As many readers know, I am currently writing a dissertation on Fichte and self-consciousness. I'm still very much at the beginning stages, although the project has been forming and changing in my mind for more than a year. Today I did some writing on the meaning of self-consciousness and how-possible questions, e.g., 'how is synthetic a priori knowledge possible?' One way I think we can conceive of Fichte's project is as a response to a how-possible question about knowledge, which then brings him to a how-possible question about self-consciousness.
The how-possible question motivating much of Fichte’s writings, I think, is somewhat of an implicit question, although it is most explicitly stated in his Foundations of Natural Right (1796/97) where he says, “Our task was to show how self-consciousness is possible” (p. 30). At the open of The Science of Knowledge (1794/95), Fichte is perfectly clear that his project is meant to provide a foundation to knowledge. The foundation is not merely an epistemic principle, but a principle that expresses the enabling act of subjectivity. What I take Fichte to provide is a principle of subjectivity, what we can call the principle of self-consciousness since without self-consciousness we have no means to speak about subjectivity. The principle of self-consciousness should be defined in two steps, the first of which defines the content of self-consciousness and the second, the nature of its activity: 1) a mode of existing is self-conscious when one takes oneself as oneself; and whereby 2) the activity of taking oneself as oneself necessarily asserts oneself as existing as a self-conscious being capable of having I-thoughts. An important feature of this definition, one that makes it a Fichtean definition, is that the agent and product are one and the same, and even further, the activity of self-consciousness is a self-constituting activity in which the agent produces or constitutes itself as self-conscious. The content of self-consciousness is about oneself which means the activity is reflexive.
One way to parse the distinction between an epistemic principle and the principle of self-consciousness is to render the latter as a principle about the activity of the mind while the former concerns knowledge. Since the principle is a grounding principle of empirical consciousness and its forms of knowledge, what Kant often refers to as simply experience, “Experience is an empirical cognition, i.e., a cognition that determines an object through perceptions” (A176/B218), we should briefly examine how Fichte understands the logic behind grounding. Doing so will clarify why he grounds knowledge and experience according to an act of the mind that falls outside empirical consciousness and knowledge.
We call the states or representations of empirical consciousness empirical, one because they are the result of perceptions and experience, and two because they are not necessary, but contingent. While they result in knowledge, this knowledge is, so it follows, also contingent. That I see a red apple sitting upon my desk and know there is such a red apple is contingent upon there being a red apple and my being at the desk. My knowledge is grounded upon something I can offer up as evidence, reason or justification. Being able to offer up grounds is wholly dependent upon the contingent nature of my knowledge. As Fichte writes:
One can ask for a reason only in the case of something judged to be contingent, viz., where it is assumed that it could have been otherwise…The task of seeking the ground of something contingent means: to exhibit some other thing whose properties reveal why, of all the manifold determinations that the explicandum might have had, it actually has just those that it does. By virtue of its mere notion, the ground falls outside what it grounds. (I, 425; p. 7-8)
If we are after a principle to ground our human knowledge, empirical consciousness or experience, by virtue of the meaning of ground, the principle we are searching for cannot be an empirical fact of consciousness; it must instead fall outside of empirical consciousness while at the same time enabling its possibility. The principle must be expressive of something non-empirical that conditions empirical consciousness. The principle of self-consciousness is meant to be such a principle and its role is to account for a non-empirical activity of consciousness that grounds empirical consciousness and knowledge. Returning to Fichte’s how-possible question, ‘how is self-consciousness possible’ it becomes evident that he is asking about how it is possible to ground empirical consciousness in a non-empirical principle, one that requires no other ground.
What he is not asking about is how it is possible self-consciousness exists. I take the claim is about how we should talk about self-consciousness. A how-possible question about freedom might be in response to a skeptic about the existence of freedom (see Cassam's The Possibility of Knowledge for a discussion of these themes). A hard determinist will take freedom to be something like an illusion. That self-consciousness is illusory would appear absurd to Fichte. But offering an explanation is where the difficulty lies. So, I think one way of framing Fiche's how-possible question is as follows: 'how is an account of self-consciousness possible'. What I think is helpful about such an approach is that it both offers a way to interpret what Fichte is up to, while also developing the constraints he believes ought to be placed upon any theory of self-consciousness.