This chapter inquires into the immediate context in which the concept of epistemological circularity appeared in German idealism and in Hegel’s thought. This doctrine arose within the debate about the reformulation of the critical philosophy in systematic form. Although this debate has been little studied and is very complex, a reconstruction seems in order of the conceptual context in which Hegel’s view of circularity took form. Such a step is needed because, although that context is largely unknown, it was known to Hegel in detail, and determined the formation of his own view, especially as concerns circularity.
It often has been said that the period from Kant to Hegel is one of the two richest in the history of philosophy. But although the positions in that period have been examined frequently, the relation between them, the intrinsic dialectic of that moment of the philosophical tradition, is poorly known at best.
Different reasons can be adduced for our comparative ignorance of the evolution of thought in this period. To begin with, there is the interest in systematic thought rather than a historical approach. The former tendency certainly has contributed to a general neglect of the historical side of philosophy. Second there is the correlative stress on positions in isolation from each other, although it would seem that a thorough understanding of any thinker conscious of the discussion of his historical moment cannot be achieved merely through study of the position in isolation from others belonging to its intellectual context. Then there is the distorting influence exercised by the Hegelian concept of the history of philosophy upon the comprehension of the thought of Hegel’s own time. In practice, that has meant that even those favorably disposed towards an understanding of the interrelation of the views of this period tend to assume without scrutiny an interpretative model which arguably not only fails to do justice to, but indeed significantly distorts, the positions in question.
This stress on the Hegelian view of the history of philosophy is unfortunately also in evidence in the study of Hegel’s position. For although the genesis of his thought has been examined with great care, especially the early manuscripts, there has been insufficient attention to the problems to which Hegel was reacting in the contemporary debate.
The evolution of the post-Kantian discussion can be described in numerous ways. Since there is more than one strand in this complicated debate, obviously there is no single dimension whose description will present the entire controversy. But in view of the present concern with Hegel’s concept of epistemological circularity, it seems wise to forego any attempt at a wider account of the evolution of post-Kantian thought in order to concentrate on a single, significant aspect. Since the appeal to circularity occurs in relation to the critical philosophy, it will be useful to focus the discussion on the debate in this period relative to systematic philosophy as it developed following the publication of the Critique of Pure Reason. The aim is to illustrate the emergence of a positive form of circularity in Hegel’s thought as a novel solution to the problem then under discussion.
Prior to an account of the post-Kantian discussion, it is important to emphasize a change in the function of the concept of system within the history of philosophy. Beyond the evident overlap between ancient and modern thought on this as well as other topics, two broad attitudes can be distinguished: the concept of system is invoked primarily either to interrelate the parts of a wider position or, on the contrary, with the express purpose of justifying the claims to philosophical knowledge. Although there are numerous exceptions, it would seem in general that earlier views of systematicity are concerned mainly with the former, whereas more recent thought, especially in the post-Kantian discussion, stresses the latter.
In fact, that is an oversimplification, as are most historical generalizations. But it is clear that the problem of epistemological justification is specifically modern, despite the presence early in the philosophical tradition of various forms of skepticism. That the relation of system and justification has not been studied more frequently is not surprising. Since the problem of system in post-Kantian thought has attracted little notice, it might be expected that even less attention has been accorded to this problem as concerns the history of philosophy.1
In order to appreciate the response to the critical philosophy, as concerns the problem of system, it will be necessary to address Kant’s position briefly. Let us now rapidly sketch the reaction to the publication of the Critique of Pure Reason solely in terms of the problem of systematicity. It should be noted immediately that there is more than one concept of system in the philosophical tradition. In fact, at the time Kant wrote, there were two different views of system competing for his attention. These two different concepts of system, associated with Wolff and Lambert, provide a conceptual framework for an understanding of Kant’s own grasp of systematicity.
Wolff and Lambert insisted respectively on the unity provided by the deductive relation between the elements of the theory and the need to establish a foundation, or basic proposition, for it. Wolff especially stressed the deductive interrelation of the individual propositions which are the expression of systematic truth.2 The result is a congeries of interrelated propositions.3 Lambert, on the contrary, emphasized the ultimate principle from which the system was to be derived in an explicit reference to the quasi-rationalist concept of the foundation of a building.4
Although they clearly are different, it is less clear that the views of Wolff and Lambert are incompatible. Lambert’s emphasis on a foundation [Grundlage] is at least implicitly present in Wolff’s own concept of system, for instance when he writes:5 “Qui multas veritates inter se connectere et procul remotas ex principiis e longinquo petendis continuo ratiocinorum filo deducere valet.” The idea of a prior concept does not exclude that of an ultimate ground. Conversely, the interest in the fundamental principle on which the system rests does not exclude the deductive interrelation of its parts. In that sense, the concepts of system defended by Wolff and Lambert are merely onesided emphases on the rationalist concept of philosophy as the deductive elaboration of the consequences of an initial, demonstrably true principle (for instance, as noted in the Cartesian view of the cogito as an Archimedean point). But it is also evident that the emphasis on either deductive interrelation or a ground to the exclusion of the other perspective results in a vastly different concept of system.
The opposition between these two concepts of system has been used on occasion as a framework to appreciate Kant’s own position and to understand those of his successors. It has been suggested in this respect that Kant is dependent mainly on Wolff, but also on Lambert.6 It further has been suggested that Kant’s successors can be regarded mainly as the conceptual stepchildren of Lambert.
The implication, then, is that since Kant and his successors follow different views of systematic thought, the post-Kantian concern to systematize the critical philosophy was inconsistent with its own inspiration. But although in part correct, this judgment is also an oversimplification, since Kant’s own writings reveal a certain ambiguity with regard to the concept of system. Nor is it accurate to regard the post-Kantian thinkers in general, especially Fichte and Hegel, as concerned with the concept of a final ground to thought at the expense of the deductive interrelation of the elements of their respective views, or certainly, as concerns Fichte, at the expense of the discussion of the concept of system as such.
The problem of system is addressed repeatedly by Kant in the writings of the critical period, and occasionally before that time. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant mentions the problem of systematicity in several places, most explicitly in “The Transcendental Doctrine of Method,” in the section entitled “The Architectonic of Pure Reason.” Here Kant defines architectonic as the “art of system” before specifying his conception of knowledge under the rule of reason as “not a mere rhapsody” (B 860). Rather, as a “system,” it is “the unity of the manifold modes of knowledge under one idea” (ibid.).
Kant’s understanding of the concept of systematic unity is made clear in the next sentence, when he describes it as “the concept provided by reason [Vernunftbegriff]—of the form of a whole—in so far as the concept determines a priori not only the scope of its manifold content, but also the positions which the parts occupy relatively to one another” (B 860). The parts of the theory form a unity under a single idea, in terms of which they cohere, against which each appears as a necessary element able to be inferred in its absence from the others, and which as a whole is articulated and not a mere aggregate. Conversely, the governing idea requires development on an a priori basis according to the principle of purpose which limits the multiplicity and the interrelation of the parts.
It is significant that Kant insists here on the unity of the elements under an idea, under the unity of purpose or the interest of reason, and not on an absolute foundation in the rationalist sense. In consequence, he remains close on this point to Wolff, despite his criticism elsewhere of the latter’s dogmatism. Wolff also did not pretend to deduce the grounds of the system, but rather to deduce the system from its grounds as a whole. By the same token, Kant remains close to his own precritical thought. In an early text, “Principiorum Primorum Cognitionis Metaphysicae Nova Dilucidatio” (“Neue Erhellung der ersten Grundsätze metaphysischer Erkenntnis,” 1755), Kant objects to the endeavor of Leibniz to found knowledge on the principle of noncontradiction on the grounds that there can be no initial principle from which all knowledge can be deduced.7
Kant’s treatment of the concept of system, as summarized here, suggests that the organization of the elements under an idea is merely subjective according to the interests of reason, that is, purpose. From this perspective, the concept of system as such appears as a regulative idea, but not as constitutive. But in his restatement of the concept of the fundamental principle [Grundsatz] mentioned in connection with the “Nova Dilucidatio,” Kant appears to take a somewhat different line, and in effect to evoke the possibility of an objectively grounded system of thought.
In the Critique of Pure Reason, in accordance with the overall investigation, the concept of the fundamental principle is defined as a concept which is not susceptible to being grounded in higher and more general knowledge, and which serves to guarantee, on the basis of its subjective source, the possibility of the knowledge of objects in general as given in experience (see В 188). The fundamental principies, hence, function, as Kant specifies in a passage added in the second edition, as “principles a priori of the possibility of experience” (B 294), indeed as the only possible basis of all a priori synthetic propositions. But surprisingly, in the afterword to the “Transcendental Dialectic,” concerning “The Regulative Employment of the Ideas of Pure Reason,” Kant further holds out at least the possibility of a nonsubjective, objective, indeed transcendental foundational principle (see В 676).
The difficulty in specifying the precise outline of Kant’s view of systematicity is due mainly to two factors: the essential ambiguity of the original position described in the Critique of Pure Reason, and its later modification in accordance with the evolution of his thought. On the one hand, there is a tension at this time between two different, perhaps not fully consistent perspectives, that is, that associated with the subjective unification under an interest of reason and that related to an objective, transcendental ground. On the other hand, the outlines of Kant’s concept of systematic thought are further blurred by the later evolution of his understanding of the unity of reason.
The relation between the unity of reason and systematicity is clear, since the latter depends on the former. In the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Naturwissenschaften, 1786), Kant defines science as a system which “should be a whole of knowledge according to principles.”8 This view is nearly identical with that in the Critique of Pure Reason, with the emphasis on system as regulative, not constitutive. Slightly earlier, in the Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), he stresses the unity of pure practical reason with its speculative counterpart, which is differentiated only in practice, since there is only one reason which is differentiated in application.9
In the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), however, Kant again raises the prospect (already noted in the Critique of Pure Reason) that the theoretical and practical capacities of reason can be united so that everything can be deduced from a single principle in order to achieve full satisfaction.10 But in the Critique of Judgment (1790, 1793, 1799), he adopts a significantly weaker view when he distinguishes two basically different domains: theoretical philosophy, dependent for its possibility on the concept of nature [Naturbegriffe], which presupposes for its possibility the concept of freedom.11
Even beyond the ambiguity in Kant’s understanding of system, a further difficulty is posed by the presence of a concept of a transcendental ground [transcendentaler Grundsatz] in his writings. In even evoking the possibility of a final epistemological ground in a quasirationalist sense, it would seem that Kant enters into contradiction with at least the spirit, if not the letter, of his critical philosophy. For the very idea of the critical philosophy, in particular the insistence on the limitation of the sphere of the legitimate employment of reason, and hence the attendant limitation on the scope and nature of knowledge, apparently excludes such a concept. That is further the thrust of the precritical “Nova Dilucidatio.” In other words, since knowledge cannot surpass the phenomenal plane, neither can knowledge on that level be grounded through reason.
Kant’s suggestion that a rationalist ground might be possible, although he did not provide one, is highly significant for the later evolution of German idealism. For whether or not this goal is wholly consistent with Kant’s position, a series of later thinkers, beginning with Reinhold, held that without a systematic structure, which in this context was interpreted to mean “an initial principle, or final ground, from which the entire system could be deduced,” the critical philosophy was lacking the form which alone would enable it to guarantee its scientific character and provide adequate justification for the claim to knowledge.
In other words, these writers took seriously Kant’s claims in the Critique of Pure Reason that “philosophy is the system of all philosophical knowledge” (B 866), or again that we need to determine the “complete system of pure reason” (B 736), or still again that “the philosophy of pure reason is either a propadeutic (preparation) ... and is entitled criticism, or secondly it is the system of pure reason....” (B 869). But they also held that Kant’s claim to provide a systematic formulation of his system was largely illusory.12 In order to be true to the spirit of Kant’s position as it was then understood, it therefore appeared necessary to reconstitute the critical philosophy in the form of the system which Kant discussed but did not provide.
The desire to reconstitute the critical philosophy in fully systematic form gave rise to a spirited debate. This discussion involved at different times defenders and critics of Kant, simple exegetes and highly talented philosophers, thinkers whose principal importance consisted merely in their participation in the ongoing discussion and others whose writings were of intrinsic importance apart from the context in which they appeared. Among the most important participants, we find the names of Reinhold and Schulze, Maimon and Fichte, Schelling and Hegel.
A good summary of this situation is provided by the young Schelling, then a convinced Fichtean. In one of his earliest writings, in a passage reacting to Schulze’s skeptical attack on Reinhold’s position, Schelling expresses his conviction that the latter’s theory of the capacity of representation [Theorie des Vorstellungsvermögens] soon could be reformulated in a manner which would answer the crucial questions of the relation of form and content that must precede all science in a manner exempt from further skeptical attack.13
This passage is helpful as an indication of the nature and scope of the discussion in German idealism after the appearance of the critical philosophy. In the course of his own endeavor to contribute to the problem of the form of philosophy as such, and hence to its possibility in general, Schelling usefully refers to the other main protagonists in the discussion, including Reinhold and Schulze, Fichte and Maimon. Particularly interesting is the paradoxical assertion that Reinhold’s contribution to the resolution of the problem of the form of philosophy ultimately can withstand the skeptical objections earlier brought against it by Schulze, although the needed restatement must, following the position proposed in the Critique of Pure Reason, avoid the appeal to a final principle of all form.
The paradox obviously lies in the suggestion that Reinhold’s position can resist the criticism directed against it only through the adoption of a strategy directly opposed to that employed in it, as indicated by Fichte (on whom Schelling is here heavily dependent) and Maimon. But Schelling’s observation is nonetheless valuable, because it offers an essentially correct assessment of the importance of Reinhold’s discussion of the problem of system, or form, in the wake of Kant’s position, as well as in its insistence on the non-Reinholdian manner in which this difficulty was temporarily resolved in Fichte’s thought.
In order to follow the complicated debate concerning the reconstruction of the critical philosophy in systematic form, it will be helpful to concentrate on a recurrent central concept. I have chosen the image of the circle, since, to a variable degree, this image is constantly present throughout the discussion in which it functions as a Leitfaden, through the association of circularity and epistemological justification. Circularity, to be sure, by no means is confined to the debate concerning the critical philosophy, but is widespread in the entire nineteenth-century German philosophical tradition. Mendelssohn, for instance, appeals to circularity as an indication of his inability to grasp Jacobi’s view.14 Similarly, Schelling uses this image to indicate conceptual difficulty.15 Nietzsche appeals to circularity in relation to his concept of the eternal return of the same16 and as the image of science and life.17
If we concentrate merely on the critical philosophy and the discussion to which it gave rise, we can note an interesting shift in the epistemological grasp of circularity. In Kant’s writings, circularity appears in several guises. Following a number of writers since Aristotle, there are numerous passages in which Kant stigmatizes circular reasoning as in principle mistaken, e.g., in the Critique of Pure Reason, earlier in the Inaugural Dissertation, and later in the Introduction to Logic. But Kant also refers to circularity in other, nonnegative ways. In the Critique of Pure Reason alone, there are references to the circle of experience (A 4), the relation of the radius to the circle (B 508), the orbits of the comets (B 690), and, in a remarkable passage which anticipates Hegel’s view, the suggestion that it is intrinsic to reason itself to seek completion in a system of knowledge through “completion of its circle [Vollendung ihres Kreises]” (В 825).
A similar ambiguity about circularity is also present in the post-Kantian discussion about the systematic reconstruction of the critical philosophy. In general terms, there is an important difference to be noted between the appeal to circularity as designating that avoidable mistake in reasoning known as the petitio principii, and as a positive feature necessarily constitutive of all forms of epistemology. Indeed, even before the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason appeared, the objection of the intrinsic circularity of the critical philosophy was raised. Herder, for instance, suggested almost immediately that the concept of reason which is self-critical is self-contradictory, because it is circular.18
The alternation between negative and positive forms of epistemological circularity, the change in polarity of the sign affixed to this concept, is the single most important epistemological aspect of the discussion concerning the reconstruction of the critical philosophy in systematic form. In this discussion, Reinhold played an exceptional role in comparison with the modest intrinsic value of his position, or rather series of positions.
In the present reconstruction of the debate concerning the systematic reconstruction of the critical philosophy, four reasons justify close attention to the views of this modest thinker. In the first place, Reinhold figures in the debate as a pioneer, a conceptual explorer who discovers but fails to describe to any degree a new continent of thought. Second, he was warmly accepted by Kant as an expositor of the critical philosophy. Kant’s desire to recognize Reinhold’s contribution in this regard is hardly surprising in view of the mainly negative reviews of his own major work. It is indeed well known that his exasperation over the joint review by Garve and Feder led him to write the Prolegomena. Third, Reinhold, not surprisingly, as the result of his endorsement by Kant, was widely recognized by contemporaries as proposing a nearly identical doctrine.19 Finally, since Reinhold begins the debate in question, the entire later discussion’s composed either directly or indirectly of a series of responses to his own endeavor to reconstruct the critical philosophy.
Reinhold’s theory of elementary philosophy was developed in a series of stages, prior to its abandonment by its author. During this period, Reinhold’s views are inseparable from his interpretation, defense, and revision of the critical philosophy. His discussion of Kant’s thought began in a series of Letters on the Kantian Philosophy (Briefe über die Kantische Philosophie), which appeared in 1786—87 in journal form, and later in a second edition in a book published in 1790. Reinhold’s intention here is to protect Kant’s critical theory against the metacriticism leveled against it by Herder. In a letter to Herder, Reinhold indicates in dramatic terms his desire to be one of the “voices in the desert” to “prepare the way” for the “second Immanuel.”20 It is for this reason not surprising that Schopenhauer compared him to the first apostle. We also can note Kant’s uncharacteristically warm response, in a letter, to views he regarded as precisely identical with his own.21
On the basis of his new-found recognition, secure through the publication of his work on Kant, Reinhold became professor of philosophy in Jena. During this period, he tempered his initial enthusiasm for Kant’s thought by the recognition of the imperfect manner in which it was stated, which in turn led to the formulation of his own elementary philosophy. As early as the Attempt at a New Theory of the Human Capacity for Representation (Versuch einer neuen Theorie des menschlichen Vorstellungsvermögens, 1789), he was concerned with the systematic identification, explanation, and justification of the premises of the critical philosophy, through the introduction of a new theory of the capacity of representation [Vorstellungsvermögen].
This view was further developed in the Contributions to the Correction of Previous Misunderstandings of Philosophers (Beyträge zur Berichtigung bisheriger Missverständnisse der Philosophen), published in two volumes (1790, 1794). In the first volume of this work, entitled Concerning the Foundation of the Elementary Philosophy (Das Fundament der Elementarphilosophie betreffend), Reinhold formulated his Principle of Representation, the basic concept of his position, as follows:22 “In consciousness, the representation [Vorstellung] is distinguished from both subject and object, and related to both.” Slightly later, he published a short précis of his position, On the Foundation of Philosophical Knowledge (Über das Fundament des philosophischen Wissens, 1791).
Reinhold’s concern to ground Kant’s critical philosophy further played a determining part in the thought of this period, as witness his exchange of letters with Jacobi, Fichte, and Maimon. But Reinhold’s own position underwent rapid evolution. In 1794 he left Jena for Kiel, at the same time as his thought began to evolve in another direction. In 1797 he abandoned his elementary philosophy and became a disciple of Fichte,23 who was himself earlier influenced by Reinhold.24 Finally, after a short period in which he was a follower of F. H. Jacobi,25 in 1800 his allegiance shifted to C. G. Bardili.26
This brief account of Reinhold’s changing series of philosophical allegiances is useful to gain a general awareness of the rapidly developing character of the discussion concerning the systematic reconstruction of the critical philosophy. For although the discussion itself was set in motion by the formulation of the elementary philosophy, this position no longer was held, even by its author, as early as a decade after its inception. And when Hegel, less than a generation later, began to write, in response to the continuing discussion of Kant’s thought, the form of Reinhold’s view to which he reacted was no longer its early, more significant phase but rather its distant, nearly unrelated successor, formulated under the influence of Bardili. But through his reception by Hegel, even after the abandonment of his most interesting stage of a philosophical position which was never of more than modest intrinsic importance, Reinhold continued to play the role of a conceptual catalyst in the evolution of the post-Kantian discussion.
The elementary philosophy is described by Reinhold in more than one text. In order to outline this position, it will be convenient to take as our source his discussion On the Foundation of Philosophical Knowledge, which has the advantage both of being relatively condensed and of presenting a mature form of this most protean position. As early as the preface, Reinhold raises the question of the form appropriate to science in order to justify the elementary philosophy. He remarks that neither logic, metaphysics, ethics, natural theology, nor the Critique of Pure Reason, nor any other empirical science, insofar as it presupposes philosophy, possesses “secure, recognized, generally valid foundations....”27 And he further remarks that the necessary foundation will continue to be lacking until a fundamental philosophy is elaborated, which he defines as “a science of the common principles of all particular philosophical sciences....”28 Otherwise stated, the elementary philosophy is the science which contains those principles presupposed but necessary to ground any and all forms of philosophical science.
This definition of elementary philosophy corresponds to, and is justified in the body of the text by, Reinhold’s reading of the modern philosophical tradition. Following Kant and others, Reinhold here employs the concept of circularity in a negative fashion, in order to refute the epistemological pretensions of the major positions in the modern philosophical tradition, including that of Kant. As Reinhold reads this period, its main members are Locke and Leibniz, Hume and Kant.
Both Locke’s empiricism and Leibniz’s rationalism are precritical, since they simply assume their respective presuppositions without any attempt to justify them. And the theories are demonstrated by their adherents only through a circular, and hence inadmissible, form of reasoning, Further, if Hume has demonstrated that these presuppositions are effectively false, Kant has performed the same service for the presuppositions of dogmatic skepticism. But Kant’s critical theory is itself based on a simple presupposition incapable of demonstration. For as concerns the fundamental proposition of the critical philosophy, Reinhold writes: “Its meaning can be explained only through its application, but in no way can it be developed or justified without a circle.”29
On consideration, it is evident that the “critical” reading of the modern philosophical tradition here proposed presupposes a normative standard, largely rationalist, for thought as such. Knowledge can be based only on a form of Archimedean point, in this case the Principle of Representation. The problem of knowledge, analyzed in this fashion, consists in the determination of the proper epistemological ground, which Reinhold believes he has discovered in his analysis of the capacity of representaion. This principle, which arises as a fact in consciousness, is described by him as indemonstrable but self-evidently true. On this basis, Reinhold thinks that he is able to provide an unshakable foundation for the elementary philosophy which, in closely Kantian fashion, he regards as the condition of the possibility of all science, and accordingly as the source of all knowledge.
Reinhold’s proposed solution, in allegedly Kantian manner, of the problem of knowledge quickly provoked heated debate. At least four main criticisms were formulated in the ensuing discussion. In the first place, it was argued that the critical philosophy, as already complete in its original formulation, did not require a reconstruction, either of the type suggested by Reinhold or in general. Second, the elementary philosophy was submitted to a searching examination in order to uncover and to criticize its own presuppositions. There was further an attempt made to reformulate Reinhold’s Principle of Representation in another form adequate to meet the objections raised against it, in order ostensibly to carry out the task undertaken in the elementary philosophy, but which in fact resulted in a nearly complete refutation of it. Finally, by a wave of the conceptual magic wand, as it were, circularity, which until that time had been regarded as an epistemological liability, was transformed into a necessary ingredient for the solution of the problem of knowledge. These reactions called forth either directly or indirectly by the elementary philosophy are associated respectively with the names of Maimon and Schulze, Fichte and Hegel.
Of the two skeptical thinkers, Maimon and Schulze, the former is by far the more important as concerns the intrinsic interest of his position, even if the latter is more influential in the debate concerning the reconstruction of Kant’s position. Maimon’s preeminence in the discussion, in which every participant routinely raised the claim to a unique but wholly satisfactory comprehension of the critical philosophy, is attested to by none other than its author. In a letter discussing critically and in detail the manuscript of the Attempt at Transcendental Philosophy (Versuch über die Transzendentalphilosophie), Kant clearly states that Maimon’s reading of the critical philosophy is unrivaled among his opponents and for its grasp of the main problem.30
Maimon’s reaction to Reinhold is available in an exchange of letters between the two thinkers which he later collected and published with an accompanying philosophical manifesto. In addition to its evident philosophical interest, this book has a personal nature rare in the normally arid literature of professional philosophy. The letters reveal Maimon’s increasing frustration at Reinhold’s refusal to engage in serious discussion on the grounds that he finds the other view incomprehensible.
In this context, we can understand Maimon’s judgment of Reinhold, which, although particularly harsh, is not wholly false, and is relevant to other thinkers, as well. According to Maimon, Reinhold belongs to that class of writers who think through concepts without concerning themselves sufficiently about the objective reality of ideas, which underlie their proofs but which, in the case of Reinhold, are mainly false.31
The importance of this passage, which surpasses its personal nature, is to establish that Maimon’s verdict on Reinhold’s view presupposes its relation to Kant’s, and hence presupposes as well a prior and independent interpretation of the critical philosophy. Although critical of Kant’s views, as Kant himself acknowledged, Maimon held that the critical philosophy already was fully developed from a theoretical point of view.32 The reconstructions of it proposed in the post-Kantian period, according to Maimon, were more apt to lower than to raise the level of Kant’s position.
The significance of this claim in the midst of the discussion of the critical philosophy is almost self-evident. Maimon is not suggesting that Kant’s thought is beyond amelioration, for instance from a stylistic perspective. But as concerns the intrinsic subject matter, there is no further progress to be made on precisely the same terrain. The clear implication is that the entire discussion set in motion by Reinhold, and not only his own view as such, is without purpose, since it cannot serve to perfect Kant’s thought. Nor is this claim wholly false, since although the results of the debate were certainly philosophically useful, to the extent that it gave rise to such major positions as those of Fichte and Hegel, none of the later thinkers merely eludicated ideas already contained in the critical philosophy despite repeated assertions to that effect.
Maimon’s judgement of the elementary philosophy is a function of its claim to found thought in an initial principle. Although Maimon concedes that Reinhold’s “law of consciousness” expresses a fact (which no one would deny), he holds that other than through a confusion, neither a transcendental, nor a psychological deduction can show that this principle [Satz] is an ultimately primitive fact [ursprüngliches Faktum] without falling prey to circular reasoning [ohne einen Zirkel zu begehn].33
In a word, although Maimon allows the purely factual nature of Reinhold’s principle of representation, he disallows the further claim made on its behalf. In effect, he raises against Reinhold the same sort of objection that the latter had brought previously against the four major positions identified in the modern philosophical tradition. It follows that despite Reinhold’s strategy of appealing to a factual resolution of the conceptual impasse he had identified in order to circumvent the inability of theory to ground itself without falling into circular reasoning, the strategy employed is unsuccesful: it leads to a similar result.
The importance of Maimon’s objection to Reinhold’s position far transcends the latter. Despite Kant’s contrary belief, it is but another example of the inability to resolve theoretical problems on a practical level. And there is further a more specific consequence concerning Fichte’s position. For to the extent that it follows a strategy similar to that employed by Reinhold, it must be vulnerable to a form of Maimon’s objection.
Maimon’s criticism, if granted, successfully disposes of Reinhold’s specific strategy to provide an ultimate justification of knowledge by grounding the capacity of representation in a fact. Maimon then goes beyond specific criticism in order to make a more general point. It is, he concedes, neither possible nor necessary to demonstrate the truth of initial principles. We are concerned with neither the reality, possibility, or actuality of such principles. Rather, we are interested in their capacity to permit the deduction of a science in the form of a systematic unity. For instance, in the realms of higher mathematics and physics, the principles invoked have the status of mere fictions adequate to explain a given phenomenon [Erscheinung], the condition of the possibility of a form of experience. But other than that they remain merely hypothetical. And although principles on occasion may appear self-evident, at best one can and indeed must demonstrate the need to utilize the principles in question, but not their veracity as such.34
It is not necessary here to discuss the quasi-operationalist form of philosophy of science which Maimon suggests. We can, however, note that the extraordinary interest of Maimon’s criticism by no means is limited to the immediate context. His point is that the entire post-Kantian discussion of the systematic reformulation of the critical philosophy is superfluous, since knowledge as such neither requires nor admits of ultimate justification. He thus both surpasses the foundationalist approach in German philosophy to which Reinhold and many who reacted to him gave voice, and anticipates the contemporary concern with ungrounded forms of epistemology. Long before Nietzsche, and in a more precise form, Maimon can be said to have raised the fundamental objection against the need for and possibility of philosophical system. But as is often the case in philosophy, the more profound thinkers are not heard rapidly, if indeed they are heard at all. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that the rather more systematic, but superficial, critique of Reinhold advanced by Schulze was also more influential in this debate.
Schulze intervened in the discussion in his book, the full title of which reads Aenesidemus, or on the Bases of the Elementary Philosophy Proposed by Professor Reinhold in Jena: Together with a Defense of Skepticism against the Presumptions of Rational Critique.35 Schulze’s critique of Reinhold, which appeared anonymously under the pseudonym Aenesidemus, needs to be viewed against the background of his own position, whose outlines are already apparent in the complicated title of this book.
Schulze is above all a skeptical thinker, as is evident in the choice of the pseudonym. Aenesidemus was a leading Greek skeptic, who renewed the teachings of Pyrrhonism in Alexandria in the first century B.C. Skepticism, as Schulze understands it, sets itself in opposition to any unrestricted claim to know of whatever sort. For this reason, Schulze’s discussion of Reinhold is not an end in itself. Although much of the discussion in this work in fact is concerned directly with Reinhold, Schulze’s interest is not in the position as such, but rather with it as representative of the critical philosophy.
There is, according to Schulze, an opposition between critical reason [Vernunftkritik] and skepticism.36 Although Reinhold’s intention is to carry out the task begun by Kant, according to Schulze skepticism is unaffected either by the critical philosophy or by Reinhold’s restatement of it. For skepticism cannot accept the claim to either the certainty or the universality of the basic propositions [Grundsätze], or premises, on which the critical philosophy is based.37
Schulze is correct in perceiving an opposition between the critical philosophy and skepticism, although not in the simplistic fashion suggested here. Kant’s view of skepticism avoids a simple opposition through the introduction of an important distinction between the skeptical method and skepticism. Skepticism as such is intended to defeat any claim to knowledge, as a “principle of technical and scientific ignorance ... which strives in all possible ways to destroy its reliability and steadfastness” (B 451).
On the contrary, the skeptical method concerns itself with the resolution of disputes arising within understanding. It aims precisely at “certainty” [Gewissheit] through the discovery of “the point of misunderstanding in the case of disputes which are sincerely and competently conducted by both sides....” (B 452) As so defined, the skeptical method is fully in accord with, and in fact indispensable for, Kant’s position, as he himself stresses, above all for the account of the antinomies of reason. But skepticism as such, as Kant notes, is to be rejected. For lack of knowledge can never be an end point of the discussion, but is rather the cause of its beginning (see В 786).
To put the point in another way, in the process of the development of pure reason, despite the importance of skepticism as a counter to the claims of dogmatism, it must cede before the critique of reason (see В 788-89). It follows that there is a basic disagreement between Schulze and Kant: Schulze holds that it is sufficient merely to endeavor to refute any and all claims to know, as he here tries to do; on the contrary, Kant believes that the task of criticism of other views is not merely a necessary preparation to the formulation of a truly critical position.
The simplistic fashion in which Schulze opposes, in non-Kantian fashion, skepticism and critical philosophy determines the entirely negative, philosophically jejune manner in which he criticizes Reinhold’s thought. The lack of nuance in Schulze’s appreciation can be shown through a comparison between his and Maimon’s discussion of the elementary philosophy. The point of contact is, not surprisingly, the problem of the kind of demonstration to which first principles are susceptible, already evoked in Maimon’s critique of Reinhold. In a portion of the book written in the form of a pseudoletter addressed by Aenesidemus, the skeptic, to Hermias, a critical thinker, the former suggests that the claim that truth is to be encountered in awareness of experience can be adopted as a hypothesis able to resist the attacks of rationalism and empiricism; but despite the demand raised by the critical philosophy to do so, neither it nor the elementary philosophy can demonstrate its basic ideas, although they are believed to yield apodictic truth.38
If we examine this criticism, we can note that it is generally similar to Maimon’s reading of Reinhold. As skeptics, both Schulze and Maimon criticize the appeal to a basic principle. But it is evident that Maimon’s discussion possesses a finesse largely absent in Schulze’s writing. The latter’s insensitivity to philosophical nuance is apparent in two main differences concerning the respective treatment of the problem posed by an initial epistemological principle.
In the first place, perhaps because his ultimate target is not Reinhold but Kant, Schulze is less concerned than his fellow skeptic with inquiring into the extent to which the spirit of the elementary philosophy is consonant with that of the critical philosophy. Now, it is not difficult to grasp why an opponent of the critical philosophy would feel it necessary to engage in a discussion with an important commentator pretending to extend Kant’s position. But it follows neither that the claim to complete the critical philosophy need be granted, nor that agreement of the effort itself with the spirit and letter of Kant’s thought need be acknowledged without the kind of detailed examination which is lacking here. Certainly the effect of Maimon’s examination of the concept of an initial principle calls into question the consistency of Reinhold’s endeavor, apart from any indication of the extent of its success, with the spirit of the critical philosophy.
Second, it should be noted that Schulze’s failure to inquire into the relation between the positions of Reinhold and Kant gives rise to a less than perspicuous treatment of the problem of the initial principle. Maimon’s suggestion that such principles need not be demonstrated is doubly significant. It enables Maimon to hint that the intent of the elementary philosophy to achieve certainty is in fact inimical to the critical philosophy; and it further enables him to maintain, on another level, a sophisticated form of skepticism, based on a subtle interpretation of the thing-in-itself, largely in accord with the critical philosophy. For in this respect, the Kantian position is itself skeptical, since it clearly denies knowledge of things-in-themselves.
In this sense, Maimon’s reception of the critical philosophy is not a simple rejection of it but rather an interesting elaboration of one of its intrinsic consequences. Schulze’s skepticism, on the contrary, is in comparison more simplistic, since its aim is merely to infirm any claim to establish certain principles. Just as Aenesidemus had established a series of skeptical tropes questioning the veracity of sense perception, so Schulze now extends this perspective to the level of conceptual principles. By the same token, he explicitly excludes the hypothetical status of such principles as incompatible with knowledge, a clear difference from Maimon’s view, and perhaps from Kant’s, as well. But regardless of whether, if Schulze’s argument can be established, it will infirm Kant’s position, there can be no such doubt with respect to the elementary philosophy.
Schulze’s strategy, commensurate with his view of skepticism as the constant reestablishment of doubt, is to show that although Reinhold seeks to ground all the principles of the critical philosophy in the proposition of consciousness [Satz des Bewusstseins], this proposition is not demonstrated.39 The discussion is developed under the heading of the “Fundamental Teaching of the Elementary Philosophy” (“Fundamentale Lehre der Elementar-Philosophy”) in nine sections, each of which provides the detailed examination of one or more allegedly central theses. The most important portion of the discussion is contained in the first two sections, concerning respectively the proposition of consciousness (pp. 44-58) and the “Underlying Concept of Representation” [Der ursprüngliche Begriff der Vorstellung”] (pp. 59-69).
In comparison with each other, the discussions in the three main sections are at best uneven. Schulze offers three main criticisms of the proposition of consciousness: it is “not a basic proposition” (p. 45); it is not “throughout limited by itself” (p. 48); and it does not express either “a generally valid proposition [or] ... a fact which is not bound to any definite experience or certain reasoning” (p. 53). But these criticisms, although not without merit, are formulated mainly without consideration of the intent of Reinhold’s view, and hence are not always relevant to it.
The first criticism is based on the assumption, current in philosophy since Aristotle, that the absolutely fundamental law of thought is the law of noncontradiction. This assumption leads Schulze to suggest that Reinhold cannot demonstrate the primacy of the law of consciousness without engaging in circular reasoning.40 But since Schulze merely asserts, but fails here to establish the truth of, this claim, upon which the accusation of circularity rests, the refutation cannot be said to hold, at least not in the form in which it is stated. Nor is the criticism as such obviously relevant. For Reinhold is concerned not with the intrinsic order of principles which must be presupposed for rational discourse, but rather with the conditions of the possible justification of the claim to derive knowledge from experience. A similar point also can be made with respect to the last criticism, since according to the critical philosophy, which Reinhold follows at this time, no meaning can be attached to a claim of knowledge apart from that for a subject of possible experience.
The other criticism, as concerns the imprecision in Reinhold’s statement of his basic concept, is relevant and important. Schulze develops this point in the second part of his discussion concerning the concept of representation [Vorstellung]. After initial clarification of the meaning of the terms representation, subject, and object, he remarks, concerning their relation, that if the representation is to be thought of only as that, it must be considered not insofar as it is related to subject and object but as it can be thought of in relation to both subject and object.41 This subtle correction of Reinhold’s understanding of the relation in question is highly significant, since it grounds the possibility of knowledge of the object through its representation. Such knowledge otherwise would be excluded, if the same representation did not relate to both subjective and objective epistemological poles. This observation was further influential in the immediate philosophical discussion. Fichte’s recognition of the importance of Schulze’s reformulation of Reinhold’s concept of representation was an important step in the formulation of his own position.
Although both Maimon and Schulze were reacting to Reinhold’s endeavor to endow the critical philosophy with systematic form in terms of an initial principle, the differences in their respective approaches could scarcely be greater. I have been unable to find any evidence of Schulze’s reaction to Maimon; but the latter was fully aware of the lack of agreement between their views. In a letter to Reinhold, he describes this difference as of “celestial dimensions” [himmelweit].42
Fichte is the author of the fourth and last position to be considered in relation to the attempt, initiated by Reinhold, to provide a systematic reconstruction of the critical philosophy. In this context, to an extent equaled only by Reinhold’s view, Fichte’s view literally is brought into being in order to resolve the discussion concerning the restatement of Kant’s thought. But unlike Reinhold’s position, which is significant only in relation to this debate, Fichte’s is a major philosophical landmark, whose importance in no way is limited to the occasion to which it responds.
In view of the scope of Fichte’s thought, it will be necessary to restrict consideration here merely to its relation to the discussion initiated by Reinhold. In this respect, there is an important difference which opposes Fichte’s view to its predecessors in a manner that renders it useful for the constitution of Hegel’s own position. Like his predecessors, Fichte also makes use of the concept of circularity in the course of his attempt to formulate a theory of philosophical system on the basis of a single concept. But there is a remarkable change within his thought on the crucial point of the relation of circularity to systematicity. For in the course of his consideration of this problem, Fichte gradually rethinks the concept of circularity, so that it functions no longer negatively, as a reason to reject a suggested form of theory, but positively, as a constitutive element of theory as such.
As is often the case in an ongoing discussion, the relation between the participants (in this case Fichte and his predecessors) is both clear and hardly so. Although it is clear that Fichte was aware of and even influenced in his thinking by the views of the other participants, the precise nature of that influence, and even the relation of Fichte’s view to Kant’s, are open to question. In part, this uncertainty is due to the fact that although Fichte was a polemical writer, unlike Maimon and Schulze, who provide detailed expositions of their grasp of other views, Fichte’s corpus does not contain more than occasional, often misleading hints about its relation to the positions of Kant and the other post-Kantians.
Any account of the relation of Fichte’s position to its predecessors does well to begin with Kant. There can be little doubt that Fichte consciously intended his position to bring to a successful conclusion the philosophical revolution inaugurated by Kant. But although an analogous claim was made routinely by other participants in this discussion, in Fichte’s thought, for a variety of reasons, it acquired increased credibility. Certainly one factor was the unusual personal identification with Kant. The details of this identification—including Fichte’s trip to Königsberg, where he was rebuffed by Kant, and the accidentally anonymous publication of his first book, the Critique of All Revelation (Kritik aller Offenbarung, 1792), which initially was regarded as the long-awaited Kantian work on religion—are too well known to require discussion here.
Also interesting is Fichte’s belief that Kant’s position was based on the former’s fundamental principles.43 The excessive nature of this assertion is diminished when we remember that Kant had made a similar claim to understand Plato better than he understood himself (B 370), and that similar claims were made by others, including Schelling.44 Now, Kant, to be sure, was unwilling to recognize Fichte’s claim with respect to the critical philosophy. Kant’s criticism is formulated in a single sentence, in which he stigmatizes Fichte’s alleged concern to deduce a real object from pure logic.45 Fichte reacted to this criticism in a letter to Schelling, where he attempted to dismiss the objection as a mere verbal quibble.46 Whether it is, in fact, a mere quibble is a question of judgment, although it should be noted that there is a deeper question implicit here—that is, the sense that can be given to any claim to be the legitimate representative of a given perspective. But it is of interest to note that Fichte’s assertion that he alone was the legitimate successor to Kant, despite numerous rival claims, was given special weight by his contemporaries.
Fichte’s specific understanding of Kant’s position determined both his attitude towards other post-Kantians and the direction in which his own thought later developed. His grasp of Kant and the post-Kantians is perhaps most easily accessible in his correspondence. In a draft of an early letter, Fichte remarks that he is aware of the critical philosophy as an impenetrable fortress which neither Kant nor Reinhold has successfully constructed.47 This letter permits two inferences to be drawn: that Kant’s position, if not the form in which it is stated, cannot be surpassed, and that the critical philosophy has never yet been successfully formulated. Fichte confirms the first inference in another letter, where he states that the critical philosophy is correct with respect to its results, but not its basic principles.48
In view of his opinion of Kant’s thought, Fichte’s dissatisfaction with Reinhold’s attempted reformulation of the critical philosophy made a successful completion of this task a matter of the highest philosophical priority. A correct appreciation of Fichte’s relation to the post-Kantian thinkers is necessary to grasp the nature of the view he advanced in order to complete the critical philosophy. In general terms, Fichte’s thought can be understood as including four interrelated elements, which together gave rise to the initial form of his position.
To begin with, Reinhold’s conception of the initial principle is inadequate as it stands. On this point, Fichte seems to be reflecting prior knowledge of the critique leveled against Reinhold by Schulze when he writes, in a letter to Reinhold concerning the latter’s Foundation of Philosophical Knowledge, that even before reading Reinhold he accepted the latter’s principle of consciousness, although it must be derived from still-deeper principles.49
Second, despite the tactful (for Fichte) manner in which the demur is stated, it is clear that Fichte has been influenced by Schulze. The dimensions of this influence, which had the effect of overturning Fichte’s prior acceptance of Reinhold’s specific criticism but not the reliance upon the general approach to philosophical system in terms of an initial principle, is reflected in two letters of similar tenor. In the earlier letter, he states that Aenesidemus has convinced him that neither Kant nor Reinhold has been successful in providing a scientific form of philosophy, and accordingly has shaken his own view, which can be restructured only in terms of a single principle.50 We can, then, understand Fichte’s admission, in the initial sentence of his early metatheoretical text “On the Concept of the Science of Knowledge” (“Über den Begriff der Wissenschaftslehre,” 1974), that he has become convinced through his reading of Schulze and Maimon that despite the efforts of the most intelligent writers, philosophy has yet to reach the status of an evident science.51 Here Fichte merely extends his appreciation of the critique of Reinhold advanced by Schulze to include Maimon, as well.
Finally, despite the evident failure of Reinhold’s endeavor, Fichte believes he has discovered a way in which to develop a system based on a single principle, and hence to carry out in satisfactory fashion the reconstruction of the critical philosophy in full systematic form. The claim in quesiton, if not its execution, is clearly suggested in the next sentence of this text, where Fichte states that he believes himself to have discovered the proper manner to respond satisfactorily to the well-justified objections raised by the skeptics against the critical philosophy.52
The position which Fichte elaborates is influenced greatly by Kant and the post-Kantians already mentioned. As already noted, Fichte, like Reinhold, accepts Kant’s results, but he rejects the manner in which they are formulated, even as he declines Reinhold’s attempted restatement of them.53 He is influenced in different ways by both Maimon and Schulze. His appreciation of Maimon as a thinker of the first magnitude, spelled out in a letter to Reinhold54 after the publication of the Foundation of the Entire Science of Knowledge (Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre, 1794), when Fichte already had laid claim to the title of the leading philosopher of the age, is highly significant, and is reflected in the reworking of themes from Maimon throughout that work.55 But although Maimon’s influence on the constitution of Fichte’s thought in general should not be neglected, as concerns his treatment of Reinhold’s problem of system based on a single principle, a greater, indeed decisive, importance must be accorded to Schulze’s influence.
Important philosophical positions usually are overdetermined by numerous factors, and hence are not explicable in terms of a single influence. But although such is also the case for Fichte’s view, to an unusual extent it took shape in a single occasion, namely, his extremely sober and thoughtful review of Schulze’s polemical attack on Reinhold’s elementary philosophy.56 Fichte’s approach, which determines his own later thought, consists in the partial acceptance of Schulze’s critique. More precisely, he adopts the attitude, presumably under Maimon’s influence, that Schulze ought not to have questioned the correctness of Reinhold’s principle of representation. But he concedes Schulze’s major point, that is, that the principle is inadequate as formulated. Fichte’s twofold response consists in the endeavor to formulate an adequate version of Reinhold’s principle, and further to rethink the function of this principle for the problem of knowledge.
As concerns the form of the principle, Fichte accepts without question Schulze’s criticism, which he restates as a basic element of his own thought. In the discussion of Schulze’s book, Fichte quotes a passage, noted above, in which he proposes a reformulation of Reinhold’s principle, before reformulating Schulze’s suggestion as the claim that the representation is related to the object as the effect to its cause, and to the subject as an accident to substance.57
The significance of this new formulation, which is by no means merely a linguistic change, is, as Fichte points out to defend Reinhold’s original principle against the skeptical attack launched on it by Schulze. But Fichte objects to Schulze’s own restatement of this principle, since the appeal to a causal relation between an object and its representation is inconsistent with the claim that prior to the latter, the former is unknown. The intent, then, of Fichte’s own formulation of Reinhold’s principle, as restated by Schulze, is to provide a version of it which makes plain the parallel between the ontological and the causal relations.
More important than an adequate restatement of Reinhold’s principle, in the light of Schulze’s objections and attempted reformulation, is the fashion in which Fichte rethinks its philosophical function. Although he does not embrace skepticism, as is evident in his replacement of Schulze’s language by his own, he is also unwilling to admit that theory can be grounded, as Reinhold desires. For even if a theory can be shown to derive from a single, prior principle, as Reinhold intends, Fichte denies, as Reinhold also intends, that the initial principle itself can be demonstrated within the theory.
In a passage of great importance, Fichte responds to those, such as Reinhold, who seek to ground the critical philosophy, as well as those, such as Schulze, who believe that an adequate ground for it has yet to be found. Fichte’s argument, which is conducted on the quasi-Kantian terrain of ethical freedom, provides a rejection on general epistemological grounds of the possibility of a foundation to knowledge. In his claim that the critical attitude consists precisely in the rejection of the demand to found the autonomy of the subject, because of the primacy of practical reason over its theoretical counterpart, Fichte asserts that the role of philosophy in general consists in demonstration on the basis of the consciousness of the subject. The purpose of philosophy is to explain the content of consciousnes from a point within it; and the result is a necessary circle which cannot be surpassed and which provides for us the innermost relation of knowledge.58
Fichte’s examination of the concept of circularity is an aspect of his position which so far seems not to have received more than passing notice, but which is important both in respect to his own thought and for the grasp of Hegel’s position. On inspection, we can perceive here a transformation of the function of this concept from the negative designation of a failure in the reasoning process, as already indicated everywhere present in the discussion prompted by the critical philosophy, to a positive description of an ineliminable element of thought itself, hence devoid of negative signification.
The full significance of this reinterpretation of circularity, both for Hegel’s own position and for thought itself, will emerge only in later chapters. It may, however, be indicated here that Fichte’s reinterpretation of circularity has several immediate consequences. To begin with, there is the neutralization of the identification of circularity within a given theory as indicative of a failure in the reasoning process. Second, there is an apparent rejection of the quasi-linear approach to knowledge present in the philosophical tradition since Aristotle, especially in modern philosophy since Descartes, which subtends the objection based on the identification of circularity. Finally, there is a qualified return to an older, circular approach to knowledge, from the critical perspective inaugurated by Kant.
In Fichte’s position, the revised concept of circularity emerges in the course of his meditation on the conditions of the justification of knowledge, the problem with which Kant and the post-Kantians are centrally concerned. His earliest published writings betray the usual negative appeal to the concept of circularity for purposes of criticism.
In the Critique of All Revelation, for instance, he attacks the argument for the supernaturalist view, “which is without doubt a circular proof [Cirkel im Beweisen].”59 In the aforementioned review of Schulze’s book, circularity is evoked in three passages. Besides that already mentioned, there are references to the capacity of representation and to the concept of the thing-in-itself. In reference to the former, Fichte indicates that there is an intrinsic circularity in the concept of representation, in which the understanding is enclosed, since this capacity exists for and through itself.60 That is another form of the idea contained in the passage on circularity already referred to in the review of Schulze.
In a later passage concerning Leibniz, Fichte attributes without apparent reason the discovery of the necessary circularity of the understanding to Kant.61 And slightly later, in the Contribution to the Correction of Judgments of the Public on the French Revolution (Beitrag zur Berichtigung der Urtheile des Publikums über die französische Revolution, 1793), discussion of the different ways in which a person can relate to different segments of society, he remarks that the concept of the social contract is also circular.62
Conscious of the importance of his discussion of circularity, Fichte developed it further in other texts of this period: in the first sketch of the position, in the Foundation of the Entire Science of Knowledge (Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre), and in the metatheoretical discussion “On the Concept of the Science of Knowledge” (“Über den Begriff der Wissenschaftslehre”). Here it will be sufficient to note that there are few discernible differences in the many references to circularity in these three sources. And it further can be noted that such differences as can be observed are due not to a development of the analysis of circularity in this relatively short time, but rather to the particular character of the texts in question.
The initial sketch of Fichte’s transcendental position, the Own Meditations on Elementary Philosophy (Eigne Meditationen über Elementarphilosophie), probably was written at the same time as the review of Schulze’s book. But it was not published by Fichte, and it first appeared in the recent complete edition of his works in a volume published in 1971. Here there are numerous references to circularity, especially in the beginning portions entitled “Logic of the Elementary Philosophy” and “Logical Rules.”
Fichte appeals to circularity as concerns the defense of Reinhold’s theory against skeptical criticism, its relevance for his own naissant theory, and as such. These are all aspects of a wider view of circularity which is constantly presupposed, occasionally hinted at, but never developed in this text. In relation to Reinhold, for example, Fichte concedes Schulze’s objection that the elementary philosophy presupposes logic,63 and further identifies a series of other instances in which circularity appears in what will become his own view, such as the domains of quantity and reality,64 reality and activity,65 thought and necessity.66 These are merely special instances of the circularity, which results in the need to demonstrate the necessity of all things through a philosophy built on a single fact.67 But the critical edge of the accusation of circularity is disarmed, since, as Fichte states, if it is necessary it cannot be a criticism.68 For this reason, Fichte feels justified in referring to the necessary circle of our mind.69 Although there may be a problem as concerns the relevance of circularity at a given point in the theory, Fichte is clear that his own system is circular,70 and further clear that it is difficult [schwer] to avoid circularity in explanation.71
The key claim which here emerges, in common with the review of Schulze’s book, is that circularity is unavoidable, so that mere recognition of its presence is not sufficient to identify an error in the reasoning process. A similar point is also made in the two other texts mentioned from this period.
“On the Concept of the Science of Knowledge” is, as its title makes clear, basically a metatheoretical study of the conditions of the possibility and nature of theory in general. The few allusions to circularity suffice, however, to carry the argument further from a metatheoretical plane in a single, crucial respect. Here for the first time, Fichte explicitly works out in detail the quasi-rationalist concept of system in terms of an initial premise, already present in Reinhold’s position, according to which a rigorously developed science can rest on one and only one fundamental proposition. It follows, by implication, that an important, indeed central, task confronting any view which lays claim to the status of science is to determine the initial principle which alone can permit it to assume wholly systematic form.
The other text from this period, the Foundation of the Entire Science of Knowledge, contains a number of direct references to circularity. At this point, Fichte is clear in his insistence that thought as such is ineliminably circular. Accordingly, with a directness not present earlier, he proceeds to identify numerous instances of circularity in his own position. A partial list of such instances would include that following from the concept of the act [Tathandlung],72 in the relation of the principles of identity and opposition,73 in the relation between the I [Ich] and the manifested,74 in the relation of product and activity,75 and in the relation of the real and the ideal.76
Perhaps more interesting is the further development of the point that philosophy needs to determine its initial principle, already implicit in the metatheoretical text. Fichte makes this explicit claim as early as the first sentence of the first paragraph of the work, when he describes his task as the determination of the absolutely unlimited, fundamental principle [Grundsatz] of human knowledge.77 But he immediately adds in the next sentence that if this principle is to be truly basic, it can be neither proven nor limited.78 This assertion, which is the direct, consequence of the quasi-rationalist, but antifoundationalist, concept of systematic theory which Fichte here defends, is extremely significant. For it follows that the process of the development of theory is in principle an endless task. Every theory needs to seek its origins as a necessary element in the process of its own self-justification. But in virtue of its original, and hence wholly independent, character, dependent on nothing else within the theory, the original proposition is not itself subject to demonstration. In other words, the process of theoretical justification is always and necessarily incomplete.
Despite the absence of a detailed, or even more than tangential, treatment of epistemological circularity as such in the texts of this period, it is obvious that Fichte is aware of the importance of this concept. It is further apparent that he has a general, although never clearly stated, doctrine in mind. This doctrine can be paraphrased succinctly as the claim that because of its very structure, knowledge is circular and hence does not permit a linear justification in terms of its initial principle, known to be true.
The temptation to follow the evolution of this doctrine in Fichte’s later writings must be resisted here for two reasons. On the one hand, the present aim is not to understand Fichte’s thought as such, but only as it contributes to the constitution of Hegel’s own position. And although there is abundant evidence of rapid evolution in Fichte’s thought, as well as at least some evidence of Hegel’s awareness of several later writings, there is reason to believe that he was neither closely familiar with them nor aware of the evolution of the position.
Nor is it possible at this point in the discussion to examine the general significance of the claim for circularity, since its role in Hegel’s view has not yet been studied. But the significance of Fichte’s suggestion, in the context of the discussion initiated by the publication of the Critique of Pure Reason, is difficult to exaggerate.
In the discussion of German idealism, it long has been the practice to stress the continuity between the positions of Reinhold and Fichte. Fries, for instance, remarks that Fichte merely develops Reinhold’s basic concepts, falling more deeply into his errors.79 Fries is certainly correct that Reinhold’s reception of the critical philosophy was a formative influence on the evolution of the debate concerning its systematic reconstruction. But the enormous difference should be noted between Reinhold’s intent, which Fichte shares, and the disagreement as to whether, to put the point in Kantian language, the goal in mind is constitutive of philosophy or merely a regulative idea. This difference of opinion, which concerns the intrinsic nature of philosophy, can usefully serve here to summarize the results of the debate concerning the reconstruction of the critical philosophy.
The result is a clear opposition. Reinhold’s proposed reformulation of the critical philosophy is intended to justify the possibility of knowledge by transforming Kant’s position into a system which derives from a single principle. The aim is to transform a theory which only claims to be science into one that in fact is science, through the justification of all its constituent elements. In a word, for Reinhold the only manner in which the possibility of knowledge can be secured is through a linear form of argument which avoids any hint of circularity, which can only vitiate the claim to know.
Fichte certainly shares Reinhold’s acceptance of the basic rationalist model of system in terms of an initial principle. But in consequence of his rejection of the view that this principle can be established as correct, Fichte makes the very circularity, which Reinhold sought to avoid as a mistake in reasoning, constitutive of the process of knowledge. It follows that circularity cannot be avoided, but rather must be acknowledged. And it further follows that the claim to knowledge must forever remain hypothetical, since it necessarily is limited by the relation of a theory to its indemonstrable, initial principle. For although Reinhold and Fichte both claim allegiance to Kant, their respective efforts to reconstruct the critical philosophy as systematic science result in a radical opposition as concerns the linear or circular character of knowledge.
The significance of this result for the grasp of Hegel’s position can be quickly anticipated. Hegel was aware of this debate, and of the views of Reinhold and Fichte. As will now be shown through discussion of Hegel’s initial philosophical publication, in his reaction to this debate Hegel accepts against Reinhold Fichte’s point that knowledge is an essentially circular process. But he denies the resultant inference that the outcome of the process is in any way less than the full form of knowledge which always has been sought in the philosophical tradition. From the perspective of the endeavor to reconstruct the critical philosophy, Hegel’s attempt to demonstrate that knowledge in the full sense can be attained through a system which is circular can be regarded as a third argument, alongside those of Fichte and Reinhold. And it further can be regarded as an effort to attain the goal fixed by Reinhold by means of the counterargument advanced by Fichte, which would seem precisely to foreclose this possibility.