A priori Knowledge in German Idealism

Despite the contradictions discovered in the theory of the Critique of Pure Reason, a few Kantian ideas became soon after its publishing philosophical commodities concerning a priori knowledge.

First, the need to transform philosophy into a deductive science based on principles, a science that could ground all the other less abstract sciences, like Newtonian physics and mathematics.

Second, the idea that human reason was itself a system that philosophy had to uncover and bring to light through a sort of spiritual archeology.

Third, as a consequence, that philosophy had to present itself as a system; that philosophical knowledge is systematic knowledge par excellence. As such a system, philosophy was not only a deductive science but, most of all, a completed form of a priori knowledge, knowledge without leftovers, an exhaustive knowledge of all principles of reality. The latter was also thought of as possible by Kant. 

In this evolution, J. G. Fichte played an essential role. He tried to rewrite Kantian theory and remove the conceptual contradictions that burdened it. And, of course, the first concept that had to be completely removed was the concept of the thing in itself. 

Starting from Kantian suggestions, Fichte thought of the transcendental I as being the ultimate source and, therefore, the principle of the whole of human consciousness. 

Human consciousness and knowledge were no longer seen as common sense sees them, namely as depending on the external material world that interacts with our sense organs and produces knowledge within the human mind.

They were interpreted now as products of an absolute I. The latter produces them through a series of successive self-limitations that bring down the absolute or infinite I into the empirical, finite human consciousness. 

With Fichte, the Kantian transcendental idealism – about which Kant said that it is also an empirical realism – transforms into absolute idealism, into a theory that states that everything has a spiritual character being both a content and a complete product of the absolute, ultimate I

This absolute I creates within itself space, time, the representation of objectivity, the categories, the lawful structures of reality, i.e. its a priori knowledge, and then, finally, the empirical sensations and the empirical I of the empirical consciousness.

It is not difficult to see that Fichte’s I took over the role of God: not as a transcendent deity but as a subjectively immanent deity. This I, as such an immanent deity, was not the entity of the traditional religions that created the world from outside the world and human consciousness, but rather from within the human consciousness.

This is the origin of the expression absolute idealism. Such a view was not devoid of considerable theological difficulties, which led to a violent polemic known as the Atheismusstreit.  

The whole material world was thus transformed into an ideal substance that human consciousness projects outside of itself as an objective world. But in reality, the latter was not at all an objective world, since it was produced by my internal I; rather, its objectivity was an illusion. 

This is an important moment that later will play an important role in Hegel’s philosophy, the idea of reconciliation. In Fichte and later in Hegel, too, philosophy, by bringing human consciousness back to the understanding that the internal I (in Fichte), or Reason (in Hegel), is the Creator of reality, reconciles man with reality. 

Although the principle of Fichte’s philosophy allowed the understanding and interpretation of the empirical consciousness as products of the successive self-limitations of the original I – such an interpretation was termed ‘deduction’ – Fichte was more interested in more general aspects in his philosophy. The concrete diversity that we meet in human history, alongside the latter’s internal coherence, was not yet developed in Fichte’s philosophy. 

Indeed, all humans were products of the same ultimate I, but we can see that these products were not at all identical. Be it as it may with the transcendental structure of the human mind and its a priori knowledge, the empirical consciousness, the immediate self-awareness of humans, is not the same throughout history and geographical regions. 

Although this diversity cannot be explained – in the sense that we cannot know why the original I decided to create the concrete environment of a consciousness that also determines its empirical shape – one can and must conceive of history as a systematic self-expression of the original I

Elements of such an understanding of history exist already in Kant. The latter considered that by studying history, one could see that human history advanced factually to the point when the hidden transcendental structure of the human mind also becomes visible to the human being’s self-knowledge.

But this end-point was not an end and aim of that history. Kant could not maintain a teleological view of history because human knowledge had, among its sources, external reality, which, in his philosophy, remains unknown. 

However, for an absolute idealism, be it subjective like that of Fichte or objective, like that of Hegel, teleology becomes a necessary conceptual requirement. The fundamental assumption – taken over from Kant’s claim that human reason has a systematic character – is here that the I acts systematically. 

As a consequence, no self-manifestation or self-limitation, or self-actualization of that initial spiritual power, can be seen as accidental but must be seen as being one piece of the universal systematic blueprint, which is the process of individualization originating in the original unlimited I and leading to the concrete I of a concrete person. 

In that epoch, the representation of human history as a kaleidoscopic jigsaw puzzle of differently individualized Is was developed by one of the Schlegel brothers, Friedrich Schlegel. He thought of the empirical human individual consciousnesses that compose human history as ‘fragments’ of the original all-grounding and all-pervading I. His friend, Friedrich Schleiermacher, took over this idea and applied it to religion. He interpreted religions as originating in specific religious intuitions

Although Hegel highlighted the value of their approach, he also criticized them. 

Between Fichte and Hegel, there was another important philosopher who added a specific feature to transcendental philosophy: Schelling. He described his philosophy as a philosophy of identity; however, an identity grounded not in subjectivity but in nature. 

Anticipating Schopenhauer, Schelling distinguished between the generative power of nature and the concrete products in which this power expresses itself. What puzzled the young Schelling was how to unite nature’s determinism with the human subject’s freedom. 

In Fichte, the principle of freedom, of unconditioned action, was set before any determinism: the original I posited both itself and the Non-I; that is to say, the subject posited itself, the object and the objective a priori knowledge.

In that way, freedom, understood as a spontaneous, unconditioned act, was the initial act of the subject and not the receptive action (an expression of passivity of the subject) of receiving the external influence of the thing in itself, as in Kant. 

However, we see such spontaneity only in the human being. Nature is conditioned everywhere. For this conditioning, Fichte had no real solution. The positing of the Non-I, the object, looked like a Deus ex machina.

Schelling overturned Fichte’s philosophy. He considered that the creative entity, which Fichte called original I, could also be thought of as being located not inside the human consciousness but inside of nature, of which the human being was also a part. 

Schelling considered then that phenomena could be interpreted both from the point of view of the consciousness – and then we get a subjective idealism – and also from the perspective of a driving essence of nature, which he called ‘productivity’ – and then we get an objective idealism. 

The ‘productivity,’ lying at the bottom of nature, cannot be objectified, i.e., it cannot become an object for itself. It is an eternal drive producing everything, producing all the contents of nature, including the human being with its reason and a priori knowledge.

These contents are ephemeral results of the intersection of the multilayered manifestations of productivity. In this sense, the content of my knowledge is the result of the productivity manifesting inside of me and the productivity manifesting outside of me. The intersection of these manifestations is what we call ‘representation.’

Representation, then, is not something purely ideal but is also a result of a deeper side of myself, of what later philosophers called the Will or the Urge. Therefore, representation is no longer separated from its object since both are products of the same ‘productivity.’  

In that way, Schelling obtains the principle of his identity philosophy: the idea that nature and human a priori knowledge are ultimately the same, eternal productivity. 

The first part of this article can be read here.

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