Fichte's theory of practical agency

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Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Frederick Beiser


Practical agency, German Idealism, Fichte, Johann Gottlieb, Striving

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I provide a reconstructive interpretation of Fichte's theory of practical agency based primarily on a close examination of texts of the so-called "later Jena Wissenschaftslehre, " mainly, the 1798 published System der Sittenlehre and the 1796-9 series of lecture-cycles, entitled Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo ( WLnm ) recorded in two extant sets of student transcripts. I argue that the reason commentators of the first half of the last century fail to put together a satisfactory theory is because they did not sufficiently recognize the importance of the WLnm, and did not enjoy the retrospective vantage point with which thorough and incisive studies of it have since provided us for approaching the principle of striving of the 1794/5 Grundlage der gesammten Wissenschaftslehre. To this extent, my project also involves clarifying the role of striving in accounting for practical agency from this vantage point.

I argue that Fichte does not regard striving to be directly constitutive of our empirical actions. As a precondition of consciousness, striving is preconscious. Since time is itself an "appearance" (Erscheinung) for the transcendental philosopher, striving should properly be understood in terms of "timeless agency." It does not bear any obvious relation to the everyday temporally conditioned actions of which we are conscious and morally accountable, or even our conscious acting itself. The freedom of striving is comparable to Kant's "transcendental freedom," which Fichte identifies with the "moral freedom" of the pure will as early as 1793. It constitutes the law of practical reason (or moral demand) by which each of our ethical vocation is stipulated. In other words, the freedom of striving does not so much constitute the freedom of our choice to do X or ∼X (viz., the freedom of arbitrary choice [libertas arbitrii]) as it does its transcendental ground. Only in the Sittenlehre and the WLnm does Fichte come to secure the transcendental ideality, and thereby empirical reality, of our libertas arbitrii, by demonstrating that it has a transcendental ground in striving as Kant tries to do the same with respect to space, time and the objective unity of apperception--what I dub Fichte's "transcendental approach to practical agency."


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