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Jürgen Lawrenz

Fichte and Individuality


Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre lends itself as apparently no other philosophy of mind to the extraction or extrapolation of a theory of individuality. Moreover it proves possible to marry the key concepts on which my essay concentrates to current neurophysiological thinking on how memories are laid down and retrieved. Accordingly it is those nuptials that this essay attempts to perform.


The world in my mind

The student of Descartes might be brought up short by Fichte’s ‘revision’ of the cogito statement: “I am I”. Soon it becomes apparent that this ‘I’ does not think:

The primordial, absolutely unconditioned first principle of human knowledge . . . is an act (‘Tathandlung’) which does not and cannot appear among the empirical states of our consciousness, but rather lies at its basis and alone makes it possible. [I,91]

Thus begins his effort to “complete” Kant’s system; for although the old man growled “God preserve us from friends like these”, it cannot be denied that the Critiques *presuppose* a fully-formed mind and may therefore be said to have turned a blind eye to some mandatory prior midwifery.

Fichte’s solution conceives of the ‘Ich’ as essentially an act — as an amorphous consciousness brimful with psychic energy seeking instantiation as a finite thinking being. Unlike the cartesian self, the fichtean ‘Ich’ is initially a self in abstracto [I, 96 & 97], the principle of activity in all purity and lacking all predicates [I, 110].

Accordingly what the ‘Ich’ can experience in this state is nothing remotely akin to the cogito, but rather a freudian ‘oceanic feeling’ of limitless being. From this emerges the desire to ‘posit’ itself, which can mean nothing other than a striving for self-consciousness. Thus,

The pure self-reverting activity of the Self is a striving . . . This boundless striving, carried to infinity, is the condition of the possibility of any object whatsoever: no striving, no object. [I, 262].

Echoes of Goethe’s apophthegm, “Im Anfang war die Tat”, itself a sovereign mind’s correction of the evangelical “In the beginning was the word”. Agency precedes the self-consciousness which commands words.

But an ‘Ich’, wanting to become a ‘Self’, needs correlation to an ‘Other’. Activity, whether mental or physical, necessarily implies the existence of a correlated external reality in relation to which we think and act and which comprises the theatre where these relational activities are enacted. [I, 104, 9-10]. Unbeknownst to itself, however, this is a limiting factor on the ‘Ich’s’ primitive infinitude, its ‘reality check’ (Anstoss):

The very concept of striving already involves finitude, for that to which there is no counterstriving is not a striving at all. . . . If it did not endlessly strive in this fashion, it could not posit itself, for it could oppose nothing to itself; again it would be no Self and would therefore be nothing. [I, 270].

If, for the sake of illustration, one were to translate it into a temporal progression, it would read: ‘Ich’ (generalised, kinematic, thus latent self-consciousness), ‘Other’ (the non-‘Ich’, determining and limiting the objectless ‘Ich’), mutual interpenetration and instantiation of (specific, individual) self-consciousness. Thus:

The infinitely outreaching activity of the self is to be checked at some point and driven back upon itself; and hence the self is not to exhaust the infinite. That this occurs, as a fact, is absolutely incapable of derivation from the self, as has frequently been pointed out; but we can show, at all events, that it must occur, if a genuine consciousness is to be possible. [I, 275].

This is worth pursuing in a metaphorical depiction. Imagine, then, the placid surface of a fairly large lake. This lake represents primeval, undetermined, amorphous consciousness, as yet unaware of anything other than itself. To this consciousness the identity equation applies: “I am I”.

However, this ‘Ich’, as a psyche, is activity, energy. Hence the pre-cartesian emphasis: there is no thinking ‘I’. Instead it pulsates, according to its innate nature, like a spring bubbling up in the middle of my metaphorical lake. At the surface it breaks, setting up an epicentre of concentric ripples, streaming out in search of a world.

Somewhere in its expansionary course, the ripple encounters an island. This is the Anstoss mentioned above. Collisions are agencies of change: if a car hits a wall, both parties suffer modification. So here. In fact, we’ve come upon one of Fichte’s fundamental assertions:

1. In the shock of Anstoss, the periphery of the concentric ripples is deformed; consequently a portion of the outstreaming energy banks up and sends an equivalent ripple effect back to the source.

2. The primeval, hitherto undetermined ‘Ich’ experiences the presence of ‘An Other’, i.e. a Non-self.

3. This ‘Other’, in breaking the ripples, effectively puts a limit on the expansion of the ‘Ich’; accordingly the latter becomes ‘determined’, limited.

4. The shape of the island, as the determinant of the backswell, enters the cognisance of the ‘Ich’. The ‘Ich’ absorbs the knowledge of the island as ‘An Other’; which becomes the first item in a resource of individual experiences by which ‘the mind is being furnished’. [I, 109, 8-9 & I, 111].

Further delimitations occasioned in similar manner, and each in subtle or gross ways affecting the constitution and composition of the developing Self ensue and persist through to death; but this does not exhaust the issue. For the outward projection of the self and its meeting with objects implies a one way flow of information. But an essential aspect of Fichte’s ‘positing’ involves the determination of the non-self. But how, one might ask in all innocence, can a self delimit the non-self? And indeed this is missed by impatient readers, for the answer occurs as late as p. 225: “The self cannot exert causality on the non-self, for the non-self would then cease to be a not-self.” In a word, the issue culminates in nothing other than the kantian representation.

Self and non-self do not determine each other tangibly, but through the mediating faculty of imagination. As in Kant, synthesis occurs under these auspices. It is the work of the imagination to stabilise intuitions (Anschauung), which (paradoxically) occurs, according to Fichte, because imagination is characteristically restless and swings (schwebt) incessantly between the Self’s outward projection of its innate desires and the limitations imposed by the world.

Accordingly it is each one’s personal, individual ability to respond to, absorb and represent in their mind the data conveyed by reality, both dynamic and static, which builds up this inner world which is their reality. In any group of people, ‘real’ reality is a consensus picture; ‘my’ reality is whatever I possess of it; and of course the consensus reality has the power to infract and/or correct my inner image. As Fichte wrote in the Sittenlehre, “to determine my world is to determine me”.

There is no real need to go descriptively beyond Step 4, for the above represents, as it were, the experiential template. For just as in due course all the permanent features of the lake’s expanse — islands, peninsulas, trees growing out, rivers flowing in and of course the shoreline delimit and circumscribe the mind’s active self-definition, so it is wrought by further experiences of temporal accidents like rain showers, rocks falling in, boats, children, ducks and whatever rigmarole of the world’s itinerary happens to impinge. The mind not only receives and absorbs these as self-delimitations, but puts its kantian stamp on the phenomena: active and passive interchangeably, as is meet for the case in question.

In addition to this mainly theoretical dimension, there is another, the practical, where the same mind is called upon to deal with a world similar to or even nearly the same, i.e. the world of life, of animals and other humans, of society and its mores, institutions, behaviours etc. These are more complex interactions for which Fichte enlists a plethora of subjective concepts based on drives (Triebe) like feeling, affection, alienation, satisfaction, egoism, inclination etc., culminating in imagination as the reconciler of the realms of the finite and the infinite, self and non-self, which in this anchorless states becomes productive. [I, 216]

He also brings to attention that mind, as a biological entity, is profoundly selective in its response to the objects of the world, to the need for navigating by and through them: thus knowing is never per se, but ad hominem:

Actual consciousness begins not with us, but rather with objects. Only later do I intuit and obtain consciousness of myself, and I do this by abstracting from things . . . our spiritual world is nothing but an abstraction from the corporeal world. [NM121/113]

My world is tailored uniquely to my needs (and possible decreptitudes). In the sociopolitical domain, where one mind seeks to influence another, where passion and ambition reigns, his analysis stresses Will and Imagination as the shaping force of individual personality (NM Ch.13 & 17), again with consequences to the content’s of that person’s mind. The upshot is minds absolutely unique owing to the uniqueness of their ‘lifelines’ and those experiences which have impregnated them.

From the way I’ve put this last point, a crucial aspect of Fichte’s philosophy is brought out — the very crux of the misunderstanding that seems to have blasted his posthumous reputation. The world, by being represented in the self, becomes the self; while as much of the world as the self cannot absorb remains incognisable to it. Hence the world each individual bears within himself is a unique constellation, necessarily constrained by the reality which is imposed from without. So that, for this consciousness, self-identity and the world are commensurate: activity and knowledge become one identity.

The entire sweep of argument, from the initial positing of an undifferentiated consciousness to the containment of the whole world in it, may be read in terms of a mutual delimitation between a mind and the world of nature, of which the upshot is a mind uniquely furnished with the sum total of its learning, experiences, sentiments, imaginings and representations. The contents of a mind — his mind, your mind, my mind — are distinguished from each other by this individualised absorption process. Thus the frequently heard assertion that Fichte’s ‘Ich’ creates or is the world, thus turns on representation, not on solipsism. The consequences are, firstly, that this representation is necessarily the whole of existence for that individualised version which comprises one identity; and secondly, that the world is no longer divisible into phenomena and noumena, for whatever my ‘Ich’ contains must be, for me, that world’s totality.

It could be argued therefore (and I do) that Fichte — irrespective of whether it happened inadvertently or as a by-product of his greater philosophical endeavour — furnished us with a cogent guide to the genesis and nature of individuality; and it seems to me that he certainly succeeded in illuminating this little corner of a perennial metaphysical problem area.


Memory and individuality

Our knowledge of the world is grounded in ‘representations’. Yet it is anything but common knowledge how this acquisition is accomplished — it would be more true to say that commonsense ideas on the matter are slave to age-old misconceptions. The gist of this matter is that we hold memory to be something apart, something set aside, a locus or module or cache which does not participate in, but leads a charmed life on the fringes of the mind’s activity, except that every so often its contents may be reviewed or renewed.

But surely memory must reside somewhere? It transpires, however, that this line of question is part of the problem, for neural memory is a process like every other mind function and the whole notionality associated with discrete ‘images’ a red herring.

Let me approach this from a fichtean point of view: My world is what I have learnt and experienced and absorbed into my cognition. This can be rephrased as “My world is my memory”. It seems obvious now, although it has to be modified presently, for that world is obviously changing minute by minute. It follows that the brain must be expert at packaging this non-stop influx of data into salient structures of information. Now there are two important aspects to this:

1. Experience is never unmediated or unfiltered — what needs to be added to this is the technical fine print, viz: that all sensa are converted into electrochemical signals, for this is the means by which the brain ‘talks’ to our organs as well to itself.

2. Since a large percentage of sensa require a response, the brain’s preferred means of accumulating a large store of memories is to ‘cut a pathway’ to some executive organ or faculty responsible for implementing appropriate action.

This point is calculated to open a largely ignored dimension in mind research. For example, AI studies, caught up in their instrumental notionality, remain altogether forgetful that sensing and perceiving are biological activities (not functions), performed on our behalf by organisms which‘make a living’ this way. The repercussions cannot here be pursued, but they require our cognisance that brain structures are not designed as, or built from, or function like, chips and wires: if anything they resemble ant colonies more than AI devices.
This is spectacularly evident in the arborescent structure of memory as an enormous congeries of nerve strands punctuated by synapses (junctions). A particular signal train must, at each of these synpases, be directed on the way to proceed; and whatever the result, a concomitant strengthening of that synapse ensues. If the issue is significant (I have just squashed the mosquito on my arm), then this pathway is a resource of the brain for any future decision in a similar situation.

All these ‘junctions’ on the pathway are ‘entry points’ for other signalling trains. Put simply, if next time I need to squash a flea, the ‘flea percept’ will probably enter the same pathway at one of its synapses.

In order clarify this unwieldy problem, let’s pretend that this pathway was cut into a tabula rasa. Here is one neuronal pathway available to me as a memory: of a picture (mosquito), pain (the bite), emotion (annoyance) and action (my murderous intervention). Firstly:

(a) that pathway is the memory of the event; and any subsequent similar experiences will re-strengthen it and/or cut subsidiary pathways into its junctions.

(b) accordingly the sight-feel-emotion-action packet must have exiting junctions into appropriate sub-modules. Now the ‘action’ component of the pathway explains itself: the signal travels to the motor cortex, and thence to a muscular site for implementation of the desired movement. But whereto are my pictures, feelings and emotions piped?

(c) Paradoxically to and through cortices responsible for reconstructing them. What we remember of the sight of the mozzie, all that fuzz and patching of colour, outlines, nuances of light and shade, size comparisons, stereometric depth etc. etc. is literally built up from the original data and re-formed as imagery ‘on the fly’. Likewise with feel and emotion. Data are spare, whereas information involves huge neuronal ergometrics. Self-evidently this is a more economical way of retaining memories than storing formed images.

Secondly, the criticality of exposure early in life to significant impressions is apt to influence that person’s outlook on the world as well as his/her capacity to receive and interpret the data of the world. Locke was not far wrong with his assessment; for although the mind is not literally blank when we are born, yet the ‘wisdom of evolution’ has been to provide for maximal plasticity of absorption in the development stages of infants; and this is evidently best done on a near-empty set.

There is an unexpected consequence to this: namely, that virtually all our experiences are filtered, mediated and shaped by our memories. In a word, the situation is not merely kantian in the sense that our sensory and perceptive faculties pre-judge what we are to make of phenomena, but in addition it is also fichtean in the sense that an auxiliary filtering pass (resorting to memory) is required for us to identify phenomena. The result is that what we see, hear, feel, taste, smell etc. are not, except in very rare instances, the impressions actually impinging on our nervous system, but what the censorship team of perception and memory permits us to experience — and in their vast majority, these turn out to be reconstructions of such events from memory, allowance being made for whatever differentiae impinge at the present moment. In short, at a certain stage in life, we stop experiencing the ‘raw feel’ of life, because (as William James said) the major function of the brain is the handling of surprises; and for most human lives, novelties diminish as we go on.

How associative memory works

The foregoing entails a radical reorientation in our conception of memory and its role in our lives. Unlike computers, which rely on precisely defined locations for specific memories, programs, images etc., the brain’s arborescent network is accessed associatively. An impression is like a key word; but this triggers not a discrete memory, but an entire branch replete with its innumerable affiliated sub-branches containing all pathways ever associated with that particular key. For example, if your a key is the word/concept/image ‘cat’, the memory network may be organised such as to provide a suitably cross-referenced collection of features, whether physical (mammal, whiskers, furry coat, sharp claws, fast, agile, hydrophobic, etc.) or emotional (domestically companionable, quiet, soft and cuddly) and so on. The network is likely to be different from one person to another also in respect of their educational background, i.e. a zoologist will develop different association from a collier or a poet.

Furthermore, any of these networks may link into others via ‘seconday connective associations’. If your mother pased away while a cat slept on her lap, your memory of cats might be embroiled in personal feelings that have little to do with felines but much with the concept ‘mother’, which in your mind may now invariably evoke an image related to (have an entry point into the network associated with) cats.

How immense a repertoire of connections we are likely to be imbued with comes with the realisation that the above example is the simplest imaginable. Memory is obviously not limited to words and their referents. Any cognitive or perceptive bundle, any emotional connotation, even muscular function, can be associated with any other and must be seen as obeying a similar logic of multiple arborescence.


We understand now that a threesome of conditions of experience prevails, which depend and rely on, and are decisively shaped by, the composition of an individual’s mind:

1. Experiences comprise a matching of real-time perceptions to remembered perceptions, and the reliability of the former is directly proportional to the interpretive capacity of the mind — based on the contents of its associative memory pathways.

2. William James was indubitably correct in defining the brain’s principal task as the handling of novelty and surprise, i.e. those aspects which do not figure in the picture that is “my world” for the time being, but demand an immediate response.

3. Altogether representation in the fichtean meaning of the term is a reconstruction from memory. The mind outlaws unfiltered data for the now obvious reason that we have no means of actually ‘labelling’ these without reference to associated knowledge.

This finally also gives us a lever into the reflexivity problem. The self isn’t ‘known’ to itself until it becomes — the self-knowledge acquired in mutual determination is knowledge of itself by means of drawing-in knowledge of the world. The energy streaming forth and the Anstösse encountered engender form: namely the mutual and simultaneous becoming of self and world:
The concept of force is the bridge between the intelligible world and the sensible world, [by which] the I goes outside of itself and makes a transition to the sensible world [and] represents itself to itself as an object and connects its own consciousness to an objective world. In this way, I become an object for myself, an object of perception, and a sensible world is connected for me with this object that I become. [MN131]

In sum: Fichte essentially and correctly he identified the mind as a composite, as a mapping of the world into the association cortex by means of a maximally randomised network. An ideal solution, one might say: overarching it, we find that“no man’s mind is an island” because all possible human experiences can be correlated and (in principle) collated; yet owing to the complexity of individual assembly, no single mind can possibly be matched“neuron for neuron” (as hopeful AI theorists occasionally propose) to any other.
Thus Fichte’s doctrine may be said without too much concession to have hit the nail on the head; present explications hopefully serving to draw the sting from the paradoxy (and mistaken solipsist understanding) of his dictum,“I am I” =“I am my world”.


Fichte, Johann Gottlieb: Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre. Felix Meiner, Hamburg 1979.
—: (1) Science of Knowledge. Tr. Peter Heath & John Lachs. Cambridge University Press 1982.
—: (2) Wissenschaftslehre Nova Methodo. Tr. Daniel Breazeale under the title Foundations of Transcendental Philosophy. Cornell UP 1992.
References are to the pagination of standard editions, which are reproduced in the translations. Quotations are from (1), if marked NM from (2).

Secondary texts on Fichte

Ameriks, Karl: Kant and the Fate of Autonomy. Cambridge University Press 2000.
Copleston, Frederick: A History of Philosophy. Vol. II. Doubleday, New York 1994.
Findlay, John N.: Hegel: A Re-examination. Allen & Unwin, London 1958.
Pinkard, Terry: German Philosophy 1760-1860. Cambridge University Press 2002.
Seidel, George: Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre of 1794: A Commentary on Part I. Purdue University Press 1993.

On neurophysiology and related topics

Cairns-Smith, Graham: Evolving the Mind. Cambridge University Press 1996.
Churchland, Paul: Engine of Reason, Seat of the Soul. MIT Press, Massachusetts 1996.
Cotterill, Rodney: Enchanted Looms. Cambridge University Press 1998.
Damasio, Antonio: Descartes’ Error. Macmillan, London 1996.
—: The Feeling of What Happens. Vintage, London 2000.
Eccles, John: Evolution of the Brain: Creation of the Self. Routledge, London 1989.
Edelman, Gerald: Neural Darwinism; Topobiology; The Remembered Present, all Basic Books, New York 1987-9.
Godfrey-Smith, Peter: Complexity and the Function of Mind in Nature. Cambridge University Press 1998.
Glynn, Ian: An Anatomy of Thought. Phoenix, London 1999.
Hundert, Edward: Lessons from an Optical Illusion. Harvard University Press 1995.
Popper, Karl & Eccles, John: The Self and its Brain. Springer Verlag, Berlin 1977.
Stewart, Ian and Cohen, Leslie: Figments of Reality. Cambridge University Press 1997.
Tulving, E.: Elements of Episodic Memory. Oxford University Press, New York 1983.