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.


14 Comments Add yours

  1. michael- says:

    Fantastic post. I haven’t read Grant (or Schelling) yet – mostly because it is unpleasant for me to find someone articulating what I have been thinking better than I could. From the looks of it my position is definately closer to Grant than Harman, although I certainly appreciate what Harman (and OOO generally) is offering.

    I’m wondering how speculative realism mixes with integral theory in your view Matthew? Maybe you could post on that sometime?


    1. Turns out there are a few integral theories. I think Sri Aurobindo’s integral yoga probably comes closest to Schelling’s naturephilosophy (pretty sure he read him), and his approach to nature is similar: “Is Nature only the force of self-expression, self-formation, self-creation of a secret spirit, and man however hedged in his present capacity, the first being in Nature in whom that power begins to be consciently self-creative in the front of the action, in this outer chamber of physical being, there set to work and bring out by an increasingly self-conscious evolution
      what he can of all its human significance or its divine possibility? That is the clear conclusion we must arrive at in the end, if we once admit as the key of the whole movement, the reality of this whole mounting creation a spiritual evolution.” -Sri Aurobindo

      I’ve also been giving a little thought to possible parallels between Harman’s four-fold and Ken Wilber’s 4 quadrant “AQAL” model. Wilber breaks reality down into the interior and exterior of individual and social “holons,” or whole-parts (a concept borrowed from A. Koestler). The split between sensual objects and their qualities may align somewhat with the split between the interior of the individual and the interior of society, while the split between real objects and their relations would correspond with the exterior of the individual and the exterior of society. Maybe.

      1. dmf says:

        Corrington at Drew is a follower of Auribindo (I took his seminar which started with Heidegger and than moved into Sri A.) and while he suffers from manic-depression which colors his work he is an authoritative reader of folks like Peirce, Royce, Jaspers, Whitehead and Kristeva.
        ps if you haven’t already see Robert Avens’ New Gnosis book on Hillman and Heidegger.

  2. michael- says:

    Fantastic post. I haven’t read Grant (or Schelling) yet – mostly because it is unpleasant for me to find someone articulating what I have been thinking better than I could. From the looks of it my position is definitely closer to Grant than Harman, although I certainly appreciate what Harman (and OOO generally) is offering.

    I’m wondering how speculative realism mixes with integral theory in your view Matthew? Maybe you could post on that sometime?


  3. Will says:

    How can anyone characterize Hegel’s philosophy as “eliminative idealism”? He clearly demonstrates that “the rational is the actual and the actual is the rational.” This is quite beyond the mere concept of Nature and rather the original unity from which Nature manifests. Indeed its externality is necessarily posited, otherwise what could “externality” mean unless related to that which is internality or reason/consciousness.

    The idea of eliminative idealism or subjective idealism is an abstract moment of the absolute idealism of Hegel’s system. Absolute idealism is the Idea that the real is the ideal and the ideal is the real. Nature is not the real or the substantial because it doesn’t support or determine itself, i.e. it is not self-determined. It is other-determined, or determined by what is other than itself.

    Spirit/God lies hidden in Nature which first shows itself in the finite spirit of Man. But Man is not an evolute that Nature produces from itself, rather it is by the throwing off of Nature (external particularization) and sublating it (universalization that yet contains/retains particularity) that Man recognizes his spiritual identity. Man’s spiritual identity is therefore neither senseless nor undifferentiated immediacy.

    It seems to me that you and those authors you are reading don’t properly understand the dialectical nature of actuality (as act) and the concrete universal that Hegel constantly refers to. The concrete universal is as much particular as universal. Contradiction is not “wedged into” the Absolute by us. The Absolute is substance that is as much subject or a contradiction on its own in and for itself.

    Because it is absolute you can detect it everywhere you care to look. Consider the relation of the flower to the fruit. At what point does the flower become the fruit or does the fruit differentiate itself from the flower? At each point the dialectic or contradiction of being/nothing is present and is what makes becoming and ultimately actuality unfold. This is the very first lesson of the Science of Logic.

    All philosophy is but a footnote to Plato, and Hegel is the scientific presentation of Plato in the modern era. HTH

    1. Thanks for your well articulated thoughts, Will. I have not studied Hegel’s text closely enough to offer a definitive position on the matter. Grant’s reading of Schelling as a speculative realist is an attempt to break the correlational circle between nature and (human) consciousness that Hegel’s system depends upon. On my reading of Hegel’s Logic, nature is not necessary to the coherence of the system, and its coming into being is then only ‘for’ consciousness. For Schelling, nature is the ground, or unground, out of which all else arises. To argue that nature is not self-determining becomes more difficult in light of the ancestral knowledge of empirical science (i.e., knowledge of a time before life or consciousness). It seems that nature was around doing its thing long before even life had emerged. I’d be curious to know your reaction to authors like Meillassoux and Brassier, who make this point… It seems to me that part of the genius of Hegel’s work is that he can be so fruitfully misinterpreted. If Hegel’s Absolute already contains contradiction, it is no surprise that it is so difficult to argue against him.

  4. Pingback: Footnotes to Plato

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