Fichte and Austin

Conférence prononcée à Halle en Avril 2006, parue dans Fichte-Studien, n° 35, Amsterdam - New York, éd. Rodopi, juillet, p.416-428.

There are different ways to understand the influence of one philosopher on another. The first is the real or effective influence. A philosopher reads a philosopher of the past, and is influenced by his reading. For example, this is the case of Habermas with Kant, Brandom with Hegel or again Maine de Biran with Fichte. In this case, the influence is easy to study : historians of philosophy make an inventory of quotations, examine the notions they have in common and thus may prove one author's influence on an other. The second manner to think about the relation between the philosophers is as an objective convergence, without effective influence. For example, Fichte probably never read Plotin. However, one may show the common themes of both authors, particularly in WL 1804. In this second category, it is enough that historian of philosophy shows the philosophers' common themes, even if the second didn’t know the first.If we apply this distinction between two kinds of influence to the relation of Fichte to analytical philosophy, we will be interested in the second kind [1]. For this reason, I will show in this paper the relation that one can establish between Austin and Fichte, by thinking the objective convergence between both authors. But, I will not only show that the fundamental principal theme is common to Fichte and Austin but I will also explain how it is possible to better read and understand each of these authors (Fichte and Austin) thanks to other.

I’ll attempt to demonstrate how Fichte may be philosophically and philologically understood thanks to Austin’s categories ; then, I’ll show how the speculative tradition, thus re-interpreted, may conversely help to re-examine the conceptual field Austin has opened up. We’ll thus be in the position of someone who beholds an anamorphosis, who must agree to adopt some unusual point of view to understand the figure, just as in Holbein's “Ambassadors” where we distinguish the skull only if we accept to adopt the quite unusual lateral point of view that allows the image of the skull to appear before our eyes. So, I will show that not only we can read Fichte thanks to Austin’s concept (much as Hintikka showed how it was possible to reinterpret Descarte’s cogito in performative terms) but also that we can read Austin thanks to Fichte’ s questions. Is it possible for today’s reader of Fichte and Austin to straighten up this double anamorphosis ? May one see Fichte’s design from the unusual viewpoint of Austin’s thought , and conversely, by using the unusual viewpoint of Fichte may one discover unknown uses of Austin ? Such are the questions addressed in this paper, which will first study the objective convergence between both authors (that is the fundamental theme which they share), will then examine the manner one can better understand Fichte thanks to Austin, and lastly will see how Fichte may help us read Austin. I wish to bet that beyond the conflict of traditions, such theoretical cross-fertilization, far from breeding hybrids, may on the contrary lead to this type of fecund métissage of which philosophy has always been made.

Part I. The objective convergence between both authors

It so happens that we can demonstrate that Austin and Fichte have a fundamental thesis in common because the notion of “action” holds a central place for both. Indeed, both extract the term “action” from its usual field : the field of moral philosophy or of politics, in order to make of it a term which defines thinking itself. To think is to act. Fichte always puts in apposition the terms “ to think” and “to act “, and gives them as synonyms. Likewise, Austin, who estimates that all thinking is language, establishes the following equivalence : Thinking = speaking = doing (or acting). Thus, Austin’s central thesis is really that all manifestations of thinking are a form of action. The argumentation of his book “How to do things with words” testifies that “thinking” is synonymous with “doing” or “acting”[2].

It is easy to compare the centrality of “acting” in Austin with its importance in Fichte. The specificity of Fichte’s revolution is well-chosen to transcend the division between the field of theory (thinking, knowledge) and the field of practice (moral action, or political action).

This revolution is possible because Fichte defines thinking as acting and acting as thinking. Acting acquires an epistemic dimension and comes out of the moral and political sphere, where it was restricted. Fichte’s real great contribution in relation to Kant is to have overcome the split between science and morality. It isn’t a matter of building a bridge between knowledge and morals, as wished by Kant in his introduction of the third Critique, but of showing that thought’s essence is action. Fichte doesn’t ratify the kantian division, he transcends it. Reason is unified by the notion of action. Thus, Fichte's distinctive characteristic, like Austin's, is to determinate thinking like acting and acting like thinking. For both : to think is to act.
More precisely, we can even establish a rigorous comparison between the specific notion of “speech act” and the theory of the proposition as act in Fichte. We know that Austin’s principal innovation consists of having shown the acting dimension inherent in all speech. The speech act is an expression of acting and not an observation of fact. Yet, this position is the central proposition in Fichte’s philosophy. Moreover, it is easy to show that Fichte starts from proposition (Satz) and not from fact. In the WL, his ambition is to analyse, to decompose propositions. For example, at the beginning of WL 1794, Fichte starts with the “proposition” of the I, and not with a fact of consciousness[3]. Every proposition is an act and not an observation or representation of fact. Very early, as soon as 1793, Fichte speaks of “propositions” (and not of “judgements”) and determines this proposition as “Handlungweise”[4], that is, with respect to acting. In this sense, it is not excessive to claim that Fichte is the most Austinian among all the disciples of the Oxonian philosopher !

Consequently, the objective convergence between both authors is clear and can be summarised by one sentence : the act is an epistemic principle and not only a moral notion ; the philosopher must study not only the content of a proposition but also the act of enunciation. This point being established, we can now try and show how it is possible to better read Fichte from Austin’s viewpoint.

II. Fichte in the light of pragmatic theory.

How may Fichte, the speculative philosopher par excellence, be understood thanks to Austin’s most innovative categories ? More precisely, how may one or several categories invented by Austin give new insight about Fichte’s system and allow to better understand it ?

As with Descartes, it is the notion of the “performative” which is most fruitful to read in Fichte. Indeed, it is easy to read the famous proposition of the first WL : “I=I”, with this notion which is discovered in How to do things with words” and is introduced in its first lecture. Thus, the first principle “I =I” can be interpreted as a performative utterance, because Fichte always said that the first principle was not a fact of consciousness[5]. I do not look back at the I as I would at a “substance”, a “reality” or an entity previous to my act. “I” is an act I perform and not some fact I would be[6]. We can see how Austin’s categories allow us to avoid the usual mistakes about the “I”, for example the temptation to make it a thing, a being among beings, which we should become aware of. We can also see how Austin’s categories allow to avoid all the usual dogmatic interpretations of German Idealism.

But beyond this important result, we are able to read the totality of Fichte’s sytem from the vantage point of this notion of the performative. The absolute principle of all principles, the foundation, the base of Fichte’s system can be defined in the manner of Austin, in performative terms. Let us try and demonstrate this point : What is the principle which structures Fichte’ s philosophy in its totality ? It isn’t the mythical affirmation of an absolute “I” (which is ascribed to his “first” philosophy) ; it isn’t a mystical affirmation of an absolute god (which is ascribed to his “second” or “third” philosophy[7]). On the contrary, the principle of all principles which structures his entire philosophy is what Fichte calls the adequation “ between saying and “doing” (Tun und Sagen[8]). What does this really mean ?

Saying (Sagen) is here to be understood as the contents of a philosopher's speech—say, for example Kant or Spinoza. This Fichtean Saying may thus be compared to what Searle, following Austin, has called the "propositional content" of a sentence[9]. As for the “Doing”, it must be strictly understood as the act or the status of the enunciation: it is not what Kant says but, as proposed in the 1804 WL : “what he presupposes in order to be able to say what he says."[10] Thus in the proposition : "I am not speaking," the Saying is what this proposition says, while the Doing is what makes it possible, in other words, the very act of speaking. In this case, one immediately notes that this very act falsifies the propositional content. In other words, the fundamental principle of Fichte's theory is what, following Austin and Recanati, we will now call the performative non-contradiction or pragmatic identity. Fichte thus develops a true and precise theory of meaning, based on the notions of Saying and Doing. This principle of congruence between Saying and Doing is a principle which is repeated in all the various versions of the Wl, without exception. So, if it is in the1804 WL that we find the expression “ adequation between Tun und sagen”, we have equivalents in 1794 with the expression “ the conformity between the explication” and “what is explicated”[11], or of course “what is done” and the "doing" ; or the famous opposition between “The posited ( for example Setzen or “ Ich gesetze ”, le posé, ou Moi posé) and the positing (le posant, Setzend)[12] etc.

What is more, thanks to these pragmatic guidelines, we may suggest a solution about the difficult question of Fichte’s evolution. For a long time, the Ficht “Forschung” has divided Fichte’s philosophy into two or three very different periods. Whereas, the first philosophy would defend a strict transcendental Kantian point of view, where the “I” is defined as an ethical act, the second philosophy (and for some researchers, the third even more) would return to a speculative theory where the “I” vanishes in the thought of God. Fichte would thus give up the idea of world transformation, which was characteristic of his first philosophy in favor of a philosophy of the absolute, where the “I” turns away from action and becomes a passive reflection of God. In this perspective, Fichte would regress to a form of dogmatic philosophy characteristic of the period before the Copernican revolution.

However, we are in a position to propose another interpretation where Fichte neither changes nor betrays his transcendental point of view. To demonstrate this thesis, it is advisable to remind oneself that the specificity of transcendental philosophy (for Kant, as for Fichte) is to bring out the conditions of possibility of knowledge in general. This inquiry about the conditions of possibility takes on a different form with Fichte, because he doesn't start from a fact (Tatsache) in order to find his conditions of possibility (as Kant does), but he starts from what can be described as a claim, a requirement, a demand. And this claim is the law of Identity. This identity is specific and was discovered by Fichte right from the start, as early as 1793. I don’t enough time, so I will jump the next paragraph.

Fichte will never give up this law of Identity and he will always posit it at the centre of his system. Yet, Fichte gives various formulations of the principle of Identity which can be understood in the light of pragmatics. Here again, the notion of performative utterance may serve to show the revolutionary character of Fichte's conception of identity. His theory of meaning, as we said, took into account the “Tun” in the “Sagen” and was founded on this new principle of identity between saying and doing, that was to become a model for all philosophical statements to come. In all WL, this Identity must be the philosopher's goal if he wishes to reach truth and to avoid the contradictions that have wrecked all other philosophies—whether it be Spinoza's, Kant's or Jacobi's. The contradiction Fichte identifies in other philosophical systems—and which he often underlines with the latin phrase " propositio facto contraria"[13]—is not a contradiction in terms of formal logic, whether it be the traditional logic of predicates (A is A) or propositional logic (P implies Q). Neither is it a contradiction between two opposed elements, such as the newtonian contradiction of physical forces that Kant called opposition, nor a contradiction between my proposition and the object it is supposed to convey. Actually, it is a contradiction between the act of saying X and what is being said of X—strictly speaking, a performative contradiction. This non-contradiction—an epistemic reformulation of the ancient “Noesis noseos”—which Fichte puts in the center of his system, is the supreme law of reason that will generate the process of truth. It is this new principle of identity which allows to make progress and discover new propositions.

Yet, the common core of all versions of the WL, without exception, is this definition of identity as an identity of saying and doing, an identity which may think today as a performative non-contradiction. Every single version of the WL rests on this identity, which is the most accomplished model of the transcendental argument, that Fichte masters ever better. But, if this principle truly is the common point and the common base of all the versions of the WL, yet Fichte doesn't just keep repeating the same thing over and over again, in those twenty years. Indeed, the goal and the unity of all the different WL consists in realizing this identity between the saying and the doing, in producing propositions in accordance with this identity even if the philosopher doesn't always consider the same problem. For example, in the “Personal Meditations”, in 1793, Fichte questions the notion of representation (Vorstellung), shows why Reinhold’s representation must be criticized and proposes a new definition of representation, which respects the new law of identity. But, in the intermediate WL, as in 1804, the problem isn’t the problem of representation, but the problem of the absolute. What are the conditions of enunciation of the absolute ? How can a man enunciate the absolute without contradiction ? That is the question in 1804. To put it differently, the 1794 questions the conditions of enunciation of the finite, whereas the WL nova methodo searches for the conditions of enunciation of the infinite. On the one hand, the question is : “how may we say the finite without falling into a performative contradiction” ?, and on the other, it is : “How may we say the infinite without falling into a performative contradiction" ? From then on, the identity and the difference between all various editions of the WL is clear. All the different versions of the Wl are identical because, in every one, the dynamic of the demonstration is the identity between saying and doing. In all cases, we must avoid contradiction between what we say and the act of saying it ; this still is a theory of knowledge, which is thought of as the exhibition of immanent rules of a speech claiming for validity and truth. But nevertheless, the successive iterations of the WL aren’t repetitions of the same : if every single one is the exhibition of the conditions in which we “can say what we say”, what we have to say differs in each: it is either “the representation (1793), or the finite (1794), or the infinite (1798), or the absolute (1804), or being (1805), or appearance (1812), etc. So we can conclude this point by saying that the concept of pragmatic identity illuminates Fichte's law of identity and allows us to better understand what Fichte wanted to say. Wearing Austin’s glasses to read Fichte makes things much clearer and allows us to discover new aspects of Fichte's text. With the concepts of pragmatics, we were able to understand firstly : why the ‘I” is not a dogmatic fact ; secondly : the nature of the principle of principles as congruence between Saying and doing ; and thirdly we were able to discover that this principle of principles is a new law of identity, a revolutionary formulation of the principle of non-contradiction, and so how the comprehension of this law of Identity allowed to think the deep unity of all WL. I will jump two pages and I’ll go directly to the end of my second part. This discovery is highly significant in itself. But, we can obtain still another and last result, which is a consequence of this discovery .
Coming to the end of this analysis, it is clear that one can read Fichte’s text without betraying it by undertaking to do in a way based on Austin's approach to his own theory.

The angle of view defined by Austin’s concepts changes our understanding of what this Idealist philosophical system is and allows us to develop a better approach of the initial text. Thus, in the light of an Austinian approach, we are made to see that this different theory of knowledge, far from representing the height of metaphysic outrageousness, proposes a theory of action which can be compared with contemporary philosophies. Fichte says, literally, that in the “saying” we must consider the “doing” or more precisely, that the “saying” must not enter in contradiction with the doing. Analytic philosophers may read German idealism in this Fichtean version, and they will not need to condemn its “hollow obscurity”, as F. Nef[14], a representative of analytic philosophy in France, did concerning German idealism. Fichte is neither more bizarre than Austin nor less rigorous. Our reading shows the clarity of a philosophy which ascertained the thought as act and the act as thought and the act of thinking as harmony between saying and doing.

It is this last aspect which allows us now to attempt to carry out the next part of our plan. As we said, we had to show how Austin allows us to read in a new manner the great texts of the past, and to eliminate the faulty interpretations which misrepresent them. But, in an other phase, I would like to propose that Fichte becomes a new angle of view, and, as in an anamorphosis, may he give useful glasses allowing to better understand Austin, from a unusual and eccentric viewpoint—as happens with Holbein's famous portrait of The Ambassadors? 

III. Austin in the light of question of “Tun und Sagen”.

To attempt to realize the experiment of thought that we propose here, we must first return to the precise meaning of the Fichtean thesis about Identity strictly considered as the adequation of the utterance and the enunciation, or as the congruence of the Saying and the Doing.

This congruence is an epistemic, and not an ontologic thesis. In this thesis the question is the question of truth or more precisely the question of the status of philosophical discourse. Fichte shows that all philosophical discourse is truth-claiming. Claiming the truth, of course, doesn't mean that one in fact possesses or produces the truth, but it is necessary for a philosopher to assume this demand inherent in his kind of speech. For example, the demands of poetry aren’t the same as the demands of philosophers. Philosophers claims to say the truth even if they make mistakes ; the poet claims to have a aesthetic effect on his reader, and when Eluard says : “la terre est bleue comme une orange”, he doesn’t lay claim to the truth. Every field has its specific claim. Yet, to return to our problem, we can say that Fichte’s greatest contribution is to have shown how frequent the performative contradiction was in philosophers such as Spinoza and Kant. As he said : “their saying does not agree with their doing” or propositio facto contraria[15]. To quote but one illustration of these contradictions found by Fichte in Kant, we can say that Kant defines validity as “intuition + concept” but this definition isn’t itself an association of intuition and concept. There is a gap, a paradox, because Kant when he defines validity, claims that this definition is valid in this form, but the definition of validity doesn't apply to itself. This proposition is not “self-referring”, as it should be. This important discovery made by Fichte can apply to other philosophers than Kant or Spinoza. Fichte showed how this kind of contradiction puts a strain on many philosophies and he allows us to question Austin about the status of our own speech.

Thus, the Ordinary language philosophy (that Austin initiates with Wittgenstein and which is resumed by other philosophers like Cavell)[16] denounces the general view, the inquiry about essence which is characteristic of ancient philosophy. For this philosophy, we don’t have to find the essence of phenomena nor to go back to the conditions of possibility of these phenomena, but, more modestly, said Austin, to question the usage of such or such expression in such context ; we must also answer the question : “What do we do when we say this or that ” and not “Ti esti” which is tha Platonician question, nor : “What are the conditions for” , which is the Kantian question. Yet, we can evaluate this re-definition of philosophy by Austin in the light of the Fichtean question of the congruence of saying and doing, or more precisely in the light of his demand of 1804: “what does Austin presuppose in order to be able to say what he says." If we apply the radical Fichtean question to Austin's writings, then we can begin to see something like the skull in Holbein's picture: a contradiction, “a propositio facto contraria”. Indeed, (apart from the fact that to denounce all generalisations is to risk falling into an infinite number of speech situations, in the case of the study of usage wanted by Austin, and of the inventory of idiomatic expressions) we confront to this paradox : if ordinary language alone gives the rules and is alone the norm, how can we explain the possibility of analysis of ordinary language ? Indeed, from the point of view of the ordinary, the status of philosophy or analysis of the ordinary remains problematic. How can we understand the possibility of a reflection about ordinary language, which isn’t itself ordinary language ? What is the truth of the philosophy of ordinary language ? Is it possible to say that the truth is in ordinary language alone whereas the analysis of ordinary language isn’t ordinary language ? Isn't there a contradiction between what Austin says and “ what he presupposes in order to be able to say what he says” ? Is there a performative contradiction ? That is a question that Fichte allows us to ask from contemporary philosophy— for Austin as well as for Cavell. We can say that the question which structures Fichte’s philosophy ("what he presupposes in order to be able to say what he says”) and the principle which gives it coherence (the congruence between saying and doing like a law of identity) puts in a new light the problem of analytialc philosophy in general. Indeed, K.O Apel[17] has shown that the performative contradiction is a characteristic paradox of analytical philosophy, a problem which is solved neither by Russell and Wittgenstein, nor here and now by Austin or Cavell. Thus, reading and understanding Austin in the light Fichte's questions is possible and fruitful. The question of the status of a philosopher's speech, understood as the adequation between the saying and the doing (or what is said and what is presupposed in order to be able to say what one says) reveals an important aspect of analytical philosophy.

In conclusion, we have seen how it was possible to establish a dialogue between two apparently opposed traditions. We have seen, first, how the apparently most distant authors both share a fundamental thesis : to think is to act. In Fichte, as in Austin, action is extracted from the field where it is usually confined, in order to become an epistemic principle, the foundation of all knowledge. We can then show how Fichte can be read in the light of Austin's performative utterance and how this reading reveals the central aspect of Fichte’s philosophy. Conversely, we have seen how Austin could be illuminated thanks to Fichte's law of identity.

So we can see now that there is a way, a bridge between the analytic tradition and continental philosophy—even in its most “continental” dimension, i.e., German idealism. There is a bridge that links Oxford and Jena. This bridge can be built without betraying either, without transgressing each text's literal sense. Fichte think a question of doing in the saying and Austin’s concept allows to shed light on this still fruitful aspect of his philosophy. Likewise the question of the status of Austin's analysis is a real question and Fichte's principle allows us to question the status of reflection in analytical philosophy. We have seen Fichte from the viewpoint of Austin’s theory and conversely we have read Austin from the viewpoint of Fichte, and this modification of perspective allowed us to discover that new figures, much as Holbein's painting, when seen from a new point of view reveals a new meaning. Thus, instead of opposing two traditions, we can try and think the possibility of a way or a bridge between them and, as W. Benjamin wanted : it is in this travelling between opposites that thinking can exert itself.


[1] If Hegel or Kant are well known in analytic philosophy (for Kant, one can quote Strawson, Mac-Dowell, etc. ; for Hegel , see T. Rockmore, in his recent book “Hegel, Idealism Analytic philosophy”), the influence of Fichte is no doubt of a lesser kind. Admittedly, we can also think about an indirect influence, and so we can think about the first relation. For example, Putnam often quotes Fichte and it would be easy to show that it comes from his reading of Apel. But It isn’t a direct relation.

[2] Indeed, Austin’s central thesis is really that all manifestations of thinking are a form of action in “How to do things with words” testifies that “thinking”. After, the Eighth lecture, Austin says that one cannot situate the “ performative utterance” on one side and the “constative” on the other, but that every statement is at once an illocutionary, perlocutionary and locutionary act. The locutionary act consists in saying something ; the illocutionary act consists in doing something by the fact of saying it ( this is a performative utterance like “I promise you” but also I claim that X, etc) ; and the perlocutionary act consists of causing the effects on the other (for example to threaten , to intimidate, to persuade, etc). Therefore, Austin builds a general theory of action which IS simultaneously [is] a theory of saying in the multiplicity of its aspects. Austin (who is careful about the philosopher’s generalisations) makes a generalisation from this Eight lecture onwards. He speaks of a “ more general theory ” (note 21) where it will be necessary to establish a typology of different “performatives” ( “veridictive”, “exercitive”, “commisisves”, “behabitives” and “expositive” utterance) (see : Lecture 12).

[3] Likewise, The “Non-I” is also a proposition and not, of course, a being before me (Gegen-stand) In WL 1794, The “Non I” is defined like “act of opposition”. Fichte write so in Nova methodo : « The non I is not a concept of experience. ”.

[4] See : Personal Meditations, G.A. for example 53

[5] Before this act, there is “nothing”, as Fichte says for example at the beginning of the 1794 WL or in his Introduction to the 1798 Essay.

[6] See 94, Meiner P. 17 („Man hört wohl die Frage .... Die naturliche Antwort darauf ist : ich war gar nicht...etc“

[7] For example for M. Gueroult, there are three periods, first (1794-1798), intermediate (1804-1809) and the last (1810-1814).

[8] It is the expression of WL 1804 (For example Meiner p. 191) and so Introductions of 1798

[9] Searle disntinguish the « propositional content » and the “Illocutionary force” in Foundations of illocutionary Logic

[10] For example, 1804, Meiner p. 191

[11] 1794, Meiner, p. 131

[12] See 1794, Meiner 131 and so the beginning of Nova methodo or Fondations of Natural Right, with “ l’ agi” et l’agissant”, etc.

[13] WL 1804, Meiner 191

[14] Philosophie analytique et Histoire de la philosophie, edited by J.M. Vienne, p. 43, Paris, Vrin, 1999

[15] 1804, Meiner 191.

[16] In all points, see “Usages d’Austin” sous la direction de S. Laugier et I.Thomas-Fogiel, RMM, 2, Presses universitaires de France, 2004.

[17] For example in his article, translated in French in Critique, 3, 1983.

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