I’m in the middle of writing a long essay on Schelling and the resurgence of interest in his work of late, at least in the Anglophone world. I’ll be posting the essay in installments as I finish each section. For now, here is Jerry Day, from his book on Schelling’s influence on Eric Voegelin, describing Schelling’s philosophy of mythology, including also how it was interpreted by Coleridge.  Incidentally, I’ve just confirmed a speaking engagement at the PCC Forum with Paul Caringella, a Voegelin scholar, in October. I’m hoping to record and post it here.

At one point in Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology, the work that Voegelin claims brought the “crash” to his History, one finds the following claim: “[I]t is not we who have placed mythology, but mythology has placed us in the perspective from which, at present, we shall consider it. The content of this conference is henceforth no longer mythology explained by us; it is mythology as it explains itself [die sich selbst erklärende Mythologie].” This comment occurs after a lengthy discussion of deficient approaches to the interpretation of myth. Schelling begins to argue that mythological experience and the symbols it engenders are self-interpretive. Genuine mythic symbols do not arise as reflective signs that a clever person has intentionally fashioned in order to construct an arbitrary “reality” of his or her own making. They arise from the human soul’s prereflective immersion in the divine substance of the cosmos. Accordingly, Schelling continues, mythical symbols are not properly interpreted as merely “allegorical.” Such interpretation mistakenly assumes that symbols are best understood with reference to other symbols, perhaps even within an essentially closed system of meaning. Considered linguistically, allegorical interpretation suggests that words interpret only other words—a point, we might add, that makes allegorical interpretation closely related to the structuralist account of language. Schelling argues, to the contrary, that the origin of symbols cannot be understood with reference only to other symbols. His particular understanding of the self-establishing character of symbols leads him to contend that they are best interpreted as “tautegorical.” It was Samuel Taylor Coleridge who was first led to formulate the specific term tautegorical after reading one of Schelling’s previous works, Die Gottheiten von Samothrake, which dealt in part with the proper interpretation of myth. Schelling commends Coleridge as “the first of his English compatriots to have understood and put to intelligent use German poetry, scholarship [Wissenschaft], and especially philosophy.” Schelling defends Coleridge against being “too severely criticized” by his fellow countrymen for his “unacknowledged borrowings [Entlehnungen] ” from Schelling himself. He states: “Because of this excellent term that I borrow from him, I voluntarily pardon him for all of the borrowings which he himself has made from my works, without mentioning my name.” But Schelling also notes that his use of the term tautegorical may be more radical than that which he finds in Coleridge. For Coleridge, according to Schelling, the term appears to be synonymous with “philosopheme,” which may still convey the sense that mythic symbols are signs for other phenomena (natural or euhemeristic), thus leaving open the possibility of allegorical interpretations. In his use of the term tautegorical, Schelling wishes to suggest a most intimate connection between mythic symbols and the experiences that give rise to them. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that mythic symbols are what they symbolize. They arise beyond conscious control and are, in some sense, identical to the experiences that have engendered them. For example, he contends that the “Prometheus” of Æschylus is “not a human thought.” It is one of the “primordial thoughts which pushes itself into existence.” This point suggests that not all words simply interpret other words; some break loose from linguistic conventions and effectively call attention, at least, to what remain essentially inarticulate experiences of natural order, or what Schelling calls “primordial thoughts” (Urgedanken). What is more, when such thoughts arise in human consciousness, they are said to create a meaningful historical divide before and after the symbol came into existence. For Schelling, this divide has an objective quality about it, giving the history of symbolization a discernible order. Consequently, his Philosophy of Mythology and Philosophy of Revelation undertake an extraordinarily complex effort to interpret this general history of order as it emerges in the specific order of human experience. Precisely with this historical aspect of symbolization in mind, he is able to claim that “mythology has placed us in the perspective from which, at present, we shall consider it.” Voegelin’s tacit agreement with Schelling’s “tautegorical” interpretation of myth is found in the third volume of Order and History, only a few pages before Schelling’s philosophy of myth is explicitly dismissed for its allegedly “gnostic inclination to intellectualize the unconscious.” Voegelin says that “the ‘truth’ of the myth will arise from the unconscious, stratified in depth into the collective unconscious of the people, the generic unconscious of mankind, and the deepest level where it is in communication with the primordial forces of the cosmos.” Mythic truth is self-authenticating, Voegelin argues, “because the forces which animate its imagery are at the same time its subject matter.” The truth of mythic symbols is therefore tautegorical.  “A myth can never be ‘untrue,’” he continues, “because it would not exist unless it had its experiential basis in the movements of the soul which it symbolizes.” Clearly, Voegelin and Schelling agree that mythic symbols arise from the soul’s unconscious depth and break forth into the conscious articulation of experiences. But they also agree that what holds true for mythic symbols is true of linguistic symbolization in general. Consider Schelling’s remarks on the formation of language. He contends that the development of language cannot be understood in a “piecemeal or atomistic” way. An atomistic account of the origin of language could easily lead one to believe that the soul is fundamentally in conscious control of the symbols it makes. This notion is declared to be patently false when Schelling reflects on how nascent symbols come into existence. Language must have developed as a whole, he argues, in an “organic” (organisch) way. It must have originated, like mythic symbols in particular, from the soul’s unconscious depth. “Since neither philosophical nor even generally human consciousness is possible without language,” Schelling maintains, “it is inconceivable that consciousness can be the ground of language; and so the more we penetrate its nature, the more we acquire the certitude that it transcends by its profundity any conscious creation.” This realization leads Schelling to discern an objective (objectiv) quality in language itself (Sprache selbst), a point that allows him to argue, in effect, that nascent symbols must be understood as selfgenerating and self-interpretive, when properly traced back to their engendering experiences. (from p. 71-74 of Voegelin, Schelling, and the Philosophy of Historical Existence).

I’m curious what those who reject myth outright in favor of a sort of Enlightenment rationalism (see an exchange I had with Levi Bryant a while back HERE and HERE) would say to this sort of perspective. Schelling seems to fully ground his philosophy of myth and language in the material conditions of cultural genesis (i.e., there is no consciousness without language).  But precisely for this reason he would never argue that myth can be overcome and replaced by scientific literalism. We simply cannot step out of the mythocosmic forces that have constituted our language and consciousness in order to explain it from outside, as though objectively. We give accounts of ourselves in narrative form, which are not allegorical, since there is no outside referent for the story to attempt to represent. The story is self-interpreting, and so we, as self-conscious creatures, are also self-interpreting.

Reel Change

NOTE: This post has been updated from its original content.

Critics of HBO’s “The Newsroom” – and there have been many of them – have chided the show’s writer-creator Aaron Sorkin for being too preachy. These criticisms have come from both the right and the left. The Wall Street Journal wrote that “preening virtue…weighs on this Aaron Sorkin series like a great damp cloud.” At the other end of the political spectrum, The New Yorker found that it “treats the audience as though we were extremely stupid.” The prevailing opinion of critics is that the show is too didactic and self-righteous.

The aim of the show is to shine a light on the failures of our journalists and elected officials over the last two years. When these criticisms come from an author or journalist, it’s fine. We give Pulitzer prizes for that sort of thing. When a television writer weighs…

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Last year, some colleagues and I at CIIS participated in a panel discussion on Speculative Realism called “Here Comes Everything.” My lecture drew primarily upon Grant’s text Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (2006). This summer, I’ve been doing research for a comprehensive exam on the recent resurgence of Schellingian philosophy (HERE is my reading list). I saved Grant’s book until last, since I think it provides the strongest case for Schelling’s contemporary relevance by foregrounding the extent to which his long life of philosophical creativity remained, from beginning to end, focused on the problem of nature.

What is the problem of nature? Grant locates this problematic in the Kantian revolution, when the transcendental gap between freedom and nature reduced nature to mere appearance, a phenomenal ghost lying in wait for the practical projects of human industrialism. “The whole of modern European philosophy has this common deficiency,” wrote Schelling in 1809, “that nature does not exist for it.” Grant suggests that, in adopting Aristotle’s “physics of all things,” rather than Plato’s “physics of the All,” Kant made it impossible to ground his transcendentalism in anything but the anthropocentric ethical projects of practical reason (p. 7). From Schelling’s perspective, this is hardly a ground at all, since the transcendental subject cannot account for the genesis of its own subjectivity. Kant isn’t blind to this problem, but is forced to posit a logical concept of ground as the supersensible substrate underlying both nature and freedom. Schelling is not satisfied with a merely logical ground, so he retreats from Kant’s Aristotelian approach to physics (what Grant calls somaticism) to pursue Plato’s physics of the All. Instead of conceiving of ground as an underlying substrate or substance, Schelling, following Plato, grounds subjectivity in the dynamic activity of matter itself. Schelling here inaugurates a form of process ontology that will later be picked up by Whitehead, though the latter seems unaware of the former’s contributions to his own project. Whitehead bypassed any explicit acknowledgement of Schelling’s naturphilosophie, going back to Plato himself to find in the Timaeus the same possibility for a physics of becoming that Schelling did.

“Nature is subject,” says Schelling, which is not to say that nature necessarily conforms to the transcendental structure of the human mind (a form of anthropomorphism), but rather that the human mind is a recapitulation of the uncanny subjectivity of nature. Where Kant says we can’t know nature in itself, Schelling turns us back upon the strangeness of our own humanity to ask “do we really know what we are?”

In his celebrated 1809 text, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, Schelling delves into traditional theological, cosmological, and anthropological problems only to re-emerge, not with new answers, but with surprising new questions. Schelling discovers that human reason is itself a recapitulation of the sublime tension of cosmogenesis itself: the eternal struggle between darkness and light. Our human freedom to choose good or evil, according to Schelling, irrevocably separates us from the animal kingdom. Evil isn’t an obedience to brute instincts that might draw us back into animality; no, evil is unmistakably spiritual in origin. Schelling draws approvingly upon the work of his theosophical calibrator Fr. Baader: “…it would be desirable that the corruption in man were only to go so far as his becoming animal; unfortunately, however, man can stand only below or above animals” (40/373).

This spiritual freedom of humanity should not be confused with a “capacity” for freedom, as this characterization would entirely miss the literally decisive importance of freedom. Freedom is not a capacity, since this implies some more original subjectivity which would employ freedom as a means. Freedom is the very ground of subjectivity, the abyss from which subjectivity first emerges. I am the freedom to choose good or evil, and nothing besides. There is no me behind or before the spiritual crisis of freedom. My personality just is the decision between good and evil, a decision made eternally time and time again. This is not some special human difference, some special capacity, as though our essence was just to be some other kind or species of natural being. Our uniqueness as humans is that we recapitulate the very being of nature itself self-consciously, while other organisms remain submerged in the unity of natural becoming. Like the divine, humanity is eternally beginning, always deciding anew to erotically reproduce ourselves in relation to some irreducible otherness within ourselves (i.e., evil). But unlike the divine, there is no necessary assurance that love will overcome evil, that the otherness will be dynamically engaged in the sacred marriage of eternal circulation. Hence the fall into history, the rise of the state, and the suffering and confusion of earthly human life wherein evil is constantly externalized and projected. Evil appears real precisely when a human being denies the evil in themselves to wage war against it in others. Schelling saw no hope in national politics, since the state is merely an evil made necessary by the fall. True human salvation lies elsewhere, in a democracy of spirits who freely chose the Good out of love, not due to fear of secular or religious punishment.

For those wondering why I haven’t posted in a while, Becca and I are on a cross country road trip. She is blogging along the way…

Becca Tarnas

So it begins…

This is the first day of a long-awaited journey, one that is two years in planning, and will at last be embarked upon. Two people, a Ford Focus, 18 days, and 6,000 miles (at least!) This morning Matt and I depart upon our cross-country road trip from San Francisco, California to Bennington, Vermont and back. The purpose? To retrieve my belongings that have been languishing peacefully in my dear uncle and aunt’s basement. The true purpose? To have an adventure, a real one, by driving deep into the heart of the American continent, and emerging on the other side to inhale the breeze on the Atlantic coast.

The first leg of the journey may indeed be the longest, as we leave the Bay Area and head east, aiming to arrive in Wendover, Utah by late evening. We will be camping out for our first two nights, before…

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