Arthur Schopenhauer did not have much use for Fichte. He thought Fichte’s mistakes arose from the fact that Fichte did away with Kant’s realm of things in themselves, leaving human consciousness free to just spin in any direction without any friction from anything external to it. And, to make matters worse, he did so without any compelling reason, and in prose that left his readers baffled. In Schopenhauer’s words:
[Fichte] declared everything to be a priori, naturally without any evidence for such a monstrous assertion; instead of evidence, he gave sophisms and even crazy sham demonstrations whose absurdity was concealed under the mask of profundity and of the incomprehensibility ostensibly arising therefrom. (Parerga and Paralipomena, 1.13)
I think Schopenhauer discovered the way not to read Fichte – namely, as a philosopher arguing cogently for a conclusion based on reason and evidence. But then how should we read Fichte? My sense is that Fichte is best read as providing a metaphysics for a certain mood. I would like to try to articulate that mood, and then see how well his speculative and moral philosophy generates it.
Though we live in a cynical age, try for a moment to adopt the view of someone who regards utopia as possible, and perhaps even necessary. Forget for now that we live in a broken and fractured age, with conflict, injustice, inequalities, and absurdity. For a moment, try believing that all these fractures can be healed or repaired. How? Believe that through the dedicated use of our reason we can establish a political community, replete with a scientific understanding of nature, that can bring us into an understanding with one another and into living in harmony with nature’s boundaries and requirements. Through intelligence and justice, we can make whole what is now fractured. Having this belief, and having the temperament to act on it, is what I shall call the mood of Enlightened Optimism, and this is precisely the mood of Fichte.
Now what kind of metaphysics would generate such Enlightened Optimism? If what we see as now fractured can be brought into wholeness, then there must be a wholeness that is possible. Moreover, this wholeness is not merely accidental; it is not the case that it just so happens that there turns out to be a way to make everything whole. Rather, this possibility of wholeness is guaranteed. The wholeness is thus a pre-condition for our fractured world; the possibility of wholeness places constraints upon the kinds of fractures our world can have. Our world can be fractured only in such ways as wholeness is still a possibility. So this means that our disunity proceeds from a prior unity – not prior in time, but prior in possibility. Unity is ontologically more fundamental than disunity.
But then, if unity is fundamental, why should there be any disunity at all? Perhaps it is because the unity attains its own unity only through recognizing itself through something other than itself. That is to say, the unity marks off its own limits, and brings itself identity, through something other than itself. Thus the fracturing is the way for the unity to come to itself. In this fracturing the unity is in its own funhouse, catching true glimpses of itself alongside distortions, curved images, and broken images.
What this means is that our own consciousness is the striving to bring unity out of what is fractured. It is imperative for us to do so, for what we are arises out of the negotiation between unity and disunity that must eventually resolve itself in unity. Moreover, to retain our mood of Enlightened Optimism, we must not see ourselves as pawns in some cosmic game that is beyond our control. Instead, we must see the postulation of the original unity, to which we are returning, as our own postulation. That is, we freely, absolutely freely, posit unity. In our efforts to repair the fractures, and restore unity, we are fulfilling our absolute freedom.
Okay. You may now return to Earth. Schopenhauer was right to find much to complain about in Fichte’s philosophy. But insofar as such “crazy sham demonstrations” encourage us to believe that our freedom consists in restoring unity to a fractured world, it must be admitted that it might be just crazy enough to work.