What does it mean to have faith in freedom?

  • “If one nevertheless decides not to explain this appearance [of the will’s absoluteness] any further and decides to consider it to be absolutely inexplicable, i.e., to be the truth, and indeed our sole truth, according to which all other truth has to be measured and judged—and our entire philosophy is based on precisely this decision—this is not because of any theoretical insight, but because of a practical interest. I will to be self-sufficient, and I therefore take myself to be so. Such a taking-to-be-true, however, is faith [Glaube]. Our philosophy therefore begins with an item of faith, and it knows that it does this” (p. 31). – FIchte, The System of Ethics

    Here, Fichte is doing two things: first, he is calling our attention to an assumption he has made, a hidden premise he has been relying on, in his deduction of the will’s absolute self-sufficiency in the chapter so far. For Fichte has moved from the allegedly necessary structure of first-personal deliberative self-consciousness — in which the will is posited as absolute — to a reflective perspective on this structure itself whereby it is imbued with ultimate normative authority. Secondly, Fichte is addressing those of us who, in recognizing this hidden premise at work in his argument, may raise a skeptical eye to the legitimacy of such a move in the face of alternative premises.

    For it is entirely possible that the appearance of the will’s absoluteness is nothing but an illusion and that the will’s apparent self-sufficiency could be the result of an external causality to which we can have no epistemic access. Fichte concedes this. But where the skeptic goes wrong is not in her pointing out that there is a gap between the will’s apparent absoluteness and our belief in its ‘real’ (normative) absoluteness but in her claim that such a gap can only be filled with a further theoretical proof. For not only is there no theoretical proof available to ground belief in the will’s self-sufficiency but neither is there any theoretical claim available to the dogmatist to explain how the will appears (and appears absolutely) as an effect of the thing-in-itself. And whereof we cannot (theoretically) speak, thereof we must remain (theoretically) silent.

    In speculative terms then, the dogmatist fairs no better than the Fichtean. And if speculative reason were the only source of philosophical justification then the debate would end in a stalemate of agnosticism. But of course, the debate does not stop there. Both the Fichtean and the dogmatist (and the skeptical agnostic, for that matter) are driven to express the rational superiority of their belief over the alternatives. And insofar as they address their claims to their interlocutors, they are holding the latter accountable under a normative order that is represented as intersubjectively valid for all rational agents capable of forming beliefs about the world. And this normative order is nothing other than practical reason itself, the capacity or power of an intellect to be determined (in thought and in action) by nothing but rational principles that it gives itself freely. Thus, in arguing against the freedom of the will the dogmatist and skeptic must invoke the very normative order they wish to deny.

    This is what Fichte means when he says that dogmatism, too, starts with faith but it does not know that it does. Fichte is now entitled to claim the upper hand in the dialectical stalemate because he has forced his opponents into a pragmatic contradiction. Either the skeptic and dogmatist concede the self-sufficiency of practical reason (which just is the will used in its rational capacity) or they must exit from the debate all together. As soon as they take a stand in the game of giving and asking for reasons, whether they know it or not, they posit themselves as free.

    Note carefully, that in no way is Fichte claiming that we know for certain that we are free. He is arguing only that it is incoherent to claim that one is not free since it is a condition of the possibility of making any claim whatsoever that one posits oneself as free.

    Interestingly, if it were true from a theoretical standpoint that we were indeed free, wouldn’t things appear exactly as they in fact do, where the question of our freedom must be decided for ourselves?

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One response to “What does it mean to have faith in freedom?

  • Ciaran Dudley

    So for Fichte, the very ambivalence of our freedom is already a kind of flag indicator of its undeniability. ‘Only the true messiah denies his divinity.’

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