restricted access Getting Maimon's Goad: Discursivity, Skepticism, and Fichte's Idealism
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Journal of the History of Philosophy 39.1 (2001) 101-134

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Getting Maimon's Goad:
Discursivity, Skepticism, and Fichte's Idealism

Peter Thielke

The image of J. G. Fichte has of late displayed a rather substantial, and even remarkable, transformation. Where before Fichte was viewed—and most often dismissed—as advancing an unpalatable type of metaphysical idealism, in recent years several new perspectives on Fichte have emerged, each claiming to improve on the old, standard picture. 1 The transformation of Fichte's image has been accompanied—or, more precisely, has been made possible—by a renewed interest in the relatively forgotten figures in the interregnum between Kant and Hegel. Fichte's thought is now understood in the context not only of Kant's transcendental idealism, but of, among others, Reinhold's Elementarphilosophie, Aenesidemus-Schulze's skepticism, Jacobi's intuitionism, and Beck's Standpunktslehre. By casting Fichte in this light, a more nuanced understanding of his project has been developed, one that does not simply follow the [End Page 101] traditional view of the Wissenschaftslehre as a full-blown metaphysical idealism in which the world of objects is understood as the product of an Absolute I.

But while this 'contextual' approach has led to a renewed appreciation of the Wissenschaftslehre, I will suggest that the new focus on Fichte's historical milieu is incomplete. A lacuna in the current understanding of Fichte can be traced to a neglect of Salomon Maimon, an idiosyncratic and rather obscure critic of Kant. In this paper, I will argue that taking Maimon's skepticism into account when interpreting Fichte's idealism requires a rethinking of Fichte's project. In particular, in order to respond to Maimon's skepticism—an avowed project of the Wissenschaftslehre—Fichte's position must advance an idealist metaphysics, one in which the content of cognition is taken to be constituted by an act of the absolute I. This claim, of course, might seem rash, since it threatens to saddle Fichte with a gratuitous form of absolute idealism. It thus seems to run counter to recent attempts to make Fichte into a figure appealing to modern eyes. Such a concern, however, is I think misplaced. Instead, I will argue that Fichte's idealism, although perhaps ultimately unsuccessful, nevertheless should be of great interest precisely because it stands as an important attempt to provide an answer to a question—the nature of 'givenness'—that remains central to epistemology. 2

The paper is divided into five parts. The first presents the historical evidence for Maimon's influence on Fichte. Part 2 offers a discussion of what I call 'Maimon's challenge' to the Kantian notion of 'discursive' cognition, as well as the ways in which this served as a goad to the development of the Wissenschaftslehre. In Part 3 I turn to a close reading of §1 of the Grundlage of 1794, where I try to show how a recognition of Maimon's challenge can help make sense of the foundations of the Wissenschaftslehre's project, and in particular the 'category of reality,' an otherwise highly obscure step in Fichte's argument. Part 4 offers a short discussion of the ways in which a Maimonian-minded account of §1 contributes to the understanding of the Grundlage as a whole. Finally, I conclude in Part 5 with some brief remarks about the broader philosophical implications of Fichte's response to Maimon's challenge: Fichte, I will argue, offers the first (but not the last) attempt at answering a type of Maimonian skepticism that remains viable even today. [End Page 102]

1. The Skeptical Goad

Salomon Maimon, perhaps more than any other figure in German philosophy, embodied the Enlightenment notion of a Selbstdenker. He was born in Lithuania in 1753, to a rural Jewish family. 3 After marrying at eleven and becoming a father at fourteen, in his early twenties he fled from his family, after which he wandered the German countryside, until he was finally was able to establish himself in Berlin in 1779. Here he was taken in by Moses...