In Defense of Nature:
An Introduction to the Philosophy of F. W. J. Schelling,
Part 1 of 2 (Part 2 here)
1. Introduction: A Philosophical Rebel
This essay is a continuation of my series on “Heidegger’s History of Metaphysics.” With Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854) we have reached a significant milestone, in a number of ways. Behind us, in our journey toward Gelassenheit, we have Plato, the philosophers of the Middle Ages, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, and Fichte. Ahead of Schelling we have only two more philosophers to discuss, Hegel and Nietzsche, before we turn to cover in more detail Heidegger’s response to the metaphysical tradition and to modernity.
That response was consciously conceived by Heidegger as a “new beginning” for Western philosophy. We will see that it is fundamentally conservative. It owes much to the history of mysticism (especially Meister Eckhart and Jacob Boehme), and possibly also to Asian philosophy. It provides modern men with a way, which is arguably a way back — back to an experience of Being that predates not just the modern era but the entire intellectual history of the West. It provides, in short, tradition — but a tradition arguably more authentic than what was championed by Guénon, Evola, and the Traditionalists.
The turn to F. W. J. Schelling is also significant because for the first time we now encounter a thinker who seems to rebel against the trends in philosophy critiqued by Heidegger, trends which assume their most virulent form in the modern era, beginning with Descartes. In previous essays we have encapsulated these trends with the designation “the metaphysics of presence” — a term coined by Derrida to refer to Heidegger’s belief that the entire history of Western metaphysics is moved by a hidden will to distort our understanding of the Being of beings by accommodating it to the human desire that beings should be (1) permanently present to us, hiding nothing, and (2) available for our manipulation.
The reader will immediately recognize that the metaphysics of presence is radically subjective: the understanding of Being is fitted to human preferences; the human subject is, in effect, made not just central but absolute. I have argued in previous essays that this subjectivism reaches a climax in the thought of J. G. Fichte (1762-1814), though it is only with Nietzsche that it assumes its most extreme form, and paves the way for the “machination” of modern technological civilization. Schelling is the first major philosopher who challenges this subjectivism, and who tries to “de-center” the human subject. However, in Part Two we will explore the question of whether, in the end, he is successful in this.
Schelling is the enfant terrible of German philosophy. Admitted to the Tübinger Stift (the seminary of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Württemberg) at the age of 15, he roomed with Hegel and Hölderlin. Schelling was five years younger than both men, but he was the first to become a published author. In 1795, at the tender age of 20, Schelling published an essay, “On the Possibility of a Form of Philosophy in General” (Über die Möglichkeit einer Form der Philosophie überhaupt). At the time, he had come under the spell of Fichte, who praised the essay. With the support of Fichte and Goethe, Schelling secured a position as an extraordinary (i.e., unpaid) Professor at the University of Jena, when he was still only 23. In Jena he became acquainted with the Romantic circle, which included Ludwig Tieck, the Schlegel brothers, and Novalis. Over the course of the next decade, Schelling brought out a large number of works expounding his “system of philosophy,” and was universally acknowledged as the rising star of German philosophy.
After 1804, however, Schelling published very little. His Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom (Philosophische Untersuchungen über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit) appeared in 1809, and though Schelling lived until 1854 and continued to write and lecture, this was the last book he saw through to publication during his lifetime. (Several volumes of posthumous writings and lectures have since been published.) In 1807 Hegel published his Phenomenology of Spirit and in a few years shot to the top of the profession, much to Schelling’s chagrin. But Schelling’s silence after 1809 helped to create the impression, in the minds of the educated public, that he had had his day.
It also did not help that Schelling kept revising his system and rushing into print with new and improved versions of it. Hegel famously accused him of “educating himself in public.” This image of Schelling as a young tyro who couldn’t stop changing his mind has persisted to the present day. Careful study of his work, however, reveals an underlying continuity running throughout all his different “phases” of development. Also persistent is the idea that while Schelling possessed a dazzling intellect and exercised a considerable influence on Hegel, it was the latter thinker who proved the superior “systematizer,” and whose thought emerged as the pinnacle of German idealism. There is actually some truth to this. Hegel does give a brilliant systematic order to Schelling’s ideas that Schelling himself could not provide. Nevertheless, they are Schelling’s ideas: most of the major theses that we associate with Hegelianism are already to be found in Schelling.
In approaching Schelling, we must try to set aside whatever presuppositions we have and view him with fresh eyes. This is certainly what Heidegger would ask us to. Heidegger admired Schelling, and lectured on his Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom in 1936 and 1941. Heidegger described this work as “the acme of German idealism.” In the remainder of this essay, and in Part Two, I am going to offer the reader a very compact summary of Schelling’s “system” prior to the Freedom essay (which represents the “later Schelling”). Rather than take the reader through all the different twists and turns taken by Schelling’s thought in his first decade of productivity, I will focus on the major ideas which he never abandoned, the Leitmotive or themes that persist throughout all Schelling’s variations on his early system. I will simplify a great deal, but hopefully distort nothing.
In subsequent essays, I will deal with Heidegger’s commentary on the Freedom essay. I will argue that this became a key text for Heidegger, and that Schelling exercised an important influence on him. One highly interesting aspect of the Schelling-Heidegger story is that Jacob Boehme, the mystical cobbler of Görlitz (1775-1624), was a major influence on Schelling, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Freedom essay. Heidegger was aware of this influence, though it is not clear if he ever read Boehme himself. So close is Schelling to Boehme in the Freedom essay that Heidegger’s lectures could, at times, be mistaken for a commentary on Boehme (indeed, it is the closest we will get to a Heidegger commentary on Boehme!). If it is true that Schelling’s Freedom essay influenced Heidegger’s own thought, then his thought is indirectly and (so I will argue) decisively influenced by Boehme.
2. The Philosophy of Nature: Schelling’s Break with Fichte
Schelling began his philosophical career as a disciple of Fichte. As noted already, Fichte gave professional support to Schelling and, at one time, they even planned to collaborate on editing a new philosophical journal. Fichte’s letters to Schelling are warm and friendly, but this is for one major reason: Fichte, ever the philosophical crusader, saw the younger man as a useful mouthpiece for the propagation of his Wissenschaftslehre (Doctrine of Science; for a discussion, start here). Schelling, however, was not cut out to be anybody’s disciple. His letters and publications indicate that while his fascination with Fichte’s ideas was genuine, as were his overtures of friendship, he was seeking from the beginning to go beyond Fichte and to establish a philosophical system of his own. The principal bone of contention between the two men, which eventually led to their break in 1801, had to do with nature.
Fichte’s writings are so obscure that he is often misunderstood. Most histories of philosophy will tell you that Fichte was a subjective idealist who argued that the world is the creation of the ego, or, as he calls it, the “I” (Ich). In fact, however, Fichte offers us what can accurately be described as a “pragmatic idealism.” He does not claim that the world is the creation of ego; rather, he claims that it ought to be. Fichte argues that it is the vocation of mankind to re-create nature in accordance with human aspirations and ideals. This is an infinite task, and its ever-receding endpoint is a state in which all otherness is finally cancelled. All we would be aware of is ourselves — because the world that confronts us would be entirely the product of our thought and labor.
What Schelling objected to in this philosophy was the treatment of nature as nothing more than raw material to be manipulated by man. In fact, he argues for the necessity of a “philosophy of nature,” which would complement the Wissenschaftslehre’s transcendental idealism. Such a philosophy of nature would treat the natural world neither as a creation of ego, nor as mere “stuff” to be made over by man, but as having value in itself. Indeed, Schelling goes so far as to insist that nature must be the starting point of philosophy rather than human subjectivity, as Fichte had argued. We will explore the major ideas of Schelling’s philosophy of nature in just a moment.
As their correspondence reveals, Fichte was slow to realize just how far Schelling had drifted from his own system, and how incompatible their positions were. But Schelling’s claims about the philosophy of nature represent not just a break with Fichte, but with the entire tradition of modern philosophy since Descartes, which had insisted on beginning philosophy with the human subject. Descartes had made the certainty of his own existence the very foundation of philosophy, and other modern philosophers followed him in elevating epistemology (the theory of knowledge) to the status of “first philosophy.” Descartes had also conceived the human subject as a self-sufficient being standing apart from nature — indeed, as unintelligible in the terms we use for understanding nature – which was a position held by virtually every modern philosopher after Descartes, including Kant and Fichte.
For his part, Schelling held that this conception of the subject artificially abstracted humanity from the natural world, of which it should be seen as a part. As we will discover, Schelling argues that human subjectivity must be seen as an outgrowth of nature. But this obviously makes subjectivity a result, rather than a starting point, though Schelling will argue that subjectivity is also nature’s highest “potency,” or expression. The modern “primacy of subjectivity” is an expression of the metaphysics of presence — though it is merely an explicit expression of a concealed tendency already long at work in Western philosophy. And it can be directly linked, as Heidegger argues, to the modern despoilation of nature: When nature is conceptualized as an “other” standing opposed to a detached subjectivity, the result is the modern, Baconian project of the conquest of nature.
Thus, Schelling’s attempt to “de-center” subjectivity, to make nature primary and to conceive subjectivity as organically tied to nature, can be seen as a significant reaction against the metaphysics of presence. In Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, Schelling writes that “The whole of modern European philosophy since its inception (through Descartes) has this common deficiency — that nature does not exist for it and that it lacks a living basis.” Schelling’s attempt to “situate” human subjectivity also helps pave the way for the Heideggerean conception of man as Dasein: a form of being (Sein) which is “there” (da), embodied and situated in a natural, social, and historical context. Unfortunately, as we will see Schelling does not go far enough.
3. Spinoza and Pantheism
Schelling parted company with Fichte on the question of the nature of nature partly as a result of his enthusiasm for the philosophy of Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677), a Dutch Jew who is considered one of the primary figures in the rationalist movement in modern philosophy. Spinoza argued that God is the whole — the entire universe of being, and therefore that nothing exists outside God. Traditional theology, by contrast, had maintained that God is absolutely distinct from nature. Spinoza completely rejects this, arguing that nature (“extension”) and thought are the two primary modes of God’s being. For Schelling and many others, this was a sublime conception. But proponents of orthodoxy saw it as extraordinarily dangerous. For them, Spinoza had erased the distinction between God and nature, which was the same thing as erasing God. Spinozism was therefore equated with atheism.
More sympathetic critics equated it with “pantheism.” Schelling, Hegel, and Hölderlin all came of age during the notorious Pantheismusstreit (pantheism controversy) of the late seventeenth century. This was sparked by Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi’s 1785 work On the Doctrine of Spinoza in Letters to Mr. Moses Mendelssohn (Über die Lehre des Spinoza in Briefen an den Herrn Moses Mendelssohn, 1785), in which Jacobi reported a private remark made by Gotthold Lessing: “The orthodox concepts of the deity are no longer for me. Hen kai pan, I know no other.” This resulted in a revival of interest in Spinoza and pantheism, which sharply divided both intellectuals and the literate public. Schelling, Hegel, and Hölderlin were all strongly sympathetic to Spinozism and pantheism, and jointly adopted hen kai pan (“one and all,” i.e., “all is one”) as their motto while at the Tübinger Stift.
In a February 1795 letter to Hegel, Schelling writes, paraphrasing Lessing:
For us the orthodox concepts of God are no more . . . I have in the interim [since we last communicated] become a Spinozist! Do not be astonished. You will soon hear how. For Spinoza the world, the object by itself in opposition to the subject, was everything. For me it is the self.
There is a good deal of ambiguity in this statement. It actually sounds as if Schelling is rejecting Spinozism in favor of the Fichtean position, which absolutizes the subject. In fact, however, Schelling wanted to achieve a kind of synthesis of the two philosophies.
For Fichte, this would have been unthinkable. As I have argued at length in earlier essays, freedom is the central concept of his entire philosophy — indeed, he argues that human subjectivity is radically free and self-determining. Spinoza, on the other hand, presents himself as a determinist, as the diametrical opposite of Fichte. For Spinoza, man is a part of nature and exists within the same nexus of causes (conceived mechanistically) as all other beings. His actions, in other words, are caused by forces over which he has no control. There thus seems to be no room for freedom in Spinoza’s universe, if one conceives of human freedom as an uncaused cause. (This is indeed how “free will” has traditionally been conceived; in a later installment, we will see how this traditional conception is challenged by both Schelling and Heidegger.)
Fichte thus regards Spinozism as a position to be avoided at all costs — for it contains the strongest and most intellectually persuasive version of determinism, the rejection of freedom. He opens his Wissenschaftslehre with the claim that the most fundamental problem of philosophy is why we believe that real things exist outside our minds, independent of experience. To this problem, he argues, there are only two basic approaches: his own position (a development of Kant’s), which he calls “idealism,” and “dogmatism,” which is essentially identical to Spinozism.
Idealism explains experience entirely as a function of the subject; as due to its own activity. It therefore conceives the subject not just as autonomous, but as metaphysically primary. Dogmatism is just the reverse of this: It explains the subject as a product of the object. Experience, claims the dogmatist, is caused when the subject is acted upon by objects in nature. For dogmatism, the subject is a plaything of forces greater than itself. Fichte thus felt morally obligated to reject dogmatism, as its denial of freedom undermined human dignity (on this point, see here). By contrast, Schelling and his compatriots at the Tübinger Stift saw Spinozist pantheism as an opportunity for quietistic surrender to the greater power of nature, a “silent surrender to the immeasurable, peace in the arms of the world.”
Finding himself attracted to two diametrically opposed positions, Schelling naturally sought some way to reconcile them. What the two positions had in common was that they assumed what Hegel would later call “the opposition of consciousness”; i.e., the idea of a distinct subject and object standing opposed to each other. The fundamental difference between idealism and dogmatism was that the former absolutized the subject, and the latter the object. Schelling’s innovation was to seek some third term that transcended subject and object entirely and was the source of both. This he termed the Absolute (das Absolute). This choice of words was very deliberate on Schelling’s part. Fichte had written of the “Absolute Ego.” In dropping the language of ego, Schelling signaled that he was moving the starting point of philosophy away from subjectivity toward something more fundamental.
Spinoza had held that God is the one, true being (the sole “substance” that exists, comprising everything) and that thought and extension are, in effect, dual aspects of God, who is intelligible as either. Schelling takes a certain amount of inspiration from this conception, though he goes considerably beyond it. “Thought” and “extension” are obviously correlative to “subject” and “object,” but rather than hold that these are two ways of viewing God or the Absolute, Schelling made his Absolute distinct from both. The Absolute transcends the subject-object distinction, for it is the source of the two: subject and object are both expressions of the Absolute. As we shall see, the Absolute is intelligible as the relation between subject and object, as their belonging together, but in an equally important way it is neither subject nor object.
4, The End of Nature
This seems frustratingly obscure, but fortunately there is a simple example, familiar to everyone, that illustrates how something can be both subject and object, and neither: self-consciousness. This had already been helpfully pointed out by Fichte. In self-consciousness, the subject becomes object: I become my own object; my subjectivity becomes my object. And, putting things the other way, the object (of my awareness) becomes the subject that is aware; i.e., the object of my awareness becomes my awareness. In self-consciousness, the subject-object distinction thus seems to dissolve. We can say that self-consciousness is the conjunction (for lack of a better word) of subject and object, but we can equally well claim that it transcends the distinction (i.e., it is both and neither).
Schelling’s brilliant contribution to the history of Western metaphysics is to project this very same structure of self-consciousness onto reality itself. In other words, what is normally considered to be an aspect of subjectivity alone is asserted to be a feature — indeed, the fundamental feature — of the objective universe. Schelling understands nature as a teleological system that has as its end (its goal, or purpose) the coming into being of an embodied subjectivity that is capable of knowing nature. In other words, the purpose of nature is to give rise to its own self-understanding. The vehicle for this, of course, is man. Man is a natural being, a product of nature. Thus, when he contemplates nature and seeks to understand it, this act is simultaneously nature’s self-understanding. Nature as a whole can thus be understood as an act of self-consciousness in which a great chain of being (a hierarchy of natural forms) comes into existence and then, like a great circle, returns to itself and reflects upon itself.
Schelling writes in The System of Transcendental Idealism:
Nature’s highest goal, to become wholly an object to herself, is achieved only through the last and highest order of reflection, which is none other than man; or, more generally, it is what we call reason, whereby nature first completely returns into herself, and by which it becomes apparent that nature is identical from the first with what we recognize in ourselves as the intelligent and the conscious.
This grand conception subverts the representationalist paradigm, which had ruled modern philosophy since Descartes. Representationalism holds that human beings do not perceive objects in the world, at least not directly. Instead, they directly perceive internal “images” that “represent” or somehow “copy” objects in the “external world.” In order to erect the representationalist framework — and to generate the problems that arise from it, such as the “problem of the external world” — we have to begin with the questionable assumption that we are “subjects” dwelling in an interior (an “in here”) that is cut off from “the world.” Only then do we arrive at the “problem” of linking up our internal images to the world “out there.” (I have discussed and critiqued the representationalist paradigm here.)
For Schelling, however, human knowers are not divided off from the world in a boxlike interior, and the world does not appear to us as an alien other. Rather, human subjectivity is something that emerges organically from nature. It is not self-sufficient and detached, but is instead a higher-level expression of the powers of nature. It is not removed from nature, but exists in its midst. Further, in knowing nature, we do not confront an “other” – instead, we confront ourselves. And, through us, nature may be understood to be confronting itself. Alan Watts seems strikingly Schellingian when he writes the following in The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are:
Most of us have the sensation that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body — a center which “confronts” an “external” world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. . . . This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, the unique action of the total universe.
While the broad outlines of Schelling’s conception of nature may now be clear, the devil, as they say, is in the details. While philosophy of nature was widely practiced in Schelling’s day by both philosophers and scientists (who were often the same persons), in the years since then it has fallen into ill repute. It is very common for the philosophy of nature to be dismissed today as mere “a priori” (i.e., armchair) theorizing, relying on questionable analogies and imaginative leaps. In their eagerness to seem au courant, scholars of German philosophy have often gone out of their way to repudiate the philosophy of nature. However, Heidegger comes to its defense. He writes:
[In] the last decades of the eighteenth century, in the transition to the nineteenth century, the investigation of nature moved to a more primordial ground and new insights were made in which the fundamental appearances of gravity and light played a special role. However, today we no longer have the eyes to reproduce this insight into nature. This questioning of nature is called “romantic philosophy of nature” and is used with the following in mind: all of that is really nonsense. . . . What today’s physics and chemistry, what modern science, cannot do at all, can never do as such, is to take the perspective, or even provide it, for deciding the question whether that “romantic philosophy of nature” is nonsense or not. That is itself still a question, but we do not want to go into it now. But let us warn against dismissing the perspectives of the philosophy of nature as impossible viewed from the illusory superiority of technological possibilities of change and against falsifying the essential conditions of things into mere “poetic images.”
Still, there is indeed much in Schelling’s philosophy of nature that is problematic. One major difficulty has to do with how Schelling conceives the Absolute (which is a problem for transcendental idealism as well). I noted earlier that the Absolute transcends the subject-object distinction and is the source of both; in a certain way, it can be conceived as the union of subject and object, and thus also as neither subject nor object. We clarified these abstruse claims through the idea of self-consciousness, which is the ultimate end of nature. But questions abound. Is the Absolute simply this self-consciousness itself, achieved in concrete form through nature’s giving rise to human subjectivity? It cannot be this, however, for, as just noted, Schelling speaks of the Absolute as the source of subject and object. This seems to imply a transcendent being that expresses itself as subject and object.
We could solve this problem, perhaps, by stipulating that the Absolute is both something that is a result within nature, and that it is a transcendent source. This could be the case if the Absolute has two aspects: an “in itself” and a “for itself,” to borrow some language that will be frequently used by Hegel. The Absolute “in itself” would effectively be the idea of the Absolute, or the idea of self-consciousness. But this idea is mere idea — only potential, as yet unrealized — until the Absolute becomes “for itself,” when the idea of self-consciousness is concretely realized (i.e., made real) in physical nature.
In essential terms, this is, in fact, Hegel’s own recasting of Schelling’s doctrine of the Absolute. Schelling himself gives some indications that his thought is tending in this direction, but he is inconsistent. In his 1801 Presentation of My System of Philosophy (Darstellung meines Systems der Philosophie) he identifies the Absolute as the universe as a whole (which Hegel would claim as well). At other times, he asserts that the Absolute is the “indifference point” beyond all distinctions, and all multiplicity — a “mystical” Absolute, in other words. Schelling also reveals his indebtedness to apophatic or negative theology by telling us, in The System of Transcendental Idealism, that the Absolute “cannot, in fact, have any predicates whatever; for it is the absolutely simple.”
* * *
In the second and final installment of this essay, we will conclude our tour of the early Schelling with a discussion of two of Schelling’s most revolutionary ideas: his new, “organic” conception of reason, and his theory that art provides an intuition of the Absolute.
* * *
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 Schelling himself, within the Freedom essay, refers to his earlier work as showing “only individual facets of [a] system” and as “fragments of a whole,” to perceive the interconnection of which requires finer gifts of discernment than most commentators possess. See Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Jeff Love and Johannes Schmidt (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2006), 5.
 To be sure, Hegel contributed his share of original insights, which are among the most brilliant in the history of philosophy. But all the central ideas of the Hegelian system are to be found in Schelling: e.g., the idea that self-conscious Spirit is the telos of nature, that philosophy and science are thus nature knowing itself, that history is the story of Spirit gradually coming to consciousness of itself (or that history is the self-revelation of God), etc. On Hegel’s relative lack of originality, see Frederick Beiser, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism 1781-1801 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), especially pp. 10-11. However, I must say I think that Beiser goes a bit too far and is rather unfair to old Hegel.
 Heidegger, Schelling’s Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Athens, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1985), 165.
 For this claim, see Beiser, 218-219
 Arguably, this “de-naturalized” conception of subjectivity is also to be found in Husserl and Heidegger, which complicates our story quite a bit.
 For a clear discussion of this point as well as those just discussed, see Beiser, 470-471.
 Quoted in Heidegger, Schelling’s Treatise, 103.
 Hegel: The Letters, trans. Clark Butler and Christianne Seiler (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 32.
 Schelling quoted in Beiser, 482.
 Although the reader will be irresistibly drawn to understanding this process as an evolutionary one — as the unfolding of a hierarchy of forms in time — it is not clear that this was actually Schelling’s position. Instead, his account of nature is of a gradation of forms, all of which exist simultaneously, as opposed to succeeding each other in time. Schelling died before Darwin’s Origin of Species was published, but pre-Darwinian conceptions of evolution have existed since the ancient world. For one argument that Schelling did believe in evolution, see Robert J. Richards, “Did Goethe and Schelling Endorse Species Evolution?”
 F. W. J. Schelling, The System of Transcendental Idealism, trans. Peter Heath (Charlottesville, Va.: The University Press of Virginia, 1978), 6.
 Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (Toronto: Collier Books, 1967), 6.
 At the time, there was no sharp distinction, as there is today, between philosophy and science. Many individuals, Schelling included, had training in both, and the German idealists frequently referred to philosophy as Wissenschaft (science).
 Heidegger, Schelling’s Treatise, 115.
 System of Transcendental Idealism, 209.
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