W. F. J. Schelling: at the crossroads

In this philosopher’s works practically all the basic trends in the further development of European philosophy were outlined.

Wilhelm Friedrich Joseph Schelling (later, von Schelling) was born on January 27th, 1775, in a small town near Stuttgart in the Duchy of Württemberg within the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. His father was a protestant theologian specializing in Oriental studies. Initially, the philosopher-to-be attended a cloistral school, where his father taught. The boy’s outstanding progress made him eligible to enter at the age of 15 a theological seminary in the city of Tübingen, which was, in fact, one of the faculties at the University of Tübingen.

In Tübingen, his closest friends were his colleague-to-be, G. F. W. Hegel, and the poet J. C. F. Hölderlin. At the university, as is the custom, a circle was formed among the students, where the burning issues of politics, philosophy and religion would be discussed. Surely, the French Revolution, started in 1789, became the predominant theme of the discussions. It seemed to the youths to be the implementation of the ideas of “reason and enlightenment,” first of all, of those suggested by J.-J. Rousseau. Nearly all the students felt united by a common impulse of passion against the power of feudal lords, against monarchy, for the republic, for freedom, equality, and brotherhood. The overall enthusiasm was crowned by the planting of the “Tree of Freedom” in Tübingen’s main square, while Schelling translated the “Marseillaise” into German.

News about the Tübingen students’ escapades reached the chief feudal lord, the Duke of Württemberg. He came to the city in person, so as to sort things out on-site. The students were called to his office one by one. When Schelling came in, the duke asked him outright: “Is it you who translated this gangster song?” Schelling’s answer was not at all insolent, but quite conciliatory: “You see, Your Highness, we all sometimes err…” The duke, too, decided not to dramatize matters. Certainly, he was a feudal lord. Still, he was not a cannibal. Moreover, he remembered that he, too, had been a bit of a revolutionary in his youth. All in all, none of the students were accused of “undermining the foundations of the state”, neither were they sent to prison or exiled. The boys were just admonished, and they went on with their studies at the university.

Schelling was specializing in interpreting Christian holy books. But he had no faith in him, neither had he any intention to conceal his unbelief. Accordingly, in his biblical interpretation an “historical approach” was predominant (which would subsequently find expression in the notorious book by D. F. Strauss “The Life of Jesus”). Gradually, Schelling altogether lost interest in religion and became increasingly focused on philosophy. To start with, it was antique philosophy. Eventually, he familiarized himself with contemporary philosophical doctrines, in particular, with I. Kant’s “critical philosophy” and with the development of such in J. G. Fichte’s works.

In 1795, Schelling graduated from the University of Tübingen, after which he worked as a tutor with an aristocratic family for some time. In the course of his tutorship, he visited Leipzig, where he listened to the lectures on natural sciences and familiarized himself with their latest advances. Also, he visited Dresden, where he admired the Saxon Electors’ collection of art.

Certainly, he continued his philosophical studies: here, he was almost wholly under the influence of Fichte’s doctrine of Absolute Subject. However, Schelling was not in a hurry with further specification of the Latter. As yet, he would rather speak of the equal status of the 2 philosophical approaches, “dogmatic” and “critical” ones. In the former case, Object is posited as primary, from Which Subject is to be inferred. In the latter case, it is Subject that is posited as primary, Object being inferred therefrom. Moreover, it seemed to Schelling that Fichte, while restoring Subject’s rights, had paid too little attention to Object, the “not-I”, or Nature. Therefore, he, encouraged by the latest scientific discoveries, decided, to try to look at Nature the way It is by Itself, separately from Subject, as it were.

It should be noted that Fichte’s Subject had been still a full-scale counterweight to Nature, being the unity of all Its essential properties, that is, of Mind, Soul, and Body. In other words, It had been still basically Human, although, ultimately, It did not differ in any way from B. Spinoza’s Substance any longer. Schelling, however, embarking on his study into Object, in effect, studies not Object as opposed to Subject, but Matter (corporeality) as opposed to Spirit (thinking). Thus, Schelling’s Object and Subject, in reality, stay within the limits of Nature. Strictly speaking, They appear as the “attributes” of Spinoza’s Substance, or the true Object, whereas the true Subject, again, slips away.

Schelling can be considered the founder of both philosophical idealism and philosophical materialism of Modern Times. He virtually formulated what subsequently would be termed in dialectical materialism as the “fundamental question of philosophy”. As for Schelling himself, he did not seem to show preference to any of these trends and would treat both with equal diligence. Proceeding from the primacy of Matter, he posited It as a self-developing entity and tried to trace all the stages of Its development, including the emergence of Life and Consciousness.

The development of Matter, according to Schelling, is caused by certain inner contradictions, or the “opposed forces”, for example, attraction and repulsion, expansion and compression. At a higher level, these are positive and negative magnetic poles, the respective electric charges, the opposition of acid and alkalies. Organic Matter emerges from inorganic Matter through “galvanism”. At this point, living Matter is already a short way off, where “irritability” comes into play, and where nutrition and oxidation are basic processes. At last, at the level of Consciousness, the major opposition is between “Subject” and “Object”.

Schelling’s ideas of Nature originating from a single corporeal Arche driven by Its own inner contradictory forces, or “dialectical materialism”, as it would be termed later (“higher physics”, as Schelling termed it then) provoked tremendous interest, and not only among the scientific community. In 1798, the poet J. W. von Goethe, who, in fact, headed the government of the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar, also became keen on Schelling’s ideas and invited the 23-year old philosopher to lecture at the University of Jena.

In Jena, Schelling came under the influence of the Jena romantics. It could not be managed without a feedback effect, though. Most of all, Schelling influenced the wife of the main theoretician of German Romanticism and the hostess of literary salons Caroline Schlegel, who became his ardent admirer and then (again, with Goethe’s assistance) his lawful wife. In 1803, the newly-weds moved from Jena to Würzburg, and in 1806, to Munich.

In the meantime, Schelling continued to develop his teaching. Having explored Object, i. e., having posited It as Developing Matter and having “inferred” Consciousness from It, Schelling now tried to approach the problem from the other end. This time, he took Subject as the starting point, with Nature appearing before It in due course as Its representation. Here, Schelling, in general, recreated the same scheme as Fichte had earlier put forward. The only difference was that by Subject, by the “I”, Schelling meant not quite the integral Human, but, rather a purely ideal entity, namely, “Consciousness”.

Also in Jena, Schelling started publishing “The Journal of Speculative Physics”. However, when he focused on Subject, the periodical was renamed into “The Critical Philosophical Journal”. The latter was published jointly with Hegel, with whom Schelling was still marching in step. Soon, however, their ways would part, too.

Schelling did justice both to materialism and idealism. He would emphasize in every possible way the inner affinity of Spirit and Matter (“Nature”), he would reiterate Spinoza’s idea of “the order and connection of things being exactly the same as the order and connection of thoughts”, and he would call Matter (“Nature”) the visible Spirit, and Spirit, the invisible Matter (“Nature”). And yet, he regarded either trend as insufficient and one-sided. He wanted to create a teaching, which would be a synthesis of both. So, he embarked on developing the “philosophy of identity”.

Schelling puts forward the “true” Arche of all that exists, Which is neither Spirit nor Matter, and Which he calls the “Absolute”. According to Schelling, Nature emanates from the Absolute as the expression of Its inscrutable will. In his view, the Identity of “Object” and “Subject” lies in the fact that the “emanation” of Nature from the “Absolute” comes about exactly the same way as the creation by the artist of a work of art. Schelling tends to think that it is not purely rational cognition, but preeminently art that is the ultimate expression of Truth. Of all the arts, he rated most highly music, which he called “the voice of the innermost essence of the Universe”.

Following Fichte, Schelling emphasized the significance of art, which, in the end, came out for him as the supreme mode of comprehending Truth. Certainly, he is broadly right. And still, it is not quite correct to resort to the artist’s job as a visual aid to demonstrate the creation of the Universe. The point is that creating a work of art by the Artist is not the creation of Nature, but exactly the transformation of It, aimed at disclosing Its being essentially Human. On the other hand, only such “assimilation” of Nature can release Man from the endless circle of the “Subject-Object,” which He finds Himself in.

Caroline’s sudden death in 1809 crushed Schelling down. Earlier, he had broken up with his spiritual parent, Fichte, and his best friend and initially like-minded fellow, Hegel. To prevent him from falling into depression, Goethe selected a suitable mistress for him, who really became his faithful companion to the end of his days. And yet, Schelling could never fully recover from those blows. Thereafter, he failed to publish any of his works and devoted himself exclusively to lecturing. However, his effort was appreciated at its true value: in 1827, he was elected president of the Academy of Sciences of the Kingdom of Bavaria.

Schelling’s emotional turmoil was accompanied by the perturbed state of his mind. The “Absolute” Which had taken so much effort to erect and Which crowned his “philosophy of identity” failed to become the long-awaited, universal Truth and, in the last analysis, turned out to be the very same World Soul, Which he had casually mentioned in his works on “higher physics” and Which had been known to European mankind, at least, from the times of Plato as the 3d, “medial” Arche of Nature. This could suit him in no way, and this is where he experienced, perhaps, the deepest disappointment of his life: his quest for Truth, in fact, resulted in nothing.

Schelling could never give preference either to Object in the impersonality of Nature, or to Subject in the person of Human, as well as to either of Human’s essential properties, estranged from Him and posited in the foundation of Nature. Something suggested to him that he would never find what could be recognized as What Truly Exists within the narrow confines of “Human–Nature” available to him, Which he proved unable to outstep. He no more treated philosophy as the appropriate means of comprehending Truth. Schelling laid out routes for new revelations of God, but he would not wait until they come. He did not see any other way out except returning to the bosom of traditional faith; now he felt like seeking peace of mind in the already accomplished Revelation.

Now, Schelling posits God proper as What Truly Exists, and the fundamental question for him becomes that of how He reveals Himself to Man. Consequently, if philosophy exists, it can only be justified as “the philosophy of revelation”. Here, Schelling did not try to invent any new God or create a religion of his own, as, say, Leo Tolstoy would do. He turned to the true God of a religion, which was most available to him, Christianity, and tended to interpret Him in quite a conservative spirit. Thus, in his declining years, Schelling returned to the once terminated theological studies of his youth, the only difference being that the approach employed by him now was not at all critical, but fairly “dogmatic”. Actually, he was becoming a Christian religious philosopher, while philosophy itself was being returned its “honorary” title of the “maidservant of theology”.

No wonder that Schelling’s lectures on the “philosophy of revelation” provoked bewilderment in many of those attending them. The bewilderment was also aggravated by the fact that those lectures were being delivered in the University of Berlin, where the genius of absolute idealism, Hegel, had reigned not so long ago. So, Schelling was expected to produce something, if not in the same spirit, then, at least, at the same level. However, he failed to live up to many people’s expectations. Negative opinions of his lectures would come from advocates of diverse philosophical trends. From the viewpoint of the Danish religious thinker S. Kierkegaard, Schelling talked “quite insufferable nonsense”. A materialist-to-be, F. Engels, called the late-period Schelling “spiritually dead”, while an anarchist-to-be, M. Bakunin, characterized Schelling’s Berlin lectures as a “reactionary attempt on philosophy”.

There were positive opinions, though. For example, his “conservative” Russian friend Alexander Turgenev (incidentally, brother of a Decembrist and theoretician of Russian political liberalism, Nikolay Turgenev) characterized Schelling as a “Christian genius, who has returned to the path of Truth and is now propagating Christ in higher philosophy”.

Schelling’s Berlin lectures turned out badly for him also in terms of sheer everydayness. They were published without his knowledge or consent. This prompted him to start lengthy litigations, which he lost in the end.

He died on August 20th, 1854, in Switzerland. Soon after his death, his son, K. F. A. Schelling, published his father’s works. Shortly before the philosopher’s death, the King Maximilian II of Bavaria, who also was Schelling’s pupil, dedicated to him a sonnet, the final lines of which read:

  • Thou darest to step over chasms
    For which sages could find no bridges,
    And which have always sowed discord
    Between thinkers and believers.

The king’s feelings of gratitude were quite understandable. Still, Maximilian indulged in wishful thinking. Actually, there were hardly many to be found, whom Schelling had brought together, while there were a great number, whom he had effectively put at loggerheads. By the way, Maximilian II also went against the stream in his policies. He was one of the few German rulers to come out against the unification of Germany.


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