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Das Begreifen des Unbegreiflichen: Philosophie und Religion bei Johann Gottlieb Fichte 1800-1806. (Summaries And Comments).

ASMUTH, Christoph. Das Begreifen des Unbegreiflichen: Philosophie und Religion bei Johann Gottlieb Fichte 1800-1806. Spekulation und Erfahrung. Texte und Untersuchungen zum Deutschen Idealismus Abteilung II: Untersuchungen Band 41. Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: From-mann-holzboog, 1999. 416 pp. Cloth, n. p.--Christoph Asmuth's Das Begreifen des Unbegreiflichen is one of the most comprehensive and advanced studies yet of the development and character of Fichte's philosophy between 1800 and 1806. Asmuth's detailed and yet very accessible analysis, which is the published version of his doctoral thesis, focuses particularly on the second 1804 lecture series of the Science of Knowledge and upon the 1806 Way Towards the Blessed Life. It lays particular emphasis upon Fichte's philosophy of religion, and upon Fichte's assessment of his thought with regard to Christian doctrine. A fundamental concern of this study is Fichte's idiosyncratic examination of the activity of thinking, and how the thinking can become aware of the absolute. Asmuth also aims at providing the reader with a comprehensive account of the Science of Knowledge as the thinking's enquiry into itself and into its foundation. The comprehending of the incomprehensible precisely as the incomprehensible is the crucial act of thinking for Fichte, for the incomprehensible cannot be understood but precisely as incomprehensible. Asmuth examines the genesis of this act by a (re-) performance of Fichte's Science of Knowledge. It is the act in which knowing which tends to know (and thus to objectify) something, nihilates itself (and thus the manifoldness of mere appearance). It leads progressively to absolute Reason, pure Being, light, or God as the absolute immanence and the essential Being of thinking.

Asmuth asserts that Fichte's philosophy was, at least as late as 1807, consistently a philosophy of the I. He also argues that the tension and the relation between idealism and realism are crucial keys for a proper understanding of Fichte's philosophy with regard to both its content and its form. The distinction between popular and scientific method is therefore rooted in the very content of the Science of Knowledge. This philosophical endeavor is to be placed in between the absolute and the sphere of mere appearance; it is a movement of descension and ascension. Fichte's philosophy is thus, as Asmuth argues, to be placed within the dynamic dialectic between realism and idealism and therefore transcends any static ontology and metaphysics of substance. The distinction between popular and scientific writings is not a purely formal one, though, for only the ideal element of Fichte's philosophy, this is to say the Science of Knowledge, guarantees the certainty of the philosophical content. Fichte's philosophy, Asmuth concludes, is thus opposed to Schelling's thought by reflection as its standpoint and its idealist structure (p. 18). Asmuth's aim lies therefore in defending Fichte's thought over against the charge of irrational mysticism and one-sided subjectivism. Fichte's thinking is essentially philosophy. Fichte not only fundamentally reinterprets and modifies the orthodox Christian teaching on creation, Christ, and satisfaction (p. 135 and following), he also dehistoricizes Christianity and reduces it to what he judges the eternal truth of Christianity and thus to what is, in his opinion, essentially compatible with the Science of Knowledge (p. 123 and following). He thus anticipates a future "universal Christianity" which is wholly compatible with Reason and which has left behind the eclipse of contaminated Christianity as corrupted by history and the denial of its metaphysical truth.

In contrast to the theory that there are distinctly different periods in Fichte's philosophy, Asmuth argues that the development of Fichte's thought has occasionally been overestimated. That Fichte frequently changes his key notions and expresses them through many almost synonymous equivalents puts emphasis upon the dynamic and existential character of Fichte's thinking. The Science of Knowledge cannot be understood unless the reader performs and thinks it himself. Fichte's philosophy remains a philosophy of freedom, the decision to join the "We" of the Science of Knowledge depends, as Fichte famously stated, upon what kind of person one is.

The 1804 Science of Knowledge does not, as Asmuth holds, signify Fichte's shift toward realism or his separation from a philosophy of the I. That Fichte's thought is increasingly characterized by theological notions, as Asmuth maintains, does not go back to a fundamental paradigm shift of his thinking. Fichte's transcendental philosophy has always been rational philosophy and has always been concerned with the presuppositionless examination of thinking and of freedom. This is to say that Fichte's philosophy of religion does not Christianize his philosophy after (nor even due to) the atheism controversy (Atheismusstreit), but rather philosophizes about Christianity insofar as Christianity supports and illustrates Fichte's philosophy. He thus dismisses the doctrines of creation and of satisfaction because they hold that there is a fundamental difference between God and the created being. According to Fichte there is no such fundamental difference; he rejects the idea of creation as well as of sin. In contrast to St. Paul's teaching which Fichte fervently dismisses, St. John's gospel, particularly the logos speculation of the prologue, expresses the eternal truth of Christianity and relies upon the inward proof. This proof Fichte thinks exclusively acceptable for scientific philosophy. This eternal truth has, according to Fichte, chiefly been realized before the historical rise of Christianity and is to be philosophically rediscovered against its current misrepresentation and against the obscuring of the eternal essence of Christianity. In contrast to Kant's critical philosophy and its aim to make place for faith by restricting knowledge, Fichte's thought strives at surpassing faith into (essentially philosophical) vision.

Asmuth's analysis of Fichte's rather sketchy philosophy of language also elucidates the, as it were, rather inconsistent terminology and the abundant use of metaphors in Fichte's Science(s) of Knowledge. According to Fichte, language, particularly in its written form, is characterized by inherent insufficiencies. There is thus no such thing as one unequivocal and scientific language which Fichte employs. The Science of Knowledge even generates its own language while being performed. Any performance, though, implies yet another language and therefore other key notions and metaphors. This is why he cannot but essentially speak (and write) in a cryptic way (pp. 153-4).

Yet another key issue of Asmuth's study is the relation between Fichte's popular writings, such as The Way Towards the Blessed Life, The Vocation of the Scholar, and The Characteristics of the Current Age, and the different lecture series on the Science of Knowledge. Fichte's way of conceiving this relation has altered between the early Science(s) of Knowledge and his 1806 popular lecture series. Fichte does not continue to hold to the idea that there is a sharp line to be drawn between scientific philosophy and popular philosophy. He even goes so far as to argue that truth first needs to be recognized in a popular form so that it then can become the object of scientific scrutiny (p. 64). Asmuth first outlines the contemporary horizon (Garve, Kant, Hulsen, and Greiling) against which Fichte's popular writings ought to be understood. By delivering (and publishing) popular lecture series, Fichte provides an answer to the controversial question of whether and to what extent philosophy can be pursued in a popular way. Asmuth makes clear that Fichte's answer contrasts with the contemporary discussion in two significant ways. First, he does not lay stress upon the sensuality of popular philosophy. Second, Fichte does not hold that popular philosophy ought to avoid philosophical terminology and thus presupposes a peculiar language.

After having analyzed the The Way Towards the Blessed Life, Asmuth scrutinizes the 1794 Science of Knowledge from a purely historical point of view (p. 153 and following). He then goes on to perform (rather than merely historically to analyze) the second 1804 lecture series of the Science of Knowledge which discovers the absolute content as such. The Science of Knowledge can only be understood by deliberately performing it (p. 311). The contradistinction between realism and idealism is integrated into, and surpassed in the performance of the "We" of the Science of Knowledge. The (formally) ideal depiction of the Science of Knowledge is superior to the (formally) real of Fichte's popular writings, for the popular account lacks the focus upon reflection and thus upon the thinking subject. It does not proceed genetically and lacks the evidence of the scientific account.

The last chapter scrutinizes how Fichte's and Schelling's philosophy relate to one another between 1801 and 1806, chiefly by interpreting Schelling's criticism of Fichte's philosophy in the 1800 Presentation of My System of Philosophy and in the 1804 Philosophy and Religion and his very polemical critique of Fichte's Way Towards the Blessed Life in the 1806 Presentation of the True Relation of the Philosophy of Nature to the Improved Fichtean Doctrine. Schelling chiefly critiques in Fichte what he conceives as his one-sided subjectivism and his emphasis upon reflection and thus the unproductive attachment of Fichte's thought to finitude. Fichte's critique, on the other side, targets Schelling's dogmatism which has given up philosophical proofs in favor of an arbitrary invention of its system. Schelling's system is, according to Fichte, based upon a dead, external, and objective Being. Asmuth repeats this critique in a modified way against Fichte's Science of Knowledge, which, as he argues, could not master its own external form. Asmuth states that it is not always clear how the different analyses of the Science of Knowledge necessarily follow from one another (pp. 314-15).

Asmuth's interest, however, is not merely historical, for he also pursues a genuinely systematic interest. He acknowledges the intrinsic limits of any systematic philosophy along the lines of German idealism. Asmuth briefly opposes the notion of an intrinsically open system to the Fichtean endeavor and argues that thus both freedom and intersubjectivity can be appreciated more fully. For in Fichte, the emphasis upon the mere appearance character of the outside world does not allow for a satisfying theory of intersubjectivity. The same can be said of the issue of freedom. In Fichte, the absolute is not free; freedom belongs to the area of mere appearance. For an open philosophical thinking, however, real and radical freedom is essentially possible, as Asmuth emphasizes. Here, freedom is not the beginning of nothingness, but nothingness is a task for the freedom of thinking; the thinking I thus dominates over the absolute I.

This comprehensible (notably due to summaries and overviews of the argument and Asmuth's clear and clarifying language), rich, and, in its theses, also partly controversial study will surely stimulate the research into and the debate about Fichte's philosophy, about the continuity and discontinuity of his thought, and also about the theological and religious significance of his philosophy. It will particularly stimulate the discussion about the issue of how one can philosophize today, this is to say in a time when closed systems have become not only questionable, but also impossible. Philosophy continuously is in need of resituating and redefining itself; this, however, ought to be pursued, as Asmuth's book makes clear, without abolishing the fundamental insights of Fichte's philosophy.--Holger Zaborowski, Christ Church, Oxford.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Zaborowski, Holger
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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