Volume 49, 2021

The Enigma of Fichte’s First Principles (Das Rätsel von Fichtes Grundsätzen)

Robert G. Seymour
Pages 198-216

"Knowledge Is Existence" – Ascent to the First Principle in Fichte’s 1805 Erlangen Wissenschaftslehre

Whereas in the Wl1794 the transition from the facts of empirical consciousness to the absolutely unconditioned and self-evident Grundsatz is undertaken briskly, Fichte begins the wl1805 by stating the Grundsatz with the proviso that it cannot immediately be recognised as such. Instead of proceeding from a self-evident starting point to derive the specific a priori determinations of knowledge, there follows a long process of “ascent” to clarify the Grundsatz, in what Fichte calls the Existenzlehre. This “ascent” does not correlate to any component of the Jena Wl, yet it constitutes the bulk of the 1805 presentation. In order to explain this, I will argue that the “ascent” can be reconstructed as meta-level discourse on possible candidates for first principles. Such a reconstruction can make sense of the highly abstract and paradoxical form of argument to which Fichte resorts. I will consider why Fichte comes to believe this meta-discourse is necessary and will analyse the form of argument Fichte employs in the Existenzlehre. I argue that this involves an attempt to resolve an antinomy between ‘idealist’ and ‘realist’ interpretations of the idea of an absolute presupposition of all knowledge. This resolution takes place by showing how each interpretation gives rise to a dilemma which demonstrates its inadequacy as an explanation of the absolute.