is the subject (that I am).”
Here we can attempt to situate Fichte’s system in relation to Kantian philosophy, but also psychoanalysis. On the side of the “Thing” we have Kant’s “Noumenal Real”, the positively existing externality that is inaccessible to our phenomenal reflection; which, for Fichte, becomes “Absolute Being”, the positively existing transcendence that is accessible in the becoming of the I-form in history; which, for Lacan, becomes the “non-Other”, the overdetermination of a negative absence that structures subjectivity.
On the side of the obstacle we have Kant’s “notional unity”, the creative synthetic activity of the transcendental imagination which is set in an eternal contradictory or antagonistic relation with the “noumenal real” which will forever be unknown to it; which, for Fichte, much more reflectively, becomes the Anstoss, the irreducible otherness within that stimulates the activity of the synthetic notional activity, and which is the central focus of the self-positing entity; which, for Lacan, becomes the objet petit a, the object cause of desire, the virtual real partial object that would phenomenally bring together the paradoxical non-unifiable opposites.
Here we see that passage from Kant to Fichte is more than just a subjectivist mad path, but an essential transition in order to get from philosophy, to psychoanalysis proper. In Kant, we do not have anything close to approximating the radicality that emerges in Fichte (12):
“Anstoss is formally homologous to the Lacanian objet a: like a magnetic field, it is the focus of the I’s positing activity, the point around which this activity circulates, yet it is in itself insubstantial, since it is created-posited, generated, by the very process which reacts to it and deals with it. […] The search itself generates its object.
And therein resides the ultimate paradox of the Fichtean Anstoss: it is not immediately external to the circular movement of reflection, but an object which is posited by this very (self-referential) movement. Its transcendence (impenetrability, irreducibility to an ordinary represented object) coincides with its absolute immanence.”
Here what are the consequences of this Fichtean model for, ultimately, humanity’s most profound and universal obstacle: death itself.
First, we can say that when we consider what happens between Kant and Fichte we must replace an infinite outside (the noumenal positivity) with a paradoxical infinite inside (the non-I). This non-I is an impossible image that can take a multiplicity of different forms, the form of the non-I, and its action on the subject, as we have covered, is asymmetrically something that occurs as a consequence of the positing or non-positing of the subject. Considering the finite self-positing of external infinities in Kantian philosophy, scientific objectivity, or religious ideality. In all of these external infinities we can say that their externality, their status as non-I, is always already something that emerges primordially within the realm of the self-positing I as an impossible image or correlate of the subjective’s activity in history.
Can we not say that death, then, is the infinite image par excellence? Can we not say that death, as the infinite obstacle that is most obviously the universal obstacle of existence, the ultimate non-I that can act back onto the historical forms of subjectivity in its Absolute Negativity?
Why is death so terrifying for self-reflective beings? We may say that this is terrifying because we can never see it directly, death is something present in its absence, death is an empirical absence in our positive reality, something that we all know about, but can never identify. Death is non-identity, death is the real devoid of any identity whatsoever. That is why death fundamentally limits life within life, but at the same time, cannot be observed by living beings in the system. That is why Wittgenstein said that “death is the limit of life which cannot be located within life” (13).
In that sense isn’t death a much more authentic limiting structure then any notions of a Kantian in-itself, any scientific objectivity, or any notions of a positive substantial God?
Here consider a quote from Ingmar Bergman on the phenomenon of death (14):
“I was given too much anaesthesia. I felt as if I had disappeared out of reality. Where did the hours go? They flashed by in a microsecond. Suddenly I realized, that is how it is. That one could be transformed from being to non-being — it was hard to grasp […] First you are, then you are not.”
What Bergman attempts to communicate here is what has been echoed in philosophy since ancient times, namely, that “fear of death is the power of the imagination” (15). In other words, what, ultimately, is beyond the absolute images of death? The answer, from the Hegelian point of view is simple, nothing at all. We are simply reaching the absolute limit of the absolute in its becoming. There is no Absolute Being behind the image, no other side to which we return. There is nothing but the void of our own subjectivity. Or to quote Žižek (16): “in fearing it (death), we experience a non-event, a non-entity (our passage to non-being), as an event.”
What this means is that death as the ultimate universal anstoss-obstacle is something that co-emerges with the formation of self-positing subjectivity. In that sense the nature of death as a non-I is radically open to renegotiation with future subjectivity, how this non-I acts on us is primordially something determined by positing subjectivity. In that sense we should not think of death as something that can be replaced with the full achievement of self-identity, of Absolute Being (God), but instead as the very image that appears due to the fact that the subject in its historical appearance has reached its most crucial internal limitation. In that sense we should remain agnostic about the ultimate nature of death in its empirical reality, since the becoming of the Absolute itself, a self-actualization, is incomplete and open.
Now, in the start of the lecture I emphasized that we should not simply interpret philosophy in a linear progressive trajectory with one thinker’s historical errors being corrected by a future thinker’s solution. In this sense let us think the ways in which Fichte can be put into new conversation with Hegel. What did we get when we put Fichte’s practical existential philosophy in engagement with Hegel’s dialectical nature of the Absolute in a speculative philosophy?
The first point we can make is that the infinite Absolute, in Fichte’s interpretation the Absolute Being, is first and foremost a presupposition of a finite subject. This could be a conceptual or an experiential presupposition, as in I conceptually assert the Oneness of Absolute Being, or I experientially assert the Oneness of Absolute Being. However, we cannot say that we have any knowledge of an infinite Absolute independent of the emergence of a finite subjective horizon within the appearances of historical becoming. In that sense we must remain, within the confines of philosophy, in a speculative dialectical realm of subjective appearances.
The second point is indeed a properly Fichtean point, namely, that the emergence of the infinite Absolute, in the gap internal to subjectivity, the division to subjectivity, produces a metaphysical screen that is of fundamental importance to the practical life world of the subject. The subject is stimulated by the emergence of this image to incessant pragmatic activity. Take for example the scientific objectivity which stabilizes the realm of scientific subjectivity; or the image of God which stabilizes the realm of religious subjectivity; or the noumenal image which stabilizes the realm of transcendental philosophical subjectivity; or even, the image of death, which is perhaps the most primordial of all the images, and thus closer to the primordial realm of the anstoss in-itself, or the objet petit a. Here we see a subjectivity regulated by the desires for immortality in-itself. In this way, the appearances of historical subjectivity are most radically and most definitely open.
In this work I attempted to introduce the first half of Chapter 3 “Fichte’s Choice”. However, the good news is that this was simply the first half of Chapter 3. In the next lecture, next week, we will approach the second half of Fichte’s Choice, where we will once again dive into Fichte’s philosophy, and how it opens us up into new levels of interpreting Hegelian philosophy.
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(1) Žižek, S. 2012. Fichte’s Choice. p. 138-140.
(2) ibid. 140.
(3) ibid. 142.
(5) ibid. 143.
(6) ibid. 144.
(7) ibid. 146.
(8) ibid. 149.
(9) ibid. 152.
(10) ibid. 154-155.
(11) ibid. 154.
(12) ibid. 151-152.
(13) ibid. 153.