Transcendental Idealism: What it is and Why it Matters

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My goal in this writing is two-fold.

The first is to share the essence of the Transcendental Idealism teachings with you so that you can attain profound insights into yourself and life.

The second is to help you create enough self awareness so that you can focus in on the core “I Am” reality which is the gateway into the transcendental realm; in the East, this is referred to as: Nirvana, Samadhi, Satori and Heaven.

Transcendental Idealism

Transcendental Idealism is an age-old philosophy that finds expression in the West through the great German philosophers Kant, Fichte, and Shelling and in the East through Advaita Vedanta and, most notably in modern times, by Ramana Maharshi.

Reaching into the past I find wisdom that reinforces the journey of yoga and meditation. This essay will primarily reflect upon the writings of Johann Fichte. I find his exposition of transcendental idealism to be quite accessible. His teachings echo and elaborate on the great teachings of the East. I have taken passages from Fichte’s The Vocation of Man, which was written in 1800, and added my commentary and explanations. I have put his words in italics.

In parenthesis are the page number the quotation is taken from referencing the Peter Preuss translation published by Hackett Publishing Company in 1987.

The Vocation of Man

This writing, which Fichte hoped would make Transcendental Idealism accessible to a general public, takes the form of a dialogue two subjects: Spirit and I.

Spirit: What I can teach you you already know. You only need to call it to mind. (27)

The purpose of life and hence the title, The Vocation of Man, according to philosophy and Fichte, is to know oneself and the world of which we are a part. The writing style used by Fichte is similar to that of Plato. He uses a discussion between two entities: the reader, noted as I, and a wonderous Spirit referred to as Spirit. The Spirit knows the truth of things and, through a series of questions, draws out the wisdom inherent in I. Through introspection cued by the questions, the reader is able to recall the wisdom that has always been there below the surface.

Spirit: You assume, don’t you, that these objects here and those over there really are there outside of you?

I: Yes, of course. (27)

Here we have the departure point for this philosophical journey. From here we will explore the nature of being, reality and knowledge. We take our sense of reality for granted. This is an exploration that will reveal the wonders of existence that we rarely take the time to explore.

Spirit: And how do you know that they are there?

I:  I see them, I will feel them if I touch them, I can hear their sound, they manifest themselves to me through all my senses. (28)

Now begins the process of taking apart our perceptions. We all know we are surrounded by a world of things and we are one of the things in the world. We know the world and ourselves through our senses: sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. We trust our senses, and they form the basis of all knowledge about the world around us. Or so we think! Fichte will now challenge us, through Spirit, to examine our perceptions.

Fichte is doing this for a specific purpose. Spiritual philosophy would call this liberation. Later in the writing Spirit says the following regarding the attainment that can be had through a complete understanding of this teaching: Be free and forever released from the fear which depressed and tortured you. (59)

Understanding what we can gain by truly grasping this philosophy will inspire us to concentrate. Let’s return to the beginning of the dialogue.

Spirit: Perceivable objects, then, are present to you solely in consequence of a determination [perception/awareness/noticing] of your external sense… your seeing, feeling, etc. 

“There are objects outside of me” is supported by the statement, “I see, hear, feel, etc.” 

I: That is my view.

Spirit: Well, and how do you know that you see, hear, feel? (28)

This seems, on the surface, like an absurd question, but it challenges us to reflect on our process of knowing. One of the key questions of philosophy can be summed up as: how do we know what we know?

And that is the key question which Spirit poses: how do you know?

Spirit also wants to be sure that I experience my senses directly and that seeing, hearing etc. are not transmitted to me via another sense.

I: That I see and feel, and what I see and feel, I know directly and simply; I know it just because it is so, without the mediation and transmission by way of another sense. (28)

There are two points being made here. The first thing being established is the reality of me, the observer: it is I who am perceiving the sense impressions. The second point is that I am perceiving my senses directly: what I see and feel is perceived by me directly and not through some other intermediary sense that stands between me and my hearing etc.

Spirit confirms this by asking:

Do you see your own seeing and feel your own feeling; or do you perhaps have a special, higher sense through which you perceive your external senses and their determinations?

I: Not at all, what I see and feel, and what I see and feel. I know simply and directly. (28)

Fichte is deconstructing the process of how we experience our surroundings: we experience our surroundings through sense impressions.

Spirit: You are, accordingly, that which sees in seeing, that which feels in feeling…are you conscious of a determination or modification of yourself? (28)

I: Without doubt.

Through this last exchange we can deduce two ideas upon which Transcendental Idealism is built. Firstly: there is a core sense of self, “I”, which observes the impressions of the senses. The second point: what one perceives is a modification in one’s own field of awareness. One does not perceive anything beyond one’s own field of awareness. We mentally project a cause from which perception arises. I, the character talking to Spirit, still assumes, at this point in the conversation, that that which is perceived is outside of one’s self. The point is that what I perceive is actually a change in my field of awareness.

For example: I close my eyes and listen carefully. Within my field of awareness I perceive a sound I have never heard before. The sound has pitch, duration, intensity and timbre. I assume the sound I experience has a cause even though my eyes are closed and I cannot see it. I then begin to mentally project a cause outside of me that is responsible for the sound I hear.

We often lose awareness of our sense impressions and focus only on thought projections. We tend to think the same thoughts, however, and quickly become bored with them. Reconnecting with the modifications of consciousness that occur every moment of our lives is a good way to reconnect with the joy of living. The mystery of life begins with two essential elements which Spirit points to: our sense of being and the modifications which occur in our field of awareness at each moment.

Spirit: You have an awareness of your seeing, feeling, etc., and in that way you perceive the object. (28)

Spirit: Could you not perhaps know an object through sight or hearing without knowing that you are seeing or hearing? (29)

I: Not at all.

What is perceived is perceived because I perceive. I, one’s sense of self, is central to perception. Without me, the observer, there is no awareness of sense impressions.

We often become so immersed in our thoughts and worries that we forget about ourselves. This section of the dialogue draws out the significance of the observer in every act of perception.

Spirit: Could you…perhaps know an object through sight or hearing without knowing that you are seeing of hearing?

I: Not at all. (29)

In other words, for sensation to exist, there must be an observer.

Spirit: The immediate consciousness of yourself … would therefore be the necessary condition of all other consciousness…

I: This is what I think. (29)

Once again, the significance of the observer is noted.

Spirit: In all perception you initially perceive only yourself and your own condition; and what is not contained in this perception is not perceived at all? 

I: You are repeating what I have already admitted. (29)

And now Spirit elucidates a key point: all we can perceive is the modifications in our consciousness. We are not aware however of the actual cause, the external object. We perceive only our own condition.

Spirit: Can you say: I am aware of external objects? 

I: Definitely not…

Spirit: Well, then, never forget again what you have now clearly seen to be so. In all perception you only perceive your own condition. (29)

This thought is built upon further in the text when Spirit explains how we mentally project the existence of external objects through the conditioned mental habit of associating effect with cause.

To put this subtle teaching into another voice I quote Arthur J. Deikman, M.D. from his book: The Observing Self: Pyschotherapy and Mysticism.

“Emotions, thoughts, impulses, images, and sensations are the contents of consciousness: we witness them; we are aware of their existence. Likewise, the body, the self-image, and the self-concept are all constructs that we observe. But our core sense of personal existence—the “I”—is located in awareness itself, not in its content.”

In his writing, Fichte has focused on the experiencing of sensations which are mentioned in the first line of the above quotation from Deikman. Later in Fichte’s writings he elucidates on other aspects of the contents of consciousness which Deikman mentions: emotions, thoughts and impulses.

Deikman notes that there is the observer and the observed. He describes our observing self as the “core sense of personal existence.”  Fichte is describing the same reality when he has Spirit say, “In all perception you initially perceive only yourself and your own condition.”

First the observer becomes aware of self. Then changes or modifications in perception can be noted. It is important to realize that all of this takes place at a very subtle realm of our awareness and is easily overlooked. Through the practices of meditation, self-observation and contemplation, you can begin to observe the process within yourself. This new level of awareness will move you closer and closer to a deeper understanding of yourself and reality.

Please try this Meditation-Visualization so that you can use your knowledge to become more conscious of your experience of life.

Meditation Visualization

Focus on your breath. Breathe as slowly as is comfortable. Allow your body to relax more and more deeply with each exhalation. Imagine you are sitting by the side of a river.

Stay rooted in an awareness of your breathing. Observe the sensations, thoughts and emotions that come and go through your awareness. Your breath is your sense of self, you are sitting by the stream. The stream is the endless flow of thoughts.

When you drift away in a stream of thoughts bring yourself back to your breath as soon as you become aware that you’ve drifted away.

Rooted in your breathing, observe the flow of thoughts and emotions. With each inhalation try to become more conscious of that part of yourself that watches – become aware of yourself, the observer. Sink into that feeling of self that is constant and steady while the content of consciousness comes and goes.

Spirit: You see, hear, feel things, you said. How, that is, with what properties do you see or feel them?

I: I see that object to be red, this one to be blue; I will, when I touch them, feel this one to be smooth, that one to be rough, this one cold, that one warm. (29)

The wonderous Spirit continues to help the reader to inquire into the nature of perception. Of the five senses this dialogue currently focuses in on the senses of sight and touch. At other times other senses will be referenced. The same principles apply to all of the senses.

Spirit: You know therefore what that is: red, blue, smooth, rough, cold, warm? 

I: Indeed I do.

Spirit: Will you describe it to me?

I: That cannot be described. (29)

Direct sense perception cannot be described, it must be experienced. Words can be written and shared, thoughts can be put into sentences and information conveyed, but sensation is different. Fichte goes on to show that reasoning is a different aspect of mind than sense perception. If I have seen yellow and green but have never seen red, you cannot transmit the experience of red to me through reasoning or comparison. Red must be directly experienced. He spells out the point here:

Spirit: But can one not at least, once one has come to know some properties through immediate perception, derive others which are different from them by reasoning? If, e.g., someone had seen red, green, yellow, but never the color blue, or had tasted something sour, sweet, salty, but never anything bitter, could such a one not come to know, merely by thinking and comparing, what blue or bitter are, without seeing or tasting anything of the kind? 

I: By no means. What is a matter of perception may only be perceived, not thought; it is not something derived, but something simply immediate. (30)

Perception is immediate, thought is derived. The two experiences are quite different modifications of the mind.

Deeper Into Visualization

Take a moment to sit quietly with your eyes gently closed. Focus in on your breathing.

Now open your eyes and pick something in your field of vision; focus in on the color and the experience of that particular color.

Now close your eyes and become aware of other sense impressions. The sounds around you, the temperature of your surroundings, scents in the air, the feeling of your body in contact with the chair. Simply focus in on these sensations and the sensation of your breathing for a minute or so.

Become aware of thoughts that arise. Note the difference between sensations and thoughts. Let the thoughts flow by. Stay rooted in sensation. Observe how sensation is a different form of your mind than thoughts or memories. Now observe how each time a sensation arises you link it to a thought in the form of an image of what you think is the cause of this sense impression. This is your mind projecting reality through the deeply engrained mental construct of cause and effect.

Now, as you breath in become aware of yourself, the observer of the sensations. You are not the sensations; you are the observer of the sensations. Focus on yourself, the observer. Try this for a minute or two. You will notice your awareness shifting back to that which you are sensing or to passing thoughts. Each time that occurs simply bring your awareness back to yourself the witness.

Through this technique you will begin to be able to distinguish between three different modifications of mind: sensation, thought, and the observer. We forget about ourselves and get lost in thought and the pendulum of pain and pleasure. Reconnecting with sense of self and staying rooted in that awareness is deeply fulfilling.

The dialogue now reconfirms an earlier point:

I: …the perception of objects has its origin in the perception of my own condition and is determined by it…I first distinguish objects by distinguishing my own condition. (30-31)

This is the awareness of “I Am.”

Now we shift gears and inquire into how we go from basic sense impressions to creating our sense of reality.

Spirit: …you should be content to say: I feel myself affected in the manner which I call red, blue, smooth, rough. You should locate these sensations only in yourself, without transferring them to an object lying totally outside of you and purporting something to be properties of this object which after all is only your own modification. (31)

I: Transference of something which is only in me onto something outside of me, from which I cannot refrain I now find most remarkable.

 I sense in myself, not in the object…; I therefore sense only myself and my condition and not the condition of the object. (31)

This transference, which is mentioned in the preceding quote, will now be explored. Through this largely unconscious process, which we begin to develop in our early childhood, we project—transfer—modifications in our consciousness onto our surroundings.

Each one of us constructs our own sense of reality. Modifications take place in our awareness and we project a solid world surrounding us causing these experiences. Through these philosophical insights and the two meditation-visualization exercises, you now have the knowledge and tools to root into the core of your being.

Fichte did not stop here. He goes on to show how we generate our sense of space, time and causality and hence create our reality. I will leave that exploration for a future writing. I’ll end with Spirit’s hopeful words to those who have taken the time to explore this writing.

Spirit: …no longer fear being oppressed by things which are your own products, no longer place yourself, the thinker, into the same class as objects of thought issuing from you yourself…. Now, after you have seen that all this is only in and through yourself, you will without doubt not be afraid of what you have recognized as your own creature…. I wanted to liberate you (60)

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