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Nature and Realism in Schelling’s Philosophy

Emilio Carlo Corriero
Andrea Dezi


From Nature to…

Emilio Carlo Corriero et Andrea Dezi

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  • 1 In the nineteen-hundreds Schelling’s philosophical position had already forcefully emerged, both in (...)

1In recent years the international philosophical debate around the so-called ‘new’ realism has undoubtedly aroused renewed interest in the philosophical positions of Schelling, an author who right in the midst of the philosophical project of German Idealism, forcefully insinuated the natural-realistic objection, leading to a breakaway towards contemporary thinking, that later took shape in the various expressions of philosophy of existence, constituting a continuous theoretical resource both for the materialistic theories and for the philosophy of existentialism.1

2It could certainly be asserted that the renewed interest in Schelling’s philosophy lies mainly in the reconsideration of the theories that, in an attempt to overcome the Kantian transcendentalism within the philosophical project of German Idealism, later determined a ‘realistic’ position that is, all things considered, irreducible to the absolute idealism of Hegel’s philosophy.

3The present ontological realism, even in its many expressions and in the various theoretical approaches in which it unfolds, can certainly find important resources in the philosophical positions of Schelling, above all in relation to his philosophy of Nature, which undoubtedly constitutes the origin of the realistic positions of the philosopher. This is where the idea of Nature and Realism in Schelling’s Philosophy is born, with the intention of contributing to showing how the realistic positions of Schelling sink their roots into his philosophy of Nature and how this is not a body in itself, ascribable to a particular cultural context, but rather the true pivotal point in all Schelling’s thinking, directly involving both his philosophy of freedom, the relative question of the Grund, and the subsequent distinction in positive and negative philosophy.

4A non-naïve philosophical realism must certainly contend with its historical roots and in this sense Schelling’s philosophical position within classic German Idealism is certainly decisive and capable of efficaciously informing the current debate. In this context, Schelling’s philosophy appears to be an incredibly fertile terrain, since on the one hand it contributed without doubt to overcoming the Kantian criticism, effectively prearranging the philosophy of Identity starting from which Hegel would outline his impressive system, and on the other hand, precisely in the attempt to overcome Kant, it developed a philosophy of Nature that remains as the true nucleus of that same philosophy of Identity (as is efficaciously shown above all in the System der gesamten Philosophie of 1804) and which continued to influence the philosophical progress of Schelling at least until 1844, the year in which he published the Exposition of the Process of Nature.

5To clarify the realistic perspective of Schelling which matures in an idealistic context, it is necessary first of all to refer to a definition of the fundamental theory of German Idealism. In this regard, the summaries proposed by two eminent historians of German philosophy, Dieter Henrich and Manfred Frank, are particularly precious: the former is certainly more oriented in the Hegelian sense; the latter is definitely closer to Schelling’s theories.

  • 2 See Frank M., Natura e Spirito. Lezioni sulla filosofia di Schelling, Corriero E.C. (ed.), Torino: (...)

6Manfred Frank deems that in order to understand the ‘realistic’ reasons of Schelling’s Idealism it is necessary to start first of all from the belief – which Hegel decisively contributed to making binding – that a philosophical position that calls itself ‘idealistic’ should necessarily indicate ‘consciousness’ as a phenomenon inherently self-sufficient and capable of understanding, with its own means, the presuppositions of its own existence.2 As we know, in his philosophical path and from the very start, Schelling showed that our consciousness rests on a real (natural) foundation never totally reducible to consciousness itself. According to the idealistic view described above, this natural foundation should be seen as a mere ‘premise’ of the Spirit that is entirely resolved (aufgelöst) in the movement of the Spirit itself. In such a conceiving the ‘premise’ of a reality (Wirklichkeit) existing independently from the Spirit is wholly resolved and sublated (aufgehoben) thanks to a successive ‘position’ which, well-described by the Hegelian concept of Aufhebung, overcomes that premiss, while preserving it within itself as a form of the Spirit itself. Nevertheless, the idealistic conception ascribable to Hegel, which finds its utmost expression in the first paragraphs of his Wissenschaft der Logik, is wholly irreconcilable with Schelling’s view, according to which the ‘real principle’ always remains a foundation that cannot be deduced and is moreover ‘unthinkable a priori’, thus determining a philosophical position that exceeds the Hegelian theory of idealism in the direction of a philosophy of Existence and a naturalistic Idealism.

7The definition of Idealism supplied by Manfred Frank, which we have followed so far, refers explicitly to an efficacious summary of the positions of the three great German idealists proposed by Dieter Henrich at Heidelberg in the mid-sixties. According to Henrich, the three great idealists, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, began from the common conviction that the ground of unity, on which is based the quantity of propositions to be deduced, was after all the Cartesian evidence of our self-certainty (Selbstgewissheit). The positions of the three philosophers would therefore be ascribable to a single proposition accepted in the essence by all three, though with diverse and decisive emphasis, from which the differing directions of inquiry undertaken can be understood.

8Fichte would have expressed this belief with the expression “in the I it is necessary to think of something unconditional” accenting I and thus confining the ontological field within a gnoseological opposition to the Not-I, which in any case is included in the sphere of the infinite I. On the other hand, of the Fichte’s theories Schelling would have emphasised the unconditional: “in the I it is necessary to think of something unconditional, as such”; and finally, Hegel would have partially accepted Schelling’s position, and he would have partially overcome it in the conviction that “the unconditional is to be thought in the I as such,” in other words, it can be made intelligible starting from the structure of the reflection. Hegel’s emphasis would therefore show how, while assuming (only initially) something unconditional in the I (here more generally seen as the ideal sphere), this unconditional is in any case summarised and resolved in the thought, that is in the movement of the Concept, as a simple form to be overcome.

9The emphasis that Schelling, according to Henrich, placed on the Unconditional would characterise the entire course of his philosophy from the first Fichtian moves, later exceeding the limits of the I in the direction of the Absolute.

  • 3 See in particular, with regard to the relevance of the fragment Urtheil und Seyn, Henrich D., Konst (...)

10In fact, already in the volume Vom Ich als Prinzip der Philosophie, oder über das Unbedingte im menschlichen Wissen (Of the I as Principle of Philosophy, or on the Unconditional in Human Knowledge) the absolute I as unconditional ultimate foundation of every reality is seen as ‘absolute potency’ of being, that is to say as pure ‘actuality’ (Wirklichkeit), from which every possible ‘form’ of Being descends. But the absolute I of the 1795 publication, strongly connoted in a Fichtian sense, still preserves the opposition between I and Not-I which is ontologically preceded by the absolute ‘actuality’ of Being, insofar as it is absolute Identity. The contribution of Hölderlin3 is very important in this crucial passage of Schelling’s philosophy. For Hölderlin the absolute Identity of Being ontologically precedes every distinction of Being (I / Not-I) and every possibility of judgement, including that of identity, thus constituting an unprethinkable threshold for all attempts at self-mediation of thinking.

  • 4 Moiso F., «Fare la Natura». La filosofia della Natura di Schelling, in Dalla Materia alla Coscienza(...)
  • 5 SW I/3, 12.

11The pre-critical Kantian theory of Being as ‘absolute position’(described in Der einzig mögliche Beweisgrund zu einer Demonstration des Daseyns Gottes, 1763), to which Hölderlin probably referred and which decisively influenced Schelling (in his progressive approach to the philosophy of Identity), has a gnoseological aspect according to which the Being gives itself to us immediately in the sensation (Empfindung), and an ontological aspect that clarifies the Being (in the sense of the existence) insofar as it is ‘absolute’ and therefore independent from the thinking. Schelling’s thought with regard to the Wirklichkeit would move between these two aspects generating a certain ambiguity and initially addressing attention precisely to what appears most distant from the spiritual, that is to say the Matter and therefore more generally Nature. Here emerges, starting with the Abhandlungen zur Erläuterung des Idealismus der Wissenschaftslehre (Essays in Explanation of the Idealism of the Doctrine of Science) of the period 1796-1797, the priority (here gnoseological rather than ontological) assigned to the real activity insofar as it is opposed to the ideal activity within the Spirit, which starting precisely from these writings has the place that Schelling had previously assigned to the Unconditional of the I. Precisely this Unconditional would be explicitly described as the true and authentic ‘object’ of the philosophy of Nature in the Erster Entwurf eines System der Naturphilosophie (First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature) of 1798. This Unconditional of Nature would be described not as a mere product to be understood through the transcendental structures of the subject, but rather as creativity and activity which produces both the object and the subject that knows. If therefore in the writing Of the I, the non-objectual unit, which summarises the Unconditional, is again indicated by the absolute I, in the Ester Entwurf it is described as the Unconditional of Nature4: that is to say the primal Being which, insofar as it is the unprethinkable ground of Being, is identified by Schelling with the ‘construction itself’, or with the ‘supreme constructive act’.5

12We can undoubtedly state that the ‘realism’ in Schelling’s positions and the relative estrangement from the Kantian gnoseology derive from considerations in the sphere of the philosophy of Nature, which are not really born of a mere scientific interest typical of a certain romantic culture, but rather of the need to complete the results of Kantian philosophy in a system that perfectly unifies form and content of the Science, seeking the transcendental foundation and therefore the gnoseological and epistemological guarantee in the self-constituting of Nature, that is in the ontological-dynamic sphere that precedes and constitutes the possibility of thinking.

  • 6 Speculative Realism, Mackay R. (ed.), Collapse III, Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2007, 334.
  • 7 “I think that if philosophy of nature is followed consistently it entails that speculation becomes (...)

13To use the words of Iain Hamilton Grant – a philosopher strongly committed in recent years to the reconsideration of Schelling’s Philosophy of Nature and its theoretical effects – “the positive or nature-philosophy does not however simply reject Kantian restrictions on the capacities of the concept, but radicalizes them in that they seek a one-world solution not to the relation concept-object, but rather to the positivity or ‘naturalness’ of concepts”. On the other hand, as Grant himself observed during the workshop on speculative realism, which he held in London in 2007 (together with Ray Brassier, Graham Harman and Quentin Meillassoux), “if we accept that there are naturalistic grounds for the production of thought, then we have to accept that the naturalistic grounds for the production of thought are not themselves evident in thought except in so far as thought is regarded as part of nature”6, thus emphasising that the Unconditional in Nature implies access to a sphere that clearly overcomes the confines of Kantian philosophy and can be called typically speculative7.

14As can be clearly evinced from the essay by Iain Hamilton Grant, What is an Action? Ground and Consequent in Schelling’s Philosophy of Nature, at the beginning of this book, the philosophy of Nature, if correctly understood, shows the philosophical possibility of a form of realism and becomes determinant also with regard to questions widely and variably debated nowadays, such as the question of the ‘ground’ or of the necessity of contingency, topics that are dealt with here starting from the consideration of the Freiheitsschrift in the essay Schelling’s Moral Argument for a Metaphysics of Contingency by Alistair Welchmann, in which the author (who in 2004 also edited, with Judith Norman, The New Schelling, a volume that has undoubtedly contributed to giving the German philosopher a new image and not only amongst English-speaking academics) looks into the relationship between ethics and the metaphysical considerations on the creation of the world, as dealt with in the work on freedom. Schelling’s argument is that our choice of metaphysical schema is constrained by a correct understanding of agency: the world cannot be causally determined because that is inconsistent with our understanding of ourselves as agents; but equally the world cannot be rationally determined, and for the same reason. Schelling’s metaphysics of contingency is an unpacking of the consequences of this inference, and not a botched attempt to ground values outside of rational autonomy.

15Another view of the topic is offered by the contribution of Emilio Carlo Corriero who concentrates on the Necessity of Contingency in the Late Philosophies of Schelling and Heidegger, comparing the Absolute as such in Schelling (in its various formulations) and the Ereignis of Heidegger, showing how for both the forms of thinking the ‘passage’ to the ‘manifestation’ of Being remains in the most pure contingency, although both philosophers seem to allude, more or less cryptically, to a speculative sphere, that is to an undefinable ‘force’ of the unprethinkable Unconditional that precedes every form of being and its ‘thinkability’.

16Manfred Frank, on the other hand, describes Schelling’s Absolute as exposed in the Nature through the organism. In a lesson on the possible link between philosophy and the dominion that Mankind establishes over Nature, he reviews the interpretation that Schelling proposes in a ‘constitutive’ sense of the Kantian concept of organism. The author shows how in the identity of the ideal and the real, or ‘the affirming and the affirmed,’ that Schelling sees perfectly expressed in the organism, it is possible to see an absolute reality of Nature, that is to say a reality not reducible to a lifeless object, merely opposed to the subject that grasps it in order to dominate it.

17The internal nature of the reality that is shown in the organism, and in particular in its ‘excessive’ and positive aspect is further investigated in the contribution by Andrea Dezi, who concentrates his attention on the ‘luminous principle’ and more generally on what Schelling considers the ‘second potency’ of Nature. The affirmation of the ‘actuality of the light’ is here seen to be connected on the one hand to the net distinction between the reflexive or representative thinking and the thinking that intransitively arises from the Matter itself, and on the other hand to the radical ontological groundlessness that supports the Schellingian vision of reality.

18Olaf Müller then highlights the fecund link between empirical experimentation and philosophical speculation, showing in the principle of ‘bipolarity’, seen as a ‘regulative idea’ capable of informing the optical experiments of Goethe, an interesting experimental expression of the speculative tension in Schelling’s thinking. This principle, to which the discovery by J. W. Ritter of ultraviolet radiation can also certainly be traced, remains, according to the author, undoubtedly productive in the research into optical phenomena.

19The volume ends with the essay by Maurizio Ferraris, certainly the Italian philosopher most involved in the international debate on the new realism, who although not a Schelling scholar shows how the Cartesian paradigm (subsequently translated into the transcendentalism of Kant) is in effect overturned in the work of the German philosopher, and how precisely starting from his conception of Nature a real and true ‘positive realism’ is possible and not only a ‘negative realism’ as stated by the author himself in the past or even in a recent article by Umberto Eco.


1 In the nineteen-hundreds Schelling’s philosophical position had already forcefully emerged, both in corroboration of materialistic theories, above all thanks to the interpretations of authors such as Ernst Bloch, Jürgen Habermas and Manfred Frank, and in support of the theories of existentialism which, according to thinkers of the calibre of Paul Tillich, Karl Jaspers and Karl Löwith, sank their theoretical roots into Schelling’s philosophy of existence, which countered Hegelian panlogism and even before that  –  according to what we know of the discussions with Fichte  –  every solution of a reflexive type that intended to resolve in toto reality in consciousness.

2 See Frank M., Natura e Spirito. Lezioni sulla filosofia di Schelling, Corriero E.C. (ed.), Torino: Rosenberg & Sellier, 2010.

3 See in particular, with regard to the relevance of the fragment Urtheil und Seyn, Henrich D., Konstellationen. Probleme und Debatten am Ursprung der idealistischen Philosophie (1789-1795), Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1991 and Der Grund im Bewußtsein. Untersuchungen zu Hölderlins Denken (1794-1795), Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1992; see also Frank M., Eine Einführung in Schellings Philosophie, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1985.

4 Moiso F., «Fare la Natura». La filosofia della Natura di Schelling, in Dalla Materia alla Coscienza, Tatasciore C. (ed.), Milano: Guerini e Associati, 2000, 25-41.

5 SW I/3, 12.

6 Speculative Realism, Mackay R. (ed.), Collapse III, Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2007, 334.

7 “I think that if philosophy of nature is followed consistently it entails that speculation becomes necessary, as the only means not of assessing the access that we have, but of the production of thought”, ibidem, 334.


Research Fellow at the Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici of Naples and adjunct Professor of History of Philosophy at the University of Turin. In his works he has evidenced the philosophical affinities between Schelling and Nietzsche, and he is currently completing a book on the Ground after Heidegger. Amongst his books Vertigini della Ragione. Schelling e Nietzsche (Rosenberg & Sellier, 2008) Volontà d’amore. L’estremo comando della volontà di potenza (Rosenberg & Sellier, 2011), Libertà e Conflitto. Da Heidegger a Schelling, per un’ontologia dinamica (Rosenberg & Sellier, 2012).

Adjunct Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Teramo in Italy, he teaches Theoretical Philosophy at the F. M. Dostoevskij State University of Omsk (Russia). He discusses some physical and metaphysical aspects of Schelling’s ontology in Potenza e Realtà (Mimesis, 2013). His translations include the Italian version of Schelling’s System der gesammten Philosophie und der Naturphilosophie insbesondere (1804).