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

Process Ontology in Schelling and Whitehead

In preparation for a larger speculative project, I’ve been reading a translation by Judith Norman of the 2nd draft of Schelling’s unfinished manuscript entitled Ages of the World (1813). I’ve been intrigued by Schelling’s philosophies of nature and freedom for several years, but never had the time to do a closer study. Iain Hamilton Grant‘s well-researched text Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (2008), on which I presented a few months back in a panel discussion on speculative realism, reminded me just how compelling his ideas and methods are. My own philosophical approach remains thoroughly Whiteheadian, though I continue to aspire to deepen Whitehead’s more naturalistic tendencies by bringing him into conversation with the hermetic occultism of Rudolf Steiner. I think Schelling may offer a bridge between the two, since his system has both a processual materialist aspect and an evolutionary spiritualist aspect. Schelling’s direct influence on Whitehead is minimal, if there is any at all; Steiner, on the other hand, clearly felt an affinity with him.

I am drawn to the thoughts of these three men because they offer a picture of the universe, and humanity’s place within it, that preserves the best of ancient philosophy alongside that of modern science. In our now postmodern context, there is no doubt a need to update and amend some of their ideas. Meeting the challenges of the ecological and social crises of our time demands an unprecedented transformation of human consciousness, and with it our philosophy and science. Anthropocentrism, whether that of the religious or technoscientific sort, is perhaps the most difficult conceptual obstacle standing in the way of an adequate form of thinking the cosmos. The universe is far stranger and more alien than we could ever have imagined. Matter, for centuries science’s most dependable and fundamental explanatory category, has become as “dark” and mysterious as spirit.

This darkness, and the need to break free of anthropocentrism, is, in part, the motivation underlying the emergence of object-oriented philosophies like that of Graham Harman, Tim Morton, and Levi Bryant. I am not as familiar with the latter two’s approaches, though I believe Bryant is more amenable to a process ontology like Schelling’s or Whitehead’s than is Harman. For Harman, objects are substantial and not processual. “Time,” he writes in Guerrilla Metaphysics (2005), “is the strife between an object and its accidents” (p. 250); time is not “an absolute constant force that wheels onward regardless of the deployment of specific objects” (p. 249). Whitehead would agree that time is not independent of objects, but rather, as Harman suggests, unfurls within objects. In this sense, every object has its own time. As I’ve outlined, albeit briefly, in another post, Whitehead does not entirely reduce the substance of an object to its relations as he is often accused of doing by Bryant and Harman alike. Time, nonetheless, does seem to play a more fundamental role in the production of objects in Whitehead and Schelling.

In Ages of the World, Schelling unpacks his understanding of material products in the context of a philosophy of time:

Even the smallest grain of sand must contain determinations within itself that we cannot exhaust until we have laid out the entire course of creative nature leading up to it. Everything is only the work of time, and it is only through time that everything receives its particular character and meaning.

Nature, for Schelling, exists in contradiction, and so becomes in time. It is both creative process and created product, influenced both by the powers of forward striving and backward inhibition (novelty and habit). Without the retarding force of habit, time would not exist, “because development would occur in an uninterrupted flash rather than successively…” Nor could time exist without the driving force of novelty, since without it “there would be absolute rest, death, standstill…”

“Every entity,” writes Schelling,

everything that is, wants to be in itself and out of itself at the same time. It wants to be in itself inasmuch as it posits or collects itself together as what-is [als Seyendes], as a subject; to this extent it opposes development and expansion. It wants to be out of itself inasmuch as it desires to be what it is in itself once more, and hence externally. In the first case, it is something withdrawn by itself, which sets itself in opposition to what is outside of it; but it sets itself in opposition only in order to reveal and declare itself against this outside as what it is in itself. It cannot, therefore, remain in this withdrawn condition.

“Thus,” he concludes, “the principles we perceive in time [and nature] are the authentic inner principles of all life, and contradiction is not only possible but in fact necessary.” I don’t think Schelling’s approach here is opposed to that of Harman. Their respective positions may be complementary, if different in emphasis. I am not sure of the German word used above for “withdrawn,” but I found these lines especially significant in this context. Withdrawal is perhaps at the very center of Harman’s conceptual scheme, and indeed it plays an important role for Schelling, as well. But in Schelling’s ontology, withdrawal is only one moment in a polarized process. Beings love to hide, but also to show themselves. This contradiction is what puts existence into motion.

In the context of a process ontology, withdrawal can remain a central concept without becoming ultimate. Objects need not be dissolved into relations, but can be understood to hide from one another precisely because they exist in contradiction and so are always becoming in time. An object, then, withdrawals from itself and from other objects because it is never simply at rest as itself. Heraclitus wrote that “you cannot step twice into the same stream,” but in Schelling’s sense, perhaps we could say that it is impossible to step even once into the same stream.



16 responses to “Process Ontology in Schelling and Whitehead”

  1. […] thoughts from Matthew at FOOTNOTES TO PLATO. Posted by doctorzamalek Filed in Uncategorized Leave a Comment » LikeBe the first to […]

  2. Tim Morton Avatar

    I like this sense of a contradictory reality very much. I have a strong intuition that it’s correct.

  3. Leon Avatar

    Great post. Just want to say that I enjoy your blog. Keep up the great work. In the past I, too, have used Schelling vis-a-vis process approaches to nature, but with figures such as Heidegger and Peirce in mind. These days I triangulate Whitehead, Deleuze and Peirce, though, as your post excellently points out, Schelling will always be a major player for both process and speculative philosophies.

    Take care,


    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Thanks for stopping by, Leon.

  4. Ross Wolfe Avatar

    You might be interested in an essay I had published several years ago for an undergraduate philosophy journal on Schelling’s cosmology, the problem of evil, and the origin of human freedom. It’s quite good, if I may say so. Not all of my essays from that far back are as good as it. Here’s a link to it: “Man as an Irony within Nature: Schelling and the Problem of Evil.”

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Thanks, Ross. I’ve started your essay and am finding it a helpful review of Schelling’s ontotheodicy. I’ll try and post more thoughts as a comment on your site when I finish.

      1. Ross Wolfe Avatar

        No problem. I’m glad that essay can be of some use to someone. It was easily one of my most poetic, so I hope you’ll excuse me if I run with some of Schelling’s metaphors from time to time.

  5. tom@4dhumanbeing.com Avatar

    Great post Matt!

    It really could be argued that contradiction and paradox (withdraw and reveal, high entropy, low entropy, matter and anti matter) is the ‘Primal Anxiety’ at the heart of creation. It seems that paradox and the conflict of opposites is a perennial condition that drives creation and can only be relieved by material existence – taking form, becoming conscious and creating the subjective, conscious experience of tension and release.

    And each living being does this through one or all four dimensions of expression- physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.

    Otherwise if there ever was an infinite and unchanging condition of equilibrium beyond the duality of opposites surely we would be experiencing that now?

    After all we’ve had all eternity before ‘now’ to achieve such a condition.

    We might even suspect that the conflict of opposites is absolute and eternal in that it is the fundamental nature of the ground of being and is essentially at the core of every living thing, most visibly expressed in human beings and their search of answers and creativity.

  6. Matthew David Segall Avatar

    I appreciate your thinking here, Tom. But I wonder if the paradox might not be better termed a ‘coincidence’ of opposites, rather than a conflict? If conflict was absolute, we’d be dealing with a sort of Manichean war between light and dark. If we follow Schelling, there is a reconciling power, Spirit, that brings the dark unconsciousness of the Father into relationship with the light of the Son. I think the possibilities of freedom and consciousness require this.

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