Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology

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.