- Fichte's Ethics by Michelle Kosch
Recent literature on J. G. Fichte's ethical philosophy has tended to focus on a handful of interpretive issues while simultaneously emphasizing his under-appreciated relevance to contemporary moral theory. In this regard, Kosch's book on Fichte's ethics is similar to other recent publications. In almost every other way, however, it is unique. Kosch uses her talent for clear argumentation to propose several theses that have little precedent in Fichte scholarship.
Her book's goal is two-fold: first, to fill a "yawning gap" in Fichte scholarship by addressing aspects of Fichte's ethical system that have been misinterpreted or overlooked, and second, to present Fichte's ethical work to philosophers "who would be interested in Fichte's thought if they knew anything about it." Kosch's text is clear and accessible to readers who are not scholars of German Idealism, yet she engages Fichte scholarship deftly while describing with nuance her interpretive stance.
Kosch's presentation of Fichte's work engages interpretive issues by making pointed claims about them, expanding on her reading of Fichte, and incorporating her claims into her larger project. It is worth noting, though expected, that readers will not find substantive expositions of alternative interpretations in this text, a potential concern for non-scholars unaware of just how unique some of her claims are. However, Kosch signals reliably when taking a controversial interpretive position, and uses footnotes to allude to and engage her scholarly foils.
Kosch focuses on Fichte's System of Ethics, which was written toward the end of his Jena period, a time in which he iterated several versions of a difficult and complex transcendental system. In the System of Ethics, this system is restated concisely and relatively clearly before Fichte turns to his project of first deriving and then applying a moral law that follows deductively from his transcendental project. This moral law is presented as an ought claim for all rational beings, namely, that they ought to strive for "absolute self-sufficiency," or as Fichte alternatively calls it, "absolute independence." Absolute self-sufficiency has a deep foundation in Fichte's transcendental system, and as a result, it has rich connotations within his application of it in this text. Perhaps because of these connotations, most literature has focused on its relationship to the nature of what Fichte calls 'I-hood,' that is, the relationship between the moral law and being a person. Kosch's project in this book is to explore what it would mean to have in mind absolute self-sufficiency when one chooses how to act, and what that would mean for practical deliberation in a Fichtean context. In doing so, she articulates perhaps her most controversial thesis, namely, that Fichte is a consequentialist.
Kosch has articulated this claim in prior publications, but in the present one, she has the space to engage it fully. This cannot be done without a discussion of the role of conscience in Fichtean practical deliberation. Kosch's view is that conscience, a critical concept in Fichte's philosophy, serves a formal role, not a material one, insofar as it confirms to the individual that she is convinced of and motivated by the moral duty. An alternative interpretation is that conscience also serves a material role; for Fichte often implies that having a 'feeling of conscience' reveals the certitude of one's duty and provides the content of that particular duty. By separating these roles, Kosch is able to isolate the process of practical deliberation by which an individual in Fichte's system would deduce her moral duty in a given situation. Her claim is that Fichte utilizes the goal of absolute independence in a way akin to Bentham's end of achieving the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and that Fichte's offers some evidence of what the material content of such a goal would be, enough to craft a compelling consequentialist philosophy.
Kosch's book begins with a chapter on rational agency for Fichte, and her overview includes a nice discussion of...