Schelling’s Spaces

12Aug13

[The following is a post based on my paper for the German Idealism Workshop (which was just rejected...c'est la vie!) and in many ways foregrounds issues that Iain Grant discussed this past week in Pittsburgh. I will follow this post with a discussion of Grant's lectures]

There is a fairly well known saying that the German Idealists (primarily Fichte, Schelling, Hegel) ran through the door which Kant had only wished to peak through. This means, among other things, that the cautious uncertainty where Kant stood was ‘ruined’ by the German Idealists who wanted to talk more about ‘things in themselves’ or to, in various ways, get rid of the things in themselves all together and expand that shaky ground outwards. Whereas Zizek has argued that Hegel effectively ontologizes that which Kant had recognized without really recognizing (that the subject comes to be substance through a kind of indirect self-recognition) the Pittsburgh Hegelians, insofar as I grasp them, take both Fichte and Hegel’s idealism to be one that grounds the stability of the starting subject position on the efficacy of the normative which is sui generis and separate from what McDowell calls, following Sellars, the logical space of nature.

In essence, the problem of how mind and world (or reason and nature) interact is based upon a self-sustaining space of reasons, where we have learned via linguistic structures to be able to self-test that the world is thus and so in relation to us saying that the world is thus and so. This capacity cannot, following Brandom and McDowell, be anchored in naturalistic processes (to do so would be to fall into the naturalistic fallacy as Sellars called it) because the set of rules governing conceptual behavior are different in kind from those laws which govern the logical space of nature. However, I believe that the way in which the logical space of nature is described immediately fixes the game in a way that any kind of naturalism other than as empirical explanation, cannot but fail to appease the force of second nature (the space of reasons). That is, I believe that Schelling’s naturalism is not a bald naturalism as McDowell would put it, but, given its speculative nature, questions the descriptive ground put in place by the Pittsburgh Hegelians.

Put otherwise, if naturalism is that which fundamentally describes laws and their empirical ambit, this presupposes the efficacy of description, already grounded, as the boundary of the space of nature. Such a formulation outrightly dismisses speculative physics, whether in Hegel, Schelling, or in comtemporary thought, Gabriel Catren. Catren’s speculative physics asserts an a priori (but non-transcendental in the Kantian sense) structure of laws which determine the limitations of the empirical. As Dan Sacilotto has discussed succintly here, Catren’s speculative physics runs against Meillassoux’s assertion that the laws of nature cannot be contingent. In this sense, and as I have argued previously in talks, whereas Meillassoux asserts the necessity of contingency and Hegel the contingency of necessity, Schelling asserts the necessity of necessity however speculatively determined. This means the necessity of nature however (something is impossible if its conditions cannot be given in nature) and not the necessity of necessity removed from nature and placed in the logical space of reasons. Markus Gabriel’s move is to push this logical space of reasons ‘backwards’ and equate it with Schelling’s concept of das unvordenkliche (the un-pre-thinkable). But what this means for the separability of nature and logic in Gabriel appears somewhat uncertain.

As Iain Hamilton Grant has skilfully pointed out, Schelling effectively reverses Kant through a naturalization of the transcendental. Whereas Kant is concerned with how experience is possible (as a synthesis of impression into experiences, sensations which in an empirical register must be of nature), Schelling wonders how nature must be in order for us to be, and for us to be even able to think of something like nature. On the first point, how must nature be in order for us to be, assumes, as a ground, that nature prexists us or as Schelling states ‘it is because there is being there is thinking. Thus while Schelling does not at all dispute the starting point of Kantian critical philosophy, Schelling claims that Kant should not be lambasted for peeking through the door at the in itself illegitimately, but that this peeking (through our speculative capacities) can only ever be grounded in a continuum between the space of nature and the space of reasons. In so doing, Schelling claims that Kant did not go far enough namely in stating that things in themselves should be, to acquire something approaching a ‘higher realism,’ forces in themselves or activity in itself. This is why, again following Gabriel, that Schelling goes a step further than Hegel in feeding the structure of lack into the structure itself thereby generating unprethinkable being.

In a seemingly paradoxical sense Schelling takes this generation as the activity of the I whereby the I realizes its own ungraspable ground as activity. Schelling’s fascination with Fichte’s I as the form of philosophy, the I as endless doing, is not taken by Schelling as seed for a rampant idealism (at least, as idealism would be construed by Kant) but as arguing that the activity of being a self can only be grounded in an existence outside of it, namely by the speculatively determined dynamics of nature.  That is, whereas Fichte took nature as not-I to be an internalized formal constraint on which the activity of the I operates, Schelling sees this activity of of nature and appearing, in our minds, as our own activity (as intentionality), as only possible following a self inhibition of mental activity in order for anything resemblign reason to even be possible.

This brings us to the second issue above, how is it even possible that we can think something like nature outside of us?

Schelling’s approach here seems somewhat akin to Meillassoux in that both assert that there is an absolute without thought but that there is a way to think this absolute without falling into a trap of co-constitutive meaning (or strong correlationism). It is worth noting that Meillassoux accuses Schelling of not only being a strong correlationist in this sense but is guilty twice over: through the use of both Nature and the objective-subject object. Yet, it would seem that Schelling is not saying that nature is hypostatized mind or vital (he explictly knocks down both of these assertions) but argues that the contingency of reason is not the same functionally as the contingency of nature. The latter necessarily pre-exists the former for us to be here and no normative quarantine can seal the breach between modal possibility and natural constraints.

There are two (perhaps more) approaches here. Iain Grant’s seems to be to push the concept of a sanitized logic to its breaking point to show how logic cannot be exculpated from nature. The approach which I will be pushing in my dissertation is from the other side, to show how a speculative account of nature can redraw the logic capacities of reason. That there is a relation between nature and thought which is consequential rather than evental (in Meillassoux’s sense) and that Schelling attempts this through a kind of Kantian formalism naturalized (via Plato), Fichtean combined with Fichtean activity de-centralized, thereby making Spinozistic realism dynamic. Schelling’s  form of speculation (as I will discuss next entry) is ultimately about the forms which must exist in nature in order for nature to function whereas Kant attempts to claim that logic forms can be deduced from experience in order to explain experience. For Schelling this gives too little freedom (as activity) to the a priori in as seen in Kant’s anxiety about destabilizing the ground of judgement in light of the dynamics of nature.



6 Responses to “Schelling’s Spaces”

  1. “the Pittsburgh Hegelians, insofar as I grasp them, take both Fichte and Hegel’s idealism to be one that grounds the stability of the starting subject position on the efficacy of the normative which is sui generis and separate from what McDowell calls, following Sellars, the logical space of nature.”
    Do Brandom or McDowell ever discuss Fichte? I’m working on a project of reading Brandom and McDowell through Fichte’s 1804 WS/L, so if you’ve got the reference on hand I’d be grateful.

    • 2 Ben Woodard

      I can’t remember off hand but I think it’s mostly secondary essays that connect the two of them (though I think Brandom has talked about Fichte in lectures). It’s also fairly common that the comment is made that Brandom is actually more Fichtean than Hegelian…

  2. 3 Liam Sprod

    This is very interesting indeed, although I doubt that I have time at the moment to follow up anything specific on Schelling. I have just been working on Derrida’s ‘Violence and Metaphysics’ and he makes some rather cryptic and elliptical references to Schelling (p163 of the Routledge Classics edition of ‘Writing and Difference’) on precisely these issues. Your discussion clarifies them somewhat for me, but I was still wondering what you might make of them? If you are familiar/interested at all.

    • 4 Ben Woodard

      Thanks – I’m not familiar with that particular Derrida text unfortunately and can’t really say anything…sorry!

  3. I agree very fundamentally that this (“to show how a speculative account of nature can redraw the logic capacities of reason”) is a worthwhile topic. I first of all wish you all the best in your work and I must furthermore thank you generously for it.

    Just as a prima facie there seems to be certain rigid limitations to the logical capacities of reason (i.e. how it indeed “fixes the game”), you might initially encounter the same kind of problem if you restrict yourself to providing a speculative account of nature which redraws the logical space. Speculation in itself also appears to “fix the game”, although it is a different sort of fixing than the one we are used to. That is, it is essentially another instance of fixing, albeit one which takes the shape of an “un-fixing” as it were. My intuition would be that while this could indeed pull back against the dominant trends or just in case correct the error in the right direction, it would not ultimately amount to much other than that. Moreover, it potentially runs the risk of re-creating the same game-fixing phenomena.

    My worry is that in the end this speculative account may not prove to be the free act of thinking as such that Schelling might have enjoyed, but merely one important element contained within it. Again, this is because it still appears to carry a certain conceptual “fixing” of sorts. It is precisely this kind of heavy anchorage (whether naturalistic or otherwise) plain and simple which seems to be at the heart of the problem no matter which side of the equation we consider. I think we ought to eventually be able to overcome it by “thinking together”. How, then, shall we enframe things so that they escape this tendency-towards-anchoring altogether?

    Perhaps you already know where I am going with this: That there is a solution not so clearly present in Schelling, but which can be seen most vividly – I think – in the likes of Novalis. While the philosophies of Schelling and Novalis do not differ radically, their styles most certainly do. Novalis’ musicological style, I believe, allows certain things to be revealed in Schelling which might otherwise have remained hidden. Namely, I would expect that by considering at once the speculative account of nature and the logical account in one fell swoop we may slowly bring ourselves to “lift” this anchor in our thinking.

    In any case, many of Novalis’ fragments speak directly to this sensation of lifting, and I believe they provide us with a means of articulating (however poetic) the kind of free-moving conceptual thought anticipated within Schelling’s spaces. I would love to speak with you further on this should you be willing.

    • 6 Ben Woodard

      Hi David,

      Thanks for the comment. I’m not super familiar with Novalis but have read some of the fragments on nature but I think Iain Grant is going in this direction and Markus Gabriel as well in that both (in looking at the late Schelling in particular) are trying to account for how Schelling has something like a logic but one that cannot be so easily excised or protected from nature as seems to be the case in Hegel. Gabriel argues that by applying the lack or limit of reflection to reflection itself that Schelling creates a notion of logical space that is unprethinkable and that determines without being determinable. But I think this remains too much in the space of reasons as it were as it makes the limit internal to knowledge it doesn’t say anything about nature or how certain possibilities of thinking may arise from nature. Part of my dissertation project (a big part) is to look at the geometry/topology of what it means to even say there is a space of reasons and a space of nature at all – how can these be spaces in any intelligble sense and be disconnected in the way that they often are? I think Schelling’s appeal to Aristotle as well as his connections to Peirce are what make possible overcoming this gap – that there is a pragmatic (as opposed to practical) sense in which speculative thought is built on degrees of motion in a continuum and that thought is a species of motion. This is abstract and things that I am currently working on but I think it’s a promising avenue.


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