restricted access Archimedean Points in a Network of Cosmological Metaphors: Fontenelle, Locke, Fichte, and Kant
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Archimedean Points in a Network of Cosmological Metaphors:
Fontenelle, Locke, Fichte, and Kant

Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s first treatise, “Concerning the Concept of the ‘Wissenschaftslehre’” (“Über den Begriff der Wissenschaftslehre oder der sogenannten Philosophie,” 1794), is a text built in no small measure upon metaphors. Unlike the increasingly abstract lectures on the theory of knowledge, the 1794 treatise is organized around two fields of imagery: construction and cosmology. These two fields overlap in that the Earth doubles as a planet in the universe and the foundation upon which people raise buildings. Both metaphorical fields come together most prominently when Fichte draws on the anecdote about Archimedes’ promise to displace the Earth if could he just find a long enough lever and a firm point beyond our world to place his fulcrum.

The “Archimedean point” plays an important role in the intellectual topography of the eighteenth century, especially in German Idealism and Romanticism. Hans Jürgen Balmes and Hans-Joachim Mähl, the editors of the standard Novalis edition, write that during that period the Archimedes anecdote was used as a comparison to the absolute justification of consciousness and, as such, is quoted by Fichte, Kant, Schelling, and others (“Kommentar” 362). Others have emphasized different elements of the anecdote and drawn on different episodes from the life of Archimedes. Jocelyn Holland, in her study of the point as a Romantic figure of thought, elaborates two ancient Greek accounts which provide an opportunity to interpret “the Archimedean point” as the solid ground under one’s feet or the resting point of the lever (99). The concept of the Archimedean point has several aspects which can be used for interpretation. In the period under consideration in this essay, references to the Archimedean point combine its traditional aspects with new elements, often deriveed from recent scientific discoveries. Fichte makes an important contribution in this regard, because in his discussion of the Archimedean point he takes the concept of gravity into consideration. Against the backdrop of the cosmological metaphors of his time, I contend that the inclusion of gravity played a significant role in the departure from a metaphysics based on a concept of substance in favor of a subject-oriented thinking. [End Page 27]

The transition to subject-oriented thinking – as a new discourse – brought with it new metaphors, many of which comprised cosmological and astronomical motifs. These metaphors, in turn, tended to focus on a central theoretical issue: that the Earth and other celestial bodies do not need any base or support in order to float in the universe. Newton’s law of universal gravitation was indeed revolutionary in this respect: stars and planets remain in their orbits and move owing to the activity of some invisible and immaterial forces. So evocative were these illustrations that they perfectly corresponded with the philosphers’ problems. The scientific revolution and the spectacular success of natural sciences forced them to ask probing questions about the foundations of knowledge. The crisis of ideas which were inherited from before the scientific revolution, primarily the concept of “substance,” opened the way to seek new universal justifications. Due to the fact that cosmology tries to explain the universe, the universal nature of the problem fitted the cosmological use of metaphors. The Archimedes anecdote belongs in the cosmological field of imagery described above precisely because it concerns the establishment and loss of foundations on a cosmological scale.

In his essay, “Concerning the Concept of the ‘Wissenschaftslehre,” Fichte inquires into the foundation of all knowledge. If we are to have certain, absolutely established knowledge – the only kind Fichte has in mind – it cannot rest on something which in turn needs support from another foundation. Definite knowledge must rest on an absolute foundation. Fichte’s argument uses the proximity of the German words for justification (“begründen”) and for principles (“Grundsätze”). Both maintain a strong metaphorical relationship with the Earth, the ground (“Grund”), and foundations. The metaphorics on which Fichte relies are inherent to the language of philosophy (cognitive scientists like Lakoff and Johnson suggest that the conceptual layer of natural languages contains images from sensory experience).1 The metaphors of the “ground” are closely connected to those of the...