Adventures in the Dialectic: Materialism or Idealism

I was reading Introductions to the Wissenschaftslehre by Johann Gottlieb Fichte, which includes two introductions to the German philosopher’s theory of scientific knowledge. The two introductions were meant to clarify misunderstandings and to respond to critiques of his Wissenschaftslehre (literally, theory of scientific knowledge). Fichte is an interesting figure in the history of philosophy and, in particular, the history of German Idealism. A contemporary of Kant and Hegel, he claimed that his work was the exposition of Kantian idealism (although, there’s some debate on whether or not Kant approved of this claim, with my gut telling me he did not). Whereas Kant’s theory made room for the object’s existence beyond its appearance to consciousness – the thing-in-itself or noumenon – Fichte goes full subjective idealism, denying any such possibility as irrational (more on that to come). In a sense, Fichte is perhaps the logical outcome of Kantianism taken to the extreme. As an idealist, Fichte takes thought to be the foundation of being. The thing-in-itself has its ground in the object’s appearance to consciousness, and therefore isn’t really a thing-in-itself at all, but the illusion of such.

Fichte is interesting for his pure idealism. There are no half-measures. He states clearly that either you believe that being is primary and are a dogmatist (others might call that materialism, as we shall see), or you believe that thought is primary and are an idealist. Reading through the two introductions included in this text, there was a striking admission by Fichte:

Neither of these two systems can directly refute the opposing one; for the dispute between them is a dispute concerning first principles, i.e., concerning a principle that cannot be derived from any higher principle. If the first principle of either system is conceded, then it is able to refute the first principle of the other. Each denies everything included within the opposite system. They do not have a single point in common on the basis of which they might be able to achieve mutual understanding and be united with one another. Even when they appear to be in agreement concerning the words of some proposition, they understand these same words to mean two different things.

What, then, is the difference between someone who takes being as primary and someone who takes thought as primary? What motivates someone in either direction? Fichte gives us an answer for this: “What ultimately distinguishes the idealist from the dogmatist is, accordingly, a difference of interest.” Whichever one chooses as their absolute primary foundation for philosophical thought, they choose by free will, based on their “inclination” or “interest.” The interest of every person, including the philosopher, according to Fichte, is “to preserve and to affirm [themselves] therein.” There are two kinds of people in this world, the old saying goes. For Fichte these two kinds of people, or “sub-species of human beings,” are the dogmatists who have not realized their absolute freedom and attach their self-identity to the objects around them; and the idealist, who is fully aware of their freedom, and therefore does not invest too much into the objects around themselves as they only serve to limit the absolute freedom of their consciousness, which is their true essence. The idealist “looks down upon the dogmatist with a certain amount of disrespect,” for “[s]omeone whose character is naturally slack or who has been enervated and twisted by spiritual servitude, scholarly self-indulgence, and vanity will never be able to raise himself to the level of idealism.”

As I mentioned above, what Fichte calls a dogmatist can also be called a materialist, and there are few materialists as staunch in their belief that being or matter is primary over thought than Vladimir Lenin. Lenin only wrote one book for publication on philosophy, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Interestingly enough, Lenin seems to agree with Fichte on the question of whether materialism or idealism can ultimately disprove the other: 

What is meant by giving a ‘definition’? It means essentially to bring a given concept within a more comprehensive concept. For example, when I give the definition ‘an ass is an animal,’ I am bringing the concept ‘ass’ within a more comprehensive concept. The question then is, are there more comprehensive concepts, with which the theory of knowledge could operate, than those of being and thinking, matter and sensation, physical and mental? No…one or the other must be primary.

Either thought can be defined via being or being via matter. Either thought is a derivation of matter, reflecting nature in-itself more or less accurately to consciousness or; matter is derived from thought, with its appearance to consciousness being primary. 

Whereas Fichte says that an intuition of one’s freedom can serve as proof of the correctness of the idealist line, for Lenin (and Marxists in general) it is practice. There will be more on this later. What concerns me now is whether there is absolute proof of whether materialism or idealism are correct. For Lenin, practice cannot give us the absolute answer: “Of course, we must not forget that the criterion of practice can never, in the nature of things, either confirm or refute any human idea completely.” Practice can confirm that materialism is the right path, but not beyond any doubt. What, then, drives the materialist to materialism? Is it also inclination or interest?

If we are to understand interest as the basis for one’s epistemological outlook, are we then to understand the foundation of epistemology is not epistemological at all but something that precedes the epistemological question? We have already seen for Fichte that he identifies self-interest with championing the abstract and transcendental freedom of the individual. For Fichte, then, matter or being is conceived negatively because it is a limitation to the absolute freedom of consciousness. Lenin, the revolutionary socialist, on the other hand, conceives of matter positively as the substance which undergoes change to bring about a new world (one thinks of Marx’s 11th thesis). As Marx says: “Matter is the subject of all change.”

As we recall, Fichte divided humanity between those who sensed their freedom, and were therefore idealists; and those who conflate the world of objects and its determinism with themselves, and are therefore unable to think beyond materialism. For Lenin there are two kinds of people, too (to put it crudely): the capitalist and the exploited. The exploited don’t sense freedom, but servitude. But we are also the ones who toil in the fields and the factories, and know firsthand that matter can be changed. In fact, it must be changed for the sake of ending exploitation.

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