Fichte and Levinas. The Theory of Meaning and the Advent of the Infinite

Conférence prononcée à Vienne en Avril 2005, parue dans Fichte-Studien, n° 35, Amsterdam - New York, éd. Rodopi, juillet, p.416-428.

Many are the points of contact or the comparable elements in Fichte's philosophy and today's phenomenology. Most notable among them is that Fichte was the first to use the word "phenomenology" in a positive sense. Indeed, Lambert, who first introduced this word into philosophical discourse in 1764 defined phenomenology as the science of illusions and considered it as strictly preparatory to the unveiling of truth. This is the meaning retained by Kant when, in his letter to Lambert written in 1770[1], he toyed with the idea of calling "Phenomenology" the Critique of Pure Reason that was then yet in the making. This negative sense has even left its trace in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, since this text presents itself as an account of the illusions of conscience.  Fichte alone differs from these authors and defines phenomenology positively as the science of the appearing (Erscheinungslehre). The Appearing (Erscheinen) never is the mere appearance of illusion (Schein). The phenomenon is not "fake" but the truth; it is this appearance beyond which nothing is conceivable—whether it be a thing in itself, a deeper world, or transcendence. Fichte’ philosophy as phenomenology, which completes the theory of truth in its strictest sense, was conceived of as early as the 1804 Wissenschaftslehre (WL), as a "return" to the appearing, in other words as a description of the field of the appearing. In this respect, one may assert that the criticism Husserl aims at Descartes in his Cartesian Meditations [2]—that Descartes doesn't  cross the threshold that leads to phenomena and hence misses phenomenology—this criticism doesn't apply to Fichte who has thematized philosophy along this double line: the foundation of principles (the theory of truth) and the description of what appears (phenomenology). With Fichte as with Husserl, philosophy's two fundamental motives—the "epistemic" and the "epistemological"—are complementary and not mutually exclusive, while one may easily demonstrate that, in Descartes, one has the "epistemic" without the "phenomenological", and in Heidegger we have the "phenomenological" as against the "epistemic". Fichte's and Husserl's common desire that philosophy should be a rigorous science articulating—in a peaceful and unified way—a theory of truth and a description of phenomena seems to call for a systematic comparison of these two authors, for which Hyppolite's  article “La doctrine de la science chez Husserl et Fichte” has early paved the way[3].
One may wonder, then, why I haven't chosen to do just this, which would no doubt represent a major challenge in the way of confronting Fichte with phenomenology ? Why have I chosen to confront Fichte with an author who apparently is utterly aloof from the Fichtean theme of philosophy as rigorous science? To put it differently, why have I selected a phenomenologist who has criticized the "intellectualist" and "theoreticist" Husserl and who has denounced his desire to constitute philosophy as a rigorous science as one of the remains of the old metaphysical mode of thinking? In what manner may Levinas be compared with Fichte—when, as early as his Théorie de l'intuition[4], he has favored the "existential" over the "epistemic", the description of the appearing over the determination of principles, the concreteness of man over the transcendental ego.
Well, he may be compared with Fichte, because some central themes in his philosophy are also to be found in Fichte's—first among which are the critique of representation and the description of the Other and the themes of the finite and the infinite. But he also must be compared because these themes are central to both philosophies, however radically different they remain as regards the question of philosophy's status. Such is the identity and the difference I wish to foreground here today, in order to better raise the question of the "transcendental" in phenomenology. Indeed, as we'll see, what is essentially at stake in this comparison between Fichte and Levinas is the question of the meaning and status of the transcendental in phenomenology. While it has become rather common, today, to oppose to the mostly underrated transcendental Husserl, the "first" analytical and realist Husserl of the Logische Untersuchungen and the "third", "genetic" or late Husserl, somehow prefiguring today's existential themes of the “Leib” (chair), I hope that the introduction of Fichte in this debate will allow us to overcome these ruptures and to formulate differently the question of Husserl's coherence as the founding father of phenomenology.

1/ How identical are Fichte and Levinas?

One must first try and establish how identical Fichte and Levinas are since they are seldom compared. However three central and constitutive elements in Levinas's thought are to be found in almost identical form in Fichte's philosophy. These three elements are the critique of representation, the description of the Other as related to the infinite, and the extension to non-æsthetic realms of the problematics of the sublime—as relating the finite and the infinite. I shall first analyse these three points.

a) The Critique of Representation

While it is well known that the author of Ruine de la représentation sees his philosophy as a critique of metaphysical objectivism, Fichte's involvement with such themes is not really self-evident. And yet, the totality of Fichte's philosophy may be read as a critique of representation, which, as with Levinas, opens onto the specific thinking of the Other. Indeed, Fichte questions Kant's equation, according to which to know is to represent, and to represent is to make the object figurable. For Kant, figuration—defined as circumscription or as the ascription of a limit—is the condition of possibility of knowledge. In this context, knowledge undoubtedly refers to the figure, to delineation, and to the limit. For Kant, to know is to represent, and to represent is to make the object visible thanks to the schema that imposes a form, a contour—in other words, that creates a figure. Figuration becomes the sign of true knowledge, the non-figurable remains in the realm of falsehood and deception[5].
Fichte happens to question the linking of figure and knowledge and of the limit and representation, and formulates the existence of modes of knowledge that go beyond a mere representation as figuration. Concerning the determination of principles—what he defines the "doctrine of truth" in the 1804 WL—Fichte unveils a cognitive process which he calls the "illimitation” of the limit. By this he describes the movement of reason that makes infinite that which is given as finite[6]. One may illustrate this process with the simple example of the triangle. I form a mental representation of a triangle. The triangle is what Fichte, in the Wissenschaftslehre de 1794 (GWL), calls "the line", "the boundary" or "the limit". The triangle, defined by its limits, is finite by essence. But this "line", or "limit", must be included into some vaster "space" in order to appear as a line or a limit. Indeed, were I unable to think beyond the mere limits of the triangle, it would not appear to me as a triangle—that is to say, as a finite figure. In other words, I must constitute an horizon within which the triangle may appear as a limit. By establishing this perimeter (Umfang) within which the limit may appear, the I, says Fichte, "illimits the limit." It becomes clear that, in order to be properly thought, an object has to be thus infinitized. To know is not solely to limit and to set boundaries to an object. To know also consists in "infinitizing" and "illimiting".

b) The Phenomenological description of the Other

This cognitive process, which Fichte describes at the level of the "doctrine of truth", will find an equivalent  at another level, which—in the 1804 WL—he calls phenomenology or the doctrine of phenomena. In other words, Fichte makes a phenomenological description that illustrates a process previously unveiled as inherent to reason in his epistemic elucidation of principles. What I am referring to, here, is his description of the appearing of the Other, as found in his Fundations of Natural Right[7]. This text is the exact phenomenological equivalent of the illimitation of the limit and of the un-figuring of the figure described in the first WL (GWL 1794). First, Fichte reminds us what is traditionally understood by "understanding" a phenomenon. He writes that "to know is to fix, to delimit and to determine."[8] The limit or the act of drawing a limit is a condition of understanding. But the whole demonstration that follows will try and establish that one may not understand the appearing of the Other, that one may not bound it within limits, or give it a definitive outline. The last stage in the description will make clear that a limit cannot be imposed or found. The figure of the Other is precisely that which cannot be delimited and seems to outgrow all ascribable limits. By attempting to determine the Other, one draws a limit that one will need to trespass immediately afterwards. Every progress in the analysis outgrows a limit. Every moment in the demonstration rolls back the limit a little further. As successive attempts to reductively delimit fail, the Other becomes less clearly visible and the limits recede. As the demonstration progresses, what was initially to be delimited and understood becomes ever less visible. The face of the Other resists all limitation or delineation. And this necessary failure to reduce the face of the Other to a mere figure is precisely whence, for Fichte, true knowledge may emerge. Indeed, it is because the body of the Other (Leib, flesh) does not let itself be fixed or determined that it may be thought as the locus where the infinite of freedom expresses itself. Because he is a bearer of the infinite, the Other cannot be reduced to limits. This is the reason why the demonstration must always roll back the limit and effect its illimitation—and this illimitation of the limit is what gives access to the knowledge of the Other as a free being. The illimitation of the limit is how we access to true knowledge, since only this illimitation, this un-figuring/defiguration of the figure is apt to reveal the truth of what one was attempting to examine. In this context, the illimitation of the limit becomes one of the modalities of knowing. It then becomes rather easy to compare Fichte's precise description with Levinas's developments against objectivating thought, against "representation", which he means to surpass in order to account for the irruption of the Other, such as one may find it exemplified in the face of the Other whose "only meaning is irrecusable"[9]. Alterity (Otherness) conceived as a trace of the infinite is what allows to outflank traditional philosophical thought to finally feel the eros of genuine thought. "The face, as against contemporary ontology, brings up a notion of truth that is not the unveiling of some impersonal neutrality"[10]. What we have in both Fichte and Levinas is this idea that objectifying representation may and must be outgrown by a thinking of the infinite of which the face of the Other is a manifestation. This irruption of the infinite in the field of philosophical thought must now be the focus of our attention.

c) The Infinite in Philosophy

Let us first recall what, to my mind, is one of the most significant propositions of the Wissenschaftslehre, namely, that the movement of knowledge is the process of the sublime. The sublime is not to be relegated to the sole domain of the æsthetic: the sublime is the dynamics of the mind. Promoting the concept of the sublime to the level of a gnoseological process is what is done by each Wissenschaftslehre, and this promotion always guides us from the critique of objectifying knowledge to the definition of a knowledge beyond representation.
In Kant's Third Critique, the sublime is defined as an attempt to "present the infinite". In this context, the sublime is the beautiful 's counter-concept, since the beautiful always proceeds from the object's form or figure, and the figure is a delimitation. The beautiful harks back to ideas of contours, delineation and limits, while the sublime proceeds inversely and attempts to present the infinite. The sublime presents itself as an anti-figure. But while the process of the sublime is an attempt to present the infinite, it is obviously not a positive presentation. It is quite telling, in this respect, that the statement Kant presents as an example of the sublime should be the Second Commandment: "You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." Because the infinite cannot be contained in a finite figure, the sublime is a sign of the failure of figuration, of objectifying representation, and of the circumscription within defined limits. The sublime is this moment when figuration is being recused. Since the sublime's task is to interweave the finite and the infinite into one self-same act, representation is not to be resorted to, it is to be questioned. In other words, for Kant, the sublime questions the representable, while Fichte sees it as the very sign of the ongoing process of knowledge. If, among many possible other examples, one focuses on the structure of  the WL Nova Methodo, the dynamics is that of the sublime. In the very first paragraphs, Fichte explains that the I cannot immediately apply the predicate "infinite" to himself—in other words, the infinite of freedom cannot be represented without being determined and limited. But this limitation seems to require that an object or a figure be constituted which, being inserted within precise limits, may become apprehensible. Thus the contradiction between freedom and representation is born. It is the moment of failure for the kantian analysis of the sublime. But this is a fruitful failure that breeds new concepts, such as the “concept of end” and the “categorical imperative”. The interrelation of the finite and of the infinite as dynamics of freedom and of the knowledge of freedom, is not some unreachable ideal but the very process by which truth is being engendered. Intermediate concepts (the end, the categorical imperative, space and the Other in the Nova Methodo) are the truths given to us by this movement of rationality. Thus the infinite is not a being that stands without thought anymore, a being that thought would need to objectify, to determine, to limit, and hence, inevitably, to negate. The infinite is the very process of thought. The infinite is what reason generates through its very praxis. And now, of course, this decisive importance of the infinite obviously is one of the main characteristics of Levinas's thought. Being an ethical notion par excellence, the infinite, for Levinas, is the ultimate condition, which is itself a radical transcendence, extreme difference, absolute alterity (otherness). Contrary to the classical philosophies of identity and totality, Levinas aims to foreground a philosophy of difference, of the Other and of the infinite (see Totalité et infini). Thus emerges a true similarity between the two philosophies that hinges on this capital point that is the thinking of the infinite or, to be more precise, that the thinking is the infinite.
We may now consider that the two authors' identity becomes assured. They share the same critique of representation, the same phenomenological description of the Other, the same value given to the infinite and the same promotion of the sublime. All these points are so central in their philosophies that one is now tempted to ask, not what makes their thoughts comparable but what makes them different. Naturally, the difference is radical and it explains why the two authors have never truly been either assimilated or distinguished. But this very difference, again, finds its source in a new and fundamental proximity that makes the comparison fruitful. It is this proximity I now wish to describe—and I will later deal with how these two authors are radically opposed.

2/ The Similarity of the Two Authors' Theory of Meaning

a) Fichte's Theory of Meaning

Indeed, Levinas and Fichte share another decisive position: they both reject a strictly semantic theory of truth and try to make the Saying emerge within the Said—within what is being said. To demonstrate this, one must first sum up what is Fichte's theory of meaning. The WLs base a theory of meaning on the Saying (Sagen) and the Doing (Tun). The Saying (Sagen) is here to be understood as being the contents of a philosopher's speech—say, Kant or Spinoza. This Fichtean Saying may thus be compared to what pragmatics, beginning with Austin, has called the "propositional content". As for the Doing, it must be strictly understood as the act of 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." 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, after Austin and Recanati, we 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, which Levinas will develop as the theory of the Saying and the Said. The way they both account for the Saying within the Said is a capital point. Fichte aims to develop a pragmatic conception of meaning, and not only a semantic one. Indeed, a semantic conception consists in taking into account the only Said (the propositional content) and in obfucating the act of enunciation (which pragmatics describes as the illocutionary force). Fichte develops a theory of meaning that takes into account the pragmatic dimension of meaning. Levinas will also recuse all semantic theories of meaning and he will introduce the dimension of the Saying within the Said. However, his theory of meaning will end up being the symetrical reverse of Fichte's. This why we'll need to examine Levinas's theory.

b) Levinas's Theory of Meaning

It is in Autrement qu'être that Levinas uses the categories of the Said and the Saying in order to develop what he calls "the very signifiance of meaning." (p.17)  Always eager to get rid of Husserl's "objectivism" he attempts to refute Husserl's semantic intentionality. Indeed, for Husserl, the Said, conceived of as a theme, as what is being said, that is, as object, tends to supersede all other aspects. Husserl's aim could thus be described as an attempt to obfuscate the Saying in order to promote the Said. In this respect, he would be as positivistic as the members of the Circle of Vienna. For Husserl, Levinas tells us, the correlation of the Said and the Saying is nothing but "the subordination of the Saying to the Said": "the Said dominates the Saying that enounces it." (p. 19) But for Levinas “the Saying does not vanish in apophansis": one must revise the whole western theory of meaning which is but the offshoot of the theory of objectivity, a corollary of "representationalism" and of the imperialism of "objecthood".
But one may ask what is the Saying if the Said is the theme, the object, the content? Is it the act performed by the enouncing subject? Obviously not. Levinas's critique of the objectivism in the Logische Untersuchungen, does not mean that he adheres to the transcendental subjectivity of the Ideen. Neither does it mean that he overthrows semantic intentionality in order to re-establish the act of a sovereign subject. Neither may this Saying be interpreted, after Austin and Searle, as an illocutionary force implied in every propositional content. The Critique of representationalism should not be understood as a foregrounding of the Speech Act, as a claim of pragmatics against the imperialistic pretentions of semantics.
But then, one may ask, what is Saying? Firstly, Saying is Speech addressed to the other, turned towards the other. It is before all Said, and hence before all object-oriented intentionality. "The Saying that enounces a Said" is "pure For-the-Other, pure donation of the sign." (p.81) The Saying will end up being defined as "supreme passivity of the exposure to the Other." This exposure by which I offer myself up to the Other makes me infinitely vulnerable. This vulnerability is born of the "sincerity" with which I give myself up to the Other. This Saying understood as "Saying to the Other", this sincere and hence risk-laden "Saying to the Other" comes before "anything Said" and conditions it. Levinas writes : "It is necessary that one reach this Saying before the Said, or that one reduce the Said to it." (p.241) This is exactly the reverse of what one finds in the Logische Untersuchungen where meaning is made to depend on the Said, the theme, the object.
This saying that always-already constitues me and by which I connect with the Other by sincerely exposing myself, this "here I am" is the trace of the infinite that traverses me and constitutes me. This "Thou" of which I am the answer, this "Thou" that makes me become an "here I am", actually is God's call. The analysis of the Saying thus leads us to what Levinas calls "the glory of the infinite." Ultimately, the Saying is how the infinite is being variegatedly said within each one of us.
The successive substitutions in “Autrement qu'être” are clear. They lead us from the Saying to the Response to the Other, from the Response to Sincerity (which, Levinas notes, is not an attribute of the Saying bu the Saying itself), and from Sincerity to "the infinite saying itself". The signifiance is that of the Infinite, my saying bears its trace, just like Abraham's "here I am " bore God's call within itself.
It is thus confirmed that Levinas's theory of meaning is the Logische Untersuchungen turned upside-down. The Saying comes before the Said, the expression, the answerer's passivity and the onlooker's activity. Semantics is thus relativized not by a theory of the act or a pragmatics but by a re-thinking of the sublime, which amounts to an irruption of the infinite that disorganizes the orderly relations between what is said and the very fact of saying it.
We may now summarize these two thinkers' theories of meaning. What they have in common is that they both take into account the Saying in the Said. They both deal with a non-semantic dimension of meaning. But this convergence is the basis for a radical difference, for Levinas will end up producing a theory that is exactly the opposite of Fichte's. Their theories are so symmetrically opposed that the one may be seen as the other's reverse or inverted figure, thus interlinking them in a strange knot. The identity I described in my first part and the proximity I suggested in my second part actually lead to a radical opposition I now wish to describe.

3) The Inverted Figure. Identity or Performative Contradiction as Condition for the Advent of the Infinite

a) Fichte's Pragmatic Identity as Giving Access to the Infinite

Fichte's theory of meaning took into account the “Tun” in the “Sagen” and foregrounded a new principle of identity that was to become a model for all philosophical statements to come. 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"—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 infinitization and illimitation above described. The identity of the posits and the posed is an act we perform. It is an originary act, with neither cause nor necessity, which is by the very fact that it is effected, performed and accomplished. The freedom of the first principle is the starting point and should also be the point of arrival. In our every concepts and productions, we must realize this identity, that is to say that, in one single act, we must think contradictory determinations (such as the posits of freedom and the knowledge of freedom). Realizing this amounts to an effectuation of the sublime process. It does not lead to failure but to the creation of new, intermediate concepts that all express reflexive identity. In the WL nova methodo, for instance, the categorical imperative is the only non-contradictory way to associate freedom and knowledge, thus making it function as a hinge between the finite and the infinite. Similarly, in the 1804 WL, the “Urbegriff” will serve to think the opposition between light and concept and will here again function as a hinge between the finite and the infinite. It is the realization of reflexive identity that leads to the sublime. There is thus a link, in Fichte's thought, between the identity principle, the thinking of the infinite through the infinitization process, and the production of genuine and rationally verifiable philosophical concepts. Well, things are exactly the opposite in Levinas.

b) Performative Contradiction as the Access to the Infinite in Levinas

For Levinas, it is the performative contradiction that allows the Infinite to irrupt into speech. The philosopher must accept the performative contradiction in order to allow the infinite to manifest itself. This is what Levinas, in Autrement qu'être, calls "the philosopher's retraction" (“se dédire du philosophe” p. 19 et 20). The philosopher must accept this gaping void, and should not attempt to fill it in by arguing some impossible coherence.
"Thinking the otherwise than being calls perhaps for more daring than the skeptic who does not fear to assert the impossibility of the utterance while he realizes this impossibility by the very utterance of it." (p.20)
The philosopher must accept this "dédit " in order to better signifiy "the nearness where the infinite occurs." Philosophy, by exhibiting its failure, by accepting this “dédit” (retraction), by renouncing this coherence, leaves room for another mode of expression: revelation and prophecy. The performative contradiction thus becomes the trace of God, the expression of the sublime. The performative contradiction helps us think the infinite within the finite, the unsayable at the very heart of what is said. The performative contradiction, actually, is the "presentation of the infinite"—a presentation which, in Kant's words, is given in the impossibility of presentation. This "retraction of the philosopher" leads Levinas back to the prophetic utterance, and leads him to call for philosophy to be superseded in religion. The successive substitutions in Autrement qu'être and Etudes talmudiques are clear: Levinas states the performative contradiction, accepts it and overturns it and makes of our impossibility to supersede it the very trace of God in us. We should give up philsophy in favor of religion, give up Husserl in favor of Isaiah—who is symptomatically mentioned in these pages of Autrement qu'être that claim the performative contradiction.
The difference between the two authors then appears clearly. Fichte poses pragmatic identity as the condition of the advent of the infinite and the condition of philosophy. L poses pragmatic contradiction as the condition of the irruption of the infinite and the supersedence of philosophy (the philosopher's retraction). We thus clearly have here theories that are symmetrically opposed. And this strict inversion of the symmetrical pattern, to my mind, says something about the meaning of the transcendental in today's phenomenology. It is with this suggestion that I wish to conclude.


[1] Lettre à Lambert du 2 septembre 1770 : « il semble qu’une science toute particulière quoique seulement négative (phénomenologia generalis) doive précéder la métaphysique » Correspondance, trad. Paris, Gallimard, 1986, p.70-71.

[2] See § 10.

[3] In … 1954.

[4] Paris, Vrin.

[5] See our book : Critique de la représentation, Paris, Vrin, 2000, Part 1.

[6] See

[7] See chap, on this analysis see A. Renaut …

[8] Translate by D. Breazeale

[9]  French edition : Autrement qu 'être, p. 240,  1978, Paris, livre de poche.

[10] Totalité et infini, p. 43
Print Friendly and PDF