Slavoj Zizek: On The Fichtean Wager

Of course, Fichte passionately opts for idealism …

Both materialism and idealism lead to consequences that make practical activity meaningless or impossible. In order for me to be practically active, engaged in the world, I have to accept myself as a being ‘in the world,’ caught in a situation, interacting with real objects which resist me and which I try to transform. Furthermore, in order to act as a free moral subject, I have to accept the independent existence of other subjects like me, as well as the existence of a higher spiritual order in which I participate and which is independent of natural determinism. Accepting all this is not a matter of knowledge: it can only be a matter of faith. Fichte’s point is thus that the existence of external reality (of which I myself am a part) is not a matter of theoretical proofs, but a practical necessity, a necessary presupposition of me as an agent intervening into reality, interacting with it.

Fichte thus resumes the basic insight of the philosophy-of-reflection, which is usually formulated in a critical mode: the moment the subject experiences itself as redoubled in reflection, caught in oppositions, etc., it has to relate its own split/mediated condition to some presupposed Absolute inaccessible to it, set up as the standard the subject tries to rejoin. The same insight can also be made in more common-sense terms: when we humans are engaged in a turmoil of activity, it is a human propensity to imagine an external absolute point of reference which provides orientation and stability to our activity. What Fichte does here is that, in the best tradition of transcendental phenomenology, he reads this constellation in a purely immanent way: we should never forget that this Absolute, precisely insofar as it is experienced by the subject as the presupposition of its activity, is actually posited by it, i.e., can only exist for it.’ Two crucial consequences follow from such an immanent reading: first, the infinite Absolute is the presupposition of a finite subject, its specter can only arise within the horizon of a finite subject experiencing its finitude as such. Second consequence: this experience of the gap that separates the subject from the infinite Absolute is inherently practical, it is what pushes the subject to incessant activity. …in this practical vision, Fichte also opens up the space for a new radical despair: not only my personal despair that I cannot realize the Ideal, not only the despair that reality is too hard, but a suspicion that the Ideal is in itself invalidated, that it simply is not worth it.

However, from the practical standpoint, the finite Self posits the infinite Self in the guise of the ideal of a unity of Self and not-Self, and, with it, the non-self as an obstacle to be overcome. We thus find ourselves in a circle: the absolute Self posits non-self and then finitizes itself by its delimitation; however, the circle closes itself, the absolute presupposition itself (the pure self-positing) returns as presupposed, i.e., as the presupposition of the posited, and, in this sense, as depending on the posited. Far from being an inconsistency, this is the crucial, properly speculative, moment in Fichte: the presupposition itself is (retroactively) posited by the process it generates.

So, perhaps, before dismissing him as the climactic point of subjectivist madness, we should give Fichte a chance.

– Slavoj Zizek. Mythology, Madness and Laughter:
Subjectivity in German Idealism

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