German Idealism, From Kant to Hegel, Part 4: Friedrich Schelling

While influenced by Kant and Fichte, Schelling deviates from them insofar that he does not start with mind (as Kant and Fichte) but with nature (per Goethe). Therefore, Schelling’s axiomatic foundation is not the mind, the rational (or transcendental) but the natural; nature. The mind, for Schelling, is an outgrowth of the forces of conflict within nature and organic/morphologic growth.

Schelling’s enemies were twofold.  While influenced by Fichte, especially in his earlier days, Schelling came to conclude that the implications of Fichte’s philosophy of the absolute ego and consciousness would lead us down the path of a dangerous solipsism.  At the same time, as was the case with the whole of German Idealistic and Romantic thought, he was also vehemently opposed to the anti-teleological and reductionist empiricism and materialism of the dominant Anglo-French schools of thought which eventually produced utilitarianism with the likes of Bentham and Mill.  Schelling sought to reconcile the philosophy of consciousness and transcendentalism of earlier German philosophers (Kant and Fichte) with a form of non-reductionist empiricism that was also teleological (thereby allowing humans to have total knowledge through coming to know the end of the purpose of life).

The core idea of Schelling’s naturphilosophie is that everything springs from nature (principally in Ideas Concerning a Philosophy of Nature and System of Transcendental Idealism).  Rejecting the mechanical model of earlier “Enlightenment science,” Schelling was the forefront of integrating the new biological and organicist models of science with philosophy.  Thus, rather than the cold, mechanical, and lifeless philosophy and science that dominated the British and French materialist and utilitarian schools of thought, Schelling embraced an organicist, rhizomatic, and “chaotic” understanding of philosophy.  That is, all life organically grows from an early simplicity to greater levels of complicatedness and intricacy over time – much how biological and organicist models of science understand life.  In time this outgrowth becomes more and more complex with more roots taking hold as life expands over time.  For Schelling, the high points of life come during the rhizomatic phases when flourishing is correlated with creativity which, in turn, is correlated with the uncontrollable nature of rhizomes.

Schelling recontextualizes the dialectic of the I/Not-I through the morphologic realities of biology and also through an ingenious reimagining of space and time from Christian theology. Nature is internally dialectical, one might say paradoxical or even “contradictory.” There is, on one hand, an infinite expansion of the nature (thesis) which is reacted against (antithesis) by an infinite contraction of the natural. The forces of nature are simultaneously moved to expansion (growth and life) and contraction (decadence and death). This results in a disequilibrium which sets off a generative teleological evolutionary byproduct leading to the “new nature” (synthesis) that grows out of this generative disequilibrium within the forces of nature: The movement to self-consciousness and realization within the realm of nature.

The first generative principle of nature is space and time. The expansive and contracting principles then take place in the realm of space and time and recapitulate a new outgrowth, gravity and light (with further smaller recapitulations producing chemistry and electricity, etc.). Gravity is the new outgrowth of space. Light is the new outgrowth of time.  Space was the outgrowth of the force of expansion and time the outgrowth of the force of contraction. This process of dialectical recapitulation continues to cycle (like Goethean plant biology) producing newer iterations of the natural. From the gravity and light recapitulation emerges organic bodies, first beginning with plants. Then from organic bodies recapitulation produces animals. And from animals emerge humans. The generative movement of nature culminates in the “creation” of the human, which is the first and only lifeform that becomes aware of these generative processes of expansion and contraction and, as such, becomes self-conscious of his place in the natural realm through the emergence of self-conscious thought and reflection rooted, ultimately, in the generative germ of natural forces acting against one another. This plays out in human physiology: The growth, consummation, frailty, and death of the body; libidinal or biological urges (expansion) being curtailed by rational constructs and edifices which order eros (contraction) which makes ethical life possible (but not at the expense of destroying eros as in Fichte’s though concerning the emergence of the ego and ethical life and community); ultimately leading to the Christian consciousness of love as expansive and life-giving and the corruption of love, lust, as contractive and therefore life-denying.

Nature’s generative process of coming to self-consciousness culminates in the human. Thus, Schelling is—in the most traditional and proper sense and usage of the term—a humanist. Schelling believes the human, among all the lifeforms generated by the natural seed of generative recapitulation so it could, itself, understand itself, is set apart (the exception, hence, exceptional). Humans are exceptional because they are the exception in coming to self-consciousness and understanding. Schelling believes that animals feel and have all the basic self-perceptions which allow basic sensational awareness, but animals lack the ability to self-consciously reflect and come to know who they are, where they are, why they exist, etc., and neither can other animals come to understand all the generative laws of the natural world in which they dwell in. Animals simply have, in Christian language, the grace to be what they are and they are what they.

Thus, in the human—the ultimate coming to understanding is the consciousness of love. Love is the prime generative principle; hate (or sin) is the contractive principle. This was, for Schelling, the internal mythological truth of the Christian understanding of Original Sin and Divinization. Original Sin is that aspect of the human which leads us to do evil which is a negation of life and therefore a contraction of the generative principle of love and expansion; divinization is that embodiment of love and the principle of self-giving which brings two self-contracting forces (dying humans) into propagating further expansion (the generative/expansive principle) which leads to the creation of new life. Schelling, also being a theologian along with being a scientist and philosopher, tied this back to the book of Genesis in which God implants into creation the generative principles of self-propagation (reproduce after one’s own kind) which, after moving from space and time to light and gravity to plants to animals to, finally, humans. The arc of the evolution of nature, the morphological impulse of all life, reaches fruition in the human who is the single lifeform that fully develops the seed of intelligibility and consciousness to the point of self-reflection and the understanding of the generative principle of nature as love.

Schelling grounds his philosophy in the natural because love, eros, is the basic creative force of nature; the spirit. (Schelling follows a contemporary of his, Friedrich Holderlin on this account.) In the larger contests of philosophy and the world, as it relates to civilization, sterile rationalism, mechanicalism, and the material (i.e. “the scientific” as we tend to think of the term today) is that which threatens to severe us from the rational and, therefore, cut us off from the erotic which is the first generative principle of natural expansion. It is here that Schelling considered himself the true heir of Kant, who was much afraid of the same encroachments of the scientistic and mathematical (hollow) worldview of Anglo-French material utilitarianism. However, by starting with mind, according to Schelling, Kant started with the teleological end product and was still, despite his opposition to the monistic material reductionists, cut-off from the natural which would not resolve the problem of our alienation and destruction of nature. By beginning with nature and tying the mind (transcendental self-consciousness) to nature, Schelling hoped to show how true self-consciousness—true transcendental idealism—must always remained grounded to nature itself and not separated apart from it. (As was the unfortunate and unintentional cases of Kant and Fichte.)

Thus, in Schelling we can see the essential biological, morphological, and organic reality of life. Nature embodies two principle forces (hence avoiding reductionist monism): expansion and contraction. The dialectic between expansion and contraction is not an equal dialectic; the disequilibrium of the two (following Newton: equal and opposite reactions would cancel each other out) which is the superiority of the expansive over the contractive “wins out” so to speak which leads to the generative seed of nature which slowly produces new life. In theological language this is the triumph of love over hate, of divinization over sin. The cycles of nature recapitulate this basic dialectic leading to ever more complex lifeforms moving through atoms to plants to animals to humans. It is in humans, the culmination of nature’s movement to self-consciousness, that there is a mind (the human mind) that is fully capable of conscious self-reflection and an understanding of these morphological laws.

The intelligibility of the natural world reaches fruition in the human and the gift of love in self-conscious humans who, unlike with Fichte, do not need to destroy nature to be moral, but need to embrace their most primal nature (through understanding) to be moral. The moral is both an outgrowth of, but still linked to, the natural. It is in the biosphere that the generative principle of life, love, waits to be unleashed; the world of edifice, construction, and industry is really the embodiment of the contractive principle. As it relates to human minds, the truly self-conscious mind is that which exudes the generative principle of morphological growth; the mind that has severed itself from nature, which has therefore severed itself from true self-consciousness (understanding of the generative) is the contractive germ of morphological decline. This also puts humans in the most precarious position as we control our destiny of generative life or contractive death where other lifeforms don’t.

Schelling begins with nature, and, in a paradoxical sense, ends with nature. Nature’s becoming, its movement to totality, is the process of the emergence of self-consciousness in humans. Here we see Schelling’s debt to Kant and Fichte; but, as stated before, Schelling broke with Kant and Fichte because the two began where nature ends: The Mind. In starting at the teleological endpoint, Kant and Fichte are unable to truly attain the apperceptive unity cut off by the philosophies of Bacon and Descartes. It is not that the spirit of Kant and Fichte are wrong; one might go as far as even saying that Schelling agrees with a certain amount of the substance of Kant and Fichte too. But if neither begin with nature as their axiom, neither can sufficiently establish a philosophy that links the I with the Not-I; or in the case of Fichte, the emergence of the Absolute-I entails the end of the Not-I, the natural, which has been sublated in the movement to the Absolute-I.

Knowledge, then, for Schelling, must be tied to nature. For the truly self-conscious mind is that which recognizes its outgrowth from, and its roots in, the natural. Those minds who cut themselves off from this reality are not self-conscious, indeed, they are the human embodiment of the force of contraction. Those who entrench themselves, so to speak, and reflect back and recognize their deep roots (bodenstandigkeit) with the biological organism that they dwell in, are those truly self-conscious and knowledgeable minds who possess true knowledge and understanding. This is how Schelling achieves that apperceptive unity that is the primary concern of his predecessors: Kant and Fichte. The unity of knowledge and understanding, the unity of self and world, comes from our unity with nature because we are outgrowths of nature. Knowing this allows us to form the moral community, with responsibilities and duties, which permit humans to dwell in the world with both knowledge and the joy that comes with knowledge and active participation in life and love.


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  1. 1)I should take a speed reading course. There are too many books to read. And I read. Very slow.

    2) i guess I really should read more Schelling.

    3). It is kind of amazing what the popular philosophers tend to be. It is interesting to me that Hegel is the big dude on campus, when, at least in your rendition, Schelling holds more significance. But I suppose it was Becuase Schelling g held onto the Christian terms, no? Maybe that was someone else. Maybe that’s why I’m not a academic: can’t keep all the names and ideas in thier proper places. Lol

    But I suppose. Popular thought is just that: popular. And really says nothing about what is true or good. Becuase it’s a bunch of mindless automotons thinking they are intelligent. 🙃😄 spewing what they have been told without really looking into things. 👽

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really like Schelling, and am married to Schelling, though I’m also a great lover of Fichte and Hegel.

      It’s just how the breaks go. Hegel got picked up, however bastardized, by the Young Hegelians and Marxists and lives on with them. Schelling passed away with few such partisan followers that he is entombed in academic philosophy though is, from time to time, resurrected by his partisans.

      But yes, many people who take a liking to Schelling are suddenly put off by his Christianity. While Hegel was something of a radical Christian, it is more pronounced in Schelling and, naturally, atheists tend to be uneasy with this fact. But then I would argue that those who present the German Idealists without their obvious religious and Christian heritage and aspects, do a disservice in their presentation of them.

      I think that anyone who listened to my lecture knew that I held Schelling in a very special place. Yet, I make no pretenses as to whom I like and whom I dislike. Plus, few English-speakers deal seriously with the Germans sans Kant. Even the Anglosphere use of Hegel is, well, very one-sided and distorted. As we’ll see when we conclude with Hegel and staying with the theme of moral community and love which is what made sure to emphasis which is, or was, a central concern for the German Idealists.

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