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Das Begreifen des Unbegreiflichen, Philosophie und Religion bei Johann Gottlieb Fichte 1800-1806 (review)
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Reviewed by
Christoph Asmuth. Das Begreifen des Unbegreiflichen, Philosophie, und Religion bei Johann Gottlieb Fichte 1800-1806. Stuttgart/Bad Cannstadt: frommann-holzboog, 1999. Pp. 411. DM 118.00.

"God is neither One nor Many . . . all these predicates are suited only to finite natures, not for the Incomprehensible . . . Yet if we attribute even one of them to Him, it is all the same no matter which; the error is always the same, that one wants to comprehend the Incomprehensible." These remarks of the Verantwortungsschrift gegen die Anklage des Atheismus (1799) indicate a main concern of Fichte's later philosophy. This is the problematical relation between the "Absolute" or "God" as origin and principle of all knowing on the one hand, and the possibility of comprehending the Absolute on the other. The Absolute, as knowing, is always finite and differentiated within itself. Asmuth's purpose is to clarify this relation in Fichte.

The chief emphasis of this book lies on the presentation and interpretation of two later writings, Die Anweisung zum seeligen Leben (1806) and the Wissenschaftslehre 18042, the second of three series of lectures on the Wissenschaftslehre held in Berlin. Another important [End Page 288] topic is the relationship between strictly philosophical and popular writings, because the Anweisung belongs to Fichte's popular texts, while the Wissenschaftslehre 18042 is a scholarly or scientific one. Asmuth shows that the methodological difference between the popular and the scientific approach is based on the structure of the Wissenschaftslehre, which for Fichte is always situated between realism and idealism: "The popular is the real form of lecturing; the scholarly, the ideal form" (18).

The work thus covers a whole thematic complex, which the author presents in its multiple entanglements: He discusses the topic of Comprehending the Incomprehensible, asking whether and how the unity of the Absolute and the differences of knowing are compatible, and how this topic is connected with the relation between popular philosophy and Wissenschaftslehre. He links this question in turn to the methodological standpoint in the Wissenschaftslehre, thus its realism and idealism.

In the first three of seven chapters the work turns to religion, thus toward the "real" side of knowing, to popular philosophy. At first Asmuth deals with this subject historically, presenting Fichte's assessment of popular lecturing and showing that it was for Fichte realistic and corresponding to "ordinary knowing" (47). After representing Fichte's position within its historical context, he provides a detailed analysis of the Anweisung, emphasizing its rational character and rejecting any mystical interpretation, such as he finds in Edith Düsing's recent publications, for example (68). The task of religion is not, Asmuth points out, to clarify the relation between concept and what is incomprehensible, but rather merely to state this relation factually: "Religion conceives the relation of finite and absolute . . . in its That" (112). Fichte does not separate religion from Wissenschaftslehre. They are both complementary accesses to the Absolute, but not of equal value: "Thinking in its constitutive function remains predominant." (121)

After the representation of Fichte's view of Christianity, we find (chapters IV-VI) the discussion of the Wissenschaftslehre, the "ideal" side of knowing. The discussion starts with the problem of appropriate terminology. Taking Fichte's difficult language as the occasion to ask whether it is possible in principle to seek through language the "pre-linguistic An sich of what has been thought (des Gedachten)" (164), he tries to make clear how the problem of language can be used to explain Fichte. Yet it remains unclear whether language as such can be used to explain the fact that Fichte's texts themselves are partly "cryptic." The fact that the Absolute cannot be attained through language does not itself provide a sufficient reason for incomprehensible writing.

The fifth and sixth chapter contain a philosophical-historical analysis of the Wissenschaftslehre 18042. Asmuth argues against Wolfgang Janke and Michael Brüggen that the Wissenschaftslehre proper does not start before lecture 15. The preceding lectures, which Asmuth considers as Propraedeutics, serve only as preparation for the Doctrine of Truth, which is finally followed by the Phenomenology. The Propraedeutics proceed destructively and serve to "uncover the Absolute" (243).

The Doctrine of Truth...