Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von (1775–1854)

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

3. The Ages of the World (1809–c.1827)

Schelling’s work from his middle period is usually referred to as the philosophy of Die Weltalter (Ages of the World). It begins with Philosophische Untersuchungen über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit und die damit zusammenhängenden Gegenstände (Of Human Freedom) (1809), written in Stuttgart, and lasts until the late 1820s. The Weltalter philosophy is an attempt to explain the emergence of an intelligible world at the same time as coming to terms with the inextricable relation of mind to matter. The initial concern is to avoid Spinoza’s fatalism, which renders the human freedom to do good and evil incomprehensible. Schelling’s crucial objection is to the idea that evil should be understood as merely another form of negativity, which can therefore be understood by insight into a necessitated totality, rather than as a fact relating to the nature of human freedom. He now sees the fundamental contradictions of the Naturphilosophie in terms of the relationship of the intelligibility of nature and ourselves to a ground without which there could be no intelligibility, but to which intelligibility cannot be reduced. In Of Human Freedom he introduces, against both Spinoza and Fichte, a conception of ‘willing’, which was later influential for Schopenhauer’s conception of the ‘Will’: ‘In the last and highest instance there is no other being but willing. Willing is primal being, and all the predicates of primal being only fit willing: groundlessness, eternity, being independent of time, self-affirmation’ (1809, 1 (7): 350). Schelling establishes a more antagonistic version of the structure of the identity philosophy. The ‘ground’ is now in one sense ‘groundless’, that is, uncaused: it must be understood in terms of freedom, if Spinozism is to be avoided. At the same time there must be that against which freedom can be manifest for it to be freedom at all. The theory is based on the antagonisms between opposing forces which constitute the ‘ages of the world’. He argues, though, that the world whose origins the Weltalter wishes to understand must entail the same conflicting forces which still act, though not necessarily in the same form, in this world, of which the mind is an aspect: ‘Poured from the source of things and the same as the source, the human soul has a co-knowledge/con-science (Mitwissenschaft) of creation’. Schelling suggests that there are two principles in us: ‘an unconscious, dark principle and a conscious principle’, which must yet in some way be identical. The same structure applies to what Schelling means by ‘God’. As that which makes the world intelligible, God relates to the ground so that the ‘real’, which takes the form of material nature, is ‘in God’ but ‘is not God seen absolutely, that is, in so far as He exists; for it is only the ground of His existence, it is “nature” in God; an essence which is inseparable from God, but different from Him’. The point is that God would be meaningless if there were not that which God transcends: without opposition there is no life and no sense of development.

Wolfram Hogrebe has convincingly claimed that the Weltalter philosophy is a theory of predication (1989). In it, being is initially One, is not manifest and has no reason to be manifest: Hogrebe terms this ‘pronominal being’. The same being, given that there is now a manifest world, must also be ‘predicative being’ (ibid.), which ‘flows out, spreads, gives itself’. The contradiction is only apparent. Schelling maintains in line with the identity philosophy that the ‘properly understood law of contradiction really only says that the same cannot be as the same something and also the opposite thereof, but this does not prevent the same, which is A, being able, as an other, to be not A’. One aspect of being, the dark force, which he sometimes terms ‘gravity’, is contractive, the other expansive, which he terms ‘light’. Dynamic processes are the result of the interchange between these ultimately identical forces. If something is to be as something, it must both be, in the positive sense in which everything else is, which makes it indeterminately positive, and it must have a relationship to what it is not, in order to be determinate. In the Weltalter the One comes into contradiction with itself and the two forces constantly vie with each other. Differences must be grounded in unity, however, as otherwise they could not be manifest at all as differences. The ground is, though, increasingly regarded as the source of the transitory nature of everything particular, and less and less as the source of tranquil insight into how we can be reconciled to finite existence.

The abandonment of his residual Spinozism leads Schelling to a growing concern with the tensions which result from contradictions which we also embody. The ages of the world are constituted by the development of forms and structures in the material and the mental world. The development depends upon the expanding force’s interaction with the contracting force’s slowing of any expansion, which allows transient but determinate forms to develop. This process gives rise most notably to language, which Schelling sees as the model for the development of the whole world:

It seems universal that every creature which cannot contain itself or draw itself together in its own fullness, draws itself together outside itself, whence, for example, the elevated miracle of the formation of the word in the mouth belongs, which is a true creation of the full inside when it can no longer remain in itself.

(1946: 56–7)

Language as ‘contracted’ material signifier, and ‘expanding’ ideal meaning repeats the basic structure of the Weltalter philosophy. This interaction between what is contained in itself and what draws something beyond itself is also what gives rise to consciousness, and thus to an inherent tension within consciousness, which can only be itself by its relation to an other. Hegel uses a related model of subjectivity, particularly in the Phenomenology, but Schelling later rejects this model. Schelling’s later philosophy will present a subject whose origin in nature prevents it from ever achieving the ‘self-presence’ Hegel thinks he can explicate via the completed structure of ‘self-reflection’ in the other. Schelling’s Weltalter philosophy is never completed: its Idealist aim of systematically unifying subject and object by comprehending the real development of history from the very origins of being founders on problems concerning the relationship between philosophical system and historical contingency which do not admit of solutions.

Citing this article:
Bowie, Andrew. The Ages of the World (1809–c.1827). 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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