I am generally interested in revolutions and German idealism so I picked up the newly translated book by Fichte Contribution to the Correction of the Public’s Judgement on the French Revolution. The revolution took Europe by storm, the other major nations all under monarchies, took it as a political and philosophical threat. In Germany, every intellectual, politician, and citizen had some take on the revolution. The noble aims of the revolutions were tainted and complicated by the violence. The violence gave the political right a reason to discount the noble aims that many people would recognize as good today. The left had to try and tread a path where they did not condone the means, but were in agreement about the ends.
What I want to write on from Fichte here is not what he thinks about the revolution, how it differed from other philosophical giants such as Kant, Hegel, or Marx, but instead focus on the beginning of the book on common sense. This book was most definitely not like Kant’s first Critique, specifically written for academics, it was written for the public. Fichte himself came from lowly beginnings and must have saw the French Revolution as a time for German society to become more democratic, egalitarian, and moral. The book itself can be seen as someone who has bought quite greatly into the Kantian projects of theoretical and practical reason. But Fichte tries to keep it such that it is not just about philosophy, but it is about elevating the public’s intellectual capacities. So it comes off as one part academic and one part political pamphlet.
The academic part was overshadowed by the political pamphlet part. Fichte’s discussion of how to think like a philosopher and not just appeal to common sense was fantastic. His discussion of common sense and the need to overcome it and realize that common sense is nothing but philosophy, although it may be bad philosophy. This discussion is based around the French Revolution as mentioned, but it can be used for any political event (or really any discussion). One could easily translate this into modern day terms and see how closely the political climate around the French Revolution mirrored the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. This is what I will focus on, Fichte’s attempt to elevate the common people’s intellectual capacities.
I will quote some of the preface at length
The French Revolution seems to me to be important for the whole of humanity.
As long as human beings do not become wiser and more just, all their attempts to become happy are in vain. Escaping from the despot’s dungeon, they will murder themselves among each other with the ruins of their broken shackles.
Thus, all events in the world seem to me to be instructional portrayals, which the great educator of humanity sets up so that humanity may learn what it is in need of knowing. Not that it learns out of history—in all of world history we will never find anything that we have not first put inside it ourselves. But through the judgement of real events, humanity may develop more easily by itself what lies within it. And thus, the French Revolution seems to me a rich painting about the grant text, “human rights and human worth.”
Here Fichte sets the stage for the book to come. Fichte thinks the French Revolution contains the key to understand morality and politics, of understanding human rights and human worth. If we do not learn how to think about events like this, we will forever be duped by despots. Even if we somehow escape the despot’s grasp, we will not have learned anything and we will end up just killing each other.
This is how one can interpret most the revolutions throughout history. The American Revolution is taught to Americans as noble, but it is quite mythologized. From the perspectives of virtually everyone in America (and the world), all that happened was trading one King with their advisors to a President with their politicians. They pillaged and plundered and kept their people all poor. Wealth inequality, the greed and cruelty of the powerful were all pretty much the same before and after the American Revolution. Nothing about democracy prevented many of the worst crimes of humanity, such as WWII.
We can see this in my analogy of the French Revolution the BLM protests summer of 2020. The protests were just a new chapter in the old story of Black American’s seeking liberation from oppression. Anyone who studied any prior situations like this see the same rhetoric. Anti-semitic conspiracies take off. White people get more mad at someone stealing a TV or breaking a window than Black people getting executed in broad daylight with no accountability. The politicians blame outside agitators. One day it is communism, then communism becomes antifa. Some people do not know how to respond to the complexity of the goals of a political movement being noble if there was a little bit of violence. Joe Biden failed to move beyond this framing, repeating the same centrist mistakes through history (in my opinion). Once you accept the framing of the right, you now box in the movement to such a trivial aspect of it. Fichte astutely realizes the cause of this type of thinking and dives in to try and demolish it.
Nothing confuses our judgement more, and nothing makes us more incomprehensible to ourselves and to others, than when we overlook this important distinction, when we want to judge without actually knowing what point of view we are judging, when, for certain facts, we appeal to laws, to generally valid truths, without knowing whether we are assessing the fact according to the law or the law according to the fact, whether we are assessing the protractor or the perpendicular line.
Fichte here is saying that what matters when we judge is our point of view, or rather judging can only be done from a point of view and one must become aware of this. With the BLM movement, you don’t just get to say that it is good or bad and that it is the end of the story. Someone can rightfully ask you “why?” and you must give further explanation, you must elaborate on where you are coming from. If you do not make a distinction between ideals and reality, or theory and practice, we do not know what you are criticizing when you say some political event is good or bad. Hence, Fichte saying “are you assessing the protractor or the perpendicular line”.
In the context of a revolution, Fichte says there really are only two here. First is the legitimacy of the revolution and second is the means. If we are to make any progress in understanding, we must answer the first, then we can answer the second. If you think that it is illegitimate, then of course it follows that you think the means are bad too. If you think the revolution is legitimate, you may then now discuss the means of the revolution, were they the most appropriate? In the context of the French Revolution, the question of many pro-democracy folk and even pro-revolution folk is that, did Robespierre and company go too far with the terror, to which many say he did. In the context of the Floyd protests, the question’s were similar.
As a way to psychoanalyze many of the conservatives, they were quite obviously against the legitimacy of the Floyd protests. They may have not said it outright, but it could only be so. If they were for the protests, they would have taken a bit more nuanced view of it. They would have said that they thought the cause was righteous, but the violence was a bit too much. Even then, one cannot be taken seriously if they did not see the police starting much of the violence themselves. They did not take a nuanced view of it and were even advocating for draconian measures against the protests.
Now let us look at how they saw January 6. They then would use the quote from MLK about riots being the language of the unheard, they would say we need to be lenient on them, we need to understand where they were coming from. Even after the invasion of the capital, many conservatives thought they had a right to do what they did. Shit, they even said that they felt safe because they knew they were on their side. Now obviously some of the conservatives were on the legitimacy side of the revolutionary act of Jan6, although criticized them going too far.
Back to Fichte, he says the story is not done with just knowing the questions, we still need principles to judge them. But which principles or ethical laws are we going to measure the legitimacy and the means of the revolution or political event to? Surely we do not just develop them from “majority opinion”. This would commit us to a moral relativism in some sense, it would make us on the side of the majority of Americans who opposed John Brown or MLK, who we now hail in the present day as virtuous individuals.
Even worse, Fichte thinks, do we judge the revolution based on the outcome? Do we want to say it was legitimate and used the right means if it was successful? Does the criminal become a hero if they gain power? This is how many Americans think about the American revolution. Many Americans, probably the majority from left to right, think it was right for America to revolt, but at the time not all Americans were so enthusiastic or revolutionary. Similarly, many Americans hail MLK as a hero today, but during his time he was seen as a nuisance.
However, we are not so principled I say. MLK had a 15% or so approval rating, practically Black Americans and a very small amount of the rest, while the head of the FBI had over a 50% approval rating. Many conservatives such as Donald Trump will cite MLK, not realizing that MLK would not have any kind words for MAGA folk if they read any of his philosophical and political writings. He did not even have many kind words for the white moderate who would map on to the Clintons or Bidens. People today think they would have been on the right side of history, but are on the wrong side today, something has gone awry.
Fichte thinks that this is due to common sense or empirical principles. As humans, we inherit principles from our teachers or our parents, people we interact with quite often and are our moral or spiritual guides. We accept these principles as truth. Furthermore, since the majority of people accept these basic principles, they have a sort of self-confirming reality.
How I think about this is the domination of right-wing politics in this country. Our government is set up not to work. Our health care system is the greatest example, particularly the case of Obamacare. People think health care sucks and the government just messes everything up and should stop wasting our money. Obama tries to pass a bill to improve health care, but some things get snuck in to just get the bill passed at all. Republicans made it so that Medicare is not able to negotiate drug prices.
One study said:
Estimating how much money could be saved if Medicare had been allowed to negotiate drug prices, economist Dean Baker gives a “most conservative high-cost scenario” of $332 billion between 2006 and 2013 (approximately $50 billion a year). Economist Joseph Stiglitz in his book entitled The Price of Inequality estimated a “middle-cost scenario” of $563 billion in savings “for the same budget window”.
Now this is not the only horrible factor of our health care system. It is deliberately made to be bad. When it is bad, then conservatives can go and point to Obamacare (the messaging on the name was A-class by conservatives), and say “look we need to privatize all health care the government is raising the prices”. Now this common sense principle, that the government just makes this expensive and inefficient, is a self-fulfilling prophecy and permeates American life.
Or take NAFTA. A bill that helped Trump stoke his anti-capitalist (not socialist) movement. Republicans turn after turn weaken the power of labor and give money to the rich, and they find one bill that was part of a longer line of bipartisan fucking-over of working class folks and pin it on everyone. Trump even gets into office and passes tax cuts and abysmally handles the pandemic to the point of genocide-via-negligence to see some of the largest gains in wealth inequality in the history of the world in just 4 years. For reference, Amazon stock price went from around $800 per share to $3,600 per share, we could pull up more companies, more data, and more economic studies too.
The naive politically-interested leftist or liberal might think that this data would be knock down arguments right? If you show that really the Republicans are the cause or the largest cause for many problems in this nation, historically (even just only starting with Reagan) to the present, they should back-track their beliefs, no? Wrong.
Fichte documents this phenomenon quite clearly and hilariously. First, with common sense he says
This is the origin of the general opinion-systems of peoples, the results of which are commonly passed off as expressions of common sense, but a common sense that has its fashions just like our coasts and hairstyles.—Twenty years ago, we considered unpressed cucumbers to be unhealthy, and today [we] consider pressed cucumbers to be unhealthy based on exactly those reasons, according to which most among us still believe until now that one human being could be the master of another human being, a citizen could be entitled to the assets of his fellow citizens by birth, [and] a prince is determined to make his subjects happy.
Hilariously in a way, Fichte is noting how, even something we see today, food science sways for no real good reason. One day wine is good for your heart, then the same article publishes one saying differently. Or its coffee. Or whatever. Fichte says that there is no difference in how most people think of politics. If we just appeal to the way things are done, what is majority opinion, that same reasoning justifies virtually anything. It means admitting there is no determinate answer to the healthiness of pressed cucumbers or slavery.
Second, he notes how the naive person might approach people such as so.
Just try—I invite all those of you who combine Kantian thoroughness with Socratic popularity—try to wrest the first sentence from an uneducated owner of serfs, the second from an uneducated, ancient nobleman (Fichte is talking about the clauses of master and entitled in the quote before). Drive him into the corner with questions, with facile questions: he will accept your premises, he will concede all of them with deepest conviction. Now you draw the dread conclusion and you will be startled by how he, who saw so clearly before, is suddenly completely blind, [and] cannot grasp the tangible connection between your conclusion and your premises. Your conclusion indeed goes against his common sense.
This is something I have experienced quite often. Seemingly very core beliefs of being a conservative or a Trumper or life long republican have been shown countless times in theory to be pretty bad and incoherent, even on the terms they set out themselves. We could imagine Socrates going to a Trump rally and doing his Socratic dialogue, realizing none of them have any clue. Their opinion-system as Fichte calls it really is more based on some loose aesthetic, a collection of vibes, or can be just better called ideology. If one of these people were intellectually capable of writing out their philosophy into some system, say James Lindsay, upon facing criticism for their incoherence or stupidity, they will most likely just ad hominem or ignore their criticism.
Even worse, practically all the life long Republicans, say maybe George Will types, have realized that their theory at least has nothing to do with practice anymore. The true base of the Republican party was not what they thought it was and they all bent the knee to a demagogue. The Republican party is lucky all their voters are uneducated (I say this lovingly) because they forget that Reagan dominated America and set the pace for what was politically plausible, the country moved so far right that Hillary Clinton was seen as far-left, we are still there actually. Conservatives cannot even realize that their policies of deindustrialization, including NAFTA, were part of their own party’s history. Do not even get me started on the Civil Rights era or even more comical is Republicans thinking they are the party of Lincoln when in fact they are the party of the confederacy.
Lastly, Fichte mentions another phenomena that happens today and is appealed to on all sides of the political spectrum.
Our judgement very often depends on the direction of our inclination, in particular in questions of the right. Injustices that befall ourselves seem much harsher to us than exactly the same injustices when they befell someone else. Indeed, our inclination frequently distorts our judgement to an even greater extent. Striving to present our self-interested claims to others and finally also to ourselves under an honorable mask, we turn them into legal claims and scream about injustice, often when one does nothing but prevent us from being unjust ourselves.
This last part of common sense opinion-systems of people becomes the “lived experience” of today. I say this without any contempt as well. The average working class person does not sit down and contemplate philosophy or read politics and history quite deeply. I was reading a labor report on just transitioning fossil fuel industries due to climate change that mentioned lived experience quite a bit. Workers only realized what capitalism was once they really got fucked by it. Not until a plant closed and they were fired with no severance did they realize what capitalism was all about. This lived experience was something they saw first hand.
Now this is what makes socialism such a strong movement, to me, is that everyone gets fucked by capitalism. Everyone shares the same lived experience, it is the job of experts and activists to communicate this theory to labor and communities, the why it happened and what do we do about it. There is nothing virtuous about this lived experience, nothing selfless that is.
But Fichte’s point is a little more targeted. The person of common sense veils their revenge in moral language, calling it justice. They say things like “I don’t want this to happen to anyone else”, giving themselves a more heroic attitude. However, if they did care about justice, they would want to prevent all the people starving to death, the homeless, ending the wars and especially drone strikes that America loves so much. They would want to end the American prison system as we know it. They would come out against the abhorrent anti-trans laws and voter suppression of 2021. If they actually were selfless and were seeking justice, which rings of a universalism, they would do these things. But they only speak of justice once they have been fucked.
Fichte blames all this on sensibility, empirical laws, and common sense reasoning. Those who fall ill to this will
… wander in the dark, and search his way with his fingertips; he will be swept away by the stream of his association of ideas, and will rely on good luck to be thrown on one island or another.
Fichte knows that himself, I know this, and all serious philosophers know that we were once like this. The modern day philosopher might have been into Sam Harris or something before, not realizing the shallowness of his theory, how he is really just a mouthpiece for one of the American ideologies, a common sense reasoner.
So we must be careful and kind to those who think this, we were once like this. Fichte says
From the history of your heart, you will perhaps still distantly recall the time when you were not much better than he is now. You will perhaps also still recall how and in what manner you were gradually converted to reason and were spiritually reborn. Precisely this course, he must go as well—not starting from this very point—if he should ever become a better human being. And you must help to lead him on this way, if you want to make him one.
I would like to note as well that a philosopher does not become automatically virtuous, they could become the sophist. A philosopher would like to make someone see that what they are indeed doing when they reason is philosophy and we should guide them to doing philosophy. However, the sophist could use this outside perspective of philosophy for their own gain, they could manipulate their opponents or friends. Any moderately trained philosopher can reason better and drive their interlocutors into contradictions and even lead them to their own belief system. To me, this is a sort of manipulation, you are not exposing them to philosophy, you are exposing them to your philosophy.
To close, Fichte tries to elevate the common sense reasoner into the philosopher.
Thus, originally and prior to any experience, they must already have lain in your soul, and you have judged according to them without knowing. Experience itself is a chest full of letters thrown among each other. Only the human spirit brings meaning to this chaos, composes an Iliad from them here, and a Schlenkertian historical drama there.—Hence, you have done yourself a great injustice. You are more philosopher than you could believe yourself. It is with you as with Master Jourdain in the comedy: all your life, you have been philosophizing without knowing a word about it. Forgive us therefore always just one sin, which you have committed together with us.
Fichte’s main point here, I believe, is that we are all philosophers, just in the same sense that we are all actors. We just need to know that we are acting, we just need to know that we are philosophizing.
After this, Fichte goes on a tear through common sense politicians. He tears into those who appeal to how things have always been done. He criticizes many version of empiricists, those who appeal to what has been done. The rest of the book is about advocating his own way of viewing the French Revolution.
What I would like to take away from this part of his introduction to the book is that, we cannot reason using common sense. We must first realize that ALL of our beliefs are up for debate, to be questioned. We need to go to nothing, we need to go back to first principles or first philosophy. This problem is my favorite problem, the problem of infinite regress. Children in some sense start out as philosophers, they ask their parents all sorts of why questions when some adult may just accept the first reason.
In The Sopranos, the youngest child AJ does not want to go to his confirmation. He just got done reading French existentialism and he is in that teenage angsty period of life as well. He starts to question the justification of his parents, he finds no reasons in the universe for anything. One second you are living, one second you die. In some sense, AJ finds that there is no first philosophy, no norm to evaluate actions. AJ has gone through the infinite regress, he has asked all the why questions such that there is nothing left to ask why, and the only truth left is that we die, and there is nothing to do about it.
AJ’s father, Tony, represents the common sense reasoner. He gives reasons like “your mother said so” or “it is how things have always been done”. This appeal to the past is quite big with Tony, the mafia glorifies the past, the rules that have always been done, respecting elders for the sake of being an elder.
Fichte finds this reasoning unsatisfactory. Fichte, like his predecessor Kant, evaluates what is good and bad based on the Kantian moral law. Hegel himself taking up this post-Kantian tradition has his own answers to the problem of infinite regress, a way to end the why questions.
This was the goal of Fichte’s introduction, to elevate the common sense reasoner to the philosopher they have always been. Unless you find principles that are fundamental, and not fundamental like a mathematical axiom, something that ends the infinite regress, a timeless standard that can judge what is good or bad for humanity in any time period, Fichte will find your philosophy unsatisfactory. Well, I would like to note that this is not the only way to end the infinite regress is to be Kant or Fichte, Hegel takes himself to go beyond the moral law of Kant and Fichte while at the same time not having the infinite regress problem.
Fichte comes out for the revolution, in that it is legitimate. He never published part two of the book, on whether the best means were taken. One can only guess what he would have said based on other writings. Kant himself has an answer too. Kant came out for the ideals of the revolution, but against the means, the violent act of revolution and declaring yourself sort of a new state. Kant himself, like Fichte, had his own first philosophy, a philosophical system that he believes answered the infinite regress problem and serves as a basic principle for evaluation all actions, of what is good.
The revolution or the George Floyd protests should be a wake up call. If we are to assess the facts appropriately, we need to leave common sense behind and take up the point of view of the philosopher. I am in agreement with Fichte to a large extent, talking to the common sense reasoner ends up doing nothing unless we get them to see that there really is no such thing as common sense. Until we get there, we will not be able to even come to agreement possibly through reason about political events much less even know what to do ourselves.