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Presented at the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy Boston, MA 1998


The Body as Anstoss in Sartre’s Account of Constitution




Of all the German Idealists, Sartre refers the least to Fichte—so little in fact that there have been long-standing suspicions that he wasn’t even familiar with Fichte’s writings.  It is perhaps ironic, then, that Fichte’s writings are as helpful as they are for clarifying Sartre’s views — especially his views on subjectivity and intersubjectivity.  Here I want to look closely at a key concept in Fichte’s mature writings — the concept of the Anstoss, a concept which has Dan Breazeale has called “Fichte’s original insight.”1 Fichte introduces the Anstoss, or “check”, to explain why the I posits the world as it does.  In effect, the Anstoss is the occasion of the facticity of the I.  I will show that this concept can be uniquely helpful in understanding, of all things, the role the body plays in Sartre’s theory of intersubjectivity.  The importance of Sartre’s account of the body for his theory of subjectivity and intersubjectivity has been chronically under-appreciated by his interpreters; this comparison is the beginning of an attempt to rectify that.  In turn the concept of the Anstoss provides a means for analyzing the necessary differences between any Sartrean and Fichtean ethics based on their respective accounts of intersubjectivity.



The Body as Anstoss in Sartre’s Account of Constitution


By David Vessey

Beloit College


               Of all the German Idealists, Sartre refers the least to Fichte—so little in fact that there have been long-standing suspicions that he wasn’t even familiar with Fichte’s writings.  It is perhaps ironic, then, that Fichte’s writings are as helpful as they are for clarifying Sartre’s views—especially his views on subjectivity and intersubjectivity.  Here I want to look closely at a key concept in Fichte’s mature writings—the concept of the Anstoss, a concept which has Dan Breazeale (implicitly against Dieter Henrich) has called “Fichte’s original insight.”1  I believe, and I hope to show here, that this concept can be uniquely helpful in understanding, of all things, the role the body plays in Sartre’s theory of intersubjectivity.  The importance of Sartre’s account of the body for his theory of subjectivity and intersubjectivity has been chronically under-appreciated by his interpreters; this comparison is the beginning of an attempt to rectify that.  This introduces in turn a means for analyzing the necessary differences between any Sartrean and Fichtean ethics based on their respective accounts of intersubjectivity.

               The term Anstoss is first used in a systematic fashion by Fichte in the Grundlage der Gesamten Wissenschaftslehre from 1794/95.2  It appears near the end of the second part of the work where Fichte is both presenting the culmination of his theory of representation and laying the transition to the practical part of the Wissenschaftslehre. The issue is the founding of the activity of representation: specifically, how can one explain both the spontaneity of the I and the particular determination of representations.  Fichte has recourse to one of the two first principles of his system—“The I posits itself absolutely” and “A Not-I is unqualifiedly posited in opposition to the I”—for the grounding the meaning of representation, but which one?  Is representation an activity of the self-positing I, or of the opposing Not-I?  At stake here, of course, is the very structure and content of Fichte’s idealism.  If the activity of representation is attributed solely to the subject then it is not clear if Fichte can avoid either a transcendental solipsism, or a recourse to the Kantian thing-in-itself (as Fichte calls it, “the wretched ‘thing-in-itself’”). Both solutions are obviously unsatisfactory.  Nor could Fichte ground the meaning of a representation in the Not-I without, in the end, giving up idealism altogether—a truly disastrous “solution.”  Instead Fichte arrives at the theory of “the mediacy of positing.”  Fichte recognized that the content of representation could be explained if a form of passivity could be introduced as the source and the limit of purely active I.  He claims that representation, although clearly in the end founded in the activity of the I, is dependent for its content on the Anstoss—the check on the infinite activity of the I which is both itself a posit of consciousness and a condition for the possibility of the positing of consciousness.  The viability of the solutions hangs with his ability to articulate the concept of the Anstoss—to show how the I posits something which is still sufficiently external to its activity of positing to provide the differentiation between subject and object. 

               Consider the following crucial quotation.


The objective element [the Not-I] that is to be excluded [from the I] has no need at all to be present; all that is needed, if I may so put it, is the presence of an Anstoss for the I. That is to say, the subjective element must, for some reason that simply lies outside of the activity of the I, be unable to extend any further.  Such an impossibility of further extension would then constitute the indicated mere interplay or meshing; such an Anstoss would not limit the I as active, but would give it the task of limiting itself.  All limitation, however occurs through opposition, and thus simply in order to be able to satisfy this task, the I would have to oppose something objective to the subjective element that is to be limited and would then have to unite both synthetically, in the manner just indicated.  And thus the entire representation could be derived in this way. . . .  What [this explanation] assumes is not a not-I that is present outside of the I, and not even a determination that is present within the I, but rather the mere task, on the part of the I itself, of undertaking a determination within itself—that is, the mere determinability of the I.3

We can see two fundamental claims being made here about the Anstoss. The first claim is that  Anstoss is not itself the not-I, but is in some sense a product of the I.  Fichte says that the  Anstoss does not check the I “from the outside”, it does not limit the I as active, but gives it the “task” of limiting itself.  At some places Fichte refers to the Anstoss as a feeling—something which is clearly ours and could not exist without us, but something which is not our doing.4   The Anstoss is a passive event occurring within I thus escaping the I's activity.


The Anstoss (unposited by the positing I) occurs to the I insofar as it is active, and is thus only a check insofar as there is activity in the I; its possibility is conditional upon the I's activity: no activity of the I, no Anstoss. Conversely, the activity of the I's own self-determining would be conditioned by the Anstoss: no Anstoss, no self-determination. Moreover, no self-determination, nothing objective.5

               The second point about the Anstoss is that it’s primary function is to check the positing I. The Anstoss is not a product of the active I, but it has its essential character as a check only in virtue of the activity of the I.   Consider an example Sartre uses.  A mountain is a limitation on someone’s projects only if he/she has projects (for example, walking to a point on the other side of the mountain) which are limited by the mountain. It is only in virtue of a particular project that a mountain becomes a check.  Otherwise it’s just a mountain.  Of course, the analogy between the Anstoss and the mountain fails when we recall that the Anstoss is not an external check, but an internal check; still we can understand how it could be the case that the Anstoss is both dependent on the determining I and necessary for the determinability of the I.

               Essential to its identity as a check, is that it is immediately responded to by the I.  In response to the check of the Anstoss, the I posits a not-I as the necessary source of the check. The Anstoss, as a limit on the spontaneity of the ego is the impetus, or to use a word Fichte often uses for the Anstoss, a summons (Aufforderung) for the I to posit something outside itself.6

               The form of the positing is determined through the fundamental drive for self-identity which is equivalent to the drive for rationalization.7  This drive, operating pre-consciously and pre-volitionally, takes two forms according to whether what are being rationalized are representations or volitions.  In the first case, all representations are ordered to concepts of the mind.  This is the theoretical goal of humanity.  In the second case, when encountering other rational agents, the agents acts in accordance with the first principle to strive to work together with others to construct a community founded on reason.  That is, we are driven towards for knowledge and morality.

               In The Science of Rights Fichte adds to the practical, moral side of the Anstoss.


This requirement [Aufforderung] to act is the content of the influence and its ultimate end is a free causality of the rational being.  . . . To do this however, it must have first understood and comprehended the requirement, and this previous cognition of it is taken into consideration.  Hence the posited ground of the influence, or of the requirement addressed to the subject must at least presuppose the possibility that the subject can understand and comprehend it, for otherwise its requirement [Aufforderung] would have no end in view at all.8

The Anstoss  does not merely summon us to act, it summons us to act for the end of acting freely.  That is it presents the occasion for our fundamental drive to self-identity to manifest itself in our actions, but moreover, to consciously manifest itself in our actions.  That means that the Anstoss  summons us to be cognizant of the ends to which we are called.  But, Fichte asks, what could summon us to form a conception of an end?  Fichte claims it could only be another rational agent. 


The ground [of the Anstoss] must therefore necessarily [itself] have the conception of reason and freedom and must therefore be itself a being capable of comprehension, that is, an intelligence, and since this is not possible without freedom, it must be a free and hence a rational being, and must be posited as such.9

In response to the feeling of the Aufforderung—to the feeling summoning us to act freely, in effect, our conscience—we must posit another rational being as the origin of the summons.  But recall, the Anstoss is a condition for self-consciousness, therefore the posited existence of other persons is a condition of self-consciousness (and their existence is known with the certainty of self-consciousness).10  With the two fundamental features of Fichte’s account of the Anstoss in mind—it is a product of the I and a summoning check, as well as the connection between the Anstoss and intersubjectivity—let’s turn to Sartre’s account of the body to realize the parallels.11

               Exactly as Sartre divides subjectivity in its modes of being-for-itself and being-for-others and has emphasized not confusing the two, Sartre also distinguishes the body-for-itself from the body-for-others.  The two ontological dimensions are “incommunicable” and irreconcilable: “either it is a thing among other things [the body for others], or it is that by which things are revealed to me [the body for itself] . . ., it can not be both.”12    The instructive example Sartre gives is that when we put our hands together one is always touching, the other always touched; never is there a “double sensation.”  The first ontological dimension of the body—the body for-itself “by which things are revealed” is what concerns us.

               The body-for-itself is our facticity.  Following Heidegger, Sartre claims the essential mode of being of humans is only realized as being-there.13  The world is only for us to the extent we exist here and now, although the fact that we are at this particular here and now (as well as the fact that we are at all) is contingent.  This contingency of our oriented, spatio-temporal being-in-the world is our facticity.  The for-itself is always attempting to surpass its contingency through its projects in a futile attempt to justify itself absolutely.  Notice the parallel: both Fichte and Sartre present the subject as striving to separate itself from the Not-I (the In-Itself) in an attempt to become free. In Sartre, the negation of the facticity in the striving for transcendence is the concrete determination of the for-itself.  The body, then, as Sartre writes,


is nothing other than the For-itself, it is not an In-itself in the For-itself, for in that case it would solidify everything.  But it is the fact that the For-itself is not its own foundation.  . . .  As such the body is not distinct from the situation of the For-itself since for the For-itself to exist and to be situated are one and the same.14

Like Fichte’s Anstoss, the body belongs to the I (the For-Itself), not the Not-I (the In-Itself).  In addition Sartre says that the body


is the immediate presence to the For-itself of “sensible” things in so far as this presence indicates a center of reference and is already surpassed either toward the appearance of a new this or toward a new combination of instrumental-things.  . . . This means that it is at once a point of view and a point of departure—a point of view, a point of departure which I am and which at the same time I surpass towards what I have to be.15

The body, for Sartre, plays the same role with respect to consciousness as the Anstoss did for Fichte: that necessity which summons and checks our conscious positing.  Moreover as our past and as our point of view, Sartre says that the body is the locus of the sedimentation of our past experiences all the way back to our birth.16  Our body is that which we are before our subjectivity makes us what we are; it is our past and our world.  Much like the Anstoss, then, the body opens us to the would “summoning” our reply and in the process “checks” and limits our possibilities.  And the limiting, in the final analysis, is not of our doing.  Consider what Sartre says in the following passage.


And we must understand it in the two senses of the word “limit.”  On the side of the limiting, indeed, the limit is apprehended as the container which contains me and surrounds me, the shell of emptiness which pleads for me as a totality while putting me out of play; on the side of the limited, it is wholly a phenomenon of selfness and is as the mathematical limit is to the infinite series which progresses towards it without ever reaching it.17

Clearly the twofold nature of “limit” is precisely the twofold nature of Fichte’s Anstoss:  it is that which checks the infinite activity of consciousness yet which remains an infinite goal of appropriation for the end of justifying itself.  However, Sartre thinks that only a consciousness can check consciousness.18

                Here Sartre’s account of intersubjectivity enters the narrative.  That our body is in the midst of the world is a result of our being-seen by others.  Our body in itself is present to us as something to surpass on the basis of it being for-others.  The other, then, brings about the body as the mediator (which is surpassed) between subjectivity and the world and establishes the condition for the possibility of any and all determination of the for-itself. From the fact that we are a body in the mode of being-for-others we can recognize what Sartre calls “the third ontological dimension of the body”, namely that our body has an outside which escapes us.  We can attempt to recapture our alienated “outside” through either embracing our facticity, giving up our attempts at transcendence and resigning ourselves.  To overcome our finitude means confronting the other in his/her subjectivity.  This is the basis of Sartre’s “ethics.”19  Since it is through the gaze of the Other that we are embodied, the attempt to regain our freedom and ground ourselves (through making the contingencies of our own body the result of our own constitution) requires that we force the others to recognize us on our own terms.  This battle between subjects for recognition is the fundamental defining feature of Sartre’s theory of intersubjectivity.  We attempt to determine ourselves against the Other’s gaze through articulating ourselves to the Other in an attempt to reach consensus about ourselves. We express our transcendence by trying to flee our facticity by expressing our subjectivity, thereby trying to manipulate the Other into returning ourselves to ourselves.      

               Let us conclude by noting some of the differences between the views.  First, since in Sartre’s account the not-I is the stimulus to conscious activity he does not need to distinguish (as Fichte did) the Anstoss from the not-I.  Fichte needed to find some ground within the ego which motivates the ego to posit itself absolutely; Sartre does not need to find the ground within the ego.  In fact, it is essential to his view that the ground be independent of the ego. The passivity which constitutes the Anstoss is part of the I (in Fichte); in Sartre it is the origin of alienation. Second, Sartre’s externalization of the Anstoss puts consciousness in the world from the start.  As such, our facticity can become our fundamental limitation.  Thus it is possible on Sartre’s, and not Fichte’s, account to understand the role of the historicity of the ego in the constitution of the world. Fichte, on the contrary, must place the ego outside of the world and then use the ego itself as the source of its own limitation.  Third, in Sartre it is precisely the being-seen by the other which establishes ourselves as being in the midst of the world—that is to say, establishes our body as our facticity which must be surpassed by the for-itself.  The intersubjective relationship operates through the body as a condition for the determination of consciousness. In Fichte, the summons to rationality which is the character of the Anstoss points to the necessary existence of other rational subjects.  Finally, Fichtean consciousness posits the not-I, and then infers to its own free existence on the basis of the recognition of the other I while Sartrean consciousness negates the not-I and then posits itself in this negation. Fichte’s relation to the other is fundamentally one of identification; Sartre’s of differentiation. Analogously, Fichte’s ethics is based on the relation of mutual recognition; Sartre’s ethics is based on the attempt to force recognition.  In spite of these differences, many of which can be understood as effects of their different conceptions of freedom, it is clear a structural similarity persists in Fichte’s and Sartre’s account of constitution: the necessary presence of a passivity, be it the body or the Anstoss, at the heart of subjectivity and intersubjectivity.

1  Anstoss has usually been translated as check, but because of the complexity of the concept (as will become clear) I will leave it untranslated.  My analysis of the centrality of the concept of the Anstoss is heavily influenced by Dan Breazeale, “Check or Checkmate? On the Finitude of the Fichtean Self” in Karl Ameriks’s and Dieter Sturma’s The Modern Subject: Conceptions of the Self in Classical German Philosophy (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1995), hereafter “Breazeale.” Breazeale’s reference is to Dieter Henrich’s classic article, “Fichte’s Original Insight.”

2 Translated as Science of Knowledge. Ed. and tr. Heath, Peter and John Lachs (New York: Appelton Century Crofts, 1970).

3 Science of Knowledge, pg. 188; translation from Breazeale, pg. 89-90.

4 For example: “Here is the basis for all reality: Reality—whether of the I or the Not-I—is possible for the I only through the relation of feeling to the I, as we have now shown—something that is possible only through the relation of a feeling, without the I being conscious or being able to be conscious, of its own intuition of this feeling, and which therefore appears to be felt, is believed.” (Quoted in Breazeale pg. 107)

5 Science of Knowledge, pg. 191.  The use of the terms ‘outside’ and ‘external’ can be misleading here.  Either we could say that Fichte is not being careful or perhaps that they should be interpreted in the sense of outside the conscious activity of the ego.

6 “In so far as the described influence enters sensation, is felt, it is a limitation of the ego; and the subject must have posited it as such; but there is no limitation without a limiting.  Hence the subject, in positing that influence, must have posited at the same time something outside of itself as the determining ground of that influence.”The Science of Rights. Tr. A. E. Krueger (London: Routledge, 1970), pg. 56

7 “The highest principle in man” is “[b]e always at one with yourself.”  He continued, “according to this principle he . . . seeks—not directly from a clearly conceived determining principle, but from one interwoven through his entire being and without any contribution of his free will—to subjugate irrational nature so that everything will harmonize with his reason.”(from “On the Linguistic Capacity and the Origin of Language” translated as an appendix to Jere Surber’s  Language and German Idealism: Fichte’s Linguistic Philosophy (Humanities Press, 1995) pg. 209).

8 The Science of Rights,  pg. 57.  B the time of the Science of Rights, Fichte has begun using “Aufforderung” rather than “Anstoss” to focus on the “summoning” aspect more than  the “checking” aspect of the concept.  Of course, if we are discussing the determination of representation, we are concerned with the limit, if we are discussing ethics, we are concerned with the summons to be moral.

9 The Science of Rights,  pg. 57

10Thus the duly famous passage, “Man becomes man only among men; and since he can only be man, and would not be at all unless he were man, it follows that if man is to be at all, there must be men.  This is not an arbitrary assumption, not an opinion based on past experience or on other probability-reasons; but it is a truth to be strictly deduced from the conception of man.” (The Science of Rights,  pg. 60).

11  I find it interesting (and illuminating) that Fichte’s social ontology does not fall prey to Sartre’s criticisms of idealism, and realism.  Nor can Fichte’s view be assimilated to Hegel’s, Husserl’s, or Heidegger’s views all of which fall under Sartre’s scrutiny.

12 Being and Nothingness, pg. 402.

13 “For human reality, to be is to-be-there.  . . . It is an ontological necessity.” Being and Nothingness, pg. 407.  About facticity, he writes that the For-Itself “is in so far as there is in it something which it is not the foundation—its presence to the world.  . . .This perpetually evanescent contingency of the in-itself which, without ever allowing itself to be apprehended, haunts the for-itself and reattaches itself to being-in-itself—this contingency is what we shall call the facticity of the for-itself.” (Being and Nothingness, pg. 128, 131. italics his)

14 Being and Nothingness, pg. 408.

15 Being and Nothingness, pp. 429-30

16 Being and Nothingness, pp. 431-2

17 Being and Nothingness, pg. 381

18 Immediately prior to the above quotation Sartre writes: “But this limit can neither come from me nor be thought by me, for I can not limit myself; otherwise I would be a finite totality.  On the other hand, in Spinoza’s terms, thought can only be limited by thought.  Consciousness can be limited only by my consciousness.”

19 Though, depending on the extent one draws on the later notebooks, Sartre’s ethics may move well beyond this battle for recognition.  See Thomas C. Anderson’s Sartre's Two Ethics; From Authenticity to Integral Humanity (Open Court, 1993). 


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