David James, Fichte’s Social and Political Philosophy: Property and Virtue. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) is the third most important thinker in the tradition of German idealism (Kant and Hegel vying for most important) which later morphed into Marxism and finally into Frankfurt School critical theory as well as into Rawls’ Kantian constructivism. Though idealism is a central strand in contemporary ethics, it has not has as strong an impact in political and legal philosophy where it has been eclipsed by the social contract tradition of which Kant and, to some extent, Fichte are part. However, it is James’ contention that Fichte’s idealism is indeed relevant to his theory of the state and hence to the idea of a social contract and the further vexing question of the relation between morality and right.
In the interest of clarifying what is at stake in a properly idealist understanding of Fichte’s theory of right, let me say some general things about how idealism plays into the debate. The first thing to say, perhaps is that idealism takes as its main opponent realism, the— perhaps more familiar— idea that the world is a certain way and that we, as subject must both discover and then conform our behavior to the way the world actually is. This is captured in empirical social science or socio-biology by the thought that there is an ideal, or maximally efficient, form social organization can take and it is our task to figure out what that is so that we can model actual social organization on this ideal social organization, stripping away the sorts of things which are extraneous to this efficiency. (The case of property, discussed below, shows that this is no idle comparison.)
Idealism, for methodological as well as ethical reasons, takes the opposite approach, insisting by contrast that we, as social and moral beings, construct the world we live in. That is, the social world is not a function of the arrangements of bodies (to which minds must accommodate themselves) but rather of the attitudes of mind in the sense that the social world is the result of our varying attitudes toward each other. This is captured by the familiar claim to rational autonomy which social contract theorists from Hobbes to Rawls all take as axiomatic, to some extent. The basic point is simply that it is the will itself which constructs the world in its own image. The will of others, not their bodies, is likewise the relevant entity of ethical consideration.
This idealist perspective is usually understood as a moral perspective and is to varying degrees understood as at odds with political philosophy which deals with rights, that is with how bodies are arranged. Liberalism, in the Lockean and at least some of the Rawlsian versions, is concerned to maintain a balance between morality and political organization in the sense that it takes itself to be able to abstract from contentful moral commitment in the service of universalizable commitments about how bodies should be treated. That is, its fundamental commitment is to value neutrality with regard to people’s actions which are outside the purview of security and basic necessity.
It is this sort of liberalism which James believes Fichte challenges. Though James does not put this in terms of idealism, I think it is easy enough to put the argument together from James’ book. On the Lockean view, property is something that belongs to us because we invest it with value. This means that I am free to buy and trade it, once I have made it mine. Fichte’s fundamental argument, which actually fits quite well with the neglected third part of A Theory of Justice, is to say that it is rather property which makes subjectivity possible. Putting it this way makes room for the need for a certain kind of redistribution which is meant to facilitate the adequate development of subjectivity in the first place.