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Unity, not uniformity, must be our aim. - MPF

Follett and Fichte! Does anyone understand Fichte?

Can anyone shed light on the philosophy of Johann Gottlieb Fichte?

Here's why I'm asking. In one of Follett's books or tributes to her, a friend of hers tells the story of Follett telling her that she had been asked for help by many businessmen, that she had listened to them explain their problems, offered some suggestions or ways of looking at the problems, and what she said seemed to help. Then she added something to the effect, "I was only offering Fichte."

Anna Boynton Thompson, Follett's teacher at Thayer Academy, a fellow student at Radcliffe, and a lifelong friend, who named Follett one of her executors in her will, wrote her PhD thesis on The Unity of Fichte's Doctrine of Knowledge with an introduction by Josiah Royce, PhD, her professor of the history of philosophy at Harvard University. Thompson's monograph was published in 1895, and Follett's The Speaker of the House, in 1896, I believe. In the introducation to The New State Follett thanks Thompson for giving her first copy of that manuscript careful consideration and criticism. In other words, they had a "reciprocal relationship."

In Thompston's monograph about Fichte, here is what she says, in her own words, to try to make Fichte's point clear (she thinks him a horrible writer!) I'm adding some numbers in case we want to talk about this:

1. Imagine a glass globe whose cricumfrence is filled with millions of eyes all looking inward.

2. All the eyes see the same content, though each from its own special point;

3. and into the view of each eye the view of the others is received, though from its own particular angle.

4. Now suppose that the substance of the globe, instead of glass, is merely the sight projected from each eye, that without the eyes and their sight nothing whatever of the globe would exist.

5. We then have in the globe a unity of blended individualities where the individualities may be looked upon as essential, for without them there is nothing;

6. individuality is all that there is, and the ultimate reality is a blending of all individualities.

7. So in the world of truth there is no truth except as seen by individuals, and the totality of all the views of all the individuals is the totality of truth.

8. The substance of the individual mind, or its free activity shaped by the laws of thought, is truth, --truth from one point of view; and the union of all minds in all minds gives us ultimate truth.

This particular "glass globe" metaphor struck me as very powerful when I first read it (thanks to Fran Cooper who shared her "old" Follett PhD materials in 1989-90).

The rest of Thompson's thesis, well, it gave me a headache! The kind of headache you get when you know that to understand something you will have to devote several years of study just to "speak the same language," even when you think you are already doing so.

I hope you're still with me, and someone (or two) among I group has put in that time to understand Fichte.

Thanks, Albie Davis

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The word odious means repugnant, and the word can be used by anyone with the disposition to do so. It is a feeling-based attribution, though. I think that such attributions present an obstacle in discussion. I'd like to share two selections from my reading in Thompson, the first one is just a gem of expression, that I hope will incline the reader in favor of Fichte; and the second addresses the issue regarding the Wikipedia citation:

Not for nothing does each find himself what he is and where he is, but that through his temperament, in the fulfillment of its relations, a special accent may be given to the truth, which would reveal itself in him. The struggle is the true expression of the man; if he shuns it, he deserts himself.--Thompson, Unity of Fichte's Doctrine of Knowledge, p. 80.'>>

In such a theory of existence there is scant room for the emotions: personal loves and hates it counts for nothing in the real values of life: law for the sake of law is the only measure of worth it knows. In its view the business of life is the harmonious adjustment of existence, the measuring of all co-existent relations and the adjudging to each of its exact due, the dealing justice to others' claims, the establishment of symmetry, the recognition of the organic nature of life, and the constant solicitude that each member of the organism shall receive due consideration. Fichte's theory makes reason the guide of life and realized reason the result of life: law is its ideal, and conduct controlled by law it's reality.--ibid, p. 79'>>

If anyone wants to take this up as it applies in the field of driving, let me know.


Jeff Bedolla said:
Your straightforward comment, "Unfortunately, his odious political philosophy seems to allow only his approved eyes a place at the globe," is delightfully clear.>>

I don't see it that way.--Jeff Bedolla
I finally tracked down two sources of the Follett-Fichte connection.

1. Dynamic Administration: The Collected Papers of Mary Parker Follett, page 15 of the Introduction by two of her close friends and colleagues, Lyndal Urwick and Henry C. Metcalf:

Creative Experience indicated, further, the trend of her ultimate interest.  Many of her illustrations, even at this stage, were drawn from business situations, which from this time on occupied more and more of her time and thought.  The book brought an immediate response from business men, many of whom called upon her to assist them with their own problems.  "Often," she is reported to have said, "they could only spare time for luncheon, but I never had such interesting means.  One of these men gave me in a nutshell the threads of a tangle had had with his employees.  He wanted me to straighten it out.  I answered him straight from Fichte; he didn't know that, of course, but I did, and it seemed to meet the case"2

2 Quoted by F. M. Stawell in her Memoir in the Newnham College Letter for January 1935.

2. F. M. Stawell in her Memoir in the Newnham College Letter for January 1935, page 41.

May  went back to America soon after our Newnham friendship, and until a few years before her death only came to Eurpoe on brief visits and at long intervals.  But whenever she wrote to me I could see she was traveling on the same quest, however far afield it took her, from Fichte to the factory and back to Fichte. (May was a  nickname for Mary Follett, Albie)

Albie Davis (I have a copy of Stawell's Memoir. Florence Melian Stawell and Follett met at Newnham College and remained lifelong friends.)
I want to go back to this, because there's good evidence Fichte is relevant, and the question of exactly what he meant to Mary Parker Follett is important. If the Four Gospels and the Act of the Apostles had been lost for ages, but we had the rest of the books of the New Testament, finding those Gospels would be valuable. With Fichte we can look through the phenomenon to the inspiration within it. Is this relevant to modern life? I think it is worth finding out what it was that was in the philosophical movement of the day that inspired Mary Follett. If it worked for her, it can work for others.

The question raised was basically "What is Fichte all about?" Well, Fichte underwent a journey, an intellectual journey, and the chronology of his work shows the path he took. I thought it would be helpful, instead of working though his elaborate 'proof', rather to go directly to his result. By their fruits ye shall know them.

Here is a selection that shows the point at which the tendency of his thought is inclined. It is from the latter period of his life, when his reputation was established and he was giving public lectures (like someone else we know!). The lecture series was collected and published as The Way Towards the Blessed Life, or The Doctrine of Knowledge. In the first lecture, which is titled "The Real Life and the Apparent Life", Fichte explains why he used the phrase 'blessed life'. In doing so, he lays out the full implication of his philosophy. So, I think this is a good way to get at the essence of Fichte. It is a few pages long, but the narrative is very educational in the sense that it applies to how to live life.

1.That which we have...indicated as the element which must support and maintain the Apparent, and without which it could not attain even the semblance of the 'aspiration towards the Eternal'. This impulse to be united with the Imperishable and transfused therein, is the primitive root of all Finite Existence; and in no branch of this existence can that impulse be wholly destroyed, unless that branch were to sink into utter nothingness.>>

2. Beyond this aspiration upon which all Finite Existence rests, and by means of it, this existence either attains the True Life, or does not attain it. Where it does attain it, this secret aspiration becomes distinct and intelligible as Love of the Eternal:--we learn what it is that we desire, love, and need. This want may be satisfied constantly and under every condition;--the Eternal surrounds us at all times, offers itself incessantly to our regards; we have nothing more to do than to lay hold of it. But, once attained, it can never again be lost. He who lives the True Life has attained it, and now possesses it evermore, whole, undivided, in all its fullness, in every moment of his existence, and is therefore blessed in this union with the object of his Love, penetrated with a firm, immovable conviction that he shall thus enjoy it throughout Eternity, and thereby secured against all doubt, anxiety, or fear.>>

this long introductory passage was necessary, now comes counterpoint which provides dramatic context...

3.Where the True Life is not attained, that aspiration is not felt the less, but it is not understood. Happy, contented, satisfied with their condition, all men would willingly be; but wherein they shall find this happiness they know not; what it is that they really love and strive after they do not understand. In that which comes into immediate contact with their senses, and offers itself to their enjoyment,--in the World, they think it must be found; because to that spiritual condition in which they now find themselves there is really nothing else existing--but the World. Ardently they betake themselves to this chase after happiness, eagerly appropriating, and devoting themselves to, the first best object that pleases them and promises to satisfy their desires. But as soon as such an one returns into himself, and asks, "Am I now happy?" he is loudly answered from the depths of his soul, "O no, thou art as empty and necessitous as before.">>

Time for another pause...this is rigorous, inexorable logic; but if it is abstract it yet comprehends Human Life in the classic philosophic sense, as spiritual self-reflection. There is instruction here.

4.They now imagine that they have been mistaken in their choice of an object, and throw themselves eagerly into another. This satisfies them as little as the first:--there is no object under the sun or moon that will satisfy them. Would we that any such object should satisfy them? By no means:--that nothing finite and perishable can satisfy them;--this is precisely the one tie that still connects them with the Eternal and preserves them in Existence:--did they find any one earthly object that should fill them with perfect satisfaction, then were they they irretrievably thrust forth from the Godhead, and cast out into the eternal death of Nothingness.>>

Remember, this is Fichte in real-time, drawing a picture of the conclusion his life work had reached.

5.And thus do they fret and vex away their life;--in every condition thinking that if it were but otherwise with them it would be better with them, and then, when it has become otherwise, discovering that it is not better;--in every position believing that if they could but attain yonder height which they descry above them, they would be freed from their anguish, but finding nevertheless, even on the attained height, their ancient sorrow.>>

6.In riper years, perchance, when the fresh enthusiasm and glad hopefulness of youth have vanished, they take counsel with themselves, review their whole previous life, and venture to draw therefrom some definite conclusion;--it may be, to acknowledge that no earthly good whatever can give them satisfaction:--And what do they now? They determine perhaps to renounce all faith in happiness and peace; blunting or deadening, as far as possible, their still inextinguishable aspirations; and then they call this insensibility the only true wisdom, this despair of all salvation the only true salvation, and their pretended knowledge that man is not destined to happiness, but only to this vain striving with nothing and for nothing, the true understanding. >>

7.Perchance they renounce only their hope of satisfaction in this earthly life; but please themselves with a certain promise, handed down to them by tradition, of a Blessedness beyond the grave. Into what a mournful delusion do they now fall! Full surely, indeed, there lies a Blessedness beyond the grave for those who have already entered upon it here, and in no other form or way than that by which they can already enter upon it here, in this present moment, but by mere burial man cannot arrive at Blessedness,---and in the future life, and throughout the whole infinite range of all future life, they would seek for happiness as vainly as they have already sought it here, if they were to seek it in aught else than in that which already surrounds them so closely here below that throughout Eternity it can never be brought neared to them,---in the Infinite.>>

8.And thus does the poor child of Eternity, cast forth from his native home, yet surrounded on all sides by his heavenly inheritance which his trembling hand fears to grasp, wander with fugitive and uncertain step throughout the waste, everywhere [laboring] to establish for himself a dwelling-place, but happily ever reminded, by the speedy downfall of each of his successive habitations, that he can find peace nowhere but in his Father's house.

9.Thus my hearers, is the True Life necessarily Blessedness itself; and the Apparent Life necessarily Unblessedness.>>

Having thus resolved the tautology,--the redundant expression 'Blessed Life'--, the above selection shows Fichte's method of approach and at the same time sums up the drift of his philosophical studies. Fichte's work is a yoga of knowledge, and the point of it is that anyone, in any place or condition, can, by adhering to the law of the situation, gradually find his way back to the center of being. In order to refresh, and to fully grasp the significance of the preceding selection, one more selection from the same lecture, is also provided:

10.That object of the Love of the True Life is what we mean by the name God, or at least ought to mean by that name; the object of the Love of the mere Apparent Life--the transitory and perishable--is that which we [recognize] as the World, and which we so name. The True Life thus lives in God, and loves God; the mere Apparent Life lives in the World, and attempts to love the World.>>

11.It matters not on what particular side it approaches the world and comprehends it;--that which the common view terms moral depravity, sin, crime, and the like, may indeed be more hurtful and destructive to human society than many other things which this common view permits or even considers to be praiseworthy;--but, before the eye of Truth, all life which fixes its love on the Temporary and Accidental, and seeks its enjoyment in any object other than the Eternal and Unchangeable, for that very reason, and merely on account of thus seeking its enjoyment in something else, is in like manner vain, miserable, and unblessed.>>

This finishes this attempt at summarizing the work of Fichte. What will follow, I hope, are Discussion Topics on lessons and applications to be drawn from the work of Fichte which may bear on the direction of the work of the Mary Parker Follett Network--which, by the strict standard of pertinence established by Mary Parker Follett, is so much needed today.

Fichte serves as a baseline on which to 'connect dots' in order to see, through the inspiration of a great 'laborer in the vineyard of humanity', a broad range of possibilities for continuing in the tradition of creative experience.

Jeff Bedolla

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