Tom Rockmore and Daniel Breazeale, eds.: Rights, Bodies and Recognition: New Essays on Fichte's.
Rights, Bodies and Recognition: New Essays on Fichte's
Foundations of Natural Right. Burlington, VT: Ashgate 2006.
US$99.95 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-7546-5502-2).
This interesting collection of essays on Fichte's Foundations of Natural Right (FNR) follows from a conference held in 2001 in celebration of a long-overdue new translation of this text. It contains seventeen essays in all, from both well-known figures in the study of Fichte and German Idealism and relative newcomers in the field. It covers a wide range of issues, demonstrating both the ingenuity and novelty of FNR and of contemporary interpretations of the same.
FNR was published in 1796 and 1797 during the height of Fichte's fame. In it Fichte unfolds a completely new understanding of natural right. As the Introduction to this collection rightly points out, four features of FNR deserve special mention: (1) its sharp separation of questions of morality from questions of right; (2) the necessity of recognizing the other, not only as a limit to one's own freedom, but more fundamentally in order to become even conscious of one's self; (3) the necessity to consider an embodied self for the expression of one's freedom and for recognition between oneself and the other to take place; and (4) the fact that the theory of natural rights is, like the Wissenschaftslehre (WL) itself, a Reellephilosophie. It is a 'real' (Reelle), or material doctrine because of its performativity. Fichte asks us to perform for ourselves the necessary constitutive acts on which his philosophy rests. He always asks us to 'think the I' because then we become aware of the self-positing nature of consciousness. It is in this sense that he claimed that the WL is not grounded in some assumed facts of consciousness, but on the necessary acts of consciousness. These acts are the WL's material ground. It is with this turn to the question of actuality that Fichte comes to prioritise the actuality of right over the mere possibility of moral action (contra Kant). For Fichte questions of right and freedom do not concern descriptions of states but actions to be performed.
These four issues: 1) separation of morality and right, 2) alterity, 3) embodied selves, and 4) materialism, are addressed in essays by, respectively, Violetta Waibel and Yolanda Estes, Jeffrey Kinlaw and Hans Georg von Manz, Angelica Nuzzo and Gunter Zoller, and Bruce Merrill and Scott Scribner. But this does not exhaust the variety of the collection. There are interesting papers on the relation of FNR to other theories of political philosophy, e.g., social contract and natural law theories (Wayne Martin, Michael Bauer, Robert R. Williams); questions of sex and gender (Babel Frischmann), Fichte's methodology (Daniel Breazeale); the relation between Fichte and Schelling (Michael Vater and Steven Hoeltzel); Fichte, Heidegger and Nazism (Tom Rockmore); and, lastly, FNR and liberation philosophy (Arnold Farr).
As it is obviously not possible to discuss all essays here, I have simply singled out a few for discussion. Breazeale distinguishes between various methods and strategies in the FNR. Fichte famously demanded of us to 'think the I' and to observe ourselves when doing so. Rather than discovering a certain fact of consciousness (Descartes) we experience our fundamentally active nature. This Breazeale calls the 'phenomenological-synthetic' method, thus denoting both its performative and its ampliative nature. But there is also a 'dialectical-synthetic' method, where contradictions are resolved through a 'higher level' principle. Besides these, there is a third 'method', the appeal to facts of experience. This appeal is problematic, not only for the often strange things Fichte thinks are facts, but especially because Fichte claimed to have started from necessary and unconditioned first principles. An appeal to facts that are by nature contingent thus seems out of place. This, Breazeale writes, indicates a significant difference between the FNR and the WL. With the WL its foundations find their actuality contained within its performative nature, since for Fichte consciousness can be nothing but self-positing. In thus grounding itself consciousness is necessarily actual. Yet it is not possible to derive the actuality of a community of sensible beings obeying the theory of natural right from the theory of natural right itself. Fichte needs to demonstrate this actuality since its mere possibility was deemed insufficient. As he cannot derive the actuality of such a community directly from first principles, he is forced to show how the theory of natural right applies to the experienced world. But this creates the subsequent problem of the status of this world. If natural right is to be a 'science' then it must explicate the necessary and actual structures of right. If these structures are indeed necessary then they cannot be straightforwardly refuted by the facts of the experienced world.
Gunter Zoller and Angelica Nuzzo both discuss various aspects of embodiment. As Nuzzo writes: 'The body is first and foremost agent (not just the medium) of human concrete interpersonal activity and freedom. The body is the material principle of individuality but is also, at the same time, that which makes visible the intrinsically public and intersubjective dimension of human individuality' (71). For Fichte, Kant had only demonstrated the possibility of moral action (i.e. what is required for it to take place), now Fichte asked: how do rights apply? It is the body that comes to fill this function in a twofold way. It is my body that provides efficacy to freedom, and it is the human body that lets me recognize the other as a member of a community of rights. Zoller: 'the Naturrecht is the work in which both the body and the Other first receive systematic philosophical attention--not only in Fichte but in philosophy in general' (91).
What is interesting about this collection is that all articles are truly essayistic. They single out certain issues in the theory of natural right, issues that open up the text for further research. As such it gives testimony to the quite wonderful resurgence in Fichte studies. FNR, whose only other (and not very good) translation dates from 1869, suddenly reappears at the centre of a whole set of contemporary issues, tying together questions of self-awareness and community, embodiment and politics. This reappraisal has been on going for some decades now, slowly reversing a century and a half of misinterpretation. Though we have yet to see a comprehensive study on FNR appear in the English language, this collection will surely serve to inspire someone to such a work.
University of Warwick