Schelling, “The Nature of Philosophy as a Science”

This will be our reading for Saturday, September 23.  You can find the location and time at our page.

1. This essay by FJW Schelling is an attempt to explain, or perhaps create, an underlying unity of all philosophies.  He wants a philosophical system that can account for the validity of wildly disparate positions such as Spinoza’s monism or Hume’s empiricism.  This underlying unity is what he calls the absolute, or the freedom of the world to appear or be apprehended in multiple ways.

2. Schelling uses the word system in two ways.  There are many individual systems, and there is the over-arching system he is trying to describe.  Hopefully, the the context of each use of the word will make clear which usage he intends.

3. The attempt to find a unified system of human knowledge presupposes that it does not already exist as a unity.  We can recognize this unity because of previous attempts at discovering unity, culminating in Eleatic oneness, an ancient Greek version of monism.  However, the Eleats posted mere unity, but it would be just as legitimate to posit disunity; a true system must establish the unity of unity and opposition, and it must show how one is necessary for the other.  All of that had to take place before the idea of a system could arise in Plato: “The need for harmony arises first of all in disharmony” (210).

4. For any real attempt to find a system, we need to see that this conflict between unity and opposition is not just a matter of incidental errors.  It has an objective basis, and is built into the “primary roots of all existence” (211).  All exclusive systems are partial, though one can still be a a “higher level” than another.  More precisely, within all the contradictions between systems, there is only one great contradiction: one asserts that A=B, and the other asserts that A=C.  Someone else can come along and develop A=B to a higher level, and for that short time, A=B is higher than A=C.  But then, A=C will be developed, and the conflict will play out all over again.  For example, one philosopher might argue that everything is fundamentally a single substance, and then another philosopher might give better arguments that there are infinitely many substances.  Eventually, however, monism might upgrade itself and temporarily refute the idea of infinite substances.  One system can only appear to beat another, and only for a short time.

5. Every system has the same claim to validity, and this has to be recognized before we can approach the system par excellence.  As long as the materialists, realists, and idealists do not acknowledge each other’s legitimacy, the system par excellence is inconceivable. Hence, the hope of a system is preceded by disunity.

6. Philosophy is often criticized for this disunity.  Philosophy has multiple systems while, e.g., geometry has no system at all.  However, geometry has no system because there is actually no system of geometry, and there are systems in philosophy because there is a system of philosophy.  Consider the human body—doctors recognize different systems.  If someone suffers from one of these systems, then they are tied to it and are its slave, but healthy individuals do not feel any of these systems in particular.  They are not aware of their digestive system; they live only in the whole.

7. We cannot find a unity in which all the systems would destroy each other; they must coexist like the different parts of a body.  The desire to destroy any real system would defeat the purpose.  The one-sidedness of a system does not come from what it affirms, but from what it denies.

8. So far, he has talked about the external reason for the system, which is the ambition for the coexistence of systems. Now, he discusses the principle of system’s possibility.  The first presupposition is movement within the system, or progression.  It is impossible that two conflicting assertions could be true at the same time—which means at the same evolutionary moment.  At a certain moment, it can be true that A is B, while at another, A is not B.  The conflicting statements are kept separate.  The second presupposition is that it is the same subject which progresses throughout the system; if there were different subjects, they would never be connected.  Further, the subject has to always be moving and cannot remain in any one thing; otherwise evolution would be inhibited: “Proceeding through everything and not being anything, namely not being anything such that it could not also be something else—this is the requirement” (215).

9. Now he moves on to what the subject is, or what it should be called.  This, incidentally, is also the question of what the principle of philosophy is.  A principle is not something that is only a principle in the beginning and then left behind.  It is not a simply starting point which is then left behind, like the cogito.  That would be a simple sequence of laws; but because this is a living system, no supreme law is possible.

10. In order to answer the question what is it, we have to properly characterize it: A is B.  But any definition needs to be more precise; it is more than B.  A definition needs to characterize A so that it is not both B and ~B.  This cannot be done here, though.  The subject has to be defined by its indefinability, but its inability to be confined within certain limits.

11. A thing can only be defined it is confined by its own nature to certain limits, like a geometrical figure.  Philosophy is different; it is indefinable.  First, it is nothing, not something, but even this is a negative definition.  But it is also not nothing: it is everything.  It is nothing individual or static; it is B and C and D, and so on, as each one “belongs to the flow of an inseparable movement” (217).  We have to leave everything, everything which “merely exists,” including God, if we take God to be an entity.  God is a great example of what we said earlier: “there is nothing that the absolute subject would not be, and there is nothing that this subject would be.  Namely, the absolute subject is not not God, and it is not God either, it is also that which is not God” (217).  In this sense, it is above God—we might call it a superdivinity.  The absolute should be be straightforwardly mistaken for God.  If we want the starting point of a truly free philosophy, we have to depart even from God.

12. Both Spinoza and Fichte try and fail to do this.  Spinoza tells us to leave behind all finite things, but turns the absolute into an inert substance.  Fichte sees all particulars as inhibitions of free activity, but clings to the self.  Schelling says, “Those who want to climb up to the free ether, however, have to abandon not only objects, but also themselves” (218).

13. He has said that the indefinable aspect of the absolute subject itself has to be made the definition.  But on closer inspection, this is only a negative concept.  The danger here is simple getting caught up with negation; even the word infinite is only the negation of finitude.  We need to push on to an affirmative concept.

14. We need to look at why we end up with this danger of negation.  He stated that the absolute subject is the indefinable; but in doing so, he acted against the earlier claim that nothing could be said of the absolute subject without qualification, without the opposite also being possible.  This has to be applied to the indefinable.  “For it is not indefinable in such a way that it could not also become definable, not infinite in such a way that it could not also become finite, and not ungraspable in such a way that it could not also become graspable” (219).  And if we keep that in mind, we have the positive concept.

15. The positive element is not its form, but that it can take a form.  It is free to adopt or not adopt a form. But he does not want to stay with this definition: “it is that which is free to adopt form,” because this would turn freedom into a quality, which presupposes a subject different from it.  Freedom is the essence of the subject, or in other words, the subject is “nothing but the eternal freedom” (220).

16. This freedom is not mere independence from external determination; it is the freedom to adopt a form.  It is eternal, but not in the sense that it could not not be eternal.  This is its dual essence, which originates in pure freedom itself.  If this freedom could not become non-freedom, then it would have to remain free and freedom itself would become a barrier, and would not really be absolute.  This is the whole, complete, concept.

17. We could also say that this eternal freedom is a pure ability; not the ability to do something, which would restrict it, but a pure ability free of object or intention.  It is also a kind of will, but not a will belonging to an entity distinct from it, which would restrict it.  It is not an actual instance of willing, but will in so far as either either wills or does not will; this indifference (which includes both itself and non-indifference) has historically been named as the Absolute.

18. The way that eternal freedom adopts a form and struggles through to freedom again is is the content of the “supreme science.”

19. The next question is how we become aware of this eternal freedom.  It is an old idea that like can only be recognized by like; hence, there has to be something similar to eternal freedom within us.  The similarity is in ability, knowledge, and desire.  Eternal freedom is pure ability; every ability is knowledge, but not necessarily vice versa.  When ability is effective, it is will, and every act of the will makes something its object.  Ability and will are united in the concept of desire.

20. Eternal freedom is eternal desire, desire in itself.  He uses the term “magic” as a synonym, because it suggests the ability to adopt any form.  It is the same with knowledge; knowledge at rest is infinite and can adopt any form.  By adopting a form, it becomes knowing, and goes from form to form.  This is the movement that produces science; science develops when a knowledge departs from an original ignorance and, after going through all of its forms, returns to its ignorance: “The beginning, restored as a beginning that knows itself, is the end of all knowledge” (222).

21. Schelling makes a distinction between knowledge as objective production and knowledge as repetition of a process.  That distinction is marked by the word wisdom; wisdom is in everything, for that reason, stands above everything.  In wisdom, there is nothing individual, because it does not remain in any one place.  There is no objective production in man, only ideal reproduction, because he is not the magic mover of all things; but in this knowledge qua repetition, “he searches for eternal freedom or wisdom.  How could he search for it, unless it was searching for itself in him?” (223)  Eternal freedom searches for itself in man’s subjective knowledge because it searches for itself objectively.  The entire movement is a search for itself.  “If it searches for itself in man, in subjective knowledge, then this is only due to having been inhibited in its objective search” (223).

22. It does not remain in anything, and destroys each form.  What it replaces the destroyed form is the same form again: this is not progress, only inhibition.  “The root of this standstill cannot be determined, but the state of the world is proof of its existence” (224).  By this he means the regularity of phenomena.

23. Nothing new arises, from generation to generation; it is only in knowledge that there is still an “open space,” and that is why it is of interest. But the active ingredient has disappeared from its knowledge: action and life in man is nothing more than knowledge.  “This knowledge, though, is still essentially the same.  It is eternal freedom that is contain in us in the form of knowledge.  It is the same magic that produces everything, that is master in all the arts, but that is now, in man, restricted to knowledge, to the merely ideal repetition of the process” (224).

24. The question now is how we can know this eternal freedom or absolute subject.  The first problem is that there is a contradiction in the idea of knowing eternal freedom: the absolute subject cannot be an object as absolute subject, because it has no object-like relation to anything.  It has to first become concrete, an object.  This is possible because it is absolute freedom, and so has the freedom to not be a subject: “As object, of course, it can then be known.  We can perceive it in all its forms, but not as eternal freedom, not as subject, not as it is in itself” (225).  After being an object, it must be restored to being a subject; it has to be object as subject and subject as object, without therefore being two.

25. Since this self-knowledge is only possible in the transition from object to subject, the absolute subject does not know itself in the beginning (knowledge at rest) or in the middle (it only knows itself as object).  Only in the end does it know itself as itself.

26. Of course it should know itself as itself; there is nothing else for it to know, because nothing is outside it.  The entire movement is guided by the imperative to know thyself, which is the supreme rule of wisdom.  Since it is a search for wisdom, it is, in its objectivity, philosophy.

27. In the end, eternal freedom is recognized as the absolute subject, but only for itself.  The only way we can have knowledge of this is if the self-knowledge of eternal freedom is our consciousness, and that our consciousness be self-knowledge of eternal freedom.  Since the knowledge lies in transition, the best way to say it is that this transition took place in us, that we are eternal freedom restored as subject after being the object.

28. This claim should not be surprising for two reasons.  First, we only see this freedom in man: “In the middle of time he is outside time, he is permitted to be another beginning, he is the beginning restored” (226). Second, there is an “obscure memory” of having been the beginning or the centre of everything.

29. If man is only freedom come to itself, then it does not know himself as that beginning.  If he knew himself as such, the question of how the recognize this freedom would not be necessary. We would know it immediately.  But since we do not, we need science to guide us.  Science has to start from eternal freedom, but it cannot proceed from it without knowing it.  This is an obvious circularity; science has to start from its own result.

30. The problem here is that philosophy is not a demonstrative science. A demonstrative science begins from one piece of knowledge in order to reach another, and so on.  Philosophy is not a demonstrative science: it is a “free act of the spirit” (227).  Its beginning does not give knowledge; rather, it is a surrender of all knowledge.  It begins with ignorance.

31. By disposing of knowledge, space is created for knowledge—that is, for an absolute subject, which is knowledge itself.  But the absolute subject is there only so long as I do not make it an object.  As soon as this ignorance tries to become knowledge, the absolute subject disappears because it cannot be an object.

32. Others have called this intellectual perception, or maybe intellectual intuition.  The word perception is used because in paying attention to something, the subject is placed outside itself, and intellectual indicates the object is not sensory.  Schelling wants to replace this term with ecstasy: the ego is placed outside its role as subject: Only in this state of having abandoned itself can the absolute subject appear to it in its state of self-abandonment, and so we also behold it in amazement.” (228)  Hence, philosophy begins in amazement.

33. Here is how we come to this ecstasy.  When freedom is turned into an object of thought, a contradiction follows.  The person wants to know freedom as freedom, but by turning it into an object, it becomes unfreedom.  This produces a constant tension.  The highest point of this tension comes when the searcher is cast out into complete ignorance; this is the beginning.  In this beginning state, there is consciousness in a state of absolute ignorance, and the absolute subject, which appears as absolute freedom.  They are set apart, but only because they have abandoned a false unity.  However, because they did set out from a unity, a change in consciousness affects the subject, and vice versa.

34. The movement has three main stages.  First, the absolute finds itself in an “absolute inwardness,” which he calls A, and consciousness is in absolute ignorance, B.  In the second stage, the absolute moves outward, and it becomes an object: B.  The knowledge that was ignorance tries to become inward again: it tries to become A.  So A becomes B, and B becomes A.  Finally, in the third stage, the absolute moves inward again, from B to A, and knowledge returns from A to B, but now it is a knowing ignorance that remembers its freedom.  [See the illustration on 132/231].

35. He considers this a proper theory of philosophy; the rest is explanations and corollaries.

36. The process is based on a separation between absolute subject and knowledge, while keeping them in communication.  On this basis, the important question is no longer how we can be certain of this knowledge.  First, in the state of self-abandonment, or ecstasy, where I know myself to be in ignorance, the absolute subject becomes supreme reality for me: “I posit the absolute subject due to my ignorance (in that ecstasy).  For me, it is not an object that I knowingly know, but the absolute subject that I ignorantly know and that I posit precisely due to my ignorance” (232).

37. Another important point is that it is not my knowledge that changes; rather, “my knowledge is being changed” (232).  It is a reflection of a given form of the absolute.

38. In philosophy, there are no pure and finished laws.  Every concept is produced gradually.

39. It has to be the individual man himself which desires the absolute, but by desiring it, he turns it into an object and destroys it.  From this contradiction, the movement begins, and we are placed at the beginning again, but now with thought being free.

40. Since free ignorant thought and the absolute subject both contain the primordial consciousness, they are a discharge of it.  “Only as such, as correlate of my ignorant, objectless knowledge, can primordial consciousness at all be posited, and in so far as this ignorant knowledge is free thought, I can say: it is posited by my free thought, it is my thought, not in the sense that a chimera is also my thought, but in the sense that it was originally together and one with what is now thought.” (234-235)

41. It is discharged in thought from the same primordial consciousness which had been my consciousness: hence, it is my concept. But this does not mean that it is an object corresponding to my concept, but that it is the concept itself.  It is not that thought posits the absolute subject; they emerge in the same act, the birth of philosophy.  While it is my concept, it is a living, driving concept: “Ignorant knowledge now relates to it as the force that slows down and retards its movement” (235).

42. How I know this movement is no longer a relevant question; the movement and the knowledge of it are one and the same.  This reflecting, retarding knowledge is the philosopher’s knowledge.

“For the movement takes place entirely independently of him, and—very importantly—it is not he who moves in his knowledge and thereby generates knowledge (knowledge thus generated is subjective, a mere conceptual knowledge devoid of reality), but on the contrary, his knowledge is itself immobile.  It is not merely ignorance, but sets itself against knowledge, resists the movement, stops it, and thereby compels the movement to hold its ground at all moments, to linger and not to jump over any one moment.  This retarding force is the actual force of the philosopher.  The masters of this art are those who remain prudent and calm, who are capable of stopping the movement, of compelling it to linger, who so to speak do not allow the movement to take any steps other than the necessary ones and who always allow it only that step which is necessary, not a bigger or smaller one.  This is what the art of philosophy consists in; just as true artists in general can be recognized by a force that slows down and retards, rather than by a force that produces, drives, or accelerates.” (236)

43. To make philosophy a science, we must demonstrate its necessity—and he has already done this.  The tension is always present, and this is why philosophy is always necessary: “Though not exactly forced, man will still, necessarily and inevitably, attract the eternal freedom that he is and desires it for himself, so as to be productive with it upon his own initiative” (238).

44. The inner confrontation does not appear in every person, however.  When it is stirred up and not resolved but instead levelled, we get errors. Errors are not just trivialities or deficiencies.  They are inversions of knowledge (like evil or sickness).  Some claims are simply wrong and devoid of truth, and they are harmless.  But true errors always contain something of the truth. Errors appear by only wanting to know.  Errors can be avoided by not wanting to know, “But wanting to know does not depend on man.  He wants to know before he knows that he wants to know” (239).

45. Our everyday position is a mixture of truth and falsehood. Rookies in philosophy take whatever knowledge they find and hold it up as universal, such as “The natural is outside the supernatural”.  This is true, but it should move us to a higher knowledge.  Those who are captivated by this dualism are at a standstill; “Those, then, who fight for this dualism, are basically fighting for the guilt of man, and they want to project what only man is guilty of on to nature, the object itself” (240).


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