Schelling’s Geocentric Realism

I’ve been reading Iain Hamilton Grant‘s Philosophies of Nature After Schelling. He laments that most commentators treat Schelling as either a biocentric vitalist or a logocentric idealist. These characterizations ignore the extent to which his naturephilosophy corrects the eliminative idealism of Fichte’s and Hegel’s systems (which made nature’s externality entirely determined by intelligence) by grounding thought in nature itself.

Grant marks the antinomy of teleological judgment articulated in Kant’s third Critique (i.e., the mutual exteriority of nature and freedom) as the “axis” around which all subsequent philosophy has been organized (p. 17). Kant could not account for organic matter in mechanistic terms, so instead retreated into a transcendental account of the appearance of self-organization rather than a physical account of its ground. Schelling does not follow Kant’s aborted attempt to uncover some third mediating principle uniting life and mechanism; more radically, he locates their mutual source in the dynamic, unconditioned ground of nature itself.

“We require to know,” writes Schelling,

“how and why it [nature] originally and necessarily grounds everything that our species has ever thought about nature” (quoted in Grant, p. 1).

Accordingly, naturephilosophy is not representational, pointing to a physical world outside philosophy’s own grounding in the Absolute in an attempt to objectively describe it, but generative, in that “to philosophize about nature means to create nature” (ibid.). This is not as it may first sound, a physics wherein nature becomes a construction of the mind; rather, Schelling’s dynamic or genetic account of nature differentiates between “nature naturing” (natura naturans) and “nature natured” (natura naturata), or nature as process and as product, identifying philosophizing with a participation in the former.

For Schelling, the laws of the mind cannot be understood as accidental products of nature, or as transcendental forms stamped upon phenomenal nature by the understanding. Instead, these laws are discovered to be necessary expressions of nature itself. Kant is prevented from making such a move because of his Aristotelian definition of nature as the sum total of appearing things, or sensible bodies. Kant’s “corporealism” collapses the invisible activity of productive nature into the givenness of its sensible products, whereas Schelling founds his philosophy of nature in the unconditioned productive dynamism of a materiality prior to corporealization, a dynamism which gives rise to the conditioned things of the observable world. This is not, as it may again seem, a sort of two-world metaphysics attempting to account for the matter of physics in its own formal terms. Following Plato, Schelling defines matter as the invisible “mother of all things” capable of participating in the forms of the understanding, such that the transcendental becomes the dynamism of nature itself. In other words, all things think because nature is subject (p. 29).

Schelling challenges philosophy to conceive of its own natural ground, to find in the emergence of physical order the conditions of its own intelligence. In this sense, his naturephilosophy is geocentric, since it is the geogenesis of the earth itself which provides the a priori conditions (physical and physiological) for the later representation of it in consciousness (p. 48).

Grant’s characterization of Schelling presents an interesting case study along the way to a speculative realism, since his naturephilosophy overcomes Kant’s idealism by returning to the strange realism of Plato’s Timaeus. Plato’s realism, or physics, is “strange” because he is normally considered the paradigm case of a two-world metaphysician (p. 20). But it is Plato’s account of the coming into being or genesis of the universe that reveals his commitment to an account of the Idea as a synthetic cause binding together being and becoming (p. 40). The invisible Idea does not contain the static blueprint of a visible thing, but “the dynamics according to which what moves itself and what is moved are combined” (p. 54). In other words, productive nature approximates the eternal realiztion of the Idea–it is the cause of the mixture between being and becoming underlying the genesis of the universe (p. 43). Since “becoming” is not an idea for Plato (all ideas are real beings), he posits a universal soul that works as a “homeostatic pilot” to dynamically balance the combined opposites.

“The emergence of the generated world,” writes Grant,

“challenges the senses to exceed their own genesis, [entailing] a ‘gaze fixed on what always is,’ on the Idea in nature, despite the Idea itself being necessarily non-sensible. It is precisely the excess of physical becoming over the phenomenologically accessible [i.e., while all sensible things are becoming, not all becoming is sensible] that prompts [Schelling’s] Timaeus essay’s epigraph: ‘to discover the producer and father of the universe is a great undertaking, and impossible to declare to all” (p. 44).

Aristotle refers to Plato’s secret teaching several times in the Metaphysics, hinting that it has something to do with the way intelligence participates in matter. Perhaps the viability of a speculative realism lies in a more explicit articulation of this secret.