The philosophy of Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854) cannot be adequately grasped in abstraction from the spirit that animated his individual personality. While he spent his philosophical career striving to realize the Absolute system, he did so in full recognition of the fact that the Absolute is not finally a logical system, but a living actuality.1 Though his critics often dismissed his thought as fragmentary and protean, C. S. Peirce, in a letter to William James, remarked that it was precisely Schelling’s “freedom from the trammels of system” and willingness to approach philosophical ideas experimentally rather than dogmatically that he admired most: “In that, he is like a scientific man.”2
In the essay to follow, undertaken in the context of “a burgeoning Schelling renaissance”3 in the English-speaking world, as well as a planetary ecological emergency and geo-political crisis, I return to Schelling’s written corpus to draw upon the deep well of his thought in the hope that it can aid human civilization’s attempt to re-imagine itself. I believe his philosophy provides many of the theological and cosmological resources necessary for bringing forth alternative forms of modernity no longer bent on the destruction of earth and the disintegration of human communities.
I explore Schelling’s corpus for traces of the spirit that lived in his thoughts, being careful not to mistake the letter for the life. “When this element of life is withdrawn,” wrote Schelling, “propositions die like fruit removed from the tree of life.”4 He continues:
…the person is the world writ small…One who could write completely the history of their own life would also have, in small epitome, concurrently grasped the history of the cosmos.5
Philosophy, for Schelling, though generated by the natural processes of the universe itself, is “throughout a work of freedom” and so “for each only what he has himself made it.”6 In philosophizing, the individual discovers within his or her own unique originality the creative life of the whole universe. Schelling’s personal biography, then, is not extraneous but essential to understanding his philosophical project.
Schelling was born in 1775 near Stuttgart, a descendent of preachers and church officials on both sides of his family as far back as records can be found.7 His father, Joseph Friedrich Schelling (1732-1812) was a well-known scholar of theology and ancient languages, and there is no doubt that the young Schelling benefited from his father’s extensive library and tutelage.8 At age 8, Schelling was sent to live with his uncle Nathanael Köstlin (1711-1790), the dean of a school in Nürtingen where Schelling was to study the classics. It was here that Schelling first met Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), later his roommate at seminary in Tübingen, as well as the Pietist mystics Friedrich Christoph Oetinger (1702-1782) and Philipp Matthäus Hahn (1739-1790), both regular visitors to his uncle’s home.9 Hahn in particular had a profound personal and spiritual influence upon Schelling’s philosophical outlook.
Only two years after enrolling at Nürtingen, Schelling was sent home because he had outgrown the knowledge of his instructors, “[spending] most of his time in the company of books and adults.”10 By age 11, his father began letting him sit in on his seminary courses at Bebenhausen. He thrived alongside 18-year-olds, learning four ancient languages and reading Plato and Aristotle in Greek and Leibniz in Latin before reaching 14-years-old.
In the spring of 1790, when Schelling was 15, his friend and spiritual mentor Hahn passed away. Schelling wrote a eulogy on the occasion of his death, later becoming his first publication when it was printed in a Stuttgart newspaper.11 According to Schelling, the eulogy for Hahn was “the first poem [he] ever wrote in [his] life.”12 The fourth stanza, foreshadowing Schelling’s own commitment to Naturphilosophie,13 reads:
Did he not dare to speak, with astute demeanor
Still mortal, the forces of nature?
Did his eyes not plunge through the cosmos and earth’s dale
Searching and finding the purest trace of the deity?14
Later in the year, Schelling was granted special permission to enroll in seminary at the Tübinger Stift. There he reunited with Hölderlin and met Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) for the first time, both 5 years older than himself. As wind of the philosophical revolution instigated by Immanuel Kant in Königsberg and the political revolution occurring across the Rhine in France drifted into the Stift, the three friends became increasingly intoxicated by new ideas, ideas their seminary professors struggled to domesticate by rendering them compatible with traditional theology.15 Hahn’s lasting theosophical influence kept Schelling from ever completely accepting the premises of the Enlightenment, but there is no doubt that the newly quickened powers of reason, science, and freedom were extremely attractive to him.
Instead of succumbing to the mechanistic trends of the natural science of his age, Schelling was from the beginning committed to Hahn’s alchemical Naturphilosophie, wherein nature was understood to be the revealed body of a living God. Schelling realized that traditional literalist belief had no place in the modern world, but rather than rejecting religion entirely, he betrays his Pietist upbringing in seeking to replace belief with direct experiential knowledge of the divine life. Hahn called the experience of this knowledge the Zentralschua; Schelling, upon assimilating the philosophy of Fichte, would come to call it the intellectual intuition.16
The impact of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) on the teenage Schelling was powerful, as indeed was the impact of Schelling on Fichte, 13-years his senior. Schelling’s first philosophical publication in the fall of 1794, aged 19, was Über die Möglichkeit einer Form der Philosophie überhaupt (On the possibility of a form of philosophy in general). The essay engages directly with Fichte’s defense of the Kantian system in Begriff de Wissenschaftslehre (Concept of the science of knowledge), published only months earlier.17 Schelling sent the Form essay along with an admiring letter to Fichte, to which the latter replied encouragingly. Fichte also sent a new and improved version of his science of knowledge entitled Grundlage der gesammten Wissenschaftslehre (Foundations of the Entire Science of Knowledge, 1795) to Schelling. Almost immediately, on Easter of 1795, Schelling published his Vom Ich als Prinzip der Philosophie oder über das Unbedingte im menschlichen Wissen (On the ego as the principle of philosophy or on the unconditioned in human knowledge).
The traditional reading would have it that Schelling was Fichte’s disciple during the early years of their collaboration (~1794-1799).18 More recent scholarship suggests not only that most of Schelling’s major philosophical commitments had already been formed prior to his encounter with Fichte’s subjective idealism,19 but that Schelling’s early essays substantially improved Fichte’s understanding of his own project.20 Hölderlin, who had graduated from the Stift two years earlier, visited Schelling shortly after the publication of On the ego in 1795. Having just attended Fichte’s lectures at the University of Jena, he reportedly told Schelling: “Take it easy. You’ve gotten as far as Fichte. I’ve heard him.”21
For the next several years, Schelling published essays on critical philosophy in the Philosophisches Journal co-edited by Fichte, despite his growing dissatisfaction with the latter’s subjectivist approach.22 In 1796, the famed handwritten document, later titled “Das älteste Systemprogramm des deutschen Idealismus” (“Oldest Systematic Program of German Idealism”), emerged out of conversations between Schelling, Hölderlin, and Hegel.23 The document begins by affirming the Fichtean position on the absolute freedom of the ego, but balances this one-sided idealism by calling for a new kind of physics compatible with our nature as moral creatures and a “sensuous religion” capable of delivering this physics to the people. Also in 1796, Schelling published Philosophische Briefe über Dogmatismus und Kriticismus (Philosophical Letters on Criticism and Dogmatism), wherein he argues explicitly that transcendental idealism and Spinozist realism should be understood to be coordinate systems: the former tackles the absolute from a subjectivist perspective, leading to the annihilation of the object, while the latter attains the absolute objectively through the dissolution of the subject.24 Beginning in 1797 with his Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur (Ideas for a philosophy of nature), Schelling published a series of groundbreaking and influential tracts on Naturphilosophie. These essays were the children of a marriage between Schelling’s theosophical convictions regarding nature as the self-externalization of God (Geistleiblichkeit25) and his intense study of recent advances in the natural scientific study of astrophysics, electricity, magnetism, chemistry, physiology, and medicine.26 “What we want,” writes Schelling in Ideas,
is not that nature should coincide with the laws of our mind by chance…but that she herself, necessarily and originally, should not only express, but even realize the laws of our mind.27
In 1798, after Goethe had met the 23-year-old Schelling and read an advanced copy of his latest treatise Von der Weltseele, eine Hypothese der höheren Physik zur Erklärung des allgemeinen Organismus (On the world soul, a hypothesis of the higher physics for the clarification of universal organicity),28 he interceded on Schelling’s behalf to have him appointed extraordinary professor of philosophy at the University of Jena.29
Fichte was not impressed. He sought to distinguish his own position from what he perceived to be Schelling’s new turn toward realism, publishing thinly veiled criticisms of Schelling in subsequent issues of Philosophisches Journal.30 Shortly after the last of Schelling’s tracts on Naturphilosophie, the Einleitung zu dem Entwurf eines Systems der Naturphilosophie (Introduction to the sketch of a system of nature philosophy), had appeared in 1799, the rift between Fichte and Schelling had risen fully to the surface. The two began quarreling about a philosophical journal they’d been planning to co-edit.31 Soon after, Fichte was forced to leave Jena due to the charge of atheism.32 Over the next few years, Fichte became increasingly dismissive of Schelling’s philosophical project, condescendingly writing to Schelling in 1801 that if only he would consider his own science of knowledge more deeply “[he] would in time enough correct [his] mistakes.”33 By the fall of 1801, Schelling had decided to start the Kritisches Journal der Philosophie (The Critical Journal of Philosophy) with Hegel instead of Fichte as co-editor, cementing their personal and professional split.34 The two never met or spoke again after 1802.35 Fichte died in Berlin on January 27th, 1814, Schelling’s 39th birthday.
Schelling’s circle of friends in Jena at the turn of the century included Goethe, Schiller, the Schlegel brothers, and Novalis. During this time he became very close to Wilhelm’s wife, Caroline Schlegel (1763-1809).36 When she fell ill in May of 1800, she traveled with Schelling and her 15-year-old daughter Auguste to Bamberg to consult with doctors and soak in the nearby natural spas.37 By July, Caroline had recovered, but her daughter Auguste had fallen ill with dysentery. On July 12th, she died.
Auguste’s sudden death was devastating for the entire circle. Schelling fell into a depression, while Caroline became more attached to him than ever. By early 1801, she had expressed her affection for him in a letter: “I love you, I revere you, no hour passes that I do not think of you.”38 Soon after, she revealed to her husband of five years that Schelling was “the first and only love of my life.”39 Wilhelm Schlegel handled the end of his marriage with grace and forbearance, even risking his own reputation to deflect and refute criticisms made against Schelling in a popular literary magazine claiming that his meddling in Auguste’s medical treatment had been the reason for her premature death.40 With the help of Goethe, Wilhelm and Caroline obtained a divorce in May of 1803.41 Caroline married Schelling in June.
It was back in 1801, during his period of collaboration with Schelling (~1800-1807), that Hegel published his first book, entitled Differenz des Fichte’schen und Schelling’schen Systems der Philosophie (The difference between the Fichtean and Schellingian systems of philosophy). The work shows how highly Hegel thought of Schelling’s so-called “identity philosophy” at the time.42 He argues in the preface that Schelling’s Naturphilosophie can “recompense nature for the mishandling that it suffered in Kant and Fichte’s systems” by
…[setting] Reason itself in harmony with nature, not by having Reason renounce itself or become an insipid imitator of nature, but by Reason recasting itself into nature out of its own inner strength.43
Only six years later, Hegel would publish his most famous book, Phänomenologie des Geistes (Phenomenology of Spirit, 1807), wherein he appears to dismiss the creative act of intellectual intuition he defended in the Differenz essay, claiming it produces only an abstract absolute akin to “the night in which all cows are black.” The nature of the disagreement and eventual falling out between Schelling and Hegel is taken up in a subsequent section.44
Schelling worked with Hegel on the Kritisches Journal in Jena for two years before leaving for Wüzburg in 1803.45 After a 3-year stint at the Catholic university there, where Schelling was initially popular but ended up making few friends among the members of the school’s conservative administration,46 he was appointed to the Academy of Sciences in Munich in 1806. In 1808, he was named the Secretary General of the Academy of Fine Arts, a position Schelling held until 1821.
In 1809, while Schelling was working on Philosophische Untersuchungen über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit und die damit zusammenhängenden Gegenstände (Philosophical investigations into the essence of human freedom), Caroline contracted dysentery. In September, Caroline died “with an expression of cheerfulness and the most wonderfully peaceful look on her face,” according to Schelling.47 Schelling remarried 3-years later, but the shock of Caroline’s death darkened his philosophical outlook, making him fully conscious of the contingency and “deep indestructible melancholy of all life,” as he wrote in the Freedom essay.48 Less than a month after Caroline died, Schelling wrote in a letter:
I now need friends who are not strangers to the real seriousness of pain and who feel that the single right and happy state of the soul is the divine mourning in which all earthly pain is immersed.49
He would publish only once more in his lifetime, but Schelling nonetheless worked tirelessly on a number of significant projects. In the months following Caroline’s death, he composed several drafts of a dialogue entitled Clara oder Zusammenhang der Natur mit der Geisterwelt: ein Gespräch (Clara, or on nature’s connection to the spirit world: a dialogue).50 In this work, a physician, whose “bottom up”51 approach to the science of healing is derived from Schelling’s own Naturphilosophie, attempts to coax Clara, who mourns the death of a dear friend, back down to earthly life from the ethereal bliss her soul longs to unite with. A priest offers a different but complementary approach, describing the interdependent “living rotation” of body, soul, and spirit that prevents the dead from soaring entirely beyond earth:
For only a few pass over so pure and free of any love for earthly life that they can be absolved immediately…[to disappear] in God like a drop in the ocean.”52
Caroline’s ghost haunts the pages of this dialogue, as Schelling struggles to account for the ultimate destiny of her once-occurrent personality within the infinite current of the one cosmic life. Unlike the philosophical propositions of philosophers past which, as described by Hegel in his Phenomenology, dialectically survive death to be sublated in the course of the Idea’s self-unfolding, Caroline’s spirit cannot be abstractly reduced to “a few short, uncompleted propositions on a piece of paper.”53 Her death was for Schelling “a singular and absolute loss.”54
In December of 1810, with the damp air still abuzz after a violent thunderstorm, Schelling wrote in his journal that work on Die Weltalter (The Ages of the World) was “begun in earnest.”55 The Ages of the World has been described as his magnum opus, a “self-composing cosmic poem”56 that dives straight into the darkness of the cosmotheandric mystery that would consume Schelling’s thought for the rest of his life. Despite several announcements of its imminent publication in the course of the next two decades, the unfinished drafts were ultimately withheld until Schelling’s Sämtliche Werke was published by his son Karl in 1856, two years after his death. His late philosophies of mythology and of revelation should be considered the fruits of insights developed in the course of the Weltalter project, which itself remains in many respects continuous with his early Naturphilosophie. In his lectures on the philosophy of mythology, delivered in Berlin beginning in 1841, Schelling says of myth that it “indisputably has the closest link with nature,” and that modern explanations suffered due to “a lack of natural philosophical ideas.” He goes on to argue that we must learn to
see mythology as a nature elevated into the spiritual realm through an enhancing refraction. Only the means [have been] missing to make the enhancement conceivable.57
In other words, in these lectures, Schelling attempts to articulate the way myths “arise from the human soul’s prereﬂective immersion in the divine substance of the cosmos.”58 Rather than reducing myths to allegorical inventions of the human mind, Schelling argues that, in fact, it is the human mind that has been invented by myth.
Though these lectures were initially “a kind of celebrity event”59 attended by the likes of Kierkegaard, Engels, and Bakunin, their message, though influential in some respects,60 fell largely upon deaf ears. Those in attendance had been lead to expect Schelling would sharply rebuke the now deceased Hegel (quelling the radical Hegelians had been the intention of the state and university officials who called him to Berlin61), but to their disappointment, Schelling sought healing, rather than polemic.62 The lukewarm reception of the lectures is a reflection of a change in the Zeitgeist. The philosophical quickening which had inspired so many German minds around the turn of the century had by the 1840s all but dried up as Europe’s intelligentsia began to sink into the scientistic positivism that would dominate for the remainder of the century and beyond.
Schelling retired into obscurity in 1846. In the summer of 1854, poor in health, he traveled to Bad Ragaz, Switzerland to take the cure. His spirit left its 79-year-old body on August 20–a spirit, it seems, who was born too early.63 “Perhaps the one is still coming,” writes Schelling in the introduction to Ages of the World,
who will sing the greatest heroic poem, grasping in spirit something for which the seers of old were famous: what was, what is, what will be. But that time has not yet come. We must not misjudge our time.64
1 Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback, “The Work of Experience,” Schelling Now, 74.
2 Peirce to James, 28 January 1894; Joseph Esposito, Schelling’s Idealism and Philosophy of Nature (London: Bucknell University Press, 1977), 203.
3 Jason Wirth, “Introduction,” Schelling Now, 9.
4 Schelling, Ages of the World, ed. Wirth, 4.
5 Schelling, Ages of the World, ed. Wirth, 3.
6 Schellings sämtliche Werke, I/2, 11; Bruce Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, p. 199.
7 Robert Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 116; Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 44.
8 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 41.
9 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 233n4.
10 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 47.
11 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 238n55.
12 4 April 1811 to G. H. Schubert; Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 62.
13 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 58.
14 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 223.
15 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 118.
16 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 36-37, 66.
17 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 120-121.
18 Norbert Guterman, “Introduction,” Schelling, On University Studies, ix.
19 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 138-139.
20 Dale Snow, Schelling and the End of Idealism, 42-43.
21 Gustav Leopold Plitt, Aus Schelling Leben, I:71; Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 122.
22 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 123.
23 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 124.
24 Frederick Beiser, German Idealism, 476-477.
25 Glenn Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, 81.
26 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 125.
27 Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature. Trans. Errol E. Harris and Peter Heath, 41.
28 Selections of which have recently been translated into English by Iain Hamilton Grant in Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development, Vol. VI (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2010), 58-95.
29 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 148.
30 Beiser, German Idealism, 479.
31 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 177-178.
32 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 166.
33 Fichte to Schelling, 31 May 1801, Schelling, Briefe und Dokumente, 2:339; Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 178.
34 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 178.
35 Michael G. Vater and David W. Wood, eds., The Philosophical Rupture Between Fichte and Schelling, 282.
36 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 166.
37 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 169-170.
38 Caroline Böhmer Schlegel to Schelling, February 1801, Caroline: Brief aus der Frühromantik, 2:42; Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 168.
39 Caroline Böhmer Schlegel to Wilhelm Schlegel, 6 March 1801, Caroline: Brief aus der Frühromantik, 2:65; Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 168.
40 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 174-175.
41 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 176n159.
42 Christopher Lauer, The Suspension of Reason in Hegel and Schelling, 71-82.
43 G. W. F. Hegel, Differenz des Fichte’schen und Schelling’schen Systems der Philosophie, trans. H.S. Harris and Walter Cerf, 83.
44 See section heading “The Difference Between Hegel’s and Schelling’s System of Philosophy” below.
45 The two even roomed together for a time when Hegel first moved to Jena in 1801 (Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, 79).
46 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 197.
47 Friedrich Schelling to Luise Gotter, 24 September 1809, Caroline: Briefe aus der Frühromantik, 2:570; Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 198.
48 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Jeff Love and Johannes Schmidt, 63.
49 Brief über den Tod Carolines vom 2. Oktober, 1809, ed. Johann Ludwig Döderlein; Wirth, “Introduction,” Ages of the World, x.
50 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 29.
51 Schelling, Clara, trans. Fiona Steinkamp, 15.
52 Schelling, Clara, trans. Fiona Steinkamp, 35, 52, 59.
53 Schelling, Ages of the World, ed. Wirth, 4.
54 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 216.
55 Schelling, Die Stuttgarter Privatvorlesungen (1810), ed. Miklos Veto, 216; Wirth, “Introduction,” Ages of the World, vii.
56 Wirth, “Introduction,” Ages of the World, x.
57 Schelling, Historical-critical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, trans, Wirth, 155-156.
58 Jerry Day, Voegelin, Schelling, and the Philosophy of Historical Existence, 72.
59 Wirth, “Introduction,” Historical-critical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, viii.
60 Kierkegaard’s debt to Schelling’s characterization of Hegel’s philosophy is well known. Emerson translated and published the first of Schelling’s Berlin lectures in an issue of The Dial in January of 1843, writing in a letter to a friend at time: “To hear Schelling might well tempt the firmest rooted philosopher from his home, and I confess to more curiosity in respect to his opinions than to those of any living psychologist” (Norbert Guterman, “Introduction,” On University Studies, xix).
61 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 198.
62 Schelling, Historical-critical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, trans. Wirth, viii.
63 Wirth, “Introduction,” Schelling Now, 5.
64 Schelling, Ages of the World, trans. Wirth, xl.
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