Saturday, December 08, 2007

On Freedom, the Individual, the Collective and the State: Gunnar Beck, Fitche and Kant on Freedom, Rights, and Law (2007)

The great questions of any age in transition are ontological. Yet, such questions are generally lost amidst the large number of academic technicians who, even as the foundations of social organization shift—and shift dramatically—continue to work feverishly to fill in all of the details of a system quickly moving from vigor to decadence and ultimately to irrelevance. Still, as in every age, there are those who rise above the technicalities of a changing age. Such is the case with Gunnar Beck’s recent, and in many ways profound, interrogation of the dynamics of an age at a crossroads. Gunnar Beck, Fitche and Kant on Freedom, Rights, and Law (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007).

A review follows, one which focuses on the great problem of this century--collective as individuals and individuals as, well, something else.

Beck’s monograph, Fichte and Kant on Freedom, Rights, and Law seeks insight into core ontological questions that are currently in play in the West, as its self-conception, and its notions of the essence of humanity and translation into the borders of social organization come apart and are rewoven. In that context Beck chooses a particularly timely focus. He examines one of the less well known early 19th century post Kantian philosophers in Germany—Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814). Today there may be no better place to look than at the heart of the foundations of the last reweaving in the West—the emergence of modernity from out of the wreckage of the French Ancien Regime. The concern of the age was “freedom.” Both Fichte and Kant sought to interrogate the nature and consequence of “freedom,” especially its ramifications for social and political organization. They believed, like so many others, that the nature of human freedom implied the nature of the state. Both are heirs of the principles of the Enlightenment that produced both the climax of the Ancien Regime and its tendencies, as well as its descent into the anarchy and efficiency of the Terror. Freedom is bound up in rational self-determination. That insight itself creates the conceptual boundaries within which Fichte moves from Kant and the individualist narcissism of the Enlightenment to Hegel and the collectivist pretensions of the succeeding ages. Beck rightly identifies these boundaries as related to the means by which humans become conscious of their proper ends as free rational agents, how is will or be brought to will to do what is rational, and the nature of reason itself.

Beck’s concern is on humanity and state organization. The appropriate forms of the latter follow naturally from a conception of the essence of the former. And it is with respect to both that Beck focuses the bulk of his study of Fichte’s contribution to political philosophy. Fichte, following Kant, starts from a basis of personal freedom and subjectivity grounded in three critical assumptions: individual self-sufficiency, individual perfectibility, and individual subjectivity. The individual serves as both ends and means of free, rational, agency and conscious perfectibility. If the individual can and will do good, and in so doing become good, then government must provide the space for such a journey and protection against its own intermeddling. The good, thus, exists outside the state, or the collective will of any group represented in government. Thus, though state action is limited—the form of such government becomes a matter of some indifference. Here, Beck helps us understand, is Kantain liberalism in the service of any state that respects individual autonomy—a traditional Rechtsstaat in which a substantive theory of the good is unnecessary.

Yet Beck also shows the reader how it was possible for Fichte to retain a complete allegiance to his core principles even as these principles are inverted as applied. Humans, Fichte believed, had a natural right to do whatever perfection required of him, and all other natural rights followed from this. What also followed was a foundational burden on the state to refrain from interference. This conception of individuals and their relationship to the apparatus of state power foreshadows in some respects 21st century neo-liberal theories of economic globalization. Today viewed as essentially conservative, in Fichte Beck shows its liberal, even radical, origins. But over the course of a couple of decades, Fichte moved away from an embrace of the notion of the centrality of the individual to the task of perfection. In place of the individual, Fichte increasingly substituted the collective of individuals for the individual. This change in the subject of perfection had tremendous ramifications for his political theory. Individuals cease to become free agents and are reduced to a vehicle to the elaboration of the general will of the community. Individuals may be bent to that general will. An individual obeys and submits to the collective. The basic right of the individual is to be protected against himself. As an irrational but perfectible person, he must be the subject of education by the collective—and that collective is authentically evidenced through the institutions of the state. The seat of the rational moves form the individual to the collective, and with it the rights to autonomy. Beck shows the short distance between this deployment of the collective in the search for freedom (through autonomy) and the rise of the ethnos as the center of the good—either in its previous forms leading to the pathologies of National Socialism, or in its modern form of plural communities. As important, though, is the connection between Fichte and both ancient and modern totalitarianisms. It is a short step from Fichte to Mao Zedong, or back to traditional Christian conceptions of humanity. And that makes Fichte terribly interesting.

As Beck suggests, in Fichte we see the way in which a rationalist liberal ontology can support both the most liberal of conceptions of the state—a minimalist enterprise focused on the protection of individual exercises in perfectibility—and the most totalitarian state apparatus—an intrusive state in which collective perfectibility is an obligation of the state to be exercised on its individual members, whether they like it or not. It is a short step from the embrace of collective rationality, to the construction of a hierarchical system in which the “scholar-ruler” takes pride of place. In moving from the individual to the collective, Fichte appears to move form the Aristotelian to a Platonic conception. But both are possible under the theory that Fichte never abandons—that the pursuit of the perfection is both a rational and good objective of individuals and the state. Kant places his trust in spontaneity and individual subjectivity. Fichte places his trust in social planning, legislation and political organization. However, the early Fichte focused on the protection of individual autonomy, the later Fichte focused on the collective will, and all to the same end. In Fichte we may well have the example, par excellence, of the ease with which it is easy to move from the most radical of individual liberalism to the most radical of collective liberalism without doing much damage to the foundational norms that mark the borders of liberalism itself.

The book is divided into six chapters. In Chapter 1, Beck develops a critical exposition of Kant’s theories of freedom and morality as they served to form the basis of Fichte’s early theories of freedom, self-consciousness and ethics. This includes a close analysis of Fichte’s works through 1794. It is here that Beck painstakingly explores the construction of a philosophy that reflects the culmination of the rationalist Enlightenment—Man (in this case the individual man) is the center of all things. In Chapter 2, Beck shows how this individually focused rationalism either in Kant’s or Fichte’s version, produces a necessary form of state grounded in voluntarism encouraging free expression, property, and a limited government. There is a strong resonance here with the theories developed by so-called neoconservatives in the United States. Individually focused political theories underlie much of what passes for economic globalization ascendant since the 1980s. This represents one of a number of ironies in the philosophy of politics that Beck deftly draws—the rise of modern conservatism in radical liberalism. Chapter 3 draws on Fichte’s work after 1796. This period marks the beginning of Fichte’s search for rationality beyond the individual, for the transcendent. While a century or so earlier, Fichte might have turned to religion—seeking transcendence in theology—on the cusp of Napoleonic totalitarianism, Fichte turns to human collectives in the search for the content of moral perfection. Individuals are socially constructed, Fichte argues, but that social construction is not universal. While there might at some point be some global collective, Fichte points to ethnos. Fichte endorses a corporatist view of humanity, in which the collective itself is an autonomous personality, superior to any of the individuals who together constitute the collective. This shift appears merely to displace the individual person with another individual—the collective. Anti-individualism itself requires an Overman. And the consequences are dramatic in terms of political theory. Beck draws out those consequences with a sure hand in chapter 4. They are profound and ironic. These consequences constitute a radical reinterpretation of Kant’s theory of autonomy wile remaining true to the foundations of that theory. As Beck explains: “Ultimately, law and government derive their authority not from the consent of the governed, which is the actual will as expressed by empirical beings, but from the metaphysical ends of man, that is, a distinct conception of what, some time in the future, man ought to and must become.” But such a constriction requires an elite, which for Fichte is constituted as the scholar-ruler. The resonance to modern dictatorships of the proletariat, to the leadership of a party, and other forms of Platonist control for the efficient attainment o of collective perfection through a cultivation of appropriate consciousness is hard to avoid. As Beck argues: for Fichte,
"It follows that an man, who proves recalcitrant, refuses to enter the state or disobeys its laws, must be forced to comply . . . It is because perfection now implies co-operation, yet men, as they are, remain so different from the way they ought to be, that the state will necessarily have to be a 'Notstaat,' a coercive legislative power designed to curb selfish impulse and irrational desire and to ensure universal compliance with the general will, that which each individual self at its best' would necessarily will itself."

Chapter 5 returns the reader to the foundations of Kant’s moral and legal theory. Beck shows how Fichte’s progression from his early to his later writings, and his foreshadowing not only of Hegel but of much of what passes for political philosophy in the 20th century, is also strongly connected to the liberalism of Kant. Beck draws important connections between Fichte’s perfectionism and Kant’s anti-constructivist account of historical progress. That connection makes it possible, in turn, to develop a connection between Kant’s theory of rights and Hegel’s holistic ontology. From this Beck is able to show how Kant’s individualism is not wholly divorced from an understanding of the social embeddedness of individuals. Beck also powerfully argues against a common notion of Kant as a liberal universalist who endorses a single set of absolute values of legal and political legitimacy. Beck argues persuasively that, like Fichte, Kant understood individuals in society as a work in progress, whose quest for individual perfection might be met at different time by different forms of governance—from authoritarian to democratic regimes. Moral universalism and political perfectionism are for Kant, quite separable. In Contrast, Fichte, like Marxists a century later (and there is some irony here as well), rejects any separation between law, politics, and morality. More ironic still because modern transnational constitutionalism has also been moving, at least since 1945, toward the embrace of the idea that normative values (or at least a catalogue of basic normative values) and law cannot be separated. Fichte also points to a basis for this idea of the unity of Rechtsstaat and Sozialstaat. This union can produce the basis for the minimalist state, where the center of the political universe is grounded in the individual. Yet as we have seen, in the later Fichte, when the individual is de-centered in favor of the only 'true' individual--the singular collective--this union produces something entirely different. For a political community in which there is only one individual, the state (itself composed of many people), then the process of individual self mastery must include a mastery of all of its parts. Thus is born the Zwangstaat, the coercive state. Beck ends with a discussion of some of the important consequences of Fichte’s philosophy. His focus is on Fichte’s nationalism. No surprise for a man living at the time of Napoleon’s redrawing of the map (and consciousness) of what will emerge less than 70 years later as the German Reich. It is hard, at least in Central Europe, to separate political collectives and ethnos. The whole of the 19th century appears to have been bent to that purpose. Fichte provides yet another vehicle for the expression of that drive to privilege ethnos. The legal sociology of international law has provided a convenient cover for all sorts of expressions of collective will—however organized. Fichte’s political philosophy adds fodder. And this is yet another irony. Both multi-culturalism (understood as politically based separatism) and ethnic nationalism—from National Socialism to Kosovar independence—owe much to Fichte and his successors. Beck draws these connections well.

Yet Beck does more than merely describe the shift in Fichte’s philosophical stance. Beck does a masterful job of drawing deep and important insights from the transition in Fitche’s thought. Fitche, in Beck’s hands, become more than an intermediary between more important schools of political philosophy. He is, in the dynamism of his thought, in his zealotry, conversion, and renewed zealotry (and this last through which the object of his initial zealotry is now inverted), serves as a superb characterization of the current age of political philosophy. Beck has managed to do what has eluded many of the giants in the field—to focus analysis on transition as the basis for understanding the very nature of political philosophy since the decapitation of Louis XVI. Fichte as representative of the dynamic element of political philosophy, and the importance of that dynamic element, make this study stand out well above the pack.

Thus, this is no ordinary digestion of the work of a minor philosopher standing between giants. Rather, by stressing the dynamic element of Fichte’s theory, Beck is able to extract deeper insights that will serve as a critical element to our understanding of the political philosophy of the age. More importantly, Beck is able to provide a foundation for understanding the movement from liberalism to totalitarianism in European political philosophy. That movement—from the left to the hard right, from individual freedom to its inversion in the name of freedom, is one of the most tenacious elements of modern political philosophy. Beck’s contribution to the understanding of this dynamism, and the connections between liberalism and totalitarianism makes the study alone an important contribution to the field.

Beck deftly draws Fichte into the mainstream of a critical stream of Western political philosophy. That alone makes this an important work. But most importantly, perhaps, Beck is able to show the way in which many of the variations in the most subtle of political philosophies all have a common parent. Reason, it appears, serves any master willing to deploy it to some particular purpose--any purpose it seems. And so, Beck rightly draws the reader back to foundations. And he chooses a critical one--human freedom.

In Fichte, Beck has found a great exemplar of ontological dynamism in an age in transition. The early 21st century, like the early 19th century, is an age of foundational transition. In Fichte, Beck has found a critical link between the dynamism of an age and the reconstruction of political philosophy. Concepts, like language, it seems, serve as empty vessels, to be filled by the assumptions and desires of the age in which they are utilized. So it is with the individual, the community, freedom, law, and that state. In Fichte Beck provides an excellent study of the process of this sort of change--as well as of its continuities. There is much difference between Hegel and Kant--and yet little separates them. They embrace the same concepts, and use the same language, but each embeds those concepts and language with such distinct meanings that they might well have lived on different planets. Beck brings that closeness and distance into stark perspective through the Fichte--the journeyman within a malleable ontological universe.

The work may be ordered from Lexington Press, a division of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. For their general catalog, click here.

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