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In Defense of the Critical Philosophy:

On Schelling’s Departure from Kant and Fichte in Abhandlungen zur Erläuterung des Idealismus der Wissenschaftslehre (1796/1797)

Chelsea C. Harry

southern connecticut state university

abstract: This article considers the second treatise of Schelling’s Abhandlungen zur Erläuterung des Idealismus der Wissenschaftslehre (Treatises Explaining the Idealism of the Science of Knowledge, 1796/97), a lesser-known work from the early Schelling. Here, Schelling proposes to defend the critical position insofar as it purports to be a system based on human reason, but instead he issues a backhanded critique of the assumption on behalf of the critical philosophers to try and limit the bounds of pure reason by means of their own use of reason. Schelling then offers an alternative way to think about the relationship of mind (Geist) and matter in nature. This article argues that Schelling’s actual explanation of the critical philosophy as a position founded by reasonable minds ultimately belies his promise to defend it, thus calling into question that Schelling’s thought prior to 1800 was a mere reiteration of Kantian/Fichtean transcendentalism.

keywords: Shelling, Naturphilosophie, Kant, Fichte, critical philosophy

Schelling’s Abhandlungen zur Erläuterung des Idealismus der Wissenschaftslehre (1796/97; Treatises Explaining the Idealism of the Science of Knowledge)

on schelling’s departure from kant and fichte


is a lesser-known text from his early Naturphilosophie. 1 First published in Niethammer and Fichte’s Philosophisches Journal under the title “Survey of the Most Recent Philosophical Literature” (1797), the Abhandlung, a series of essays or treatises, discusses the critical program broadly and its implications for practical philosophy. 2 Yet Schelling punctuates his discus- sion of the program qua ostensible defense of the critical position with his seeming disavowal of transcendentalism’s founding premise. Instead of explicating the Kantian or Fichtean reply to the questions of how we know something in nature and what we can know about nature, he tells against our ability even to pose such questions. He argues against a bifurcation of materiality from the conditions under which material comes to be—a spec- ulative enterprise that is an impossible move in reality. 3 Instead, “Schelling demonstrates a middle way (I/1, 365), i.e. his own way, whereby he will not focus on a false notion of cause and effect in nature, which results from our need to separate the inseparable and to understand becoming as a linear enterprise, but will inquire into the necessary presence of the idea of an external world in our minds” (Harry 2014, 6–7). His brief inquiry leads him ultimately to conclude that all contraries exist cohesively as one. Infinite and finite, subject and object, and matter and form not only define each other but are absolutely inextricable from one another. In what follows, I offer a reading of the second essay in support of my thesis that despite Schelling’s promise at the outset to explain the criti- cal philosophy as a position founded by reasonable minds (I/1, 363), 4 he ultimately argues for a departure from the tradition by way of a rethinking of the way mind and matter exist for each other. 5 Thus already in the early Schelling we find his challenge to Cartesian dualism, Newtonian physics, and Kantian and Fichtean critical philosophy. 6

I. Matter and Form as Original Unity

At the outset of the second essay, Schelling announces that he has heard it asked how the system of the critical philosophers could be conceived, let alone seem convincing to others. He promises to respond immi- nently, first summarizing the transcendental position: “The form of our knowledge comes from ourselves, the material of the same thing, i.e. our knowledge, is given to us from outside” (I/1, 363). 7 And he casts doubt, on the one hand, on the idea that knowledge is a hylomorphic construct, composed by the marriage of real outside material with the likewise real

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internal structure of consciousness, and, on the other hand—as the critical philosophy holds, limiting our knowledge—on the possibility for this mar- riage, by calling into question the capability of our consciousness to know the outside world. Schelling criticizes these two tenets as inconsistent. How can we have a theory of knowledge not grounded in our capability for human knowledge? The idea that the form of knowledge comes from a framework internal to human consciousness while the material makeup of knowledge—the refer- ent of knowledge—comes from the world external to human consciousness is, according to Schelling, rooted in a particular understanding of human nature. But the basis of the distinction between form and material itself is supposed only as a philosophical exercise: “Although in our knowledge itself both form and material are intimately united, it is but clear, that philosophy sublates this hypothetical unity in order to explain it” (I/1, 364). The idea that form is internal and material is external is meant only for the purposes of philosophical analysis. The critical project, while purported to be an effort to limit the reach of human reason, is undertaken on the basis of certain assumptions about the human mind, namely, that it is fundamentally sepa- rate from nature and that its own potentiality for speculation can be used to justify conclusions about (1) how it knows things and (2) what it can know. Schelling puts the problem this way: in our knowledge, there is an abso- lute meeting between object and idea, but in speculation we can separate the two. Once the separation has been proposed, however, it is impossible to think again the unmediated relationship between them—to immediate the mediated. And the questions regarding cause and effect begin (I/1, 365). The point here is that as soon as we ask about the relationship between mat- ter and form, or object and idea, we try to respond to the question in a linear way—one has to follow the other, one has to come first—we ground what is groundless. It is impossible for us to think of the two together, simultane- ous, and independent at the same time. Because the task is impossible, we never satisfactorily answer the question.

II. Indissoluble Contraries

Schelling shows the seemingly impossible as actual in self-reflection. He argues that the only example of a being that looks at itself, that is, a being that is in some situations both the knower and the known, the one

on schelling’s departure from kant and fichte


intuiting and that which is being intuited, is a human being (I/1, 366). We are examples of this type of being—a being that has the unmediated “I,” “through which one knows and understands before anything else” (I/1, 366). On the converse, in knowing any other external object, the “I” mediates the object. In a slight twist on Kant’s famous claim that existence is not a predicate, Schelling then concludes that “the essence or being [Wesen] of mind [Geistes] [is] that it is for itself and no other predicate has an itself” (I/1, 366). Schelling thus returns to his quest to identify our impulse to understand the possibility of the correspondence between idea and object. He argues for the need to prove that mind only intuits itself in order to show the absolute correspondence of idea and object. This move is based on three accepted premises: (1) Mind intuits objects overall; (2) the reality of all our knowledge is based in the absolute correspondence of idea and object; and (3) only in the self-intuition of a mind is there identity from idea and object (I/1, 366). 8 Schelling’s plan for the demonstration begins with two steps: supposing that (1) the subject and object are in us, that is, the intuiting and intuited are identical, and (2) the mind’s name is “I” only when it is an object for itself (I/1, 366). Schelling defends (2) above. Mind cannot be an object originally, as object is “something dead, calm, without ability for self-action, object is only the object [Gegenstand] of action” (I/1, 367). Thus, object cannot mean that which acts. Instead, it is a subject, which acts itself. This becomes, then, the primary distinction for which Schelling argues as that which sep- arates the identity of subject from that of object. A subject, Schelling pos- its, is an eternal (ewiges) becoming. 9 Indeed, he underlines the importance of the self-action by which the mind, as subject, becomes object through itself; mind as subject becomes object through the ongoing unfolding of itself by way of acting (I/1, 367). Assuming that philosophy takes place with the mind, he concludes that “philosophy begins with deed and action, and precisely therefore mind would not be (per se) originally object” (I/1, 367). Schelling continues, explaining that object is originally, thus neces- sarily, finite. Since mind is not originally finite, it is not necessarily finite. Schelling questions, thus, whether it is infinite in nature. But he notes that the peculiar characteristic of mind, which makes it mind in the first place, is that it is not only originally subject but also an object by virtue of the fact that it makes itself an object to itself. Since object is finite, mind must be in some sense finite too. Schelling plays with the theme of inextricable con- traries, concluding that since mind is both subject and, subject’s contrary,

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object, it must also be both finite and infinite. He explains this seeming impossibility as in fact actual: “It is neither infinite without becoming finite, nor can it become finite (for itself ) without being infinite. It is not of either, neither infinite nor finite, alone, but in mind is the primordial union of the infinite and finite (a new condition of the character of mind)” (I/1, 367). Mind, as subject, is capable of infinite—or in-finite—production of self as object. It is the inextricable and original nature of the finite and the infinite, he claims, that founds the “being [Wesen] of an individual nature (the ego)” (I/1, 368). But, as Schelling explains, it is only through the action of the mind that one comes to know these contrary activities. Because this is the case, however, the activities are not seen as contraries. Instead, they are thought to be one and the same action of the mind, intuition (I/1, 368). Intuition does not imply consciousness here, and yet it is a necessary precondition for consciousness—that through which one distinguishes the opposed activities. Schelling describes the contrariness in terms of “positive” and “negative,” illustrating them as a “filled-in circle” and the “outline of a circle” (I/1, 368). Finally, he provides an analogue for the positive filled-in circle, which is all the actions from outside of the mind, and for the negative outline of a circle, we have the actions internal to the mind (I/1, 369). Schelling argues that existence is not predicated on being alive but, rather, in being conditioned. He uses the example of a dead body, which is no longer alive—“it is not”— but which remains there in the world. The mind “is,” then, by the conditions

it imposes on itself for itself. This is to say that mind “limits itself in its

activity. . . .

[M]ind is itself not other than this activity and this limit, both as

simultaneously thought” (I/1, 369). This is to express that mind’s infinite potential for infinite action is self-limited by its finite actions. In this vein, then, Schelling writes that “by limiting itself mind is at the same time active and passive [leidend], and because without this action also there would be no consciousness of our nature, so would be this abso- lute unity of activity and passivity of character of the individual nature”

(I/1, 369). Without being infinite and finite, active and passive, it could not be both subject and object—subject and object for itself. So, the possibility of the unity of contraries is both the necessary and the sufficient condition for mind itself. This unity allows for subjective self-consciousness as object. The interrelatedness between activity and passivity is picked up again when Schelling describes passivity as “not other than negative activity” (I/1, 369). Passivity does not and cannot exist without its contrary, because,

on schelling’s departure from kant and fichte


as Schelling goes on to explain, “an absolutely passive being [Wesen] is an absolute nothingness (a nihil privativum)” (I/1, 369). The confluence and absolute simultaneity of activity and passivity is the ground for the exis- tence of mind. Schelling notes that “all philosophers have realized this” (I/1, 369). Without the unity of these contraries, ideas—though not external objects—become impossible. As Schelling has previously discussed, it is the mind as subject that acts and in that process becomes object to itself. The infinity of possible action characteristic of the mind is made finite by its own singular actions. But, here, Schelling declares that the grounding for mind is in fact that simultaneity of activity and passivity; it is the pos- sibility for mind to act and simultaneously to be acted on that allows that it exists at all. Regarding activity and passivity in terms of mind, it is both intuiting from the outside world, that is, being affected by outside stimuli and external phenomena, and actively developing ideas about that which exists outside itself. Schelling thus writes that “in us no idea is possible without passivity, but even less so without activity” (I/1, 369). This is to say that ideas are a synthesis of the two. On the one hand, the mind requires intuition of exter- nal phenomena so as not to be an “absolute nothingness,” but it is then the activity of the mind, which allows for the production of new internal phenomena, that is, of ideas. Without actually asking what is considered the first and most crucial epistemological question—namely, What or who is the starting point of knowledge?—we have come upon a reply. Schelling is keen to express this in his explicit observation that “unnoticed, we have been led through our investigations to the most difficult problem in phi- losophy” (I/1, 369). There is no starting point; there is no before (knower) to the after (known). Instead, there is an inextricable, necessary, and simul- taneous relationship between different aspects of nature, which allow for the production of ever-novel phenomena. To be clearer, knowledge is not based on the simple intellectual intuition that something outside of the mind is predicated a certain way, for example, “the ball is red”: (1) There is a red ball; (2) I see the red ball; (3) I have an idea of the red ball as something other than myself; (4) thus, I realize the existence of a red ball. Instead, nature is less linear and not based necessarily on cause and effect, that is, on preset conditions. Instead, the active nature of the mind allows for a productive self-limiting. Because the interminable opposition between infi- nite and finite, form and matter, subject and object, and so on exists, ideas

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come from a simultaneous working together of more than one indissoluble aspect of nature—mind or “intellectual nature,” on the one hand, and mat- ter or “physical nature,” on the other. Through this interworking, we find the production of even further nature by way of mental action. The interrelation between activity and passivity is, for Schelling, that which founds our “being” (Wesen), and I take him to say here that the very subject–object dualism he previously defended as characteristic of mind only is in turn the very essence of human existence qua self-consciousness. 10 Since the existence of opposition allows for intellectual nature, this nature is no doubt a plain facet of nature broadly construed, which is entirely differ- ent from saying that mind is somehow outside of nature, trying to “know” it. 11 While the outcome might be the same, that is, that we never know objects unfiltered by our minds, this is a clear disavowal of transcendental- ism. It is one thing to posit (1) a bifurcation between mind and matter and between what really is and what we have access to, in Kantian language, “noumena” and “phenomena,” and another to say that (2) the mind as a part of nature produces, in conjunction with intuition from the external world, additional components of nature.

III. Synthesizing Unity and Difference: Schellingian Conclusions

Toward the end of the second treatise, Schelling returns to the opposition between form and material. Suggesting an analogue between the second vantage point given above and the way one might look to the perennial opposition between form and material, Schelling concludes that there is no actual difference between the two. Instead, we think that there must be because it is only by way of our own intellective nature that we have come to find a difference between them in the first place. We can identify form and material as contraries only because we know each of them separately through their opposition to each other. And yet, in identifying the pair with the opposition in this way, we incorrectly identify them as fundamentally separate and opposed. Schelling will in fact refer to the “practice of mind” as the intuition and to the “product of this practice” as the concept. When the intuition is abstracted from the concept, what is left is purely formal, and when the concept is abstracted from the intuition, what is left is pure material (I/1, 372). Therefore, Schelling is able to conclude that starting a philosophical inquiry where consciousness is presented as a given, that is,

on schelling’s departure from kant and fichte


as a fact, will result in false conclusions precisely because the premise will be false; he calls it an “inconsistent system” (I/1, 372). Schelling’s final conclusion here, instead of defending the critical posi- tion as promised, shows it ultimately to be unfounded (I/1, 373). The last question he briefly takes up, then, given that form and material are for him one and the same thing, is whether form and material are both given to us from the outside or from the inside, that is, from our intellective nature (I/1, 373). At first blush, Schelling admits, it looks as though material must come from outside of us. This is because we accept that material is actually real, a Gegenstand, outside of us. 12 But material without mind is only ever a Gegenstand, as it cannot be anything for itself. And, so, does this then mean that the material has preceded us? In order for us to know whether material is in itself, we must be material, Schelling surmises. But, as it turns out, he is unable to answer the question he has just posed regarding the origins of form and material. 13 Instead, he asserts that we can only really know ourselves. We should not pretend or purport to have access to knowledge claims about the origins of our knowledge. And we have come full circle. The solutions of the critical philosophers fail primarily because they offer answers that cannot, on Schelling’s view, be justified. They rest on the false premise not only that form and material are separate entities but also that we can know the original conditions and origination of the two. Whether material comes from outside of us, or whether the challenge that it must come from inside of us is correct, Schelling rests silent—deferring us, his twenty-first-century readers, to his later iterations on the topic.


  • 1. At stake in this premise is not only that I locate these essays squarely in Schellingian Naturphilosophie, instead of Identitätsphilosophie, owing to Schelling’s

early anchoring of the infinite in the finite, but also that I take Schelling to be engaged here with a theme I believe—despite the view that Schelling was an inconsistent thinker—he was lifelong engaged (on this point, see Grant 2008, 5–6: that nature philosophy is core to, rather than a phase of, Schellingianism).

  • 2. See Pfau 1994, 61–62, for further details about the text.

  • 3. See Richards’s (2002, 136–37) thesis that already in the Abhandlungen

Schelling puts forth his central ideas about organicity, which would be more fully developed in the first iteration of Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur (1797; Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature) and then, according to Roberts, recast in the first version of Von der Weltseele (1798; The Ages of the World).

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    • 4. Schelling’s motivation to defend the critical tradition, even while departing

from it in various ways, may have been based on an early decision to stand united

with Fichte as defenders of transcendentalism. See Vater and Wood 2012, 3, that

Schelling and Fichte, “even when they had misgivings about each other, they were still eager to have the public perceive them as united under the banner of Transcendental Idealism.”

  • 5. Thanks go to Richard Velkley and G. Anthony Bruno for our conversation

about Schelling’s actual target here. Given that Schelling’s criticisms are couched in a seeming apologetic, that he has any target is a conclusion for which I can

only submit evidence. Even still, and not unlike the performance we see from Fichte (1985) in his own response to the critical philosopher Reinhold and skeptic

Schulze, I think we see no one spared, even if for different reasons, e.g., Kant, the Kantians, and Fichte, in Schelling’s developing analytic. See, for example, Vater and Wood 2012, 14–20, on the main philosophical differences between Schelling and Fichte after 1800. Fichte could not abide Schelling’s naturalism—a view that consciousness and nature (mind and matter) exist together in some sense. Already in 1796/97 we see the emergence of this view. Despite that Kant announces that we do not know the origins of material and form, he argues for a priori conditions of experience and the noumenal behind the phenomenal; Schelling’s analytic of nature argues against the first and renders the second untenable. Still, Schelling’s jabs at “the critical philosophers” in the first treatise signal to us that, even if Kant and Fichte are targets of his criticism here in the second treatise, his explicit targets, at least at the outset, are the poor readers and mediocre explicators of Kant.

  • 6. Cf. Sturma 2000, that even if Schelling is already departing from Kant

prior to 1800, he does not emerge from under Fichte’s thumb until the System of Transcendental Idealism.

  • 7. Translations of the second treatise are my own, published in Harry 2014.

  • 8. As Richards (2002, 27) notes, a consequence of this move is that

Kant’s Ding an sich is no longer viable. Knowledge, for Schelling, is correspondence—a position we see developed here.

  • 9. The adjective Schelling uses here to express ceaselessness is ewiges, which is

not the same term he uses when contrasting the infinite (unendliche) and finite (endlich). 10. This raises the question as to whether or not Schelling thought that only humans are essentially mind. This type of belief seems to be in line with the Aristotelian tradition of relegating intellectual nature to intellectual beings, i.e., human beings. Whether or not nonhuman animals share in an active mind—in the Schellingian sense, this means a mind that produces ideas—is not discussed. 11. It is the implication of this idea that, when taken out of context, implicates Schelling as a philosophical idealist: “And because everything finite is only graspable through opposed activities, but these are originally united only in mind, so it follows from the self, that all outside existence comes forth and is apparent

on schelling’s departure from kant and fichte


first from intellectual nature” (I/1, 369). Schelling is not implying either that all of

nature comes to be only from the mind or that there is a fundamental difference between what we can know and what actually exists external to us, as Kant supposed. This is to say that Schelling is not arguing for a separation between metaphysical and epistemological conclusions.

  • 12. In the second treatise, Schelling interchanges two German words, Objekt and Gegenstand, both commonly rendered “object” in English. But, while it has

sparked discussion among commentators as to whether or not Schelling meant to convey the same or different ideas with his use of the two different terms, it seems clear to me, in conjunction with the foregoing reading, that he indeed meant the terms to reference different things. By Gegenstand, literally “standing against/ in opposition to,” he means external phenomena opposing the subject intuiting the object—likewise, the way the mind as subject makes itself object by its own action. By Objekt, he means the object as intuited by the mind, as that which has been filtered through the lens of the subject and, likewise, that which will simultaneously lend itself to the production of ideas.

  • 13. It is this problem, the “problem of nature,” with which Schelling is occupied

in Ideen. See in particular the introduction: Schelling 1988, 9–42.

works cited

Fichte, J. G. 1985. “Review of Aenesidemus.” In Between Kant and Hegel: Texts in the Development of Post-Kantian Idealism, translated by George di Giovanni and H. S. Harris, 136–57. Albany: State University of New York Press. Grant, Iain Hamilton. 2008. Philosophies of Nature After Schelling. London:

Continuum. Harry, Chelsea. 2014. “Situating the Early Schelling in the Later Positive Philosophy: Introduction to and Translation of Chapter 2,

  • F. W. J. Schelling’s Abhandlungen zur Erläuterung des Idealismus der

Wissenschaftslehre (1796/97).” Comparative and Continental Philosophy 6,

no. 1: 6–15.

Pfau, Thomas. 1994. Idealism and the Endgame of Theory: Three Essays by

  • F. W. J. Schelling. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Richards, Robert J. 2002. The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in

the Age of Goethe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Schelling, F. W. J. 1856–61. Sämmtliche Werke. 14 vols. Edited by K. F. A. Schelling. Stuttgart: J. G. Cotta’scher Verlag. Cited in the text by volume and page number. Schelling, F. W. J. 1988. Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature. Translated by Errol

  • E. Harris and Peter Heath. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Sturma, Dieter. 2000. “The Nature of Subjectivity: The Critical and Systematic Function of Schelling’s Philosophy of Nature.” In The Reception of Kant’s Critical Philosophy: Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, edited by Sally Sedgwick,

216–31. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Vater, Michael G., and David W. Wood. 2012. The Philosophical Rupture Between Fichte and Schelling: Selected Texts and Correspondence (1800–1802).

Albany: State University of New York Press.