So perhaps, before dismissing his philosophy as the climactic point of subjectivist madness, we should give Fichte a chance. To properly understand his passage to full idealism it is necessary to bear in mind how he radicalizes the primacy of practical reason, which had already been asserted by Kant.
—Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism
In many ways the dark horse within Zizek’s philosophical ‘night of the world’ is Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a German philosopher whose works rivaled Kant’s in obscurity and complexity. Schopenhauer would remark that Fichte “gave sophisms and even crazy sham demonstrations whose absurdity was concealed under the mask of profundity and of the incomprehensibility ostensibly arising therefrom. Moreover, he appealed boldly and openly to intellectual intuition, that is, really to inspiration”.1
Fichte’s confrontation with Kant would set his life’s task. We know that primary task of Fichte’s system of philosophy (the Wissenschaftslehre) is to reconcile freedom with necessity, or, more specifically, to explain how freely willing, morally responsible agents can at the same time be considered part of a world of causally conditioned material objects in space and time. Fichte’s strategy for answering this question—at least in his early writings, which are the ones upon which his historical reputation as a philosopher has (at least until recently) been grounded —was to begin simply with the ungrounded assertion of the subjective spontaneity and freedom (infinity) of the I and then to proceed to a transcendental derivation of objective necessity and limitation (finitude) as a condition necessary for the possibility of the former.2
Zizek devotes a great deal of time in his opus Less Than Nothing to a full (mis)reading of Fichte’s work telling us that what “Fichte failed to see was that, in the subject-object relationship, the subject is a negative entity, a pure self-relating negativity— which is why, in order not to “implode into itself,” it needs a minimum of objectal support. That is to say, although Fichte repeatedly emphasizes how the subject is not a thing but a self-relating process, a Tat-Handlung, he conceives of the subject in an all-too-positive way when he claims that the absolute I (subject) is all reality— the subject is, on the contrary, a hole in reality.” It’s out of Fichte that Zizek’s notions of the Subject as gap, crack, and the “something that is less than nothing” emerges. Fichte would develop the concept Anstoss, which has two primary meanings in German ( check, obstacle, hindrance, something that resists the boundless expansion of our striving; and an impetus or stimulus, something that incites our activity. (*see note below)
So that Zizek’s notion of the Subject as lack – or a negation of negation arises out of this confrontation of the self-recognition scene of the Self’s inability to re-present itself as substantial. Instead it is caught in a circle of it’s own self-relating negativity until it confronts a resistance both within and without that is not itself and discovers in itself the very truth of finitude. It is at this point Zizek will ask:
So why can the subject not simply be limited by the object? Not because the subject is absolute in the naïve sense of being the all-encompassing reality, but precisely because it is finite, caught in its self-relating loop and therefore unable to step out of itself and draw a line of delimitation between subjective and objective: every limit the subject draws is already “subjective.” (Zizek, KL 4179-4181)
We are already always bound within a circle of neglect, our knowledge already tied to the circle of our ignorance, never escaping the finite horizon of our own false infinity of consciousness. And, yet, something not us resists us from within and without, something that we come to know only as we delimit or posit a limit or cut or gap between us and this unknowable X. Or, as Zizek in my note below states it: “Anstoss is closer to the objet petit a [Lacan], to the primordial foreign body that “sticks in the throat” of the subject, to the object-cause of desire that splits it up: Fichte himself defines Anstoss as the non-assimilable foreign body that causes the subject’s division into the empty absolute subject and the finite determinate subject, limited by the non-I.”
Because we cannot find a third point outside ourselves from which to represent ourselves to ourselves, nor even represent the world in its objectivity that Fichte would rely on imagination rather than intellect as the only other option. As Zizek relates it we “can now see why representation needs to be supplemented by imagination proper: since the field of representations remains within the loop of the subject’s self-relating, it is by definition always inconsistent, full of lacunae, which the subject must somehow fill in to create a minimally consistent Whole of a world— and the function of imagination is precisely to fill in these gaps.” (Zizek, KL 4187) The admission here is that we rely on fictions rather than any actual factual knowledge of the world. Most of us get up each morning believing the world to be our common sense world of social activities never realizing that our shared vision of the world is an active dreamscape of illusion and self-deceptions based on just this kind of supplemented reality show of “filling in the gaps” of a world full of holes.
Yet, it is just here in this fantasy land of subjectivism that Fichte tries to escape out of the circle. As Zizek asks: “how does the relationship between subject and object become one of real opposition, that is, how does the external world become a real opposing force to the I? According to Fichte, this happens only when our mind adopts a practical stance towards the world.” (Zizek, KL 4237) A practical philosophy rather than theoretical:
In the theoretical-observational stance, it is easy to conceive of reality as a mere dream that unfolds in front of our eyes— but reality “hurts” and resists us once we start intervening in it and trying to change it. Here enters, of course, Fichte’s infamous “spurious infinity”: the practical Self can never totally overcome the resistance of the not-I, so “the self’s original practical constitution is a striving (Streben)”— ultimately the endless ethical striving to create a reality that would fully conform to the moral ideal. (Zizek, KL 4238)
Fichte’s notion of striving would be the first time the concept of drive (Trieb) was introduced in the sense that Freud would later incorporate it, and Lacan would only appropriate in Seminar XI as the Freudian drive as an uncanny “undead” partial object. (Zizek, KL 4253) This very striving of the Subject-as-self in self-referential acquaintance was for Kant and his opponent Jacobi the very core of madness, and yet for Fichte the truth of this self-reflexive power of the self in it’s own acquaintance did not lead to madness but evasion:
There is thus no “objective” approach to self-consciousness (I): if we look at it from the outside, it disappears, dissolving into an objective psycho-physical process: The faculty of representation exists for the faculty of representation and through the faculty of representation: this is the circle within which every finite understanding, that is, every understanding that we can conceive, is necessarily confined. Anyone who wants to escape from this circle does not understand himself and does not know what he wants. (Zizek, KL 4290)
Every approach to understanding of consciousness (hard problem) in the sciences (neurosciences) ends in this reduction to deterministic physical processes (a Spinozan materialism). The point being we cannot get outside the loop of our own neglect and ignorance. For Fichte this was no problem in fact it was the solution, we are nothing but this self-positing self-relating nothingness as process:
it is not just that the mind (I) relates to itself— the mind (I) is nothing but this process of self-relating. Therein lies the circle or loop Fichte talks about: the relating itself not only creates what it relates to, it also is what it relates to. (Zizek, KL 4308)
But this was just a first step for Fichte: “he discovered that the most elementary structure of self-consciousness— the I’s self-positing— is more complex than it initially appears, and displays a precise structure. Fichte’s starting point is that the Self is not a product of some pre-subjective activity that generates it— the Self comes immediately with the activity.” (Zizek, KL 4313) The point here is that this striving, this drive and the self-reflecting process arise together and are never separated or escape the circle of this process since both form an activity in unison. Already in 1795, Fichte employed the metaphor of the eye (das Auge): the Self is an activity into which an eye is inserted, an activity which sees itself and is only through seeing itself. His next step is to admit that “we cannot account for the duality of the activity and the eye in terms of one of them alone”: “Neither the eye nor the activity can provide this account. In this moment, the idea of a ground of the structure becomes indispensable.” (ibid.)
This is where it becomes tricky for Fichte and his project, for in the end he would fall into theology because of it: the notion of ground, how to posit the self as self-positing without some supporting objective Ground? I want go into all the commentary in Zizek’s rendition other than these notes from his book:
The Lacanian notion of le grand Autre (the big Other, vaguely corresponding to what Hegel called “objective spirit” or the “spiritual substance” of individual lives), triumphantly resolves this problem. The big Other is a totally subjectivized substance: not a Thing-in-itself, but a Substance which exists only insofar as it is continuously sustained by the work of “all and everyone.” Reproducing Fichte’s formula of the subject’s self-positing, the big Other is the Ground-presupposition which is only as permanently “posited” by subjects. (Zizek, KL 4405)
In other words we all live in a shared world of symbolic structures that we agree on and posit in our everyday practical lives as if they were objective truth. This is the big Other of Lacan-Zizek: this vast symbolic structure which is the ground of our shared experience and reality system. When it breaks down and begins to crack at the edges we perceive it as a threat to our mental stability. Our present world is in social psychosis because the shared systems that we choose to identify between Left and Right are breaking symmetry and the big Other of our grounded vision is falling apart and will not hold. Because of it we are at war with each other, a civil war of the psyche and mind struggling in-between a world dying and one being born out of the unraveling of this Ground.
According to Zizek Fichte was unable to resolve the status of Ground because he does not have at his disposal a term which would designate an entity that is not-mental, that is asubjective, and yet at the same time is not a material “thing,” but purely ideal. This, however, is exactly what the Lacanian “big Other” is: it is definitely not-mental (Lacan repeatedly emphasizes that the status of the big Other is not psychological), it does not belong to the order of the subject’s experience; but it is also not the pre-symbolic material Real, a thing or process in reality independent of subjectivity— the status of the big Other is purely virtual, as an ideal structure of reference; that is, it exists only as the subject’s presupposition. (The big Other is thus close to what Karl Popper, in his late writings, designated as the Third World, neither objective reality nor subjective inner experience.) The Lacanian “big Other” also resolves the problem of the plurality of subjects: its role is precisely that of the Third, the very medium of the encounter between subjects. (Zizek, KL 4410)
Ultimately it’s this encounter and oppositional play of forces between subjects working within the shared symbolic field that produces our understanding of reality and ourselves. Without this conflict of forces as process in ongoing activity we would forever remain bound within an illusory world of self-positing negativity. It is only in the confrontation with what resists my own self-positing which awakens me from my dream into understanding of an other, and of myself as an othering.
*Note – “It is important to bear in mind the two primary meanings of Anstoss in German: check, obstacle, hindrance, something that resists the boundless expansion of our striving; and an impetus or stimulus, something that incites our activity. Anstoss is not simply the obstacle the absolute I posits for itself in order to stimulate its activity, so that by overcoming the obstacle it can assert its creative power (like the games the proverbial ascetic saint plays with himself, inventing increasingly perverse temptations in order to confirm his strength by successfully resisting them). If the Kantian Ding an sich corresponds to the Freudian-Lacanian Thing, Anstoss is closer to the objet petit a, to the primordial foreign body that “sticks in the throat” of the subject, to the object-cause of desire that splits it up: Fichte himself defines Anstoss as the non-assimilable foreign body that causes the subject’s division into the empty absolute subject and the finite determinate subject, limited by the non-I.” (Zizek)
- Schopenhauer, Arthur. Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. I, §13
- Breazeale, Dan, “Johann Gottlieb Fichte”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
- Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 4132-4136). Norton. Kindle Edition.