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



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.

Leon Niemoczynski has posted a FANTASTIC interview with Iain Hamilton Grant.

A small sample to wet your appetite:

 As directly as possible, Idealism is that philosophy that affirms the reality of the Idea. The point is not that any account of reality must be from the standpoint of the Idea, of the Ideal, or that the conceptual is insuperable, as for example McDowell has it; but rather that reality is incompletely furnished unless the Idea is included in it. Idealism is therefore eliminative just when the Idea is accounted the species of which other entities – usually nature or matter, but also appearances – are genera. Nothing in this case is or can be on the far side of the concept. This is eliminative in that it doesn’t allow that the Idea be the Idea while nature be nature; rather the one must become an instance of the other, and the problem is exactly the same whether posed from the perspective of eliminative idealism or eliminative materialism. Idealism, when not eliminative, it seems to me – and I am particularly fond of pointing to some of its less read exemplars, such as Bosanquet or Pringle-Pattison – does not seek to account for one thing in terms of another, but for each thing exactly as it is. Such a view is evident in the fact that, for example, Plato’s auto kath’auto has less to do with Kant’s Ding an sich than with a simpler “itself by itself”: it is a causal account of subjectivityindependent of consciousness, or the “it-attractor” by which whatever becomes becomes what it is.

Introduction: From Physics to Philosophy

“…how shallow, puny, and imperfect are efforts to sound the depths in the nature of things. In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly.” -Whitehead1

“Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.” -Whitehead2

This essay is written in preparation for my dissertation, tentatively titled Imagination Between Science and Religion: Towards a Cosmotheandric Process Philosophy. In this forthcoming dissertation, Alfred North Whitehead’s and Friedrich Joseph Schelling’s voices will play starring roles in my own attempt to re-construct the philosophical basis for a viable planetary civilization. Special attention will be paid to the methodological role of imagination in both scientific theorization and religious mythopoeia. Raimon Panikkar’s “cosmotheandric experience,” wherein Universe, God, and Human are the truine ultimates in terms of which experiential reality is to be interpreted, will provide the imaginative background guiding my philosophical speculations.3

In this essay, I will focus on Whitehead’s organic cosmology, but Schelling’s and Panikkar’s conceptions of reality will never be far from my mind. The title of this essay is itself a nod toward Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, which seeks to integrate humanity’s ancient spiritual longing for wisdom and compassionate consciousness with its modern scientific knowledge of an evolutionary cosmos.

The important place of philosophy, from Whitehead’s similarly anthropocosmic perspective, is that of the critic of the abstractions of the specialized sciences. It follows that:

Philosophy is not one among the sciences with its own little scheme of abstractions which it works away at perfecting and improving.4

Rather, the philosopher is always at work attempting to harmonize the abstract sciences (e.g., physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology), both internally among themselves, and more generally with our deep moral intuitions and aesthetic feelings regarding the archetypal values inherent to the universe. In this sense, Whitehead sees philosophy’s principle import to be “the fusion of religion and science into one rational scheme of thought.”5

One of the major premises of this essay is that contemporary scientific cosmology has passed into an epicyclic phase of theoretical development.6 The present disorganized assemblage of scientific hypotheses regarding the fundamental laws and material components of the universe has left contemporary cosmology on the verge of a paradigmatic shift whose existential significance may surpass even that of heliocentrism or evolutionism (though it will need to include rather than contradict these paradigms). Whitehead was among the first initiates into this new cosmological story, but grasping the novelty of his vision also requires remembering the insights of the ancients, even if in a modern context. This essay therefore situates Whitehead’s animate cosmology in the context of the larger historical arc of Western natural philosophy dating back to Plato. It also bring’s Whitehead’s philosophy of organism into conversation with several components of contemporary scientific cosmology–including relativistic, quantum, evolutionary, and complexity theories–in order to both exemplify the inadequacy of traditional materialistic-mechanistic metaphysics, and to display the relevance of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme to the transdisciplinary project of integrating these theories and their data with the presuppositions of civilized society. This data is nearly crying aloud for a cosmologically ensouled interpretation, one in which, for example, physics and chemistry are no longer considered to be descriptions of the meaningless motion of molecules to which biology is ultimately reducible, but rather themselves become studies of living organization at ecological scales other than the biological.7

Almost a century ago, Whitehead warned that if physicists did not begin to reassess the outdated imaginative background of mechanistic materialism in light of their own most recent cosmological discoveries, the scientific enterprise would as a result “degenerate into a medley of ad hoc hypotheses.”8 Despite the conceptual revolutions of the 19th and 20th century (e.g., evolutionary, relativity, quantum, and complexity theories), scientific materialism remains the de facto natural philosophy of Western civilization. It imagines the universe as

irreducible brute matter…spread throughout space in a flux of configurations…in itself…senseless, valueless, purposeless…following a fixed routine imposed by external relations.9

Such a picture of ultimate reality leaves no room for life or consciousness. It seems likely that this metaphysical oversight is among the reasons for (post)modern civilization’s ecological and socio-economic crises. A coherent philosophy of nature has yet to take root among civilization’s intelligentsia. Several centuries from now, if historians still exist, and if a new image of reality and with it a new civilization are in the process of flowering, the 20th century will stand out not only for its world wars and widespread environmental devastation, but for its disorienting scientific discoveries (like relativity and quantum theories) and the earthshaking technological inventions which resulted (like the atom bomb and the microchip). For a century, the greater part of the thinking heads of our civilization have been distracted by the electronic gadgetry and wartime glory afforded by technoscience.10 This distraction has allowed them to overlook the philosophical incoherence of mechanistic materialism. Whitehead, one of the handful of historically sensitive scientists to grasp what was happening, wrote in 1925 that “The progress of science has now reached a turning point”:

The stable foundations of physics have broken up…The old foundations of scientific thought are becoming unintelligible. Time, space, matter, material, ether, electricity, mechanism, organism, configuration, structure, pattern, function, all require reinterpretation. What is the sense of talking about a mechanical explanation when you do not know what you mean by mechanics? …[Science] must become philosophical.11

The incoherence of mechanistic materialism stems from its neglect of the importance of harmonizing our theoretical knowledge of nature with the presuppositions of our ethical values, artistic projects, and spiritual aspirations. Unlike any of humanity’s premodern cosmologies, modern scientific materialism has been predicated upon a metaphysical bifurcation separating human consciousness from the surrounding cosmos. This dualism between consciousness and cosmos is the fatal flaw at the core of modern scientific cosmology. Whitehead’s philosophy of science is characterized by the attempt to correct for the widespread deployment of the fundamental fallacy of bifurcation, along with its daughter fallacy, that of misplaced concreteness. In effect, modern science has sacrificed intuitive understanding of the concrete passage and organic unity of the actual universe for the abstract knowledge of its mathematical formulae and mechanical models. No other fallacy occupied Whitehead’s critical attention more than the bifurcation of nature: as we will see, he initially wandered out of mathematical physics and into the arena of full-fledged metaphysical cosmology precisely in order to integrate what had become dissociated. “Coherence,” writes Whitehead, “is the great preservative of rationalistic sanity”12; without it, neither cosmology nor civilization would be possible.

Despite the need for greater philosophical coherence in contemporary scientific cosmology, many leading physicists are growing increasingly impatient with philosophers. “For most of the twenty-five centuries since written history began,” writes Freeman Dyson, “philosophers were important…”

They had a deep influence in the practical worlds of politics and morality as well as in the intellectual worlds of science and scholarship…Compared with the giants of the past, [twentieth and twenty-first century philosophers] are a sorry bunch of dwarfs…So far as the general public [is] concerned, philosophers [have become] invisible.”13

Dyson at least has hope for the future importance of philosophy, if only it becomes willing to ask the big questions once again. Other physicists have become outright dismissive of the entire enterprise of philosophy. “Philosophy is dead,” writes Stephen Hawking, because it “has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.”14 Lawrence Krauss similarly argues that much of contemporary philosophy suffers from “intellectual bankruptcy”15:

When it comes to the real operational issues that govern our understanding of physical reality, ontological definitions of classical philosophers are, in my opinion, sterile.16

Like Hawking and Krauss, Stephen Weinberg is also of the opinion that scientists need not take the complaints of philosophers seriously:

To tell a physicist that the laws of nature are not explanations of natural phenomena is to tell a tiger in search of its prey that all flesh is grass […] with or without [philosophers], we will continue to [search for scientific explanations of natural phenomena].17

In response to such criticisms, it must first be said that Whitehead was well aware of the danger of supposing that our present definitions, whether they be in the language of mathematical physics or of metaphysical ontology, somehow already contain all the words, phrases, or formulae applicable to the analysis of experiential reality: he called this supposition “The Fallacy of the Perfect Dictionary.”18

We experience more than we can analyze. For we experience the universe, and we analyze in our consciousness a minute selection of its details.19

For Whitehead, the role of philosophy is akin to that of poetry: to introduce novel fundamental ideas and verbal expressions as an aid to the ongoing adventure of civilization.20 This obviously makes philosophy’s goals a great deal broader than those of physics; but as I hope to spell out in the course of this essay, it is essential to the health of civilization that lines of communication between philosophy and science remain open and mutually informative. Whitehead, a mathematical physicist by training, had just as much criticism for the habits of his own discipline as for philosophy. He placed the blame for the sorry state of both disciplines primarily on the process of professionalization, which pushes society’s brightest minds to become narrow-minded specialists and technicians with little interest or respect for anything but the operational abstractions of their own field. The fragmentary proliferation of technoscientific disciplines during the 19th and 20th centuries mostly discouraged grand attempts at integration akin to those of philosophers past. “Sometimes it happens,” writes Whitehead,

that the service rendered by philosophy is entirely obscured by the astonishing success of a scheme of abstractions in expressing the dominant interests of an epoch.21

Whitehead’s approaches to philosophy and to science are not typical of his age. A natural born integralist, he came to them from several angles at once: as a mathematician seeking truth in harmonious pattern, as a physicist attempting to describe the fundamental forces of nature, as a pragmatic educator searching for a viable pedagogy, and as an ally of the Romantic poets in their protest against abstraction on behalf of the concrete values inherent to the universe. According to contemporary interpreter Isabelle Stengers, Whitehead’s central concern is precisely modern science’s

lack of resistance to the intolerant rule of abstractions that declare everything that escapes them frivolous, insignificant, or sentimental.22

Much of the hostility directed at philosophers by the physicists mentioned above would seem to be a result, not only of their lack of resistance, but of their outright celebration of the power of abstractions to explain away the depths of mystery inherent to lived experience. In contrast to the triumphant attitude fostered by scientific materialism, Whitehead does not look to natural science, or to philosophy, for reductive explanations. Rather, his philosophizing seeks “direct insight into depths as yet unspoken.”23 The purpose of philosophy is not to explain away mystery, but to add to it “some grasp of the immensity of things, some purification of emotion by understanding.”24

As an aid to understanding the radical novelty of Whitehead’s mature cosmological scheme, it is important to first grasp the essential features of his early reflections on the history and philosophy of science. It is to these reflections that the next section turns.


1 Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Free Press, 1929/1978), xiv.

2 Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1938/1968), 168.

3 Raimon Panikkar, The Rhythm of Being (New York: Orbis Books, 2010), 34.

4 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925/1960), 83.

5 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 15.

6 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 124.

7 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 97.

8 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 23.

9 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 23.

10 Unlike traditional science, still the cousin of philosophy, which sought to “confer an intelligible order on what confronts us,” for technoscience “to understand is to be able to transform” (Isabelle Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011], 11).

11 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 23 (italics mine). By way of comparison, Schelling’s Naturphilosophie was similarly an attempt “to allow natural science itself to arise philosophically” (Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, trans. Errol E. Harris and Peter Heath [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1797/1988], 5).

12 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 6.

13 Freeman Dyson, The New York Review of Books (November 8, 2012), 20.

14 Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design (New York: Random House, 2010), 5.

15 Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (New York: The Free Press, 2012), xiv. Krauss claims to bring “nothing”–traditionally a topic for metaphysical speculation–into the purview of natural science such that it can be used to explain the creation of the universe materialistically (i.e., as the result of blind chance and causal necessity without meaning or purpose). I return to his ideas in a later section in connection with Terrence Deacon’s less reductionistic scientific characterization of “nothing” in Incomplete Nature (2012).

16 Krauss, “The Consolation of Philosophy,” in Scientific American (April 27, 2012), (accessed 11/15/2012).

17 Stephen Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory (London: Vintage Books, 1993), 21-22.

18 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 173.

19 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 89.

20 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 174.

21 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 58.

22 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 136.

23 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 174.

24 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 168-169.

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

Metaphysically (un)grounding the natural sciences 

Schelling’s almost complete absence in Anglophone natural philosophy for more than 150 years (aside from his powerful effects on Coleridge,168 Peirce,169 and Emerson,170 and through the intermediary of Naturphilosoph Alexander von Humboldt, his influence on Darwin171) cannot be accounted for based solely on the popular reception of Hegel’s philosophical caricature of intellectual intuition as “the night in which all cows are black.” The more probable reason for his absence, as Bowie suggests, is that Schelling’s Naturphilosophie “was effectively killed off…as part of the overt praxis of the natural sciences” beginning in the 1840s as these sciences “[began] to fall under the spell of materialism and positivism.”172 Prior to the current resurgence in interest, historians of science tended to dismiss Naturphilosophie as a “strange and nearly impenetrable offshoot of the Romantic movement,” an offshoot that is “safely ignored.”173 So long as postkantian positivism (of the sort that refuses to make organism rather than mechanism constitutive of nature) holds sway over the scientific imagination, Schelling’s thought will continue to languish on the fringes of philosophical activity. Fortunately, “the dangers of a scientistic approach to nature” are becoming increasingly well recognized,174 and alternative histories are being told that challenge the standard Enlightenment account of the dominance of mechanistic physics and biology.175 The fundamental incoherence of the postkantian positivist approach is such that, despite itself resting upon an implicitly postulated speculative dualism between mind and matter, it at the same time denies that there can be any scientific validity to philosophical speculation. “It is only then,” says Arran Gare,

when the original practical engagement as an active force within the world is forgotten, that the illusions of dualism…appear.176

Many natural scientists unpracticed in the methods of philosophy are quick to dismiss Schelling’s speculative physics for what they perceive to be a lack of respect for the empirical facts. Several scholars, including Gare,177 Robert Richards,178 Joseph Esposito,179 Frederick Beiser,180 and Iain Hamilton Grant181 have convincingly argued that Schelling painstakingly studied and significantly contributed to the natural sciences of his day. Richards characterizes Schelling’s natural philosophical works not as the wild frenzy of mystical analogizing that its positivist critics saw, but as “[groaning] with the weight of citations of the most recent, up-to-date experimental work in the sciences.”182 Grant, while he acknowledges Schelling’s Naturphilosophie as a precursor of the new natural sciences of self-organization and complexity, warns us not to

positivistically reduce [Schelling’s] philosophical interventions into nature to a theoretical resource to be raided as and when the natural sciences deem it necessary.183

Keeping Grant’s desire to protect Naturphilosophie from such a positivistic reduction in mind, it is nonetheless interesting to note that Schelling shared the “aether hypothesis” with most of his scientific contemporaries.184 The aether remained the foundation of science’s understanding of electromagnetism until Einstein dismissed it as “an unnecessary burden on space” in 1905.185 The quantum revolution of the early 20th century, with its hypothesis of a non-local field or immaterial quantum vacuum underlying the extended universe, began to raise doubts about Einstein’s dismissal.186 After the recent tentative discovery of the related notion of a Higgs field, it would appear that “a new aether” is front and center again in physical science.187 Where this discovery will lead contemporary physicists remains to be seen, but for Schelling, the elastic properties of the aether were identified with the original duplicity of forces animating the common soul of nature, or World-Soul.188

The two conflicting forces conceived at the same time in conflict and unity, lead to the idea of an organizing principle, forming the world into a system. Perhaps the ancients wished to intimate this with the world-soul.189

In the context of the aether hypothesis, it is important to remember that the main intent of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie was not merely the “application of abstract principles to an already existing empirical science”:

My object, rather, is first to allow natural science itself to arise philosophically, and my philosophy is itself nothing else than natural science. It is true that chemistry teaches us to read the letters, physics the syllables, mathematics Nature; but it ought not to be forgotten that it remains for philosophy to interpret what is read.190

In other words, Schelling’s aim was never to produce hypothetical models of how the hidden mechanisms of phenomenal nature may or may not work. His philosophy of nature is an attempt to re-imagine the metaphysical foundations of natural science, such that the theorizing subject, as part of nature, is understood to be an active factor in the organic construction of the objective facts. For Schelling, the aether was less a scientific hypothesis than it was an organizational principle justifying scientific activity in the first place, since, following the ancient epistemic principle that “like is known by like” (Plato’s “syggeneity”), it granted the human soul participatory knowledge of the invisible substructure of the universe.191 Or, as Schelling put it, “What in us knows is the same as what is known.”192

When Schelling says that “to philosophize about nature means to create nature,”193 it should not be collapsed into the prima facie quite similar statement by Kant, that “He who would know the world must first manufacture it–in his own self, indeed.”194 Kant’s approach to the study of nature is grounded in subjective voluntarism, wherein the philosopher fabricates “nature” as his own object according to the transcendentally deduced categories delimiting his experience.195 Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, on the contrary, re-interprets the epistemic position of the natural scientist: where the postkantian scientist can only grasp himself as thinking about nature from beyond nature, Schelling’s scientific method involves awakening to oneself as “nature itself philosophizing (autophusis philosophia)”196 As Grant describes it, “What thinks in me is what is outside me.”197 If the Naturphilosoph is able to think as nature, she becomes “a new species equipped with new organs of thought.”198 Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is an attempt to know nature unconditionally, i.e., not as the sum total of its created products, but as the creative activity giving rise to them.199 The question is no longer, as it was for Kant, “how do I make finite nature appear?”, but “what is the essence of nature’s infinite activity?”

Schelling’s philosophy of unthinged (Unbedingten) nature is the necessary counter postulate to Fichte’s absolutely free ego, the next logical turn on the dialectical wheel that makes known the presence of an unthought background, a dark abyss (Ungrund) before which the conscious ego can at first only mumble as it meets its long forgotten maker. Schelling’s discovery is that absolute spirit and absolute nature dependently co-arise as the polarized personalities of a natural divinity. The finite human ego is not a priori; rather Absolute nature is prioritized,200 since

Everything that surrounds us refers back to an incredibly deep past. The Earth itself and its mass of images must be ascribed an indeterminably greater age than the species of plants and animals, and these in turn greater than the race of men.201

“Philosophy,” according to Schelling, “is nothing other than a natural history of our mind.”202 The philosopher of nature “treats nature as the transcendental philosopher treats the self”203 by coming to see how

the activity whereby the objective world is produced is originally identical with that which is expressed in volition.204

Schelling’s is akin to an enactive, rather than representational account of scientific cognition. According to Evan Thompson, from an enactive perspective,

a natural cognitive agent–an organism, animal, or person–does not…operate on the basis of internal representations in the subjectivist/objectivist sense. Instead of internally representing an external world in some Cartesian sense, [it] enact[s] an environment inseparable from [its] own structure and actions.205

Schelling’s enactive account of natural science thereby recursively grounds the production of scientific knowledge in the living bodies, funded laboratories, invented technologies, and specialized communities through which it emerges. What science knows is not a passively reflected copy of objective nature as it appears before an aloof subject; rather, the scientist’s experiential facts co-emerge with his experimental acts:

Every experiment is a question put to Nature, to which it is compelled to give a reply. But every question contains an implicit a priori judgment; every experiment that is an experiment is a prophecy.206

That every experimental design contains implicit a priori synthetic judgments (e.g., “every event has a cause,” “nature is an organized system”) is not to say that Schelling believed the natural scientist should try to deduce the structure of nature from a priori principles alone. He maintained that we know nothing except through and by means of experience,207 and therefore that synthetic a priori knowledge, though dialectically constructed, is subject to experimental falsification, theoretical revision, and replacement.208 Whereas for Kant, there exists an unreconcilable opposition between a priori and a posteriori knowledge, for Schelling, acts of cognition and facts of experience recursively condition one another in the endlessly spiraling pursuit of the unconditioned.209

Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is more relevant to contemporary natural science’s vision of a creative cosmos than ever before. The classical mechanistic, entropic paradigm is being replaced by the new sciences of self-organization, which depict the universe as a progressive unfolding of kaleidoscopic activity; given this new context, Schelling’s dynamic evolutionary philosophy of nature can go a long way toward philosophically generating the underlying organizing principles “needed to supplement the laws of physics.”210 Contemporary natural science demands a firmer foundation for its theoretical and empirical discoveries than that given it by 17th century Cartesian metaphysics. Paradoxically, Schelling’s contribution to a more adequate metaphysical foundation for science involves destroying the long held belief that reality has any necessary foundation at all. Schelling’s is a process metaphysics that grounds the visible universe in infinite freedom and creativity.211

Unlike the mechanistic paradigm, which assumes the necessary existence of inert corporeal matter and so cannot explain how creative activity and the emergence of organized form are possible,212 for Schelling, such creative organization is the driving force of nature, inert matter being one of its later products. The source and common medium of nature’s creative activity according to Schelling is universal “sensibility,” making his Naturphilosophie a variety of panexperientialism.213 The ability to feel is what makes all apparently mechanical motion possible, since without such a universal experiential aether, no force could be felt and so exchanged between or across material bodies.214

By making sensibility the ultimate condition of nature’s dynamic organization, Schelling reverses the Kantian and Newtonian prioritization of external relations (i.e., linear mechanism, where causes are always external to effects) and instead understands nature as a holistic system of internal relations (i.e., reciprocal organism, where cause and effect are circular).215 The former externalist approach is unable to account for the origin of motion and activity in nature, since it deals only with secondary mechanical effects.216 Schelling’s dynamical approach does not assume the existence of corporeal bodies that exchange mechanical forces, but describes the construction of these bodies as a side-effect the originally infinite activity of nature’s fundamental forces of organization.217 Viewed from the height of nature’s fundamental organization, according to Schelling,

the particular successions of causes and effects (that delude us with the appearance of mechanism) disappear as infinitely small straight lines in the universal curvature of the organism in which the world itself persists.218

What needs explaining from the perspective of Schelling’s self-organizing aether is not creative activity, but the appearance of inhibition, habit, and permanence.219 Schelling accounts for inhibitions in the cosmic flow by positing an “original duplicity in nature” as two infinitely active forces striving in opposition to one another.220 Nature is, in itself, infinite, and so only it can inhibit itself. Were there no such polarized self-inhibition in nature, space would have immediately expanded into emptiness and all time would have passed in the flash of an instantaneous point.221 The natural products of gradual cosmic evolution–whether atoms, molecules, stars, galaxies, cells, animals, or humans–are the visible expressions of a determinate proportion of these polarized forces, each one a temporary configuration of nature’s infinite process of formation.222 That is, each product is really a recapitulation of one and the same archetypal organism, only inhibited at a different stage of development and made to appear as a finite approximation of the infinite original.223 Nature’s rich variety of organic products only appear to be finite entities, when in reality, they contain within themselves, as though in a mirror image, the infinite whole of living nature’s creative activity:

…a stream flows in a straight line forward as long as it encounters no resistance. Where there is resistance–a whirlpool forms. Every original product of nature is such a whirlpool, every organism. The whirlpool is not something immobilized, it is rather something constantly transforming–but reproduced anew at each moment. Thus no product in nature is fixed, but it is reproduced at each instant through the force of nature entire.224

Schelling’s attempt to ground the emergence of the physical universe in an unstable abyss (Abgrund) of dynamic forces and to re-conceive nature in terms of becoming rather than being makes it a philosophical precursor to Ilya Prigogine’s work on the physics of non-equilibrium processes.225 Prigogine’s Nobel Prize winning discoveries lead him to announce the birth of a new science,

a science that views us and our creativity as part of a fundamental trend present at all levels of nature.226

Like Prigogine, who called for “the end of certainty” and of the Cartesian/Newtonian mechanistic paradigm, Schelling sought to give an account of the physical universe that does not irrevocably separate the human observer from the nature observed. Scientific objectivity, as a merely reflective method, can prove useful; but there is no coherent metaphysical justification for treating the subject-object split as a reality. “I absolutely do not acknowledge two different worlds,” says Schelling,

but rather insist on only one and the same, in which everything, even what common consciousness opposes as nature and mind, is comprehended.227

The natural scientific consequence of insisting on a polar unity between subject and object is that nature can no longer be conceived of as a heap of objects or a giant machine, but becomes rather a universal organism in whose life all finite creatures participate.228 Cartesian science, which searched for objective matters of fact independent of the values of life and society, comes to be replaced by cosmopolitical science, which foregrounds what the Whiteheadian philosopher Bruno Latour has called “matters of concern.”229 Such a replacement re-knits the frayed edges of cosmos and anthropos back together, allowing for the composition of a new planetary constitution more inclusive of the diverse community of species that call earth home. In the next section, the anthropological and political consequences of re-situating the human being within such a universe are unpacked.


168 According to Owen Barfield, “…as the law now stands, Schelling could have sued Coleridge in respect of one or two pages in the Biographia Literaria.” Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, 6.

169 When asked about his influences by William James, Peirce pointed to “all stages of Schelling, but especially his Naturphilosophie.” See 2n2 above.

170 Emerson referred to Schelling as a “hero.” See 14n58 above.

171 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 134, 514.

172 Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, 4.

173 Timothy Lenoir, “Generational Factors in the Origin of Romantische Naturphilosophie,” Journal of the History of Biology, 57; Barry Gower, “Speculation in Physics: The History and Practice of Naturphilosophie,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 320; Snow, Schelling and the End of Idealism, 67.

174 Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, 30.

175 See especially Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life.

176 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics,” 58.

177 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics.”

178 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life.

179 Esposito, Schelling’s Idealism and Philosophy of Nature.

180 Beiser, German Idealism.

181 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling.

182 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 128.

183 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 11.

184 Grant, “Introduction to Schelling’s On the World Soul, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development, VI, 65.

185 Leon Lederman, The God Particle, 101, 375.

186 Paul Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, 176.

187 Lederman, The God Particle, 375.

188 Miklós Vassányi, Anima Mundi: The Rise of the World Soul Theory in Modern German Philosophy, 143, 384.

189 Schelling, On the World Soul, trans. Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI, 74.

190 Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, trans. Errol E. Harris and Peter Heath, 5.

191 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 126-127, 169.

192 Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, trans. Bowie, 130.

193 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Keith Peterson, 14.

194 Immanuel Kant, Opus Postumum, trans. Eckhart Förster, 240.

195 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 2.

196 Schelling, Schellings sämtliche Werke, trans. Grant, 11:258.

197 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 158.

198 Schelling, Einleitung in die Philosophie (1830), trans. Grant, 57.

199 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 14.

200 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 198.

201 Schelling, Die Weltalter: Fragmente, in den Urfassungen von 1811 und 1813, ed. Manfred Schröter, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, 11-12.

202 Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, trans. Harris and Heath, 30.

203 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 14.

204 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, trans. Peter Heath, 11-12.

205 Evan Thompson, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, 59.

206 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 197.

207 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 198.

208 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics,” 45.

209 Matthews, “Introduction,” The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, 20-21.

210 Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, 2-5, 203.

211 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics,” 28.

212 Usually, the emergence of life and consciousness are explained by mechanists as random chance occurrences–the opposite of a theoretical explanation, since they are said to emerge for no reason.

213 “Panexperientialism” is a term coined by Whiteheadian philosopher David Ray Griffin to refer to any philosophy of nature that affirms that every actual occasion in the universe enjoys some level of experience; see Griffin, Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration, 99.

214 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 137.

215 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics,” 52.

216 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 195-196.

217 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 196.

218 Schelling, On the World Soul, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI, 70.

219 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 17.

220 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 11.

221 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 17, 187.

222 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 35, 159.

223 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 48-50.

224 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 18.

225 See Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, 175; Late in his life, Prigogine collaborated with the Whiteheadian philosopher Isabel Stengers regarding the philosophical implications of his work.

226 Prigogine, The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature, 7.

227 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Grant, 4/102.

228 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 138.

229 Adrian Wilding, “Naturphilosophie Redivivus: on Bruno Latour’s ‘Political Ecology,’” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol. 6: 2010, 19.; (retrieved 8/7/2012). Wilding argues that many of Latour’s contributions were prefigured in Schelling’s Naturphilosophie.

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

The difference between Hegel’s and Schelling’s system of philosophy

 Early in his philosophical career while still a high school teacher in Nuremberg,116 Hegel suggested that, as a schoolmaster of philosophy, he is committed to the belief

that philosophy like geometry is teachable, and must no less than geometry have a regular structure.117

Many commentators on the philosophical dispute between Hegel and Schelling cite this statement to illustrate the nature of their disagreement: while Hegel was bent on the formalization of the system into a deductive science, Schelling all but transformed science into art in order to prevent the blind necessity of the system from subsuming the creative freedom and personality of its author.118 If the very next sentences of Hegel’s statement are included, however, it becomes apparent that he was not as unaware of the important role of individual creativity as the previous sentence lets on:

Philosophy…no less than geometry must have a regular structure. But again, a knowledge of the facts in geometry and philosophy is one thing, and the mathematical or philosophical talent which procreates and discovers is another: my province is to discover that scientific form, or to aid in the formation of it.119

The differences between Schelling and Hegel are important and should not be overlooked, but nor should they be overplayed. Despite either’s public criticism of the other’s ideas, their positions are often difficult to clearly distinguish without lapsing into caricature.120 Their personal lives from beginning to end took shape in the dialogical alembic of an intense and tumultuous friendship.121 They were both close students, perhaps the closest, of one anothers’ published texts. Hegel appropriated the historical-dialectical method brilliantly displayed in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) largely from what he learned in Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism (1800).122 Indeed, the Phenomenology, a literary work of art, can be read as an attempt to make good on Schelling’s absolutization of aesthetics (=the study of appearance, i.e., phenomenology) and his prophesy of the coming of a poet who would sing society the new mythology of reason. On the other hand, the Phenomenology’s disingenuous dismissal of intellectual intuition, the keystone of Schelling’s early philosophy, had a pernicious effect on the public perception of his system, an effect that has lasted to this day.123

As Hegel’s own philosophical project developed and took form over the next few decades, the identification of the method of philosophy (=the science of logic) with that of geometry became increasingly important to him, backgrounding his earlier Schellingian acknowledgement of the irreducible role of the the creative discoverer in the eternally beginning life of the system. By 1831, Hegel’s creative genius, once capable of the revelatory poetry of the Phenomenology, had calcified into the formulaic certainty of the Encyclopedia.124

“Knowledge in geometry,” says Schelling,

is of a totally different nature than that in philosophy…Everyone who has reflected on the field of mathematics knows that geometry is a science of a logical character, that between the presupposition itself and its consequences there lies nothing else in the middle save mere thought.125

For Schelling, it is freedom that distinguishes the philosophical from the geometrical method. His discomfort with Hegel’s purely logical approach, however, was not a rejection of systematic coherence. On the contrary, Schelling praised Hegel for his attention to detail and steadfast adherence to the necessary movement of the dialectic as it worked its way to a genuinely completed system.126 Schelling eventually realized that such a purely rational philosophy, concerned as it was with the essence of things rather than their existence, was precisely only the negative part of the whole of philosophy. The other part, positive philosophy, does not begin already caught in the conceptual net of self-reflexive reason; it begins, instead, with the ecstatic experience of wonder, an experience that compels thought to acknowledge its dependence on what Schelling referred to as the unprethinkable (das Unvordenkliche):

that which just exists is precisely that which crushes everything that may derive from thought, before which thought becomes silent, and before which reason itself bows down.127

Schelling’s opposition to Hegel’s system is not the result of its negative method, which if properly restricted to the sphere of logical possibility remains entirely valid. Schelling rejects only Hegel’s claim to have comprehended the fact of nature (=the existence of the actual world) solely through the purely logical and plainly demonstrable labor of reflective thought. Hegel’s ambitious philosophical project stumbles into error, according to Schelling, as a result of his reliance on two fundamental “fictions” to be considered in turn below: (1) the animism of the Concept, and (2) the transition, or release (Entlassens), of logic into nature.128 To be clear, these fictions are in a different way crucial components of Schelling’s own philosophical project. While Schelling is explicit about the aesthetic and speculative status of the “likely stories” (eikota muthon) he tells in the course of philosophizing beyond the edges of conceptual reality, Hegel tends to, as it were, fake his fictions. In his Philosophy of Religion (1827), for example, Hegel mimes the conceptual skeleton of Böhme’s magnificent vision of the Trinity, pretending to have digested the fruits of mystical intoxication while all the while really remaining bound to “the purest prose and a sobriety totally devoid of intuition.”129

Schelling’s fictions represent a sincere attempt to give voice to the silent mythos of nature, thereby raising her unconscious poetry to the power of awakened spirit. To the extent that Hegel claims to have grasped the Absolute once and for all through the purely logical exercise of clear and distinct ideas, his “fictions” lack deep feeling for the ancient darkness of nature and an aesthetic sensitivity to the irony of the mythopoeic discourse required to become acquainted with that darkness.130 It is as if Hegel, as the saying goes, enlisted the floodlight of reason to go in search of darkness, while Schelling patiently waited for his eyes to adjust to the night of nature’s abyssal past. As Schelling writes in The Ages of the World,

Since the beginning, many have desired to penetrate this silent realm of the past prior to the world in order to get, in actual comprehension, behind the great process…[I]f anything whatsoever checks the…entrance into this prehistoric time, it is precisely that rash being that wants rather to dazzle right from the beginning with spiritual concepts and expressions rather than descend to the natural beginnings of that life.131

1st Fiction: The animism of the Concept

In his Science of Logic (1812), Hegel attempts to pick up where the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) left off with the revelation of “Absolute Knowing, or Spirit that knows itself as Spirit.”132 Having progressed through the entire historical series of Spirit’s self-negating forms of consciousness, Hegel no longer claimed the title of philosopher, or lover of wisdom, since he had now gained possession of wisdom itself.133 As a result of his self-initiation into Absolute Spirit, Hegel claimed to have stripped himself bare of the biological, psychological, and linguistic conditions of normal human subjectivity. Only after overcoming these prejudices did he believe it was possible to enter the domain of the pure science of logic, a domain wherein the certainty of the knower and the truth of what is known immediately coincide in the unity of the Concept:134

…the method which I follow in this system of logic–or rather which this system in its own self follows…is the only true method. This is self-evident simply from the fact that it is not something distinct from its object and content; for it is the inwardness of the content, the dialectic which it possesses within itself, which is the mainspring of its advance.135

Contrary to Hegel’s claim to have articulated (or rather to have been the instrument for the articulation of) “the only true method,” for Schelling, there can be no final and universally valid philosophy, since if such a system were to exist, it would effectively nullify the significance of free and irreducibly unique individuals, and thereby also render the possibility of moral action and genuine history meaningless.136 Schelling never denies the need for systematicity, but for him, the Absolute is not only a system, but also a life.137 The Concept is not self-grounding or independent of its existential conditions: “the concept ‘exists’ only in the individual personalities of human beings.”138 Schelling was forced in the course of his philosophical development to admit “how infinitely far everything that is personal reaches,” so far that the inner dialectic of knowledge is nearly reduced to the silence of its own impossibility.139

Hegel’s claim to have no subjective influence upon the dialectical method “which this system in its own self follows” is the main object of Schelling’s first criticism. Schelling’s commitment to a philosophy of freedom (“for true philosophy can start only from free actions”140) lead him to reject the notion of an impersonally animated Concept as a mere fiction. “The first presupposition of the philosophy that allegedly presupposes nothing,” says Schelling,

was thus that the pure logical concept has the property or nature, of itself (since the subjectivity of the philosopher should be totally excluded), to change into its opposite (to, so to speak, overthrow itself), in order to again change back into itself; a deed that one can think of a real, living being, but of a mere concept one can neither think nor imagine, but can really only assert.141

In order to get the gears of his logical system turning without any presuppositions, Hegel must attempt to perform a magic trick, a “logical creatio ex nihilo.”142 Hegel begins his trick with what at first seems to be immediate being. This simple being, in its indeterminateness, turns out in fact to be empty and so is equivalent to nothing. Upon further reflection, what at first seemed to be immediate being-nothing is understood to have all along been “the result of reflection’s negation of its own self-relation.”143 In other words, the negation of immediate being by non-being, in its truth, is always already mediated, an expression of the self-reflexivity of the Concept. Immediate being’s negation into non-being is itself doubly negated, revealing that the self-negating activity of the Concept had been at work behind the scenes all along.144 The logic is supposedly able to animate itself as a result of the unstable tension generated through the negation of a negation. Hegel’s trick is to prove that mediation is in the end the truth of immediacy.

Schelling is quite willing to commend Hegel for patiently following the logic of double negation to its objective conclusion,145 but he remains unconvinced of the status of its origin in so-called “immediate being.” From Schelling’s perspective, there is no way to comprehend such an immediate being but through an act of intuition. Such an intuition would grasp that which genuinely comes before reflection and serves as its ground. For the first moment of his logic to have any content, Hegel must presuppose outside the Concept what he thinks he has derived from within its process of self-negation.146

Even if Hegel could trick his logic into its self-animating progression without the presupposition of intuited being, Schelling maintains that the completed system could only pronounce upon the essence or whatness of things, without for that reason having anything definite to say about the contingent existence of actual things. Hegel’s logic, according to Schelling,

was only about the content of what is real, but regarding this content, the fact that it exists is something purely contingent: the circumstance of whether it exists or not does not change my concept in the least.147

Just as Kant showed concerning the ontological argument for the existence of God, Hegel’s logic of essences leaves actual existence underdetermined. Even if, as Leibniz argued, from God’s essence as the highest being existence necessarily follows, this formula can tell us only that if God exists, God’s existence would be necessary a priori. Whether God, or the purely logical content of any concept, actually exists cannot be known but through experience.148 The underdetermination of Hegel’s logic vis-à-vis existence leads us into his next fiction.

2nd Fiction: The release (Entlassen) of logic into nature

   Hegel describes his Absolute system, which includes the spheres of logic, nature, and spirit, as “a circle of circles” wherein each sphere holographically contains the others as parts of the Whole within itself.149 Accordingly, the links between each of these spheres are said not to be the result of any real process of transition, since taken separately, the true content of any one sphere is nothing more than the result of its antecedent and an indication of its successor.150 Despite his ideal desire for the holographic circulation of the spheres of the Absolute system, Hegel must begin his actual exposition within the circumference of a singular sphere. The paradigmatic idealist, Hegel of course decides to begin with the science of logic, which he describes as

the exposition of God as he is in his eternal essence, before the creation of nature and a finite mind.151

Schelling’s die Weltalter project was also an attempt to peer into the nature of God before creation; but unlike Hegel, he is concerned to account not only for the structure of God’s internal necessity, but for God’s willingness to risk his eternal essence in the creation of a physical universe endowed with genuine freedom. Strictly speaking, there can be no reason for such a risk, since this would immediately draw it back into the sphere of necessary logical determinations.152 Schelling’s claim is that God is not only a logic, but a life–not just a law-like system, but a loving personality.153 The difficultly of philosophically grounding such a claim is borne out by Schelling’s repeated failure to compose a definitive and complete version of The Ages of the World; on the other hand, the very incompletion of this project could be read as a justification of its core insight into the inscrutability of God’s eternally beginning nature, a nature before which

there would remain only the growing silent that the helplessness and faint audibility of language really seeks to approach.154

For Hegel, the link between God and creation, or between logic and nature, should be “perfectly transparent”; all that needs to be said about it is that God “freely releases [himself] in [his] absolute self-assurance and inner poise.”155 For Schelling, this depiction amounts to a non-answer that shirks the difficulty of narrating the awesomeness and sheer facticity of nature’s coming-into-existence.156 The profundity of the link between divinity and nature cannot be so easily “released.” The link–Plato’s “secret band”157–holding One and All in communion with the Whole is precisely that which can never be released but only ever re-bound. Schelling says of secular modern philosophy, including Hegel’s, that its “main weakness” is its lack of appreciation for the supreme importance of intermediate concepts between such extremes as spirit v. matter, morality v. mechanics, creator v. cosmos. Intermediate concepts such as life between mind and matter, or human between universe and divinity are “the only concepts that actually explain anything in all of science.”158

Though Hegel claims that the free release of nature from the Mind of God is only a figurative expression, his science of logic depends upon this release being a conceptual category, since otherwise the real which was released would no longer be the rational. Schelling calls his bluff by asking what “the astounding category of the release (Entlassen)” actually explains.159 The question remains: is there, or is there not a truly extralogical realm of nature that is not always already swallowed back up by spirit into the Mind of God? If something has been released from God, what is it? Hegel offers too little in response to such questions.

In the theosophy of Jakob Böhme, fantastic expressions concerning the emergence of creation from God are at least the result of genuine intuitions and “the predilection for nature as opposed to art,” while in the dry systems of the Hegelian type, “there is but unnatural and conceited art.”160 Hegel’s dialectical logic makes itself the beginning of everything, the source even of nature.

In The Ages of the World, Schelling attempts (whether successful or not) to pass through and beyond (über etwas hinaus) the dialectical science of logic into a way of knowing nature no longer forgetful of her status as the primordial beginning of all things.161 While Hegel claims his science of logic explains the essence of God and the existence of nature, Schelling’s argues that the nature of the link between Creator and creation cannot be explained according to a geometrical method of demonstration. To know nature as she comes-into-being, the philosopher must come to know his own self-generation through her. The proper form of expression for such generative philosophy is mythpoeia, or imaginative narration, since it transforms what would otherwise remain ideal reflection upon an abstract copy of the eternal beginning of nature into autophusis philosophia, or “nature itself philosophizing.”162

As long as this age restricts itself to the interior and to the Ideal, it lacks the natural means of an external presentation. Now, after having long gone astray, it has again developed the recollection of nature and of nature’s former oneness with science. Yet it did not abide by this. Hardly had the first steps in reuniting philosophy with nature occurred when the old age of the physical had to be acknowledged and how it, very far from being the last, is, rather, the first from which everything begins, even the development of divine life. Since then, science no longer begins from the remoteness of abstract thoughts in order to descend from them to the natural. Rather, it is the reverse…Soon the contempt with which only the ignorant still look down on everything physical will cease and once again the following saying will be true: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.163

Schelling’s Positive Philosophy

   Schelling’s pursuit of a physics of divinity is a result of his attendance to the non-rational dimensions of existence. Though he admitted that a negative philosophy like Hegel’s, bound to circle within the necessary and demonstrable proofs of logic, should remain the philosophy of the Academy, he also called for a positive philosophy to complement the negative by making it adequate to actual life. Positive philosophy is an emphatic knowing that overcomes doubt, not through the certainty of science, but through the free decision to love the world.164 Schelling’s emphatic way of knowing re-unifies the powers of feeling and thinking torn asunder by the dualism inherent to modern epistemology, revealing in the soul an instinctual moral connection to the physical ground of God.165

As the Eleusinian mysteries were divided between a minor and a major rite, so too must philosophy be divided into the negative and the positive, where the latter presupposes initiation into the former.166 It is precisely through the recognition of the limits of negative philosophy–of its inability to account for a living God or for the actual creation of the world–that the need for a positive philosophy is realized. Such a positive account would no longer be simply mythic, since unlike myth, it would not be oriented exclusively to the past, but would open up into an unprethinkable (Unvordenklichkeit) future intimated only by the activity of free individuals and the loving communities to which they belong.167


116 Hegel was headmaster from 1808-1816.

117 Hegel, Briefe von und an Hegel Bd I, trans. Matthews, 138.

118 Matthews, “Introduction,” The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, 57-58.

119 Hegel, Briefe von und an Hegel Bd. I, trans. Matthews, 138.

120 Christopher Lauer, The Suspension of Reason in Hegel and Schelling, 174.

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

122 Lauer, The Suspension of Reason in Hegel and Schelling, 78, 95.

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

124 Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1831).

125 Schelling, Grundlegung der Positiven Philosophie: Münchener Vorlesung WS 1832/33 and SS 1833, ed. Horst Fuhrmans, trans. Matthews, 97.

126 Schelling, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, trans. Matthews, 150.

127 Schelling, Schellings sämtliche Werke, trans. Matthews, II/3, 161.

128 Matthews, “Introduction,” The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, 59; Schellings sämtliche Werke, I/10, 212-213.

129 Schelling, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, trans. Matthews, 176; Schelling goes on: “One forgives the individual who staggers when he is actually drunk with intuition, but not one who by nature is actually sober and only wishes to appear as if he too is staggering.”

130 See Grant, “Philosophy Become Genetic,” The New Schelling, 139-142 for a discussion of the role of mythic discourse in Plato’s Timaeus (a text studied closely by Schelling),wherein likely stories allow him to approach topics unreachable by dialectical logic, like the “difficult and dark idea of matter” and the “fabrication” of the World Soul.

131 Schelling, The Ages of the World, trans. Wirth, 63.

132 Hegel, The Hegel Reader, trans. Houlgate, 122.

133 Hegel, Hegel Selections, ed. Jacob Loewenberg, trans, J.B. Baillie, 5.

134 Lauer, Suspension of Reason in Hegel and Schelling, 102.

135 Hegel, “Science of Logic,” The Hegel Reader, trans. Houlgate, 176.

136 Matthews, “Introduction,” The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, 57.

137 Schelling, Schellings sämtliche Werke, 7/403.

138 Matthews, “Introduction,” The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, 49.

139 Schelling, Ages of the World, trans. Manfred Schröter, 103.

140 Schelling, Schellings sämtliche Werke, trans. Matthews, I/1, 243.

141 Schelling, Schellings sämtliche Werke, trans. Matthews, I/10, 212.

142 Matthews, “Introduction,” The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, 60.

143 Matthews, “Introduction,” The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, 61.

144 Matthews, “Introduction,” The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, 61.

145 Schelling, Schellings sämtliche Werke, trans. Matthews, II/3, 173.

146 Matthews, “Introduction,” The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, 61.

147 Schelling, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, trans. Matthews, 130.

148 Schelling, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, trans. Matthews, 199-201.

149 Hegel, “Encyclopedia Logic,” Sec. 15, The Hegel Reader, trans. Houlgate, 138.

150 Hegel, “Science of Logic,” Ch. 3, The Hegel Reader, trans. Houlgate, 249.

151 Hegel, “Science of Logic,” Intro., The Hegel Reader, trans. Houlgate, 176.

152 Lauer, The Suspension of Reason in Hegel and Schelling, 163.

153 Schelling, The Ages of the World, trans. Wirth, 5-6.

154 Schelling, Schellings sämtliche Werke, trans. Wirth, II/1, 312.

155 Hegel, “Science of Logic,” Ch. 3, The Hegel Reader, trans. Houlgate, 250; That the personal pronoun here is masculine is purely a convention; the essential point is that it be personal, rather than the impersonal “it.”

156 Lauer, The Suspension of Reason in Hegel and Schelling, 164.

157 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 23.

158 Schelling, The Ages of the World, trans. Wirth, 64.

159 Schelling, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, trans. Matthews, 175.

160 Schelling, The Ages of the World, trans. Wirth, xxxix.

161 Schelling, The Ages of the World, trans. Wirth, xxxvii.

162 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 188.

163 Schelling, The Ages of the World, trans. Wirth, xl.

164 Matthews, “Introduction,” The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, 79.

165 Freydberg, Schelling’s Dialogical Freedom Essay, 82-83.

166 Schelling, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, trans. Matthews, 198.

167 Matthews, “Introduction,” The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, 66-67.

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


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),, 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, (accessed 7/28/2012).

114 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 223.

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

Below are the first two sections of the essay. I’ll be posting other sections in the next few days. For a PDF of the whole document, click: The Re-Emegence Schelling: Philosophy in a Time of Emergency. Unfortunately, the italicization of words and titles has been lost, and I don’t feel like going through to add it all. If any knows how to paste from Pages to WordPress without that happening, I’m all ears. Comments and feedback appreciated, as this is a rough draft that I’m more than willing to improve!


The philosophy of Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854) cannot be adequately grasped in abstraction from the spirit that animated his individual personality. While he spent his philosophical career striving to realize the Absolute system, he did so in full recognition of the fact that the Absolute is not finally a logical system, but a living actuality.1 Though his critics often dismissed his thought as fragmentary and protean, C. S. Peirce, in a letter to William James, remarked that it was precisely Schelling’s “freedom from the trammels of system” and willingness to approach philosophical ideas experimentally rather than dogmatically that he admired most: “In that, he is like a scientific man.”2

In the essay to follow, undertaken in the context of “a burgeoning Schelling renaissance”3 in the English-speaking world, as well as a planetary ecological emergency and geo-political crisis, I return to Schelling’s written corpus to draw upon the deep well of his thought in the hope that it can aid human civilization’s attempt to re-imagine itself. I believe his philosophy provides many of the theological and cosmological resources necessary for bringing forth alternative forms of modernity no longer bent on the destruction of earth and the disintegration of human communities.

I explore Schelling’s corpus for traces of the spirit that lived in his thoughts, being careful not to mistake the letter for the life. “When this element of life is withdrawn,” wrote Schelling, “propositions die like fruit removed from the tree of life.”4 He continues:

…the person is the world writ small…One who could write completely the history of their own life would also have, in small epitome, concurrently grasped the history of the cosmos.5

Philosophy, for Schelling, though generated by the natural processes of the universe itself, is “throughout a work of freedom” and so “for each only what he has himself made it.”6 In philosophizing, the individual discovers within his or her own unique originality the creative life of the whole universe. Schelling’s personal biography, then, is not extraneous but essential to understanding his philosophical project.

Philosophical Biography

Schelling was born in 1775 near Stuttgart, a descendent of preachers and church officials on both sides of his family as far back as records can be found.7 His father, Joseph Friedrich Schelling (1732-1812) was a well-known scholar of theology and ancient languages, and there is no doubt that the young Schelling benefited from his father’s extensive library and tutelage.8 At age 8, Schelling was sent to live with his uncle Nathanael Köstlin (1711-1790), the dean of a school in Nürtingen where Schelling was to study the classics. It was here that Schelling first met Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), later his roommate at seminary in Tübingen, as well as the Pietist mystics Friedrich Christoph Oetinger (1702-1782) and Philipp Matthäus Hahn (1739-1790), both regular visitors to his uncle’s home.9 Hahn in particular had a profound personal and spiritual influence upon Schelling’s philosophical outlook.

Only two years after enrolling at Nürtingen, Schelling was sent home because he had outgrown the knowledge of his instructors, “[spending] most of his time in the company of books and adults.”10 By age 11, his father began letting him sit in on his seminary courses at Bebenhausen. He thrived alongside 18-year-olds, learning four ancient languages and reading Plato and Aristotle in Greek and Leibniz in Latin before reaching 14-years-old.

In the spring of 1790, when Schelling was 15, his friend and spiritual mentor Hahn passed away. Schelling wrote a eulogy on the occasion of his death, later becoming his first publication when it was printed in a Stuttgart newspaper.11 According to Schelling, the eulogy for Hahn was “the first poem [he] ever wrote in [his] life.”12 The fourth stanza, foreshadowing Schelling’s own commitment to Naturphilosophie,13 reads:

Did he not dare to speak, with astute demeanor

Still mortal, the forces of nature?

Did his eyes not plunge through the cosmos and earth’s dale

Searching and finding the purest trace of the deity?14

Later in the year, Schelling was granted special permission to enroll in seminary at the Tübinger Stift. There he reunited with Hölderlin and met Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) for the first time, both 5 years older than himself. As wind of the philosophical revolution instigated by Immanuel Kant in Königsberg and the political revolution occurring across the Rhine in France drifted into the Stift, the three friends became increasingly intoxicated by new ideas, ideas their seminary professors struggled to domesticate by rendering them compatible with traditional theology.15 Hahn’s lasting theosophical influence kept Schelling from ever completely accepting the premises of the Enlightenment, but there is no doubt that the newly quickened powers of reason, science, and freedom were extremely attractive to him.

Instead of succumbing to the mechanistic trends of the natural science of his age, Schelling was from the beginning committed to Hahn’s alchemical Naturphilosophie, wherein nature was understood to be the revealed body of a living God. Schelling realized that traditional literalist belief had no place in the modern world, but rather than rejecting religion entirely, he betrays his Pietist upbringing in seeking to replace belief with direct experiential knowledge of the divine life. Hahn called the experience of this knowledge the Zentralschua; Schelling, upon assimilating the philosophy of Fichte, would come to call it the intellectual intuition.16

The impact of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) on the teenage Schelling was powerful, as indeed was the impact of Schelling on Fichte, 13-years his senior. Schelling’s first philosophical publication in the fall of 1794, aged 19, was Über die Möglichkeit einer Form der Philosophie überhaupt (On the possibility of a form of philosophy in general). The essay engages directly with Fichte’s defense of the Kantian system in Begriff de Wissenschaftslehre (Concept of the science of knowledge), published only months earlier.17 Schelling sent the Form essay along with an admiring letter to Fichte, to which the latter replied encouragingly. Fichte also sent a new and improved version of his science of knowledge entitled Grundlage der gesammten Wissenschaftslehre (Foundations of the Entire Science of Knowledge, 1795) to Schelling. Almost immediately, on Easter of 1795, Schelling published his Vom Ich als Prinzip der Philosophie oder über das Unbedingte im menschlichen Wissen (On the ego as the principle of philosophy or on the unconditioned in human knowledge).

The traditional reading would have it that Schelling was Fichte’s disciple during the early years of their collaboration (~1794-1799).18 More recent scholarship suggests not only that most of Schelling’s major philosophical commitments had already been formed prior to his encounter with Fichte’s subjective idealism,19 but that Schelling’s early essays substantially improved Fichte’s understanding of his own project.20 Hölderlin, who had graduated from the Stift two years earlier, visited Schelling shortly after the publication of On the ego in 1795. Having just attended Fichte’s lectures at the University of Jena, he reportedly told Schelling: “Take it easy. You’ve gotten as far as Fichte. I’ve heard him.”21

For the next several years, Schelling published essays on critical philosophy in the Philosophisches Journal co-edited by Fichte, despite his growing dissatisfaction with the latter’s subjectivist approach.22 In 1796, the famed handwritten document, later titled “Das älteste Systemprogramm des deutschen Idealismus” (“Oldest Systematic Program of German Idealism”), emerged out of conversations between Schelling, Hölderlin, and Hegel.23 The document begins by affirming the Fichtean position on the absolute freedom of the ego, but balances this one-sided idealism by calling for a new kind of physics compatible with our nature as moral creatures and a “sensuous religion” capable of delivering this physics to the people. Also in 1796, Schelling published Philosophische Briefe über Dogmatismus und Kriticismus (Philosophical Letters on Criticism and Dogmatism), wherein he argues explicitly that transcendental idealism and Spinozist realism should be understood to be coordinate systems: the former tackles the absolute from a subjectivist perspective, leading to the annihilation of the object, while the latter attains the absolute objectively through the dissolution of the subject.24 Beginning in 1797 with his Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur (Ideas for a philosophy of nature), Schelling published a series of groundbreaking and influential tracts on Naturphilosophie. These essays were the children of a marriage between Schelling’s theosophical convictions regarding nature as the self-externalization of God (Geistleiblichkeit25) and his intense study of recent advances in the natural scientific study of astrophysics, electricity, magnetism, chemistry, physiology, and medicine.26 “What we want,” writes Schelling in Ideas,

is not that nature should coincide with the laws of our mind by chance…but that she herself, necessarily and originally, should not only express, but even realize the laws of our mind.27

In 1798, after Goethe had met the 23-year-old Schelling and read an advanced copy of his latest treatise Von der Weltseele, eine Hypothese der höheren Physik zur Erklärung des allgemeinen Organismus (On the world soul, a hypothesis of the higher physics for the clarification of universal organicity),28 he interceded on Schelling’s behalf to have him appointed extraordinary professor of philosophy at the University of Jena.29

Fichte was not impressed. He sought to distinguish his own position from what he perceived to be Schelling’s new turn toward realism, publishing thinly veiled criticisms of Schelling in subsequent issues of Philosophisches Journal.30 Shortly after the last of Schelling’s tracts on Naturphilosophie, the Einleitung zu dem Entwurf eines Systems der Naturphilosophie (Introduction to the sketch of a system of nature philosophy), had appeared in 1799, the rift between Fichte and Schelling had risen fully to the surface. The two began quarreling about a philosophical journal they’d been planning to co-edit.31 Soon after, Fichte was forced to leave Jena due to the charge of atheism.32 Over the next few years, Fichte became increasingly dismissive of Schelling’s philosophical project, condescendingly writing to Schelling in 1801 that if only he would consider his own science of knowledge more deeply “[he] would in time enough correct [his] mistakes.”33 By the fall of 1801, Schelling had decided to start the Kritisches Journal der Philosophie (The Critical Journal of Philosophy) with Hegel instead of Fichte as co-editor, cementing their personal and professional split.34 The two never met or spoke again after 1802.35 Fichte died in Berlin on January 27th, 1814, Schelling’s 39th birthday.

Schelling’s circle of friends in Jena at the turn of the century included Goethe, Schiller, the Schlegel brothers, and Novalis. During this time he became very close to Wilhelm’s wife, Caroline Schlegel (1763-1809).36 When she fell ill in May of 1800, she traveled with Schelling and her 15-year-old daughter Auguste to Bamberg to consult with doctors and soak in the nearby natural spas.37 By July, Caroline had recovered, but her daughter Auguste had fallen ill with dysentery. On July 12th, she died.

Auguste’s sudden death was devastating for the entire circle. Schelling fell into a depression, while Caroline became more attached to him than ever. By early 1801, she had expressed her affection for him in a letter: “I love you, I revere you, no hour passes that I do not think of you.”38 Soon after, she revealed to her husband of five years that Schelling was “the first and only love of my life.”39 Wilhelm Schlegel handled the end of his marriage with grace and forbearance, even risking his own reputation to deflect and refute criticisms made against Schelling in a popular literary magazine claiming that his meddling in Auguste’s medical treatment had been the reason for her premature death.40 With the help of Goethe, Wilhelm and Caroline obtained a divorce in May of 1803.41 Caroline married Schelling in June.

It was back in 1801, during his period of collaboration with Schelling (~1800-1807), that Hegel published his first book, entitled Differenz des Fichte’schen und Schelling’schen Systems der Philosophie (The difference between the Fichtean and Schellingian systems of philosophy). The work shows how highly Hegel thought of Schelling’s so-called “identity philosophy” at the time.42 He argues in the preface that Schelling’s Naturphilosophie can “recompense nature for the mishandling that it suffered in Kant and Fichte’s systems” by

…[setting] Reason itself in harmony with nature, not by having Reason renounce itself or become an insipid imitator of nature, but by Reason recasting itself into nature out of its own inner strength.43

Only six years later, Hegel would publish his most famous book, Phänomenologie des Geistes (Phenomenology of Spirit, 1807), wherein he appears to dismiss the creative act of intellectual intuition he defended in the Differenz essay, claiming it produces only an abstract absolute akin to “the night in which all cows are black.” The nature of the disagreement and eventual falling out between Schelling and Hegel is taken up in a subsequent section.44

Schelling worked with Hegel on the Kritisches Journal in Jena for two years before leaving for Wüzburg in 1803.45 After a 3-year stint at the Catholic university there, where Schelling was initially popular but ended up making few friends among the members of the school’s conservative administration,46 he was appointed to the Academy of Sciences in Munich in 1806. In 1808, he was named the Secretary General of the Academy of Fine Arts, a position Schelling held until 1821.

In 1809, while Schelling was working on Philosophische Untersuchungen über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit und die damit zusammenhängenden Gegenstände (Philosophical investigations into the essence of human freedom), Caroline contracted dysentery. In September, Caroline died “with an expression of cheerfulness and the most wonderfully peaceful look on her face,” according to Schelling.47 Schelling remarried 3-years later, but the shock of Caroline’s death darkened his philosophical outlook, making him fully conscious of the contingency and “deep indestructible melancholy of all life,” as he wrote in the Freedom essay.48 Less than a month after Caroline died, Schelling wrote in a letter:

I now need friends who are not strangers to the real seriousness of pain and who feel that the single right and happy state of the soul is the divine mourning in which all earthly pain is immersed.49

He would publish only once more in his lifetime, but Schelling nonetheless worked tirelessly on a number of significant projects. In the months following Caroline’s death, he composed several drafts of a dialogue entitled Clara oder Zusammenhang der Natur mit der Geisterwelt: ein Gespräch (Clara, or on nature’s connection to the spirit world: a dialogue).50 In this work, a physician, whose “bottom up”51 approach to the science of healing is derived from Schelling’s own Naturphilosophie, attempts to coax Clara, who mourns the death of a dear friend, back down to earthly life from the ethereal bliss her soul longs to unite with. A priest offers a different but complementary approach, describing the interdependent “living rotation” of body, soul, and spirit that prevents the dead from soaring entirely beyond earth:

For only a few pass over so pure and free of any love for earthly life that they can be absolved immediately…[to disappear] in God like a drop in the ocean.”52

Caroline’s ghost haunts the pages of this dialogue, as Schelling struggles to account for the ultimate destiny of her once-occurrent personality within the infinite current of the one cosmic life. Unlike the philosophical propositions of philosophers past which, as described by Hegel in his Phenomenology, dialectically survive death to be sublated in the course of the Idea’s self-unfolding, Caroline’s spirit cannot be abstractly reduced to “a few short, uncompleted propositions on a piece of paper.”53 Her death was for Schelling “a singular and absolute loss.”54

In December of 1810, with the damp air still abuzz after a violent thunderstorm, Schelling wrote in his journal that work on Die Weltalter (The Ages of the World) was “begun in earnest.”55 The Ages of the World has been described as his magnum opus, a “self-composing cosmic poem”56 that dives straight into the darkness of the cosmotheandric mystery that would consume Schelling’s thought for the rest of his life. Despite several announcements of its imminent publication in the course of the next two decades, the unfinished drafts were ultimately withheld until Schelling’s Sämtliche Werke was published by his son Karl in 1856, two years after his death. His late philosophies of mythology and of revelation should be considered the fruits of insights developed in the course of the Weltalter project, which itself remains in many respects continuous with his early Naturphilosophie. In his lectures on the philosophy of mythology, delivered in Berlin beginning in 1841, Schelling says of myth that it “indisputably has the closest link with nature,” and that modern explanations suffered due to “a lack of natural philosophical ideas.” He goes on to argue that we must learn to

see mythology as a nature elevated into the spiritual realm through an enhancing refraction. Only the means [have been] missing to make the enhancement conceivable.57

In other words, in these lectures, Schelling attempts to articulate the way myths “arise from the human soul’s prereflective immersion in the divine substance of the cosmos.”58 Rather than reducing myths to allegorical inventions of the human mind, Schelling argues that, in fact, it is the human mind that has been invented by myth.

Though these lectures were initially “a kind of celebrity event”59 attended by the likes of Kierkegaard, Engels, and Bakunin, their message, though influential in some respects,60 fell largely upon deaf ears. Those in attendance had been lead to expect Schelling would sharply rebuke the now deceased Hegel (quelling the radical Hegelians had been the intention of the state and university officials who called him to Berlin61), but to their disappointment, Schelling sought healing, rather than polemic.62 The lukewarm reception of the lectures is a reflection of a change in the Zeitgeist. The philosophical quickening which had inspired so many German minds around the turn of the century had by the 1840s all but dried up as Europe’s intelligentsia began to sink into the scientistic positivism that would dominate for the remainder of the century and beyond.

Schelling retired into obscurity in 1846. In the summer of 1854, poor in health, he traveled to Bad Ragaz, Switzerland to take the cure. His spirit left its 79-year-old body on August 20–a spirit, it seems, who was born too early.63 “Perhaps the one is still coming,” writes Schelling in the introduction to Ages of the World,

who will sing the greatest heroic poem, grasping in spirit something for which the seers of old were famous: what was, what is, what will be. But that time has not yet come. We must not misjudge our time.64


1 Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback, “The Work of Experience,” Schelling Now, 74. 
2 Peirce to James, 28 January 1894; Joseph Esposito, Schelling’s Idealism and Philosophy of Nature (London: Bucknell University Press, 1977), 203. 
3 Jason Wirth, “Introduction,” Schelling Now, 9. 
4 Schelling, Ages of the World, ed. Wirth, 4. 
5 Schelling, Ages of the World, ed. Wirth, 3.
6 Schellings sämtliche Werke, I/2, 11; Bruce Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, p. 199. 
7 Robert Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 116; Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 44.
8 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 41. 
9 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 233n4.
10 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 47.
11 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 238n55.
12 4 April 1811 to G. H. Schubert; Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 62. 
13 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 58.
14 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 223. 
15 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 118. 
16 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 36-37, 66. 
17 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 120-121. 
18 Norbert Guterman, “Introduction,” Schelling, On University Studies, ix.
19 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 138-139. 
20 Dale Snow, Schelling and the End of Idealism, 42-43. 
21 Gustav Leopold Plitt, Aus Schelling Leben, I:71; Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 122. 
22 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 123. 
23 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 124. 
24 Frederick Beiser, German Idealism, 476-477. 
25 Glenn Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, 81.
26 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 125.
27 Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature. Trans. Errol E. Harris and Peter Heath, 41. 
28 Selections of which have recently been translated into English by Iain Hamilton Grant in Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development, Vol. VI (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2010), 58-95.
29 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 148. 
30 Beiser, German Idealism, 479.
31 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 177-178. 
32 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 166. 
33 Fichte to Schelling, 31 May 1801, Schelling, Briefe und Dokumente, 2:339; Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 178. 
34 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 178.
35 Michael G. Vater and David W. Wood, eds., The Philosophical Rupture Between Fichte and Schelling, 282.
36 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 166.
37 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 169-170.
38 Caroline Böhmer Schlegel to Schelling, February 1801, Caroline: Brief aus der Frühromantik, 2:42; Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 168. 
39 Caroline Böhmer Schlegel to Wilhelm Schlegel, 6 March 1801, Caroline: Brief aus der Frühromantik, 2:65; Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 168.
40 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 174-175.
41 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 176n159. 
42 Christopher Lauer, The Suspension of Reason in Hegel and Schelling, 71-82. 
43 G. W. F. Hegel, Differenz des Fichte’schen und Schelling’schen Systems der Philosophie, trans. H.S. Harris and Walter Cerf, 83. 
44 See section heading “The Difference Between Hegel’s and Schelling’s System of Philosophy” below. 
45 The two even roomed together for a time when Hegel first moved to Jena in 1801 (Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, 79). 
46 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 197. 
47 Friedrich Schelling to Luise Gotter, 24 September 1809, Caroline: Briefe aus der Frühromantik, 2:570; Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 198. 
48 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Jeff Love and Johannes Schmidt, 63. 
49 Brief über den Tod Carolines vom 2. Oktober, 1809, ed. Johann Ludwig Döderlein; Wirth, “Introduction,” Ages of the World, x.
50 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 29. 
51 Schelling, Clara, trans. Fiona Steinkamp, 15. 
52 Schelling, Clara, trans. Fiona Steinkamp, 35, 52, 59. 
53 Schelling, Ages of the World, ed. Wirth, 4. 
54 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 216. 
55 Schelling, Die Stuttgarter Privatvorlesungen (1810), ed. Miklos Veto, 216; Wirth, “Introduction,” Ages of the World, vii.
56 Wirth, “Introduction,” Ages of the World, x.
57 Schelling, Historical-critical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, trans, Wirth, 155-156.
58 Jerry Day, Voegelin, Schelling, and the Philosophy of Historical Existence, 72. 
59 Wirth, “Introduction,” Historical-critical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, viii. 
60 Kierkegaard’s debt to Schelling’s characterization of Hegel’s philosophy is well known. Emerson translated and published the first of Schelling’s Berlin lectures in an issue of The Dial in January of 1843, writing in a letter to a friend at time: “To hear Schelling might well tempt the firmest rooted philosopher from his home, and I confess to more curiosity in respect to his opinions than to those of any living psychologist” (Norbert Guterman, “Introduction,” On University Studies, xix).
61 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 198. 
62 Schelling, Historical-critical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, trans. Wirth, viii.
63 Wirth, “Introduction,” Schelling Now, 5. 
64 Schelling, Ages of the World, trans. Wirth, xl.

I’ve just finished the rough draft of a comprehensive exam on the context of Schelling’s thought and the reasons for his contemporary resurgence (a list of recent scholarship). The most difficult section to write was definitely the one on the difference between he and Hegel’s approaches. I didn’t want to caricature Hegel, but nor did I want to ignore the significance of their divergence on the limits of rational system. We’ll see if I was able to pull it off. I’ve posted each section separately and made the section headings in the table of contents below hyperlinks that will lead you to that section. I’ve tentatively titled the essay The Re-Emergence of Schelling: Philosophy in a Time of Emergency. You’ll find the Bibliography below. For a PDF of the whole document, click: The Re-Emergence of Schelling Philosophy in a Time of Emergency.

  1. Preface    2
  2. Philosophical biography    3
  3. Literature review    15
  4. The Difference between Hegel’s and Schelling’s system of philosophy    26
    1. 1st Fiction: The animism of the Concept    30
    2. 2nd Fiction: The release (Entlassen) of logic into nature    34
    3. Schelling’s positive philosophy    38
  5. Metaphysically (un)grounding the natural sciences    39
  6. The nature of human freedom    50
  7. Bibliography   58

A Wordle of the essay’s content:
Wordle: Schelling's Re-Emergence in a Time of Emergency


Works by F.W.J. Schelling

Schelling, F.W.J. The Ages of the World. Trans. Jason Wirth. New York: State University of New York, 200.

Schelling, F.W.J. Aus Schellings Leben, in Briefen. Ed. Gustav Leopold Plitt. Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1870.

Schelling, F.W.J. Brief über den Tod Carolines vom 2. Oktober, 1809 an Immanuel Niethammer, Klein kommentierte Texte I. Ed. Johann Ludwig Döderlein. Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Fromman-Holzboog, 1975.

Schelling, F.W.J. Briefe und Dokumente, Vol. 2. Ed. Horst Fuhrmans. Bonn: H. Bouvier, 1973.

Schelling, F.W.J. Clara, or, On Nature’s Connection to the Spirit World. Trans. Fiona Steinkamp. Albany: State University of New York, 2002.

Schelling, F.W.J. On Construction in Philosophy. Trans. Andrew David and Alexi Kukuljevic. Epoché: A Journal for the History of Philosophy, Vol. 12, Issue 2 (2008): 269-288.

Schelling, F.W.J. Einleitung in die Philosophie (1830). Ed. Walter Ehrhardt. Stuggart-Bad Cannstatt: Fromman-Holzboog, 1989.

Schelling, F.W.J. First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature. Trans. Keith Peterson. New York: State University of New York, 2004.

Schelling, F.W.J. The Grounding of Positive Philosophy. Trans. Bruce Matthews. New York: State University of New York, 2007.

Schelling, F.W.J. Grundlegung der Positiven Philosophie: Münchener Vorlesung WS 1832/33 and SS 1833. Ed. Horst Fuhrmans. Turin: Bottega D’Erasmo, 1972.

Schelling, F.W.J. Historical-Critical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology. Trans. Mason Richey and Markus Zisselsberger. New York: State University of New York, 2007.

Schelling, F.W.J. On the History of Modern Philosophy. Trans. Andrew Bowie. Cambridge: University of Cambridge, 1994.

Schelling, F.W.J. Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature. Trans. Errol E. Harris and Peter Heath. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Schelling, F.W.J. Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom. Trans. Jeff Love and Johannes Schmidt. New York: State University of New York, 2006.

Schelling, F.W.J., Fichte, J.G. The Philosophical Rupture Between Fichte and Schelling: Selected Texts and Correspondence. Eds. Michael G. Vater and David W. Wood. Albany: State University of New York, 2012.

Schelling, F.W.J. Schellings sämtliche Werke. Ed. Karl Schelling. Stuttgart and Augsburg: Cotta, 1856-1861.

Schelling, F.W.J. Die Stuttgarter Privatvorlesungen (1810). Ed. Miklos Veto Turin: Bottega d’Ersasmo, 1973.

Schelling, F.W.J. System of Transcendental Idealism. Transl. Peter Heath. Charlottsville: University of Virginia, 1978.

Schelling, F.W.J., On University Studies. Trans. E.S. Morgan, ed. Norbert Guterman. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1966.

Schelling, F.W.J. Die Weltalter: Fragmente, in den Urfassungen von 1811 und 1813. Ed. Manfred Schröter. Munich: Biederstein, 1946.

Other works

Barfield, Owen. What Coleridge Thought. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1971.

Beiser, Frederick. German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism 1781-1801. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Bowie, Andrew. Schelling and Modern European Philosophy: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 1993.

Davies, Paul. The Cosmic Blueprint. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Day, Jerry. Voegelin, Schelling, and the Philosophy of Historical Existence. Missouri: University of Missouri, 2003.

Esposito, Joseph. Schelling’s Idealism and Philosophy of Nature. London: Bucknell University Press, 1977.

Freydberg, Bernard. Schelling’s Dialogical Freedom Essay: Provocative Philosophy Then and Now. Albany: State University of New York, 2008.

Gabriel, Markus and Žižek, Slavoj. Mythology, Madness, and Laughter: Subjectivity in German Idealism. London: Continuum, 2009.

Gare, Arran. “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics: On the Way to an Ecological Civilization.” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol. 7, Issue 2 (2011): 26-69; (accessed 8/7/2012).

Gower, Barry. “Speculation in Physics: The History and Practice of Naturphilosophie.” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 3 (1973): 301-356.

Grant, Iain Hamilton. “Introduction to Schelling’s On the World Soul.” Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development, Vol. 6 (2010): 58-95.

Grant, Iain Hamilton. Philosophies of Nature After Schelling. London: Continuum, 2006.

Griffin, David Ray. Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration. New York: State University of New York, 1997.

Harman, Graham. Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things. Peru: Open Court, 2005.

Hegel, G.W.F. Briefe von und an Hegel. Ed. K. Hegel. Leipzig: Dunker & Humboldt, 1887.

Hegel, G.W.F. Differenz des Fichte’schen und Schelling’schen Systems der Philosophie. Trans. H.S. Harris and Walter Cerf.Albany: State University of New York, 1977.

Hegel, G.W.F., Hegel Reader. Ed. Stephen Houlgate. Malden: Blackwell, 1988.

Hegel, G.W.F. Hegel Selections. Ed. Jacob Loewenberg. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929.

Hegel, G.W.F., Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1805-1806). (accessed 7/27/2012).

Hegel, G.W.F. The Philosophy of Right (1820). (accessed 7/28/2012).

Heidegger, Martin. Schellings Abhandlung Über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit (1809). Tübingen: Max Neimeyer Verlag, 1971.

Heuser-Kessler, Marie-Luise. Die Produktivität der Natur: Schellings Naturphilosophie und das neue Paradigma der Selbsorganization in den Naturwissenshaften. Berlin: Dunker & Humblot, 1986.

Kant, Immanuel. Opus Postumum. Transl. Eckhart Förster. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Krell, David Farrell. The Tragic Absolute: German Idealism and the Languishing of God. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

Lauer, Christopher. The Suspension of Reason in Hegel and Schelling. London: Continuum, 2010.

Lederman, Leon. The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Lenoir, Timothy. “Generational Factors in the Origin of Romantische Naturphilosophie.” Journal of the History of Biology 11 (1978): 57-100.

Magee, Glenn. Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition. Ithaca: Cornell University, 2001.

Matthews, Bruce. Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy: Life as the Schema of Freedom. New York: State University of New York, 2011.

McGrath, S.J. The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious. London: Routledge, 2012.

Norman, Judith and Welchman, Alistair, eds. The New Schelling. London: Continuum, 2004.

Richards, Robert. The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Shaw, Devin Zane. Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art. London: Continuum, 2010.

Shelling, Caroline. Caroline: Brief aus der Frühromantik, Vol. 2. Ed. Erich Schmidt. Leipzig: Insel-verlag, 1970.

Snow, Dale. Schelling and the End of Idealism. New York: State University of New York, 1996.

Thompson, Evan. Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Vassányi, Miklós. Anima Mundi: The Rise of the World Soul Theory in Modern German Philosophy. Dordrecht: Springer, 2011.

Wilding, Adrian. “Naturphilosophie Redivivus: on Bruno Latour’s ‘Political Ecology.’” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol. 6 (2010): 18-32; (accessed 8/7/2011).

Wirth, Jason. The Conspiracy of Life: Meditations on Schelling and his Time. New York: State University of New York, 2003.

Wirth, Jason. “Schelling’s Contemporary Resurgence: The Dawn After the Night When All Cows Were Black.” Philosophy Compass, Vol. 6, Issue 9 (2011): 585-598.

Wirth, Jason, ed. Schelling Now: Contemporary Readings. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters. London: Verso, 1996.

In his bok The Origin and Goal of History, Karl Jaspers’ claims that Schelling “clung with complete conviction to the theory that the creation of the world took place six thousand years ago, whereas today no one doubts the bone finds which prove man’s life on earth to have gone on far more than a hundred thousand years” (288). As I’ve come to understand Schelling’s thought, it seems rather obvious to me that he believes no such thing. He may be a creationist of sorts, since for him nature is the self-revelation of God, but his Naturphilosophie is explicitly evolutionary. From the very beginning of his public philosophizing, he recognized the full reality of contingency in nature, including its development through unfathomably long epochs of history (see On the World Soul, 1798). His was not a form of intelligent design. Deity and nature, in Schelling’s system, are free of necessary design, since they are as dark and chaotic as they are cosmically manifest. Schelling’s God is no abstract systemizer; in fact, God is a living actuality, a free and loving personality striving to give birth to itself in the course of natural history. Nature is slumbering spirit; in the course of its evolution, it has realized itself as human nature. As human, the spirit in nature first begins to awaken to itself as myth. Eventually, spirit begins to philosophize, to tell the story of stories. Soon after the birth of philosophy, so the story goes, the spirit in the human becomes self-conscious and history comes to an end as eternity enters fully into time. In this way, Schelling attempts to integrate Greek Philosophy, Christian Revelation, and Modern Science.

Jaspers’ dismissive mischaracterization (misunderstanding?) of Schelling’s pantheogenic cosmology reveals the one-sided modern attitude toward religion. Schelling’s philosophical scheme presents an alternative to both the Enlightenment and Romantic mentalities. Perhaps the alternative he provides for today’s post-secular philosophy is one reason for his resurgence of late.

In the closing paragraph of his Freedom essay of 1809, Schelling writes (transl. Bruce Matthews):

We entertain the greatest respect for the profound significance of historical investigations;… we believe that truth lies nearer to us and that we should first seek the solution for the problems that have become vital in our time among ourselves and on our own soil, before we wander to such distant sources. The time of merely historical faith is past as soon as the possibility of immediate knowledge is given. We have an earlier revelation that any written one–nature. It contains archetypes that no one has yet interpreted, whereas the written ones have long since received their fulfillment and exegesis. If the understanding of that unwritten revelation were inaugurated, the only true system of religion and science would appear, not in the miserable garb pieced together out of a few philosophical and critical conceptions, but at once in the full significance of truth and of nature.

Jason/Immanent Transcendence has written the first response for our summer reading group. Chapter 0 of Terrence Deacon‘s new book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter introduces what he calls the “absential” features of the universe. According to Deacon, the defining property of every living or psychic system is that its causes are conspicuously absent from the system in which they participate. They are causes not present in the material system itself, even though they produce effects in that system.

As I read Deacon in the first few opening chapters (and after hearing him lecture and respond to questions), I think he clearly wants to preserve formal and final causality (to use Aristotle’s archelogisms). Preserving a more expanded conception of causality has been perhaps my main philosophical ambition since starting graduate school. HERE is an early example, and HERE is a more recent response to Levi Bryant/Larval Subjects on the same issue.

While he remains a materialist in the sense that he believes life and mind spontaneously emerged at some point in the past from inanimate particles, Deacon nonetheless dismisses the idea that mind and and life might be explained by reduction to those particles. The absential features of living and psychic systems–like purposes, intentions, images, and identities–are real and cannot be reduced to the physical mechanisms of the systems in which they participate. They are emergent properties that must be accounted for in their own ententional terms.

Deacon is after an account of the emergence of life and mind out of chemistry and physics. Since he dismisses panpsychism (and Whitehead) early on, I remain eager to see how he will explain the emergence of mind from inanimate matter.

Though Whitehead will still color my interpretations, I will be reading Deacon alongside Schelling this summer. I think it will make for an interesting cross fertilization, since Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is ultimately a powers ontology, while I’m still not certain whether Deacon is even going to offer an ontology. His approach is far more descriptive in the healthy scientific sense. I doubt I’ll disagree with the strictly scientific insights in Deacon’s book. I will probably just disagree with the metaphysical and cosmological contexts within which they are placed.

In a few days, I’ll post some thoughts on Chapter 2, wherein Deacon discusses the hidden homunculi of most scientific descriptions of biological and psychological systems.