“It is not that I know but that the universe knows through me”
Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854) was a leading nature philosopher who developed a metaphysics based on the organic unity of the living universe.
His work and significance is today largely overlooked in the English-speaking world, as his Naturphilosophie is entirely incompatible with the industrial capitalist mindset.
But the holistic, interrelational vision developed by Schelling, along with the likes of Friedrich Hölderlin and Georg Hegel, deserves to be at the core of the new ecological understanding of which humanity now has urgent need.
The implications of the “absolute idealist” philosophical outlook expressed by Schelling two centuries ago were enormous.
For a start, his approach represented a complete rupture with René Descartes’ famous starting point of the knowing subject, the “I” who thinks and therefore is.
Explains Frederick Beiser: “The true starting point of philosophy, he argued, should be nature itself, the universe as a whole”. (1)
Organism is the guiding principle or metaphor behind Schelling’s thought: “Schelling extends this metaphor to the universe as a whole, so that all nature is one vast organism, one living whole, which is undergoing constant growth and development.
“According to his organic vision, there is a simple living force acting throughout all nature, and all the different species of minerals, plants, and animals and even all the different forms of matter itself, are simply so many different degrees of its organization and development”. (2)
From this perspective, individual self-awareness is nothing less than the self-awareness of the living universe, which it achieves through the consciousness of its component parts.
As Schelling put it: “It is not that I know but that the universe knows through me”. (3)
This is, in fact, the ancient metaphysics of unity, which Schelling and his contemporaries formulated in the rationalist language of their times.
As such, it was anathema to “scientific” empiricism, which rejects the idea of a priori principles, such as the existence of an organic living universe, and insists that principles are only valid if they are derived from physical experience.
At first glance, the empirical approach might appear to work its way “from the bottom up” by insisting on physical evidence, in contrast to a “top down” descent from an overarching cosmic unity.
But, in fact, Naturphilosophie empowers the whole of physical reality, right down to the “bottom” levels, with the significance of being fully part of a universal entity.
This relational significance is lost to empiricism which, as Beiser points out, appeals to proven facts but “does not give a proper a priori foundation for them, which requires showing how they relate to one another in a system”. (4)
When Schelling identified nature as “visible spirit”, (5) he was referring to the inherent structure possessed by the universal organism.
This structure is not merely physical but also involves the motivating idea, or purpose, behind the living and evolution of the organic Whole, the ultimate entity which is “from itself and through itself” – “von sich selbst und durch sich selbst“. (6)
The purpose of life is therefore inherent in all its many diverse parts and is not something that can be imposed from the outside.
Beiser writes that “Schelling distinguished an organism, which is self-causing and self-generating, from a mechanism, which is something produced according to external cause above”. (7)
This is essentially the same distinction that Ferdinand Tönnies was to draw between organic Gemeinschaft and artifical Gesellschaft and that anarchists draw between natural bottom-up social harmony and state-imposed pseudo-order.
Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is also very much a repudiation of dualism, insisting that, as Beiser puts it, “the opposition between the real and the ideal, the mental and the physical, disappears in the absolute, which is a single reality”. (8)
Schelling was a friend of Hegel and shared a room with him and Hölderlin as a student. The “Schelling-Hegel alliance” (9) led the pair to jointly edit the Critical Journal of Philosophy.
There were divergences between their individual outlooks, with Hegel often stressing spirit where Schelling stressed nature, but these “do not reflect a fundamental difference in principle, only one of interest and emphasis” (10), concludes Beiser in his study of Hegel.
Both men insisted that it was vitally important to be aware of our holistic belonging to the universe and also to understand how nature acts through us.
Schelling described this intellectual intuition, in Fernere Darstellungen, as “the capacity to see the universal in the particular, the infinite in the finite, and indeed to unite both in a living unity”. (11)
Video link: Diagram of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie (10 mins)
1. Frederick C. Beiser, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism 1781-1801 (Cambridge, Massaschusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008), p. 471.
2. Beiser, German Idealism, p. 517.
3. Friedrich Schelling, Sämtliche Werke (Stuttgart: Cotta, 1856-61), VI, p. 140, cit. Beiser, German Idealism, p. 358.
4. Beiser, German Idealism, p. 528.
5. Schelling, Sämtliche Werke, II, p. 56, cit. Beiser, German Idealism, p. 368.
6. Schelling, Sämtliche Werke, VI, p. 148, cit. Beiser, German Idealism, pp. 351-52.
7. Beiser, German Idealism, p. 518.
8. Beiser, German Idealism, pp. 352-53.
9. Frederick Beiser, Hegel (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005), p. 14.
10. Beiser, Hegel, p. 112.
11. Schelling, Sämtliche Werke, IV, p. 362, cit. Beiser, German Idealism, p. 580.