Schelling’s Descendental Philosophy (and its Whiteheadian resonances)

Much of the rather fragmentary thoughts to follow were spurred by my reading of Jason Wirth’s wondrous little essay in the HUGE Palgrave Companion to German Idealism (2014), “Nature of Imagination: At the Heart of Schelling’s Thinking.” Based on the subtitle of his newly published book Schelling’s Practice of the Wild: Time, Art, and Imagination (2015), it looks like he continues to unpack many of the themes of this essay there. I would’ve read it already, but I’m hoping it will become more affordable (hardcover is $70 on Amazon).

Schelling has commonly been labeled an “objective idealist” and made historically relevant only as the stepping stone between Fichte’s “subjective” and Hegel’s “absolute idealism.” More recently, his work is being creatively retrieved by a number of thinkers who describe it as running distinctly against the idealistic grain of Fichte’s and Hegel’s philosophizing. These thinkers include Wirth, Iain Hamilton Grant, Ben Woodard, and Bruce Matthews.

Wirth claims in the second sentence of his essay that “one cannot do philosophy only by doing philosophy.” The philosopher, he says, must be in conversation with natural science, art, history, and religion. I agree that philosophy has no object unless it finds itself in dialogue with these other modes of thought, but this does not rule out the possibility that philosophy has a subject all its own. That is to say, philosophy as such has no object other than itself, the subject doing the philosophizing. The subject, the Self, is of course no ordinary thing or object–if it can be so labeled at all. The Self–the protagonist of all idealisms–is described by Fichte as an unconditioned (unbedingte) act rather than an objective fact. It is literally unthingable (un-ding-able), the transcendental ground of all conditioned things.


Schelling does not deny the transcendental approach to philosophy. He only relativizes its claims to the Absolute by articulating a complementary approach that we might call descendental philosophy. Wirth deploys Deleuzo-Guattarian lingo to argue that, for Schelling, “Nature [is] the image of thought as such.” Recall that for D&G, the confrontation with Chaos is the precondition of philosophy. In Schelling, Chaos becomes the “abyss of freedom,” the “dark precursor” of thought, “that which is absolutely mobile…which is continually an Other, which cannot be held on to for a moment” (On The History of Modern Philosophy, 152). For Schelling, then, the prime subject-object of philosophical thought is not the Self, but the incomprehensible groundlessness preceding volitional egoity and objectified physicality alike. This groundlessness, this abyss, is unprethinkable (unvordenklichen). Whitehead referred to it as Creativity. This creative abyss before Self and Nature provides the groundless ground of Reason. The philosopher comes into contact with it in the sensuous world, the realm of aesthesis, hence the early Schelling’s claim that an “aesthetic act” provides the keystone of philosophy and the late Schelling’s defense of what he termed “metaphysical” or “higher empiricism.” According to Schelling, despite the fact that “everything in the sensuous world is grasped in number and measure,” this “does not therefore mean that geometry or arithmetic explain the sensuous world” (HMP, 147). Whitehead similarly argues that “The general principle of empiricism depends upon the doctrine that there is a principle of concretion which is not discoverable by abstract reason” (Science and the Modern World, 179). The “higher empiricism” Schelling alludes to is not at all the positivistic empiricism of much modern science, wherein through “servile imitation” a reflective mind attempts to represent the forms of Nature as though these forms were “still born,” as Wirth puts it. Schelling’s is not a “high altitude” view of nature as a collection of objects mechanically governed by arbitrarily imposed mathematical laws. Rather, Schelling, like Whitehead, returns the philosopher to his or her concrete aesthetic encounter with Nature (to our prehension of Nature, in Whitehead’s terms). It is here that Nature’s natality, her creativity, shines through the superficial appearance of objective finitude. Our sensory experience, attended to in earnest, reveals itself to be infinite, sublime; it is only after reflective consciousness has manufactured for us a finite, ordered world that this infinity is obscured, covered over. In attempting to descend below the veil of intellectual reflection into the depths of the sensible, the philosopher puts their sanity at risk. According to Wirth, for Schelling “philosophy is the negotiation of madness, reason’s ongoing encounter with what resists reason.” In this way, Schelling reverses the typical orientation of philosophy toward the intelligible. Or at least he affirms that a certain kind of madness lurks within or behind intellect itself, giving it life. Intellect absent all madness would be mere mechanical understanding. Like Whitehead, Schelling is more concerned with keeping thought alive than with repeating stale truths of the merely logical sort (as Whitehead puts it, “in the real world, it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true”).  

Schelling’s approach could also be called an empiricism of imagination. As Wirth says, “Schelling is through and through a thinker of the problem of imagination, of the emergence into image of that which itself has no image.” His aesthetic (un)grounding of philosophy destabilizes the Hegelian notion that philosophy ought to overcome itself by arriving at a finished “system of science.” Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is an infinite creative task, not a finished system. Naturphilosophie is not a philosophy about nature but “Nature itself philosophizing” (autophusis philosophia). “None of our spiritual thoughts transcend the earth,” says Schelling. Unlike so much modern philosophy, Schelling puts Nature, rather than Mind, at the center of thought. Where modern philosophy put the human subject at the center, Schelling realized that the true subject of humanity is Nature herself: “Nature is a priori.” The human being is unique among earthly creatures in that it knows reality’s ground is incomprehensible. With this knowledge, we can either use our new found freedom to flee upwards by way of anti-physical idealistic transcendentalism, or we can fall deeper in love with cosmogenesis via a naturephilosophical descendentalism. The former option, freedom without love, quickly devolves into alienation. Idealists like Kant and Fichte tried to overcome this devolution by privileging practical over theoretical philosophy. To save the possibility of love between humans they had to deny the possibility of a loving knowledge of Nature. Schelling moved away from modern technoscience’s conception of knowledge as power in favor of what Goethe termed a “gentle empiricism,” or what might be called a loving knowledge. Rather than recoiling from the abyss of the sensible to a supposedly stable intelligible ground, as critical philosophy does, Schelling dives heart first into its radiant darkness. His is a creative, rather than a critical philosophy. Critical philosophy is not to be rejected, however. It is indispensable for clearing the way, for preparing thought for its encounter with the Real. But Reason alone cannot take us all the way. Schelling is clear on this point: “Without intellectual intuition, no philosophy!” The capacity for this sort of intuition, akin to artistic genius or mystical experience, depends on a certain character trait, Schelling tells us. As such, it cannot be taught to just anyone, as geometry or arithmetic can; it can, however, be developed in those with a heartfelt sense for the “nullity” of all finite knowledge. Because of his tendency to rest philosophical insight on the capacity for genius or mystical sensitivity, Schelling may fall victim to what Hegel referred to as the “Sunday’s Children” problem. Mystical experience (Greek: musterion) is “secret” experience, experience known only silently. As such it is difficult if not impossible to communicate about to those who have not encountered it for themselves. Whitehead similarly likens philosophy to “imaginative art,” implying that it is only a unique personality who can philosophize creatively (just as it takes a certain inborn ability to write inspired poetry or play beautiful music). Despite Hegel’s critique and insistence that philosophy must rest on a universal and easily teachable method (which itself may sway too far in the opposite direction), both Schelling and Whitehead were rigorous thinkers committed to sharing ideas in public. They simply rejected the idea that the creative abyss at the heart of Nature could be finally described or explained. As Merleau-Ponty suggested in his late lecture course on Whitehead, “Nature is always new in each perception,” even while it is “never without a past.” An ever-new Nature cannot be captured once and for all by any verbal statement or logical formula, no matter how dialectically sophisticated. As is said of Isis, Goddess of Nature: “I am all that has been, and is, and shall be, and my veil no mortal has yet uncovered.”

Schelling and Whitehead share an intuition about eternity’s participation in time, and about God’s participation in Nature. “Nothing comes into being in time,” writes Schelling. “Rather, in each thing time comes into being immediately from eternity into the new…The beginning of time is in each thing, and, indeed, each thing is the same as the eternal beginning. Each particular comes into being through this cision through which the world comes into being” (Weltalter, 79). Like Whitehead, Schelling sees each actual entity as inwardly resonant with eternity, or what Whitehead called the primordial nature of God. The primordial nature is the original rhythm or first song sung by the divine poet that still resounds within each temporal being. It is through our intellectual intuition that we can hear this silent song–“silent” because it provides the ground-tone for our entire existence, its humble humming hardly noticeable but for special moments of mystical insight. God is “the poet of the world,” as Whitehead puts it, the cosmic myth-maker or speaker of secrets gently guiding us toward Nature’s hidden meaning. Whitehead’s primordial nature of God is what is most ancient in Nature and what reveals itself in the present as the promise of a future. According to Wirth, “Nature is the life of imagination.” I’m reminded of William Blake’s statement “to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is imagination itself.” Blake also describes imagination as “spiritual sensation,” which might be a helpful way of rendering “intellectual intuition” in English. In Schelling, imagination (Einbildungskraft) is the movement of the infinite into the finite (and back again). 


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