Neuhouser, F. (1990, ch 4): The Self-Positing Subject and Practical Self-Determination

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Neuhouser’s discussion in this chapter centers on the notion of “self-determination” and its connection to self-positing. As N puts it:

To be a practical being, for Fichte, is in very general terms to possess the capacity for determining oneself to act, as opposed to having one’s actions determined by something external (@neuhouser1990, 119)

Neuhouser notes that this issue of elucidating a coherent conception of self-determination is one that is identified by Fichte at (SE 4:34-6) in terms of the importance of recognizing that there a fundamental difference between a self and a thing, and that only with this recognition could one achieve an adequate and coherent conception of self-determination.


Neuhouser distinguishes “formal” from “substantive” self-determination, in an attempt to capture Fichte’s distinction between “formal” and “material” freedom.

Formal self-determination
a subject is formally self-determined if it determines itself to act in accord with any practical maxim whatsoever (122)
Substantive self-determination
A subject is practically self-determined if it is (i) formally self-determined; (ii) also determines the maxims themselves according to which it acts, not arbitrarily, but in accord with norms that articulate the criteria for which maxims ought to be adopted; (iii) the norms for such adoption originate (in some sense) from the subject itself (122-3)

For Fichte all willing, which in the relevant sense is the power to “make a choice among several equally possible actions” (4:159), involves or requires a kind of self-determination.

Willing & self-determination

Fichte construes the will as “absolute and primary.” Or more fully,

Insofar as willing is something absolute and primary, therefore, it simply cannot be explained on the basis of any influence of some thing outside the I, but only on the basis of the I itself; and this absoluteness of the I is what would remain following abstraction from everything foreign. (4:25)

It was not clear to me initially what this meant. But Neuhouser presents a straightforward interpretation that seems plausible. Willing is the capacity to choose (4:159) and an absolute will is a capacity to choose, or be determined, by nothing other than oneself. What other things might determine the will? Incentives – i.e. desires or wishes or other conative states. So the will has the power to make or refrain from making an incentive the motive for action.

Willing & reflection

By means of reflection … the individual tears himself away from the natural drive and makes himself independent of it (stellt sich: unabhängig von ihm hin) as a free intelligence; he thereby obtains for himself the capacity to postpone the self-determination and, with this, the capacity to choose between various ways of satisfying the natural drive. (4:179)

Neuhouser argues that the will’s ability to make or refrain from making a volition based on incentives is due to the subject’s capacity to reflect. But the key to reflection on inclination is not simply the ability to do or refrain, but also the representation of some end (i.e. action under “the jurisdiction of the concept” (4:32))

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