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).