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Journal of the History of Ideas 62.4 (2001) 685-703

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Fichte's Conception of Philosophy as a "Pragmatic History of the Human Mind" and the Contributions of Kant, Platner, and Maimon

Daniel Breazeale

Readers of Fichte's first published presentation of the concept and foundation of his new system (as presented, respectively, in On the Concept of the Wissenschaftslehre [Ueber den Begriff der Wissenschaftslehre, 1794] and Foundation of the Entire Wissenschaftslehre [Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre, 1794/95]) have often been struck by a single passage in each of these texts that describes the transcendental philosopher as a "pragmatic historian of the human mind." Commentators on the early Wissenschaftslehre duly repeat this phrase, though few indeed make any effort to analyze or to understand it. Several scholars have offered conjectures about the possible origins of this striking term, but all of them have overlooked what may well be the most important such influence.

The first of the two passages in question occurs near the end of §7 of Concerning the Concept, where Fichte asserts that "we [transcendental philosophers] are not the legislators of the human mind but its historians--not, to be sure, journalists but writers of pragmatic history"(nicht Gesetzgeber des menschlichen Geistes, sondern seine Historiographen. freilich nicht Zeitungs-schreiber, sondern pragmatische Geschichtschreiber). 1 The second occurs near the end of Part Two of the Foundation in the context of a discussion of the differences between the dialectical methodology pursued in most of Part Two and [End Page 685] the very different method employed in the "Deduction of Representation" at the end of Part II and throughout Part III. Fichte glosses this difference by explaining that whereas we have previously been considering--and rejecting--various hypotheses concerning the relationship between the limited I and the limited Not--I, this apogogic method of reflection will now give way to a different method entirely, one made possible by the preceding derivation of the necessary occurrence of a "check" or Anstoß and the concomitant "fact" of the "wavering of the power of imagination" (Schweben des Einbildungskraft). Thus he writes:

In the future series of reflection we will reflect upon facts. The object of this reflection is itself a reflection, viz., the reflection of the human mind on the datum shown to be present therein (which to be sure, can be called a "datum" only as the object of this reflection of the mind thereupon, otherwise it is a "fact"). Thus, in the future series of reflections the object of the reflection is not first produced by this same reflection [as was previously the case], but is merely raised to consciousness.--From this it immediately follows that from now on we will not be dealing with mere hypotheses, in which a small amount of true content must be separated from the empty remainder; instead, it follows that reality can, with perfect justice, be ascribed to everything established from now on.--The Wissenschaftslehre is supposed to be a pragmatic history of the human mind. Until now we have labored only to obtain entry into the latter, simply in order to be able first to indicate a single undoubted fact. We have obtained this fact, and from now on our perception can calmly follow the course of events--not blindly, of course, but in an experimental fashion. 2

Once he has this new "fact" before him, the transcendental philosopher is in a position to observe how this same fact (which is, of course, an act of the observed I) is taken up into consciousness, that is, how the human mind explicitly posits the same "for itself." A description based upon such observations is, presumably, what Fichte means by a pragmatic history of the human mind. This cursory account, however, raises many questions: What is it exactly that the philosopher is supposed to observe? In what sense do these observations constitute a history? And why does Fichte feel it necessary to qualify the latter as a pragmatic history?

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