Schelling and Kant (pt 1)


Despite the fact that Schelling is a German Idealist or, more broadly, a post-Kantian thinker, there is not (to my knowledge) anything resembling a consensus regarding Schelling’s relation to Kant. Iain Grant sets up the relation as an overtly hostile one (akin to what the Furies do to Orestes) while thinkers such as Arran Garre balk at such an assertion.

From Schelling’s writings it is clear he has immense respect for Kant, calling him the Aristotle of Germany (as he puts it in The Grounding of Positive Philosophy) and that he nearly perfected negative philosophy through the Critiques. By negative philosophy Schelling means a pure rationalism that addresses the conceptual specifically or, in other words, the negative philosophy determines what is real but not reality (GPP, 131). By no means does Schelling assert or infer that the negative philosophy is unnecessary only that, by its own definition, it can have have no content other then what is determined according to its own ground such that as soon as reason determines something as real the reality of that conceptual content dissipates.

In texts prior to The Grounding (namely the Freedom Essay and The History of Modern Philosophy) Schelling attacks Kant from another position as well in claiming that Kant’s notion of the in-itself not only sabotages the First Critique in epistemological terms (in that the CPR assumes that the a priori of reason is the a priori for reason) (GPP, 127) but also does injustice to nature in that in assuming the a priori is for reason its is denied a properly dynamic character. Or, in other words, the a priori, as Kant defines it, is for reason in that it is empty of content except as a content that grants reason its reach, its momentum. Yet how is it that it grants this capability alone and that this capability is that of and for reason only?

Schelling argues that once reason finds itself as an object ie once reason sees that the content of its determinations is that of reason (but not only for reason) that reason becomes mobile which demonstrates that reason is sufficient in terms of the ‘what’ but not in terms of the ‘that’. The upswing of Kant’s negative philosophy for Schelling is that it is essentially future oriented, because in addressing the shape of what can be content (of what whatness is) it is fundamentally directed towards what can-be (GPP 151). Which is why the ‘proper content of reason’ is the overthrow of reason (GPP, 196-197). But again, this potential is negative to the extent that it is coded as an a priori empiricism, as an empiricism that sees only what is always-already amenable to reason. It is in this vein that Schelling argues that Kant’s famed antimonies are not within reason alone but are reason combating non-reason but on its own turf only (GPP, 190-191). This threatens the very rationality of reason if reason, as a system, maintains its closure from that which is not reasonable beyond experience as a reasonably coded content for reason. Or, in other words, and what Schelling finds most troubling in Hegel as well, is rationalism’s attempt to separate logical derivation from real process (GPP 133). For Schelling philosophy must be negative and positive or determining experience and thinking alongside experience in order to not be a ‘dead’ science. Philosophy, for Schelling, cannot be purely negative because reason cannot erase the pre-existing organism of thought (GPP, 148).

In this sense the negative philosophy is an interruption albeit a necessary one in the relation between thought and experience. Its necessity is not theoretical per se but practical in that the emergence of the negative philosophy identifies the need for the practical to take into account that which seemed to be strictly in the domain of the theoretical, namely the problem of synthesis. As Peterson puts it in the introduction to The First Outline for a Philosophy of Nature, Schelling sees Kant’s formal view of synthesis as insufficient particularly given Kant’s ongoing augmentations of synthesis in the second and third critiques hence Grant’s claim that Schelling essentially argues that the order of Kant’s critiques should be reversed in order not to murder nature at the hands of epistemology. Following Petersen (and adding more fuel to the argument for Schelling’s continuity and not the stereotype of his Proteanism) Schelling’s earliest works take Kant’s arguments about biological unity and apply them to the substance of philosophy as such as activity. This does not mean that Schelling makes the cosmos into a giant organism (as is sometimes presumed) but that the metastable unities which organisms demonstrate, is a sound postulate for the general organization of how a mass of activity (which is nature) might function. Furthermore, the organic model allows Schelling to adopt a form of teleology that circumvents Kant’s limitation of it in that the telos are local to the particular entity acting and does not presuppose a universal teleology. It is in these same terms that Schelling argues that Aristotle’s great mistake was admitting perfection into his materialist system.


The difficulty that Schelling identifies and that stays with him from his earliest writings to his last, is that the ancient model of philosophy stands strong given the fact that the identity of subject and object through the thirdness of mediation shows that we begin from the synthetic. Since we are immersed in an ill-defined system, every competing philosophical system must recognize that every other system is attempting, first and foremost, to stabilize the world or bring the infinite under the yoke of a kind of finitude. The arduous work is explaining how determinations as such occur in the first place (or why is there something rather than something or, given there is something which is activity, why are there individuals?). It is here where it is all too easy to fall into the claim that Schelling either simply breaks metaphysics in the name of something like a proto-existentialism or that he is simply harkening back to dogmatic metaphysics. Instead what Schelling is doing is arguing that practical or pragmatic philosophy requires a postulate that seems metaphysical in order to ground adequately the pursuit of a philosophy that is simultaneously consistent yet open ended. It is Schelling’s strength on these last points in particular that made him popular with Peirce. Peirce appreciated that Schelling’s systems were used till they failed (his systems are ablative rather than self-standing) and that Schelling was one of the few modern philosophers who did not, in Peirce’s opinion, fall under the banner of nominalism.

The positive philosophy speaks to the fact that, for Schelling, the fact of the world pre-exists the construction of a system which occurs in the environment of that world. But world is not a singular entity (a big physical object) nor is it a collection or closed set of all things but only a world as a horizon. The world is a totality in progress following the incorporation of skepticism into the metaphysical desire for stability (following Markus Gabriel’s reading).

What this means is that positive philosophy is one concomitant with experience but not the same as it as philosophy is philosophy and not, after all, the same as experience. This creates for Schelling a kind of anti-method since as a system always pre-exists the investigation of it, the method he decides that must be utilized to pursue a field of knowledge, is that of a postulate (a particular determination) followed by extensive experimentation – not only many forms of experimentation but also experiments that are geared towards extensity – essentially of seeing what a field is by seeing how far the field stretches. What this means is reason has global reach but not local applicability other than as determining the kinds of ‘whats’ (or we might say concepts) at work.

In this regard reason is nature-as-activity attempting to map itself or, put otherwise, the conceptual is the self-inhibition of nature itself for us or the emergence of the inexistent, but demonstrable, skeleton of the activity of nature in human minds. The result is that for Schelling the distinction of the real and the ideal (or world and mind) is one that has to be mapped out in terms of consequences.

More soon…


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