Saturday, March 15, 2008

Embodiment in Fichte’s Theory of Self-Consciousness

Here is an abstract for a paper I want to write. I just sent it off to a conference on intersubjectivity and the body.

Subtle Bodies: Embodiment in Fichte’s Theory of Self-Consciousness

The work of Johann Gottlieb Fichte is widely recognized as attempting to develop a theory of self-consciousness that grounds in a first principle Kant’s theory of knowledge and cognition. Fichte’s work is often taken to focus on issues in practical philosophy and issues in epistemology. In my work on Fichte I have been developing a mind reading that shows that Fichte has an intersubjective theory of the mind that is conditional for his moral and epistemological principles. In this paper I will argue that Fichte’s theory of the mind articulates a view of the mind as embodied.

In his Foundations of Natural Right, Fichte develops a transcendental argument or deduction that shows how we must conceive of the body as a necessary condition of self-conscious agency. The body, insofar as it is a necessary condition of self-consciousness, must be more than just a material body. For Fichte, while the body is a material body [Körper], it is also a human body [Lieb]. What is the difference between a material body and a human body? The first important difference is that the human body is the embodiment of the will or the ability to form concepts of an end and bring to fruition the end according to a particular conceptualization. However, this kind of concept formation and action is not reflective, but a conceptual pre-reflective activity. A second difference, which follows from the first, is that the human body is subtle or non-objective in that it is saturated with social commitments and is that locus of intentional expressions. In other words, the body as a human body is expressive of rational contents and plays an essential role in the education of the subject into the stance rational self-conscious agents must take.

My reading of Fichte on the body attempts to show that the body is a minded body that is intersubjectively constituted. I also argue that the body is expressive. Its expressivity plays a necessary role in the education of self-consciousness and the constitution of a rational social order.


nowtimes said...

Hi Gabe -- Very nice Abstract.

I do have one question/comment, though: you're last paragraph seems to imply the a Lieb is intersubjectively constituted at both the material and cognitive levels. That is to say, its status as minded and corporeal are both intersubjectively constituted.

Now, while I have no problem saying that my self-consciousness relationship to my body (my body as a minded body) is in fact conditioned by my relations to other (minded) bodies, I'm not sure that I would want to say that the corporeal character of my body as such is intersubjectively constituted.

Phrased slightly differently, there seems to be a leap between the materiality of my body being 'intersubjectively constituted' and my conception of my body being intersubjectively constitituted.

So, here's my question: is the slippage I've just tried to call attention to all in my head, a small grammatical problem, or does Fichte (on your account) really want to say that bodies (Koerper) as such are intersubjectively constituted -- this claim would be tantamount, I guess, to claiming that you can't have a material body without having many material bodies, which limit and delineate one another.


Gabriel Gottlieb said...

Hey Alexei,

Thanks for pointing that out. You are right that I'm being vague about what about the body is intersubjectively constituted (IC). There are some options: 1) the material body is IC; 2)our conception of the human body is IC; 3)the boundaries of our human bodies are IC; 4)the way others think of the body is IC; 5)the way we move our bodies and what these movements mean is IC. I'm sure there are more options. I think the an interesting, least obvious, and plausible case is 3, though 4 and 5 I take to be true. I also think that 3 is a weaker version of 1. And 2 is very similar to 4, and somewhat trivial.

I don't have much to say about 3, but I think that in Fichte's deduction of the body, he accepts that the sphere of the body is not a natural fact, at least not the sphere of the human body. Part of this claim follows from how he conceives of freedom. In the Natural Right book, your transgressing my sphere of action is a limiting of my freedom. But Fichte thinks that to make possible the realm of freedom, you must self-limit and I'm am to self-limit and this mutual acts of limiting allows for a space in which free acts can occur. But, your self-limiting and choosing not to limit me involves a recognition of my own sphere of action, which is itself defined in terms of the body, at least to a large extent. So your self-limiting is at the same time a recognition of my body as a body not to be infringed upon, and this is to posit the body as having a particular kind of standing, one that goes beyond it being a material body.

Also, I think another way in which the body is IC has to do with what it means to hold a concept of an end and to act according to that end freely. I don't have yet a good argument to support this, but the form of rationality involved in carrying out ends freely seems to involve a intersubjective social order. Many animals carry out ends without a social order, so maybe the issues has to do with the idea of freedom, not sure. But if the human body is for Fichte the unity of will and material body, then the will adds to the material body a social element. This is a bit unclear, but it's an idea I want to work out.

In other words, having a will might be possible only under a social order in which there are recognitive structures that serve as the conditions of the possibility of willing. If the human body is the unity of will and material body, then it seems to follow that the human body is possible only under such a recognitive social order.

Alexei said...

Thanks for the clarifications, Gabe, they were very helpful indeed.

This said, though, there still seems to be something slippery in Fichte's formulation of the summons, and self-limitation. Maybe this is due to Fichte's peculiar understanding of Idealism (since I and Not-I interdetermine one another, there's no real separation of bodies and minds in the first place; their being posited implies their absolute Identity in something 'Higher.' But the status of this Absolute I remains fuzzy). So my question is conceptual (analytic, perhaps): Is Fichte claiming that (1) it's metaphysically the case that mind and body are conjointly determined/conditioned (Fichte doesn't seem to really distinguish between the two) by an individual's intersubjective relations. Or (2) is he making a weaker claim, like we cannot conceive of someone being a person unless we thinking of one as being embodied.

Now, it seems to me that your taxonomy depends upon how we answer this question. And you seem to tend towards the claim that we cannot conceive of mind and body as distinct entities. But the Either/Or I've outlined still remains an implicit, unanswered question -- or so it seems to me.

Moreover, your appeal to recognitive social orders seems to force you down the non-metaphysical road. Since our social engagements aren't metaphysically grounded, they are conceptual. But this seems to be at odds with the deeply metaphysical conception of the individual (as Fichte articulates it in the 1794 Wissenschaftslehre and the vocation of Man (with all the striving and whatnot).

But now I'm rambling. Maybe the point of contact you need is to be found in how Fichte works through Kant's moral philosophy. For the distinction between Wille and Willkuer might map on to the difference between individual, minded bodies (can't have desires without a body) and recognitive spaces (can't choose, without social, normative mores). What's more, Fichte does take Kant's moral philosophy -- and especially the categorical imperative -- to be the fundamental supposition of Absolute, critical philosophy. (Cf. the footnote to p. 230 of the Cambridge edition of the 1974 Wissenschaftslehre/SW bd I, s. 261).

So, whatcha think: is a metaphysical reading of Fichte in order, or a conceptual one?

Gabriel Gottlieb said...


I am giving a conceptual reading, which I take to be a more modest reading than the metaphysical one, and I think that Fichte himself limits his claims about the mind and body given his use of transcendental deductions or arguments.

Fichte thinks a transcendental argument is meant to show us how we are committed or required to think about something provided a certain specified condition we accept or must accept.

If these claims about the body and mind are made via such a transcendental argument, then, at least as I'm reading it, the claims are conceptual.

Anonymous said...

a question concerning the spelling: lieb (love) or Leib (Körper as in Eigenleib (Husserl et al.)?

Anonymous said...

Americans can never tell the difference between EI and IE.