Peter Dews: Schelling’s Late Philosophy in Confrontation with Hegel

Schelling’s Late Philosophy in Confrontation with Hegel. Book Cover Schelling’s Late Philosophy in Confrontation with Hegel.
Peter Dews
Oxford University Press
Hardback £82.00

Reviewed by: David Gordon (Ludwig von Mises Institute)

Peter Dews has given us a work of great depth and detail, concerned especially to show the different ways in which Hegel and Schelling reacted to problems posed by Kant. Further, while fully recognizing the greatness of both Hegel and Schelling, Dews maintains that Schelling’s negative and positive philosophies of nature and history constitute a more adequate response to Kant’s problems than what he views as Hegel’s pan-rationalism, which struggles with difficulty to find a place for concrete events that are really new and are not just instantiations of the endlessly repeated categories of the Science of Logic.

In carrying out his project, Dews shows himself a master not only of the thought of the two notoriously difficult thinkers on whom he focuses but of analytic and existentialist philosophy as well; for example, he draws out with great insight the Schellingian resonances of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. But unfortunately some obstacles confront the reader. Schelling’s thought is often difficult to follow, and I freely confess that I have found myself lost in its labyrinthine complexity. The task of understanding Schelling is even harder, because, as Dews shows in painstaking detail, Schelling often changed his views. In what follows, I shall endeavor to discuss a few themes in the book that strike me as of particular importance, though I fear I will not succeed in doing the book justice.

Kant’s successors agreed that his thought changed fundamentally the way one should regard human beings’ relation to reality.  “The new beginning in European philosophy marked by the appearance of the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 can be summed up in the claim that Kant re-centered philosophical attention on the structure of the relation between the subject and the object of experience as such. The first Critique no longer asks how the mind can make cognitive contact with a reality assumed to subsist independently of it, or what it would mean to establish an accurate representation of such a reality.” (19) In Kant’s account, there of course remains a distinction between our minds and the objects given to us in experience, but this distinction is one within the phenomenal world, and we possesses no knowledge of the noumenal world. Kant is an empirical realist but a transcendental idealist. One question that Dews does not raise, but which might usefully have been addressed, is whether it is correct to deny that the mind represents a reality independent from it.  To the contrary, he takes for granted that the “Kantian turn” cannot be undone. It would not be a good reply to say that Dews is engaged only in a historical account of how the great post-Kantians reacted to the Critique, as clearly he is not; he wishes to show the greater reasonableness of some philosophical options over others. But this is by the way.

Kant’s new account of knowledge led to problems of its own, and two of these in particular were central to his successors. If we have no knowledge of the noumenal world, on what basis is it claimed that it exists and, in interaction with the categories of judgment and the intuitions of time and space, brings about the phenomenal world? And how is the “unity of apperception” present during this interaction related to the minds of individuals, which are perspectives on the phenomenal world, not the phenomenal world sans phrase? As Dews puts the latter problem, “Evidently, in this account, the I which carries out the combining cannot be equated with the identity of consciousness which results from the process, even though Kant insists that we could not formulate the thought ‘I think’—which is grounded in what he terms “pure apperception”—except as identical subjects of experience. The important point is that our status as subjects cannot consist simply in a formal unity which emerges through a contrast with what is constituted as the objective content of experience. There must also be an awareness of our spontaneity as thinkers, of which some explanation, or at least a plausible characterization, must be given.” (22-23)

How were these problems to be unsnarled? One path was taken by Fichte, who attempted to derive the world entirely from the I, though he constantly changed his views on how exactly this task was to be accomplished. Though Schelling and Hegel were greatly influenced by him, they soon turned away, in considerable part because, far from being a vindication of common sense, as Fichte claimed it was, his approach seemed to dissolve the world into hypotheticals: “At the same time, in the Sonnenklarer Bericht Fichte still tries to persuade his imagined reader and interlocutor that the meaning of statements regarding unobserved events —he gives the example of the movement of the hands of an unwatched clock, while the reader is sunk in reflection—should be given a strictly verificationist analysis . . . But why should this conception, in which the reality of objects and events must be cashed out in terms of counterfactuals confined to the subject-object nexus of experience, be any less an affront to common sense than the metaphysical conjectures which transcendental philosophy was supposed to have overthrown?” (31-32)

Schelling and Hegel came to embrace the opposite way of dealing with Kant’s problems to Fichte. They turned to the object rather than place exclusive stress on the subject, in this way reviving the metaphysical inquiry that Kant had declared impossible, though indeed not die alte metaphysik but a metaphysics in line with the transcendental turn.

Before Dews can proceed with his investigation, he needs to address a problem. An influential reading of Hegel does not take him to be a metaphysician at all, instead seeing him as trying to discover the necessary features of the “space of reasons.” Dews not only rejects this view but reacts vehemently to one of its principal defenders, Robert Pippin, who in the course of expounding his interpretation of Hegel, Dews alleges, is unjust to Schelling: “However, because of his insistence that the ‘problematic of German Idealism,’ as developed by Hegel, was the ‘transcendental problem of self-consciousness’ . . . Pippin had no option but to dismiss the Schellingian tenor of Hegel’s early writings as an unfortunate and misleading aberration. This he did partly by means of ad hoc historical and psychological suggestions to the effect that Hegel was somehow pressurized into adopting Schelling’s position; partly by means of a perverse exegesis of Hegel’s early publications, which tried to cast doubt on their commitment to a trans-subjective (and trans-objective) absolute that cannot be accessed through an abstraction from empirical consciousness in the Fichtean manner, since the result would then remain subjective and conditioned, but only through what Hegel himself terms ‘pure transcendental intuition’; partly by the simple expedient of rewriting Hegel, so that his ontological claims become epistemological ones.” (8) One awaits with interest Pippin’s reaction to this book.

Schelling’s turn to the object led him to a fundamental assault on the Cartesian starting point of modern philosophy. Descartes maintained that by applying his method of doubt, everything except the bare “I think” was uncertain; to regain knowledge of the external world, it was necessary first to prove the existence of God and then to contend that God would not deceive us about what was clearly and distinctly perceived. Schelling rejected this entirely: one’s certainty is not that thinking exists but that one’s body exists, and, further, that one’s body cannot be detached from the world, of which it is an organic part: “But whereas, according to its surface grammar at least, Descartes’ cogito suggests that my existence necessarily follows from the thought of my existence, Schelling proposes a performative analysis: my being is a precondition of my entertaining the very thought of it. As he points out, in the statement, ‘If I exist, then I exist,’ the truth of the consequent is presupposed by the thinking of the antecedent, even though the statement has the form of a hypothetical. Hence it is equivalent to an absolute assertion of existence: ‘I exist because I exist.’ Schelling concludes: ‘My I contains a being which precedes all thinking and representing. It is by being thought, and it is thought because it is; this for the reason that it only is, and is only thought, to the extent that it thinks itself’. . . Schelling both asserts an identity of thought and being, in line with the concept of intellectual intuition, and refers to ‘a being which precedes all thinking and representing.’” (34-35)

If Schelling regards thought and being as united in this way, is he not in danger of reviving the monism of Spinoza, who likewise saw thought and being as attributes of Deus sive natura?  Schelling responds that though Spinoza was on the right track in taking thought and being to be united in one entity, he erred in seeing their unity as mechanical rather than freely developing, changing and growing in a real and not illusory time: “All freedom is lost because, with the subject of being—the primordial possibility of ways of being—now occluded, philosophy can only understand its a priori task as being to track the unfolding of the necessary consequences of unknowingly objectified being-ness. For Schelling, Spinoza is the thinker who expresses this situation in the most stark and unerring way.” (125)

Freedom, then, does not in Schelling’s view arise only at the level of human decisions: to think that it does would be to recur to the Cartesian error. It is present in animal life and indeed in a whole series of potentials, which Schelling expounds in dizzying detail through a series of Potenz, a word that originally designates mathematical powers, as in squares or cubes of numbers, but later comes to mean potentiality. In explaining what Schelling has in mind, Dews makes creative use of the contemporary analytic philosopher Helen Steward. Like Schelling, she sees freedom as present in animals: “The views put forward by the British philosopher Helen Steward are especially relevant in the present context, since—operating strictly within the parameters of contemporary analytical philosophy—she arrives at many positions strikingly reminiscent of those proposed by Schelling in his philosophy of nature and freedom. For example, one of Steward’s main contentions is that philosophical discussions of freedom often begin at too elevated a level, where conscious decision-taking capacities and the exercise of the will are the focus of attention. . . In a challenge to this ingrained tendency, she argues that, to avoid human beings appearing, in the libertarian portrayal of them, as a strange metaphysical anomaly, a view which understandably calls forth deterministic reactions, we should focus rather on the notion of agency. On Steward’s account, agency cannot be a matter of consciousness intervening in a natural world separated from it by a metaphysical gulf, or of purely mental processes initiating physical ones; the applicability of the concept of agency extends quite far into the domain of non-human nature.” (198)

Dews conveys to readers his great admiration for Schelling as a thinker, but skeptical readers may well wonder, “Why should we believe any of this?” In answering this question, Schelling is at his most original and, in my judgment, at his best. He contends, in line with his stress on freedom, that by studying the history of religion and myth, and endeavoring to explain what we have learned, we can discover how God—taken not just as an idea in people’s minds but as a real entity— has developed in time. We could not have deduced this development a priori, but once it has happened, we grasp its necessity. “Schelling also contends, again anticipating Sartre, that speculation can at most seek abductively for optimal explanations.” (177-178) He applied this view in particular to the history of Christianity. “The focus of Schelling’s philosophy of revelation, then, is the historical fact of Christianity: ‘the philosophy of revelation cannot be dogmatic, but rather simply explanatory, just as it must set to work in general in a more investigative than assertoric manner.’ . . Schelling evidently takes what he regards as his uniquely comprehensive and theoretically coherent interpretation of mythological consciousness to have validated the objectivity of his principles, as a hermeneutic framework” (229, 231)

A metaphysical and ethical lesson Schelling takes his study of Christianity to have validated is the value of suffering. By freely accepting his death on the cross, Jesus disarmed cosmic power, symbolized, for reasons I shall not here enter into, as “B”; and thus the crucifixion has significance for the metaphysical development of the universe: “Only a complete renunciation of any claim to superiority or sovereignty on the part of . . .[the principle of unity] as a cosmic power could deprive B of the antagonist it dialectically required to sustain its own identity. . . This complete surrender of selfhood is enacted by Christ in his acceptance of arrest, torture and execution on the cross; only by voluntarily going to his death could he fully disarm B, and thereby bring about the reconciliation of the potentialities, whose tension (Spannung), in their guise as cosmic-psychic powers, obscurely dominated mythological consciousness.” (233)

To those who find Schelling’s ideas strange, Dews replies that they are not without parallel in recent philosophy. As I mentioned at the start, he finds Schellingian themes in the thought of Sartre, in particular the unity-in-difference between consciousness and being: “In order to bring Schelling’s approach to un-pre-thinkable being, and the problems which it raises, into focus, it may help to draw a comparison with a historically more recent and—no doubt to many—more familiar philosophical project which proposes a similar conception of being: that of Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1943 masterpiece, L’être et le néant (Being and Nothingness). ‘Being,’ Sartre states in the Conclusion of this work, ‘is without reason, without cause, and without necessity’ Sartrian being, then, which he further specifies as ‘being-in-itself ‘ (l’être-en-soi) or simply the ‘in-itself ‘ (l’en-soi), in contrast to consciousness or the ‘for-itself ‘(le pour-soi), cannot be regarded as the cause of itself, or as the necessary realization of its own thought possibility. Indeed, in Sartre’s view the notion of ‘causa sui’ is viciously circular.” (173) Schelling also rejects the notion of causa sui.

Schelling’s speculations are of great interest, though they will not be to the liking of those who, like W.V. O. Quine, “have a taste for desert landscapes”; but Dews faces a challenge. If Dews is right, Hegel also developed a metaphysical account of the world, one which attempted by strict logic—of a special kind, it is true—to deduce the essence of the world. Why should we prefer Schelling’s system to Hegel’s? One answer to this question is to deny that Hegel was a metaphysician; but, as we have seen, Dews rejects this with great vehemence. Another answer would be to find flaws in Hegel’s reasoning, but this is not the path that Dews takes.  Instead, he argues that because for Hegel the categories of his Logic proceed in a circle that is endlessly repeated, he cannot acknowledge the genuine significance of human actions. “Hegel’s Logic takes the form of a quest for the reconciled unity of the Idea, which proceeds through the repeated resolution of contradictions. However, the Idea—as Hegel presents it—unfolds with rational necessity: it allows no space for the other dimension of freedom: the possibility to be or not to be. This would not pose a problem if Hegelian logic were able to acknowledge its own limit, as negative philosophy—but this it is constitutively unable to do because it takes itself to have fully articulated, in the Idea, the structure of the immediate ‘being’ with which it began, but which, from Schelling’s viewpoint, is already an occlusion of being-ness as possibility.”

Schelling’s Late Philosophy in Confrontation with Hegel is a major contribution. It will lend support to those who agree with the great twentieth-century philosopher of history Eric Voegelin that Schelling was “one of the greatest philosophers of all times.” (Eric Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, Volume VII, University of Missouri Press, 1999, p.198.)

Aukje van Rooden: L’Intrigue dénouée. Mythe, littérature et communauté dans la pensée de Jean-Luc Nancy, Brill, 2022

L’Intrigue dénouée. Mythe, littérature et communauté dans la pensée de Jean-Luc Nancy Book Cover L’Intrigue dénouée. Mythe, littérature et communauté dans la pensée de Jean-Luc Nancy
Studies in Contemporary Phenomenology, Volume 23
Aukje van Rooden
Hardback €169.00

Rochelle Tobias (Ed.): Hölderlin’s Philosophy of Nature, Edinburgh University Press, 2020

Hölderlin's Philosophy of Nature Book Cover Hölderlin's Philosophy of Nature
New Perspectives in Ontology
Rochelle Tobias (Ed.)
Edinburgh University Press
Hardback £80.00