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Fichte and Rousseau

Interview by Richard Marshall.

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David James is the funky philosophical Fichtean who goes deep into Fichte, German Idealism, Rousseau, Kant and all that jazz. He thinks of German Idealism as a cluster, about Fichte and recognition, about why Fichte’s views on natural rights are not modern liberalism’s, about Fichte’s political order, about Fichte’s view of natural right, about Rousseau’s influence on German Idealism, on Rousseau’s ideas about human perfectability, about his ideas about property and equality and about the quasi-theological assumptions of the german Idealist agenda. This one gets to the source…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

David James: I cannot think of any one thing in particular. It was a gradual process, beginning with a rather hazy conception of philosophy. In time, my interest in the subject deepened and began to inform other interests that I had, making philosophy into a central part of my life.

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3:AM: When you look at Fichte you say he played an essential role in the development of German Idealism. Before saying what he did can you introduce us to the cluster of ideas that the term German Idealism is supposed to catch – and why is this of significance?

DJ: I find it difficult to specify a cluster of ideas that characterizes German Idealism given the wide variety of issues (aesthetic, epistemological, metaphysical, ethical and political) in which the philosophers associated with this philosophical movement, if one wants to call it, were interested and the different ways in which they dealt with them. Then there are the ways in which these philosophers’ views changed over time. I think that Fichte’s essential role in the development of German Idealism can nevertheless be identified fairly clearly. Essentially, he sought to explain the unity of reason explicitly in terms of the idea of autonomy in the sense of reason’s independence of anything other than itself, an independence that he explains in terms of its being governed by rules or principles whose source is in each case somehow itself. Whatever one makes of such an undertaking, it opens the way for investigation of a number of issues that I take to be central to German Idealism, such as how human reason might be conceived as a whole whose basic forms share the same essential structure, rather than a collection of disparate parts (e.g. faculties), the extent to which theoretical reason is determined by practical reason in the sense that a practical engagement with others and the world more generally shapes how we think of ourselves and conceive our relations to that which we take to be other than others, and finally how reason can be thought to remain autonomous in the face of that which appears to be wholly independent of it.

3:AM: Why is his theory of recognition so important to your approach to his work?

DJ: I have not made a point of stressing the notion of recognition as much as some other accounts of Fichte’s philosophy have. Nevertheless, it is clearly an important theme in his writings, especially those concerned with ethical, social or political issues. It is important, however, to distinguish between the various forms of recognition. Legal recognition, for example, may be seen to consist in recognizing others in certain ways but not in others (for instance, recognizing others as rational and free beings, while not also recognizing them as having the right to develop and to realize fully these capacities). Also, legal recognition of others can be understood as being motivated in an essentially different way to recognition that consists in not only recognizing another person’s freedom but also having a direct concern for it in the sense that one makes their freedom into one of one’s own fundamental ends, rather than willing it simply in order that they will in turn respect one’s own freedom. Then there are the questions as to what legal and institutional arrangements need to be in place to guarantee relations of mutual recognition and what forms of recognition can or cannot, or should or should not, be guaranteed legally and institutionally. Fichte provides the basis for a discussion of all these issues.

3:AM: He developed a principle of natural rights which some, like Frederick Neuhouser have interpreted in terms of modern day liberalism. You think to connect it with liberalism like this is a mistake don’t you? Why?

DJ: I find the link with liberalism simply too tenuous. Fichte speaks of only one natural right, which is the individual’s right to everything. This right must be limited if human beings living in spatial proximity are to coexist peaceably and be guaranteed a sphere of freedom in which they can act with the expectation of not suffering external interference by others. This individualistic approach and the idea that right involves guaranteeing personal freedom admittedly do suggest some form of liberalism. The way in which Fichte introduces a type of social contract in the Foundations of Natural Right is also compatible with liberalism. However, Fichte develops the concept of right in another direction when he asks what would constitute a sufficiently good reason for giving up by means of a social contract the unlimited right to everything that individuals originally enjoy. He implies that a desire for peace is not enough, since even if this desire were satisfied, those individuals who were left without the means of truly effective free and rational agency would have no reason to respect the freedom of others. Rather, they would only have such a reason if certain economic rights were guaranteed, most notably the right to be able to live from one’s labour. This in turn leads him to develop a theory of property and to accord the state a role in the distribution of property that in my view is clearly incompatible with liberal thinking about property rights and the limits of state interference. It would make more sense to associate Fichte’s final position with socialism, though even here there is the problem that methodological assumption of universal egoism on which Fichte builds his theory of right does not suggest the kind of concern for others which would provide socialism with a firm basis in the sense of being practically necessary for the construction of a genuine and lasting socialist society.

3:AM: What kind of political order is required according to Fichte to realize his idea of rights if not the liberal one? And why is consideration of property helpful in this area? Looking back to Rousseau, would Fichte’s theory of property be endorsed by Rousseau who we’ll be talking about in a moment?

DJ: The political order would have to be one in which individuals were able to realize themselves as free and rational agents, that is to say, one in which the conditions of such agency were available to all. A consideration of property rights is useful in this regard because these rights (in the form of rights to resources and goods) can be regarded as a condition of such agency, while certain forms of property rights may produce a situation in which the conditions of free and rational agency are met only in the case of some individuals. Private property would be a case in point in so far as it allows some individuals to exclude others from the use or benefit of things and to dispose of these things freely even when this involves a completely irrational use of the thing in question at the same time as others own perhaps only the clothes that they wear and a few other personal belongings. To give one example, the security provided by having a home which one is not in constant fear of losing can be regarded as something without which it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to act in accordance with ends that one has oneself formed. This is because effective agency arguably depends on such factors as not being forced to make decisions on the basis of sudden changes in one’s circumstances.

Yet a regime of private property, if not suitably tempered, tends to give rise to a situation in which some people are left without a secure home while others own a number of houses, some of which they may even allow to become derelict, which, given the normal function of a house, can be viewed as an entirely irrational use of a resource. In this way, stable conditions of agency are granted to some but not to others. I think Rousseau could endorse Fichte’s theory of property in so far as the latter, by specifying ways in which the conditions of free and rational agency might be guaranteed to all, is also seeking to guarantee people’s independence of others by making them dependent only on the state, which is seen as the embodiment of a common (or general) will. In this way, Fichte seeks to avoid the evil of dependence, which is a central theme of Rousseau’s writings, while adopting a political framework that is not essentially different from the one advocated by Rousseau.

3:AM: What does Fichte mean when he claims that the concept of right must be applied to the conditions of the sensible world?

DJ: I take him to mean that a theory of right consists of three key stages: first of all, the identification and justification of the a priori principles of right; secondly, a demonstration of how these principles can be related to human agency in so far as it is always something embodied and therefore subject to certain inherent limitations; and, finally, a demonstration of how these principles once related to human agency can be realized through measures undertaken by a state that expresses the common will established (though only ideally) by means of a social contract.

3:AM: How can the concept of right is based on pure reason and not human convention as well as a state contract freely entered into by all members? The first seems wholly non-arbitrary, the second wholly arbitrary. Can he resolve this tension? And how can relations of right be moral if the concept of the state he has is amoral?

DJ: The concept of right can be based on pure reason in the sense that an a priori demonstration of both what it is and why we must necessarily think of it in this way can be provided. The question of how this concept can be realized is another matter, however. Here some consideration of the specific nature of human agency is needed. Given that the principles of right when viewed in the light of such agency are conditional – since human beings may in fact fail to recognize the validity of the norms pure reason and in the case of the concept of right in particular may choose not to adopt the end upon which its validity depends (i.e. the end of guaranteeing stable conditions of agency for oneself in a situation of coexistence with others) – agreements and institutions that are a matter of human convention turn out to be necessary. That is to say, individuals must make explicit that they will the concept of right and therefore agree to subject themselves to the conditions of its full application. The fact that right is willed as the means to an end makes it conditional and therefore different in kind to morality, which imposes a set of unconditionally valid obligations on free and rational agents. This conditionality is one of the main reasons that Fichte separates right from morality .This separation implies that relations of right are to be regarded as essentially amoral, and that to seek to provide them with a moral foundation would amount to confusing right and morality. He does not, therefore, view relations of right as moral.

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3:AM: You’ve looked at Rousseau and how he influenced German Idealists, including Fichte, through the concepts of freedom, dependence and necessity. I guess that’s because they are concepts where Rousseau has different things to say about them from the liberal or neo-Republican views. So starting with freedom, how different is Rousseau’s idea of freedom from both liberal and neo-Republican views? This is where his notion of dependence kicks in isn’t it? (And why talk of neo-Republicans and not just Republicans?)

DJ: Rousseau’s idea of freedom seems to me to be different from liberal freedom with respect to a central feature of the neo-republicans’ claim that their idea of freedom is essentially different from liberal freedom. This difference concerns the way in which genuine freedom is said to require independence of the arbitrary wills of others as well as freedom from interference. While making dependence on the arbitrary wills of others into a central problem of social and political philosophy, Rousseau also shows how material inequality tends to produce one-sided relations of dependence in virtue of the greater social power its gives to some agents relative to other ones. The implications of this insight are not, I find, sufficiently acknowledged by the kind of republican notion of republican freedom espoused by someone like Pettit. This in turn makes it difficult to know what the essential difference between neo-republican and liberal ideas of freedom really amounts to.

Couldn’t a liberal in some way cast forms of dependence on the arbitrary wills of others as forms of potential, if not actual, interference with the freedom of others, so as to justify the fairly minimal set of economic rights that Pettit appears to advocate without questioning the very nature of private property together with its role and effects in capitalist society? I speak of neo-republicans because of the way in which proponents of this view of freedom tend to define their idea of freedom in opposition to a modern liberal idea of freedom while in some respects seeking to accommodate the latter. Clearly, earlier forms of republicanism were not defining themselves in opposition to liberalism in this way.

3:AM: Rousseau recognizes indirect forms of dependence in a way other approaches don’t doesn’t he? Can you say what you mean by this – perhaps give us examples from contemporary lives?

DJ: By indirect forms of dependence I essentially mean relations in which one party is in a disadvantageous position in relation to another party in virtue of the greater social power enjoyed by the latter as a result of economic inequality, say, with the result that the more powerful party may exert pressure on the weaker party with a view to getting him or her to do certain things without having to exercise any direct form of influence. For example, an employer can cut someone’s wages so as to increase his or her profits when there are other people willing to work for less in times of high employment and there are no equally or more attractive options available to the person whose wages are to be cut. The employer can claim not to have exerted any direct influence because (1) the worker is not compelled to remain in the job if he or she doesn’t like the conditions and (2) the workings of a free market are what ultimately dictate this course of action, rather than any whim on the part of the employer.

Given that it may indeed be the logic of the market that both generates and perpetuates such relations of dependence – though only with the support of a legal and political system that some people seek to maintain in the opposition to other possible ones – removing such relations of dependence will arguably require in some cases systemic change rather than the introduction of some minimal employment rights or rights to welfare. Here is one example of how I think neo-republicans fail to acknowledge the possible implications of what it would mean to render individuals fully independent of the arbitrary wills of others. The measures identified by Pettit, for example, seem largely compatible with some form of welfare liberalism in that the status of private property is not even questioned and the forms of dependence it generates in a capitalist society are merely ameliorated.

3:AM: How important was Rousseau’s recognition of interdependence on the following works of Kant, Hegel and Fichte? Is this one of the key areas of influence on the German Idealist project?

DJ: It is questionable whether Rousseau directly influenced German idealism in this regard. Indeed, his recognition of interdependence is to my mind far greater than both Kant’s and Fichte’s recognition of it, while Hegel’s recognition of interdependence can be largely explained in terms of his reading of works of classical political economy. Nevertheless, Rousseau’s understanding of the way in which human interaction in a condition of interdependence enables human beings to develop certain capacities at the same time as such a condition is a potential source of moral corruption can be detected in Hegel’s account of civil society and in the notion of unsocial sociability in Kant’s philosophy of history.

3:AM: You’re keen to argue that Rousseau’s thinking around necessity had a huge impact on those three philosophers as well. Can you say something about Rousseau’s approach to necessity and how it differs from liberal and neo-Republican accounts. Is one of the differences that he takes seriously indirect as well as direct forms of necessity?

DJ: Again I wouldn’t say that Rousseau directly influenced German idealism in this regard. Nevertheless, the notion of practical necessity plays an important role in some of Kant’s writings and it is an explicit theme in Hegel’s account of civil society. By practical necessity I have in mind something like the fact of being compelled by circumstances, including lack of economic and social power, to do things that one would otherwise not have chosen to do. I also have in mind the notion of a spontaneous process generated through human interaction which produces situations to which individuals feel they must conform, even though the resulting situation could, in fact, have been different if the process had been subjected to conscious human control and is therefore contingent rather than necessary. Here is where Fichte comes in, since he emphasized the idea of human intervention as a means of ensuring certain outcomes. Liberals do not seem concerned with this practical necessity because it is not a matter of someone being demonstratively coerced into doing something against his or her will, while neo-republicans like Pettit follow liberals in this respect in so far as they do not consider that dependence on the arbitrary wills of others is the outcome of such a process and that preventing such forms of dependence will therefore potentially require degrees of political intervention in the economic life of a society that, as far as I can see, they appear reluctant to countenance.

3:AM: What did Rousseau mean by ‘perfectibility’ and how important were his ideas in relation to Kant and the German idealists? Does he think humans can will away evil? Is it helpful to take his views – and Kant, Hegel and Fichte’s – in contrast to liberal and neo-Republican views?

DJ: I take him to mean the development of certain capacities associated with human rationality which would have remained latent in the state of nature if human beings had continued to live in (hypothetical) isolation. This perfectibility does not, however, have anything to do with moral perfection, even though this form of perfection may depend on the development of some of these capacities. Thus human perfectibility in the sense indicated above can occur without any corresponding moral improvement. Indeed, Rousseau sets out to show how the development of human reason and culture resulted instead in widespread moral corruption. The possibility of moral freedom nevertheless implies that human beings could will to create a condition in which this corruption and certain other human evils were overcome. Moreover, he thinks that evil in the sense of willing to subordinate the common interest to one’s own particular interests can be overcome through the creation of good citizens. The main contrast with liberalism and neo-republicanism here is, I would say, that Rousseau thereby provides a far more concrete social theory which takes into account, and seeks to understand, facts of human development and moral psychology.

3:AM: How do the ideas around property – which you’ve discussed earlier in relation to how Fichte developed a theory that Rousseau would have endorsed – also enter Hegel’s account of the relation between civil society and the political state?

DJ: Hegel thinks he has already justified private property before he turns to civil society and therefore presupposes it in his account of the latter. Thus, although civil society as a higher moment of right can be justified in limiting the right to private property in some ways, it cannot violate this right altogether. This has at least two implications for his account of the relation between civil society and the state, both of which concern his claim that the strength of the modern state has to do with the way in which it accommodates the principle of particularity. First of all, it makes it more difficult to explain how individuals can come to identify themselves with the state and make it, rather than their own private interests, into their end, since individuals may come to adopt a purely instrumental relation to the state by viewing it as nothing more than that which protects their rights and furthers their private interests. Secondly, his identification of a class that has no property beyond personal belongings and their own labour invites the question as to how the members of this class of people could identify themselves with the state at all, given that it does not accommodate the principle of particularity in their own cases.

3:AM: Talk of ‘evil’ or ‘human perfectibility’ seem drenched in Christian theology. Equality, freedom and perfectibility as they discuss them seem beholden to a hidden or suppressed sacred discourse. How secular is the secular theodicy of these German Idealists and Rousseau really? Are secular moderns fooling themselves if they think they have the German Idealist agenda without theology?

DJ: The themes in question certainly do have a theological background of which Rousseau and the German idealists were themselves conscious. At the same time, they all attempted to offer accounts of these themes that were independent of their theological sources. The question is therefore how successful were they in this regard, and answering this question will require looking at each individual theme and how it was treated by each individual philosopher. While I regard the secularization of such concepts as equality as possible, the secularization of other ones such as evil is another matter. In the case of evil, Rousseau and the German Idealists all recast it as the propensity to subordinate that which is universally valid to our particular interests and thereby to obey the latter in opposition to the former. Yet this introduces the issue of how to explain such a propensity, as opposed to one that consists in subordinating one’s particular interests to what is universally valid, without recourse to a notion of original sin.

Even the concept of equality may be regarded as less clear-cut if one really presses the question of why we should regard all human beings as essentially equal in a moral sense. Kantians might respond by saying that all human beings are equal in virtue of their rational nature, for example. Yet this invites the question as to why we should accord rationality itself such an absolute value. I am therefore sympathetic to the worry that the German Idealist agenda ultimately rests on quasi-theological assumptions. This does not mean, however, that the attempt to provide secular explanations of such concepts as equality should not be pursued as far as it possibly can be, as Rousseau and the German Idealists tried to do.

3:AM: And for the curious readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend to us to take us further into your philosophical world?

DJ: Given my philosophical interests, I would have to include the following two works which I regard as the richest, deepest and most systematic works in the areas of what we would today refer to as political philosophy: Hobbes’s Leviathan and Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right. The book that probably had the most transformative effect on me was Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, so I would also have to include it. I would also recommend Fichte’s Foundations of Natural Right as a work that both seeks to apply some of the central principles of Kant’s Critical philosophy to the legal and political sphere in way that is arguably more consistent than Kant’s attempt to do the same thing. Finally, I must include something by Rousseau, and I would opt here for his Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men on account of its boldness and the questions it raises concerning the threat that relations of dependence, as much as relations based on force, pose to human freedom.


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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, January 24th, 2015.