Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von (1775–1854)

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

1. Transcendental philosophy and Naturphilosophie (1795–1800)

Schelling was born in Leonberg, near Stuttgart, on 27 January 1775. He attended a Protestant seminary in Tübingen from 1790 to 1795, where he was close friends with both Hegel and Friedrich Hölderlin. He moved to Leipzig in 1797, then to Jena, where, via Goethe’s influence, he took up his first professorship from 1798 to 1803. From 1803 to 1806 he lived in Würzburg, whence he left for Munich, where he mainly lived from 1806 onwards, with an interruption from 1820 to 1827, when he lived in Erlangen. He moved to Berlin in 1841 to take up what had been Hegel’s chair of philosophy. He died on 20 August 1854 in Ragaz, Switzerland.

Schelling’s early philosophy was inspired by the French Revolution and by the revolution in philosophy inaugurated by Kant, particularly as interpreted in the work of J.G. Fichte. The tensions in Schelling’s philosophy of this period, which set the agenda for most of his subsequent work, derive from a series of related sources. In the view of the early Schelling, Kant failed to explain the nature of the subject’s knowledge of itself: in Kantian terms knowledge could only result from judgments, the synthesis by the subject of intuitions which were given to it from the external world. Although the subject was the condition of possibility or ground of knowledge, it seemed unable to ground itself. Kant regards the condition of possibility of the syntheses of knowledge as a ‘spontaneity’, as cause of itself rather than as the result of other natural causes, but does not succeed in explicating this spontaneity. Along with Kant’s approach to the question of grounding knowledge, the most significant other approaches to the issue for Schelling were those of F.H. Jacobi and Fichte.

In 1783 Jacobi became involved in the ‘Pantheism controversy’, an influential dispute with the Berlin Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn over the claim that G.E. Lessing had admitted to being a Spinozist, an admission which at that time was regarded as tantamount to an admission of atheism. In his Über die Lehre von Spinoza in Briefen an den Herrn Moses Mendelssohn (On the Doctrine of Spinoza in Letters to Herr Moses Mendelssohn) (1785; 2nd, revised edition 1789), which was influenced by his reading of Kant’s first Critique, Jacobi revealed a problem which recurs in differing ways throughout Schelling’s work. Jacobi’s interpretation of Spinozism was concerned with the relationship between what he termed the ‘unconditioned’ and the ‘conditioned’, between God as the ground of which the laws of nature are the consequent, and the chain of the deterministic laws of nature. Cognitive explanation relies, as Kant suggested, upon finding a thing’s ‘condition’. Jacobi’s question is how this can ultimately ground the explanation, in that the explanation leads to a regress in which each condition depends upon another condition ad infinitum. Any philosophical system thus ‘necessarily ends by having to discover conditions of the unconditioned’. For Jacobi this led to the need for a theological leap of faith if philosophy were to be grounded. In the 1787 Introduction to the first Critique Kant maintains that this problem can be overcome by acknowledging that, while reason must postulate the ‘unconditioned…in all things in themselves for everything conditioned, so that the series of conditions should thus become complete’, by restricting knowledge to appearances, rather than ‘things in themselves’, the contradiction of seeking conditions of the unconditioned can be avoided.

The condition of the knowledge of appearances for Kant was the ‘transcendental subject’, but what sort of ‘condition’ was the transcendental subject? This problem initially united Schelling and Fichte. Fichte insisted in Wissenschaftslehre that the establishing of the unconditioned status of the I was required for Kant’s system to legitimate itself. He asserts that ‘It is…the ground of explanation of all facts of empirical consciousness that before all positing in the I, the I itself must previously be posited’, thereby giving the I the founding role which he thought Kant had failed adequately to explicate. Fichte does so by suggesting that the cognitive activity of the I, via which it can reflect upon itself, cannot therefore be understood as part of the causal world of appearance and must therefore be part of the noumenal realm, where Kant had located the ‘unconditioned’.

Schelling takes up the problems posed by Jacobi and Fichte in two texts of 1795: Vom Ich als Prinzip der Philosophie oder über das Unbedingte im menschlichen Wissen(Of the I as Principle of Philosophy or on the Unconditional in Human Knowledge), and Philosophische Briefe über Dogmatismus und Kriticismus (Philosophical Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism). He reinterprets Kant’s question as to the condition of possibility of synthetic judgments a priori as a question about why there is a realm of judgments, a manifest world requiring syntheses by the subject, at all. In Of the I Schelling puts Kant’s question in Fichtean terms: ‘How is it that the absolute I goes out of itself and opposes a Not-I to itself?’. He maintains that the condition of knowledge, the ‘positing’ by the I of that which is opposed to it, must have a different status from what it posits: ‘nothing can be posited by itself as a thing, that is, an absolute/unconditioned thing (unbedingtes Ding) is a contradiction’. However, his worry about Fichte’s position already becomes apparent in the Philosophical Letters, where he drops the Fichtean terminology: ‘How is it that I step at all out of the Absolute and move towards something opposed [auf ein Entgegengesetztes]?’. The problem Schelling confronted was identified by his friend J.C.F. Hölderlin, in the light of Jacobi’s formulation of the problem of the ‘unconditioned’. Fichte wished to understand the Absolute as an I. For something to be an I, though, it must be conscious of an other, and thus in a relationship to that other. The overall structure of the relationship could not, therefore, be described from only one side of that relationship. Hölderlin argued that one has to understand the structure of the relationship of subject to object in consciousness as grounded in ‘a whole of which subject and object are the parts’, which he termed ‘being’.

Schelling sought a philosophical way to come to terms with the ‘ground’ of the subject’s relationship to the object world, which avoided the fatalist consequences of Spinoza’s system by taking on key aspects of Kant’s and Fichte’s transcendental philosophy and yet which did not fall into the trap Hölderlin identified in Fichte’s conception of an absolute I. In his Naturphilosophie (Philosophy of Nature), which emerges in 1797 and develops in the succeeding years, and in the System des transcendentalen Idealismus (System of Transcendental Idealism) (1800) Schelling wavers between a Spinozist and a Fichtean approach to the problem of the ‘unconditioned’ (see Naturphilosophie; Spinoza, B. §§2–4). In the Naturphilosophie the Kantian division between the appearing world of nature and nature in itself results from the fact that the nature theorized in cognitive judgments is wholly objectified in opposition to the knowing subject. This fails to account for the living dynamic forces in nature, including those in our own organism, with which Kant himself became concerned in the third Critique and other late work, and which had played a role in Leibniz’s account of nature. Schelling thinks of nature in itself as a ‘productivity’: ‘As the object [qua conditioned condition] is never absolute/unconditioned (unbedingt) then something per se non-objective must be posited in nature; this absolutely non-objective postulate is precisely the original productivity of nature’. The Kantian dualism between things in themselves and appearances is a result of the fact that the productivity can never appear as itself and can only appear in the form of ‘products’, which are the productivity ‘inhibiting’ itself. The products are never complete in themselves: they are like the eddies in a stream, which temporarily keep their shape, despite the changing material flowing through them.

Schelling then tries to use the insights of transcendental philosophy, while still avoiding Kant’s dualism, to explain our knowledge of nature. Given the fact of knowledge, things in themselves and ‘representations’ cannot be absolutely different:

One can push as many transitory materials as one wants, which become finer and finer, between mind and matter, but some time the point must come where mind and matter are One, or where the great leap that we so long wished to avoid becomes inevitable.

(1797, 1 (2): 53)

The Naturphilosophie includes ourselves within nature, as part of a necessarily interrelated whole, which is structured in an ascending series of ‘potentials’ that entail a polar opposition within themselves. The model is a magnet, whose opposing poles are inseparable from each other, even though they are opposites. As productivity, nature cannot be conceived of as an object, since it is the subject of all possible real ‘predicates’, but its ‘inhibiting’ itself means that the ‘principle of all explanation of nature’ is ‘universal duality’, an inherent difference of subject and object which prevents nature from ever reaching stasis. The sense of nature as an absolute subject links it to the spontaneity of the thinking subject, which is the condition of the syntheses required for the constitution of objectivity. The problem for Schelling lies in explicating how these two subjects relate to each other.

In the System of Transcendental Idealism Schelling returns to Fichtean terminology, though he soon finally abandons it. He endeavours to explain the emergence of the thinking subject from nature. This emergence is thought of in terms of an absolute I coming retrospectively to know itself in a ‘history of self-consciousness’. The System recounts the history of which the transcendental subject is the result. A version of the model Schelling establishes was to be adopted by Hegel in the Phenomenology of Mind. Schelling conceives of the whole process in terms of the initially undivided I splitting itself in order to articulate itself in the syntheses, the ‘products’, which constitute the world of knowable nature. The founding stages of this process, which bring the world of material nature into being, are ‘unconscious’. These stages then lead to organic nature, and thence to consciousness and self-consciousness. Schelling claims that the resistance of the noumenal realm to theoretical knowledge results from the fact that ‘the [practical] act [of the absolute I] via which all limitation is posited, as condition of all consciousness, does not itself come to consciousness’. He prophetically attempts to articulate a theory which comes to terms with the awareness that thought is driven by forces which are not finally transparent to it, of the kind later to become familiar in psychoanalysis. How, though, does one gain access by thought to what cannot be an object of consciousness?

Schelling adopts the idea from the early Romantic thinkers Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis, whom he knew in Jena at this time, that art is central to understanding what cannot appear as an object of knowledge. Philosophy cannot represent nature in itself because access to the sphere of the unconscious must be via what appears to consciousness in the realm of theoretical knowledge. The work of art is an empirical object, but if it is not more than what it is qua determinable object it cannot be a work of art, which requires the free judgment of the subject. Although the System depends upon the transition from theoretical to practical philosophy, which involves breaking Jacobi’s chain of ‘conditions’, Schelling is concerned to understand how the highest insight must yet be into reality as a product of the interrelation of both the ‘conscious’ and the ‘unconscious’. It is not, therefore, a re-presentation of the latter by the former. Whereas in the System nature begins unconsciously and ends in consciousness, in the work of art: ‘the I is conscious according to the production, unconscious with regard to the product’. The product cannot be understood via the intentions of its producer, as this would mean that it became a ‘conditioned’ object, which would lack that which makes mere craft into art. Art is ‘the only true and eternal organ and document of philosophy, which always and continuously documents what philosophy cannot represent externally’. The particular sciences can only follow the chain of conditions, via the principle of sufficient reason, and must determine the object via its place in that infinite chain. The art object, on the other hand, manifests what cannot be understood in terms of its knowable conditions, in that an account of the materials of which it is made does not constitute it as art. It shows what cannot be said. Philosophy, therefore, cannot positively represent the Absolute, because ‘conscious’ thinking operates from the position where ‘absolute identity’ has always already been lost in the emergence of consciousness.

Citing this article:
Bowie, Andrew. Transcendental philosophy and Naturphilosophie (1795–1800). Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von (1775–1854), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC068-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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