Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling

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Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling
Western Philosophy
19th-century philosophy

F.W.J. Schelling
Full name Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling
Born January 27, 1775(1775-01-27)
Leonberg, Germany
Died August 20, 1854 (aged 79)
Bad Ragatz, Switzerland
School/tradition German Idealism
Main interests Naturphilosophie, Natural Science, Aesthetics, Religion, Metaphysics, Epistemology

Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (January 27, 1775 – August 20, 1854), later von Schelling, was a German philosopher. Standard histories of philosophy make him the midpoint in the development of German Idealism, situating him between Fichte, his mentor prior to 1800, and Hegel, his former university roommate and erstwhile friend. Interpreting Schelling's philosophy is often difficult because of its ever-changing nature. Some scholars characterize him as a protean thinker who, although brilliant, jumped from one subject to another and lacked the synthesizing power needed to arrive at a complete philosophical system. Others challenge the notion that Schelling's thought is marked by profound breaks, instead arguing that his philosophy always focused on a few common themes, especially human freedom, the absolute, and the relationship between spirit and nature.

Schelling's general thought has often been neglected, especially in the English-speaking world, as has been his later work on mythology and revelation (much of which remains untranslated). This stems not only from the ascendancy of Hegel, whose mature works portray Schelling as a mere footnote in the development of Idealism, but also from his Naturphilosophie, which scientists have ridiculed for its "silly" analogizing and lack of empirical orientation.[1] In recent years, Schelling scholars have attacked both of these sources of neglect.




Early life

Schelling was born in the town of Leonberg in Württemberg (now Baden-Württemberg). He attended the monastery school at Bebenhausen, near Tübingen, where his father was chaplain and an Orientalist professor. From 1783 to 1784 Schelling attended a Latin school in Nürtingen and knew Friedrich Hölderlin, who was five years his senior. At the age of 16, he then was granted permission to enroll at the Tübinger Stift (seminary of the Protestant Evangelical State Church in Württemberg), despite not having yet reached the normal enrollment age of 20. At the Stift, he shared a room with Georg Hegel as well as Hölderlin, and the three became good friends. Schelling studied Church fathers and ancient Greek philosophers. His interest gradually shifted from Lutheran theology to philosophy. In 1792 he graduated from the philosophical faculty, and in 1793 contributed to Heinrich Eberhard Gottlob Paulus's Memorabilien; in 1795 he finished his thesis for his theological degree, De Marcione Paullinarum epistolarum emendatore. Meanwhile, he had begun to study Kant and Fichte, who greatly influenced him. In 1794, Schelling published an exposition of Fichte's thought entitled Über die Möglichkeit einer Form der Philosophie überhaupt (On the possibility of a form of philosophy in general). This work was acknowledged by Fichte himself and immediately earned Schelling a reputation among philosophers. His more elaborate work, Vom Ich als Prinzip der Philosophie, oder über das Unbedingte im menschlichen Wissen (On Self as principle of philosophy, or on the unrestricted in human knowledge, 1795), while still remaining within the limits of the Fichtean idealism, showed a tendency to give the Fichtean method a more objective application, and to amalgamate Spinoza's views with it.

Philosophy of nature

While tutoring two youths of an aristocratic family, he visited Leipzig as their escort and had a chance to attend lectures at Leipzig University, where he was fascinated by contemporary physical studies including chemistry and biology. At this time he also visited Dresden, where he saw several collections of the Archduke of Saxony, to which he referred later in his thinking on art.

After two years tutoring, in 1798, at the age of only 23, Schelling was called to Jena as an extraordinary (i.e., unpaid) professor of philosophy. He had already contributed articles and reviews to the Philosophisches Journal of Fichte and Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer, and had thrown himself into the study of physical and medical science. In 1795 Schelling published Philosophische Briefe über Dogmatismus und Kritizismus (Philosophical letters on dogmatism and criticism), consisting of 10 letters addressed to an unknown interlocutor that presented both a defense and critique of the Kantian system; in 1797 he published the essay "Neue Deduction des Naturrechts" (New deduction of natural law), which anticipated Fichte's treatment of the topic in the Grundlage des Naturrechts(Foundations of natural law). His studies of physical science bore fruit in the Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur (Ideas concerning a philosophy of nature) (1797), and the treatise Von der Weltseele (On the world-soul) (1798). In Ideen Schelling referred to Leibniz and quoted from his Monadology. During his natural philosophy period, he highly esteemed Leibniz and his view of nature.

Schelling's time at Jena (1798-1803) put him at the center of the intellectual ferment of Romanticism. Schelling was on close terms with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who appreciated the poetic quality of the Naturphilosophie, reading Von der Weltseele. As the prime minister of the duchy of Saxe-Weimar, Goethe invited Schelling to Jena. On the other hand Schelling was repelled by Friedrich Schiller's less expansive disposition, and was unsympathetic to the ethical idealism that animated Schiller's work. However, Schelling presumably studied Schiller's aesthetic writings: later, in his Vorlesung über die Philosophie der Kunst (Lecture on the philosophy of art, 1802/03), Schelling expressed little interest in Schiller's achievement in literature, but in its General Part, Schiller's theory on the sublime was closely reviewed with a deep respect.

In Jena, Schelling wrote and published numerous books and treatises. He was on good terms with Fichte at first, but their different conceptions, about nature in particular, led to increasing divergence in their thought. Fichte was not pleased that Schelling showed a deep interest in nature and advised him to focus on philosophy in its original meaning, that is, transcendental philosophy: specifically, Fichte's Wissenschaftlehre. Schelling was initially optimistic about their differences and thought Fichte would eventually understand what he was doing, since he considered his natural philosophy an important enhancement of Fichte's idealism. In 1800 Schelling published one of his most notable works System des transcendentalen Idealismus (System of transcendental idealism, 1800). In this book Schelling described transcendental philosophy and nature philosophy as complementary to one another. Fichte reacted by stating that Schelling was working on the basis of a false philosophical principle: in Fichte's theory nature as Not-Self (Nicht-Ich = object) couldn't be a subject of philosophy, whose essential content is the subjective activity of the human intellect. The breach became unrecoverable in 1800, after Schelling published Darstellung des Systems meiner Philosophie (Description of the system of my philosophy). Fichte thought this title absurd, since in his opinion philosophy could not be personalized. Moreover, in this book Schelling publicly expressed his estimation of Spinoza, whose work Fichte had repudiated as dogmatism, and declared that nature and spirit differ only in their quantity, but are essentially identical (Identitaet). According to Schelling, the absolute was the indifference or identity, which he considered to be an essential subject of philosophy.

Schelling, who was becoming the acknowledged leader of the Romantic school, had begun to reject Fichte's thought as cold and abstract. Schelling was especially close to August Wilhelm von Schlegel and his wife, Karoline. A marriage between Schelling and Karoline's young daughter, Auguste Böhmer, was contemplated by both. Auguste died of dysentery in 1800, prompting many to blame Schelling, who had overseen her treatment. However, Robert Richards demonstrates in his book The Romantic Conception of Life that Schelling's interventions were not only appropriate but most likely irrelevant, as the doctors called to the scene assured everyone involved that Auguste's disease was inevitably fatal. Auguste's death drew Schelling and Karoline even closer. Schlegel had moved to Berlin, and a divorce was arranged (with Goethe's help). Schelling's time at Jena came to an end, and on June 2, 1803, he and Karoline were married away from Jena. Their marriage ceremony was the last occasion Schelling met his school friend Hölderlin, who was already mentally ill at that time.

In his Jena period, Schelling had a closer relationship with Hegel again. With Schelling's help, Hegel became a private lecturer (Privatdozent) at Jena University. Hegel wrote a book titled Differenz des Fichte'schen und Schelling'schen Systems der Philosophie (Difference between Fichte's and Schelling's systems of philosophy, 1801), and supported Schelling's position against his idealistic predecessors, Fichte and Reinhold. Beginning in January 1802, Hegel and Schelling published the Kritisches Journal der Philosophie (Critical Journal of Philosophy) as co-editors, publisheing papers on the philosophy of nature, but Schelling was too busy to stay involved with the editing and the magazine was mainly Hegel's publication, espousing a thought different from Schelling's. The magazine ceased publication in the spring of 1803 when Schelling moved from Jena to Würzburg.

From September 1803 until April 1806 Schelling was professor at the new University of Würzburg. This period was marked by considerable flux in his views and by a final breach with Fichte and Hegel. In Würzburg, a conservative Catholic city, Schelling had many enemies among his colleagues and in the government. He moved to Munich in 1806, where he found a position as a state official, first as associate of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities and secretary of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, afterwards as secretary of the Philosophische Klasse (philosophical section) of the Academy of Sciences. 1806 was also the year Schelling published a book in which he criticized Fichte openly by name. In 1807 Schelling received the manuscript of Hegel's Phaenomenologie des Geistes (Phenomenology of the spirit), which Hegel had sent to him, asking Schelling to write the foreword. Surprised to find disparaging remarks directed squarely at his own philosophical theory, Schelling eventually wrote back, asking Hegel to please clarify whether he had intended to mock Schelling's followers who lacked a true understanding of his thought, or Schelling himself. Hegel never replied. In the same year, Schelling gave a speech about the relation between the visual arts and nature at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, and Hegel wrote a severe criticism of it to one of his friends. After that year, they criticized each other in lecture rooms and in books publicly until the end of their lives.

Munich period

Without resigning his official position in Munich, he lectured for a short time in Stuttgart (Stuttgarter Privatvorlesungen [Stuttgart private lectures], 1810), and seven years at Erlangen (1820-1827). In 1809 Karoline died, just before he published Freiheitschrift, the last book published during his life. Three years later, introduced by Goethe, Schelling married one of her closest friends, Pauline Gotter, in whom he found a faithful companion.

During the long stay at Munich (1806-1841) Schelling's literary activity came gradually to a standstill. The "Aphorisms on Naturphilosophie" published in the Jahrbücher der Medicin als Wissenschaft (1806-1808) are for the most part extracts from the Würzburg lectures, and the Denkmal der Schrift von den göttlichen Dingen des Herrn Jacobi was a response to an attack by Jacobi (the two accused each other of atheism[2]). The only writing of significance is the "Philosophische Untersuchungen über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit und die damit zusammenhängenden Gegenstände" (Investigations of Human Freedom, Philosophische Schriften i, 1809), which carries out, with increasing tendency to mysticism, the thoughts of the previous work, Philosophie und Religion (Philosophy and religion, 1804). However, in a change from the Jena period works, now evil is not an appearance coming from the quantitative differences between the real and the ideal, but something substantial. This work clearly paraphrased Kant's distinction between intelligible and empirical character. Otherwise, Schelling himself called freedom "a capacity for good and evil."

The tract "Über die Gottheiten zu Samothrake" (On the divinities of Samothrace) appeared in 1815, ostensibly a portion of a greater work, Die Weltalter (The ages of the world), frequently announced as ready for publication, but of which little was ever written. Schelling planned Die Weltalter as a book in three parts, describing the past, present, and future of the world; however, he began only the first part, rewriting it several times and at last keeping it unpublished. The other two parts were left only in planning. Christopher John Murray describes the work as follows:

Building on the premise that philosophy cannot ultimately explain existence, he merges the earlier philosophies of Nature and identity with his newfound belief in a fundamental conflict between a dark unconscious principle and a conscious principle in God. God makes the universe intelligible by relating to the ground of the real but, insofar as nature is not complete intelligence, the real exists as a lack within the ideal and not as reflective of the ideal itself. The three universal ages — distinct only to us but not in the eternal God — therefore comprise a beginning where the principle of God before God is divine will striving for being, the present age, which is still part of this growth and hence a mediated fulfillment, and a finality where God is consciously and consummately Himself to Himself.[3]

It is possible that it was the overpowering strength and influence of the Hegelian system that constrained Schelling, for it was only in 1834, after the death of Hegel, that, in a preface to a translation by Hubert Beckers of a work by Victor Cousin, he gave public utterance to the antagonism in which he stood to the Hegelian, and to his own earlier, conception of philosophy. The antagonism certainly was not then a new fact; the Erlangen lectures on the history of philosophy of 1822 express the same in a pointed fashion, and Schelling had already begun the treatment of mythology and religion which in his view constituted the true positive complements to the negative of logical or speculative philosophy.

Berlin period

Public attention was powerfully attracted by these vague hints of a new system which promised something more positive, especially in its treatment of religion, than the apparent results of Hegel's teaching. The appearance of critical writings by David Friedrich Strauss, Feuerbach, and Bruno Bauer, and the evident disunion in the Hegelian school itself, express a growing alienation from the then dominant philosophy. In Berlin, the headquarters of the Hegelians, this found expression in attempts to obtain officially from Schelling a treatment of the new system which he was understood to have in reserve. The realization of the desire did not come about till 1841, when the appointment of Schelling as Prussian privy councillor and member of the Berlin Academy, gave him the right, a right he was requested to exercise, to deliver lectures in the university. Among those in attendance at his lectures were Søren Kierkegaard (who said Schelling talked "quite insufferable nonsense" and complained that he did not end his lectures on time), Mikhail Bakunin (who called them "interesting but rather insignificant"), Jacob Burckhardt, and Friedrich Engels (who, as a partisan of Hegel, attended to "shield the great man's grave from abuse").[4] The opening lecture of his course was listened to by a large and appreciative audience. The enmity of his old foe, H.E.G. Paulus, sharpened by Schelling's apparent success, led to the surreptitious publication of a verbatim report of the lectures on the philosophy of revelation, and, as Schelling did not succeed in obtaining legal condemnation and suppression of this piracy, he in 1845 ceased the delivery of any public courses. No authentic information as to the nature of the new positive philosophy was obtained till after his death (at Bad Ragatz, on August 20, 1854), when his sons began the issue of his collected writings with the four volumes of Berlin lectures: vol. i. Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology (1856); ii. Philosophy of Mythology (1857); iii. and iv. Philosophy of Revelation (1858).


While of indisputable historical importance, Schelling has often been dismissed as obscurantist or unmethodical.

In his own view, Schelling's philosophy fell into three stages:

  1. the transition from Fichte's method to the more objective conception of nature—the advance, in other words, to Naturphilosophie
  2. the definite formulation of that which implicitly, as Schelling claims, was involved in the idea of Naturphilosophie, that is, the thought of the identical, indifferent, absolute substratum of both nature and spirit, the advance to Identitätsphilosophie
  3. the opposition of negative and positive philosophy, an opposition which is the theme of the Berlin lectures, though its germs may be traced back to 1804.

At all stages of his thought he called to his aid the forms of some other system. Thus Fichte, Spinoza, Jakob Boehme and the mystics, and finally, the great Greek thinkers with their Neoplatonic, Gnostic, and Scholastic commentators, give colouring to particular works. But Schelling did not merely borrow; rather, he shaped his materials into a unified philosophic effort and spirit.


In his Naturphilosophie, Schelling argues Nature must not be conceived as merely an abstract limit to the infinite striving of spirit (as it was by Fichte), or as a mere series of necessary thoughts for mind. Rather, it must be that and more than that. It must have reality for itself, a reality which stands in no conflict with its ideal character, a reality the inner structure of which is ideal, a reality the root and spring of which is spirit. Nature as the sum of that which is objective, intelligence as the complex of all the activities making up self-consciousness, appear thus as equally real, as alike exhibiting ideal structure, as parallel with one another. Nature and spirit, Naturphilosophie and Transcendentalphilosophie, thus stand as two relatively complete, but complementary parts of the whole.

The function of Naturphilosophie is to exhibit the ideal as springing from the real, not to deduce the real from the ideal. The incessant change which experience brings before us, taken in conjunction with the thought of unity in productive force of nature, leads to the all-important conception of the duality, the polar opposition through which nature expresses itself in its varied products. The dynamical series of stages in nature, the forms in which the ideal structure of nature is realized, are matter, as the equilibrium of the fundamental expansive and contractive forces; light, with its subordinate processes—magnetism, electricity, and chemical action; organism, with its component phases of reproduction, irritability and sensibility.

Just as nature exhibits to us the series of dynamical stages of evolutionary processes by which spirit struggles towards consciousness of itself, so the world of intelligence and practice, the world of mind, exhibits the series of stages through which self-consciousness, with its inevitable oppositions and reconciliations, develops in its ideal form. The theoretical side of inner nature in its successive grades from sensation to the highest form of spirit, the abstracting reason which emphasizes the difference of subjective and objective, leaves an unsolved problem which receives satisfaction only in the practical, the individualizing activity. The practical, again, taken in conjunction with the theoretical, forces on the question of the reconciliation between the free conscious organization of thought and the apparently necessitated and unconscious mechanism of the objective world. In the notion of a teleological connection and in that which for spirit is its own subjective expression, that is, art and genius, the subjective and objective find their point of union.

Along two distinct lines Schelling is to be found in all his later writings striving to amend the conception, to which he remained true, of the absolute as the ultimate ground of reality. It was necessary, in the first place, to give to this absolute a character, to make of it something more than empty sameness; it was necessary, in the second place, to clear up in some way the relation between the actuality or apparent actuality of nature and spirit (Natur und Geist). Unlike Schelling's fellow philosopher and erstwhile friend Hegel, Schelling did not believe that the absolute could be known in its true character through rational inquiry alone. A transcendent apprehension through artistic creativity, or a mystical intuition through religious experience (especially evident in his writings of, and after, the year 1809), was instead required to realize the reality of the "Godhead" that is the absolute, primal ground of all being.

The briefest and best account by Schelling himself of Naturphilosophie is that contained in the Einleitung zu dern Ersten Entwurf (S. W. iii.). A full and lucid statement of Naturphilosophie is that given by Kuno Fischer in his Geschichte der neuern Philosophie, vi. 433-692.


American philosopher Ken Wilber places Schelling as one of two philosophers who "after Plato, had the broadest impact on the Western mind".[5] Today, all aspects of his thought are studied by Western philosophers. But he did not always enjoy such a high reputation.

Schelling's work impressed the English romantic poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who introduced his ideas into English-speaking culture, sometimes, unfortunately, without full acknowledgment, as in the Biographia Literaria. Coleridge's critical work was highly influential, and it was he who introduced into English Schelling's concept of the unconscious.

However, by the 1950s, Schelling was almost a forgotten philosopher even in his own country, Germany. In the 1910s and 1920s, philosophers of neo-Kantianism and neo-Hegelianism, like Wilhelm Windelband or Richard Kroner, tended to describe Schelling as an episode connecting Fichte and Hegel. His late period tended to be ignored, and his philosophies of nature and of art in the 1790s and 1800s were mainly focused on. In this context Kuno Fischer characterized Schelling's early philosophy as "aesthetic idealism", focusing on the argument where he ranked art as "the sole document and the eternal organ of philosophy" (das einzige wahre und ewige Organon zugleich und Dokument der Philosophie). From socialist philosophers like György Lukács, he received criticism as an anachronistic antagonist.

One exception was Martin Heidegger, who treated Schelling's On Human Freedom in his lectures in 1936. Heidegger found there the central themes of Western ontology: the issues of being, existence, and freedom.

In the 1950s, the situation began to change. In 1954, the centennial of his death, an international conference on Schelling was held. Several notable German-speaking philosophers, including Karl Jaspers, gave presentations about the uniqueness and actuality of his thought, the interest of philosophers shifting toward his late period in which Schelling focused on being and existence, or precisely the origin of existence. Schelling was the subject of the 1954 dissertation of the eminent 20th century German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. In 1955, the next year of this conference, Jaspers published a book titled Schelling, representing him as a forerunner of the existentialists. Walter Schultz, one of organizers of the 1954 conference, published a book claiming that Schelling had made German Idealism complete with his late philosophy, particularly with his Berlin lectures in the 1840s. Schultz presented Schelling as the person who resolved the philosophical problems which Hegel had left incomplete, in contrast to the contemporary idea that Schelling had been overcome by Hegel much earlier and outdated.

In the 1970s nature was again of interest to philosophers in relation to environmental issues. Schelling's philosophy of nature, particularly his intention to construct a program which covers both nature and the intellectual in a single system and method and restore nature as a central theme of philosophy, has been reevaluated in the contemporary context. His influence and relation to the German art scene, particularly to Romantic literature and visual art, has been a scientific interest since late 1960s, from Philipp Otto Runge to Gerhard Richter and Joseph Beuys.

In relation to psychology, Schelling was considered to have coined the term "unconsciousness". The Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalytic theorist Slavoj Zizek has written two books on Schelling, attempting to integrate Schelling's philosophy, mainly his middle period works including Weltalter, with the work of Jacques Lacan.


(Philosophical Inquiries into the Nature of Human Freedom, 1809)


Selected works are listed below. For a more complete listing, see this page.

See also


  1. ^ The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that "its empirical claims are indefensible"[1].
  2. ^ John Laughland, Schelling Versus Hegel: From German Idealsim to Christian Metaphysics (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2007: ISBN 0754661180), p. 119.
  3. ^ Christopher John Murray, Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850 (Taylor & Francis, 2004: ISBN 1579584225), pp. 1001-02.
  4. ^ Tristram Hunt, Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels (Henry Holt and Co., 2009: ISBN 0805080252), pp. 45-46.
  5. ^ See Wilber's A Brief History of Everything, chap. 17 (pp. 297-308).

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