Friedrich Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, Part II

We previously examined and summarized the historical circumstances, influences, and sketched overview of Friedrich Schelling’s naturphilosophie (philosophy of nature) here. To restate, Schelling’s main emphasis was the grounding of reality in an organic/natural world which organically develops to consciousness in the phenomenal realm of space and time. This teleological evolution ties the present with the biological, or organic.

While influenced by Kant and Fichte, Schelling deviates from them insofar that he does not start with mind (as Kant and Fichte) but with nature (per Goethe). Therefore, Schelling’s axiomatic foundation is not the mind, the rational (or transcendental) but the natural; nature. The mind, for Schelling, is an outgrowth of the forces of conflict within nature and organic/morphologic growth.

Schelling recontextualizes the dialectic of the I/Not-I through the morphologic realities of biology and also through an ingenious reimagining of space and time from Christian theology. Nature is internally dialectical, one might say paradoxical or even “contradictory.” There is, on one hand, an infinite expansion of the nature (thesis) which is reacted against (antithesis) by an infinite contraction of the natural. The forces of nature are simultaneously moved to expansion (growth and life) and contraction (decadence and death). This results in a disequilibrium which sets off a generative teleological evolutionary byproduct leading to the “new nature” (synthesis) that grows out of this generative disequilibrium within the forces of nature: The movement to self-consciousness and realization within the realm of nature.

The first generative principle of nature is space and time. The expansive and contracting principles then take place in the realm of space and time and recapitulate a new outgrowth, gravity and light (with further smaller recapitulations producing chemistry and electricity, etc.). Gravity is the new outgrowth of space. Light is the new outgrowth of time.  Space was the outgrowth of the force of expansion and time the outgrowth of the force of contraction. This process of dialectical recapitulation continues to cycle (like Goethean plant biology) producing newer iterations of the natural. From the gravity and light recapitulation emerges organic bodies, first beginning with plants. Then from organic bodies recapitulation produces animals. And from animals emerge humans. The generative movement of nature culminates in the “creation” of the human, which is the first and only lifeform that becomes aware of these generative processes of expansion and contraction and, as such, becomes self-conscious of his place in the natural realm through the emergence of self-conscious thought and reflection rooted, ultimately, in the generative germ of natural forces acting against one another. This plays out in human physiology: The growth, consummation, frailty, and death of the body; libidinal or biological urges (expansion) being curtailed by rational constructs and edifices which order eros (contraction) which makes ethical life possible (but not at the expense of destroying eros as in Fichte’s though concerning the emergence of the ego and ethical life and community); ultimately leading to the standard Christian consciousness of love as expansive and life-giving and the corruption of love, lust, as contractive and therefore life-denying.

Nature’s generative process of coming to self-consciousness culminates in the human. Thus, Schelling is—in the most traditional and proper sense and usage of the term—a humanist. Schelling believes the human, among all the lifeforms generated by the natural seed of generative recapitulation so it could, itself, understand itself, is set apart (the exception, hence, exceptional). Humans are exceptional because they are the exception in coming to self-consciousness and understanding. Schelling believes that animals feel and have all the basic self-perceptions which allow basic sensational awareness, but animals lack the ability to self-consciously reflect and come to know who they are, where they are, why they exist, etc., and neither can other animals come to understand all the generative laws of the natural world in which they dwell in. Animals simply have, in Christian language, the grace to be what they are and they are what they.

Thus, in the human—the ultimate coming to understanding is the consciousness of love. Love is the prime generative principle; hate (or sin) is the contractive principle. This was, for Schelling, the internal mythological truth of the Christian understanding of Original Sin and Divinization. Original Sin is that aspect of the human which leads us to do evil which is a negation of life and therefore a contraction of the generative principle of love and expansion; divinization is that embodiment of love and the principle of self-giving which brings two self-contracting forces (dying humans) into propagating further expansion (the generative/expansive principle) which leads to the creation of new life. Schelling, also being a theologian along with a scientist and philosopher, tied this back to the book of Genesis in which God implants into creation the generative principles of self-propagation (reproduce after one’s own kind) which, after moving from space and time to light and gravity to plants to animals to, finally, humans. The arc of the evolution of nature, the morphological impulse of all life, reaches fruition in the human who is the single lifeform that fully develops the seed of intelligibility and consciousness to the point of self-reflection and the understanding of the generative principle of nature as love.

Schelling grounds his philosophy in the natural because love, eros, is the basic creative force of nature; the spirit. (Schelling follows a contemporary of his, Friedrich Holderlin on this account.) In the larger contests of philosophy and the world, as it relates to civilization, sterile rationalism, mechanicalism, and the material (i.e. “the scientific” as we tend to think of the term today) is that which threatens to severe us from the rational and, therefore, cut us off from the erotic which is the first generative principle of natural expansion. It is here that Schelling considered himself the true heir of Kant, who was much afraid of the same encroachments of the scientistic and mathematical (hollow) worldview of Anglo-French material utilitarianism. However, by starting with mind, according to Schelling, Kant started with the teleological end product and was still, despite his opposition to the monistic material reductionists, cut-off from the natural which would not resolve the problem of our alienation and destruction of nature. By beginning with nature itself, and tying the mind (transcendental self-consciousness) to nature, Schelling hoped to show how true self-consciousness—true transcendental idealism—must always remained grounded to nature itself and not separated apart from it. (As was the unfortunate and unintentional cases of Kant and Fichte.)

Thus, in Schelling we can see the essential biological, morphological, and organic reality of life. Nature embodies two principle forces (hence avoiding reductionist monism): expansion and contraction. The dialectic between expansion and contraction is not an equal dialectic; the disequilibrium of the two (following Newton: equal and opposite reactions would cancel each other out) which is the superiority of the expansive over the contractive “wins out” so to speak which leads to the generative seed of nature which slowly produces new life. In theological language this is the triumph of love over hate, of divinization over sin. The cycles of nature recapitulate this basic dialectic leading to ever more complex lifeforms moving through atoms to plants to animals to humans. It is in humans, the culmination of nature’s movement to self-consciousness, that there is a mind (the human mind) that is fully capable of conscious self-reflection and an understanding of these morphological laws.

The intelligibility of the natural world reaches fruition in the human and the gift of love in self-conscious humans who, unlike with Fichte, do not need to destroy nature to be moral, but need to embrace their most primal nature (through understanding) to be moral. The moral is both an outgrowth of, but still linked to, the natural. It is in the biosphere that the generative principle of life, love, waits to be unleashed; the world of edifice, construction, and industry is really the embodiment of the contractive principle. As it relates to human minds, the truly self-conscious mind is that which exudes the generative principle of morphological growth; the mind that has severed itself from nature, which has therefore severed itself from true self-consciousness (understanding of the generative) is the contractive germ of morphological decline. This also puts humans in the most precarious position as we control our destiny of generative life or contractive death where other lifeforms don’t.

2 thoughts on “Friedrich Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, Part II

    1. You should. I’m a big disciple of Schelling; among the other Germans as you’ve by now ascertained. His System of Transcendental Idealism; Philosophy of Mythology, and Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom are essential readings among his many works. With specificity to naturphilosophie and System of Transcendental Idealism, though we obviously should read the whole work, Part III is where I’ve mostly drawn from in explaining the distilled essence of his thought.

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