Sunday, August 12, 2007


I can't help but respond to a discussion on self-reflexivity occurring on a few blogs dedicated to critical theory. It starts at Larval Subjects, and continues at Now-Times and Rough Theory. While their discussion is very much about self-reflexivity in social theory, I want to enter the discussion somewhat sideways by saying something about Fichte.

Self-reflexivity is a central and unthematized notion in the work of Fichte. Here is a remark by Fichte on self-reflexivity:
The self's own positing of itself is thus its own pure activity. The self posits itself, and by virtue of this mere self-assertion it exists; and conversely, the self exists and posits its own existence by virtue of merely existing. It is at once the agent and the product of action; the active, and what the activity brings about; action and deed are one and the same. (97)

The self-positing is reflexive since, to put it plainly, that which is doing the acting is also the same thing that is acted upon. But Fichte's thesis is a bit stronger since self-conscious, self-existence is determined, produced or, perhaps better, constituted in the activity of reflexive self-referring:

What was I, then, before I came to consciousness? The natural reply is: I did not exist at all: for I was not a self. The self exists only insofar as it is conscious of itself (98).

I just put Fichte's idea of reflexivity in terms of reference. To talk about reflexivity presupposes an understanding of its common grammatical use in which a verb is reflexive when upon being uttered the subject uttering it refers to an object which is identical with the subject in some way. A good example of a reflexive verb is 'to perjure'. The grammatical notion of reflexivity does not exactly capture the kind of reflexivity Fichte is after. This is due to the fact that the grammatical notion does not necessarily involve the kind of productivity that concerns Fichte. Reflexivity that is productive creates within the activity of reference that which is being referred to. Here are two examples of reflexive sentences of this sort taken from Nozick's Philosophical Explanations: "some people drone on and on and on" or "SOME PEOPLE SPEAK VERY LOUDLY" (75).

What is unique about these sentences is that they refer from the inside rather than from the outside. We can change the droning example so it refers from the outside: some people do not drone on and on and on. Now it refers from the outside non-reflexively.

How should we then cut the distinction between self-reflection and self-reflexion? I think there are likely many ways to do this, but I want to address what we might consider to be Fichte's way of making the distinction. A reflective self-activity discovers or finds out something about itself and refers or abstracts out that aspect. I may reflect on my feelings, beliefs, or memories, but this reflection does not produce that feeling, belief, or memory. Fichte's philosophical method might be considered reflective in a similar sense. Reflexivity we might consider as the nature or structure of the kind of self-activity that grounds any form of self-consciousness, where in the act self-consciousness is produced, determined or posited.

As a footnote to what I have said, Schlegel picks up a notion of reflexivity, most likely from his readings of Fichte, and applies it within his reflections on theory building. I don't have any Schlegel texts at hand but a notion of reflexivity is at work in many of his comments on what poetry and criticism ought to be. One remark that seems to mirror the productive form of reflexivity says something like a book review should contain within it a theory of book reviews.

Even though what Fichte is handling is a theory of self-consciousness, I think his notion of reflexivity is not limited to subjects as some of the examples above are meant to show.

*Fichte, The Science of Knowledge, trans. Peter Heath and John Lachs (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1982).
*Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge: Harvard, 1981).

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