I've spent the last month or so writing entries on Hölderlin, Hegel, and Schelling for The Jean-Luc Nancy Dictionary. This task has forced me to summarize the life and work of Schelling, for instance, in something like 500-600 words. That's no easy task. Here is my work in progress.
Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775–1854) is a German philosopher who made important—though now often-neglected—contributions to the metaphysics of German idealism, philosophy of nature, philosophy of art, and theology. His work is typically divided into various periods (cf. Dunham et al). During the first, which culminates in his System of Transcendental Idealism (1800), Schelling undertakes a critique of post-Kantian transcendental idealism, in which he develops a nature-philosophy and a philosophy of art. Nature-philosophy aims to demonstrate: first, the natural basis of the subject’s activity, and second, an organic concept of nature that emphasizes the centrality of nature’s productivity (the Spinozist natura naturans) and the processes of chemistry, electricity, and magnetism, rather than reducing natural processes to a merely mechanistic physics. The philosophy of art, which Schelling called the “keystone” of this system, has three characteristics. Artistic production, or what he calls “aesthetic intuition,” demonstrates the unity of unconscious (natural) and conscious production; it realizes concretely (in the real) what philosophy demonstrates ideally (in contrast to practical reason, which can only approximate its object, the categorical imperative); and it opens the possibility of producing a new mythology which can unite a people in an organic community.
In 1801, Schelling announces “his” system of philosophy, a bold return to metaphysics in the aftermath of the Kantian critical project, that he calls identity-philosophy or absolute idealism. While nature-philosophy and the philosophy of art play prominent roles in this period, Schelling advances (in collaboration with Hegel) a critique of the subjective idealism of Kant and Fichte. Rather than positing the practical subject or absolute I as the foundation of the system, he argues that philosophy must proceed from the identity of subject and object. This identity is necessary, he claims, to explain the correspondence of the knower and what is known—subject and object—rather than presupposing it.
The third period includes Schelling’s Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom (1809) and the various drafts of the Weltalter (Ages of the World). During this period, Schelling turns against, and critiques, the presuppositions of identity-philosophy—in short, the idea that logical necessity qua reason is the basis of all intelligibility. His philosophy of freedom explores the natural and historical-theological conditions necessary for human freedom, which is conceptualized as an existential decision rather than modeled on the categorical imperative.
The final period of Schelling’s work, which is characterized as the philosophy of revelation, takes shape around 1830 and remains a central preoccupation until his death. Though this work was only published posthumously, he delivered parts of it at the University of Berlin when he assumed in 1841 what was once Hegel’s chair in philosophy. Schelling aims to integrate critical or negative philosophy with what he called positive philosophy. Negative philosophy (which is associated, in modern terms, with post-Kantian philosophy) serves to eliminate what is contingent from the “first concepts of being”—it is confined to the essence or whatness of beings (2007: 144). Positive philosophy thinks the thatness or the fact of existence of God using the historical-theological resources of Greek mythology and Christian revelation.
On the basis of the differences between these periods, many commentators have concluded that Schelling was a protean thinker who never brought a system to conclusion. This conclusion overlooks his continued attention to the relationship—despite the changing significances of the terms—between “freedom” and “system.” For Schelling, free activity precludes and prevents the possibility of a completed system. In his Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism (1795-1796), for instance, he argues that a complete system cannot be lived by a philosopher: at that “moment [its creator] would cease to be creator and would be degraded to an instrument” of his or her system (1980: 172).
Dunham, Jeremy, Iain Hamilton Grant and Sean Watson. Idealism: The History of a Philosophy (Durham: Acumen, 2011).
Schelling, F.W.J. (1980). “Philosophical Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism,” in The Unconditional in Human Knowledge. Trans. Fritz Marti (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1980), 156–218.
–––– (2007). The Grounding of Positive Philosophy. Trans. Bruce Matthews (Albany: SUNY Press).