Neuhouser, F. (1990, ch 3): The Self-Positing Subject And Theoretical Self-Consciousness

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Intellectual Intuition as pre-reflective consciousness

Neuhouser wants to understand self-positing in terms of a kind of non-explicit pre-reflective consciousness. He takes a text from the “New Method” to support this.

Let everyone now think of his I and pay attention to how he does this. Now, in contrast, let everyone think of an external object. In this latter case we do not notice (bemerken) ourselves as the thinker of the object. That is, we do not notice that we are the thinker of the object but rather disappear, so to speak, in the object. Nevertheless, it is easily and obviously discovered that the thinker and that which is thought are distinct from each other (GA IV.2, p. 29. Other passages with similar implications are pointed out by Pippin (1988, p. 82, n. 24).)

As Neuhouser puts it, at least part of what Fichte seems to mean by the immediacy of intellectual intuition is the fact that though the I is not explicitly present in the thinking of some object distinct from it, nevertheless, one has non-inferential access to the fact that one’s (conscious?) mental states are one’s own (Neuhouser 1990), 82.

Neuhouser also argues that there must be a difference of structure in the two kinds of awareness, not just a difference in the explicit nature of their content. Neuhouser takes Fichte to be arguing against the regress-committing conception of self-consciousness as higher-order reflection. So self-positing is a form of non-representational self-awareness, as opposed to explicit and higher-order reflection.

Putting everything together, the takeaway claim is that, for Fichte, the nature of consciousness is such that there is no representing (specifically, thinking or sensibly intuiting anything) that is not also a non-representational awareness of oneself as representing ((Neuhouser 1990), 83-4)

Neuhouser puts the conditions this way:

self-positing involves (1) an immediate, nondiscursive awareness that consists in (2) the relating of the representations of consciousness to a subject, a relating that is (3) internal to and inseperable from the activity of consciousness itself ((Neuhouser 1990), 85-6)

Why think that there are intellectual intuitions? (88-90)

What argument can Fichte give us for thinking that there are such intellectual intuitions?

  1. “Phenomenological” argument
  2. Transcendental argument

The phenomenological argument

Reflective self-consciousness is “universal” in the sense that any state is such that a subject can reflect on it (it is “always a possibility”)

It is also “immediate” in the sense that reflecting or self-ascribing requires no inference or any further intuition or sense-experience for the reflection to occur.

The transcendental argument

The appeal to intellectual intuition or self-positing as a form of pre-reflective consciousness is the only possible explanation of consciousness itself.

Connection to Kant

Neuhouser rightly emphasizes the import of the question as to whether Fichte is claiming solidarity with Kant (1) in virtue of providing the correct interpretation of Kant’s texts or (2) showing that Kant’s position implies Fichte’s own (p. 90). This question is important since Fichte is so central to the rest of German Idealism.

Is there a dispute with respect to the ubiquity of self-consciousness?

Neuhouser says,

The key to assessing the extent to which Fichte’s position is genuinely Kantian lies, I believe, in understanding the reasons for Fichte’s apparent divergence from Kant on this fundamental issue. ((Neuhouser 1990), 92)

Neuhouser denies that Fichte might just carelessly be misreading Kant on the basis of inheriting views from Reinhold regarding the structure of consciousness. Specifically, that (i) every representation is related in consciousness to the subject and (ii) that all consciousness conforms to the subject-object structure characteristic of representation (92). But as Neuhouser notes, Fichte directly quotes and emphasizes Kant’s §16 TD claim that one’s representations always can be accompanied by the “I think” (Second Intro I:475).

Neuhouser gets exactly right, I think, the issue of what is left out from a description of self-consciousness as the “unity of the manifold” and Fichte’s objection to it.

the I is not merely encountered within consciousness; it is what actually unites its representations with one another, thereby establishing the fundamental unity of consciousness upon which the awareness of the identity of the subject of thought depends. ((Neuhouser 1990), 95)

However, Neuhouser does think that Fichte misreads Kant, or at least misunderstands Kant. He proposes (via Benson 1974) that Fichte aims to explain the “original synthetic activity” that makes it possible for the “I think” to be able to accompany our mental states.

On this view, the “I think,” as an explicit recognition of my self-identity in the face of diverse representations (or what I have earlier called “reflective self-consciousness”) must always be possible with respect to each of my representations. But, Fichte would add, this “necessary possibility” of reflective self-consciousness itself depends upon the unity among my representations that intellectual intuition in each case establishes. ((Neuhouser 1990), 98)

But this position depends on a reconstruction of Kant’s argument in the TD that Neuhouser thinks mistaken—viz. that the identity of the subject is needed to explain the unity of consciousness, and that this would be what is needed to explain Kant’s claim that the analytic unity of the manifold rests on a more fundamental synthetic unity.

Neuhouser objects that this misunderstands Kant’s strategy, which construes the unity of apperception as itself only possible on the basis of relations between the subject’s representations as described by the various categories.

The condition, referred to by Kant, under which all representations must stand if they are to be united within a single consciousness turns out not to be a relation between the subject and each of its representations but an activity of synthesis that establishes objective connections among the subject’s representations themselves. ((Neuhouser 1990), 98)

In other words, where Fichte posits a relation between a subject and its representations, Kant posits a relation between the representations themselves.


But I’m not so sure that Neuhouser is right about this. In particular, this seems to ignore the sense in which pure apperception is original for Kant, as well as the role that the subject’s activity would seem to play in the acquisition of the categories. It also ignores claims Kant makes, such as that in pure apperception I am “the being itself”.

Finally, Neuhouser places a lot of weight on the interpretation that the categories and categorial connections between representations, are what constitute one’s self awareness.

What makes [the recognition that representations belong to a single consciousness] possible for Kant is not an original, immediate awareness of each of them as my own, but the joining together of these representations in accord with the categories, a synthesis that establishes the minimal degree of connectedness among the contents of empirical consciousness required for the subject’s recognition of its own identity. ((Neuhouser 1990), 99)

But why should connection among representations establish mineness? If a representation in isolation is itself unowned, then why is it that a representation connected to another is owned? If there is a problem for the first case then there would seem to be a problem for the second. Emphasizing that it is the nature of the connection to a representation, viz. via a categorical relation, doesn’t obviously help. If a question about mineness arises with a single representation, how does the fact that it (or its content) stands in a causal relation to another representation help?

So Neuhouser concludes that Fichte’s position cannot straightforwardly be seen as a “genuine extension” of Kant’s view. But why couldn’t we combine the positions and take Fichte as saying that the activity must be pre-reflectively aware of itself (i.e. be self-positing), but that activity is always of some determinate kind (there is no activity as such) and these kinds of activities are the categories operating on representations?

Another way of putting this is that Neuhouser objects that Fichte puts the relation in the wrong place (i.e. between subject and representations, rather than between representations themselves), but this seems to misconstrue the account of the subject as itself an activity.

Hints at a genuine Kantian argument?

Neuhouser argues that there may be some “hints” at an independent argument extending Kant’s position. Neuhouser cites two passages:

Through the joining together of various representations there would emerge only a manifold thinking (ein mannigfaltiges Denken), as one thinking in general, but by no means would there emerge something that thinks (ein Denkendes) within this manifold thinking. (Second Intro SW I:476 note)

Which “I” is being spoken of here? That, perchance, which the Kantians blithely piece together from a manifold of representations, in none of which it was contained individually, though it is present in all of them together; so that the above-cited words of Kant would mean this: I, who think D, am the same I who thought C and B and A, and only through the thinking of my manifold thinking do I become an I for myself, namely that which is identical in the manifold (Second Intro SW I:475)

Neuhouser makes some puzzling claims about these texts “implicitly” arguing that

this aspect of self-consciousness [viz. the subjectivity or mineness of self-consciousness] is not derivable from any merely objective features of consciousness, including the synthetic connections that necessarily hold among a subject’s representations. (101)

But this seems to obviously be what Fichte is arguing, and in more than just these texts. His point is that you cannot recover subjectivity from representations or their connections, or the objects to which they are related. Subjectivity is basic. Moreover, this is actually a view that Kant does plausibly hold, and must hold, as well. So Neuhouser is wrong when in his assessment that

this aspect of Fichte’s account of self-consciousness is the most difficult to reconcile with not only the letter but also the spirit of Kant’s philosophy. … the phenomenological considerations that motivate his position are ultimately more persuasive than his transcendental claim – and that in this respect, Fichte’s theory cannot be regarded as a genuine extension of Kant’s account of the necessary conditions of experience. ((Neuhouser 1990), 102)


Neuhouser, Frederick. 1990. Fichte’s Theory of Subjectivity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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