“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Schelling and the Transcendental Abyss of Nature

“What is essential in science is movement; deprived of this vital principle, its assertions die like fruit taken from the living tree.” –Schelling, The Ages of the World

The Copernican Revolution had the exoteric effect of throwing the Earth into motion, decentering human consciousness in the Cosmos. We, like the other planets, became a wanderer lost in the Chaos of empty space. Esoterically, the imaginations of Galileo, Newton, and Descartes steadied the Copernican Chaos by revealing the mathematical order underlying the motion of matter in space—a space poetically conceived of as the sensorium of God, an invisible world-soul uniting all things in His infinite Wisdom. Gravitational motion, celestial and terrestrial, was initiated and sustained by the power of this unmoved Mover. He was imaged to be an intelligent designer, and though the perfection of his plan kept the world-machine in stable order, it was a deterministic order.

Kant‘s Ptolemaic counter-revolution re-framed this new scientific knowledge of mechanical nature in order to leave room for freedom, which he understood to be a practical necessity. Freedom, Kant realized, is the ground and condition for the moral existence of an individual human being, as without it we are but the cogs in a great universal machine. Our movements would not be true animation, since we would be chained to forces external to ourselves. There would be nothing human about us were it not for our capacity to will the good. In a universe determined by the cause and effect of soulless bodies upon one another, Kant saw only one way to salvage our birthright and duty in life: “I have found it necessary to limit knowledge to make room for faith.” The human being was thereby lifted out of the realm of nature into the transcendental ideality of the mind. Knowing the True was sacrificed for willing the Good. Nature became, not the condition of our determinism (nor of our freedom, as Schelling would surmise), but the passive place and matter of our active rise in time toward Providence. As Kant put it, “He who would know the world must first manufacture it.” Nature becomes a mere product to be manufactured.

But scientific knowing would not remain bound by the transcendental limits Kant set for it. The early 19th century brought with it a further revelation about the nature of Earth. The burgeoning sciences of geology and paleontology were revealing the depths of the past out of which the life of our planet had come to be. Fossils of strange creatures no longer living raised the question of species extinction (and therefore also of species generation), long assumed an impossibility within the context of a mathematically perfect machine. Added to our understanding of the position of Earth in space was an understanding of its ancestral genesis. Of all those thinkers to take up Kant’s philosophical trajectory, perhaps it was Schelling who most clearly grasped the significance of these sciences of deep time.

Iain Hamilton Grant argues that Schelling sought a geocentric philosophy even more radical than Kant’s. If Earth had been around for hundreds of millions, if not billions of years before the human mind, then the latter could not claim to be its transcendental condition. On the contrary, Earth was the ground from which the human mind had emerged, and if the transcendental conditions of its freedom were sought, they must be discovered in the materiality of Earth itself. Schelling’s naturephilosophy accomplishes this without an eliminativist strategy.

The body of Earth, of course, has also come to be in time. It is itself still conditioned, and so cannot be the unconditioned ground of mind that Schelling is after. As Plato recognized in the Timaeus, there is more to matter than meets the eye. The Idea cannot enter into space and time as an already finished thing, but comes to be through the infinitely receptive productivity of the Receptacle, the mother of all forms, which itself remains formless. Corporeal matter is only the visible half of this “wet-nurse” allowing ideas to materialize and is not itself the source of invisible mind. “Beneath,” or “behind,” or “before” the ground of Earth and all the living bodies upon it, Schelling discovered the primordial abyss (ungrounding) of nature itself. As he put it: “Nature IS a priori,” or “Nature is subject.”

The abyssal dynamism of nature is hidden from view, but its incorporeal power allows ideality to participate in materiality. Through what Plato called “the becoming of being,” the Idea is eternally made Real. How such a seeming contradiction should be possible is difficult to understand; for Plato, it was the highest and most secret teaching.

“Everything,” says Schelling, “begins in darkness” (The Ages of the World). This darkness is the essence of God, that oldest of all beings. But in God there is both an essential (and so necessary) darkness as well as a spontaneous (and so free) light. God is both a Great No and a Great Yes, an eternal return onto self and an eternal giving of self. Without this contradiction, there could be no motion, no life, no genesis or creation. All of visible nature, for Schelling, is an image of this ever forthgoing and returning movement of invisible spirit: “This is the center, the hearth of the life which is continually perishing in its own flames and rejuvenating itself anew from the ash” (ibid.).

At every level of creation, in every creature, the image of eternity is recapitulated. A tree comes forth from a root and grows fruit, which falls to the ground depositing a seed in the soil to take root again. As for a human being, “it is certain that whoever could write the history of his own life from its very ground, would have thereby grasped in a brief conspectus the history of the universe” (ibid.).

…to be continued…




9 responses to “Schelling and the Transcendental Abyss of Nature”

  1. mary Avatar

    Hey Matt,
    I just wanted to thank you for the in-depth writing you are doing on Schelling, and for going the extra mile to share the profound coherence of his thought. I am just now completing Grant’s book and realize just how crucial it was for Schelling to return to Plato; I had misunderstood the concept of the abyss, thinking of it in terms of Bastion’s *Volkergedanken* at the onset of reading, and very much arrived at *Elementargedanken* into Grant’s text, especially in light of the isomorphism of the Platonic schema with that of Jung’s structure of the human being, both circles, both with an abyssal nature, that is the a priori to universe, to earth, to individual human; Soul displayed systatically(Gebser).
    This recapitulation, this recursion of structure apparently is a new cosmological question: the dark energy, which comprises 74% of the known universe,
    and is as completely enigmatic as is the human unconscious in Jung’s schema, and arises on a continuum with Plato’s intuition. That a movement of nature be so vast, so creative as to structurally couple form and content at such processual scales is truly astonishing.
    B. Nicolescu, in Science, Meaning , and Evolution, says that bifurcations of thought will be seen as choices of discontinuities which are not always contradictory; as if a harmony to the upheavals in time is as alchemic and paradoxical within geogenesis as it is within the psyche of a human being. The recurrent motif of the triune movement of the Divine has as the Hidden Sophia, the fourth movement , which is to make transparent, from quaternity, the three. From *mysterium coniunctionis* (Edinger on Jung) the Sacred Harmony is made manifest.
    I have far to go in comprehending Speculative Realism, especially from such discrete readings of Whitehead, and I can’t always follow the flurry of references, but I am enjoying the creativity of this timely momentum in philosophy of the “resurgence of the real”.
    and blessings,

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      I am glad you’ve found these posts helpful, Mary! Stay tuned for the video of our Speculative Realism panel that took place last Friday. We should have it posted soon.

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