Book Review: James’s Fichte’s Social and Political Philosophy

David James, Fichte’s Social and Political Philosophy: Property and Virtue. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) is the third most important thinker in the tradition of German idealism (Kant and Hegel vying for most important) which later morphed into Marxism and finally into Frankfurt School critical theory as well as into Rawls’ Kantian constructivism. Though idealism is a central strand in contemporary ethics, it has not has as strong an impact in political and legal philosophy where it has been eclipsed by the social contract tradition of which Kant and, to some extent, Fichte are part. However, it is James’ contention that Fichte’s idealism is indeed relevant to his theory of the state and hence to the idea of a social contract and the further vexing question of the relation between morality and right.

In the interest of clarifying what is at stake in a properly idealist understanding of Fichte’s theory of right, let me say some general things about how idealism plays into the debate. The first thing to say, perhaps is that idealism takes as its main opponent realism, the— perhaps more familiar— idea that the world is a certain way and that we, as subject must both discover and then conform our behavior to the way the world actually is. This is captured in empirical social science or socio-biology by the thought that there is an ideal, or maximally efficient, form social organization can take and it is our task to figure out what that is so that we can model actual social organization on this ideal social organization, stripping away the sorts of things which are extraneous to this efficiency. (The case of property, discussed below, shows that this is no idle comparison.)

Idealism, for methodological as well as ethical reasons, takes the opposite approach, insisting by contrast that we, as social and moral beings, construct the world we live in. That is, the social world is not a function of the arrangements of bodies (to which minds must accommodate themselves) but rather of the attitudes of mind in the sense that the social world is the result of our varying attitudes toward each other. This is captured by the familiar claim to rational autonomy which social contract theorists from Hobbes to Rawls all take as axiomatic, to some extent. The basic point is simply that it is the will itself which constructs the world in its own image. The will of others, not their bodies, is likewise the relevant entity of ethical consideration.

This idealist perspective is usually understood as a moral perspective and is to varying degrees understood as at odds with political philosophy which deals with rights, that is with how bodies are arranged. Liberalism, in the Lockean and at least some of the Rawlsian versions, is concerned to maintain a balance between morality and political organization in the sense that it takes itself to be able to abstract from contentful moral commitment in the service of universalizable commitments about how bodies should be treated. That is, its fundamental commitment is to value neutrality with regard to people’s actions which are outside the purview of security and basic necessity.

It is this sort of liberalism which James believes Fichte challenges. Though James does not put this in terms of idealism, I think it is easy enough to put the argument together from James’ book. On the Lockean view, property is something that belongs to us because we invest it with value. This means that I am free to buy and trade it, once I have made it mine. Fichte’s fundamental argument, which actually fits quite well with the neglected third part of A Theory of Justice, is to say that it is rather property which makes subjectivity possible. Putting it this way makes room for the need for a certain kind of redistribution which is meant to facilitate the adequate development of subjectivity in the first place.

James thus sees Fichte as following Roussau’s suggestion that one should only occupy as much land as one needs to subsist. This claim puts Fichte at odds with both Hobbes and liberalism which cannot block the unwelcome conclusion that each person is entitled to decide how much they need for their own security. (This claim, of course, is what Rousseau is most interested in resisting, though without much success, which, is why Rousseau gives up on political theory and turns to imaginary communities in Julie and Emile to continue his project.)

Fichte’s idealism, however, put him in a position to resist this arms race of property acquisition because he can use the independently worked out structure of the subject to determine the limits of need. For Fichte this means that it is not the community which is constituted out of property relations (as in traditional social contract theory) but rather property relations which are made possible by the community (this is Hegel’s view as well). And this means that the state, as the representative of the community, gets to decide how much property any particular individual should have. James cautions against seeing this limitation on property as a restriction on freedom. Indeed, this is the whole point of the Fichtean reversal of subjectivity and need. If it is the subject that determines need rather than the other way around, it is surely possible to find the expression of subjectivity in things other than property like meaningful work and creative expression, themes that will reappear in Marx’s conception of life. By the same token, it is also clear that Fichte’s conception of property rights do not exclude socialism as an option. James writes: “restrictions on human freedom, specifically the freedom to appropriate parts of the world and its products, are held to stem from the need to secure the more general and fundamental conditions of human agency” (44)

The more general point is that Fichte was one of the first to work out a theory of distributive that does not proceed from the conception of need but from that of the subject. In this, James believes, Fichte should be classified as the as a having beaten Rawls to the punch. This claim, I believes, leaves out Hegel, but it is right to the extent that Fichte is thinking along the same lines as Rawls in the sense that both Fichte and Rawls are both interested in the idea of distributive justice, that is, the justice of how property is divided up.

James gives his readers some very good reasons to take a second look at Fichte on property. This is all the more welcome since Fichte has not been given his due for quite some time. James’ is the first book, in English, to appear on Fichte in over 80 years.


Stefan Bird-Pollan is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Kentucky.

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5 Responses

  1. Re: “On the Lockean view, property is something that belongs to us BECAUSE we invest it with value.” [emphasis added]

    I don’t think that’s quite correct: property for Locke clearly has value prior to our “ownership” or acquisition claim insofar as the proviso “still enough and as good left” (indeed, ‘So that in effect there was never the less left for others’!) refers to the fact that property has some sort of value prior to our appropriation (for example, we enjoy, however insecurely, possessions in the state of nature prior to the private property of society), value as a peculiar enough kind of worldly resource to prompt Locke to qualify his story with the aforementioned proviso. Labour has significance owing to its addition of “use-value” (and not, as with Marx, ‘exchange-value’) while property itself has “intrinsic value” owing to its “usefulness for the life of man” (natural resources, in addition to having intrinsic value, may, from Locke’s vantage point, have some small or insignificant amount of use-value prior to the addition of labor: fruit may fall from trees sans our labour, i.e., ‘land frequently produces consumables without any labour having been applied to it’). This has been well-explained by the late G.A. (‘Jerry’) Cohen, who notes many (even Locke himself on occasion) are prone to confusing or conflating the “value argument” with “the argument from labour mixture: “ “If the justification of your ownership of what you have laboured on is that your labour is in it, then you do not own it because you have enhanced its value, even if what deserves to be called ‘labour’ necessarily creates value.” The “investment with value” centers on the conferring of value, not the labour by which it is conferred. Locke later does bring the enhancement of value into the picture (and notice, this is not the same as ‘creation’ of value but the enhancement of existing value), but that is AFTER the initial appropriation of property, the right to which is initially held in common. As Cohen explains, “in the logic of the labour-mixture argument, it is labour itself, and not value-creation, which justifies the claim to private property” (See Ch. V of his Second Treatise of Government). Locke later brings value-enhancement into the picture in an attempt “to justify the extensive inequality of goods that obtains now, when original appropriation has long ceased. The justification Locke offers is that almost all of present inequality is due not to any unequal initial appropriating but to the labour which followed after initial appropriation.”

    [And for the specific weaknesses in Locke’s argument with regard to labour and use-value, see Chapter 7, “Marx and Locke on land and labour,” of Cohen’s Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Cambridge University Press, 1995). As Cohen concludes, “IF there exists a defensible criterion for assigning relative contributions to output of labour on the one hand and the original properties of the soil on the other, then it is not Locke’s.”]

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    Your second paragraph threw me for a loop. You seem to be saying:

    (i) That realism posits that there is an “ideal form [of] social organization”;
    (ii) That the ideal form of social organization (per the realists) is a maximally efficient one; and
    (iii) That “discover[ing] and then conform[ing] our behavior to the way the world actually is” is consistent with “figuring out what [the ideal form of social organization] is so that we can model actual social organization on this ideal social organization.

    Propositions (i) and (iii) especially seem wildly inconsistent with an ordinary understanding of the word “real.” Whose version of realism is this? Do you claim it’s shared by all philosophical realists? Like who, outside those who follow neoclassical economics (e.g. re (ii))?

  3. A few more thoughts:

    It is interesting that both Locke and Fichte subscribed to the “self-ownership” thesis. For Locke, “every man has property in his own person,” and Fichte states that “Man can neither be inherited, sold, nor be made the object of a gift; he can be no one else’s property because he is his own property.” And on this, of course, Fichte differs with Kant, the latter finding the notion of self-ownership to be incoherent (and while not subscribing to the normativity of self-ownership thesis, G.A. Cohen argues the concept, pace Kant, is in fact coherent).

    And Rawls was concerned with “social justice” in the specific sense of the allocation of benefits and burdens in society that follow from actions in conformity with the rules of a just basic structure, and both the prior principles and the latter rules concern more than mere “property.” This is also one reason why distributive justice for Rawls encompasses social and political, and not simply economic justice.

  4. Erratum (in first para. of first comment above): “property is a peculiar enough kind of worldly resource….”

  5. Matt says:

    Not that this matters much for the substance of your review or argument, but I’m curious about the claim that Fichte is the “3rd most important figure” in the German idealism tradition. Are you putting him above Schopenhauer, or not counting Schopenhauer as part of the tradition? Either one would seem surprising to me, but it’s not an area I’m a real expert in, by any means.