Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Schelling: Absolute Idealism and Art

The following is the second part of my reading of Schelling's System of Philosophy in General and Philosophy of Nature in Particular. The first part, in which I discuss the first principle of Schelling's absolute idealism, or identity-philosophy, can be found here. Unlike the first post, which is primarily the lecture notes that I give to students, I've expanded this post to include more information about Schelling's philosophy of art in general, and a footnote about the use of quantity and quality in his deduction of the finite world within the absolute. I will spare my class the discussion on the categories.

1. The "Double Life" of the Individual

In the last lecture, we left off with Schelling’s first principle as it is found in the System der gesamten Philosophie und der Naturphilosophie insbesondere (the Wurzburg Lectures of 1804). As we have seen, Schelling argues, through an indirect proof, that the only possible presupposition for philosophy is that knower and what is known are the same, or identical: God or Reason is only the self-recognition or affirmation of all things as One. All other presuppositions, he argues, lead to either an absurdity or contradiction.

However, by arguing that the first principle of all philosophy is the identity of the One, Schelling is left with the difficult task of showing how finite things, like plants, animals, and you and I come to be. The ‘bridge,’ as I have called it, from the infinite to the finite, is what Schelling calls life. Schelling, over the course of 1801-1806 gives various different answers to this problem, and this time, his solution is a kind of life-force in the universe that each particular being takes part in. Now, of course, this sounds like some kind of new age philosophy, but Schelling is not opposing some mystical ‘force’ to Reason; for him there is no difference between God and Reason. Like Spinoza, this leads people to read Schelling as both an idealist with mystical tendencies and as materialist (so on the one hand, he spiritualizes matter, or on the other, he reduces all ‘divine’ ideas to material explanations). I think Schelling is trying to show, however problematically, that there is no difference between the two. As a contemporary of Schelling’s states, “Schelling is reproached with almost always being in suspense between idealism, realism, and even materialism.” Suspense, which I have emphasized here, probably says it best.

To deduce life, Schelling argues that a particular being is the negation of its Idea or archetype. Life is the middle point between being and nonbeing. I will begin by summarizing his argument (which is primarily on p. 177/6: 190).* Schelling wants to show that “the universe, by virtue of containing all forms, is none of them in particular but also that, precisely in containing all of them, it is none of them” (p. 170/6: 181). The language already determines the direction of Schelling’s argument: the absolute is all, but it is not one of them. A particular being is not in-itself, it is only in-the-absolute. As Schelling argues, each particular is a concrete individual that exists between being and nonbeing. Here is his argument:

  1. The absolute is everything.
  2. Particular things are not the absolute.
  3. But nonbeing cannot be outside the absolute (or else it would exist outside), so nonbeing can only be relative.
  4. Thus relative nonbeing implies relative being.
  5. Therefore particular things are a mixture of reality and negation.
This argument attempts to show that particular things are a limitation of their universal idea or archetype. Then, the question is how do individuals exist between being and nonbeing? Schelling’s answer is life. Through the absolute, the particulars of the universe

are granted a double life, a life in the absolute– which is the life of the idea, and which accordingly was also characterized as the dissolution of the finite in the infinite and of the particular in the universal– and a life in itself– which, however, is only proper to the [particular] merely to the extent that it is simultaneously dissolved into the universe, [for] in its separation from the life in God the latter is a mere semblance of life […] the particular attains an absolute life […] though only to the extent that it is in the universe (pp. 174-175/6: 187).

Schelling goes on from here to argue that particularity implies multiplicity. While the absolute is one, all limitation involves a plurality of beings.** While absolute life is One, particular life is one of the many. So individuals can only be as a multiplicity. But, each individual expresses part of the whole:
The individual human being, for example, is such an individual not by virtue of the idea but, rather, because he is not the idea but its negation. Being can only be One, whereas the Nonbeing is indeterminably multiple. The infinite reality whereby the idea of man is linked with God always achieves but a partial expression in each individual human being, i.e., it [involves] negation” (p. 178/6: 191).
So, to summarize, through philosophy, that is, ideally, Schelling has shown (however problematically) how the identity of the knower and what is known is the first principle of all philosophy, and how it is possible to demonstrate how the finite world comes to be; that is, finite beings live between being and relative nonbeing. Yet, Schelling is also interested in showing how the absolute can account for life in its totality; or, in other words, how the individual human being lives in relation to the absolute.

2. The Philosophy of Art

After dealing with philosophy in general and his nature-philosophy, Schelling turns to humanity as it lives theoretically, practically, and creatively. In other words, how people have knowledge (theoretical philosophy or science), how they act (in history and in religion) and how they create (the philosophy of art).

As I have mentioned, I wrote my dissertation on the topic of Schelling’s philosophy of art. There are three conditions for his philosophy of art, and they are all present in the Wurzburg Lectures:
  1. What philosophy constructs in the ideal, art produces in the real. Thus artistic activity is the highest human vocation (Bestimmung) because practical philosophy can only approximate its object, which is the moral law.
  2. While both the natural organism and the artwork embody the same identity of real and ideal, necessity and freedom, the work of art overcomes these oppositions through the identity of conscious and unconscious production, whereas the organism’s activity is unconscious.
  3. Artistic production has a socio-political task: it aims to overcome the fragmentary condition of modernity through a new mythology and artistic renewal.
A majority of the literature on Schelling’s philosophy of art overlooks the fact that there is a philosophy of art in this text despite the fact that it completes the system of the Wurzburg Lectures. By completion, I mean that artistic creation is the realization of the ideas of philosophy in the real world. Art expresses the highest stage of freedom and the highest stage of social life. First, artistic production is the synthesis of freedom and necessity in the work of art, but second, and more importantly, art aims to create a new mythology to unify a people under a common set of ideas. Finally, art is the intuition of beauty, which completes the system because the “highest bliss of humanity lies in the intellectual intuition of beauty” (§324). Beauty in art is the realization of the divine idea of the absolute.

In the Würzburg Lectures, Schelling presents the state as the ultimate realization of science, religion and art. His remarks on art are brief, and are oriented toward his conception of a public sphere. As Schelling states, the modern world lacks a proper Symbolik (6: 571), which, in German usage, is “not only a system of symbolism but also a coherent doctrine of faith.”*** As mentioned in the Philosophy of Art, the modern condition has only created partial and fragmentary mythologies, such as in the work of Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes and Goethe (6: 572). The diagnosis, according to Schelling, is that a truly public sphere can bring about a truly organic state:
Where all public life collapses into the particulars and dullness of private life, poetry more or less sinks into this same sphere…But even mythology is not possible in the particular; it can only be born in the totality of a nation that as such acts as identity [or] an individual. In dramatic poetry, tragedy grounds itself in the public law, in virtue, religion, heroism– in a word– in the holiness of the nation. A nation that is not holy, or which was robbed of its holy places, cannot have true tragedy…the question of the possibility of a universal content of poesie, just as the question of the objective existence of science and religion, impels us to the highest itself. Only in the spiritual unity of a people, in a truly public life, can the true and generally valid poesie arise– as only in the spiritual and political unity of a people can science and religion find its objectivity (6: 572-573).
The political unity of a people arises organically in the nation-state, not in the private pursuit of individual right within a state. Instead, the state develops organically, through the development of religion, science and art, into their highest expression. As Schelling recognizes, this state has never existed, but he is here giving a prescriptive account of a future state. Although he gives very little indication of how this state is to come about, he claims that the relationship of reason to the universe is analogous to that of philosophy to the state: just as reason realizes itself in the universe, philosophy realizes itself through the public life of the state. As Schelling concludes, “Philosophy, which is no longer science, but rather becomes life, is that which Plato called the politeia, life with and in an ethical totality.”

As we will see, later philosophers will directly challenge the idea that the state is like an organic totality. As Marx will argue, a position like Schelling’s obscures, or mystifies, relationships of domination and inequality by normalizing or de-politicizing human relationships by thinking them like natural relationships (so the state is like an organism). While I think it is correct to dismiss the idea of the 'organic state' or community, I don’t think it is a reason to dismiss artistic production as an important aspect of human life or politics.


*All page references are to the English translation, and then the pagination of Schelling’s Sämmtliche Werke. Where only the latter appear, the translations are my own. In the tradition of German idealism, I had to use my notes for preparing the text, so a few quotes run the risk of paraphrase.

**On the categories: Schelling denies, during the period of absolute idealism, that there can be any transition from infinite to finite in terms of quality, because a difference in quality implies a difference in respect to essence or substance (p. 169/6: 179). Hence he argues that there is a quantitative difference between the infinite and finite, between the unity of the One and plurality (which form a totality). However his quick reference to the difference between the One and multiplicity cannot obscure the fact that his argument relies on the categories of quality: individuals, as limited, are a mixture of reality and negation. The problem? The absolute, for Schelling, does not admit negation. This is his significant difference with Hegel.

The reference to the role of the Symbolik comes from George S. Williamson, The Longing for Myth in Germany (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 336, n. 35.

Further Reading:

For the importance of the aspect of the public sphere, aside from its less salient political features, see Manfred Frank’s Der kommende Gott: Vorlesungen über die Neue Mythologie. Vol. 1 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1982), 188-216.

For the metaphysics, see Manfred Frank, Eine Einführung in Schellings Philosophie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1985), 118-132.

For a stronger reading of Schelling as a naturalist, see Frederick C. Beiser, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism 1781-1801 (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard: 2002).

Finally, I cannot recommend too highly Jean-François Marquet’s excellent Liberté et existence. Second Edition (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2006).

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