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Synopsis of Jacques Bouveresse, ‘L’Achèvement de la révolution copernicienne et le dépassement du formalisme: La théorie du droit naturel “réel” de Fichte’

[‘The Culmination of the Copernican Revolution and the Overcoming of Formalism: Fichte’s Theory of “Real” Natural Right’]

CpA 6.7:101–138

Jacques Bouveresse argues here that Fichte’s attempt to overcome the limits of a merely formal (i.e. Kantian or liberal) conception of law culminates in an authoritarian if not totalitarian theory of the State. Fichte’s insistence on the unconditional primacy of practical reason, and thus his determination to remove any limits to the sovereign autonomy of reason and to eliminate all (natural, social, economic…) obstacles to the rational prescription of a universally binding justice, in fact leads him to endorse an irrational and ultimately disastrous theory of political action. Drawing on a diverse range of Hegelian, Marxist, and broadly liberal-democratic resources, Bouveresse traces the conceptual development of Fichte’s thought from its liberal formalist beginnings to what he presents as are its proto-fascistic implications.

Bouveresse was already teaching logic at the Sorbonne by the time Miller and Milner asked him to join the Cercle d’épistémologie in 1966. This long article was adapted from a diplôme d’études supérieures (comparable to an MA thesis) that Bouveresse had written in 1963, supervised by Raymond Aron. The idea to produce a thesis on Fichte was suggested by Althusser, and inspired by a course Jules Vuillemin had given on Fichte at the ENS in 1961-62, which Bouveresse had attended. ‘This is typical of the way they worked’, Bouveresse remembers, ‘the editors of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse: they would ask people who had written a diplôme on an interesting subject to extract an article from it, and to publish it in the journal’.1

Bouveresse organises his argument in three rough stages: after an initial critique of the national-socialist inflection of Fichte’s general philosophico-political trajectory, he considers the unstable configuration of Fichte’s early approach to politics and law in his 1792-93 writings on the French Revolution (notably the Considerations on the French Revolution), before assessing the limits of the a priori, ahistorical approach adopted in his Foundations of Natural Right (1796).

Bouveresse begins by framing the evolution of Fichte’s conception of law, politics and the State as a sort of inversion of the movement which, in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, runs from the harmonious but closed ethical world (the Sittlichkeit of ancient Greece) to the atomistic individualism of the modern State of law, in which an organic social totality dissolves in an abstract and merely formal collective of individuals endowed with equal legal rights (CpA 6.7:103). Fichte, in other words, begins with ultra-liberal versions of juridical formalism and abstract cosmopolitanism, and ends with an ultra-nationalistic appeal to the revolutionary awakening of the German community.

Bouveresse identifies, as the key decisive moment in this transition, the shift from Fichte’s initial emphasis on the primacy of natural individual rights, in his occasional writings on or around the French Revolution, to his subsequent deduction and justification, in the systematic Natural Right project of 1796-97, of a form of public authority endowed with radical powers of constraint (103-4). Disillusioned by the apparent ‘excesses’ of the French Revolution, Fichte eventually casts a ‘mythical’ version of feudal, absolutist Prussia to play the pedagogical ‘role of the historical agent destined to realise pure Right’ (104). Fichte was always an advocate of ‘authoritarian reformism’ against any form of ‘popular revolution’ or ‘democratic politics’, Bouveresse argues, but over time he came to conceive the project of such reform in increasingly ‘aggressive’ and ‘messianic’ terms, terms which eventually run the risk of anticipating the worst ‘aberrations’ which might accompany an ‘ideology of the Leader’ (106-107).

Bouveresse suggests that the fundamental logic underlying this trajectory towards ‘romanticism and mysticism’ (if not fascism) is best understood, along lines proposed by Hegel and Marx, as a ‘misadventure of analytical reason which in the end finds itself forced, in the absence of a genuine philosophy of history, to fall back on the synthetic resources of myth. If Fichte’s whole effort is to move beyond the imperfectly synthetic orientation of Kantian critical philosophy, in which the presence of analytical elements is an indication of the persistence of relics of dogmatism, the adoption of [Fichte’s] absolute transcendental genetic point of view leads, in the domain of the philosophy of politics and law, to the analytical apprehension of the relation of the State as a purely mechanical combination of abstract and interchangeable elements’, elements which remain essentially ‘external to each other’ (108). In other words, once liberated from the tyranny of any reference to natural objects, ‘things in themselves’ or any other ‘external influence’, there is nothing in this ultra-rationalist conception which can offer some resistance, so to speak, to the ‘tyranny of the concept’. Fichte refuses to allow history to make any ‘substantial contribution’ to the science of Right, and remains determined (after Kant and against the counter-revolutionary historicists like Burke or Rehberg) to purge the domain of practical reason from any reference to experience (109).

The result is an outcome reminiscent of what Adorno and Horkheimer (who are not mentioned here) diagnosed as the calamitous ‘dialectic of enlightenment’. ‘The political and economic liberalism which, at the time of Fichte’s pro-revolution writings, followed immediately from the practical postulate of autonomy, will slowly but surely reveal its true nature: oppression, blind chance, empirical necessity, permanent insecurity, dehumanising subjection to economic imperatives - which is to say, the most spectacular and scandalous form of heteronomy’ (111).

Bouveresse describes Fichte’s early political philosophy as a form of ‘ultra-liberal [...] generalised laissez-faire’ (111-12), grounded exclusively in an absolute assertion of the primacy of self-positing individual autonomy. The natural and inalienable right to private property, for instance, is conceived in terms of an individual’s capacity to ‘form’ or ‘fashion’ an object (and thus to exclude others from using that object), a capacity grounded not upon deliberate social agreement or the ‘fatherly’ benevolence of the State but directly upon the autonomous self-prescription of rational and natural right (113-14). Fichte’s early ‘extremist individualism’ is tempered, however, by an acknowledgement of unconditional rights to subsistence and to work, both of which ‘constitute a first step towards socialism’ (118).

The Foundations of Natural Right (1796-97) then propose a ‘systematic realisation of the central project of the [1793] Contributions: the deduction of right or law from strictly a priori principles’, removed now from any circumstantial political polemic (118). The deduction or justification of right must be purged of any sort of facticity or empirical reference, and in particular from any reference to a pre-existing individuality or sociality. The originary positing of right is itself the transcendental basis for ‘the conditions of individuality’ themselves, which are simultaneously the conditions of transindividuality and intersubjectivity (119). This leads Fichte to renounce his earlier reliance on natural law (i.e. to the primacy of individual rights, prior to their foundation by the State), and to affirm a Rousseauist conception of an inaugural social contract as the basis of all right (120). The essential criterion of right or legality now becomes its own integrity and ‘total efficacy’: each member of the political community is obliged to respect the freedom and security of the others, but by the same token any member who is deemed to lack such respect is now vulnerable to unlimited collective coercion or ‘repression’ (123-24). Fichte’s neo-Hobbesian goal here is ‘to reduce the radical heterogeneity that exists between [mere] force and law by showing that the only guarantee of law stems from the total alienation of individual forces to a public force which is now nothing other law in action’ (125).

Bouveresse notes the proximity of this position with Rousseau’s defence of ‘the total alienation of each associate’ of the social compact (cf. Rousseau, Social Contract I:6; see also CpA 8.1:17, but points out some fundamental differences, including Fichte’s ‘transcendental condemnation of democracy, and the alienation of sovereignty’ through its division, transfer and delegation (125-26

In the Foundations property is reconceived, at a maximum distance from any ‘thing’ that might be possessed or enjoyed, as the ‘right to undertake free actions in the sensible world in general’. Accordingly, the ‘fundamental task of “applied Natural Law” is ultimately nothing other than the rational deduction of diverse forms of property, and the modalities of their acquisition, transfer or loss’. Private property is conceived not as a right that is enjoyed by independent individuals but as a form of ‘directed activity within a social project’ (128). Fichte’s critique of the capitalist conception of property (and with it the ‘systematic exploitation of labour by capital, the condemnation without appeal to free competition’, regular ‘crises of over-production and sub-consumption’, ‘the constant worsening of inequality and growing misery’) anticipates several of Marx’s insights (129-30). Fichte condemns the blind pursuit of profit for its own sake as the political equivalent of a ‘game of chance’, and proposes in its place a planned, isolated and ‘closed’ economy from which ‘all charlatenesque speculation and fortuitous enrichment’ is banished (130). International peace, by the same logic, cannot result from the workings of free or partially regulated competition; it must be the result of a ‘concerted effort of human liberty through the establishment of a binding rational order’ (132). Peace along these lines, Bouveresse suggests, demands first the ‘internal pacification’ of individual States, and then the ‘homogenisation’ of their material and judicial structures, in anticipation of a logic that will later be used to justify the establishment of ‘socialism in one country’ (132).

Bouveresse lists some of the consequences which accompany such ‘closure’ of the State: ‘the seizure of foreign foodstuffs, weapons, scholars and technicians [...], the use of Blitzkrieg to secure “natural” frontiers, the authoritarian imposition of a national currency, the systematic boycotting of foreign goods previously deemed essential to national consumption, the complete elimination of cosmopolitical civic rights by the dictatorial will of the State, etc.’, before moving on to consider the implications of Fichte’s ‘humanitarian’ ambitions. Only the State can ensure an equitable distribution of forms of work and wealth, geared not towards the valorisation of work or wealth for their own sake but rather (again in keeping with Fichte’s assertion of the primacy of practical reason) towards the ‘emancipation of the economic subject from the tyrannical grip of material powers: money, appropriation, profit and all the false values consecrated by public opinion’ (133). Instead of material pleasures, Fichte affirms the values of culture and a ‘higher’ i.e. more ‘spiritual’ form of ‘leisure’.

In practice this affirmation implies the replacement of an older feudal aristocracy with a new sort of clerisy, ‘an aristocracy of thought [de la pensée] which adopts egalitarianism as a principle but whose spiritual superiority immediately generates a fundamental political inequality’ (134). This politico-cultural elite expresses ‘pure freedom’ or ‘Reason become conscious of itself’, but such expression is articulated in terms of ‘pure constraint, since what speaks historically through it is pure duty or obligation’ (136). Fichte only manages to overcome his early liberal formalism, Bouveresse concludes, by ‘artificial means which replace a Republic of liberty with an empire of constraint’, i.e. with a ‘pedagogical police State’ (135). The leaders of this State conceive of themselves as pure rational volition, in a confrontation with the mass of ‘educatable [...] empirical wills’. The power of the leaders over the led can only be understood, in the end, as pure force. The more he tries to overcome it, in other words, the more Fichte is confronted with the insurpassable antinomy of force and law - itself one of the many forms taken by the deeper opposition he had initially hoped to dissolve, i.e. ‘the originary opposition between freedom and nature, between self-realising ought-to-be [devoir-être] and self-sufficient being’ (136).

Fichte could only find a way out of this impasse, Bouveresse suggests, through an eventual appeal to a disastrous cocktail of post-Romantic and proto-fascistic evasions - a recourse to sentiment, myth, ultra-nationalism, Realpolitik - which progressively led him to ‘the antipodes of orthodox Kantian practical philosophy.’ In the process, ‘one of the most systematic and ambitious rationalisms that has ever existed came to justify, in the end, a most irrational raison d’état.’ Such an outcome should render problematic not simply the personal and historical context of Fichte’s philosophy but its essential theoretical basis, method and presuppositions (137).

Fichte’s legacy is mixed. Bouveresse acknowledges his ‘exceptionally lucid and generous social conscience’ and his contribution to a proto-Marxist philosophy that seeks ‘to change the world more than it seeks to understand it’, while condemning his utopian proto-socialism as an arrogant and ominous ‘failure’ (137-38).

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:


English translation:


Primary bibliography:

  • Fichte, Johann Gottlieb. Beitrag zur Berichtigung der Urteile des Publicums über die französische Revolution [1793]. Hamburg,: F. Meiner, 1973. Considérations destinées à rectifier les jugements du public sur la Révolution française, trad. Jules Barni. Paris: F. Chamerot, 1859.
  • Fichte, Johann Gottlieb. Grundlage des Naturrechts nach Principien der Wissenschaftslehre (1796). Foundations of Natural Right, According to the Principles of the Wissenschaftslehre, ed. Frederick Neuhouser, trans. Michael Baur. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Selected secondary literature

  • Breazeale, Daniel, and Tom Rockmore. Rights, Bodies and Recognition: New Essays on Fichte’s Foundations of Natural Right. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.
  • La Vopa, Anthony J. Fichte: The Self and the Calling of Philosophy, 1762-1799. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Gueroult, Martial. ‘Fichte et la Révolution française’. La Révolution de 1789 et la pensée moderne, ed. Ernest Barker. Paris: Revue Philosophique, 1940.
  • Léon, Xavier. Fichte et son temps [2 vols.]. Paris: A. Colin, 1922-24.
  • Zöller, Günter. Fichte’s Transcendental Philosophy: The Original Duplicity of Intelligence and Will. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.


1. Interview with Jacques Bouveresse, conducted by Knox Peden, 2009.