On Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism (1800), introduction, featuring Mark, Wes, Dylan and Seth.
What’s the relationship between mind and world? Schelling, as a young acolyte of Fichte, thought that our minds produce the world, but also that the perceiver-world dichotomy comes to us as a single piece, and that “transcendental philosophy” is best described as an exploration of the internal logic of that revelation, which is the experience of self-consciousness itself. The moments of this experience can be separated out and analyzed and actually parallel (and are the ultimate driving force behind) the history of a progressive philosophy and the growth of self-consciousness through history itself. If this idea sounds familiar (and bonkers), it’s because Hegel used it as the basis of his much more famous Phenomenology of Spirit.
This book by Schelling is just as ambitious (and nearly as lengthy) as Hegel’s book, and so we’re barely scratching the surface of it. We read the introduction and parts one and two, but the difficulty of the text and concepts mean that in this discussion we were only able to give an overview and then go through the introduction in detail. Ep. 274 will go through more of the text.
The most counter-intuitive part of idealism becomes clear when we consider pre-human history. If the mind builds the world, that seems to mean that before there were minds, there was nothing at all, so does that mean that geologists, paleontologists, etc. wrong? No, by no means. A primary, undeniable datum that the idealist needs to handle is the objectivity of the world, and our reading attempts to provide an account of how the subject (the self) relates to the world which will do justice to this. This is in some ways merely a new presentation of the Fichte’s ideas, but Schelling’s twist on this is to say that a fully formed philosophy can start either with the subject (as in transcendental philosophy) or with the object (as in natural science), and he thinks that if you investigate each of these thoroughly enough you’ll end up having to develop the other the other discipline. In investigating the objective world, you’ll find that each sensible thing is dependent on something else, i.e. the thing that caused or conditioned it, and given the limits on our possible knowledge this chain can’t end (as a theologian philosopher would say) at a necessary God or any other Being like that, but instead would lead back to the Subject as Knower providing the foundation for all this. Schelling’s reasons for this take a little explaining (which we do in ep. 274), and are (to my mind) pretty unconvincing. For the most part in this work, Schelling assumed the truth of idealism and tried to a la Kant to give an account of how knowledge of the objective world is possible given this truth. He thought that his idealist picture better addresses traditional philosophical problems about knowledge: If you start off by assuming that mind and world are a really a single thing, then you’re not faced with the unbridgeable gap between mind and world that Descartes, Locke, and others had to deal with.
Schelling’s focus is the search for a foundational “principle” that is both subject and object at the same time: Again, this is self-consciousness, for convoluted reasons that occupy nearly the whole of our ep. 274 discussion. While animals (those too dumb to have a sense of self, anyway) may interact successfully with the world, only with self-consciousness is true knowledge actually possible, according to Schelling, and this self-consciousness is not just a matter of registering some experience we’ve had but of a free action that we take that in effect creates the self: Animals just don’t have selves at all in this robust sense; they’re just part of the fully determined mechanisms of nature even though, sure, they do have consciousness and feelings and all that.
By beholding this one part of our experience where subject and object are one (because it’s an intuition where the subject doing the intuiting is also the the object being intuited), we’re supposed to then see how subject and object in the rest of our experience are related, how they presuppose each other so that it really doesn’t then make sense to talk about an objective world with no mind in it at all, and yet it also doesn’t make sense to talk about a mind that’s not situated in a world that is larger in time and space than any of us will or can directly sense. Schelling eventually reveals that the self proper is outside time altogether; this very much parallels the kind of thinking about a creator God that answers the problem of “what was before God or his creation?” by saying that the term “before” doesn’t apply to God at all. Why can geology tell us about ages before minds? Well, because minds exist outside of time, and it’s the experience of self-consciousness that establishes time itself for us along with the rest of the world, i.e. objectivity. Since subject and object are really created in one act, it’s not that there’s a mind-substance that exists outside of time prior to this act, because a) mind is not a substance (i.e. an object) at all, and b) there is no “prior” to an act that creates time.
A good connection to help understand this that Schelling mentions is Spinoza, who likewise thought that mind and matter are ultimately one, but for Spinoza they’re one thing, i.e. a type of substance that is prior to and underlies both aspects, where for Schelling the conflict is instead between subjectivity and objectivity, where the self, which just is the act of self-consciousness (so that this act actually creates the self; it doesn’t find a self that was already there), is the foundation for both of these things, and so actually transcends them both. Yet at the same time, this has to be actually something in our experience, meaning that all this weird talk of creating time is something that we can become (sort of) conscious of doing. If you put yourself in the mindset of something like Avicenna’s flying man experiment (think total sensory deprivation, which of course we can’t achieve because of that pesky heartbeat and breath and proprioception and other things), then your sense of self feels absolutely unlimited, outside of time, space, and the world, because it’s only when we confront objects in the sensory world that a limit is put on the self, that it becomes a self by its distinction from these objects.
We can read Fichte’s theology into this picture to help make more vivid what in Schelling’s book is abstract; Schelling does not directly say (at least in what we read) that, e.g. we have a divine nature that through the primordial act of self-consciousness becomes a concrete thing in the world, or that history is God’s gradual coming to self-consciousness of Himself. Though Schelling obviously shared Fichte’s primal concern about freedom and many detailed points about the idealist strategy, Fichte was firm about subjectivity being the necessary foundation for philosophy, and Schelling’s idea that you could just as well start the inquiry by doing natural science and work back to the subject constituted a break with Fichte that actually dissolved their friendship!
An interesting consequence of Schelling’s view of the relation between mind and nature is that nature ends up being proto-intelligent, in that it obeys natural laws and often displays internal purposefulness (teleology); this is the “vitalism” trend in natural science that was somewhat popular in the age of Romanticism (which this text is leading into) and in accord with the later process philosophy of Whitehead and others (the self is a process for Schelling, after all). Consequently, since nature is so much like the human mind, then figuring out nature is like figuring out a work of art (as a human construction). Being a philosopher ends up requiring artistic discrimination, and the lack of this artistic sense explains (according to Schelling) why so many philosophers can’t understand and accept idealism. Those “dogmatists” who insist on the existence of physical objects apart from minds are just a bunch of blockheads!
Buy the book. The secondary source we refer to is Terry Pinkard’s German Philosophy 1760-1860: The Legacy of Idealism (2002).