Friday, October 23, 2009

Schelling and Absolute Idealism, Part One

When I wrote the course outline for my Great Philosophers course, I was near the completion of my dissertation on Schelling's philosophy of art. At the time, I got it in my head that I would teach about 8 pages of one of his works over one week of class, which seemed like a good idea until I went to reread the System of Philosophy in General and of the Philosophy of Nature in particular that he delivered in 1804 in Wurzburg. Because some of you have asked me what Schelling was all about, and why I spent several years figuring out just how his system and his philosophy of art fit together, I will be posting my notes about Schelling on the blog over the next week or so. Get your copy of Idealism and the Endgame of Theory, down from the shelf, turn to pages 141-194 and judge for yourself!

(Update: the sequel is here)

1. Schelling: A Biographical Introduction

Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854) is an important German philosopher who, until the last few decades, has been largely ignored in the English speaking world. Schelling excelled in his education: at 11 years old he had mastered Greek and Latin, and was admitted, despite being only 15, to the Tubingen Seminary. There he became friends with Friedrich Hölderlin (the poet) and G.W.F. Hegel (who, after 1807, became the best-known philosopher of his time). In 1798, at age 23, Schelling was appointed to professor of philosophy at the University of Jena, where he taught until 1803, when he accepted a post in Wurzburg. A list of Schelling’s acquaintances, whether they are friends or enemies, reads like a who’s who of German letters; it includes Goethe, Fichte, Schiller, Novalis, Ludwig Tieck, Friedrich and August Schlegel, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Friedrich Jacobi. After 1807, Schelling’s published output declined to a few obscure publications, a preface or two, and a few polemics, although in 1841, he took up Hegel’s chair of philosophy at the University of Berlin, in order to refute the system of his erstwhile friend. During the few years he spent in Berlin, Søren Kierkegaard, Jacob Burkhardt, Friedrich Engels and Mikhail Bakunin attended his lectures, although they had fairly negative things to say about Schelling.

Before all this, back in Tubingen, Schelling discovered the works of Kant, Fichte and Spinoza, which, no matter how critical Schelling became of them, remained a lasting influence on this philosophy. Schelling’s early works (the first few on Kant and Fichte date from 1794 and 1795) develop both an idealist philosophy with some similarity to Descartes’ concept of the self and then, starting in 1797, what Schelling called nature-philosophy, which argued that nature, far from being mechanistic (like Newton thought), was a dynamic and organic totality; it was a philosophical version of a romantic conception of nature. Schelling sought to show how the self emerged within nature, which eventually required rejecting the dualism underlying Descartes’ dualism of the self and world.

Schelling’s philosophical development is much more complex than this, but for our purposes, it’s enough to grasp the point of his System of Philosophy delivered in Wurzburg in 1804. He argues that there is only one infinite substance (that he calls God, although this God is not like a personal god that intervenes with miracles, listens to prayers, and the like) that is the world, and that everything else, selves and things, subjects and objects, exist within this absolute totality in some way. The central difficulty with this system (called either ‘absolute idealism’ or ‘identity-philosophy’) is showing how the deduction of the infinite and its qualities can lead to the existence of finite beings, like you and I. In this text, he tries to show how life is the bridge, as it were, from the infinite to the finite (p. 175).

2. Schelling’s Critique of Modern Philosophy

Let us begin with what Schelling argues is the first presupposition of all knowledge: “The first presupposition of all knowledge is that the knower and than which is known are the same” (p. 141). Previous philosophers have separated the subject (the known) from the object (what is known), and then attempted to put the two back together through reflection. As we have seen, this is true of both Descartes and Hume, regardless of one being a rationalist and the other an empiricist. For Schelling this is the “fundamental error in all knowledge,” because it reduces truth to the correspondence between subject and object, between knower and known.

Schelling maintains the opposite: that knower and what is known are fundamentally the same. He calls the intuition that All is One (more to the point, ‘the All-One’) intellectual intuition. In the Wurzburg System, he also gives an indirect proof of his first principle by showing how other alternatives are untenable. If knower and what is known are not the same, but are different, there are only two alternatives (p. 141). Either:
A1) the knower is absolutely separated from the known; there is no relation between them; or:
A2) they are separate, but some relationship between them takes place.

A1 is easily refuted, because if there is an absolute separation between the knower and what is known, then there is no way to explain the correspondence between subject and object, or the self and the world. I can sit here looking at my stack of books, and (if I believe A1) I cannot explain how I could know anything about these books, without assuming some thing or power outside of the knower or known, which is itself unknown. This is impossible: A1 requires having (or assuming) a kind of knowledge that is outside of knowledge.

So A2 must be the case, and there is some relationship between the knower and what is known. Again, there are two possibilities (p. 142):
A2.1) the unilateral option: the object determines the subject, or the subject determines the object.
A2.2) the bilateral option: there is a reciprocal reaction between subject and object.

Let’s look at A2.1 first. There are two unilateral accounts. By unilateral, Schelling means that one term completely determines the other. So, in the first case, what is known would completely determine the knowledge of the knower. The problem is that the knower, the subject, would only know the effects of the object that determine knowledge, and not the object itself. Thus if the stack of books determine everything I know about them, but acting on my knowledge, I really only know their effects, and not them in themselves. In the second case, the knower completely determines the object. This account is a criticism of Kant. In a nutshell, Kant held that our knowledge of objects is determined by the laws of thought, including time and space and what he called the categories. Our empirical experience is only possible because the faculty of understanding applies the laws of thought to sensibility. This is how Kant got around Hume’s skepticism. However, it left the problem of the status of things in themselves, because in Kant’s system we cannot know things in themselves, only as they appear to us. In this account, I would only experience the stack of books through the way the laws of thought determine my sensible impressions (to uses Hume’s terms) of the books. Schelling dismisses Kant because Schelling wants to know how things are in themselves, and Kantian philosophy leaves them unknown, that cannot be known, but can be thought as possible.

This leaves A2.2, that subject and object has a reciprocal relationship. The problem with this account is that the reciprocal effects between the knower and what is known cannot explain experience because the idea of reciprocality itself requires explanation. Because both A2.1 and A2.2 both are impossible, A2 is also untenable (p. 143). Therefore, with A1 and A2 refuted, the only possible presupposition is that the knower and what is known are the same. The faculty of reflection cannot be the basis of the system, because it still needs to be explained.

3. Schelling’s Solution

This leaves us with the question of what it means to say that knower and what is known are the same. Schelling states that it means that the knower and what is known are one substance: the One. The One, he argues, is Reason, or, God, which are both knower and known (so God is not a personal God of religion who makes miracles happen or listens to prayers; it is much more like Spinoza’s idea of a God who is identical with nature, which is why Spinoza was considered a heretic, or by some, an atheist). All knowledge is the self affirmation of reason or God. The One is infinite: immutable and eternal, and the philosopher is the one through which divine reason recognizes itself:
In reason, that eternal identity itself is at once the knower and the known– it is not me who recognizes this identity, but it recognizes itself, and I am merely the organ. Reason is Reason precisely because its knowledge is not subjective; instead, an identity in it comes to recognize itself as self-same, thereby reconciling the opposition between subjectivity and objectivity in its highest power (p. 144).
Reason works through the self; the self does not determine reason. Were reason limited to the self, it would only be valid for the self and nothing else. The self would only be caught up in the mirroring of the faculty of reflection (such as in Descartes, Hume, Kant and Fichte), which knows things only “for itself.” Reason, however, aims for the “in itself” (p. 145).

By claiming to discover Reason itself (which is the same as the world), Schelling’s system can be considered as a form of absolute idealism (the most famous version of absolute idealism is Hegel’s system). His system claims to discover the truth of the One-All through reason alone: ‘absolute’ because the whole universe is rational’ and ‘idealism’ because it is through thought– philosophy– that this truth can be discovered. The central problem remains, as I have mentioned, of how Schelling can start with the infinite One-All and then deduce the finite world that exists within the One. In the next class, we will see that 1) Schelling’s solution to this problem is the idea of life; and 2) that the proof of absolute idealism in the real world (as opposed to the ideal world of philosophy) is found in art.

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