Fichte and Schelling

I’m sharing below another in my series of quick micro-takes on German idealist philosophers. This one tracks Schelling’s break with Fichte. (See my post on Kant and Fichte here.) This break in mind, it’s plain enough to see why Schelling has become such a rallying point in the Continental scene as of late. Not only because of the resurgence of speculative philosophy, mind you, but also because of related trends, such as the ongoing movement towards an environmental (or ecological) humanities. In many ways, Schelling’s problems are still our own, even if our empirical details are more numerous.

As Frederick Beiser tells it, “Schelling’s break with Fichte is largely a tale about the development of his Naturphilosophie” (483). The development of the Naturphilosophie can in turn be read as Schelling’s answer to the failure of epistemology to finally secure and describe the interaction between the mental and physical, the subjective and objective, the ideal and real, the representation and its object. In addressing the question, How do we know that our concepts correspond to the world? Schelling would break not only with Fichte but with many of the suppositions of philosophy after Descartes. As Beiser notes, “Schelling became convinced that rather than providing a presuppositionless starting point [in the Cogito, the Transcendental Ego, and so on], epistemology had some dubious presuppositions all its own” (471) such that “he recognized that the solution to the fundamental problems of epistemology requires nothing less than metaphysics” (466).

In his return to metaphysics, Schelling’s Naturphilosophie argued for two positions: First, transcendental realism, the view that nature exists independently of all consciousness, including transcendental consciousness; and second, transcendental naturalism, the position that everything—including the rationality of the transcendental subject—could be explained in terms of natural law. However, just as Schelling had recognized that epistemology alone could not serve as first philosophy (philosophia prima) he was also quick to recognize that “natural law” could not be read in terms of pure mechanism. “If matter is only bare extension, and if mechanism is the paradigm of explanation,” writes Beiser, “then the only options are dualism and materialism” (466).

The dualistic path leads to the exact aporia we began with; namely, the problem of how res cogitans (the thinking substance) and res extensa (extended nature) could ever interact, and, more central to this discussion, how the former could ever truly know that it is accurately representing the latter (i.e., the problem of solipsism). In the other direction, materialism seems highly parsimonious (and is consistent with what the special sciences often presuppose) but leads to its own intractable issues. Philosophers of mind will in this context note the so-called hard problem of consciousness. First given this name by David Chalmers, it’s a variant of a very old problem: How is that phenomenal and first-personal experiences arise out of asubjective and purely mechanical processes? And how do the two relate? It’s a problem that still awaits a unified consensus, a consensus that may never arrive.

Thankfully, it’s just these two issues—dualism and materialism—that Schelling aims to sort out in the Naturphilosophie. As Beiser describes it, “If philosophy were ever to escape from the impasse of Cartesian solipsism and dualism, Schelling firmly believed, then it had to follow the path of nature itself—reconstructing the natural history of consciousness, the laws by which nature gradually produces self-consciousness itself” (471). Beiser continues, “The self-awareness of the transcendental subject now became simply the highest potency of the organic powers of nature. In making this move, Schelling deliberately turned the Cartesian tradition on its head” (Ibid.).

Thus by revisioning the organic powers of nature in these terms, Schelling’s “first decisive step” (487) in breaking with Fichte was to separate Naturphilosophie from transcendental philosophy—in this case, the transcendental philosophy as articulated in Fichte’s Wissenschaftlehrer—a move that reinstated nature’s self-sufficient autonomy, on the one hand, and read the complexities of intelligence and reason in terms of nature’s own powers, on the other. “This means, as Schelling later put it, that the subject’s awareness of nature amounts to nothing more than nature coming to its self-awareness through him” (488). A logically consistent if provocative claim.

One way to think about Schelling’s new view on the ontological status of mind and nature, then, would be to say that the transcendental tradition had it right in saying that the subject appears first in the order of knowledge and experience but that nature must have priority in the order of being. In taking natural and transcendental approaches as two necessary prongs of all future philosophy, Schelling was in this way able to clarify the crucial difference between epistemological (or transcendental) and ontological (or natural) priority. While Schelling argued for the importance of both paths, Beiser makes it clear that Schelling preferred his own Naturphilosophie, the priority of the metaphysical powers of nature to constitute the transcendental subject, over the path of knowledge, instantiated in the subject-centered traditions of modernity. With this move, notes Beiser, “the break with the subjectivist tradition could not have been more total” (490).

Skills of Perception

I’ve been suggesting that the basic constituents of experience are neither ideas nor representations but activities of thought capable of generating ideas and representations. On this view, it follows that perception is grounded in the actions of the person; it is a skill of combining the manifold of sensibility into the semantically hued diorama of meaningful experience that all people experience as they navigate the world. As a skill of perception, experience can be said to consist in various levels of detail and nuance; it is shot through with skillful means at the ground level, means trainable and plastic in nature. Indeed, if one takes the position that philosophy is an activity that intervenes upon the initial order of skilled perception, then it becomes clear that philosophy is a means for acting upon action. Philosophical practice on this view is itself something like a somatic or practical activity, one that makes contemplation—in the sense of marking out a space for observation—its own kind of skilled action, executed in an environment.  Continue reading

Kant and Fichte

I’m taking a course in German idealism with the ever-busy Matt Segall. Below are a few thoughts on Fichte’s advance over Kant’s critical philosophy. I’m finding that there’s much in Fichte’s work that forms something of a historical starting point for my own work on concepts as capacities. There are substantial differences, too. For example, Fichte’s strong separation of the causal order of nature and the normative order of human freedom strikes me as implausible, and it would be hard to imagine a philosopher arguing the point with as much force today (though the exact way to think of this partition—or to not think it at all—continues to give everyone a headache).

That said, as I read them, the primary difference between Kant’s and Fichte’s philosophies lies in their differing starting points, in what a grounding for transcendental philosophy requires. If Kant was correct to say that experience has an a priori structure that conditions all possibilities of experience, he was wrong to suggest that this a priori structure—including the forms of intuition, the categories of the understanding, the ideas of reason, and the transcendental ego itself—could be taken as simply given. That is, in much the same way that Kant’s critical philosophy leads one to reject the mere givenness of empirical experience, this same rejection should be applied to the mere givenness of the a priori concepts and categories of the transcendental itself. Continue reading

The Side View Published

Cosmos and History has published ahead of schedule my essay “The Side View: Hadot and Sloterdijk on the Practice of Philosophy.”

You can read it online HERE.

The full issue is available HERE.

Many thanks to the folks at Cosmos and History for being so efficient in their efforts.

Article forthcoming in Cosmos & History

I’ve just received word that the online journal Cosmos and History will soon publish an article I completed on the work of Pierre Hadot and Peter Sloterdijk. Readers of this blog are no doubt already familiar with C&H, but if you haven’t visited their site before you’ll find a substantial and worth-while back catalogue of articles available for free. I’m told my essay will appear online in March. The article gives a fuller voice to a few ideas I’ve been ruminating on (see for example here and here). I’ll be sure to post the link to the full essay when it’s published. For now, I’m including below my abstract for the paper.


This essay describes Peter Sloterdijk’s “side view” of philosophy. That is, it describes the self-disciplines that make philosophical activity possible. Along similar lines, the paper draws on the work of Pierre Hadot, who also reads philosophy as an askēsis or exercise of self-transformation. Bringing together the work of Sloterdijk and Hadot, the essay reframes the question, What is Philosophy? by asking, Who is the philosopher? To this end, the essays synthesizes the work of Hadot and Sloterdijk, describing first the philosopher’s exercises of self-transformation, then their relation to the city and the community at a large, and finally their connection to the practice zones, enclaves, and microclimates, to use Sloterdijk’s terms, that enable the philosopher to perform certain maneuvers in thought. The paper concludes with an assessment of Sloterdijk’s global view of human practice—which he calls “the planet of the practicing”—to suggest that a planetary perspective should hold a privileged view for future philosophical inquiries. Who are the philosophers? They are the practitioners of planet Earth, the ascetic planet.

The Practice of World

“Tomorrow we shall have to invent, once more, the reality of this world” — Octavio Paz. My friend Sam Mickey ends a recent post with this great quote.

The concept of world is tricky. What is there if not a world? Its priority and consistency is the basic explanatory fact out of which our notions of the living and thinking person are formed. To suggest the opposite, that the person precedes the world, would be incoherent. However, if we accept that the only world we can know is the one that emerges on the basis of our perception, our cognitive ability, our emotional disposition, our aesthetic sensitivity, and our embodied capacity, then saying that the person precedes the world makes some sense. But this isn’t quite right, either. People do not emerge ex nihilo. They emerge in the middle of things. On this point science, religion, and myth agree. There must be a world prior to the subjects of that world, and that world must be one that supports the kind of subjects that look back upon it, if they can. But from where do they look back? Continue reading