quarta-feira, 16 de outubro de 2013


            Discussing the concept of God is probably the most ancient speculative activity in human history. One of the periods where such activity reached its pinnacle was late XVIII Century Germany with all the debates between rationalists – either from the Aufklärung or from Spinozist tradition –, the Sturm and Drang supporters and, after the Kantian revolution, the transcendental idealists[1]. One of the most iconic moments concerning such discussion was the Atheism Dispute (1798-1800)[2] where the concept of substance becomes pivotal: should we understand God as somehow a separate substance from our empirical world and ourselves? Concomitantly, should we define God as a being, therefore with autonomous substance, or as something else? These two questions were answered in very different ways. One could argue that God is a separate substance and a separate being – as the Judeo-Christian tradition does; or, one could argue that God and the world are the same substance – like Spinoza did; one could even say that one cannot possibly know what God, or the world in itself, are – as did Kant; or, finally, one could argue, following Fichte’s revolutionary steps, that God is neither a separate being, nor a separate substance – nor the same substance as the material world – and advocate for an entire new conceptualization of God: as a divine moral order.
            In order to shed light into this subject I will analyze the debate inside the Atheism Dispute, in particular, the notions of God present in the discussion between F. H. Jacobi and J. G. Fichte. Mediating this discussion was K. L. Reinhold, with his attempt in finding a middle way between the two philosophers[3], and it is precisely on this role played by Reinhold that I wish to focus my attention. In the present essay, in spite of the mediator’s alleged allegiances, or true wishes of finding a sort of a neutral third way, I shall argue that Reinhold does take a stand on the debate and that such stand is along with Jacobi.
            I will develop my essay in the following way: first, in Section II, I will summarize Fichte’s notions regarding the concept of God, namely how he understands such concept as not a substance, or even a being. Then, in Section III, I shall do the same regarding Jacobi’s opposing position. Finally, in Section IV, I will present Reinhold’s attempt of a middle way and show how that attempt is nothing more than an attempt because, all things considered, Reinhold’s concepts of God and substance coincide with those of Jacobi. I will conclude my essay with a few final remarks in Section V.

            J. G. Fichte’s On the Ground of Our Belief in a Divine World-Governance (1798) is the starting point for the Atheism Dispute. This essay summarizes Fichte’s position regarding the concept of God, the supersensible and how one can ground oneself in the world. According to Fichte, the traditional religious interpretation of the concept of God lacks the capability for truly grasping the divine essence. “You are finite. How could that which is finite encompass and comprehend the infinite?”[4], Fichte asks. And this question incorporates why, according to Fichte, real atheism derives from failing to recognize the true essence of God and, consequently, also failing to act according to the divine moral order. This is the reason why the debate was a true atheist dispute: it was not merely the matter of one side accusing the other of professing atheism; it was rather a dispute over what atheism is, which amounts, since one cannot define atheism without a concept of God, to a dispute over what the concept of God truly entails.
            Fichte’s position is a very polemic one precisely because he does not accept the notions of God as an entity with personality, substantiality or any kind of recognizable propriety; such proprieties will only limit what Fichte considers to be unlimited: “you simply cannot think of personality and consciousness without limitation and finitude. Consequently, by attributing these predicates to this being [God] you make it into something finite, into a being similar to yourselves; and you have not thought of God, as you wished, but rather you have only multiplied yourselves in your thinking”[5]. Hence, this anthropomorphization of God is, for Fichte, what real atheism is all about, for it diminishes the incomprehensibly infinite divine into a mere creation of man, a creation that mirrors his own human finite image.
            What is God then for Fichte? It is the moral order of the world: Fichte holds that “right action is possible, and every situation is taken into account by [a] higher law; a moral act inevitably succeeds as a consequence of that arrangement, and an immoral one inevitably fails”[6]. Hence, it is this order in itself that consists in God: “that living and active moral order is itself God; we require no other God and can grasp no other”[7]. The moral order of the world, what is truly divine, manifests itself through laws and reason offering an unshakable certainty about the world, God and what is right and wrong: “It is... a misunderstanding to say that is doubtful whether a God exists or not. It is not doubtful at all but rather the most certain thing that there is. Indeed, it is the ground of all other certainty, the single absolutely valid objective fact: that there is a moral world-order, that a determinate place in this order is assigned to every rational individual and his work is taken into account; that the destiny of each individual, insofar as it is not caused, so to speak, by his own conduct, is a result of this plan... and that for those who rightly love only the good, all things must conduce to the best”[8].
            Therefore, God, for Fichte, can be neither a separate being, nor a separate substance: “there is no ground in reason from which one can proceed and, by means of an inference from that which is grounded to its ground, assume some separate being as the cause of that which is grounded”[9]. This is the key element: since God, as the infinite certainty, must be what grounds the world, then how can a separate being be the ground for that which it is not connected to? The exact same argument works for the issue of substance, hence, for Fichte, “the concept of God as a separate substance is impossible and contradictory”[10].
            How are we to connect with God then? According to Fichte this happens through revelation. However, it is not a revelation that comes from the outside of any individual. Fichte asks: “if the belief is not already in human beings, then I would at least like to know this much: from where, then, do your representatives – who, after all, are only human beings – themselves receive what they wish to provide us through the force of their proofs; or, if these representatives are in fact beings of a higher nature, how can they count on getting through to the rest of us and becoming intelligible to us, without presupposing in us something analogous to their belief?”[11] Revelation comes with our conscience of ourselves; and our freedom comes from acting upon that revelation.
 This is what is truly revolutionary about Fichte’s proposal: if God is not a separate being, or a separate substance, but a moral order that manifests itself in a plan then, human beings, as rational selves, are capable of accessing such moral order – therefore God – within their own consciences: if God is not a separate being, nor a separate substance, then the supersensible – that which is commonly accepted to be divine – must also be within ourselves because there are no other beings, or substances, where the divine could be. Also, it is in our individual freedom to assume (what we discern to be) our rational goal as a moral goal that consists divine revelation: by listening to reason, by rising myself to the transcendental viewpoint[12], I am able to soar[13] above the sensible world, hence accessing the supersensible through divine revelation – that consists in knowing what is my moral duty to the world. Hence, I am free to fulfil my moral duty to God by compelling myself, through individual revelation, to the moral order of the world. That freedom, Fichte tells us, “is not indeterminate; it has a goal. Only it does not receive that goal from the outside but rather posits it through itself. I myself and my necessary goal are the supersensible”[14].
Atheism, according to Fichte, is therefore not to listen to ourselves, to enslave our will to the will of others because “I cannot doubt... freedom and the determination thereof without surrendering myself. I cannot doubt, I say, cannot even think the possibility that it is not so, that this inner voice deceives me, or that this inner voice must first be authorized and grounded elsewhere. Consequently, with regard to this matter I cannot quibble, subtilize, or explain at all. That pronouncement is what is absolutely positive and categorical”[15]. To love God, to wish to ensure a moral – and divine – order in the world, implies the courage to surrender ourselves to our duty towards the world: a duty that is revealed while positing our place in the moral order. It is this dichotomy, between surrendering and positing – or between duty and freedom – that fuels our limited existence. As for the divine moral order, there is no conflict, there is only divine harmony; hence, in surrendering myself to it, as I posit my own freedom, I too achieve harmony: when existing within the limits of my own existence, I can find my place in the moral order that I, on the one hand, belong to, and that, on the other hand, I also posit as my own.
From this dichotomy – to surrender to what I also posit as myself –, Fichte derives the absolute necessity of faith. However, faith is not “a free decision to regard as true whatever his heart desires because it wishes this very thing”[16] or “supplementing or replacing the sufficient grounds of conviction with hope”[17]. Faith arises precisely from the absolute certainty that the divine moral order posit in the world through myself; by bringing harmony to myself and, at the same time, surrendering myself and positing myself onto the world. I experience a moral disposition towards the moral world order, therefore, because “morality, as certainly as this is what it is, can be constituted absolutely only through itself”[18], and the “conviction of our moral vocation is itself already issued from a moral disposition, and is faith[19], then “the element off all certainty is faith”[20].
In sum, Fichte assumes faith in God but rejects the traditional view of what faith, or God, are. According to Fichte, God is a moral order (hence neither a separate being nor a separate substance) that grounds the world. Since the divine is not a separate substance, nor a being, the divine world-order is revealed to us individually. This individuality results in a very strong advocacy for freedom that is understood, simultaneously, as a surrendering to, and a positing of, the divine moral world order that grounds the world. By transcending the sensible world I can act by myself because I know what I should be positing. This is the meaning of faith for Fichte: the only thing that I can be absolutely sure about is me; and the limits of my existence posit myself in the world. Therefore, because it is also through me that the moral order is posited, I have the duty to surrender myself to the goal of God, i.e. the moral order: “I must simply intend the goal of morality; accomplishing it is possible; it is possible through me”[21]. Hence, I have the duty to fulfil, through me, what God posits to the world. Therefore, my freedom is of great responsibility: I am also the author of the world: “reality is not inferred from possibility, but the reverse. The saying is not ‘I should because I can’ but rather ‘I can because I should’”[22].

            In March of 1799, F. H. Jacobi endorses a letter to Fichte trying to refute several of the latter’s arguments and accusing Fichte’s view of atheism because it amounts to defending the idea that there is nothing outside the I. Jacobi refuses what he calls Fichte’s “inverted spinozism”[23] and advocates for a dualist understanding of the world. This means that understanding God as a separate substance – and also a separate being – is pivotal for Jacobi. According to him, Fichte presents “an attempt to explain everything from a self-determining matter alone”[24] which implies an egoistic view of the world; in fact, “apart from dualism there is only egoism”[25].
            According to Jacobi, it is this egoism, derived from the notion that nothing can exist outside the I, that undermines the notion that what is true is “something which is prior to and outside knowledge; that which first gives a value to knowledge and to the faculty of knowledge, to reason[26]. For Jacobi, “the moral principle of reason, the accord of man with himself, a fixed unity, is the highest principle within the concept, for this unity is the absolute and unchanging condition of rational existence in general, hence also of all rational and free activity; in it and with it alone, does man have truth and a higher life. But this unity is not itself the essence, it is not the true. Its self, in itself alone, is barren, desolate and empty”[27]. What is true, and what is the essence, must reside elsewhere: and to deny to the divine properties such as substantiality is to assume that the emptiness of reason is all there is beyond the sensible. Jacobi, dramatically, assumes: “if the highest that I can recollect in me, that I can intuit, is my I, empty and pure, naked and bare, with its self-subsistence and freedom, then reflective self-intuition is a curse for me, and so rationality... I curse my existence”[28].
            The pivotal point is exactly that of substance. According to Jacobi, against dualism, only materialism and idealism – hence, for him, two egoistic doctrines – advocate for one substance in the world; therefore, these two views, according to Jacobi, both merge matter and though, or infinite and finite, into one. Hence, we have Jacobi’s accusation labelling Fichte’s system as inverted Spinozism: for Jacobi “little was lacking for this transfiguration of materialism into idealism to have already been realized through Spinoza. His substance, which underlies extended and thinking being, equally and inseparably binds them together; it is nothing but the invisible identity of object and subject (demonstrable only through inferences) upon which the system of the new philosophy is grounded”[29]. It is the refusal of the divine as a separate substance that Jacobi does not accept. To assume such idea implies that we only have ourselves and our world; and, according to Jacobi, all meaning, all ground, all that is true, vanishes with the refusal of God as a separate being and substance. He complains: “I don’t understand this jubilation over the discovery that there are only truths, and nothing true[30].
            It is against a world empty of meaning and truth that Jacobi speaks: grounding the world in an order implies, for Jacobi, grounding the world in itself, which is tantamount to say that, when refusing a separate substance as the ground, one is assuming that, in fact, there is no ground. And a world – and hence man – grounded in itself must be atheism for, according to Jacobi, if God is not outside of man then man must be God. He proclaims: “God is, and is outside me, a living, self-subsisting being, or I am God. There is no third”[31].
            It is this reasoning that is behind the accusation of atheism: according to Jacobi, Fichte – just as Spinoza before him had already opened the way –, when refusing a separate divine substance, and advocating for the divine as a moral order posited by individuals, is in fact advocating for the substitution of a God that “never was”[32] for a God posited – therefore created – by individuals themselves: “Man finds God because he can find himself only in God; and he is to himself unfathomable because God’s being is necessarily unfathomable to him. ‘Necessarily’, for otherwise there would reside in man a supra-divine power, and God would then only be the thought of someone finite, something imaginary, and by no means the Highest Being who subsists in Himself alone, the free creator of all other things, the beginning and the end. This is not how it is, and for this reason man loses himself as soon as he resists finding himself in God as his creator, in a way inconceivable to his reason; as soon as he wants to ground himself in himself alone[33].
            In sum, according to Jacobi, Fichte’s system is atheistic because it fails to acknowledge the true ground, foundation, meaning, beginning and end of the world – hence God – as a separate substance. When assuming that God is not a separate being with its own substance, Fichte, according to Jacobi, is denying God and transforming man, not in God’s creation, but in the creator of God: “man has this choice, however, and this alone: Nothingness or a God. If he chooses nothingness, he makes himself into a God”[34]. According to Jacobi, refusing a divine substance amounts to the latter possibility; hence, the accusation for Fichte’s atheism.

            In April of 1799, K. L. Reinhold, sends a letter to Fichte where he intends a sort of ‘third way’, or ‘middle way’, between Fichte and Jacobi. Addressing to the former and also referring to the latter, Reinhold announces: “I must take my standpoint between him and you[35]. First, Reinhold equates Jacobi’s and Fichte’s notions of faith and belief. The middle way seems to assent in the notion that only through the relationship between philosophical knowledge and belief can knowledge be raised above mere speculation[36]. According to Reinhold, speculation is the act of abstracting from what is real[37], which confers the philosopher with the capacity for creating “artificial reason”[38]; it is artificial reason that will allow the philosopher to create limits in infinite reality and comprehend the – now artificially created – finite in infinitum[39]. What Reinhold is actually doing, in spite of doing it while attempting to explain Fichte’s philosophy, is taking a stand against Fichte: while for the latter, it is from the standpoint of transcendental philosophy that one grasps one’s freedom, for Reinhold, the act of philosophizing, because achieved through speculation, isolates the philosopher from the world and prevents his true freedom. Reinhold tells us: “only through my freedom do I participate in infinitude. Therefore, how I originally find it in conscience is as something finite to me but indissolubly connected with the infinite in an admittedly incomprehensible manner.”[40] However, since “from the standpoint of speculation I abstract from all that is real”[41], hence creating this artificial standpoint towards the world, then, consequently, Reinhold concludes that “I [the philosopher] no longer possess my freedom as such but rather freedom in itself, in me and for me, which artifice has raised above its original essence, above its nature, and has torn itself loose from the original connection of its finitude with the infinite”[42]. According to Reinhold, the philosopher[43] - because philosophizing is speculation – instead of raising himself into true freedom and soaring above the sensible world (as Fichte posited), isolates himself in an artificial standpoint that separates him from the world, hence losing true freedom. As we can see, Reinhold’s assumption is the opposite that the one of Fichte.
             Reinhold continues his letter by assuming that “what is originally true, which is independent of knowledge, is contained in that artificial knowing only insofar as it is reproduced and can be reproduced in infinitum by that knowing, and only to the extent that it can be presented, expounded, and represented by means of something comprehensible in infinitum”[44]. Therefore, because what the philosopher creates is an artificial – therefore comprehensible – limitation of the infinite, “that which is absolutely incomprehensible and genuinely infinite... can never be found in that knowing, through which only something finite can be established in infinitum”[45]. Two simple conclusions here: first, the philosopher cannot possibly ground his knowledge in the infinite because he is limited to his own artificial finite speculation; second, that what is true is independent from knowledge. We already saw how the first conclusion is opposite to Fichte’s system; however, the second will lead us to Reinhold’s true choice of sides: the one that advocates that God must be a separate substance.
            According to Reinhold, since all speculation is independent from truth, if we want to find truth we must turn ourselves elsewhere. He assumes: “there is a pure conviction that is not the speculative, philosophical one: and [it is that] God exists and is essentially different from nature[46]. Reinhold solves the problem that he sees in Fichte’s system (that speculation isolates the philosopher from the infinite and true freedom) by assuming that the only true knowledge we can have is the one that does not come from speculation; ant this means that that pure knowledge must come from the infinite – God – that, in its essence, is different from nature. It is the endorsement of dualism that solves Reinhold’s problem. Therefore, unequivocally, in this second – and pivotal – issue, Reinhold sides with Jacobi against Fichte (once again)[47].
            Reinhold makes a feeble attempt in defending Fichte when he explains why he believes that there is a misunderstanding regarding Fichte’s philosophy: according to him that misunderstanding occurs “when one mistakes the original freedom revealed to us only through conscience alone for the absolute freedom that is real only in, through, and for speculation, and sets the latter in place of the former by thinking God[48]. Basically, Reinhold says that the misunderstanding occurs when we take the artificial result of speculation and infer it to be actually true. This misunderstanding, Reinhold tells us, “can turn feeble believers and heterodox believers into atheists[49]. However, Reinhold continues, “whoever correctly understands this philosophy must realize and know from it that the reality of the original freedom is presupposed by the absolute freedom of the philosopher and is explicable from and through the latter freedom only by means of and for knowledge that progresses in infinitum[50].
Reinhold seems to be defending Fichte here: according to him, if we are to correctly understand Fichte’s system we will see that he is no atheist at all; however, the question that remains here, is that Reinhold’s defence is a poisoned argument: we already know that Reinhold holds a different position than Fichte regarding the standpoint of philosophy, freedom and the divine substantiality of God. Hence, despite Reinhold’s benevolent effort, if Fichte is to stick to his convictions, then, according to Reinhold’s argument (that intends to defend Fichte), Fichte would, in fact, be an atheist.
This notion is deepened when Reinhold establishes that: “the philosopher, therefore, as philosopher, knows nothing but nature and mere nature at that, the essence of which just consists of finitude in infinitum. He would necessarily have to be an atheist if he could be nothing more than a philosopher”[51]. According to Reinhold, it is necessary to add the pure knowledge of God to the philosopher’s speculative knowledge: it is that pure knowing[52] that, through Fichte’s original moral-religious feeling[53], is going to fulfil the emptiness of artificial reason: “therefore, as a human being, he believes along with Jacobi that without this felling his pure knowing would not only be mere speculation, which is all it can be anyway, but also empty speculation, which it should not be at all”[54]. Once more, Reinhold sides with Jacobi: the philosopher’s reasoning is empty unless it is filled with the essence that the speculative philosopher alone cannot grasp: true faith in a true God.

We can conclude that Fichte’s revolutionary understanding of God, and his refusal of the traditional depiction of God as an entity with personality and substantiality, was received by Jacobi as an advocacy for atheism. Jacobi’s main argument for Fichte’s alleged atheism was, precisely, the fact that Fichte denied God the proprieties of a separate being with a separate substance. Jacobi goes even further and establishes that any philosophy that refuses dualism must be an egoistic philosophy because such philosophies uphold the idea that man creates God and not the contrary.
Regarding this dispute, Reinhold attempts to find a third way, a sort of middle ground between Fichte and Jacobi. In fact, Reinhold does present his middle way by combining features of both philosophers; however, since on the most pivotal points he diverges strongly from Fichte and sides with Jacobi (specially in what regards the issue of God being a separate substance and being), we are lead to believe that Fichte was not very happy, neither with Reinhold’s attempt of a third way, nor with Reinhold’s efforts on acquitting Fichte from the accusation of atheism. In fact, if we take Fichte’s standpoint, Reinhold’s letter is doing exactly the opposite to what was his explicit intention.


F. H. Jacobi, ‘Jacobi to Fichte’, in F. H. Jacobi, ed. by George di Giovanni, The Main Philosophical Writings and the novel Allwill, McGill-Queens Press, 1995, pp. 497 - 536
Frederick Beiser, The Fate of Reason, Harvard University Press, 1987
J. G. Fichte, ‘On the Ground of Our Belief in a Divine World-Governance’, in Y. Estes & C. Bowman, J. G. Fichte and the Atheism Dispute (1798-1800), Ashgate, 2010, pp. 21 - 28
K. L. Reinhold, ‘Letter to Fichte’, in Y. Estes & C. Bowman, J. G. Fichte and the Atheism Dispute (1798-1800), Ashgate, 2010, pp. 134 – 143

[1] Regarding this debate please see Frederick Beiser, The Fate of Reason, Harvard University Press, 1987
[2] I am taking this title from Y. Estes & C. Bowman (ed. by), J. G. Fichte and the Atheism Dispute (1798-1800), Ashgate, 2010
[3] To regard Jacobi as a philosopher would not be a peaceful statement in some circles: some philosophers relegated Jacobi for a secondary role. According to Beiser, Mendelssohn, for example, regarded Jacobi as “a mere literatus, who was not worthy of his time” (in Frederick Beiser, The Fate of Reason, Harvard University Press, 1987, p. 63
[4] J. G. Fichte, ‘On the Ground of Our Belief in a Divine World-Governance’, in Y. Estes & C. Bowman, J. G. Fichte and the Atheism Dispute (1798-1800), Ashgate, 2010, p. 27
[5] Ibidem, p. 26
[6] Ibidem, p. 25
[7] Ibidem, p. 26
[8] Ibidem, p. 27
[9] Ibidem, p. 26
[10] Ibidem, p. 27
[11] Ibidem, p. 21
[12] Ibidem, p. 23
[13] Ibidem, p. 24
[14] Ibidem, p. 23
[15] Ibidem, p. 23
[16] Ibidem, p. 22
[17] Ibidem, p. 22
[18] Ibidem, p. 23
[19] Ibidem, p. 23
[20] Ibidem, p. 23
[21] Ibidem, p. 24
[22] Ibidem, p. 24
[23] F. H. Jacobi, ‘Jacobi to Fichte’, in F. H. Jacobi, ed. by George di Giovanni, The Main Philosophical Writings and the novel Allwill, McGill-Queens Press, 1995
[24] Ibidem, p. 502
[25] Ibidem, p. 502
[26] Ibidem, p. 513
[27] Ibidem, p. 517
[28] Ibidem, p. 517
[29] Ibidem, p. 502
[30] Ibidem, p. 512
[31] Ibidem, p. 524
[32] Ibidem, p. 512
[33] Ibidem, p. 523
[34] Ibidem, p. 524
[35] K. L. Reinhold, ‘Letter to Fichte’, in Y. Estes & C. Bowman, J. G. Fichte and the Atheism Dispute (1798-1800), Ashgate, 2010, p. 134
[36] Ibidem, p. 135
[37] Ibidem, p. 137
[38] Ibidem, p. 136
[39] Ibidem, p. 136
[40] Ibidem, p. 137
[41] Ibidem, p. 137
[42] Ibidem, p. 137
[43] A small provocation could be made here and infer that, when referring to the philosopher, Reinhold has in mind Fichte.
[44] K. L. Reinhold, ‘Letter to Fichte’, in Y. Estes & C. Bowman, J. G. Fichte and the Atheism Dispute (1798-1800), Ashgate, 2010,  p. 138
[45] Ibidem, p. 138
[46] Ibidem, p. 139
[47] Reinhold’s explains thoroughly how his dualism unfolds in his philosophy: “as nature, what is true in natural consciousness is possible only for experience – that is, for knowing that consists of sensible perceiving extending in infinitum as well as the thinking that is related to it – so-called empirical knowing. As God, what is true in natural consciousness is possible only for consciousness; and in conscience it is only possible for belief, which is grounded in a supersensible, original feeling that is incomprehensible in its origin: a feeling that neither nature nor our freedom was able to give to us, and that we must assume on account of the belief that results from it, as something that is God-given, as the revelation of God in us” (in K. L. Reinhold, ‘Letter to Fichte’, in Y. Estes & C. Bowman, J. G. Fichte and the Atheism Dispute (1798-1800), Ashgate, 2010,  p. 139). It is through his dualist understanding of reality that Reinhold intends his third way; however, since he assumes explicitly that “God exists and is essentially different from nature”[47], and also that Jacobi’s and Fichte’s discussion is essentially about substance, it is very difficult to understand his theory as a middle way, and not an endorsement of Jacobi’s position.
[48] Ibidem, p. 141
[49] Ibidem, p. 141
[50] Ibidem, p. 141
[51] Ibidem, p. 138
[52] Ibidem, p. 143
[53] Ibidem, p. 143
[54] Ibidem, p. 143