Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von (1775–1854)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC068-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
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4. Positive and negative philosophy, and the critique of Hegel (c.1827–54)

Schelling has usually been understood to provide the transitional ‘objective idealist’ link between Fichte and Hegel. By regarding Hegel’s system as the culmination of German Idealism this interpretation fails to do justice to Schelling’s real philosophical insights. Many of these insights, particularly in the later philosophy, directly and indirectly influenced the ideas of thinkers, such as Feuerbach, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Heidegger, who were critical of Hegel’s attempt at a complete philosophical system (see Hegelianism §2).

The differences between Hegel and Schelling derive from their respective approaches to understanding the Absolute. For Hegel the Absolute is the result of the self-cancellation of the finite. It can therefore be presented in the form of the successive overcoming of finite determinations, the ‘negation of the negation’, in a system whose end comprehends its beginning. For Hegel the result becomes known when the beginning moves from being ‘in itself’ to being ‘for itself’ at the end of the system. Schelling became publicly critical of Hegel while working on a later version of the Weltalter philosophy in Erlangen in the 1820s, but made his criticisms fully public in lectures given in Munich in the 1830s, and in the 1840s and 1850s as professor in Berlin. The aim of the Idealist systems was for thought to reflect what it is not – being – as really itself, even as it appears not to be itself, thereby avoiding Kant’s dualism. The issue between Schelling and Hegel is whether the grounding of reason by itself is not in fact a sort of philosophical narcissism, in which reason admires its reflection in being without being able to articulate its relationship to that reflection. Schelling’s essential point is that it is not the particular manifestation of knowledge which tells me the truth about the world, but rather the necessity of movement from one piece of knowledge to the next. This much can be construed in Hegelian terms. However, a logical reconstruction of the process of knowledge can, for Schelling, only be a reflection of thought by itself: the real process cannot be described in philosophy, because the cognitive ground of knowledge and the real ground, though inseparable from each other, cannot be shown to reflect each other.

Dieter Henrich characterizes Hegel’s Absolute as follows: ‘The Absolute is the finite to the extent to which the finite is nothing at all but negative relation to itself’ (1982). Hegel’s system depends upon showing how each limited way of conceiving of the world cannot grasp the whole, because it has an internal contradiction. This necessarily leads thought to more comprehensive ways of grasping the world, until the point is reached where there can be no more comprehensive way, because there is no longer any contradiction to give rise to it. The very fact of the limitations of empirical thought therefore becomes what gives rise to the infinite, which, in Hegel’s terms, is thought that is bounded by itself and by nothing else.

Schelling accepts such a conception, to which he substantially contributed in his early philosophy, as the way to construct a ‘negative’ system of philosophy: it explains the logic of change, once there is a world to be explained. It does not, though, explain why there is a developing world at all, but merely reconstructs in thought the necessary structure of development. Schelling’s own attempt at explaining the world’s facticity led him to a ‘philosophical theology’ which traces the development of mythology and then of Christian revelation in his Philosophie der Mythologie (Philosophy of Mythology) and Philosophie der Offenbarung (Philosophy of Revelation), which like all his substantial works after 1811, were not published in his lifetime. The failure of his philosophical theology does not, though, invalidate his philosophical arguments against Hegel. The alternative to the ‘common mistake of every philosophy that has existed up to now’ – the ‘merely logical relationship of God to the world’ – Schelling terms ‘positive philosophy’. The ‘merely logical relationship’ entails reflexivity, in which the world necessarily follows from the nature of God, and God and the world are therefore the ‘other of themselves’. Hegel’s system removes the facticity of the world by understanding reason as the world’s immanent self-articulation. Schelling insists that human reason cannot explain its own existence, and therefore cannot encompass itself and its other within a system of philosophy. We cannot, he maintains, make sense of the manifest world by beginning with reason, but must begin with the contingency of being and try to make sense of it with the reason which is only one aspect of it.

Schelling contends that the identity of thought and being cannot be articulated within thought, because this must presuppose that they are identical in a way which thought, as one side of a relation, cannot comprehend. By redefining the ‘concept’ such that it is always already both subject and object, Hegel’s aim is to avoid any presuppositions on either the subject or the object side, allowing the system to complete itself as the ‘self-determination of the concept’. Schelling presents the basic alternative as follows:

For either the concept would have to go first, and being would have to be the consequence of the concept, which would mean it was no longer absolute being; or the concept is the consequence of being, then we must begin with being without the concept.

(1842–3, 2 (3): 164)

Hegel attempts to merge concept and being by making being part of a structure of self-reflection, rather than the ground of the interrelation of subject and object. He invalidly assumes that ‘essence’, which is one side of the relationship between being and essence, can articulate its identity with the other side in the ‘concept’, because the other side is revealed as being nothing until it has entered into a relation which makes it determinate as a moment of the whole process.

The problem that Hegel does not overcome is that this identity cannot be known, because, as Schelling argues of his concept of being, ‘existing is not here the consequence of the concept or of essence, but rather existence is here itself the concept and itself the essence’. The problem of reflection cannot be overcome in Hegel’s manner: identifying one’s reflection in a mirror as oneself (understood now as a metaphor for essence) entails, as we saw above, a prior non-reflexive moment if one is to know that the reflection is oneself, rather than a random reflected object. How far Schelling moves from any reflexive version of identity philosophy is evident in the following from the Einleitung in die Philosophie der Offenbarung oder Begründung der positiven Philosophie (Introduction to the Philosophy of Revelation or Foundation of the Positive Philosophy):

Our self-consciousness is not at all the consciousness of that nature which has passed through everything, it is precisely just our consciousness…for the consciousness of man is not = the consciousness of nature… Far from man and his activity making the world comprehensible, man himself is that which is most incomprehensible.

(1842–3, 2 (3): 6–7)

Schelling refuses to allow that reason can confirm itself via its reflection in being:

what we call the world, which is so completely contingent both as a whole and in its parts, cannot possibly be the impression of something which has arisen by the necessity of reason…it contains a preponderant mass of unreason.

(1832–3: 99)

Schelling is, then, one of the first philosophers seriously to begin the destruction of the model of metaphysics based on the idea of representation, a destruction which can be seen as one of the key aspects of modern philosophy from Heidegger to the later Wittgenstein and beyond. At the same time, he is committed, unlike some of his successors, to an account of human reason which does not assume that reason’s incapacity to ground itself should lead to the abandonment of the question of truth.

Citing this article:
Bowie, Andrew. Positive and negative philosophy, and the critique of Hegel (c.1827–54). 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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