“Scientists, animated by the purpose of proving they are purposeless, constitute an interesting subject for study.”

-Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason

I’m a frequent reader of the theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder‘s blog Backreaction. She has helped me better understand many difficult concepts in contemporary theoretical physics. I’ve benefited in particular from the times she has weighed in on intra-disciplinary feuds with other physicists about, for example, the proper role of mathematical speculation in the formation of physical theory.

Every so often, she swerves out of the physics lane and into philosophy. Her recent post “How to live without free will” is a good example. I wanted to share a few critical reflections in response.

My usual response to these sorts of arguments from scientific materialists is to remind them that their denials of freedom are blatant performative self-contradictions. I am not finally a Kantian transcendentalist, but nonetheless, I find that Kant’s critical epistemology is the best place to begin a reply to naive materialism. In short, physics is in the business of building and testing mathematical models of natural processes. Currently there are two very successful models in physics, relativity theory and quantum theory. Unfortunately, these models describe two very different universes. Many physicists are working on a grand unifying theory that would bring these models together, but so far, we only have some interesting but untestable conjectures. The relevant point here is that these models always presuppose a mind capable of empirically observing data and theoretically reflecting upon possible explanations of that data. In other words, by dismissing free will and by proxy consciousness, Hossenfelder is forgetting about the transcendental conditions that make physical science and knowledge of nature possible in the first place.

That’s my short critical response. Now I’ll reply more fully to specific points raised in her blog post. She writes:

“Physics deals with the most fundamental laws of nature, those from which everything else derives.”

There’s certainly nothing out of the ordinary about a physicist claiming all of nature can be derived from the fundamental laws of physics. This is standard reductionism. Unfortunately, there is nothing in these laws that entails the emergence of biology, much less psychology or the conscious self-reflection necessary for something like physical science to be possible. So at best the claim that everything else derives from the laws of physics as currently understood is an IOU. At worst, it is an example of scientistic hubris dramatically overstepping the bounds of actual scientific knowledge. The theoretical biologist Robert Rosen argues rather convincingly that the non-entailment of biology by the laws of physics is a very strong indication that current physics is woefully incomplete. In his terms, mechanistic physics is too specific to account for the more generic processes of self-organization intrinsic to the biological world (I’ve written more about Rosen’s perspective here).

I agree with Hossenfelder that quantum indeterminacy is not evidence for conscious free will. The only evidence we would ever have for conscious free will would come from our consciousness of it. For most scientific materialists, this “self-evidence” of free will is easily dismissed as a subjective illusion. Objective physical laws just don’t leave any room for it. From a Kantian transcendental point of view, however, this puts the cart before the horse. Kant asks: What are the epistemological pre-conditions of something like “objective physical laws”? His answer: a rational mind capable of organizing experience in terms of categories like causation and forms of intuition like space and time. Physicists know nature in rational, mathematical, and empirical terms. Rationality, including mathematical reasoning, pre-supposes that a mind exists to do the reasoning. Or is Hossenfelder suggesting that mathematical reasoning just happens in a mechanical way, that physicists play no conscious role in devising and testing their favored theories? Now, I’m perfectly well aware that 20th century discoveries like Einstein’s theory of relativity have forced us to reconsider some of Kant’s a priori framework, but even so, the transcendental challenge to naive materialism remains just as strong as ever.

I don’t know of any philosophers who argue that human beings have total freedom. Even in our thoughts we are restricted by factors beyond our control (unconscious influences, environmental distractions, exhaustion, mind-altering chemicals, etc.). All “free will” means is that we are among a class of intelligent and creative organisms capable of exercising our desires in an effort to help shape the unfolding of future events in some limited way. Denying this plainly evident fact leads us into all sorts of performative self-contradictions.

The most common form of denial that I encounter is to insist that reductionism must be wrong. But we have countless experiments that document humans are made of particles, and that these particles obey our equations. This means that also humans, as collections of those particles, obey these equations. If you try to make room for free will by claiming humans obey other equations (or maybe no equation at all), you are implicitly claiming that particle physics is wrong. And in this case, sorry, I cannot take you seriously.

I’ve written a lot about Alfred North Whitehead on this blog. Anyone familiar with his process-relational ontology will know that it is possible to accept the standard model of particle physics and the obvious facts of human life at the same time. The trick is to free ourselves of the muddled thinking inherited from classical physics (especially the fallacy of simple location and the idea of nature-at-an-instant). Yes, humans are collections of particles (or societies of actual occasions, in Whitehead’s terms). But neither particles nor humans “obey” equations, as though abstract mathematical objects are like chariot drivers whipping us to conform to their eternal will. Natural processes display certain regular mathematical patterns. For Whiteheadians like me, these patterns are more like habits than laws. Some are more regular than others. For example, physics can predict with a very high degree of accuracy how physical particles will behave under certain controlled conditions (even here, there are always anomalies, but in general the laws hold). But physicists cannot predict even in principle how a paramecium will navigate through its environment (there are some regularities, e.g., it will swim toward food and away from toxins or predators, but exact movements cannot be mapped out in advance). This is because as we move up the scale of nature’s complexity, physical processes self-organize so as to be capable of ingressing a greater degree (and a richer quality) of novelty. Contrary to reductionist dogma, biological processes are not reducible to physical processes. Biology remains fully compatible with physics, but nothing in physics suggests anything like biology (or like consciousness!) should be possible.

After marshaling a number of arguments against free will, Hossenfelder draws her post to a close by saying we still make decisions and we should be smart about them:

You are here to gather information, process it, and come to decisions that may, or may not result in actions. Your actions, and the information you share, will then affect the decisions and actions of others. These decisions are determined by the structure of your brain and the information you obtain. Rather than despairing over the impossibility of changing either, decide to be more careful which information you seek out, analyze, and pass on. Instead of thinking about influencing the future, ask yourself what you have learned, eg, from reading this. You may not have free will, but you still make decisions. You cannot not make decisions. You may as well be smart about it.

Am I just confused or are there not numerous performative self-contradictions on display here? We are asked not to despair over the fact that we are determined, as if we had any choice in whether to despair or not. We are told to be “smart” about our paradoxically non-free decisions. Huh? At least she ends her post by admitting that consciousness remains a mystery to natural science. Given this admission, I am left wondering why she felt so confident in her dismissals of freedom.

This is the sort of muddle-headedness that scientific materialism gets us into. Whitehead called these attempts “heroic feats of explaining away.” The implied moral stance of the scientific materialist is that they are mature adults who are strong enough to accept the bleak truth of our purposelessness, while the rest of us are stuck in the past clutching at childish illusions that make us feel safe. I would counter by pointing out that the true nature of our human freedom is far from safe. We do not have freedom, freedom has us. Freedom is far more of an ego-crucifying burden than modern secular liberal political theory would have us believe.

The following was originally written in 2012 as a chapter in a short book titled Philosophy in a Time of Emergency.  It feels relevant given our current political situation, so I’m sharing it again.


The Nature of Human Freedom

By Matthew T. Segall

The Naturphilosoph comes to understand “Nature as subject.”1 This is not the Kantian position that nature necessarily conforms to the transcendental structure of the human mind, but rather the inverse proposition that human consciousness is itself a recapitulation of the uncanny subjectivity of nature. Where Kant says we can’t know nature in itself, and Fichte says nature is my own projection, Schelling turns us back upon the strangeness of our own humanity to ask “do we really know who and what we are, or where we came from?”

Most people turn away from what is concealed within themselves just as they turn away from the depths of the great life and shy away from the glance into the abysses of that past which are still in one just as much as the present.2

In his celebrated 1809 treatise, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, Schelling begins by exploring traditional theological, cosmological, and anthropological answers to the question of human nature. He re- emerges, not with more answers, but with surprising new questions. Schelling discovers that the freedom of human reason, rather than being above or outside nature, bottoms out into the sublime tension inherent to cosmogenesis. Freedom is found to be grounded in the eternal struggle between gravity and light, the polarity originally constitutive of nature itself.

The human freedom to decide to be good or evil, despite being grounded in nature’s primordial scission of forces, nonetheless irrevocably sets us apart from the animal kingdom. Human beings are conscious of their enactment of original sin, making it impossible to explain sin merely as a regression to brute instincts, since this would imply a lack of consciousness and freedom. For Schelling, evil is unmistakably spiritual in origin, meaning it is a possibility only for absolutely free beings. Schelling draws approvingly upon the work of his theosophical collaborator 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.3

The spiritual freedom of the human being should not be confused with a “capacity” for freedom, e.g., the ability of a consumer to choose Corn Flakes or Cheerios for breakfast, as this characterization entirely conceals the literally decisive importance of the originating act of freedom. Freedom is not a capacity or ability, as this would imply the pre-existence of some more foundational subject who could employ freedom as a means to its own ends. Freedom is the very ground of subjectivity, the abyss from which subjectivity first emerges. As a human spirit, I am essentially nothing more and nothing less than the freedom to decide for good or evil. This de-cision is the essence of my freedom—which in fact is not mine at all. It is more correct to say that I belong to freedom.4 There is no me behind or before the spiritual crisis of this originally free deed. My personality just is the decision between good and evil, a decision made eternally time and time again. Original sin—the natural human propensity to do evil—is a necessary side- effect of our independent free will. The divine freedom of which we partake forces us to live in conflict, caught between the desire to secure the particularity of our own organism and the general will of God toward universal love. For this reason, according to Schelling,

the will reacts necessarily against freedom as that which is above the creaturely and awakes in freedom the appetite for what is creaturely just as he who is seized by dizziness on a high and steep summit seems to be beckoned to plunge downward by a hidden voice.5

Such dizzying spiritual freedom, though unique, is not best understood as a special human difference, some distinct capacity present only in our species. As Jason Wirth puts it:

the kind or species that marks the human marks the place where the discrete nature of natural kinds itself returns to its originary crisis. The human kind is the kind that can complicate the discourse of natural kinds.6

Our uniqueness as humans is that we recapitulate the very essence of nature itself. Further, because nature remains our ground, the reflection of our consciousness upon this ground generates self-consciousness: humanity is nature become conscious of itself as subject. While other organisms remain submerged in the unity of natural becoming, the human, like the divine, is eternally beginning, always deciding anew to re-create itself in an attempt to overcome the irreducible otherness within itself (i.e., evil). Unlike the divine, however, for the human there is no necessary assurance that love will overcome evil, that the otherness will be dynamically re-engaged in the eternal circulation of sacred marriage. 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.

Schelling saw no hope in nationalistic politics or state bureaucracies. He believed the state was ultimately an affront to free human beings and would eventually wither away as the human spirit awakened to its true potential. Schelling characterized secular modernity by its tendency to “[push] its philanthropism all the way to the denial of evil,”7 thereby reducing the complex theological significance of sin to the more easily manageable problems of techno- science.8 The present military-industrial techno-capitalist empire can thus be said to be predicated upon the pretense that the total rationalization of human life can eliminate evil.9 After all, evil doers can quickly be destroyed by laser guided missiles launched from remote-controlled drones, depression and anxiety can be cured with mood-enhancing psychiatric chemicals, and climate change can be reversed through a bit of simple geo-engineering.

Joseph Lawrence follows Schelling in calling for a renewed inquiry into the nature of good and evil, an inquiry now even more untimely than it was in Schelling’s day—untimely because such theologically-laden concerns run counter to the self-understanding of the secular Enlightenment, whose founding myth involves the throwing off of traditional religion in favor of the supposedly self- grounding power of instrumental rationality. Lawrence asks how we are to understand modernity’s hubristic elevation of rationality to a secular religion at the same time that it prohibits genuine metaphysical or theological investigation:

If reality were recognized as truly rational, we would encourage the attempt to understand its inner meaning…we would also place our trust in it, instead of relying as heavily as we do on politics and technology to hold the world at bay. Metaphysical irrationalism is thus the deep premise of modern rationality. It alone provides the explanation for why practical and instrumental reason have achieved such dominance over theoretical reason.10

It is modernity’s repressed fear of chaos and meaninglessness, in other words, that leads it to turn away from “the big questions” in favor of the instrumental solutions and superficial palliatives of modern life. Inquiring into the essence of human freedom is especially terrifying for the narcissistic ego used to the pampering of consumer capitalism. The willing soul must learn, according to Schelling,

to stand alone before the infinite: a gigantic step, which Plato likened to death. What Dante saw inscribed on the door to hell must (in a different sense) adorn the entrance to philosophy: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Whoever wants truly to philosophize must be stripped of all hope, all desire, all longing. He must want nothing, know nothing, feel his naked impoverishment, and be capable of surrendering everything for the sake of winning its return…one will have to be taken quite simply into the beginning, to be born anew.11

Even the divine has to pass through the purifying fire of the abyss and overcome the fear of existence in order to realize its creative freedom.12 Unlike human beings, who have the ethical community to console them, for God, the primal being, there is no one else to come to its aid: “in its stultifying solitude…[God] must fight its way through chaos for itself, utterly alone.”13 Human beings can take refuge in the social mores of the day, which in the consumer capitalist context offer an untold number of options for temporary escapist diversion from the soul’s inevitable encounter with the purifying fires of eternity. When radical evil does break through the thin veneer of bourgeois social order, it is always neatly localized in a deranged criminal who can be impersonally (and so guiltlessly) executed by the state.14

Unlike Hegel, who deified the state as an end in itself, Schelling understood it as a means made necessary by the fall, nature’s way of maintaining some semblance of social order given the sinfulness of individuals.15 Schelling realized the paradoxical results of any attempt to justify the existence of the state, since if a just state were able to establish the conditions necessary for the genuine moral freedom of its citizens, this would imply that it no longer reserved the right to exercise coercive force to uphold its laws, and to that extent, that it no longer served a social function and so could be dissolved.16 Though an aging Schelling was dismissed as a reactionary apologist for the conservative Christianity of the Prussian state by Engels,17 Lawrence argues for a revolutionary Schelling who consistently sought liberation for humanity through ethical renewal and authentic religiosity, rather than state politics.18 The true but greatly misunderstood task of the modern age, according to Schelling, “is to shrink the state itself…in every form.”19 Even if the state cannot be abolished outright, a redeemed humanity would at least ensure that “the state…progressively [divested] itself of the blind force that governs it, [transfiguring] this force into intelligence.”20 Far from an apologist for state power, while still in Munich Schelling had openly defied the Bavarian government by lecturing on theological issues, and when he was called to Berlin by the Prussian king in 1841, he agreed only on the condition that he be granted complete academic freedom.21

From Schelling’s perspective, true human salvation does not lie in the false gods of the market and the state, which in their attempt to repress and deny the chaotic abyss at the root of nature only further empower it. Evil becomes real precisely when a human being or society denies the evil in itself to wage war against it in others. It is precisely in order to avoid feeding this “dialectic of revenge”22 that Jesus tells his disciples, “resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”23 Love can only exist along side the possibility of evil, since both are grounded in freedom. To eliminate the possibility of evil would be to eliminate freedom and therefore love.

By metaphysically rooting evil in the darkness of divine nature, Schelling transforms the traditional moral obsession with theodicy into the aesthetics of theogonic tragedy.24 Instead of interpreting suffering as the punishment of a vengeful God, as in traditional theodicies, Schelling repeatedly emphasizes the extent to which suffering is inherent to the creative process itself, even for God. It was God who, in an eternally past act of absolute love, provided “the prototype of all suffering innocents.”25 Schelling calls us to live up to the nature of our complicated human kind by reconciling our sense of fallenness with our divine likeness, thereby finding the endurance necessary to pass through the spirit-forging fire of God’s eternal beginning to be born again, now not only of water but also of spirit.26

Devin Zane Shaw critiques what he calls Schelling’s “mythologization of politics” from a Marxist perspective, arguing that he mystifies the material conditions of social relations by emphasizing spiritual cultivation (Bildung) over democratic political engagement.27 Shaw seems to misunderstand Schelling’s call for the mythopoeic revitalization of the public sphere by conflating it with totalitarianism:

the a priori conception of universality as organic totality ignores or disregards the fact that the political space itself is the domain of the struggle over what the definition of universality (and political inclusion) is.28

While it is not misleading to refer to Schelling’s conception of the ideal relationship between individuals and their community as “organic,” this relationship need not be “totalizing” in the sense that Shaw suggests. From his time as a young professor in Jena through to his role as Secretary General of the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich (a position he held from 1808 to 1821), Schelling sought the transformation of society by way of philosophical education.29 The highest form of social organization could not be imposed externally by state magistrates pretending to some a priori knowledge of true universality; rather, Schelling saw this form emerging freely from the citizenry itself as a result of their artistic, scientific, and religious cultivation.

This rigor of enculturation, like the rigor of the life in nature, is the kernel out of which the first true grace and divinity poor forth like blood.30

Contrary to Shaw’s claim that Schelling disregards the importance of the democratic struggle for political inclusion, Schelling recognized that genuine democracy is only possible given a citizenry aware of the cosmological, anthropological, and theological grounds of authentic freedom. Without a philosophical culture capable of sustaining inquiry into the cosmic and spiritual depths of human nature, the equality rightly demanded by members of democratic societies can only devolve into the leveling homogenization of consumer capitalism, where freedom is reduced to the ability to identify with the corporate brand of one’s choice. The trivialization and inversion of freedom inherent to techno-capitalism makes human beings forgetful of their divine-cosmic ground, functioning not only to alienate individuals from their communities, but humanity from earth.31

 

Footnotes

1 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 202.

2 Schelling, The Ages of the World, trans. Wirth, 207-208.

3 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 40.

4 Martin Heidegger, Schellings Abhandlung Über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit (1809), trans. Joan Stambaugh, 9.

5 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 47.

6 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 197.

7 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Lawrence, 7:371.

8 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 169.

9 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 167.

10 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 170.

11 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Lawrence, 9:217-218.

12 Schelling, The Ages of the World, ed. Schröter, trans. Lawrence, 40; “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181.

13 Schelling, The Ages of the World, ed. Schröter, trans. Lawrence, 43; “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181

14 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 172.

15 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 25.

16 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, 7:461-462; Devin Lane Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 140-141.

17 Alberto Toscano, “Philosophy and the Experience of Construction,” The New Schelling, 106-107.

18 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 26.

19 Schelling, Grundlegung der Positiven Philosophie: Münchener Vorlesung WS 1832/33 and SS 1833, ed. Horst Fuhrmans, trans. Matthews, 235.

20 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Shaw, 7:464-465.

21 Schelling, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, trans. Matthews, 10.

22 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 172.

23 Matthew 5:39.

24 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 174.

25 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181.

26 John 3:5.

27 Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 116.

28 Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 117.

29 Schelling, On University Studies, 22.

30 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Wirth, I/7, 393.

31 Such freedom is “inverted” because it elevates the periphery (our animal egotism) over the Center (our spiritual potential for love); Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 34-36.

My friend and colleague Adam Robbert has just launched The Side View. There is a ton of content on the site already, including articles and podcasts. Listen to Adam’s short description of the site’s aim here.

Here’s a link to my contribution, “Why German Idealism Matters,” wherein I briefly lay out the transformative contributions of Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel.

A few days ago, I decided to re-read Schelling’s Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom (1809). It’s a reasonably short text of about 75 pages, so I’ve read it 3 or 4 times in the past year. The text’s key conceptual innovations regarding the essence of freedom (which Schelling defines as the scission between good and evil) are as difficult to understand this time as they were when I first read it. Reading Heidegger’s treatment of it a few months ago was helpful (HERE), but perhaps also somewhat misleading given my preference for Iain Grant’s reading, which emphasizes the priority of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie (HERE). Schelling’s obscurity regarding human freedom does not seem to be just an accident of his presentation. Rather, obscurity is constitutive of his topic. Indeed, you might say Schelling’s task in this text is the impossible one of bringing darkness itself to light.

“All birth is birth from darkness into light; the seed kernel must be sunk into the earth and die in darkness so that the more beautiful shape of light may lift it and unfold itself in the radiance of the sun” (29).
I will continue to read this text again and again in search of its deeper, occult meanings, but it has already had a major impact on my conscious worldview. One of the reasons I feel so compelled to reach to the very bottom of Schelling’s inquiry into good and evil is that his text as much as any other has helped me come to philosophical terms with the single most powerful spiritual experience I’ve ever had. It happened when I visited Jerusalem back in 2005 during a “birthright trip” organized by the Hillel Foundation at my university (UCF in Orlando, Fl): an all expenses paid 16-day adventure across the entire country of Israel. At the end of it, they offered all the college aged American Jews in my group Israeli citizenship right then and there. They even offered to pay for our wedding if we met our sweetheart on the trip! That is, if only we were also willing to be conscripted by the Israeli Defense Force. I was 19 years old at the time, immersed in (and inflated by) the California Buddhism of Alan Watts, the depth psychology of Carl Jung, and the anarchist politics of Chomsky and Zinn. I was living in suburban Orlando, a city almost entirely surrounded by the scariest aspects of post-war America: theme parks like Disney World and Universal Studios on one side of town, defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman on the other. In between there were endless subdivisions of prefab houses with identical SUVs in their driveways all linked together by shopping center parking lots. Which is just to say that Israel felt like a dangerously mystical desert island that I might escape to, thereby saving myself from the nihilistic void at the core of suburban life. My desire for a spiritual home (a god, a people, and a land to call my own, and to belong to) made living in Israel very appealing to my meaning-seeking survival instincts. I thought of finding a kibbutz, though it seems they aren’t what they used to be. In part it was the geopolitical situation, and the Israeli state’s role in that situation (something I separate from the Jewish religious tradition: prophets are not politicians), that kept me from accepting citizenship there. Mostly though it was my spiritually formative experience at Yad Vashem, the Jewish Holocaust memorial on the outskirts of Jerusalem, that made taking sides in any nationalist war impossible for me.

The trigger for the experience was the children’s memorial. I descended by stairway into a dark space, within which I first encountered a dozen or so photographs of children who had been killed in camps, followed by a wall of candles fitted with mirrors that reflected each flame’s image hundreds of times as it receded into the infinite darkness. The name and place of birth of murdered child after murdered child was read over a speaker.

As I climbed the stairs at the other end of the long, dark hall, my mind was racing, desperately questioning “How? How is such evil possible?! How could human beings do this to one another??!!” My initial question was not “why?” mind you, it was “how?” I wanted to know the metaphysical conditions of evil; that is, I wanted to know the nature of the structural flaw in creation that clearly must exist in order for something so heinous to be permitted to take place. It wasn’t long before I realized there was no answer to my question. I saw that my sailing off into the abstractions of theory was only a thinly veiled attempt to avoid and repress the swelling emotional turmoil that had been stirred up within me as a result of being confronted with the systematic murder of 1.5 million children. My question changed to “why?“—a question of immanent meaning rather than metaphysical possibility. I quickly found myself shamanically merging with the soul of a Nazi guard at Auschwitz, experiencing his wavering degrees of self-justification and self-doubt, realizing that he was just as human as me, just as capable of love and friendship, of deceit and jealousy, just as flawed and complex… “But this can’t be!,” I thought. “Nazis must be evil, how else could they murder so many children, how else could they send so many tiny faces to their deaths?
As I left the memorial and returned again to the sunlight, I found that I could not help but sob, not only because of my feelings of overwhelming remorse for so many murdered children, but because I couldn’t find a suitable scapegoat to hold accountable for such evil. I inhabited as many Nazi souls as I could manage, searching for someone who might take responsibility for the Holocaust. I found no one. Only other fragile human souls like me, most of whom were already dead. Tears welled up in my eyes. Why? why did humanity do this?… Or, was it God’s fault?
Just then I caught the gaze of another person and was immediately torn out of my inward struggle with theodicy. I took in the living faces all around me. That each could be so externally unique and yet also hide something so universal just beneath the surface—that each could be so individual and yet also so God-like (see p. 47)—overwhelmed me even more than the photographs of the murdered children had.
I became somewhat embarrassed when I remembered I was still crying, so I turned away from my fellow humans and looked down at the grass below my feet. I couldn’t help but notice the individuality of each separate blade. I noticed each blade’s infinite difference from the one next to it. I realized how much beauty was being destroyed every time I took a step. I was overwhelmed again. The unending originality of reality swallowed me in that moment. I like to think that it was then and there that I first became responsible for myself, for my freedom, for my goodness and for my wretchedness. I saw immediately (perhaps through a kind of intellectual intuition) that evil is in all of us, that it is a necessary by-product of our creative freedom as individuals. Without the possibility of evil, there would be no opportunity for love, for the free decision to love. Schelling writes that “whoever has neither the material nor the force in himself to do evil is also not fit for good” (64). The creative struggle between individuals and communities, between me and we, is the engine of evolution. It’s as true for humans as it is for any other living being. But for the human, the creature who “stands on the threshold” between good and evil, the stakes of the struggle are infinitely higher. “It would be desirable ” writes Schelling, summarizing Franz Baader, “that the corruption in man were only to go as far as his becoming animal; unfortunately, however, man can stand only below or above animals” (40).
Life itself, as Schelling understands it, depends upon struggle and opposition. “Where there is no struggle, there is no life” (63). Without continual crisis to disrupt the very ground of our existence, all creative activity would cease, all the whirling worlds would slow and sink into the silent ocean of indifference (a dark night, yes, but without cows of any definite shade).
“The whole of nature tells us that it in no way exists by virtue of a merely geometrical necessity; in it there is not simply pure reason but personality and spirit…God himself is not a system, but rather a life” (59-62).
Kant was right after all about the singular blade of grass (see sec. 75 of his Critique of Judgment). Its life exceeds finite understanding. How much more so the life of God. For Schelling, the divine life reveals itself in the evolution of the universe, both through its cosmic phase (the primordial struggle between gravity and light) and its anthropic phase (the spiritual battle between good and evil). “The birth of spirit is the realm of history as the birth of light is the realm of nature” (44). Our humanity depends for its existence on the abyssal depths of nature, the same groundlessness that first called even God into consciousness. But unlike God, the human being “never gains control over his condition, since it is only lent to him” (62).

Here’s a video of me describing my experience at Yad Vashem:
——————-Update—————–
Integral philosopher and poet William Irwin Thompson has posted a response on his blog: THOUGHTS ON EVIL, June 11, 2013

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It is with my own self-consciousness that I must begin… but I will confess, I am not yet certain of my own beginning, or even of my own uncertainty. Already I seem to have said too much: “I am”–how do I know that? Do I really exist? Can I claim self-consciousness as “my own” if I do not know whether “I am”? I remain a mystery to myself. Sometimes I am whole, other times hollow. I meet the uncanny reflection of myself alternately with ecstasy and with anxiety. Self-consciousness is thinking become aware of itself, but thinking is not yet knowing. Perhaps I cannot begin with myself. I must turn to the thoughts of others. Rene Descartes discovered himself a thinking thing by doubting all cognition and all perception, of others and of the world, leaving only an empty knower behind. Immanuel Kant created the transcendental unity of apperception, bringing together, at least in time, knower and known, self and world, subject and object. Mind here finds its identity with itself, but from things, from bodies and spaces external to itself, it becomes entirely alienated. Kant may have awakened the human spirit to its freedom, but he did so only by severing its connection with the apparently mechanistic laws of the universe. To myself, and to others, thinking remains a mystery. But what of that which acts between self and other, that erotic destabilizing force all but ignored by Descartes and Kant, despite their claim to be philosophers. The force of love: too slippery to be categorized, too sublime to be secured. It is desire, eros, that connects the soul to the world, linking freedom with necessity. Thinking is desiring. The desire to think at first rises in my soul because of the inverse but complementary movement of the expanding universe. I intend as it extends. Light cannot travel fast enough through space to show me what lies beyond the edge of time: the physical eyes cannot see to eternity. An inner sight intuits the universe’s end without my having to sense it. In itself, the world remains incomplete; but through intuitive thinking, I will its wholeness. The desire to think erupts because Being is not complete in itself. Being wills also to become for itself. Substance desires to be Subject, as Hegel says. Or, as Schelling put it, “Nature should be the Spirit made visible, Spirit the invisible Nature.” I not only intuit, but am involved in the creative evolution of the universe ever onward into a wholeness never finished because always being born. In my soul, matter finds its maker in the image of Spirit. Here, I reach the still point of eternity at the center of earth around which all the heavens revolve.

For a PDF of the entire essay, click The Re-Emergence of Schelling: Philosophy in a Time of Emergency.

The Nature of Human Freedom

The Naturphilosoph comes to understand “Nature as subject.”232 This does not imply that nature necessarily conforms to the transcendental structure of the human mind (a form of anthropomorphism), but rather that human consciousness is itself a recapitulation of the uncanny subjectivity of nature. Where Kant says we can’t know nature in itself, and Fichte says nature is my own projection, Schelling turns us back upon the strangeness of our own humanity to ask “do we really know who and what we are, or where we came from?”

Most people turn away from what is concealed within themselves just as they turn away from the depths of the great life and shy away from the glance into the abysses of that past which are still in one just as much as the present.233

In his celebrated 1809 treatise, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, Schelling begins by exploring traditional theological, cosmological, and anthropological answers to the question of human nature. He re-emerges, not with more answers, but with surprising new questions. Schelling discovers that the freedom of human reason, rather than being above or outside nature, bottoms out into the sublime tension inherent to cosmogenesis. Freedom is found to be grounded in the eternal struggle between gravity and light, the polarity originally constitutive of nature herself.
 The human freedom to decide for good or evil, despite being grounded in nature’s primordial cision of forces, nonetheless irrevocably sets us apart from the animal kingdom. Human beings are conscious of their participation in original sin, making it impossible to explain sin merely as a regression to brute instincts, since this would imply a lack of consciousness and freedom. For Schelling, evil is unmistakably spiritual in origin, meaning it is a possibility only for absolutely free beings. 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.234

The spiritual freedom of the human being should not be confused with a “capacity” for freedom, e.g., the ability of a consumer to choose Corn Flakes or Cheerios for breakfast, as this characterization entirely conceals the literally decisive importance of the originating act of freedom. Freedom is not a capacity or ability, since this would imply the pre-existence of some more foundational subject who could employ freedom as a means to its own ends. Freedom is the very ground of subjectivity, the abyss from which subjectivity first emerges. As a human spirit, I just am the freedom to decide for good or evil, and nothing besides. This de-cision is the essence of my freedom–which in fact is not mine at all, since it is more correct to say that I belong to freedom.235 There is no me behind or before the spiritual crisis of this originally free deed. My personality just is the decision between good and evil, a decision made eternally time and time again. Original sin–the natural human propensity to do evil–is a necessary side-effect of our independent free will. The divine freedom in which we partake forces us to live in conflict, caught between the desire to secure our own particularity and the general will of God toward universal love. For this reason, according to Schelling,

the will reacts necessarily against freedom as that which is above the creaturely and awakes in freedom the appetite for what is creaturely just as he who is seized by dizziness on a high and steep summit seems to be beckoned to plunge downward by a hidden voice.236

Such dizzying spiritual freedom, though unique, is not best understood as a special human difference, some distinct capacity present only in our species. As Jason Wirth puts it:

the kind or species that marks the human marks the place where the discrete nature of natural kinds itself returns to its originary crisis. The human kind is the kind that can complicate the discourse of natural kinds.237

Our uniqueness as humans is that we recapitulate the very essence of nature herself; further, because she remains our ground, the reflection of our consciousness upon this ground generates self-consciousness: humanity is nature become conscious of herself as subject. While other organisms remain submerged in the unity of natural becoming, the human, like the divine, is eternally beginning, always deciding anew to erotically reproduce itself in an attempt to overcome the irreducible otherness within itself (i.e., evil). Unlike the divine, however, there is no necessary assurance that love will overcome evil, that the otherness will be dynamically re-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.

Schelling saw no hope in nationalistic politics or state bureaucracies. Our present state-supported techno-capitalist empire is justified only by the pretense that the total rationalization of human life can eliminate evil.238 Schelling characterizes secular modernity by its tendency to “[push] its philanthropism all the way to the denial of evil,”239 thereby reducing the complex theological significance of sin to the more easily manageable problems of techno-science.240 After all, evil doers can be quickly destroyed by laser guided missiles launched from remote-controlled drones, depression and anxiety can be cured with mood-enhancing psychiatric medication, and climate change can be reversed through a bit of simple geo-engineering.

Joseph Lawrence follows Schelling in calling for a renewed inquiry into the nature of good and evil, an inquiry now even more untimely than it was in Schelling’s day–untimely because such theologically-laden concerns run counter to the self-understanding of the secular Enlightenment, whose founding myth involves the throwing off of traditional religion in favor of the supposedly self-grounding power of instrumental rationality. Lawrence asks how we are to understand modernity’s self-contradictory elevation of rationality to a secular religion at the same time that it prohibits genuine metaphysical or theological investigation:

If reality were recognized as truly rational, we would encourage the attempt to understand its inner meaning…we would also place our trust in it, instead of relying as heavily as we do on politics and technology to hold the world at bay. Metaphysical irrationalism is thus the deep premise of modern rationality. It alone provides the explanation for why practical and instrumental reason have achieved such dominance over theoretical reason.241

It is modernity’s repressed fear of chaos and meaninglessness, in other words, that leads it to turn away from “the big questions” in favor of the simple solutions and small pleasures of techno-scientific consumerism. Inquiring into the essence of human freedom is especially terrifying for the narcissistic ego used to the pampering of consumer capitalism. The willing soul must learn, according to Schelling,

to stand alone before the infinite: a gigantic step, which Plato likened to death. What Dante saw inscribed on the door to hell must (in a different sense) adorn the entrance to philosophy: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Whoever wants truly to philosophize must be stripped of all hope, all desire, all longing. He must want nothing, know nothing, feel his naked impoverishment, and be capable of surrendering everything for the sake of winning its return…one will have to be taken quite simply into the beginning, to be born anew.242

Even the divine has to pass through the purifying fire of the abyss and overcome the fear of existence in order to realize its creative freedom.243 Unlike human beings, who have the ethical community to console them, for God, the primal being, there was no one else to come to its aid: “in its stultifying solitude…[God] must fight its way through chaos for itself, utterly alone.”244 Human beings can take refuge in the social mores of the day, which, in the consumer capitalist context, offer an untold number of options for temporary escape and diversion from the soul’s inevitable encounter with the purifying fires of eternity. When radical evil does break through the thin veneer of bourgeois social order, it is always neatly localized in a deranged criminal who can be impersonally (and so guiltlessly) executed by the state.245

Unlike Hegel, who deified the state as an end in itself, Schelling understood it as a means made necessary by the fall, nature’s way of maintaining some semblance of social order given the sinfulness of individuals.246 Schelling realized the paradoxical results of any attempt to justify the existence of the state, since if a just state were able to establish the conditions necessary for the genuine moral freedom of its citizens, this would imply that it no longer reserved the right to exercise coercive force to uphold its laws, and to that extent, that it no longer served a social function and so could be dissolved.247 Though he was dismissed as a reactionary apologist for the conservative Christianity of the Prussian state by Engels during the Berlin lectures late in his life,248 Lawrence argues for a revolutionary Schelling who consistently sought liberation for humanity through ethical renewal and authentic religiosity, rather than state politics.249 The true but greatly misunderstood task of the modern age, according to Schelling, “is to shrink the state itself…in every form.”250 Even if the state cannot be abolished outright, a redeemed humanity would at least

ensure that the state…progressively [divested] itself of the blind force that governs it, [transfiguring] this force into intelligence.251

Far from an apologist for state power, while still in Munich Schelling had openly defied the Bavarian government by lecturing on theological issues, and when he was called to Berlin by the Prussian king in 1841, he agreed only on the condition that he be granted complete academic freedom.252

True human salvation cannot lie in the false gods of the market and the state, which in their attempt to repress and deny the chaotic abyss at the root of nature only further empower it. Evil appears real precisely when a human being or society denies the evil in itself to wage war against it in others. It is precisely in order to avoid feeding this “dialectic of revenge”253 that Jesus tells his disciples, “resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”254 Love can only exist along side the possibility of evil, since both are grounded in freedom. To eliminate the possibility of evil would be to eliminate freedom and therefore love.

By metaphysically rooting evil in the darkness of divine nature, Schelling transforms the traditional moral obsession with theodicy into the aesthetics of theogonic tragedy.255 Instead of interpreting suffering as the punishment of a vengeful God, as in traditional theodicies, Schelling repeatedly emphasizes the extent to which suffering is inherent to the creative process itself, even for God. It was God who, in an eternally past act of absolute love, provided “the prototype of all suffering innocents.”256 Schelling calls us to live up to the nature of our complicated human kind by reconciling our sense of fallenness with our divine likeness, thereby finding the endurance necessary to pass through the spirit-forging fire of God’s eternal beginning to be born again, now not only of water but also of spirit.257

Devin Zane Shaw critiques what he calls Schelling’s “mythologization of politics” from a Marxist perspective, arguing that he mystifies the material conditions of social relations by emphasizing spiritual cultivation (Bildung) over democratic political engagement.258 Shaw seems to misunderstand Schelling’s call for the mythopoeic revitalization of the public sphere by conflating it with totalitarianism:

the a priori conception of universality as organic totality ignores or disregards the fact that the political space itself is the domain of the struggle over what the definition of universality (and political inclusion) is.259

While it is not misleading to refer to Schelling’s conception of the ideal relationship between individuals and their community as “organic,” this relationship need not be “totalizing” in the sense that Shaw suggests. From his time as a young professor in Jena through to his role as Secretary General of the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich (a position he held from 1808 to 1821), Schelling sought the transformation of society by way of philosophical education.260 The highest form of social organization could not be imposed externally by state magistrates pretending to some a priori knowledge of true universality; rather, Schelling saw this form emerging freely from the citizenry itself as a result of their artistic, scientific, and religious cultivation.

This rigor of enculturation, like the rigor of the life in nature, is the kernel out of which the first true grace and divinity poor forth like blood.261

Contrary to Shaw’s claim that Schelling disregards the importance of the democratic struggle for political inclusion, Schelling recognized that genuine democracy is only possible given a citizenry aware of the cosmological, anthropological, and theological complexities of authentic freedom. Without a philosophical culture capable of sustaining inquiry into the cosmic and spiritual depths of human nature, the equality rightly demanded by democratic societies can only devolve into the leveling homogenization of consumer capitalism, where freedom is reduced to the ability to identify with the corporate brand of one’s choice. The trivialization and inversion of freedom inherent to “democratic” capitalism makes human beings forgetful of their divine-cosmic ground, functioning not only to alienate individuals from their communities, but humanity from earth.262

Footnotes

232 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 202.

233 Schelling, The Ages of the World, trans. Wirth, 207-208.

234 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 40.

235 Martin Heidegger, Schellings Abhandlung Über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit (1809), trans. Joan Stambaugh, 9.

236 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 47,

237 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 197.

238 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 167.

239 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Lawrence, 7:371.

240 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 169.

241 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 170.

242 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Lawrence, 9:217-218.

243 Schelling, Ages of the World, ed. Schröter, trans. Lawrence, 40; “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181.

244 Schelling, Ages of the World, ed. Schröter, trans. Lawrence, 43; “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181

245 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 172.

246 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 25.

247  Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, 7:461-462; Devin Lane Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 140-141.

248 Alberto Toscano, “Philosophy and the Experience of Construction,” The New Schelling, 106-107.

249 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 26.

250 Schelling, Grundlegung der Positiven Philosophie: Münchener Vorlesung WS 1832/33 and SS 1833, ed. Horst Fuhrmans, trans. Matthews, 235.

251 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Shaw, 7:464-465.

252 Schelling, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, trans. Matthews, 10.

253 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 172.

254 Matthew 5:39.

255 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 174.

256 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181.

257 John 3:5.

258 Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 116.

259 Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 117.

260 Schelling, On University Studies, 22.

261 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Wirth, I/7, 393.

262 Such freedom is “inverted” because it elevates the periphery (our animal egotism) over the Center (our spiritual potential for love); Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 34-36.

Again, sorry for the lack of italics. I don’t know how to paste from Pages while keeping the formatting. For a PDF of the document (with italics in tact!), click: The Re-Emergence of Schelling: Philosophy in a Time of Emergency.

Literature review

This section assesses the reasons for the contemporary resurgence of scholarly interest in Schelling. At least since the 1990s, after more than a century and a half on the shelf, Schelling’s corpus has been re-emerging “with increasing intensity” in the English speaking world.65 There are many reasons to reconsider Schelling’s philosophical oeuvre, but the current resurgence in interest seems to orbit primarily around his unique approach to the problem of nature, whether the nature of the cosmos, of the human, or of the divine.

In his prized 1809 essay Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, Schelling writes:

The entire new European philosophy since its beginning (with Descartes) has the common defect that nature is not available for it and that it lacks a living ground.66

The non-existence of nature for thought in the modern period has had terrible consequences for human history and the natural world alike. From Descartes through to Kant, Fichte, and Hegel, reason and science became increasingly self-castrating and solipsistic; “like the priests of the Phrygian goddess,” modern thought detached itself from the living forces of its natural ground.67

In his Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (2005), Iain Hamilton Grant articulates the scientific and metaphysical consequences of ignoring nature, arguing that

deep geological time defeats a priori the prospect of [nature’s] appearance for any finite phenomenologizing consciousness.68

In other words, while the Kantian turn in the philosophy of science drained nature of ontological significance by defining it phenomenologically as “the sum total of appearing bodies,” the empirico-mathematical study of nature nonetheless came to reveal world-ages prior to the emergence of any consciousness for whom material nature could have made an appearance. Further, contemporary physics has de-corporealized (and so de-phenomenalized) matter in favor of a dynamic, field-theoretic understanding of natural forces. Schelling’s Naturphilosophie not only foresaw and helped to initiate these discoveries,69 it provides the new sciences of self-organizing systems with a more coherent and adequate metaphysical foundation than the old mechanistic atomism.70 Naturphilosophie’s principle aim is to articulate, in a systematic but non-reductive way, how it is possible that natural productivity (natura naturans), and not representational consciousness (cogito cogitans), is a priori. Grant suggests that Schelling was able to overturn the Kantian Revolution, not by outright dismissing the primacy of practical reason, but by literally grounding it in a “geology of morals” that transforms ethics into physics.71 The relevance of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie to the metaphysical foundations of contemporary natural science will be taken up again in a subsequent section.72

Some contemporary scholars, like Andrew Bowie in his Schelling and Modern European Philosophy (1993), dismiss Schelling’s later mythopoeic and theogonic speculations into the divinity of nature and the nature of divinity as “evidently dead,”73 while others, like Grant, simply ignore it. In The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (2012), S. J. McGrath pays very close attention to Schelling’s Böhmian musings, but interprets them largely in a depth psychological, rather than cosmological or philosophical context. While I agree with McGrath that Schelling deserves credit for initiating a mode of inquiry into the unconscious that would later be developed by Freud and Jung, the ontological agnosticism of the depth psychological approach makes it inappropriate for an appreciation of Schelling’s philosophical project. Bruce Matthews, in his Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy (2011), documents the influence of the theosophists Philipp Matthäus Hahn and Friedrich Christoph Oetinger on Schelling, but his analysis leaves Schelling’s writing after 1804 unconsidered. Of the scholars who do engage with the later religious dimension of Schelling’s thought on its own terms, Joseph Lawrence does so with the most forceful and direct voice by highlighting the socioeconomic and ecological consequences of the secular erasure of God from human and cosmic nature. All that remains to guide humanity’s hopes and dreams once the public sphere has been inoculated against authentic religiosity is the myth of the market, which according to Lawrence,

[eliminates] from view any acceptable alternative to the world of money and power, to which science itself has been subordinated.74

Lawrence admits that if the worldview of scientific materialism is deemed “the last rational, and so discussable option,” then Schelling’s mythopoeic, cosmotheological project “can indeed be declared dead.”75 Contra positivism, just because natural science has epistemic limits doesn’t mean the questions it leaves unanswered are not worth asking:

…the inability to answer a question within the framework of demonstrative science does not mean that the question cannot be answered but rather than it must always be answered anew.76

Lawrence defends Schelling’s prophetic call for a philosophical religion not because it offers some conclusive explanation for the nature and existence of reality, but because it allows us once again to ask ultimate questions, seeking not certainty about or mastery over nature, but redemptive participation in her creative powers of becoming.77

Instead of relenting to the deification of the market, which “leaves us with nothing to live for beyond personal desire,”78 Lawrence strives to realize Schelling’s demand that we transform ourselves “beyond the confines of self-interest [to] the possibility of a future in which what is right takes the place of what is right ‘for me.’”79 Without such transformation, the market will continue to reign with dire consequences for humanity and the planet. “The Earth does not have the carrying capacity for a universalized suburbia.”80 Lawrence’s concern for the social and ecological consequences of the secularization of nature is not uncommon among Schelling scholars.

Matthews (2012) begins his study of Schelling by dwelling on the ecological consequences of nature’s non-existence for human thought, arguing that Schelling’s

analysis of how subjectivism sets the theoretical stage for the actual destruction of our natural environment

is the most important reason for returning to his work.81 Indeed, many of Schelling’s recent commentators agree that the ecological emergency is directly related to the failure of modernity’s Kantian, positivistic understanding of nature and the “economic-teleological” exploitation of earth that it supports.82 Bowie, despite his discomfort with theology, is in agreement with Matthews and Lawrence that Schelling’s thought has become increasingly relevant precisely because it speaks to

the contemporary suspicion…that Western rationality has proven to be a narcissistic illusion…the root of nihilism [and] the ecological crisis.83

In The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters (1996), Slavoj Žižek looks to Schelling’s insights into the nature of human freedom in order to grasp how the possibility of an ecological crisis is

opened up by man’s split nature–by the fact that man is simultaneously a living organism (and, as such, part of nature) and a spiritual entity (and, as such, elevated above nature).84

If humanity were completely spiritual, we would be utterly free of material needs and so have no reason to exploit nature, while if we were simply animal, we would symbiotically co-exist within the circle of life like any other predator. But because of our split nature, and our spiritual propensity for evil, “normal animal egotism” has become “self-illuminated,…raised to the power of Spirit,” leading to an absolute domination of nature “which no longer serves the end of survival but turns into an end-in-itself.”85 This is the “economic-teleological” principle: exploitation of earth purely for monetary profit. The detachment of humanity’s spiritual nature from the living reality of its earthly ground has lead to the decimation of that ground. Many contemporary eco-philosophers blame anthropocentrism–the perceived superiority of humanity over any other species–for the ecological crisis, but Schelling’s position is subtler:

For Schelling, it is the very fact that man is ‘the being of the Center’ which confers upon him the proper responsibility and humility–it is the ordinary materialist attitude of reducing man to an insignificant species on a small planet in a distant galaxy which effectively involves the subjective attitude of domination over nature and its ruthless exploitation.86

The essence of human spirituality, according to Schelling, is freedom, the decision between good and evil. Humanity’s fall into hubris is caused by the elevation of our animal nature over all other living creatures. The fall is not a fall into animality, but an inversion of the spiritual principle of freedom leading to the elevation of the periphery (our creatureliness) above the Center (our divine likeness). Further discussion of Schelling’s understanding of human freedom will be taken up in a subsequent section.87

Given that Schelling’s insights into the essence of human freedom are genuine, it would appear that more anthrodecentric nihilism can only exacerbate the ecological crisis. We must take responsibility for our knowledge and power. Healing human-earth relations will require that humanity actualize its spiritual potential as the burgeoning wisdom and compassion of cosmogenesis: “Created out of the source of things and the same as it,” writes Schelling in The Ages of the World, “the human soul is conscientious (Mitwissenschaft) of creation.”88

Also among those commentators coming to Schelling in the context of ecological emergency is Arran Gare, who similarly argues that Schelling’s Naturphilosophie provides a way to

overcome the nihilism of European civilization…a nihilism that is reaching its apogee in the deification of the global market, postmodern fragmentation, and the specter of global ecocide.89

Gare goes on to argue that Schelling should be interpreted, not as an idealist, but as a Naturphilosoph responsible for producing “the first coherent system of process metaphysics.”90 Gare cites the third draft of Schelling’s die Weltalter (1815), where Schelling explicitly condemns idealism not only on philosophical, but on religious and scientific grounds, since it had reduced in turn both God and the natural world to

an image, nay, an image of an image, a nothing of nothing, a shadow of a shadow…[arriving] at the dissolution of everything in itself into thoughts.91

Grant similarly challenges the mistaken assumption, popular since Hegel’s quip regarding “the night in which all cows are black,” that Schelling’s philosophy culminates in undifferentiated identity, arguing instead that he remained primarily a Naturphilosoph attentive to the contingent materiality of the actual world through every phase of his philosophical career.92 Frederick Beiser’s also claims in his German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism (2002) that Schelling, even in his writings during the so-called Identitätssystem phase, never wavered in his allegiance to Naturephilosophie:

Schelling says that the philosopher can proceed in either of two directions: from nature to us, or form us to nature; but he makes his own preferences all too clear: the true direction for he who prizes knowledge above everything is the path of nature itself, which is that followed by the Naturphilosoph.93

In his retrospective lectures On the History of Modern Philosophy in 1834, Schelling himself expressed his dismay that the phrase “identity system,” used only once in the preface of his 1801 text Presentation of My System of Philosophy, was interpreted as signaling a break with Naturphilosophie:

this designation was…used by those who never penetrated to the interior of the system to infer, or to make the uneducated part of the public believe, that in this system all differences, namely every difference of matter and spirit, of good and evil, even of truth and falsity, were annulled, that according to this system it was, in the everyday sense, all the same.94

It is not unlikely that Schelling is here referring at least in part to Hegel’s infamous joke in The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), mentioned above, about the “night in which, as the saying goes, all cows are black.”95 In a letter to Schelling dated May 1, 1807, Hegel claimed to have been aiming his jibe at the shallowest of Schelling’s followers, rather than Schelling himself. Even earlier, in his history of philosophy lectures at the University of Jena in 1805, Hegel is careful to distinguish Schelling from his poor imitators.96 Schelling asked that Hegel clarify his real position in a second edition, but the next printing contained no such addition. It was the last letter ever exchanged between the two former friends.97

Schelling’s emergence from the shadow of Hegel is due in no small part to the re-evaluation of this exchange by contemporary scholars. In his Schelling and the End of Idealism (1996), Dale Snow notes that Schelling had already addressed Hegel’s criticisms of the Identitätssystem in texts published as early as 1802.98 In his Further Presentations from the System of Philosophy (1803), Schelling himself criticized those who

see in the being of the absolute nothing but a pure night [and] a mere negation of multiplicity.99

Snow is lead to conclude that, despite never amending the preface, Hegel was probably sincere in his letter to Schelling in 1807.100 According to Jason Wirth, the two did meet again by chance 22 years later at a bath house in Karlsbad. Hegel wrote to his wife after the encounter that the two hit it off instantly “like cordial friends of old” as though nothing had happened.101 Schelling became increasingly critical of Hegel’s system after his death in 1831–or at least critical of what Hegel asserted his purely “negative” system was capable of deducing. Despite their differences (or perhaps because of them), Schelling probably wouldn’t have hesitated to apply his historical statement about the apparently opposed philosophies of Descartes and Bacon to Hegel and himself:

In this history of the human spirit it is easy to see a certain simultaneity among great minds, who from differing sides nevertheless are finally working towards the same goal.102

Whether Hegel’s polemical comment was directed at Schelling or not, its effect was that most histories of philosophy have come to place Hegel’s system at the pinnacle of the German Idealist project, with Schelling’s work seen as a mere stepping stone if it is mentioned at all. The difference between the philosophical approaches of Schelling and Hegel will be explored in a subsequent section.103

Rounding out the notable commentaries on Schelling’s philosophy are Bernard Freydberg’s Schelling’s Dialogical Freedom Essay: Provocative Philosophy Then and Now (2008) and Jason Wirth’s The Conspiracy of Life: Meditations on Schelling and His Time (2011). Freydberg proposes that Schelling’s thought is receiving more attention today “due precisely to its untimeliness.”104 Schelling had a unique ability to integrate aspects of ancient and modern thought, producing a strange hybrid philosophy that offers a fresh way forward for a generation of thinkers tired of the postmodern ban on metaphysics.105 Freydberg also draws out the significance of Schelling’s dialogical method, a method first announced in a footnote in the Freedom essay:

In the future, [I] will…maintain the course…taken in the present treatise where, even if the external shape of a dialogue is lacking, everything arises as a sort of dialogue.106

Freydberg describes Schelling’s literary style in the Freedom essay, and in the later drafts of The Ages of the World, as participatory, more akin to “a map for a journey” than “a series of philosophical claims.”107

Wirth similarly argues that, with Schelling, “the question of style is not frivolous.”108 Schelling’s presentation of philosophy as a work of freedom makes it “as much art as science.”109 Schelling’s scientific art of dialogue begins always in media res, according to Wirth, such that in order to engage in philosophical composition, Schelling must first give over total authority over the course of a work’s self-development to the darkness of the Other.110 Wirth offers Schelling’s dialogical style as an example of the “deep difference” between his own and Hegel’s more abstract dialectical approach.111

In a chapter bringing Schelling into conversation with Sri Aurobindo, Wirth points to their treatment of the Indian spiritual traditions to further distinguish Schelling from Hegel.112 Unlike Hegel, who declared that India was “sunk in the most frightful and scandalous superstition,”113 Schelling cherished the Bhagavad-Gitā and even believed, according to Wirth, that “Greek philosophy should be considered a flower of South Asia.”114 In his introduction to Schelling Now: Contemporary Readings (2005), Wirth further suggests that Schelling’s “ecological sensitivity” and “receptivity to the call of the earth” represent philosophical possibilities “left largely unexplored by Hegel.”115

Footnotes

65 Wirth, “Schelling’s Contemporary Resurgence,” 585.

66 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations Into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Jeff Love and Johannes Schmidt, 26.

67 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations Into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 26.

68 Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 6.

69 Consider, for example, Schelling’s influence on Hans Christian Ørsted’s discovery of electromagnetism in 1820.

70 Marie-Luise Heuser-Kessler, Die Produktivität der Natur: Schellings Naturphilosophie und das neue Paradigma der Selbsorganization in den Naturwissenshaften.

71 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 6, 199.

72 See section heading “Metaphysically (un)grounding the natural sciences” below.

73 Andrew Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, 5.

74 Joseph Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 14.

75 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 15.

76 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 17.

77 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 15-16.

78 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 18.

79 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 21.

80 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 16.

81 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 3.

82 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 3.

83 Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, 10.

84 Slavoj Žižek, The Indivisible Remainder, 63.

85 Žižek, The Indivisible Remainder, 63.

86 Žižek, The Indivisible Remainder, 88n70.

87 See section heading “The nature of human freedom” below.

88 Schelling, The Ages of the World, trans. Wirth, xxxvi.

89 Arran Gare. “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics: On the Way to Ecological Civilization,” 26, 68.

90 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics: On the Way to Ecological Civilization,” 28.

91 Schelling, The Ages of the World, trans. Wirth, 106.

92 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 3-4.

93 Beiser, German Idealism, 489.

94 Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, trans. Bowie, 120.

95 Hegel, The Hegel Reader, trans. Stephen Houlgate, 52.

96 Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1805-1806), http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/hp/hpschell.htm, D:3 (accessed 7/27/2012).

97 Wirth, “Schelling’s Contemporary Resurgence,” 587.

98 Snow, Schelling and the End of Idealism, 187.

99 Wirth, “Schelling’s Contemporary Resurgence,” 586.

100 Snow, Schelling and the End of Idealism, 187.

101 Wirth, “Schelling’s Contemporary Resurgence,” 587.

102 Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, trans. Bowie, 61.

103 See section heading “The difference between Hegel’s and Schelling’s system of philosophy” below.

104 Bernard Freydberg, Schelling’s Dialogical Freedom Essay: Provocative Philosophy Then and Now, 1.

105 See especially Graham Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things: “The term ‘guerrilla metaphysics’ is meant to signal…my full awareness that the traditional cathedrals of metaphysics lie in ruins. Let the rubble sleep–or kick it a bit longer, if you must. But new towers or monuments are still possible, more solid and perhaps more startling that those that came before” (256).

106 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 72.

107 Freydberg, Schelling’s Dialogical Freedom Essay: Provocative Philosophy Then and Now, 3.

108 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 158.

109 Schelling, On Construction in Philosophy, trans. Andrew David and Alexi Kukuljevic, 269.

110 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 159.

111 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 216.

112 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 223.

113 Hegel, The Philosophy of Right (1820), Sec. 247, http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/pr/prcivils.htm#PR248 (accessed 7/28/2012).

114 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 223.

115 Wirth, “Introduction,” Schelling Now, 5.

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.

Adam/Knowledge-Ecology just posted a fine reflection on the place of the human in nature. Below is my response.

I think there is an elephant in the room here. Just before the line you quote in Modes of Thought, Whitehead says “In mankind, the dominant dependence on bodily functioning seems still there. And yet the life of a human being receives its worth, its importance, from the way in which unrealized ideals shape its purposes and tinge its actions” (27). He is giving us a hint about the essence of the human: the human is that being capable of actualizing its own ideals. In other words, we not only feel the creative freedom of the universe as an element in our individual concrescence (like all other occasions), we grasp this freedom as a fact constitutive of our very selves. It is a difference in degree that may as well be a difference in kind. Other occasions are “free” to the extent that they are distinct realizations of the creative advance into novelty; but only the human knows that it is free, only the human can withdraw from time and glimpse into the eternal mind of God to envisage as yet unrealized values. Other beings receive their values without conscious decision. Humans can make their own values. What is really characteristic of our special sort of freedom is our capacity for good and evil. Does it make sense to conceive of evil in the non-human universe? It doesn’t seem to make any sense to me. Granted, some, like Nietzsche, would say these categories, good and evil, make no sense in the human universe, either. Nietzsche is brilliant, but I don’t think civilization, be it modern or non-modern, can survive without fully accepting the responsibility of the knowledge of good and evil. We are free and we know it.

Whitehead goes on in the next paragraph of MoT to offer a very ancient typology of four “aggregations of actuality,” or what might be called forms of society: (1) inorganic actualities, dominated by the statistical average, (2) vegetation, dominated by growth and survival, (3) animal actualities, possessed of full blown emotionality, and in some higher order cases, ethicality, (4) human actualities, where for the first time full blown morality and religion appear. Whitehead admits that something like morality is already present in other mammals, but “religion” is uniquely human. What is religion? We might take a look at another text of his, Religion in the Making (I’ve done a little research on this HERE), but in MoT he suggests it has something to do with “[emphasizing] the unity of ideal inherent in the universe” (28). Religion, in other words, is humanity’s attempt to freely and consciously participate in the divine love (Eros) luring all things toward greater and greater expressions of Beauty.

I’ve just finished reading Schelling’s last published work (1809, two years after Hegel’sPhenomenology, and something of a response), considered by most Schellingians to be his masterpiece, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom. Its a short work, well worth the read. He does something very interesting in this text, situating human beings at the apex of nature for sure, but not in the way we Moderns are used to. Nature, and not the human, is the original transcendental subject. Humanity is the most archetypal product of nature’s subjectivity. It is a very complex picture that he tries to paint, involving a God who suffers, a philosophical soul who rises to God’s suffering, and the destiny of the universe driven by Love (you’ve heard similar stories in Teilhard, and indeed in Whitehead)… I can only leave you a small sample here. Schelling writes, “this dark principle [the capacity for evil] is active in animals as well as in all other natural beings, yet it is still not born into the light in them as it is in man: it is not spirit and understanding but blind craving and desire; in short, no fall, no separation of principles is possible here where there is still no absolute or personal unity. The conscious and not conscious are unified in animal instinct only in a certain and determinate way which for that very reason is unalterable. For just on that account, because they are only relative expressions of unity, they are subject to it, and the force active in the ground retains the unity of principles befitting them always in the same proportion. Animals are never able to emerge from unity, whereas man can voluntarily tear apart the eternal bond of forces.” Schelling then quotes 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).

Additional comment:

When Schelling talks about the severing of the principles, he is talking about the dark and light principles of Being itself. These are ontological categories that structure everything in existence. Darkness is the contractive force, that which withdraws; light is the expansive force, that which reveals. In the human, these ontological forces seem to become capable of disequilibrium as a result of our freedom. We can attempt to elevate the dark over the light, which can never ultimately succeed, but in the attempt, we become fallen. Being itself seems to rupture and fall to pieces. The human-caused ecological crisis is still perfectly “natural,” but indeed it seems that one natural being has fallen and is taking vast swaths of earth with it into the depths of non-existence.