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Friedrich Schelling

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Friedrich Schelling
Friedrich Schelling
(Painting by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1835)

Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775 - 1854) was a German philosopher, and one of the quintessential figures of the German Idealism and Romanticism movements in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.

His is often seen as a bridge between the earlier Idealism of Kant and Fichte and the later work of Hegel, or as a philosophical Proteus who changed his conception so radically and so often that it is hard to attribute a clear philosophy to him. However, his views arguably always focused on a few common themes, especially human freedom, the absolute, and the relationship between spirit and nature.

He is perhaps the most neglected of the major German Idealists, largely overshadowed by the G. W. F. Hegel, and was all but forgotten for nearly a century after his death. However, he has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years, and has been described as the culmination of German Idealism and as a forerunner to modern Existentialism.


Schelling was born on 27 January 1775 in the small town of Leonberg, near Stuttgart in southern Germany. His father was the chaplain and Orientalist professor at the cloister school at nearby Bebenhausen.

He attended his father's school at first, and then a Latin school in Nuertingen from 1783 to 1784 (where he became acquainted with the young poet Friedrich Hölderlin). At the age of 15, he was granted permission to enroll early at the Tübinger Stift Protestant seminary in Württemberg, where he studied the Church fathers and ancient Greek philosophers. He became roommates with Georg Hegel as well as Hölderlin, and the three became good friends. His interest gradually shifted from Lutheran theology to philosophy, and in 1792 he graduated from the philosophical faculty, and he finished his thesis for his theological degree in 1795.

Meanwhile, he had begun to study the work of Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, both of whom 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"), which immediately earned him a reputation among philosophers and was acknowledged by Fichte himself. In 1795, he followed up with a 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"), still within the limits of the Fichtean Idealism, although with a more objective application, and with the additional amalgamation of some elements of the pantheistic views of Baruch Spinoza and Neo-Platonism.

From 1796 to 1798, Schelling worked as the tutor of two youths of an aristocratic family, which also allowed him to visit Leipzig (wheres he also attended lectures at Leipzig University, and developed a fascination with contemporary physical studies including chemistry and biology) and Dresden (where the art collections of the Archduke of Saxony were influential on his later thinking on art). His studies of the physical sciences led to his essay "Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur" ("Ideas to a natural philosophy") of 1797, and the treatise "Von der Weltseele" ("On the soul of world") of 1798. In the "Ideen" in particular, he showed a debt to Gottfried Leibniz's view of nature, especially his "Monadology".

In 1798, at the still youthful age of 23, he was offered the position of extraordinary professor of philosophy at the University of Jena, where he remain for five years until 1803. There, he was at the centre of the intellectual ferment of Romanticism, and was on close terms with Germany's great man of letters, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832), and the writer and philosopher, Friedrich Schiller (1759 - 1805). Gradually, more and more distance opened up between Schelling and Fichte, particularly as Schelling insisted on the complementary nature of his transcendental philosophy and nature philosophy, as described in one of his most notable works, the "System des transcentalen Idealismus" ("System of transcendental Idealism") of 1800. Hegel, whom Schelling had helped to a position as private lecturer at Jena University, initially supported Schelling's ideas in his book, "Differenz des Fichte'schen und Schelling'schen Systems der Philosophie" ("The Difference between the system of the philosophy of Fichte and of Schelling") of 1801, although he was soon to head off on a different track.

By 1800, Schelling was becoming the acknowledged leader of the Romanticism school, and had begun to reject Fichte's thought as cold and abstract. Schelling was especially close to the Romantic poet August Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767 - 1845) and his wife, Karoline, and was seriously considering marriage to their young daughter, Auguste Böhmer, until she died of dysentery in 1800. Karoline Schlegel was a beautiful and intellectual woman, twelve years Schelling's senior, and the brilliant hostess of Jena's salon of Romanticism and its intellectual circles, and Schelling soon fell in love with her. When Schlegel moved to Berlin and divorced Karoline in 1803, Schelling and Karoline were quickly married and (due largely to the scandal this caused) they moved away from Jena to Würzburg.

From 1803 until 1806, Schelling was professor at the new University of Würzburg, his gradually changing views marked by a final breach with both Fichte and Hegel. He had many enemies in conservative Catholic Würzburg, and moved to Munich in 1806, where he found a position as a state official in the Academy of Sciences there, staying until 1841. He was ennobled (with the addition of "von") in 1806. Karoline died in 1809, just before Schelling published his last book, "Philosophische Untersuchungen über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit und die damit zusammenhängenden Gegenstände" ("Philosophical Investigations on the Nature of Human Freedom"), which showed an increasing tendency toward mysticism and has also been seen as a major precursor to existential thought. In 1812, he married one of Karoline's closest friends, Pauline Gotter, in whom he found a faithful companion for the remainder of his life. Later, without resigning his official position in Munich, he also lectured for a short time at Stuttgart and then for seven years at Erlangen University (from 1820 to 1827).

In 1841, at the age of 66, Schelling was appointed as Prussian privy councillor and member of the Berlin Academy, which also gave him the right to lecture at Berlin University, then the centre of Hegelianism. Among his students there were the Danish proto-existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, the Russian revolutionary and anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (1814 - 1876) and the German socialist and communist, Friedrich Engels (1820 - 1895) among others, and his lectures were attended by a large and appreciative audience. His Berlin lectures were published posthumously in four volumes by his sons. Eventually, he accepted an invitation to succeed to the University's chair in Philosophy, previously held by Hegel. His proposed great work, "Die Weitalter" ("The Ages of the World"), which he was supposedly working on during his latter years, never appeared.

He died on 20 August 1854 in Bad Ragaz, Switzerland.

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For a century after his death, Schelling was almost a forgotten philosopher, even in his own country, the consensus being that he had been obscurantist and un-methodical, and that his work had been well and truly eclipsed by the work of Hegel. It was only after praise from Martin Heidegger in his 1936 lectures, and a high-profile international conference on the 100-year anniversary of his death in 1954, that Schelling was fully rehabilitated, amid descriptions of him as the culmination of German Idealism and as a forerunner to modern Existentialism.

Always a champion of Romanticism, he advocated a philosophy which emphasized intuition over reason, and which held the aesthetic and creative imagination as the highest values. Schelling's philosophy constituted a unique form of Idealism, known as Aesthetic Idealism. He believed that, in art, the opposition between subjectivity and objectivity is sublimated, and all contradictions (between knowledge and action, conscious action and unconscious action, freedom and necessity) are harmonized.

Schelling's conception of "Naturphilosophie" has not fared well at the hands of modern science, which has roundly criticized his fragmentary knowledge of contemporary science, and his lack of intellectual rigour, but some of his thoughts are nevertheless original and valuable. Nature, according to Schelling, has its own metaphysical reality, independent of the rising consciousness of the empirical ego (contrary to Fichte's conception of Nature as nothing more than a conscious "representation" of the empirical ego). Thus, the Absolute (Fichte's "Pure Ego") must be conceived of as the complete identity of the Universal Spirit and Nature.

Schelling tried to establish a viable connection between his conceptions of nature and spirit (or natural philosophy and transcendental philosophy), which he saw as two parts of a whole: complementary, yet complete in themselves. He saw the dynamic series of stages in which the ideal structure of nature is realized (which he called the organic, the inorganic, and the universal or "World Soul", the latter underlying and defining the other two), as analogous to the dynamic stages of processes by which spirit struggles towards consciousness of itself. He held that the presence of the Universal Spirit in nature is an essential condition for the emergence of empirical consciousness (individual egos).

Another important aspect of his work is his anti-Cartesian account of subjectivity, which prefigured some of the best ideas of thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Jacques Lacan (1901 - 1981) in showing how the thinking subject cannot be fully transparent to itself. His later critique of Hegelian Idealism influenced Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger and others, and aspects of it are still echoed in contemporary thought by thinkers like Jacques Derrida.

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