Was Fichte a solipsist? (contd.)

Lucy asked:

I was reading about the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. I don’t know if I just read it wrong but to be he comes across as someone who agrees with solipsism. What is your opinion?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Lucy, I entirely sympathise with your question!! It is entirely understandable to read Fichte as proffering a variant of solipsism. I often used to struggle with the same issue.

Confusingly, in the first section of the Science of Knowledge, ‘Foundation of Theoretical Knowledge’, Fichte frequently uses the terms ‘Absolute Self’ and ‘Consciousness’. This concerns the synthesis of the Transcendental Categories to empirical Intuitions. This is achieved by a dialectic between the Absolute Self and Non-Self. This occurs unconsciously. It is how our perception of the world happens and it is happening now, as you read this answer.

In the second part of the Science of Knowledge, ‘Foundation of Knowledge of the Practical’, the ‘Intelligent Self’ is discussed. This is how the Self becomes aware of itself. The infinite striving of the Absolute Self encounters opposition with the Not-Self. The latter limits the former. Instead of striving outwards, the Absolute Self now strives inwards, concentrating on the finite Self. The intermediation with the Non-Self furnishes knowledge of it and importantly, knowledge of the finite Self itself.

On this basis, a conclusion of solipsism could be drawn.

However, an aspect of the Non-Self that limits the finite Self is of course, another Self or selves. Admittedly, this is not discussed in the ‘Science’ but, is discussed at greater length in Fichte’s later work ‘Foundations of Natural Right’. (1797). Here, the Second Theorem states:

“The finite, rational being cannot ascribe to itself a free efficacy in the sensible world without ascribing itself to others and thus, without also presupposing the existence of other finite rational beings outside of itself.” (P. 29 ibid)

In other words, the finite self can only become self-conscious of itself in the presence of other, finite selves. Any awareness of a self presupposes other selves, the social ‘We’ precedes the individual ‘I’. This obviously rules out allegations of Solipsism.

Fichte’s account of self-consciousness and others is elaborated upon and developed in the second section of FWJ Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism (1800) and both chapters on ‘Consciousness’ and ‘Self-Consciousness’ in GWF Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807).

Hope this is of use Lucy.

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