Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von (1775–1854)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC068-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

2. Identity philosophy (1801–c.1808)

Although the period of Schelling’s ‘identity philosophy’ is usually dated from the 1801 Darstellung meines Systems der Philosophie (Presentation of My System of Philosophy) until some time before the 1809 Philosophische Untersuchungen über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit und die damit zusammenhängenden Gegenstände (Of Human Freedom), the project of that philosophy is carried on in differing ways throughout his work. The identity philosophy derives from Schelling’s conviction that the self-conscious I must be seen as a result, rather than as the originating act as it is in Fichte, and thus that the I cannot be seen as the generative matrix of the whole system. Again, the problem is to articulate the relationship between the I and the world of material nature, without either reverting to Kantian dualism or falling into the traps of idealism and materialism.

Schelling’s mature identity philosophy, which is contained in System der gesammten Philosophie und der Naturphilosophie insbesondere (System of the Whole of Philosophy and of the Philosophy of Nature in Particular), written in Würzburg in 1804, and in other texts between 1804 and 1807, breaks with the model of truth as correspondence:

It is clear that in every explanation of the truth as a correspondence [Übereinstimmung] of subjectivity and objectivity in knowledge, both, subject and object, are already presupposed as separate, for only what is different can agree, what is not different is in itself one.

(1804a, 1 (6): 138)

The crucial problem is explaining the link of the subject and object world, which is what makes judgments possible. For there to be synthetic judgments at all, what is split must, Schelling contends, in some way already be the same (see Truth, correspondence theory of). This has often been understood as leading Schelling to a philosophy in which, as Hegel puts it in the Phenomenology, the Absolute is the ‘night in which all cows are black’, because it swallows all differentiated knowledge in the assertion that everything is ultimately the same. This is not a valid interpretation of Schelling’s argument.

In order to get over the problem in monism, of how the One is also the many, Schelling introduces the notion of ‘transitive’ being, which links mind and matter as predicates of itself. Schelling explains this ‘transitivity’ via the metaphor of the earth:

You recognize its [the earth’s] true essence only in the link by which it eternally posits its unity as the multiplicity of its things and again posits this multiplicity as its unity. You also do not imagine that, apart from this infinity of things which are in it, there is another earth which is the unity of these things, rather the same which is the multiplicity is also unity, and what the unity is, is also the multiplicity, and this necessary and indissoluble One of unity and multiplicity in it is what you call its existence… Existence is the link of a being [Wesen] as One, with itself as a multiplicity.

(1806a, 1 (7): 56)

‘Absolute identity’ is the link of the two aspects of being, which, on the one hand, is the universe, and, on the other, is the changing multiplicity which the knowable universe also is. Schelling insists now that ‘The I think, I am, is, since Descartes, the basic mistake of all knowledge; thinking is not my thinking, and being is not my being, for everything is only of God or the totality’: the I is ‘affirmed’ as a predicate of the being by which it is preceded.

Schelling is led to this view by his understanding of the changing and relative status of theoretical knowledge. It is the inherent incompleteness of all finite determinations which reveals the nature of the Absolute, as is evident in his description of time: ‘time is itself nothing but the totality appearing in opposition to the particular life of things’, so that the totality ‘posits or intuits itself, by not positing, not intuiting the particular’. The particular is determined in judgments, but the truth of claims about the totality cannot be proved because judgments are necessarily conditioned, whereas the totality is not. Given the relative status of the particular, though, there must be a ground which enables us to be aware of that relativity: this ground must have a different status from the knowable world of finite particulars. At the same time, if the ground were wholly different from the world of relative particulars the old problems of dualism would recur. As such the Absolute is the finite, but we do not know this in the manner in which we know the finite. Without the presupposition of ‘absolute identity’, therefore, the evident relativity of particular knowledge becomes inexplicable, since there would be no reason to claim that a revised judgment is predicated of the same as the preceding – now false – judgment.

Schelling summarizes the theory of identity as follows:

For being, actual, real being is precisely self-disclosure/revelation (Selbstoffenbarung). If it is to be as One then it must disclose/reveal itself in itself; but it does not disclose/reveal itself in itself if it is not an other in itself, and is in this other the One for itself, thus if it is not absolutely the living link of itself and an other.

(1806a, 1 (7): 54)

The link between the ‘real’ and the ‘ideal’, the physical and the mental, cannot, Schelling maintains, be seen as a causal link. Although there cannot be mental events without physical events, the former cannot be causally reduced to the latter: ‘For real and ideal are only different views of one and the same substance’. Schelling wavers at this time between a position of the kind which Hegel soon tried to articulate, in which, in Schelling’s terms, ‘the sameness of the subjective and the objective is made the same as itself, knows itself, and is the subject and object of itself’, in the ‘identity of identity and difference’, and the sense that this position cannot finally circumscribe the structure of the Absolute. The structure of reflection, where each aspect mirrors itself and then is mirrored in the other, upon which this account of the identity of subject and object relies, must be grounded in a being which carries it:

Reflection…only knows the universal and the particular as two relative negations, the universal as relative negation of the particular, which is, as such, without reality, the particular, on the other hand, as a relative negation of the universal… something independent of the concept must be added to posit the substance as such.

(1804a, 1 (6): 185)

Without this independent basis, subject and object would merely be, as Schelling thinks they are in Fichte, relative negations of each other, leading to a circle ‘inside which a nothing gains reality by the relation to another nothing’. Schelling prophetically distinguishes between the cognitive – reflexive – ground of finite knowledge, and the real – non-reflexive – ground that sustains the movement of negation from one finite determination to another. As a two-sided relationship, reflection alone always entails the problem that the subject and the object in a case of reflection can only be known to be the same via that which cannot appear in the reflection: if I am to recognize myself in a mirror, rather than a random object in the world, I must already be familiar with myself before the reflection. This means a complete system based on reflection is impossible, because, in order to ground the system, it must presuppose as external to the system what it claims is part of it. From the 1820s onwards, Schelling raises this objection against Hegel’s system of ‘absolute reflection’.

Schelling’s own dissatisfaction with his early versions of identity theory derives from his rejection of Spinozism. Spinoza saw the move from God to the world of ‘conditions’ as a logical consequence of the nature of God. Schelling becomes convinced that such a theory gives no reason why the Absolute or the ‘unconditioned’ should manifest itself in a world of negative ‘conditions’ at all. Schelling is confronted with the task of explaining the transition from the Absolute to the finite world. In Philosophie und Religion (Philosophy and Religion) (1804), he claims, like Jacobi, that there is no way of mediating between conditioned and unconditioned, and already makes the distinction between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ philosophy, which will form the heart of his late work. Explicating the structure of the finite world leads to ‘negative philosophy, but much has already been gained by the fact that the negative, the realm of nothingness, has been separated by a sharp limit from the realm of reality and of what alone is positive’. The next stage of his philosophy will become concerned with the transition between infinite and finite.

Citing this article:
Bowie, Andrew. Identity philosophy (1801–c.1808). Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von (1775–1854), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC068-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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