Part of the renaissance in Schelling studies is due to his work in nature-philosophy. His criticisms of modern concepts of nature suggest that his work could be fertile ground for thinking about nature non-anthropocentrically and for undermining the anthropocentric corollary that humans are the masters of nature and exercise dominion over it. Were that true, it might also be fertile ground for articulating normative claims supporting animal rights. We need only consider his claim that ordinary concepts of nature view it as a receptacle for a quantity of objects as not only anticipating Heidegger’s critique of technicity, but also Tom Regan’s critique of Peter Singer’s utilitarianism. The utilitarian approach to giving equal consideration to the interests of sentient beings considers these beings as if they are ‘mere receptacles’ for ‘quanta of pleasure and pain.’
However, things aren’t that straightforward. Schelling is, of course, a sharp critic of modern concepts of nature. He argues, for example, that due to its dependence on mechanistic explanations of natural phenomena, modern philosophy since Descartes ‘has the common defect that nature is not available for it and that is lacks a living ground.’ From the vantage point of nature-philosophy, there is no justification for the Cartesian reduction of animals to mere natural machines that act ‘according to the disposition of their organs.’ Yet the problem becomes more complicated when we consider Descartes’s justification for the mechanistic explanation of animals: animals lack of their ability to use logos (that is, speech, reason, discursive thought, and language). This philosophical anthropocentrism exhibited by Descartes is not merely a modern failing; it encompasses a much broader tradition stretching back to Aristotle, a tradition that Schelling does not escape.
Schelling repeatedly claims that animals, while not necessarily mere mechanical automatons, lack language (logos) and freedom. In the First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature (1799), he maintains that animals are ‘selfless objects’, meaning that ‘all ways of thinking a rationality in animal activities fail us.’ Later, in the ‘Aphorisms as an Introduction to Naturphilosophie’ (1805), he claims that animals are ‘incessant somnambulists’ who do not act of their own accord, but rather act insofar as their natural ground acts through them. Then, in the Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom (1809), he argues that animals can never emerge from the dark ground of nature, and thus lack the possibility for ‘absolute or personal unity’ (HF, 40).
The reason, though, that Schelling’s anthropocentrism is of interest, is that it didn’t have to be that way. On Schelling’s account, animals fall outside of moral consideration; humans owe them no direct obligations. Descartes formulates the problem with characteristic perspicuity: anthropocentrism is ‘indulgent to human beings […] since it absolves them from the suspicion of crime when they eat or kill animals.’ Along with a critique of Schelling, though, I try to show that certain parts of his work could lay the theoretical groundwork for a non-anthropocentric nature-philosophy.
Schelling phrases his anthropocentric claims in moral terms in the Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature. When discussing the emergence of the self-consciousness of practical reason, Schelling avers that, given that self-consciousness emerges through the acknowledgement of others, it is only through this act of recognition that individuality acquires moral purpose: ‘my moral existence only acquires purpose and direction through the existence of other moral beings’ (Ideas, 39). If we raise the ‘curious question’ as to whether these others include non-human animals, ‘whether animals also have souls,’ Schelling responds with the following:
a person of common sense is at once taken aback, because, with the affirmation of that, he would consider himself committed to something, which he has the right and authority to assert only of himself and those like him. (Ideas, 39–40; trans. modified)
After this appeal to common sense, Schelling drops the topic. What are we to make with his curt dismissal of the problem of animal others?
It’s problematic in Schelling’s case because he sets a ‘natural history’ [Naturlehre] of the mind as the task of nature-philosophy, in which the philosopher traces the emergence of consciousness within nature (Ideas, 30). In the Ideas he demands that, philosophically speaking, ‘Nature should be Mind made visible, Mind the invisible nature.’ I mention this feature of Schelling’s philosophy since it ought to have some bearing on the status of animals. If Geist (mind) proceeds along a continuum from simple to more complex forms, this progression should suggest that, even though humans possess faculties relatively more advanced than animals, that these distinctions are differences of degree rather than kind. A distributive continuum of intelligence or Geist would undermine the absolute exclusion of non-human animals from ethical or moral consideration.
Instead, Schelling builds a systematic case against including animals in moral considerations. He contends that the only external beings who merit moral consideration as ‘spiritual’ equals (that is, beings possessing Geist) are those beings, ‘between whom and myself giving and receiving, doing and suffering, are fully reciprocal’ (Ideas, 39; my emphasis). But Schelling should not, at this point, be able to appeal to the principle of spiritual equality of beings, when precisely this principle is in question. The boundaries that he establishes between those beings who act and who suffer like us, and those who do not, affirms a much more pernicious boundary: those beings with whom we share no reciprocity do not act and do not suffer because they do not act or suffer like we do. To dismiss the ‘curious question’ of whether animals are owed any moral obligations absolves humans, as Descartes writes, of ‘the suspicion of crime,’ when we humans assert our dominion over animals and exploit them to our ends. Unfortunately, I cannot address here how Schelling's anthropo-centrism plays out in his subsequent work. However, at least, you now know why the food was vegan.
In the talk I was unable to address how Schelling's anthropocentrism remained consistent through 1809. I've included some comments about absolute idealism in what follows:
I’ve noted claims from Schelling’s Ideas that would establish that differences between humans and animals are differences of degree and not kind. On this account, these differences of degree could be mapped onto the continuum leading from simple to complex acts of Geist. This approach has the advantage of accepting the differences between humans and animals, while acknowledging that the less complex dynamics of intelligence and their modes of relating to the environment would be shared by humans and non-human animals. However, if this were Schelling’s position, he could not categorically exclude non-human animals from the sphere of moral existence. It would remain possible, given the shared features of human and non-human Geist, that humans would owe some form of moral consideration to non-human animals, or at least some non-human animals. I suggest, in the conclusion to the essay that Schelling’s absolute idealism could converge with what, from the standpoint of critical animal studies, Matthew Calarco calls indistinction theory, an approach that no longer takes ‘distinctions between human beings and animals as the chief point of departure for thought and practice,’ which – unlike the utilitarian approach of Singer or the deontological approach of Regan – considers not only animals like us, but also the ‘fate of animals and other beings who lack the key capacities that would establish the grounds for basic ethical consideration.’ Perhaps, then, the critique of anthropocentrism provides an unlikely vindication for Schelling’s absolute idealism.