F. W. J. Schelling: The Ages of the World (1811)

The Ages of the World (1811) Book Cover The Ages of the World (1811)
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
F. W. J. Schelling. Translated and with an introduction by Joseph P. Lawrence
SUNY Press
2019
Hardback $95.00
275

Reviewed by: Dennis Vanden Auweele  (Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven)

Schelling published his masterful essay Philosophical Investigations into the Nature of Human Freedom in the same year that he lost his wife Caroline (1809). One might speculate that the latter event provoked Schelling’s own descent into the abyss of being, a journey that he would try to articulate for over two decades afterwards. Up until 1833, Schelling would namely lecture and draw up drafts for a work entitled The Ages of the World (Weltalter). Most of these drafts, along with Schelling’s unpublished manuscripts, were regrettably lost when the Munich archive was bombed during World War II (1944).

Horst Fuhrmans reports there were about twenty drafts of this work, most extensively developing the first part of the work dealing with “the past.” Schelling never published any of these drafts in his lifetime. Though, he did prepare the first draft in 1811 for publication, he decided to rescind his agreement for publication after the reception of the proofs. The same happened to a second draft in 1813. Shortly after his father’s death, Schelling’s son published the most extensive draft in 1815 with some extant editorial revisions. It is this last draft that is most well-known and has been translated into English several times, most notably by Jason Wirth in 2000.

In his introduction to that work, Wirth calls for the urgent translation of the 1811 draft. The drafts of 1811 and 1813 differ in a particular way from the one of 1815. While the last draft was heavily edited by Schelling’s son—with several omissions, the inclusion of section headings and some extant corrections—the two earlier drafts were only published much later by Manfred Schröter with less of an editorial impact and thus appear, on the whole, more reliable. But it is very hard to judge the editorial reach of Schelling’s son. Because of the abovementioned destruction of the Munich archive, Schröter could not attend to publishing the drafts written between 1815 and 1833. The draft of 1813 appeared in English translation by Judith Norman in 1997 and was accompanied by a tantalizing essay by the contemporary philosopher, Slavoj Žižek. In the English-speaking world, Žižek’s essay is seminal for the interpretation of Schelling’s Weltalter. Scholars had to wait a long time for an English translation of the 1811, the urgency of which should be apparent. This is now provided for a first time by Joseph Lawrence.

The present works contain the translation of Schelling’s 1811 draft of The Ages of the World. The translator, Joseph Lawrence, offers an extensive introduction which situates the work historically and thematically, as well as justifies some of his choices when translating Schelling’s often peculiar use of German into English. Alongside the text for which Schelling rescinded publication permission , the book also contains Schelling’s extensive notes and fragments for this draft and its second chapter. Lawrence is upfront about the impact of his own Schelling-interpretation on his activity as a translator. This impact is not limited to certain choices of translation as next to these, Lawrence decided to include several section and division headings, but also adds thirty-five clarifying footnotes. These notes most often provide extra information about Schelling’s meaning and sources, but occasionally engage the existing literature on the proper interpretation of Schelling’s text.

I will not judge whether this is appropriate when translating a text—at the very least, Lawrence is entirely upfront about the matter (see 47 ff.). Rather, I found Lawrence’s editorial work helpful and the sectional division unproblematic and even helpful in manifesting a textual hidden structure. The English translation reads as Schelling would have intended: engaging, penetrating, provocative and occasionally mystifying. In his translation, Lawrence succeeded in capturing something of the enigmatic spirit of the work.

The actual text is preceded by an extensive introduction (some fifty pages). There, Lawrence provides historical context about the different drafts of The Ages of the World and their academic reception. Missing from this extensive introduction are an overview of Schelling’s argument (Lawrence takes this for granted), contextualization within Schelling’s thought (between early and later), and western philosophy (transitioning between modern and postmodern paradigms of thought). The period in which Schelling wrote his drafts for The Ages of the World coincides with his own transitioning from his earlier thought—usually called the philosophy of identity and the nature-philosophy—towards his later philosophy, where he engaged mostly with positive philosophy, revelation and metaphysical empiricism. For a very long time, Schelling was known only through his earlier work. This was due to that Schelling’s later philosophy was only available in lecture form and that those who had eagerly attended his Berlin lectures (1841 and onwards) were thoroughly disappointed. The same Schelling who boldly divinized humanity and nature, who defended pantheism, and spoke so lyrically about the abyss of reason, now sang the praises of what appears to be a relatively orthodox Christian philosophy. It is not hard to imagine how Schelling’s failure to complete The Ages of the World provoked his move from his earlier to his later paradigm. As such, the decisive locus of failure in that work offers a window into Schelling’s philosophical development.

It would have been very interesting to read Lawrence’s take on the ideological place of The Ages of the World in Schelling’s development, and to gain some insight into why Schelling abandoned the project. This remains unclear to scholars, though most agree that Schelling failed to conceptualize a transition from “the past” to “the present” through an act of freedom. This is where the three known drafts were arrested in their deveopment, and where there is an ample sum of diversity. The 1811 draft was a first attempt at thinking this through, though Schelling ultimately abandoned the answer provided here; an answer that is, compared to the other known drafts, the closest to his views in Freiheitsschrift (1809).

Lawrence does give a cogent defense of the more general philosophical relevance of Schelling’s The Ages of the World. He does this not primarily from a historical angle, but from the perspective of its unique contribution to various contentious areas in contemporary philosophical discourse. Taking issue with Žižek’s influential reading of Schelling’s work, Lawrence provides a deliberately non-psychological reading of Schelling’s Weltalter. First and foremost, Schelling would look for “a compelling alternative to the mechanical conception of time as something stretched out into infinity, with neither beginning nor end” (5). Indeed, central to Schelling’s pre-occupation at the time of writing Weltalter was the concern to do full justice to a new, non-reductive sense of time. Lawrence’s emphasis on this topic of time is undeniably correct, but it might overshadow some of the equally important ontological and theological questions that Schelling engages at that time.

When he conecptualized The Ages of the World, Schelling was convinced that it was paramount for philosophy to think of God as an entity more than in its modern configuration, namely a rationalized and abstract idea. Schelling then provocatively suggests that God must become God; a position that can only do justice to a robust sense of time and to the vast panoply of horror and suffering that scars the world. Lawrence turns to the topic of God towards the end of his introduction (30-38), but seems mostly invested in showing how Schelling’s nature-philosophy is not atheist but a renewal of Christianity. Implicit in Lawrence’s reading of Schelling’s critique of atheism would be the attempt to transition more smoothly from the nature-philosophy towards the more overtly Christian Spätphilosophie of mythology and revelation. This might be true, but not because Schelling feared atheism; rather, he feared a kind of theology that sapped the life out of God.

What is interesting is how Lawrence connects Schelling’s work to innovations in modern science, such as those of Einstein and Heisenberg (17-20), and his reflection on the trajectory of human history and its relationship to capitalism and communism (20-30). These reflections can get preachy at times—lamenting the influence of capitalism on the university—but serve as an honest and provoking attempt at making Schelling’s abstract thought more palatable to contemporary concerns.

Schelling was namely concerned with a number of basic questions that remain unsolved to this day. One of the central points of argument in The Ages of the World is that there can be nothing outside primordial matter, because it is a dense singularity, disabling anyone form explaining the emergence of life from any outside influence. There can be no external agent that impacts primordial life in such a matter that life, time and intelligence come to be. This immediately invalidates the traditional Christian understanding of creation. Life must be self-creative. Especially in the 1811 draft, Schelling follows the metaphor of pregnancy very closely, thinking of the self-fertilization of the divine substance in moments of contraction. This parthenogenesis was his first attempt to explain how a primordial matter could give birth to itself.

To summarize, Schelling wrote an introduction for The Ages of the World which stays almost entirely unchanged throughout the drafts of 1811, 1813, and 1815. The well-known but enigmatic opening sentence of this introduction is, “the past becomes known, the present recognized, and the future divined” (55), which at the very least signals that the three “ages” are known in distinct ways. Schelling intended to write three parts which respectively deal with the eternal past, the eternal present and the eternal future, but never managed to write a substantial part beyond the first age of the world. In that part, the question is asked what happened before God became God in the act of the creation. Schelling’s argument—to many a scandalous one—was that God must become himself from the Lauterkeit (translated by Lawrence as lucid purity) of a pre-temporal, pre-conscious existence. Almost all of the material known of the Weltalter attempts to investigate, on the one hand, what was going on in the pure being of God before creation and, on the other hand, how and why God would abandon that position. It is this second issue upon which the various drafts of Weltalter dramatically differ. Schelling seemed thoroughly dissatisfied with his answer to the how and why of creation.

The mood is set by the introduction. Schelling aims for a science that is “the development of a living, actual being” (56), which has at that time finally become possible because a sense of spirit (Geist) has been brought back to philosophy. There, Schelling calls attention to the dialectical turn in philosophy, most overtly in his own nature-philosophy and Hegel’s idealism. Dialectical philosophy allows for the subject to recognize himself as part of a larger process, where it can then find within his own soul the different steps of the protohistorical process in which the universe came to be. It is clear that Schelling is still mulling over Hegel’s powerful critique in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit. Yet, Hegel claimed that Schelling’s philosophy starts as if “by the shot of a gun” out of “the night in which all cows are black.” In other words, Hegel indicted Schelling with arguing that we move from absolute unknowing to absolute knowing without much of a real, timely transition.

Taking Hegel’s criticism seriously, Schelling became more interested in conceptualizing a proper sense of time and history. For instance, Schelling emphasizes that our knowledge is piecemeal, in a stage of becoming, and never complete (e.g. 61). Time must come to be and it must have an absolute beginning. If one would entertain a more mechanical conception of time—of an infinite series—there would be no such things as novelty or unicity because everything is caught within that infinite series. For something to have a past, a real past, it has to come to be through an act of separation or division (Scheidung). There is a point of beginning, the moment where the present starts and the past ends, but the question then becomes what precedes the moment of beginning. This is what Schelling would call the relative and absolute prius in his positive philosophy.

This beginning before the beginning must be an original purity, Lauterkeit. This lucid purity is conceptualized by Schelling in more or less blissful and simple terms. There is a peaceful self-rumination in the original state (which would change drastically in later drafts of Weltalter, especially the 1815 one). This stage of purity is somehow lost through a movement within God before he is God himself, namely a desire to intuit or represent himself. This can only happen via a contraction of himself, a contracting of being and becoming determinate. This brings out a duality of willing in God, namely purity and contraction. Unlike the future drafts, Schelling does not figure this duality in strongly dialectical terms (more in dualistic terms). For instance, he uses the following image: “Heaven is his throne and the earth his footstool” (79). Rather, this is seen as the quite peaceful interplay between two different wills which results in a spiritualized sense of matter, a so-called golden age.

Only later would Schelling discuss how this interplay leads to frustration, namely when these two wills start to strive for independence. This leads to an inner antagonism in the primal being: “This is the dire fate of all life, that to become comprehensible to itself, it seeks constriction, demanding narrowness over breadth. But after constricting itself and discovering what it feels like to be, it demands once again to return into openness” (93). Schelling is attentive to a number of objections that could be made to this view, namely that it would involve a deification of nature, whether this can be taken as a systematic representation of being and whether this does not regard matter too highly. Schelling’s response is unapologetic and emphasizes that such a pantheist self-rumination is the repressed past of the world. It seems that Schelling moved away from this point of view in his Spätphilosophie.

This leads Schelling to what Schröter and Lawrence view to be the second part of this draft, namely the move beyond the past. This cannot happen through a force from the outside, since there is no outside to the original pantheist unity. The move beyond the past happens through the Father begetting the Son (contraction, giving birth), the other through which the Father can come to know himself. While there is opposition—the Son is not the Father—their opposition is not absolute, but actually paves the way for a higher, now cognized, unity: “They are brought to a higher unity precisely by that which tears them apart, insofar as, once they have been divided from one another, they are able to embrace anew, mutually dissolving into one another with the entire wealth of their content” (126). That unity is not fixed at any point, but is in a constant state of becoming. This was put forward by all religions—or so claims Schelling—and especially in the Christian understanding of the trinity: three personalities in one person. Yet, this point is something that reason finds difficult grappling and might have been complete unable to reach without the light of revelation: “Without the light of revelation a scholarly researcher would never be in the position to follow with natural ease the inner going forth of the first divine actions, guided by concepts that are as straightforward and human as they need to be” (130). Philosophers that close off from revelation will “simply become more and more entangled in their own thoughts, losing themselves in the end in what is vacuous and sterile” (ibid.).

For Schelling, this introduces a new sense of time into philosophy, in opposition to three previous understandings of time. First, the mechanical sense of time where time constitutes an actual infinity (without beginning or end). Second, the idea that time is not needed to understand the becoming of the world or that all happens in “one fell swoop.” Third, a partial subjectification of time while allowing something of an objective time (Kant’s position). Schelling believes that there is no objective time, only the subjective time of the thing itself. Time exists because God slows down his revelation; he does not force things to happen instantly. Things develop organically becomes God holds back his self-exposure. This second part ends with a number of disparate and largely unfinished reflections on the relationship between pantheism and dualism (in dialogue with Schlegel); the freedom that enables the world to be, which happens not for the Father but for the Son; the limitations of knowledge, a point of self-professed ignorance, where philosophy runs up against the boundaries of what is can legitimately say.

After this translation of the draft, Lawrence included just under one-hundred of pages of notes and fragments belonging to this draft. Schelling never intended these to be published and their German editor, Schröter, admits that his work on these notes was hasty. Due to their destruction, he did not have the opportunity to check his work. These notes can offer a helpful view into the process through which Schelling composed this first draft of The Ages of the World.

For the most part, this is a matter of wording rather than content. Joseph Lawrence provided as service to Schelling-studies by supplying a well-structured, readable translation of the 1811 draft of Weltalter. The fluent translation reflects the spirit and content of the original text, while some of his choices are slightly infelicitous. For instance, Schelling’s confounding use of Sein and Seiendes is rendered by Lawrence respectively as “being” and “that which is.” While this translation is correct, it loses the simplicity of Schelling’s terms. Elsewhere, this couple is rendered respectively as “being” and “existing being.” The English language has no simple word pair as the German does. The choice to translate Scheidung as scission should be applauded. It is more conventional than the usage of “cision” and keeps the connection with the German Entscheidung (de-cision). For Schelling, separation happens through a free decision, not through a natural sense of decay. This is one term he uses that distances himself from his erstwhile roommate, Hegel.

On a whole, Lawrence’s translation is a welcome addition to the burgeoning field of Schelling studies. For the first time, English readers of Schelling can now read and compare the three remaining drafts of The Ages of the World.