Continuing from ep. 271 to cover the rest (Books II and III) of The Vocation of Man (1799), featuring Mark, Wes, Dylan and Seth.
What does idealism, the idea that what we take to be the external world is really just a part of the mind, entail that we do? It seems like we should just be solipsists and hence nihilists: Everything is just in my mind, and so none of the rest of you are real, and just like an a single-player video game (that I apparently wrote myself without being aware of it), I should be able to do whatever I feel like. Fichte was deeply disturbed by this conclusion, and admitted that there’s no knowledge available to us that would with certainty ground the need for ethical behavior (or religious beliefs), but used Kant’s trick of drawing instead on practical reasons, which refers to the attitude we need to take to actually live and do things.
Basically, we need faith: Either nothing matters, or things really do matter, and to some extent, it’s up to each of us to decide this. Yes, there seem to be motivations like pain and pleasure built right in to our experience (and so Locke, for instance, relied entirely on this to found morality), but Fichte instead focused on our experience of conscience and our own freedom to follow it. Insofar as we’ve been grown well into rational human beings, we all, Fichte claimed, hear the call of conscience, and so feel real freedom regarding it. Conscious tells us that other people have the same dignity we feel that we have. The conscience isn’t just giving us information; listening to it means adopting a stance which enables us to have meaningful, rational human lives. This stance projects goodness on to the world through our own efforts and plans, and it involves the expectation that the world can and does progress toward the better, and insofar as there are limits to this progression, we expect that good behavior will always be rewarded in an afterlife if not actually here. To live this way is to live in (or toward) harmony with others, which is to say according to a Divine plan. This underlying harmony that we all participate in to the extent that we take up the ethical stance just is God. God, like the afterlife, becomes a necessity of practical reason, and the idea that what I take to be myself is just a finite slice of the Eternal Mind that is God then provides the conceptual space for there to be other finite perceivers in the world, because they’re really in some (very non-obvious) sense parts of me as well, or rather we are all part of God, and through this leap of faith we rise up from being mere animals to our rightful place as part of God.
Needless to say, despite Fichte’s devotion, he was condemned as a heretic and atheist. Ya can’t win ’em all!
We spend the first third of this part giving this kind of overview and then proceed to dig deep into the text, spending most of our time still on Book II which lays out Fichte’s epistemology. How much of our “building of the world” is made up of inferences (which can be wrong), as opposed to mere sensations (which seem simple but nonetheless according to Fichte include the implicit sensation that it’s ME doing the sensing) and intuitions (which are more complex than sensations, but nonetheless don’t involve inferences), e.g. the intuition of spatiality.
Since we spend so much time towards the end of this part on a particular three-point list in Book II, page 77 in the old translation, I’ll just give it to you here in full:
I believe that I have now attained the fullest insight into the origin of my conceptions of objects out of myself.
1. I am absolutely, because I am conscious of this I,—myself; and that partly as a practical being, partly as an intelligence. The first consciousness is Sensation, the second Intuition—unlimited space.
2. I cannot comprehend the unlimited, for I am finite. I therefore set apart, in thought, a certain portion of universal space, and place the former in a certain relation to the latter.
3. The measure of this limited portion of space is the extent of my own sensibility, according to a principle which may be thus expressed:—Whatever affects me in such or such a manner is to be placed, in space, in such or such relations to the other things which affect me.
What are we reading for the next episode? More German idealism! Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism (1800): the introduction plus parts 1 and 2 and a little bit of 3. It’ll take us two full discussions (ep. 273 and 274) to get through that much.