A Philosophy of Nature: Friedrich Schelling’s Contribution to Absolute Idealism

THIS is the fourth in a series of articles about the Romantic philosophers who contributed to the development of Absolute Idealism and who shifted German thought away from the insufficient Transcendental Idealism of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and the Subjectivism of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814). Having already discussed Absolute Idealism in a very general context and then gone on to examine both Novalis (1772-1801) and Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) in more depth, I now intend to focus on Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854).

I first discovered Schelling by way of the contemporary psychologist, Sanford Drob, whose work on mysticism, the unity of opposites and what Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) described as the coincidentia oppositorum, had a significant degree of influence on my own philosophical outlook and later encouraged me to examine Schelling’s ideas in greater detail. In many ways, they provided me with the perfect intellectual basis for my existing interest in Taoism and Zen Buddhism.

Although Schelling’s ideas were fundamentally crucial to the overall genesis of Absolute Idealism, his particular conception of Naturphilosophie (‘nature-philosophy’) is consistently overlooked in favour of the considerably more well-known G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831). In fact it has even been suggested that Hegel even stood on Schelling’s shoulders.

Friedrich Schelling’s story begins with his early friendship with Fichte, something which lasted for just six years. The two first met in 1794, when the former was nineteen years-old and a student at the Lutheran Tübinger Stift faculty in Württemberg. Fichte was twelve years his senior, but the young man was extremely impressed with his new mentor’s response to Kant and initially agreed that all philosophy should begin with the self-positing ego. Indeed, his 1795 work Vom Ich als Prinzip der Philosophie, oder über das Unbedingte im menschlichen Wissen (‘On Self as Principle of Philosophy, or on the Unrestricted in Human Knowledge’) and subsequent 1796 text Abhandlung zur Erläuterung des Idealismus der Wissenschaftslehre (‘Treatise to Explain the Idealism of the Science of Science’) essentially follow the orthodox Fichtean pattern.

Schelling, however, was not the kind of man to fall under anyone’s spell and would remain an independent thinker throughout his entire life. Towards the close of 1799, serious differences were beginning to emerge between Schelling and his older counterpart and this is apparent from the correspondence that was sent back and forth between the two men from 1800 until 1802. At the very basis of this escalating divergence of opinion lay irrevocable disagreements concerning the interpretation of the subject-object relationship, the precise dynamics of realism and naturalism, the importance of rationality and how to interpret the natural world.

Further battle-lines were drawn in the philosophical sand once Schelling had published his 1801 Darstellung meines Systems der Philosophie (‘Presentation of my System of Philosophy’), which sought to present a complete framework of Absolute Idealism for the first time. More importantly, it finally broke with the narrow Cartesianism of the past and rejected the idea of the knowing subject. What Schelling correctly identified as the limitations of both dualism and solipsism were pushed aside in favour of Naturphilosophie. This meant that the starting-point for philosophy should move away from self-consciousness and begin with nature and the universe as a whole. For Schelling, therefore, self-consciousness should be derived from nature itself. When Fichte expressed his increasing alarm at this new anti-Cartesian methodology, Hegel ran to Schelling’s defence.

Naturphilosophie, then, was placed at the very heart of Schelling’s emergent philosophy and this led to the development of two key principles: (i) transcendental realism, or the idea that nature is completely independent of consciousness, and (ii) transcendental naturalism, the view that everything can be explained according to the laws of nature. Schelling also believed that each of these principles could be applied to the transcendental subject itself and began referring to his ideas as the “Spinozism of physics” on account of their tendency to view nature as an unconditioned substance. Schelling took this theory a step further by suggesting that the subject’s awareness of nature is tantamount to nature’s own facilitation of self-awareness through the subject himself. Fichte’s self-positing ego was no more.

The next stage in Schelling’s intellectual journey was to create a convergence between transcendental philosophy and his philosophy of nature. This meant devising a practical basis for idealism and realism, but he soon went even further by suggesting that his Naturphilosophie was superior to transcendental philosophy. This was a consequence of Schelling’s belief that existing theories about Absolute Idealism reversed the order of nature by making the subjective first in the order of being. This creates a rift between nature and self-consciousness, assuming that self-consciousness itself exists independently rather than as something which has developed out of nature. The transcendental subject, as we have seen, is merely nature arriving at consciousness through the subject itself. From the perspective of Naturphilosophie, this is the very epitome of man practically seeking knowledge (consciousness) by way of the natural world.

It should now be clear that Schelling’s interpretation of Absolute Idealism is fundamentally reliant upon a full understanding of Naturphilosophie. As far as he was concerned, the two were inseparable. Naturphilosophie, it must be said, has an interesting lineage and predates Schelling. The foremost exponent of this philosophy was Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), who had earlier used his own variant to contest the ideas of Kant. Herder also received more than a little help from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who took a keen interest in both plants and the theory of colour. Other important patriarchs of Naturphilosophie included Hegel, Novalis and Schlegel. Schelling’s Absolute Idealism was thus a direct descendant of a combined German effort to explore the relationship between pure spirit and biological matter.

Despite the fact that such ideas eventually came in for some very stern criticism from the Neo-Kantians, with the arrival of the late-twentieth century Naturphilosophie experienced something of a revival and many believe that it still represents a vital part of scientific history. Furthermore, in an age of growing ecological awareness the philosophy of nature contains much of value.

Another philosophical school committed to undermining Naturphilosophie is that of Positivism. In other words, a form of thought which insists that philosophy can only be verified by way of scientific or mathematical proof. Schelling’s ideas, of course, are steeped in metaphysics and this is something the Positivists strongly oppose. Transcendental methods are therefore dismissed on the grounds that they are a radical departure from the more logical and regulative philosophy of Kant, but this is untrue and even Kant himself had railed against the Positivism of the eighteenth-century. Furthermore, Marxists – and, most notably, modern dialectical materialists such as Slavoj Žižek – have since made an attempt to champion Naturphilosophie for its scientific qualities. This, despite Schellingerian philosophy’s undeniably metaphysical character and the fact that to discount Absolute Idealism’s earliest origins within the Kantian-Fichtean tradition simply rewrites the history of German thought.

On the other hand, there was always a material component to Schelling’s analysis of Naturphilsophie, as he demonstrated in his 1797 work Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur als Einleitung in das Studium dieser Wissenschaft (‘Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature: As Introduction to the Study of This Science’). However, over time Schelling’s interest in material factors evolved into a fascination with the organic dimension of nature and this included a study of both physiology and teleology. The latter, of course, implying that nature has an actual purpose and inviting Schelling to explore the relationship between mind and body. His conclusion was that the self-organising factors within matter must involve a unity of both form and content. That nature reserves the right to organise itself, rather than have a telelogical purpose imposed upon it from outside, guarantees its existence. As we shall see in due course, this connection between the mental and the physical was extended beyond mind-body and applied to the entirety of nature. Both organic and inorganic matter form part of a natural hierarchy.

What Schelling had meant when he described his philosophy as the “Spinozism of physics,” was that he had taken Baruch Spinoza’s (1632-1677) tendency to see God in all things and applied it to the scientific realm. The fact that Spinoza’s mechanistic rationalism did not appeal to Schelling – or his Romantic associates – did not prevent him exploring the seventeenth-century thinker’s ideas about the existence of a universal ‘substance’. Schelling ultimately concluded, however, that one cannot identify the Absolute as a ‘substance’ when it is but a product of natural activity. At the same time, nature is essentially infinite and this precludes us from being able to identify it. We can certainly distinguish its products and yet this throws up the question of how such finitude arises in the first place. For Schelling, this was the most important question of all and he explained this by demonstrating that both centrifugal force expanding towards infinity and centripetal force which contracts to a single point inevitably come up against limitations. It is the very conflict between these two forces, Schelling argues, that makes it possible for nature to produce something definite and identifiable. Mediation between the two leads to the possibility of natural productivity. Again, the influence of Spinoza is highly apparent here in the sense that his predecessor advanced the notion that the fundamental dynamics of the infinite are validated by the manifestation of the empirical.

Schelling’s investigation of the mutually restraining effects of both centrifugal and centripetal force led him to the conclusion that nature is always seeking to return to its true identity. The process begins with nature expressing its more commonly-known form of identity, but through the conflict of two opposing forces it seeks to realise a higher stage of identity by incorporating its opposition within itself. Schelling realises, however, that such conflict is endless and the goal thus becomes unattainable. This, he calls “the point of indifference”. Nonetheless, the unification of opposites begins to approach a synthesis and with the attainment of one synthesis another inevitably follows. This creates a hierarchy in which each subsequent synthesis, or product of products, is more inclusive than the last and these stages are known as potenzen (‘potencies’). Whilst Schelling’s discussion of opposing forces within nature appears to suggest that it contains some kind of duality, it is merely a device. Schelling realised that it seemed as though he was applying a twofold constitution to that which is necessarily singular and absolute, but he explained that this is precisely a result of Naturphilosophie’s ‘absurd’ character.

Schelling’s belief in oppositional forces within nature had developed from his earlier study of the relationship between the mind and the body. Schelling insisted that the human organism was divided into two parts: (i) the organism as subject, which reacts to external stimuli and acts as a mediator, and (ii) organism as object, a lower function that merely receives the external stimuli and is immediately affected by it. Schelling was aware that basic chemistry was responsible for the latter, but wanted to establish what lay behind it. Finally, Schelling concluded that the cause was Sensibilität (‘sensitivity’) and that it was capable of both detecting and being conscious of a stimulus. Whilst all living matter is sensible, the opposing principle to this is Reizbarkeit (‘irritability’) and it was deemed to be part of sensitivity itself. Once you consider that for Schelling the entirety of nature is a World Soul, this conclusion is inevitable. When an individual organism experiences sensitivity, it is a form of differentiation that actively participates in the soul of nature.

Now that Schelling had attributed everything to a World Soul, or natura naturans, his philosophy sought to explain how the mental and physical dimensions act as potencies in the way that he had applied to the hierarchical synthesis that leads to a ‘product of products’. This meant ensuring that he did not fall back into the errors of dualism that had characterised Kant’s own Transcendentalist framework, something that was achieved by advancing the notion that self-consciousness was derived from the natural order. By presenting the mental and physical as potencies, Schelling managed to develop the idea that the organic was a higher form of the inorganic. When the lower organic form is realised at the higher stage of the organic, therefore, the organic itself unifies and reproduces the inorganic. In other words, the two are not entirely distinct from one another. They are part of the same universal force that has the ability to transform inorganic matter into organic life. This concept has been described as a synthesis between Spinoza’s monism and the vitalism of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716). Ironically, Schelling had used the work of two philosophical dogmatists as a means of keeping his head above Kantian waters.

Schelling later described the flash of intellectual brilliance that characterised his 1801 Darstellung meines Systems der Philosophie (‘Presentation of my System of Philosophy’), a work that had brought about his final rupture with Fichte, as a “great light” and by formulating the ‘point of indifference’ that finally overcame the subject-object dichotomy he had left an indelible stamp on the overall development of Absolute Idealism. At the same time, one or two historical commentators have speculated that Schelling’s philosophy is akin to that of Parmenides of Elea, a Pre-Socratic thinker active in the late-sixth or early-fifth century BCE and who is credited with having founded the famous Eleatic school in Magna Graecia. This view is based on Schelling’s staunchly monistic tendencies and their similarity to Parmenides’ 160-verse poem, On Nature, which – like his German counterpart – explores the relationship between nature and its variegation. Schelling’s conclusion that subject-object duality can be overcome on the basis that identity and non-identity is a false way of looking at things and identity of identity the only authentic means of approaching the truth, established the view that nothing considered in itself is finite. Hegel, who criticised Schelling, described this as “the night when all cows are black,” but he was convinced that unless the Absolute is truly one there would have to be another reason for its existence beyond itself. The Absolute does not enter the world to become finite and differentiate itself, simply because changing from the One into many would threaten its own universalism. The Absolute is thus pure identity.

As far as the philosophical enquirer is concerned, Schelling’s monism discounts all possibility of knowing the Absolute in any real sense. This is because discussion of the Absolute merely ascribes properties to it and this inevitably means highlighting differences within that which is essentially whole and undifferentiated. As Spinoza had observed before him, to seek to determine the One simply results in negatation (‘Omnis determinitio est negativo’). Naturally, this did not prevent Schelling from exploring the possibilies and he eventually proposed that when it comes to discussing the identity of the Absolute we must make a distinction between essence and form: the nature of the Absolute considered in itself, and its manner of being. Schelling therefore decided that whilst we cannot fathom its essence, we can nonetheless observe the form. However, this does not explain how something as undifferentiated as the Absolute can really have any form at all. Attempting to identify it must surely lead to negation? Schelling believed that this apparent contradiction can be overcome by ensuring that philosophical discourse always remains outside the Absolute itself and merely discusses it in a purely arbitrary fashion.

In 1802 Schelling published two further works, Bruno oder über das göttliche und natürliche Prinzip der Dinge (‘Bruno, or On the Natural and the Divine Principle of Things’) and Fernere Darstellungen aus dem System der Philosophie (‘Further Representations of the System of Philosophy’), each of which continued to grapple with the idea of how to accrue knowledge from the Absolute. Bruno take the form of a dialogue and the central figure, representing Schelling himself, concludes that the infinite and finite are unified. This seems to contradict his earlier pronouncement that the Absolute represents the identity of identity and that nothing may be considered finite, but through Bruno he manages to alter the perspective somewhat by suggesting that the finite lies outside the Absolute in the realm of appearances. This does not change the fact that the Absolute is still viewed by Schelling as a unity of the finite and the infinite, because finite things are included within the infinite only insofar as they are identical and excluded from the inifinite when they are shown to be different from one another.

His subsequent work, Fernere Darstellungen, presents three views of the Absolute: (i) as an abstract unity that denies all difference, being the infinite as opposed to the finite, (ii) as a unity of the finite and infinite that contains the finite within itself, and (iii) Schelling’s own “middle path” that discounts the first position on the basis that the Absolute is limited by the finite and the second as a result of the Absolute facing division within itself and thus relinquishing its unity. Schelling wanted to ensure that the Absolute could include the finite without losing its identity and this was achieved by positing it within the Absolute but not as a determinate thing. Individual things may be contained within the One, but only if they are identical. Humans, for example, are found within the Absolute as far as they share the same nature. Not all humans are identical, of course, but differences are negated in favour of a common identity at the more supreme level.

During the course of my recent article on one of Schelling’s fellow travellers, ‘A Restless Striving: Friedrich Schlegel and the Complementarity of Poetry and Philosophy through Absolute Idealism,’ I discussed the importance of intellectual intuition to the overall position of Romantic philosophy in general and explained how creativity was seen as a way of using self-knowledge to approach the Absolute. Schelling also believed that the medium of art could function as the basis for intellectual intuition and that nature works through the artist with conscious intent. Conversely, for the artist himself this seems like a purely subconscious process and this is precisely how some of the great works have been realised. Genius is not the result of a single individual, necessarily, but representative of the wind that blows through us all. After all, the ‘I’ – rather than ‘God,’ or the Absolute itself – cannot be the subject of knowledge.

For Schelling, this soon brought into question whether knowledge actually exists in the first place or whether it is not merely an illusion. The foundation of Schelling’s claim rests on the idea that if subject and object are completely distinct from one another, as in the Kantian-Fichtean analysis, there can be no correspondence between them and thus no knowledge. It is only be dissolving the differences of subject and object in the Absolute and retaining a very partial identity between them that some kind of mediating connection can be retained. With dualism, there can be no true knowledge. Hegel later continued these exploratory forays into absolute knowledge in his 1807 work, Phänomenologie des Geistes (‘The Phenomenology of Spirit’), when he decided that finite knowledge must rely on knowledge of the infinite.

To conclude, Schelling’s quest to construct a philosophical framework for Absolute Idealism by way of Naturphilosophie remains one of the most fascinating and enduring strands of German thought and I heartily recommend him to all seekers who dare to approach the altar of truth.

Further Reading:

Beiser, Frederick C.; German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism, 1781–1801 (Harvard University Press, 2002).

Bowie, Andrew; Schelling and Modern European Philosophy: An Introduction (Routledge, 1993).

Cunningham, Andrew; Romanticism and the Sciences (Cambridge University Press, 1990).

Distaso, Leonardo V.; The Paradox of Existence: Philosophy and Aesthetics in the Young Schelling (Springer, 2013).

Gare, Arran; ‘From Kant to Schelling and Process Metaphysics’ in Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy 7/2 (2011).

Golan, Zev; God, Man and Nietzsche (iUniverse, 2007). Grant, Iain Hamilton; Philosophies of Nature after Schelling (Bloomsbury Academic, 2008).

Hammermeister, Kai; The German Aesthetic Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Hendrix, John Shannon; Aesthetics & the Philosophy of Spirit: From Plotinus to Schelling and Hegel (Peter Lang, 2005).

Laughland, John; Schelling Versus Hegel: From German Idealism to Christian Metaphysics (Ashgate Publishing, 2007).

Limnatis, Nectarios G.; German Idealism and the Problem of Knowledge: Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel (Springer, 2008).

Ostaric, Lara; Interpreting Schelling: Critical Essays (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Pinkard, Terry; German Philosophy 1760-1860: The Legacy of Idealism (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Richards, Robert J.; The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (University of Chicago Press, 2002).

Schelling, Friedrich; The Unconditional in Human Knowledge: Four Early Essays 1794–6 (Bucknell University Press, 1980).

Schelling, Friedrich; ‘Treatise Explicatory of the Idealism in the Science of Knowledge’ in Thomas Pfau (Ed.), Idealism and the Endgame of Theory (State University of New York Press, 1994).

Schelling, Friedrich; Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature: As Introduction to the Study of this Science (Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Schelling, Friedrich; System of Transcendental Idealism (University Press of Virginia, 1978).

Schelling, Friedrich; ‘Presentation of My System of Philosophy’ in The Philosophical Forum, 32/4 (Winter 2001).

Schelling, Friedrich; Bruno, or On the Natural and the Divine Principle of Things (State University of New York Press, 1984).

Schelling, Friedrich; ‘On the Relationship of the Philosophy of Nature to Philosophy in General’ in George di Giovanni & H.S. Harris (Eds.), Between Kant and Hegel (State University of New York Press, 1985).

Schelling, Friedrich; The Philosophy of Art (Minnesota University Press, 1989).

Schelling, Friedrich; On University Studies (Ohio University Press, 1966).

Schelling, Friedrich; ‘Ideas on a Philosophy of Nature as an Introduction to the Study of This Science’ in Priscilla Hayden-Roy (Ed.), Philosophy of German Idealism (Continuum, 1987).

Schelling, Friedrich; ‘System of Philosophy in General and of the Philosophy of Nature in Particular’ in Thomas Pfau (Ed.), Idealism and the Endgame of Theory (State University of New York Press, 1994).

Schelling, Friedrich; Of Human Freedom (Open Court, 1936).

Schelling, Friedrich; Clara, or On Nature’s Connection to the Spirit World (State University of New York Press, 2002).

Schelling, Friedrich; ‘Stuttgart Seminars’ in Thomas Pfau (Ed.), Idealism and the Endgame of Theory (State University of New York Press, 1994).

Schelling, Friedrich; The Ages of the World (Columbia University Press, 1967). Schelling, Friedrich; Schelling’s Treatise on The Deities of Samothrace (Scholars Press, 1977).

Schelling, Friedrich; On the History of Modern Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Wirth, Jason M.; Schelling Now: Contemporary Readings (Indiana University Press, 2005).

Wirth, Jason M.; The Barbarian Principle: Merleau-Ponty, Schelling, and the Question of Nature (State University of New York Press, 2014).

Wirth, Jason M.; Schelling’s Practice of the Wild (State University of New York Press, 2015).

Yates, Christopher; The Poetic Imagination in Heidegger and Schelling (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015).

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