Schiller, Fichte and the Divided Self

When Schiller published ‘On Grace and Dignity’ many people took him to be responding critically to a picture of morality drawn up by Kant that was faulted for its apparent hyper-rationalism and for the diminutive role feeling was said to play in Kant’s ethics. But as Schiller says himself, and as contemporary scholarship has brought to light, what Schiller’s aesthetic philosophy is supposed to correct is not an error in the content of Kant’s theory of morality but merely the manner of its exposition. The concern was not that Kant was wrong but that he wrote in such a way that made it easy for readers to misinterpret him, to read him the wrong way.

Schiller showed that Kantian ethics is not a system suitable only for heartless calculators but rather for those complete human beings who have allowed the experience of beauty to raise them to the level of self-consciousness necessary to be able to represent and to recognize one’s duty as one’s duty and to relate to the moral law as a law that is given to oneself freely. To this extent, Schiller revealed how sensibility, through the experience of beauty, is not only in the service of morality but is also a necessary condition for finite beings such as ourselves to be capable of breaking through to the level of true moral autonomy. Far from being its enemy, aesthetic sensibility is the enabling condition of the very moral sensitivity we require to recognize the moral law as a law of freedom.

Thus, insofar as Schiller’s philosophy can be said to be an improvement upon Kant’s philosophy it must be seen as a clarification of the latter and not merely as one of its many alternatives.

In similar respects, I think that Fichte’s notion of the ‘I’ can be fruitfully interpreted as a ‘clarification’ of Schiller’s concept of the divided self in much the same way that Schiller’s aesthetic philosophy can seen to clarify the role of aesthetic feeling in Kant’s practical philosophy. To cut to the chase, I do not think that there is a large substantive difference between Fichte’s notion of the self and Schiller’s. Rather, I think that reading Fichte helps us interpret Schiller properly. That is to say, I think the division of the self in Schiller should not be understood to name an ontological rift between two separate and independent natures, one sensible and the other rational. Instead, I think the division of the self should be understood to operate in Schiller’s philosophy in much the same way that it operates in Fichte’s, i.e. as a necessary ‘structural’ determination or ‘essence’ of the unified I.

In the ‘Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man’ Schiller cautions us not to mistake the portrait of man’s divided nature for a picture of a nature divided, as if human nature once was unified and only afterwards became disjointed. The point of the Letters, I take it, is to show that “we can only arrive at the whole by the part, to the unlimited through limitation” (Schiller, Letters, p. 42) and that to a large extent the corruption of post-Enlightenment society is due to the tendency of man to seek to rid himself of all limitation instead of reflecting on just how instrumental it is in allowing us to act as conduits of the moral law in the sensible world.

“For how can the mind derive at the same time from itself the principles of inactivity and of activity, if it is not itself divided, and if it is not in opposition with itself? Here we must remember that we have before us, not the infinite mind but the finite…[And] a mind of this nature must associate with the impulse towards form or the absolute, an impulse towards matter or limitation, conditions without which it could not have the former impulse nor satisfy it.” (Letters, p. 43)

For Schiller, no less than for Fichte, the division of the I is something that the I does to itself and does freely. Thus, the appearance of the divided self is an expression of the self’s higher unity, the common root of the understanding and of sensibility, that Kant speculated about but did not directly explore.


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