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  • Fichte's Foundations of Natural Right: A Critical Guide ed. by Gabriel Gottlieb
  • Steven Hoeltzel
Gabriel Gottlieb, editor. Fichte's Foundations of Natural Right: A Critical Guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. 288. Cloth, ₤64.99.

This excellent collection features consistently illuminating and often groundbreaking work on issues raised by Fichte's philosophy of right. All twelve chapters make new contributions to specialized debates. Most will be accessible to nonspecialists nonetheless, and many will richly repay careful consideration by readers interested in Fichte, post-Kantian political theory, or classic debates about rights and the state.

Fichte's Foundations of Natural Right (FNR) breaks with prior Kantian tradition by insisting on a strict separation of right from morality. Angelica Nuzzo discerns a systematic basis for this break in Fichte's decision to frame his practical philosophy around the finite human subject, who characteristically bears interests and aims beyond those typifying Kant's "rational being as such" (13) and who therefore is a source and subject of norms "beyond the [End Page 569] Kantian principle of pure morality" (15). Frederick Neuhouser, in a particularly illuminating piece, argues that Fichtean moral philosophy and Rechtslehre are grounded in distinct conceptions of subjectivity: moral autonomy, bound by universal laws valid for rational beings in general, versus "free personhood" (32), achieved by authoring individualizing aims and altering one's environment accordingly. As a form of self-positing subjectivity, personhood is "an end in itself, valuable independently of its relation to morality" (50); rights protect personhood by ensuring that actions make allowance for it. Complicating matters, perhaps, David James argues that Fichte's theory of right also has a critical dimension, in the light of which right is "something essentially limited when seen from another, higher standpoint"—namely, morality (194).

In another valuable contribution, James A. Clarke neatly situates the central claims of FNR in relation both to their morality-based Kantian antecedents (including Fichte's own earlier view) and to more recent reflections on rights. Clarke's deployment of concepts from analytic jurisprudence and deontic logic makes for an incisive presentation which should be useful even to readers who favor other interpretations. Also putting Fichte's position into a larger picture is Jean-Christophe Merle, who examines Fichte vis-à-vis the human rights tradition, closing with some criticisms of his foundationalist approach.

Another of FNR's major innovations is its radical rethinking of personal agency and political life as phenomena founded upon intersubjectivity and free reciprocal recognition. But it has long been argued, by Hegelians especially, that this innovation is ill-served by Fichte's individualistic outlook and emphasis on state coercion. Dean Moyar disputes the charge of excess individualism, arguing that FNR contains a "move toward the organic" (218) motivated by tensions between the theory of mutual recognition and the older contractualist paradigm. Concerning coercion, Michael Nance argues that, given Fichte's conceptions of the state's contractual basis and of freedom as non-domination, a principally coercive state can still be a perfectly rightful one, founded and legitimated by citizens' free, reciprocal self-limitation.

Fichte's intersubjective turn, with its accordant account of expressive embodiment (here explored by John Russon), is often read as an overcoming of Cartesianism and repudiation of subjectivism. Allen W. Wood advances such an interpretation with forcefulness and clarity, reconstructing Fichte's transcendental deductions of the summons (Aufforderung) to self-determination and of the existence of other rational beings. Gabriel Gottlieb extends the realist line, analyzing 'upbringing' (Erziehung, which Fichte sometimes equates with Aufforderung) in terms of the cultivation by adults of reasons-responsiveness in children. And Wayne Martin further underscores the material dimension of Fichtean philosophy, in a splendid essay on Fichte's transcendental deduction of private property. (Martin's main foil is not Cartesian subjectivism but Locke on property rights; still, his piece lucidly articulates an argument that rightful ownership over some of the sensible world is a necessary condition for successful self-positing.) Paul Franks argues that the deeper realism in Fichte's system is importantly indebted to concepts from kabbalah—in particular, to "what kabbalists call ẓ imẓum or the self-limiting contraction of God" (108), as the prototype for the summons and...


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