Fichte’s Impossible Contract

In Tom Rockmore & Daniel Breazeale (eds.), Rights, Bodies, Recognition: New Essays on Fichte’s Foundations of Natural Right. Aldershot, UK: pp. 11-25 (2006)
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As I hope to show in this paper, Fichte’s rejection of traditional social contractarian accounts of human social relations is related to his rejection of the search for a criterion, or external standard, by which we might measure our knowledge in epistemology. More specifically, Fichte’s account of the impossibility of a normative social contract (as traditionally construed) is related to his account of the impossibility of our knowing things as they might be “in themselves,” separate from and independent of our own activity in knowing them. Addressing the question of whether we finite human knowers can ever transcend the limits of our own consciousness, Fichte argues that Hume was not sufficiently critical: “…the Humean system holds open the possibility that we might someday be able to go beyond the boundary of the human mind, whereas the Critical system proves that such progress is absolutely impossible, and it shows that the thought of a thing possessing existence and specific properties in itself and apart from any faculty of representation is a piece of whimsy, a pipe dream, a nonthought.” In a very real sense, then, Fichte aims to “out-Hume” Hume on the question of whether we can ever know “things-in-themselves” or an external criterion for testing our knowledge. That is, Fichte goes beyond Hume and insists on the necessary – and not merely contingent – character of our ignorance of so-called things-in-themselves (i.e., things that supposedly exist antecedent to and independent of our consciousness of them). But unlike Hume, Fichte argues that radical skepticism regarding all possible knowledge of things-in-themselves does not undermine – but actually confirms and sustains – our belief in the emancipatory power of reason.
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