This essay originally appeared in Philosophy and Rhetoric, 23, 1 (1990) 12-42. In this HTML edition I have corrected a few small typographical errors. Copyright © 1990, Peter Suber.

A Case Study in Ad Hominem Arguments:
Fichte's Science of Knowledge
Peter Suber, Philosophy Department, Earlham College
There lies the choice every man must make —or rationally to accept his own limitations? or stupendously to play the fool and swear that he is at will omnipotent?
—James Branch Cabell [Note 1]


Fichte's narrative persona in the Science of Knowledge is obnoxious. I try to disentangle regrettable signs of immaturity and paranoia from justifiable ad hominem arguments. Many of Fichte's ad hominem attacks on metaphysical realists are justified by his metaphysics and epistemology. We cannot criticize an important class of these arguments unless we criticize his epistemology and metaphysics. They are not matters of "style" separable from "substance". I show this inseparability, and point out a few inconsistencies, but otherwise do not comment on Fichte's "substance".

1. Introduction

In the Wissenschaftslehre of 1794-95[Note 2] Fichte uses ad hominem arguments more abundantly, and seemingly with less provocation, than any philosopher has ever used them. He gives the impression of a petulant and paranoid young thinker (32 years old in 1794) overweening in his confidence that he was right and that his opponents, and sometimes even his undecided readers, were ignorant, ineducable, immoral, and dangerous. Despite the feeling that must have inspired their labors, the translators of the only English language edition of the Wissenschaftslehre in the twentieth century remarked that Fichte's "literary persona, alternating between arrogance and mock humility, and always ready for vitriolic personal attacks, is thoroughly unbearable."[Note 3]

I would like to show that Fichte was justified by his philosophical position in using ad hominem arguments. I will not argue that his position justified his petulant and vindictive tone, or that it required ad hominem arguments. A more mature and stable personality would certainly have resisted many of the temptations that Fichte indulged. Nevertheless, his position justifies an ad hominem style of argument and even, occasionally, an "ad hominem" refusal to argue.

By an "ad hominem argument" I will mean any argument whose conclusion is a disparaging assessment of the character or capacities of a person. Ad hominem arguments in this sense are of special interest in philosophy when the disparaging diagnosis arises from evidence in the person's philosophy or when it suggests that the person's beliefs must be false or inadequate. This use of the term departs somewhat from the more classical view that ad hominem arguments criticize a person for violating her own premises in elaborating them for theory, or in acting upon them in practice.[Note 4] I choose to focus on disparagement rather than contradiction not from any disagreement with the classical sense. Rather, many of Fichte's "vitriolic personal attacks" are actually arguments of a kind not captured by the classical sense because they do not impute formal or pragmatic contradictions to anyone. These two senses of the term are closely related, as we see when we recognize that classical ad hominem arguments contain a disparaging assessment of the opponent as muddled or hypocritical. The focus on disparagement, then, partially subsumes the focus on contradiction.

My claim is that if we approach Fichte's text open-minded about the truth of his position, then we ought to approach it open-minded about the suitability of his rhetorical strategies to his position, especially his use of ad hominem arguments. For his disparagement of metaphysical realists as persons follows from his idealism, and it is an important part of his position to show that it follows.[Note 5] This remains even if he did not have to put the disparagement into words so pungently or so often, and even if putting it into words at all detracts from the rest of his rhetorical project. The defense I offer is a delicate and limited one, for Fichte uses ad hominem arguments in a most obnoxious way. I will try to make the case that Fichte's ad hominem arguments are not gratuitous even if they are excessive, and are (often) warranted by his epistemology and metaphysics even if they are (often) motivated by pettiness and paranoia.

The defense of Fichte's ad hominem arguments that I offer has nothing to do with Fichte's correctness.[Note 6] Whether he is right or wrong to believe what he believes, his beliefs themselves create a license for ad hominem argument very much as our beliefs about children justify us in having them inoculated against measles even after our arguments have failed to persuade them, or in snatching knives from their hands without first offering our reasons. If we held the same beliefs about adults, and acted accordingly, then our paternalism would have a corrigible basis in our corrigible beliefs, rather than no justification at all. Our actions would be as justified as our beliefs. Similarly, Fichte's rhetorical style is as justified as his metaphysical position. Until we are ready to criticize his position we cannot criticize his use of the style he derives from it. If this is a relative or limited justification, then that is all that I wish to find in Fichte. (This type of justification is explored further in the Section 6, below.)

To avoid repetition, examples of Fichte's ad hominem arguments will emerge only with the analysis.

2. Fichte's Choice

A brief synopsis of Fichte's position and its first premises will help us to understand why ad hominem arguments could reflect his position and advance the argument for it.

Fichte is proud to claim that his "system is nothing other than the Kantian; this means that it contains the same view of things, but is in method quite independent of the Kantian presentation" (4). One may reasonably interpret Fichte so that the first part of this claim is simply false; but I will approach it more charitably.

One way that Kant chooses to expound his position is to present us with the choice between realism and idealism.

There are only two possible ways in which synthetic representations and their objects can establish connection, obtain necessary relation to one another, and, as it were, meet one another. Either the object alone must make the representation possible, or the representation alone must make the object possible.[Note 7]

Kant, of course, proposes a synthesis of these two disjuncts, endorsing the former for impressions of sense and the latter for objects of experience as products of active cognition. Kant is a realist for the matter of sensation, an idealist for its form.

Fichte takes the same disjunction more radically. For him, each side may be developed into a consistent philosophical position: realism (which Fichte calls "dogmatism") and idealism respectively. They are exhaustive: "these are the only philosophical systems possible" (9).[Note 8] They are exclusive: "each denies everything in its opposite" (12; cf. 78). Hence they cannot be compromised, synthesized, or blended: "their fusion necessarily leads to inconsistency" (13; cf. 9). Because they meet the terms of the principles of non-contradiction and excluded middle, exactly one of them is true.[Note 9] Fichte says the philosopher simply must choose between them.

Already Fichte has departed from Kant's "view of things", though he does not admit it.[Note 10] One consequence of seeing this disjunction as exclusive is that idealism cannot retain the thing in itself. Realists must explain everything, including the self, as products of things in themselves. Idealists must explain everything, including things, as products of a self in itself (10, 10.n).

Because the thing in itself is a first principle for realists, as the self in itself is for idealists, the two systems disagree at the very first step. That makes ad rem argument between the two positions question-begging and pointless. This becomes an important justification for Fichte's ad hominem arguments, as we shall see. But for the same reason it makes the choice between the two primordial options very difficult, if not pre-rational and groundless.

Now which of the two should be taken as primary [the thing in itself or the self in itself]? Reason provides no principle of choice; for we deal here not with the addition of a link in the chain of reasoning, which is all that rational grounds extend to, but with the beginning of the whole chain, which, as an absolutely primary act, depends solely upon the freedom of thought. (14; cf. 70)

If the choice is exclusive and exhaustive, if each position can be developed consistently, and if neither can argue effectively with the other, then how can we choose between them? Fichte's answer to this question (as we shall see) is essentially an appeal to the type of person one is, especially to higher forms of consciousness and purer moral motives.

3. The Futility of Argument

Fichte has two arguments against argument with realists. The first is that the choice between idealism and realism is both exclusive and primordial. Everything that we could summon as a persuasive datum for making the choice betrays a prior choice: it will already be interpreted under one of the contending first principles. Alternately, since the two positions share nothing, no shared premises can justify a conclusion that both sides must accept.

Neither of these two systems can directly refute its opposite, for their quarrel is about the first principle, which admits of no derivation from anything beyond it; each of the two, if only its first principle is granted, refutes that of the other; each denies everything in its opposite, and they have no point at all in common from which they could arrive at mutual understanding. (12)
All imparting of conviction by proof presupposes...that both parties are agreed on at least something. How could the Science of Knowledge be imparted to the dogmatist, seeing that on no point whatever does it agree with him in regard to the material of our knowledge...? (78)

In Kuhn's terms, the two positions are incommensurable, and Fichte draws much the same conclusion from the phenomenon as Kuhn. Communication and argument across the gap of the two positions will be limited at best. "Even if they appear to agree about the words in a sentence, each takes them in a different sense" (12). Arguments between them are skew lines that do not meet. "Reason provides no principle of choice" (14).

Fichte has a partisan's interest in incommensurability. If argument across the gap of disagreement with his opponents is knowably ineffectual, then he has two blessings. First, he can be sure that his opponents have no criticisms or objections that he must answer. Indeed, if so, and if there are only two consistent positions, he can be sure that nobody can argue effectively against him. Second, he can leave his opponents unconvinced, even unaddressed.

Fichte makes the most of this rhetorical isolation, responding to no serious realist objections to idealism, revelling in his immunity to refutation, almost never addressing realists directly, characterizing them for his audience behind their backs as it were, and drawing salutary conclusions from the ineffectiveness of his arguments for realists --as if realists could not do the same on their side.

Many philosophers, even if they concluded that their positions were incommensurable with all others, would not choose the rhetorical "sterile field" that Fichte created for himself any more than they would choose silence. Or conversely, if they concluded that the rhetorical field in which they inquired and debated was this sterile, many would fall silent. Why Fichte writes as he does, then, must be asked together with the deeper question why he writes at all. This will be explored further in Section 5, below.

Fichte's second argument against argument is that the free self posited by the idealist must be recognized or appropriated as oneself, by oneself, not demonstrated by argument.

The self posited by idealism has the advantage that it "actually occurs as something real in self-consciousness" (10), whereas the thing in itself as even Kant acknowledges lies beyond the limits of experience. One reason to choose idealism, then, is that one may personally and directly verify its first principle.

Arguments will not help the ignorant and unconvinced because "this consciousness cannot be demonstrated to anyone; each person must freely create it in himself" (11; cf. 25). Against Descartes, Fichte here anticipates Kierkegaard (Climacus) in saying that conscious existence is more certain than any proof. The point is well-taken and very modern. It shows why ad rem arguments about self-awareness and critical forms of consciousness have come to be regarded as more and more question-begging, ineffectual, even comical, and hence, why we have seen the rise of ad hominem arguments in existential philosophy, phenomenology, and critical theory.

One may cajole a realist into paying attention to consciousness, but one cannot make Fichte's idealism a mere proposition that is concluded by reasoning from other propositions. "That such a positing [of the self] occurs, can be demonstrated by nothing other than a fact of consciousness, and everyone must demonstrate it for himself by this fact; nobody can prove it to another on rational grounds" (223; cf. 25, 32). "How does the self exist for itself? The first postulate: Think of yourself, frame the concept of yourself; and notice how you do it" (33).

The very reason why these prior notions do not lend themselves to systematic, in a word, that they are intimations which we can only generate from within ourselves, thanks to a readiness previously attained. Everything depends upon having become really intimately aware of one's freedom, through constant exercise thereof with clear consciousness, so that it has come to be dear to us beyond all else. (76)

So to acknowledge one's consciousness in the decisive way, one must have some skill at self-monitoring, some reflective experience of freedom, and a deep attachment to freedom acquired in this experience; with this, one may "generate" the viewpoint that this "readiness" permits. Not everyone will be in such a position, either from lack of readiness or lack of capacity to build on it. This general situation gives rise to one of Fichte's most famous remarks.

What sort of philosophy one chooses depends, therefore, on what sort of man one is; for a philosophical system is not a dead piece of furniture that we can reject or accept as we wish; it is rather a thing animated by the soul of the person who holds it. (16)

From here we see most clearly the doctrinal justification for ad hominem arguments. Realists choose realism because of the kinds of people they are. Idealists do the same. Even though Fichte will provide some ad rem arguments[Note 11] for idealism (Section 4, below), his primary criticism of realists is not so much that they have made some mistake, but that they are the kinds of people who chose realism.

We must not forget that realists can explain consciousness in some sense "as well as" idealism can. The equipollence of the two primordial options assures us of this (even if Fichte occasionally endangers his account of the choice by arguments for the superiority of idealism). Realists can acknowledge the consciousness or self that Fichte acknowledges, and yet explain it reductively as an epiphenomenon of inert things. Fichte insists only that people who explain themselves that way are demeaned. This is especially true if the demeaning explanation is optional, as Fichte has also shown through his argument on the primordial choice. Realists are not compelled by any evidence or argument to degrade themselves. Theirs is not the humility of science but the abjectness of truly shallow consciousness.

If the choice depends on what sort of person one is, then it becomes fair to ask what kind of person chooses realism. Fichte's answers are entirely ad hominem, as by now they must be. "A person indolent by nature or dulled and distorted by mental servitude, learned luxury, and vanity will never raise himself to the level of idealism" (16; cf. 5, 76, 85, 91, 105, 247). "[I]n thinking of an object, [realists] lack the agility and dexterity of mind to think simultaneously, not only of the object, but also of their own thinking thereof" (79).

But our critics stand firm on their inability to frame the concept required of them [of the self], and we must take their word for this. Not that they have been wholly deprived of the concept of the pure self through mere rational or mental deficiency....The ground of this inability of theirs does not reside in any special weakness of intellect, but rather in a weakness of their whole character. (74)

A realist is not a "resolute thinker" (249). Realists "have not yet raised themselves to full consciousness of their freedom and absolute independence, [and] find themselves only in the presentation of things; they have only that dispersed self-consciousness which attaches to objects...; if these were taken from them, their self would be lost as well" (15).

"Before [the realist] goes to work, this inner force [of objects of experience] must already have been killed, or it would offer resistance to his efforts. From this dead mass he fashions something..." (30). Because realists possess a pure self without recognizing it, and because to recognize it is to recognize the autonomy of reason, "[t]heir person does not exist as a specific expression of reason" (74).

The idealist holds her self from immediate apprehension; it is in no danger from argument and theorizing. The realist, however, holds his self through a complex theory of reduction, emergence, or epiphenomenalism. The realist's thing in itself, and a fortiori the epiphenomenal self, expect their "conversion into reality only from the success of the system" (11). "The attack on his system in fact exposes the dogmatist to the danger of losing his self" (16). Consequently, in argument the stakes are higher for the realist than for the idealist. "The dogmatist flies into a passion, distorts, and would persecute if he had the power: the idealist is cool and" --Fichte almost apologizes-- "in danger of deriding the dogmatist" (16).

The last point suggests a third reason not to argue with realists: they are temperamentally unfit to hear criticism or disagreement.

We can show the dogmatist the inadequacy and incoherence of his system...: we can bewilder and harass him from all sides; but we cannot convince him, because he is incapable of calmly receiving and coolly assessing a theory which he absolutely cannot endure. (16)

Nietzsche does not ask whether Kant's categorical imperative is sound; he asks what kind of person would believe it was.[Note 12] Fichte does the same with metaphysical realism, and has the same combination of philosophical and psychological reasons for asking the question. First, he has described first philosophy as a matter of making a primordial choice. Then he has removed almost every reason for making the choice, leaving only causes. Both the few reasons that remain and the noble causes point to idealism. The reasons are available only to the enlightened who know themselves; hence those who do not use them (assuming they wish to offer the strongest argument for their choice) are demonstrably benighted. When the reasons are absent, or balanced, or intelligible only to one side, then Fichte can ask, like Nietzsche, for the motivation of his opponents (14). The motives of idealists are worthier than those of realists, since they strive to see themselves as selves, rather than as objects, to preserve their freedom, to make morality possible, and to bring realists to this enlightenment.

Fichte's diagnosis of realists from their choice of realism suggests that "the type of man one is" is determined before the choice and explains the choices we make. That would permit, even justify, the diagnosis of character from philosophical position. But while Fichte clearly gives himself this license to ad hominem diagnosis, he also flirts with the opposite position, that the choice one makes at this primordial juncture determines in an important way "the type of man one is". One reason this second alternative is attractive to Fichte is that, if our choice were determined by our character, rather than our character by our choice, then Fichte would have explained why people like himself will choose idealism, but not why anyone should choose idealism. Another reason, as we shall see, is to allow himself to say that we make the primordial choice through groundless or spontaneous freedom, not through question-begging knowledge possessed prior to the first principle of knowing.

According to Fichte, then, the primordial choice makes argument about first principles nugatory, and the controversy between idealism and realism turns on first principles. Moreover, by the nature of the case, realists cannot be converted by argument, since if they have not already seen themselves for what they are, no argument from idealists will work. Argument with realists is pointless both from the logic of the controversy and from the degenerate consciousness of the realists. The former case can be made with some impersonal detachment, ad rem; the latter is unavoidably ad hominem.

Although there are ad rem arguments in favor of idealism (see Section 4, below), realists are immune to their force, and their immunity reflects more on their personal incapacities than on the arguments' invalidity. And of course the ad hominem arguments are no better at converting realists; Fichte's motive in using them is less hortatory than diagnostic, not to convert anybody but to describe why the situation cannot be improved. So though Fichte possesses both ad rem and ad hominem arguments, and uses both in support of his idealism, his idealism itself explains why these arguments will fail to move his opponents.[Note 13]

4. Arguing Despite the Futility

More than one argument emerges from this reluctance to argue. One is that realists are free to choose a first principle; hence they err by choosing the principle that denies their freedom to choose. Realism is self-refuting, while idealism is self-justifying, for it posits and explicates the freedom to choose a principle that idealists exemplified when they chose idealism.

Fichte is careful in laying out this argument. He insists that we are free to choose at the primordial disjunction (14, 70, 76), and argues at length in more than one place that only idealism can explain freedom (13, 65, 78). He admits the circularity of this procedure in another work:

But all the rules governing the application of freedom already presuppose their own prior application. Thus the only person whom one can rationally exhort to use his freedom is someone who is already using it.[Note 14]

Fichte's chief ad rem arguments for idealism may briefly be noted; for our present purposes it is more important to acknowledge that they exist than to examine their merits.

  1. Only idealism can explain freedom. We know we are free from our freedom to choose whether we will or will not acknowledge it (as noted, 13, 14, 65, 70, 76, 78).
  2. Only idealism can explain presentations or representations (16-20), hence experience.
  3. Only idealism can explain morality (40-41).
  4. There is immediate evidence for idealism in self-consciousness (10-11).
  5. Idealism and realism are the two systems that result when we abstract from experience to an inner spontaneity and an external source of necessity. Abstraction is the ladder to each, but in fact, "[w]e cannot abstract from the self" (71). This argument retracts much of the framework for the choice.

By these arguments, realism cannot explain experience, the explanandum of all philosophy. Moreover, the choice of idealism can be defended better on idealistic grounds than the choice of realism can be defended on realistic grounds. Realism's failure to explain what it must explain (experience), or to justify its own point of departure (a free choice), may be reasons why Fichte calls it "dogmatism" rather than simple "realism".

Note that these are not properly ad rem arguments if they do not appeal to "things" or "facts" that are supposed to exist equally for Fichte and his critics. And this is precisely their status insofar as they appeal to states of consciousness or reports of intellectual intuition that do not exist for realists, because realists are insufficiently developed. When Fichte presses these arguments, then, he is criticizing realists for their insufficient development, not for their failure to acknowledge a fact; and that clearly makes these arguments ad hominem.[Note 15] However, to distinguish them from his more disparaging arguments, even if the distinction is only one of degree, we may call these arguments ad rem. If we understand that they become ad hominem arguments whenever Fichte denies realists access to the experiences that verify idealism (a position on which Fichte vascillates), then we need not qualify the "ad rem" designation every time we use it.

However we classify them, these arguments are two-edged. The more they support idealism, the more they undercut Fichte's presentation of primordial philosophy as a free choice between balanced contradictories. Fichte does not acknowledge this, and seems to want it both ways. He wants both (1) a balanced opposition between realism and idealism, so that character becomes more salient than evidence in explaining one's choice, and (2) an imbalance in favor of idealism, so that idealism is justified objectively, not just for Fichte, and consequently so that realists can be found mistaken, not just immature. These may be reconciled if the opposition of realism and idealism is balanced only for proof (each position has zero premises), and imbalanced for persons according to their degree of development.

From another standpoint Fichte wants realism and idealism to be (1) incommensurable, so that he becomes irrefutable and his opponents dismissible, and (2) commensurable, so that he can compare the two positions on stated criteria, and use ad rem arguments for the objective superiority of idealism. He also wants both (1) unfreedom for realists, as another symptom of their lack of development, and (2) freedom for realists, so that their realism can be seen as a choice, and consequently so that realists can be blamed, not just found mistaken or immature.

Fichte wants to say that the chooser possesses no knowledge prior to the choice to guide the choice, but also that there are powerful arguments for idealism. Only the former can give him the primordial choice as he sets it up. But only the latter can can prevent his idealism from becoming hypothetical[Note 16] or arbitrary. But this is to say that Fichte wants to choose at once with absolute spontaneity and with coercive knowledge; groundlessly and groundedly; absurdly and justifiably. Fichte will soon show (Section 5, below) the same ambivalence about his readers. He is unsure --or inconsistent-- whether his mixed use of ad hominem and ad rem arguments will lead his readers to follow him from freedom or from compulsion.

If the choice is made with groundless freedom, as a sheer existential choice, then it determines "the type of man one is". If it is made from sound ad rem arguments, as a deliberated essentialist choice, then conversely, it follows from "the type of man one is". The handful of ad rem arguments for idealism pull toward essentialism. Fichte pulls toward existentialism with all his arguments against arguments such as, "this consciousness cannot be demonstrated to anyone; each person must freely create it in himself" (11, cf. 25).

Instead of letting him have it both ways we can confront Fichte with a dilemma. If he knows something before the choice, then either it has no warrant in his system or there is no primordial choice after all. But if he does not know something before the choice, then his choice of idealism is a matter of indifference to everyone else; he must be content to live in his rhetorical sterile field.

Putting it this way, Fichte might have a reply. He does have a reason for his choice, but it is apprehended directly, not by inference from a first principle. It is the existence of himself as a conscious self; that is the first principle of idealism. Hence it is "warranted" even prior to the choice and unambiguously guides the choice. It is not "knowledge" prior to the choice of the first principle of knowing; yet it is an unmistakable leading toward idealism. The main problem with this position is that it conflicts with another line that Fichte still wants to maintain: the choice of a first principle is "an absolutely primary act [that] depends solely upon the freedom of thought. Hence the choice is governed by caprice" (14).

Fichte might make a second reply to follow up this claim that the choice is made from caprice. Apart from reasons for my choice, he might say, I had causes. "[S]ince even a capricious decision must have some source, it is governed by inclination and interest" (15). My interest in making the choice is ultimately moral, since only idealism can explain freedom and hence morality (40-41, 102, 115, 147). The moral interest may be a contingent property of personality when the choice is made, but it is subsequently vindicated by reason (40).

Fichte wants to choose idealism (1) on the basis of sound ad rem arguments, (2) with absolute spontaneity, and (3) from the contingent interests of personality. The first of these gives him the virtue that we readers are obliged to choose as he does; the second gives him evidence of freedom prior to the choice and a personality-determining act; the third gives him causes beyond his reasons. Fichte may or may not realize that each of these three, stated baldly, contradicts both of the other two. He partially reconciles the first and second by turning the fact of absolute spontaneity into evidence for an ad rem argument. He partially reconciles the first and third by asserting that the interest that governs his choice is moral and that it is subsequently vindicated by reason. He partially reconciles the second and third by interpreting spontaneity as an absence of reasons compatible with the presence of causes (interests and inclinations).

But it remains that he wants both freedom and causes to collaborate in choosing idealism, and wants personality to be both product and producer of his choice. Whether he thinks that the ultimate package of inducements that led him to idealism can be reproduced in his book and should lead his readers to idealism is a much more complicated question (see Section 5, below).

Fichte may also be inconsistent in holding realists to be free enough to choose at the primordial disjunction and unfree enough to be blind to their freedom and to be enslaved to pernicious character flaws. But even if he is inconsistent on this, he can turn it into a dilemma for realists. If realists are as free and self-conscious as he is, then they are blameworthy for failing to know themselves. But if they are not free, or if they are developmentally less mature than idealists, then they deserve his cutting diagnoses and ad hominem arguments all the more. He does not use this dilemma as an argument, however, but supposes "in fairness" (78; cf. 91) that realists are as free as he is.[Note 17]

One might say that Fichte solves the problem of other minds at the expense of his opponents. The alternative hypothesis, that realists really lack the freedom and consciousness that idealists recognize in themselves, grants the realists a kind of relative correctness (they describe themselves accurately) at the expense of an even more corrosive ad hominem characterization (they are subhuman until they become like Fichte).

If realists are fundamentally like Fichte, then he has ad rem arguments showing how realists are mistaken; if they are unlike Fichte, the same arguments become ad hominem, showing how realists are deficient.

We use intellectual intuition to discover ourselves, making it another candidate for Fichte's point of departure (42, 44, 83). Fichte can only appeal to realists to employ it and look inward; he cannot make them find anything in particular. If they find what he finds, then they are idealists (or they have made some simple mistake). If not, either they lack intellectual intuition or the free self for which it was to look; either way they are defective, beyond help from ad rem arguments, ripe for ad hominem arguments.

Fichte even uses the futility of argument as an argument. Argument is futile (on one account) because we cannot prove to others that they are self-conscious. Because they really are self-conscious, growth is more efficacious than argument in bringing recognition of the reality of what they are. But this very diagnosis becomes an argument by showing that realists live in false consciousness, denying their reality and incapable of accepting an account of it until they have grown up. This is an ad rem argument on the futility of argument, and an ad hominem argument on the inferiority of realism and realists.

5. Why Did Fichte Write?

Why did Fichte write if he had no hope of convincing the unconvinced? This is a difficult question and before we approach it, we should consider that Fichte's motives may have been as inconsistent as his arguments. He may have written, in fact, to convert realists.

But I doubt it. Fichte does occasionally assert that his arguments ought to persuade the unpersuaded. As he puts it, his points are "so striking, that anyone who fails to grasp [them], and is not thereby uplifted into transcendental idealism, must unquestionably be suffering from mental blindness" (105). This is importantly ambiguous, however, since he has already laid out a theory of mental blindness, in effect, and fitted it on the heads of metaphysical realists.

Rarely does he say that he intends to be persuasive to all readers, including realists. But when he does, he manages to find a scornful way to put it.

It would be an evil example, a piece of hopeless fanaticism, and the like, to make out that our science is for certain privileged spirits only, and that all others will be able to see nothing in it and to understand it not at all....We do not maintain that there is an original and native difference among men... (75)

Fichte knows the effects of the incommensurability he has established, and of the false consciousness of realists, because he wanted to establish them. Much more often, then, than he claims to persuade even realists, he is found saying the opposite, that his argument is "necessarily beyond [realists], is made, not for their benefit, but for the sake of others who are attentive and awake" (79; cf. 20).

Other evidence suggests that he intended to limit his audience to non-realists. The second introduction to the Wissenschaftslehre was subtitled, "For readers who already have a philosophical system" (29) --as if everything else were not. In the first introduction he explains his general expectation:

Our science expects few converts, therefore, among those already formed; if it may have any hopes at all, they are set, rather, upon the young whose innate power has not yet foundered in the indolence of our age. (16)

If realists live in a realm incommensurable with Fichte's, then he has no hope but to wait for them to die off, and in the meantime to focus his energy on the young.

If idealism should prove to be the only true philosophy, it is necessary to be born, raised, and self-educated as a philosopher: but one cannot be made so by human contrivance. (16; cf. 76-77, 251)

Apart from the exclusion of realists, Fichte says in many different ways that he is not writing for everyone. "I have nothing to do with those who, through protracted spiritual slavery, have lost themselves..." (5). A "book such as this...[is] not really intended for the general public" (89). He addresses only "men of honor" (90). Fortunately, while the general acceptance of his philosophy is impossible (251), it is also unnecessary (80). Its truth and scientific character do not need the assent of all. So those he excludes from his audience are dismissible.

But even with an audience of unbiased youth, Fichte faces the problem of arguing for his position when the consciousness and freedom on which he builds his system are unreachable by argument and must be experienced directly. When he directs his attention to this problem, Fichte's solution is that argument in the usual sense is futile and must yield to evocation. Because non-idealist readers have not recognized the consciousness from which idealism begins, and do not share any premises with idealists that would make argument effective, the idealist position must be evoked or elicited in readers.

The Science of Knowledge is of a kind that cannot be communicated by the letter merely, but only through the spirit; for its basic ideas must be elicited, in anyone who studies it, by the creative imagination itself. (250)[Note 18]

In the dispute between idealists and realists, each party

must reckon upon the other's self-activity, and can give him, not the particular thought in question, but only the inducement to think this particular thought for himself. The relation between free beings is interaction through freedom. (78)

Direct argument might be successful among people with the same form of consciousness who share at least one premise. But Fichte has set up his dispute with realists so that these conditions are not satisfied. What we are seeing, then, is not merely the rhetorical strategy of a rude idealist, but the rhetorical strategy of any dialectical thinker who believes that consciousness grows in stages of sophistication and access to truth.

Hegel, for example, is in this position and finds a similar strategy of indirect evocation to be necessary. If his philosophical science requires a certain form of consciousness, then

the individual has the right to demand that Science should at least provide him with the ladder to this standpoint, should show him this standpoint within himself.[Note 19]

But while Hegel describes the stages of consciousness, and the limitations of the earlier stages, with a clinical tone that avoids condescension, Fichte cannot resist the temptation to belittle realists for the fault (as he sees it) of having to undergo a natural process of development before they can become idealists --mixing as he so often does disinterested ad hominem arguments with vilification.

[T]he idealist cannot readily refrain from regarding the dogmatist with a certain contempt, for the latter can tell him nothing save what he has long since known and already discarded as erroneous; for one reaches idealism, if not through dogmatism itself, at least through the inclination thereto. (16)

His dialectical or developmental theory of consciousness is both revealed and applied to his debate with realists when he claims that idealists are "bound to" be realists before they become idealists (58). "It is the business of philosophy to demonstrate and explain genetically how the self comes to think of itself in this [idealist] fashion" (66).[Note 20]

One might ask whether Fichte's use of ad hominem arguments contradicts his claim that freedom is self-evident. It does not, but he needs his dialectical theory of consciousness to reconcile the two: freedom is self-evident only to those who are sufficiently developed. (Hence, the primordial choice is imbalanced in favor of idealism for those mature enough to recognize their freedom, and imbalanced in favor of realism for those who are not.) Evocation might not only bring realists along the path toward idealism, but for the same reason it might bring realists to recognize their freedom.

Fichte does not turn to evocation merely to follow the consequences of his dialectical view of consciousness. He also has a moral reason to do so that goes far to explain why he writes. In his discussion of the choice Fichte says that "from the speculative point of view [realism and idealism] appear to be of equal value" (13). But it is not until much later in the book that we learn that their equipollence exists only from the speculative point of view. The explanation of experience is impossible for speculative reason; "both roads [idealism and realism] are correct...and by this...all finite reason is thrown into conflict with itself" (147). But in seeking to resolve this conflict of reason with itself "the absolute existence of the self cannot be given up" (147). Hence,

our idealism is not dogmatic but practical; does not determine what is, but what ought to be....[T]he self, which in this respect is practical, is posited as a self that ought to contain in itself the ground of existence of the not-self....[This is] an infinite idea that cannot itself be thought, and by which, therefore, we do not so much explain the explicandum as show, rather, that, and why, it is inexplicable....(147-48)

In short, the choice is balanced and absurd only to speculative reason, but not to practical reason. In Kant's words, "reason has, in respect of its practical employment, the right to postulate what in the field of mere speculation it can have no kind of right to assume without sufficient proof."[Note 21] Fichte's whole idealism is founded on a practical ought, not a speculative is. Even our freedom is more a goal than a reality, and one that we must "approximate ad infinitum [and] never, in principle, attain" (115; cf. 101-102).

Fichte writes in order to bring his readers to see the imperative to be idealists. If they follow this imperative as he has, they will multiply the number of actors in the world who believe that morality is possible, actual, and necessary, and who believe that to further this cause is itself obligatory. Fichte feels a duty to bring people to his standpoint. This moral motive may explain some of his venom for realists. By denying freedom and morality, realists thwarts the highest ethical mission.

If Fichte must bring readers to his moral idealism, and if the position to which he must bring them leads him to forswear direct arguments, then it becomes important to know what we may expect from evocation in his sense. Can evocative rhetoric guide the undeveloped young, or the stained realist, along the path of their personal and spiritual development? Does it merely point out the way? Does it make growth tempting without assisting it, by awakening desires? Does it dismantle doctrinal barriers? Can it actually nudge one along? Can it compel the requisite growth?

Fichte seems uncertain how to answer these questions.[Note 22] Once he decides to switch from direction to indirection, he reflects less deeply on his rhetorical project and what his prose can accomplish. In many passages he suggests that evocation is at least not coercive.

The Science of Knowledge should in no way force itself upon the reader, but should become a necessity for him, as it has for the author himself. (91)

"[W]e cannot compel them to accept our system, since its adoption depends upon freedom" (70; cf. 76). The "required mode of thinking" for the Science of Knowledge "is accomplished through freedom, and whoever does not achieve it with us will see nothing of what the Science of Knowledge reveals" (25). Here the words "with us" are most suggestive, as if growth toward freedom (and idealism) were social and collaborative, and as if written books could help. Evocation, then, is not only more promising than ordinary argument when we face the incommensurability of positions, but is compatible with, perhaps an effective contribution to, the freedom of both parties.

This seems not only consistent with everything else in Fichte's theory and rhetoric, but also plausible.[Note 23] Yet he contradicts it in a curious passage where he suggests that he can compel understanding or assent:

[E]very philosophical author may justly demand that his reader should retain the thread of the argument, and not have forgotten what preceded when he comes to what follows. If, on such terms, there is anything in these works that a person could fail to understand, and has not necessarily been compelled to understand rightly, I at least am not aware of it. (91)

This is not an isolated exaggeration, for he returns to the idea in his later work, A Sun-Clear Report: An Attempt to Compel the Reader to Understand (1801, untranslated). What is most troubling about his claim to have compelled understanding in readers who can follow the thread of argument is that Fichte seems to know it is false. He knows that many people have not understood him, and that there are limits to his clarity. For some of these misunderstanding readers, he will stigmatize their reading skill; but for others, he will do his best to prevent them from understanding what they have no business understanding.

We know that he knows that some readers find him difficult to understand, because he responds to their criticism --with typical irritability and reproach. People who complain that he is difficult to understand simply confess their inadequacies; it is less a criticism than an "admission [that is] most uninteresting and uninstructive" (5). They must not have studied his work sufficiently. "My writings cannot be understood, and ought not to be understood by those who have not studied them" (5).

He admits that he has been misunderstood, not merely that he has been difficult to understand --despite the "perfect clarity" (91), indeed coercive clarity, he claims to have achieved, and the "utmost clarity" (4) he claims to have sought. The arguments from incommensurability and bad character amount to such admissions, as do passages like the following:

If the work in question marks the limit of their intelligence, it also marks the limit of my intelligibility; our minds are divided from one another by this boundary, and I entreat them not to waste time reading my works. (90-91)

"[T]he Science of Knowledge is intelligible only on prior fulfillment of certain conditions, [as] has been so often told to our critics already" (75).

But then he goes on the offensive. His critics neither "know...a word of the Science of Knowledge, nor are fit to know anything of it" (85).

I would be sorry if they understood me. Until now it has gone according to my wishes with these people; and I hope even now that this exordium will so bewilder them that from now on they see nothing but letters on the page, while what passes for mind in them is torn hither and thither by the caged anger within. (5)

(One would like to have dinner with the people Fichte has in mind.)

In one passage, Fichte combines his contention on the futility of argument with his ensuing ambition to elicit freedom indirectly, and throws in a good measure of condescension, an acknowledgment that not all readers will understand him, and an ad hoc excuse for the work's imperfections.

It is particularly necessary to recall, I think, that I do not tell the reader everything, but have also wished to leave him something to think about. There are numerous misunderstandings that I certainly anticipate, and that a few words of mine could have rectified. Yet I have not said these few words, because I wished to encourage independent thought. (91)

His most common refrain on these lines, however, is that clarity is attainable but insufficient to convert realists because first premises are not shared, or because self-knowledge or good faith is lacking. "Hence the dogmatist cannot be refuted by the argument we have given, however clear it may be; for it cannot be brought home to him, since he lacks the power to grasp its premise" (20). These are familiar themes; indeed, they are so frequently argued in the Wissenschaftslehre that Fichte can say that "[t]he Science is thus perfectly entitled, in the nature of the case, to declare in advance that many will misunderstand it, and more will not understand it at all" (251).

Fichte is either forgetting the moral mission of his rhetoric, or slowly talking himself out of the efficacy even of evocation, or launching a preemptive ad hominem strike against the one class of readers he knows will fail to be moved. But in any case he reveals in many ways that he has not compelled understanding, and has not always intended to do so.

Here we can see that it matters that Fichte has used the broader kind of ad hominem argument (disparaging assessment of character) rather than the classical (criticism of a person for betraying her own premises). To point out how a person has violated her own premises is to point out a formal contradiction in her thinking or a pragmatic contradiction between her theory and practice. This can assist her in clarifying issues important to her position, and can assist others who hear the criticism. But merely to disparage is not helpful in the same way or in any easily conceived way.[Note 24] If Fichte thought that by evocation he could actually assist realists or young readers in their growth, then he would have done better to use only the classical kind of ad hominem argument. While certain disparaging characterizations of realists are justified by his position, to use them in the moral and developmental rhetorical project he has in mind is counter-productive.

So despite a passage or two, it appears that neither argument nor evocation can guarantee understanding, and in fact that misunderstanding is foreseeable. When he gives up the usual expectations for argument, at least with realists, Fichte does not expect any alternative to create the form of consciousness or the recognition of freedom that characterize idealists. Rather than forget the countervailing passages entirely, we should let them enrich our understanding of Fichte's tension on this issue. He seems to have held coercion and compulsion as his ideals of clarity, while simultaneously disdaining even the slightest intervention with free minds, wishing to leave them to an unexamined natural dialectic of growth that will enable them to discover their freedom freely. Argument fails with realists not because it is coercive or non-coercive, but because it is propositional, while the freedom to be proved is not. Yet the less propositional, more affective kind of evocation to which he expressly turns may respect the implicit freedom of realists so much that it is ineffective in bringing them along. It is scarcely more than leaving realists alone to find their own way, while talking to oneself about why one is leaving them alone, hoping some will overhear.[Note 25]

6. What Kind of Justification Is This?

I have said that Fichte's philosophical position justifies his use of ad hominem arguments, and that this justification has nothing to do with the correctness of his position. Before closing it is well to explore a few peculiarities of this kind of justification.

One might say that Fichte's justification, whatever its strength, would be stronger if he were correct in his views. But this position quickly becomes misleading, as if there were a better justification than a sufficient justification. A sufficient license to use various argument forms must arise from a writer's good faith beliefs, independently of their truth values, even if somehow a "better" license arises from correctness. If it were otherwise, writers would have to wait for the debate on their position to be settled before they could know how to present their position properly for debate. If we say that settled opinion is not a sign of correctness (which is my position), then writers should not wait for it, and must proceed when they are satisfied, which is where we started.

This much is compatible, however, with holding writers responsible for their expository styles and strategies as much as for the correctness of their views. For example, if we derive the justification for argumentative style from authenticity rather than correctness, we may allow a sincere Nazi to publish his arguments before the world attains unanimity or objective certainty, and yet hold him responsible for persuasiveness in the service of evil and for erring in his sincere convictions.

On this view, the license to be persuasive in the service of one's sincere convictions is two-sided. In a deontological ethics of argument, as it were, it is absolute, since it derives from one's sincere convictions. The license is to follow one's convictions loyally, regardless of their correctness or consequences. But in a consequentialist ethics of argument, it is merely provisional, since it is always subject to criticism for harmful error. I would like to mix the two by permitting writers to write in conformity with their beliefs, yet to remain subject to retroactive criticism for error.[Note 26]

If a philosopher believes that position A implies position B, then she is normally held blameless for expounding that belief, even if critics abound who deny that A implies B. This is the license of good faith at work. We apply it daily to writers whose A's and B's are substantive philosophical positions. In Fichte's case --and in many other cases-- A is a position and B is a style.

Two other examples from Fichte's own time may show the integrity of writing as if A implied B when A is a position and B is a style. Kant argued that his scientific model of philosophy implied that he should not use examples or poetic forms of expression.[Note 27] Even if this was a bad inference on his part, and even if the scientific model of philosophy ought to be rejected, his style does conform to his position in a way that enhances its consistency. Hegel's view that philosophy is not for edification, that picture-language is partial truth at best, that mere principles are equally true and false, that truth is not propositional, that truth is the whole, and that the true logic is dialectical[Note 28] had many implications for his style and rhetoric, including the severe restriction of quotidian metaphorical language and the rejection of premise-conclusion forms of argument. Even if both philosophers had regrettable styles of expression and argument (which I deny), they deserve praise for recognizing the inseparability of style and substance, drawing conclusions for their style as openly and seriously as they did conclusions for their substance, attempting to live up to those conclusions, and for leaving their critics one fewer inconsistency with which to charge them.

Fichte, similarly, believes that idealism (position A) implies a need to use ad hominem arguments against realists (style B). It should not matter whether one rejects A or the inference from A to B. Whatever license we extend to other writers to draw out the substantive implications of their positions, and to state them in public, should extend to writers to draw out the implications of their positions for style and argumentation and to write accordingly. If there is an important difference between the two cases it is that writers of the second type should be prepared to hear criticism of their style as criticism of their substance and vice versa.

Another difference is that those who try to translate such philosophies into a different style, particularly into an impersonal listing of assertions and their arguments, encounter an ironic self-betrayal: the harder they try, the more they expound a different philosophy.[Note 29]

Fichte never acknowledges that he uses ad hominem arguments or that his position licenses it. Indirectly he even denies it, as he reveals in his furious reply to ad hominem arguments made against him. "[I]f it is concluded from the system that its originator is a blackguard, and from this blackguardry of his it is further concluded that the system is false, then reasoned arguments can be of no avail" (84-85).

"Is this style of argument not yet out of fashion?" --some well-meaning person may ask, who is not fully acquainted with recent events on the literary scene. I answer: No, it is commoner than ever, and is chiefly directed against myself... (84.n)

We could distinguish justified ad hominem arguments from mere defamation and the genetic fallacy, and interpret Fichte as objecting here to the latter. But that would attribute to him (in 1794-95) more rhetorical self-consciousness and subtlety than he shows anywhere else.

7. Summary

Fichte is justified in using ad hominem arguments insofar as he is justified in disparaging the character or capacities of realists. He is justified in disparaging realists insofar as he is justified in drawing out the consequences of his metaphysics and epistemology and in uttering them. He is justified in doing this even if he is wrong in his metaphysics and epistemology, and wrong in his inferences from them to the character of realists.

He sketches a dialectic of philosophical development according to which realism is a merely a phase through which one passes on the way to idealism. Even if false, this implies that realists are unable to share insights available to idealists. Fichte's position justifies this diagnosis of realists; it does not justify the scorn that he adds to the diagnosis. Dialectical or developmental theories will always justify ad hominem arguments of this kind.

Fichte also sketches a picture of primordial philosophy as a choice between first principles such that no antecedent knowledge is available to guide one's decision. Even if false, this implies that one's choice (whether a product or producer of one's character) is symptom of character and evidence for a diagnosis that may turn out pejorative. Again, Fichte's position justifies this diagnosis; it does not justify the derision that he invariably brings to his diagnoses. Naturalistic theories that explain belief through causes rather than reasons will always justify ad hominem arguments of this kind.

Fichte sketches a case for the incommensurability between realism and idealism. Even if false, this implies a limited liberty for idealists to ignore realists in composing arguments. Theories that hold their contraries to be incommensurable will justify an "ad hominem" refusal to argue of this kind. Fichte's ethics imply that realists must be reached anyway. But if it is not by direct argument, he concludes it must be by evocation.

If Fichte's reasons for favoring idealism derive from experiences that realists share, then he has ad rem arguments to supplement his ad hominem arguments. But if the experiences underlying his reasons cannot be shared by realists, given the developmental state of realists, then these arguments become ad hominem, criticizing realists not for mistaking a neutral fact but for insufficient maturity. Fichte is justified in drawing comforting conclusions from each horn of this and many similar dilemmas, but not in having it both ways. In general, this means that he can conclude that realists are either immature or mistaken, but not both.

Fichte passes beyond his warrant for ad hominem arguments when he adds a personal edge to impersonal diagnoses, that is, when he adds pity and contempt to analysis. His premises allow him to conclude that realists have limited capacities, but not to conclude that they have bad faith. They do not allow him to scold or admonish, but they do allow him (for better or worse) to study realists as specimens, explain their arguments as behavior rather than hear their arguments as criticism, ignore them with his own direct arguments, and for their own good to prod, cultivate, or coerce them with indirect evocation.

To reject any of these practices we must reject Fichte's premises (and excesses), not criticize him for unfolding those premises in public in good faith. While his metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical premises are certainly corrigible, we should beware of letting our distaste for his virulence in argument lead us to mistake it for a reductio ad absurdum that falsifies his metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.

8. A Parthian Shot

Fichte passes beyond his warrant for ad hominem arguments —again— when he disparages realists who take his disparagement as disparagement. They should not take his ad hominem arguments and abusive diagnoses personally. It is difficult to know oneself, after all, which is all that he has been saying. In fact, "[t]he majority of men could sooner be brought to believe themselves a piece of lava in the moon than to take themselves for a self" (162.n).[Note 30] Fichte does not say these things to persuade or scold realists, but to explain to the rest of us ("who are attentive and awake" 79) how things stand and to "warn" us against

such errors...such empty and meaningless chatter. Now this explanation is not to be regarded as a disparagement. Our opponents do but expose their own evil consciousness, and openly demean themselves beneath us, if they feel that our observations disparage them. (79)

As for the uncommonly thin-skinned realists who are offended, especially those Kantians who fail to recognize their own doctrine in Fichte's exposition, he explains, "I very glad to spare them that assuredly grave reproach, if I did not have an interest which seems to me higher than theirs and to which theirs ought to be sacrificed" (44).

One misunderstands Fichte, even maligns him, if one thinks he is out to enhance his personal position by maligning his opponents. His modesty is all the counter-evidence we need:

I should no more think my personal merits enhanced by the luck of having discovered the true philosophy than I should consider them diminished by the misfortune of having piled new errors on the errors of the past. (90)


1. James Branch Cabell, Beyond Life, vol. I of The Works of James Branch Cabell, Storisende Edition, Robert M. McBride & Co., 1919, 1927, p. 18. [Resume]

2. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Wissenschaftslehre, first edition Leipzig, 1794-95; second edition Tbingen, 1802; third edition (last in Fichte's lifetime) Jena and Leipzig, 1802. I will quote from the English translation by Peter Heath and John Lachs, Fichte: Science of Knowledge (Wissenschaftslehre), which includes the two introductions written in 1797; Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1970; reprinted, Cambridge University Press, 1982. Page numbers to the Heath and Lachs translation will be cited in the main text in parentheses. All use of italics in quotations reflects Fichte's own. My evaluation of Fichte's ad hominem arguments will be limited to those in the Wissenschaftslehre.[Resume]

3. Peter Heath and John Lachs, "Preface" to their translation of the Wissenschaftslehre, ibid., at p. vii. [Resume]

4. See e.g. Richard Whately, Elements of Logic, New York: William Jackson, 1838, at p. 196; as quoted in Henry W. Johnstone, Jr., "Philosophy and Argumentum Ad Hominem," in his Validity and Rhetoric in Philosophical Argument: An Outlook in Transition, The Dialogue Press of Man & World, 1978, at p. 8. [Resume]

5. It is important to Fichte to show that his disparaging assessment of realists follows from his idealism, not necessarily to show that use of ad hominem arguments is justified by his idealism. In Section 6, below, I will offer some evidence that Fichte either did not know that he was using ad hominem arguments or held his opponents to a different standard than he held himself. [Resume]

6. Nor do I have anything to say here about the correctness of Fichte's idealism, beyond a few remarks on some inconsistencies. For the case that Fichte's arguments generally fail, see John Lachs, "Fichte's Idealism," American Philosophical Quarterly, 9 (Oct. 1972) 311-17. For the case that his arguments generally succeed, see J. Douglas Rabb, "J.G. Fichte: Three Arguments for Idealism," Idealistic Studies, IV (May 1976) 169-77. [Resume]

7. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith, Macmillan, St. Martin's Press, 1929, 1968, at B.124. See also B.166: "There are only two ways in which we can account for a necessary agreement of experience with the concepts of its objects: either experience makes these concepts possible or these concepts make experience possible." Also see B.xvi: "Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects. But...this assumption...ended in failure. We must therefore make trial whether we may not have more success...if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge."

My reading that Fichte's primordial choice follows Kant's disjunction is supported by Fichte at p. 4: "My aim [is]...that in all seriousness, and not only in a manner of speaking, the object shall be posited and determined by the cognitive faculty, and not the cognitive faculty by the object." [Resume]

8. In the 1794-95 text, Fichte wants to count even the realism he rejects as a bona fide philosophy.

It is all-too-predictable that those who may think themselves to possess a scientific philosophy will utterly deny the title of philosopher to any who refuse to acknowledge this philosophy of theirs, and hence will again transform the acceptance of their philosophy into a criterion of philosophy in general. (80)

Yet in the first Introduction written in 1797, he could not resist saying that a person must recognize the free self posited by the idealist "if he is to be counted as a philosopher" (14). [Resume]

9. Fichte wants this conclusion even though he later anticipates Hegel's dialectic by rejecting the logic of non-contradiction and excluded middle, e.g. 123ff, and even though he later speaks of "the middle road between idealism and realism" (160; cf. 247). [Resume]

10. Fichte says that for Kant the thing in itself was a mere thought, hence a fiction --even "the uttermost perversion of reason" (45)-- and by this interpretation allows himself to remain a Kantian (55, 62; cf. 10, 11, 45, 55, 59, 82, 251-52). Kant insists that there are two unconditioned conditions of possible experience, and that an account of experience must proceed from the objective and subjective poles simultaneously. Despite his efforts to make Kant Fichtean, Fichte can be found saying such things as "[t]he rapid diffusion of Kantian a proof not of the profundity, but of the shallowness of the age. In part, in its current [pre-Fichtean] form, it is the most fantastic abortion that has ever been produced by the human imagination" (12.n). [Resume]

11. At note 15 and its accompanying text, below, I will argue that what appear to be ad rem arguments in Fichte may be reinterpreted as ad hominem arguments. Nevertheless, it is convenient to call them "ad rem" arguments to contrast them with the primary type of ad hominem arguments under consideration here. [Resume]

12. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886), trans. Walter Kaufmann, Vintage Books, 1966, at p. 99: "Even apart from the value of such claims as 'there is a categorical imperative in us,' one can still always ask: what does such a claim tell us about the man who makes it?" At p. 19, Nietzsche asks a similar question about the belief in synthetic a priori judgments. [Resume]

13. In another place I have explored in greater detail the rhetorical immunities and vulnerabilities that arise when one holds a theory that sees criticism as behavior to be explained rather than as challenge to be answered, or when one's position can explain the criticism of critics as interest or incapacity, thereby explaining disagreement while stigmatizing dissenters, and freeing one to leave critics unconvinced and unanswered; see "Logical Rudeness," in S.J. Bartlett and P. Suber (eds.), Self-Reference: Reflections on Reflexivity, Martinus Nijhoff, 1987, pp. 41-67. Fichte's position is a paradigm case of logical rudeness, and one that underlay my 1987 essay. [Resume]

14. Fichte, "On Stimulating and Increasing the Pure Interest in Truth," trans. Daniel Breazeale, Fichte: Early Philosophical Writings, Cornell University Press, 1988, at p. 223. [Resume]

15. Henry W. Johnstone, Jr. argues more generally that ad rem arguments always beg the question in philosophy, where there are no neutral "facts" to which all parties can appeal, "Philosophy and Argumentum Ad Hominem," pp. 5-12, and "'Philosophy and Argumentum Ad Hominem' Revisited," pp. 53-61, in Johnstone, 1978, op. cit. [Resume]

16. If the choice is primordial, and all ad rem arguments for and against particular options beg the question, then the two possible systems would be hypotheses or thought-experiments. Fichte's idealism would not be true, merely chosen and elaborated. Fichte wishes to assert idealism categorically but, as we shall see, it will be much more like Kant's assertion of God's existence than Kant's assertion of, say, the transcendental unity of apperception: an assertion by practical reason of what may remain hypothetical for speculative reason. Fichte does refer to the "hypothesis" of idealism at 14, 25, 27, 35, and 197, to emphasize its standing as an option for choice or its uncertainty for speculative reason. Despite the tidiness of this rescue by the speculative/practical distinction, we should recognize that most of Fichte's ad rem arguments for idealism appeal to speculative reason. [Resume]

17. One could argue from many passages in the Wissenschaftslehre that Fichte is inconsistent here too, and did not suppose that realists were as free as himself, but that they would only become free when they became idealists (see e.g. 15, 25, 35f, 162.n). [Resume]

18. Fichte makes this point about letter and spirit earlier at 52.n; cf. 171.n. Its importance to him is proportional to the inefficacy of direct argument (persuasion "by the letter").

Ironically, Kant's open letter denouncing Fichte's philosophy in the Allgemeine Literatur Zeitung, August 7, 1799, said that the Critique of Pure Reason must be read in its letter, not merely its spirit (see Arnulf Zweig, Kant's Philosophical Correspondence, 1759-99, University of Chicago Press, 1967, pp. 253-54). As the prestige of Kant's achievement grew, it became necessary for his German successors to reinterpret the teacher to make room for the pupil; accordingly it became common to apply the letter/spirit distinction to Kant's increasingly canonical texts. See e.g. the first footnote to Letter 13 in Schiller's On The Aesthetic Education of Man (1795), trans. Reginald Snell, Frederick Unger Pub. Co., 1965, p. 68.n; Hegel's The Difference Between Fichte's and Schelling's System of Philosophy (1801), trans. H.S. Harris and Walter Cerf, State University of New York Press, 1977, p. 80; and Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation (1819), trans. E.F.J. Payne, Dover Publications, 1966, vol. I, p. 416.

The distinction especially occupied Fichte. In 1794 he published a set of three lectures under the title, Concerning the Difference Between the Spirit and the Letter Within Philosophy; trans. by Daniel Breazeale in his Fichte: Early Philosophical Writings, Cornell University press, 1988, pp. 192-215. The next year he wrote a series of letters, On the Spirit and the Letter in Philosophy (written 1795, published 1800) that went beyond a mere revision of his 1794 lectures; they have been translated by Elizabeth Rubenstein in David Simpson (ed.), German Aesthetic and Literary Criticism, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 74-93. [Resume]

19. G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), trans. A.V. Miller, Oxford University Press, 1977, pp. 14-15.

Moreover, just as Fichte distinguished a "double series" of selves, one the subject of philosophy and one the philosophical observer (17, 30, 33, 34), Hegel expounded the developmental history of spirit from a standpoint either off the series or at its end (the standpoint "fr uns"). [Resume]

20. Fichte's dialectical or developmental scale is not temporal. Idealism follows realism "not in time, but in the order of dependence of thought" (66). While Hegel's order is intended in some sense to map the history of intelligence while following only the immanent story of consciousness, Fichte's seems limited to the latter. Hegel's more comprehensive historical sense may be part of the reason why his discussion of immature stages of consciousness is more clinical and less condescending than Fichte's. While Hegel is talking about Greek rationalists, medieval mystics, and Renaissance humanists, among others, for whom he has enormous respect, Fichte may be talking about the epistemological equivalent of children. [Resume]

21. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, op. cit., at B.804; cf. B.xxvi.n, B.856, B.806, B.832, B.839, B.846. [Resume]

22. If Fichte is a little ambiguous or inconsistent in his answers to these questions, Hegel is only slightly less so. Hegel seems to suggest that his "exposition" of the science of the Phenomenology, unlike the mere notion of that science, can carry the consciousness of the reader along to the end. This exposition

can be regarded as the path of the natural consciousness which presses forward to true knowledge; or as the way of the Soul which journeys through the series of its own configurations as though they were the stations appointed for it by its own nature, so that it may...achieve finally, through a completed experience of itself, the awareness of what it really is in itself.
Phenomenology of Spirit, ibid., at 49. On the next page he says
The series of configurations which consciousness goes through along this road is, in reality, the detailed history of the education of consciousness itself to the standpoint of Science....The necessary progression and interconnection of the forms of the unreal consciousness will by itself bring to pass the completion of the series.

Ibid., 50, emphases in original. [Resume]

23. See Henry W. Johnstone, Jr., op. cit., on evocation as the model of rhetoric to which one turns when one realizes that "unilateral persuasion" is impossible, e.g. his "Truth, Communication, and Rhetoric in Philosophy," pp. 73-85, esp. 75-76, and "Epilogue," pp. 134-39, esp. 137-38. From Johnstone's point of view, Fichte's rhetoric is objectionable principally because it gives abundant evidence that he does not address realists with "empathy" or "con amore" (ibid. pp. 137-38).[Resume]

24. Even the Zen master who beats pupils with a stick for asking the wrong questions can be helpful in a way that Fichte's diffuse disparagement cannot, if the Zen master's beatings are sensitively contextual and lead the pupil to see exactly which questions rest on false assumptions and should be revoked rather than answered. [Resume]

25. Fichte comes very close to evocation in this manner in a later work, where he speaks in the first person and asks readers to imagine that the pronoun refers to themselves. Fichte, The Vocation of Man (1800), trans. Roderick M. Chisholm, Bobbs-Merrill, 1956, at p. 4:

[T]he "I" who speaks in this book is not the author himself; it is the author's wish that the reader will himself assume this character...and thus, by his own labor, build up within himself that mode of thought the mere picture of which is presented to him in the book.

At any rate, this experiment in narrative standpoint shows him still thinking about the best way to evoke his position in readers who cannot be carried there by more direct means. [Resume]

26. This is analogous to the current interpretation of the First Amendment to the federal constitution. The prohibition of prior restraints on speech does not abolish liability for damage caused by speech, e.g. in defamation or causing a riot. [Resume]

27. See Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, ibid. at A.xviii-xix, B.173, B.582; cf. B.371, B.598, B.740. See also Kant's still untranslated essay, "On a Certain Genteel Tone that has Recently Arisen in Philosophy" (Von einem neuerdings erhobenen vornehmen Ton in der Philosophie), from the May 1796 Berliner Monatsschrift. The essay concludes that "philosophy is fundamentally prosaic; and to attempt to philosophize poetically is very much as if a merchant should undertake to make up his account-books not in prose but in verse." This passage and several longer excerpts are translated by Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Reason, The Understanding, and Time, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1961 (delivered as lectures in 1939), at pp. 8f. The essay is less about poetic expression in philosophy than a polemic against the alazonic air of superiority in the tone of intuitionists and early Romantics, whose source of confidence lay in the "oracle" of inner intuition rather than in "hard work".[Resume]

28. One may point virtually to Hegel's entire corpus, but see especially the Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit. at pp. 4, 5-6, 11, 13, 22-23, 25, 28, 35, 40-41, 47, 120, 463, 472-73. [Resume]

29. This point is not germane to the subject of Fichte's ad hominem arguments; it is included primarily as a comment on my summary of Fichte's position. I have tried to show his A, his B, and his inference from A to B, but have made no attempt to describe his position A in style B. I have no illusion that I have translated Fichte's position into another style; in grammarian's terms, it is closer to a presentation in indirect quotation.

Recall the quotation early in Section 2: "my system is nothing other than the Kantian; this means that it contains the same view of things, but is in method quite independent of the Kantian presentation" (4). I have never been able to decide whether Fichte here means that he has adopted Kant's Doctrine of Elements, as it were, while rejecting the Doctrine of Method, or that he has tried to translate Kant's position into a new style that he finds better suited to it. Fichte rejects both Kant's method and his style (and crucial aspects of his general doctrine as well), so that the two readings are at least compatible. [Resume]

30. Not only are the majority of people realists who reject the truth of idealism, but even idealists are realists most of the time. Just as Hume could not live his skepticism away from his desk while playing back-gammon or making merry with friends, Fichte acknowledges that "realism...overtakes us all, and even the most hardened idealist, when it comes to acting" (31.n; cf. 55.n, 79-80, 161; see Hume, Treatise of Human Nature (1739), ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge, Oxford University Press, 1968, p. 269). Later, however, Fichte asserts that philosophy's goal is only attained in the person who "is completely convinced of his philosophy, at all hours alike" (81). The context suggests that the only ones blessed with this condition are non-philosophers, which would also have been Hume's conclusion.[Resume]

I would like to thank Terry Foreman, Bob Horn, H. Odera Oruka, Howard Richards, Mario Saenz, A.L.P. Thorpe, and an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.

Ribbon] Peter Suber, Department of Philosophy, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, 47374, U.S.A. Copyright © 1990, Peter Suber.