Self-measure and Self-moderation in Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre

In Daniel Breazeale & Tom Rockmore (eds.), New Studies in Fichte’s Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre. Amherst, NY, USA: pp. 81-102 (2001)
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In the opening chapter of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke explains that the self-understanding or self-measure of the human mind includes an account of the mind’s limits, and so the mind’s self-understanding can provide adequate grounds for intellectual self-moderation or self-control: “If we can find out, how far the Understanding can extend its view; how far it has Faculties to attain Certainty; and in what Cases it can only judge and guess, we may learn to content our selves with what is attainable by us in this State.” Furthermore: “If we can find out those Measures, whereby a rational Creature put in that State, which Man is in, in this World, may, and ought to govern his Opinions, and Actions depending thereon, we need not be troubled, that some other things escape our Knowledge.” Compared to Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre may appear to exemplify the very opposite of intellectual modesty and self-control. Unlike Locke, Fichte argues that a true system of knowledge should not seek to limit or moderate itself by reference to what is allegedly unknowable outside of it. A true system of knowledge, writes Fichte, “. . . only has to agree with itself. It can be explained only by itself, and it can be proven - or refuted - only on its own terms.” Furthermore, Fichte suggests that an appreciation of his system of knowledge requires not modesty in his readers, but rather an implicit sense of superiority: “I wish to have nothing to do with those who, as a result of protracted spiritual servitude, have lost their own selves and, along with this loss of themselves, have lost any feeling for their own conviction . . .” In this essay, I shall seek to show that, contrary to initial impressions, it is Fichtean idealism, and not Lockean (or any similar) realism, that is truly modest. According to my account, Locke’s explicit declarations concerning the modesty and limitedness of his own project exhibit a certain ignorance concerning the genuine problems at issue. In his claim to be modest, the realist Locke professes to know more than he actually does, and thus manifests his own immodesty. By contrast, the idealist Fichte must refrain from such direct claims to modesty and must appear to be immodest, precisely because he has a greater understanding of how radically limited human knowledge always is. Like Plato’s Charmides, Fichte realizes that any explicit claim to self-limitation and self-moderation would actually give lie to itself.
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