Our task is to discover the primordial, absolutely unconditioned first principle of all human knowledge. This can be neither proved nor defined, if it is to be an absolutely primary principle.
—Fichte, Fundamental Principles of the Entire Science of Knowledge
Outside of German Idealism enthusiasts, mainly scholars, there isn’t that much about ol’ Fichte out there online nor in books. While I’m not deeply interested in Fichte’s own system, I am curious about his philosophy and took the opportunity to read a small snippet because I just happened to read somewhere that said snippet was pertinent to understanding the section on Self-Certainty in the Phenomenology. Pertinent it was, for this small section sets some background on what Self-Certainty as such is, and elucidates a bit on some claims Hegel just asserts.
It is very interesting that Fichte puts great emphasis on activity, telling us that the first principle of philosophy expresses an act which “does not and cannot appear among the empirical states of our consciousness, but rather lies at the basis of all consciousness and alone makes it possible.” What we seek is a proposition which will express this act, and if said proposition must be granted to us, then the act is necessarily also granted along with it. This proposition must be one of the greatest possible reflective abstraction, the most general one in order to be the basis of all following propositions in the system.
He tells us something else of great interest, to put it in my own paraphrasing: philosophy must lift itself up by its own bootstraps. It must at first assume certain things, such as the laws of logic—which he assures us he will prove later upon the principle that assumes them, making a logical circle. Circles aren’t anything new—not particularly scary—for those who are familiar with Hegel. One can only hope it is a nice virtuous circle, and not a vicious one.
Without further ado, this is my summary of Fichte’s argument for the absolute necessity of the self for itself.
The meaning of A=A, or A is A
The process of abstraction aside, Fichte gets right to business and asserts that the highest point of abstraction is the proposition of identity, A is A, or more commonly known in the form of A=A. No one can deny this principle is “perfectly certain and established.” If anyone asks for proof of this, Fichte tells us, we should not embark on such an attempt since it is a proposition of absolute certainty grounded by nothing else. In asserting this absolute certainty as characteristic of the proposition we ascribe “to ourselves the power of asserting something absolutely.”
Now, in insisting that the proposition is absolutely certain we do not assert that A is the case. A=A is not equivalent to A exists. Even if A is defined as something specific, though A is A remains true, it still does not entail that A exists. What A=A means is only the possibility of A being A if it exists, i.e. that if A exists, then A exists. The existence of A is irrelevant to the necessity, the connecting is/= in the proposition. In the proposition the form is all that is relevant, not the content, for A is an indeterminate universal abstraction. It is “not of that about which you know something, but of what you know about anything at all.” Now, if A itself is not absolutely certain and necessarily self grounded…what is it in the proposition that is absolutely certain without external ground? Fichte makes an interesting observation that borders on the cusp of the most obvious obviousness that may seem laughable at first: What is absolutely certain is the connection between the if and then of the A—it is a necessary connection. This necessary connection is symbolized by X. A necessarily is A.
This being the case—that A=A on its own tells us nothing of much interest—how does Fichte move along? By making a transcendental turn.
Under What Condition Does A Exist?
A problem is posed: Under what condition is A necessarily, i.e. exists? Under condition that it is posited by the self in the self.
How do we get there? Recall that in asserting that A=A is an absolute certainty with no external ground we ascribed ourselves the power to assert something absolutely. A is only a possibility, it can only assert its own necessity if it is posited, but clearly we have no grounds to consider that A has any power of self-positing. Luckily for us, we already granted ourselves the power to posit something. The necessary connection of A to itself, X, is the absolutely certain piece of the proposition. As it is our self that judges the proposition A=A according to the law of X, X must be a law which the self gives to itself whether A is or is not posited.
“Whether, and how, A is actually posited we do not know,” but since X is a connection between a possibly posited A absolutely asserted as A, and since X is posited in the self, A is necessarily posited in the self as well—so far so good. In the proposition A=A, the first A occupies the logical position of subject, the second A the predicate position; X connects and unites subject and predicate. If X is posited, then the first A is posited, and necessarily and absolutely the second as well, i.e. if A as subject, then A is predicate of A. More formally: If X, then A=A; or, if A is posited in the self, then A is A; or more simply, A is (exists).
So far we know: The self asserts through X that A exists absolutely for the judging self which posits A, i.e. X, therefore A, therefore ‘A=A’. Fichte says this can also be said as: “It is asserted that within the self… there is something that is permanently uniform, forever one and the same.” From here Fichte makes what seems as his first leap of logic, from the assertion of permanently uniform something in the self to, “hence the X that is absolutely posited can also be expressed as I=I; I am I.” This problem of a leap aside, Fichte continues. The proposition ‘I am I’ is equivalent to ‘I am‘; this expresses not an act, but a fact—we do not want to mistake this as the first principle Fichte is after.
[Note:] Now, Fichte is right, X can be expressed as I=I, but this is something entirely different and not necessarily derived from the argument which has developed from A=A. The new proposition, I=I, though it does not contradict the first, does not necessarily follow from the first as a determinate form of A=A. This I=I seems to be a bold and bald assertion coming from nowhere as far as the argument goes, but there may yet be a way to save this from being a groundless leap. ‘A=A’ as posited is an assertion that there is something within the self that is permanently uniform. Fichte may here be appealing to an empirically given minimal determinate content of A which can be identified as this something—this something is the self; the I.
X has already been shown to be posited absolutely by the self, but now X is equivalent to the proposition ‘I am I,’ which is therefore also asserted absolutely. Here Fichte explains that he’s no fool equivocating ‘A is A’ with ‘I am I,’ they are different in important ways. ‘A is A’ is only a possibility, a contentless form which only exists under a certain condition if it is posited as a content, but the proposition does not tell us whether it is posited as subject nor whether it has any particular predicate necessarily attached, i.e. whether A is posited at all as A, or A as B/C/D/etc.
‘I am I’ is different from ‘A is A’ in that it is “unconditionally and absolutely valid, since it is equivalent to the proposition X (X therefore A); it is valid not merely in form but also in content.” That is to say, Fichte tells us in a footnote, that “I, who posit A in the predicate position, necessarily know, because the same was posited in the subject position, about my positing of the subject, and hence know myself, again contemplate myself, am the same with myself.” That is, in the proposition of ‘I am I’ within the self the I is posited absolutely with the predicate of equivalence to itself by the self. That is, I posit ‘I am I’ and in my positing’s necessary connection I likewise find a necessary connection to myself as its positing subject just as one would find in the predicate A the necessary connection to the subject A; therefore the I “really is posited, and the proposition can also be expressed as I am.“
[Note:] In ‘I am I’ the I is posited as subject and predicate of itself by the self, and can be expressed in the simpler form of ‘I am’ because, to put another way with consideration to the equivalence to X: ‘I am I’ is necessarily necessary because there is necessity in the connection of the subject and predicate which the I posits.
‘I am,’ as a determinate form of ‘A is A’ is merely a fact and only has factual validity, however should the proposition A=A—more precisely X—be certain, then ‘I am’ is also certain, i.e. if necessity is certain then the propositions are certain. Fichte here claims that it is a fact of empirical consciousness that we are compelled to regard X as absolutely certain, i.e. that necessary connection connects things necessarily is certain, therefore ‘I am’ is also certain. “Hence it is a ground of explanation of all the facts of empirical consciousness, that prior to all postulation in the self, the self itself is posited.” That is, if necessary connection is certain, then I am certain I exist by virtue of my necessary connection to my positing of A, for in positing A I necessarily pre-posit myself as its positor.—[Fichte tells us that this all hinges on X indeed is the highest fact of empirical consciousness which underlies and contains all others, a fact which might be conceded to him without proof yet which his system will nonetheless attempt to prove.]
The Primordial Act: The Self’s Positing of Itself
After such an arduous journey of the mind, we have finally arrived at the doorstep of the principle being sought after, the primordial act upon which all things rest, and this act shall be nothing less than the act of the I positing itself and therefor guaranteeing its own existence.—[This reminds me of the old ontological proof, and I would not be surprised at all if Fichte did have this in mind, for this is seeking after the proposition/concept which in itself provides for its own necessary existence.]
X being given, A being given through X, and now the I being given through X and A together…
Once more Fichte pushes us forward. A=A, we are reminded, is a judgment, and judgments are an activity of the human mind which presupposes all the conditions of activity which are known and established for purposes of reflection, e.g. logic. This activity rests on the ultimate ground of X=I am, therefore we at least know judgment as one particular activity which is grounded by X (but it is all activity, Fichte tells us, that is grounded in X). In knowing this activity of judgment we thus know of the pure character of X’s activity as such in abstraction from empirical conditions. What is this activity?
“The self’s own positing is thus its own pure activity. The self posits itself, and by virtue of this mere self-assertion it exists; and conversely, the self exists and posits its own existence by virtue of merely existing. It is at once the agent and the product of action; the active, and what the activity brings about; action and deed are one and the same, and hence the ‘I am’ expresses an Act, and the only one possible, as will inevitably appear from the Science of Knowledge as a whole.”
[Note:] This is where Hegel draws the structure of his notion of self-certainty from, the proper concept in which content and form, certainty and truth, etc. are one and the same.
After this bold declaration from the prior results, Fichte asks us to consider the proposition ‘I am I’ once more, this time considering what is absolutely posited as the first I in the position of formal subject, while the second I is in the position of predicate representing that which exists. If this is the case, then we can absolutely assert the valid judgment: The self exists because it has posited itself.—[This seems like a bit of what Wittgenstein would call language gone on holiday. Just because we can say this does not mean it has any actual meaning. Fichte here is drawing upon notions of an essence in potential being to essence in actual being.]
In a footnote he adds that the general form of all propositions plays out this fundamental movement of positing when we reflect on the activity which occurs in A=A, i.e. that the first A is posited in the self—which is absolute subject—as a posited subject, and the second A designates what the self finds present in itself after having posited it. None of this movement is really pertinent of A, but is really the self’s for the self posits something of itself, a predicate to it, within itself, this predicate being A, i.e. the self posits A, and in reflecting upon the presence of the posited A becomes aware of A as its own predicate; the “is expresses the passage of the self from positing to reflection on what has been posited.”
Fichte concludes thus:
“The self in the first sense, and that in the second, are supposed to be absolutely equivalent. Hence one can also reverse the above proposition and say: the self posits itself simply because it exists. It posits itself by merely existing and exists by merely being posited.”—[A claim that is not convincing in the slightest in the form he presents it here, however, once more, there is a way to redeem the claim in a more reasonable form, and Fichte shall quickly supply it.]
Once more he continues:
“And this now makes it perfectly clear in what sense we are using the word ‘I’ in this context, and leads us to an exact account of the self as absolute subject. That whose being or essence consists simply in the fact that it posits itself as existing, is the self as absolute subject. As it posits itself, so it is; and as it is, so it posits itself; and hence the self is absolute and necessary for the self. What does not exist for itself is not a self.”
[Note:] Here we see where Hegel’s theory of the self draws heavily on Fichte’s internal reflection in the self. Hegel not only takes up but also adds to that last statement the inverted equivalent beyond consciousness’s form: What is not a self does not exist for itself, i.e. what is not a subject cannot be an independent substance.
“If the self exists only insofar as it posits itself, then it exists only for that which posits, and posits only for that which exists. The self exists for the self—but if it posits itself absolutely, as it is, the it posits itself as necessary, and is necessary for the self. I exist only for myself; but for myself I am necessary… To posit oneself and to be are, as applied to the self, perfectly identical…’I am absolutely, because I am’… Furthermore, the self-positing self and the existing self are perfectly identical… The self is that which it posits itself to be; and it posits itself as that which it is. Hence I am absolutely what I am.“
To finally conclude: “I am absolutely, i.e. I am absolutely BECAUSE I am; and am absolutely WHAT I am; both FOR THE SELF.” That is, “The self begins by an absolute positing of its own existence.”
Fichte has just attempted to derive something the vast majority except the most die hard and stubborn skeptics have thought necessary: an argumentative proof of Descartes’ famous “I think, therefore I am.” To put it in normal terms:
The self exists in a moment which is unique in the realm of existence and logic alike—it exists because it posits itself, i.e. it reflects itself within itself and recognizes itself in this reflection, the self exists because it is self-conscious; however, it only posits itself because it already first exists as self-consciousness, then posits itself and becomes aware of its self-consciousness. Its positing and existence occur in one and the same moment.
To summarize: I am certain that I am because I am aware that I am when I posit that I am, and because that awareness is necessarily my awareness, for I posit what I am aware of, I am absolutely certain that I necessarily am absolutely… if necessity is indeed absolutely certain.