Friedrich Schelling’s Moment of Abandon
To philosophize about nature means to elevate her above the dead mechanism in which she appeared to be trapped, to enliven her with freedom and place her within her own free development — it means, in other words, to tear oneself free from the common opinion that sees in nature only what transpires — at best sees activity as a fact, and never sees the activity itself within the activity.
——Schelling, First Attempt at a System of the Philosophy of Nature (1799)1
Nur was aus Welt gering, wird einmal Ding.
——Martin Heidegger, “Das Ding”2
In 1794, when he was 19 years old, and before leaving the University at Tübingen (where he had been roommates both with the poet Friedrich Hölderlin and with that other soon-to-become-famous philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel), Friedrich Schelling wrote his first major philosophical work, On the I as the Principle of Philosophy (Vom Ich als Princip der Philosophie), establishing himself as a protégé of Fichte, who was then the hottest name in continental philosophy, the philosophical voice of the post-Kantian generation.3 In this precocious book the teenaged philosopher follows Fichte’s line by describing subjectivity as the process through which the I establishes itself, thereby determining all “reality” within its self-positing: “The I posits itself fundamentally and all reality within itself.”4
All “reality” framed within the subject. No outside to subjectivity or pesky Kantian “Ding an Sich” to worry about. Following Fichte again, the young Schelling views this self-production as an act of freedom that guarantees non-thing status for the I. Indeed the “first principle” of this philosophy is that “the essence of the human being exists only in absolute freedom, that the human being is not a thing or object” [“daß der Mensch kein Ding, keine Sache . . . sey”].5 Schelling plays with the word Ding (thing) here: “unbedingt” or unconditional as precisely “un-thinged.” The self-positing I, dependent on nothing outside itself, owes its identity to no other “condition” and is thus un-thinged. The power of self-determination, which acquires from Fichtean self-positing, obviates thingness by subsuming objects within the I itself. As Fichte famously put it: “It is so, because I make it so.”6
Yet as he began to develop his ideas, reaching for a system of thought that could be more than a reiteration of Fichte, Schelling starts to rethink the question of thingness, of reality in relation to the Fichtean I. Particularly under the influence of his friend Hölderlin — and also transformed by two years studying math, natural science, and medicine in Leipzig — Schelling begins to embrace the possibility of a Fichtean subject that stands in a position of relation to the natural world, rather than of incorporation. The result was Naturphilosophie, which (with the support of Goethe) helped him land his own position at the University of Jena in 1798 alongside Fichte. By 1800 Schelling would declare in his System des transscendentalen Idealismus the utterly heretical idea from a Fichtean point of view: “Es gibt Dinge außer mir” [“There are things apart from me”].7 And with respect to these “things” (Dinge) Schelling quotes Horace to emphasize the inevitability of the return of the material: “naturam furca expellas, tamen usque redibit” which we might translate as: “you can throw nature out with a pitchfork, but it will always return.”8
Schelling was not alone in his efforts to trace the borders between nature and self. Metaphors that work in and around the boundaries of subjectivity, fantasies of bodies melting into ether in order to elide the spaces between ego and other — this sort of discourse flourishes around 1800 and must be understood in terms of a philosophical poetics and poetic philosophy. Within this context of a turn to the material, the Philosophy of Nature, rather than simply developing a variation of Idealism as an account of subjectivity, ends up providing an account of thingness that speaks to contemporary obsessions with materiality such as New Materialism, Thing Theory, and Object-Oriented Philosophy. Perhaps Naturphilosophie has something to add to current theoretical discussions of materiality, discussions that not infrequently make reference to those other Idealists, Kant and Hegel, along with their predecessor Spinoza, but that rarely mention Schelling, the philosopher of the Idealist tradition who actually devoted much of his work to the problem of the material thing. In part due to Slavoj Žižek’s interest in him, among other things, Schelling has, however, seen a revival of sorts in recent years. Yet, for reasons I will outline briefly, I believe that Žižek’s Lacanian critique comes up short in terms of Schelling and the philosophy of nature, that it fails to take the struggle with thingness that arises in the discourse network of 1800 seriously.
That night in which all cows are black
This brings us to Schelling’s moment of abandon and the night in which all cows are black. Just one brief example: In 1795 (in the Philosophical Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism) Schelling refers to a “remarkable capacity” we all have. He argues that it is possible for the Fichtean self-positing I, which exists only through its own objectification, to lose itself in itself suddenly. In this moment of abandon as Selbstvergessenheit (self-forgetting), the Ich and Nicht-Ich become one:
We all have a secret and remarkable capacity to remove ourselves from the flux of time and to withdraw into our own interior self, now stripped of all that is extraneous to it, and there — under the form of immutability — to observe eternity within ourselves. This intuition is the most inward and personal experience possible, on which all knowledge of, or belief in, a super-sensory [übersinnlich] world depends. . . . This intellectual intuition appears when we cease to be an object to ourselves, when — withdrawn into itself — the seeing self becomes identical with the seen self. In this moment of intuition, time and eternity cease to exist for us: we are not in time, but time — or rather pure and absolute eternity — is in us. We are not in the intuition of the objective world; rather it is lost in our intuition.9
In this moment of intellectual intuition (intellektuelle Anschauung), as opposed to sensory or empirical intuition, we become “one with everything” (to quote Schelling’s friend and accomplice, Hölderlin), unified with the “objective” world, such that the Subject/Object gap no longer applies.10 But for the young Schelling, this “super sensory” experience (through which the Kantian categories seem to disappear) will soon move beyond a variation of Fichtean self-positing to an effort to reclaim something like nature outside of the self. Briefly put, rather than viewing nature as a representation subsumed within the I, as Fichte insisted we must, Schelling comes with his Naturphilosophie to view nature as a “total organism,” a vast web of interconnected being of which even we are an integral part — along with rocks, and trees, and animals — albeit at the higher end of the scale. Everything is shot through with a vast life force that Schelling poetically and Platonically calls the Weltseele (“World Soul”). Schelling’s moment of abandon, of intellectual intuition in which the seeing and seen self are one, is possible not because we have subsumed the totality of nature within our self-representation, but because we were always already a vital part of the Absolute, of the Total Organism (Gesamtorganismus), to begin with.
But with this moment of abandon as self-forgetting Schelling also provides a caveat, a do-not-try-this-at-home warning, since if the moment of forgetting were to persist we would simply dissipate into infinity and beyond:
We awaken from intellectual intuition as from a state of death. We awaken through reflection, that is, through a forced return to ourselves. But no return is thinkable without resistance, no reflection without an object. We designate as alive an activity intent upon objects and as dead an activity losing itself in itself…The I, on finding resistance, is obliged to take a stand against it, that is, to return to self. However, where sensuous intuition ceases, where everything objective vanishes, there is nothing but infinite expansion without a return into self. Should I maintain intellectual intuition I would cease to live; I would go ‘from time into eternity.’11
The moment of abandon becomes a struggle between Self and Other, spirit and matter, that haunts all of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie: momentarily one with everything, which is to risk dissipation into nothingness without the return of the material: “naturam furca expellas, tamen usque redibit.”
It is this very idea of oneness with everything by means of a universal life force or spirit that Hegel ridicules in his introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit as the infamous “night in which all cows are black.” As Hegel puts it, “To pit this single assertion, that ‘in the Absolute all is one’, against the organised whole of determinate and complete knowledge, . . . is to give out its Absolute as the night in which, as we say, all cows are black — that is the very naïveté of emptiness of knowledge.”12 If, in other words, everything is one, why waste so many pages on it? To this day it is not uncommon to read Hegel’s dialectic as a necessary move beyond the “romanticism” or “mysticism” of Schelling and Hölderlin.13
Yet there is something more in that night of black cows than an oceanic longing for oneness. There is a struggle, a wrestling with the angels of nature and thingness. On the one hand, Schelling clings to a teleology of spirit, as he writes in 1797, “Nature must become visible spirit (Geist); and spirit invisible nature.”14 In 1800 he argues that the clear goal of any philosophy of nature must be to move from “nature to intelligence” (“von der Natur aufs Intelligente zu kommen”), from “phenomena” to the “natural laws” that function as the formal cause of everything material.15 Thing becomes spirit, and yet thingness always returns, no matter how many pitchforks you employ. Naturphilosophie’s unwillingness to abandon the raw materiality of the natural world, despite Schelling’s spiritual longings, anticipates in certain ways contemporary theoretical preoccupations with thingness, the drive for what is really real.
A contemporary trend in the theory of thingness combines “vital materialism” with a turn from representational to performative models. Jane Bennett, for example, through what she calls “thing-power,” is “looking for a materialism in which matter is figured as a vitality at work both inside and outside of selves.”16 Although she makes many references to Schelling’s influential predecessor, Spinoza, and a few references to Kant, Schelling himself makes no appearance in her book. Similarly, Karen Barad turns to Niels Bohr’s quantum physics in order to contemplate materiality outside the framework of humanism and representationalism, in support of what she labels “agential realism.” With a view that language and the “linguistic turn” has “been granted too much power,” she aims to make matter matter again.17 For Barad, an investigation of our formulations of reality should not just be a matter of ideological critique, investigations of cultural representations, but a critique of what she calls “intra-actions.” And intra-actions are not representations of things out there, but rather “phenomena — dynamic topological reconfigurings/ entanglements/ relationalities /(re)articulations.”18 On this view, a division of the world into categories such as “nature” and “culture” is ultimately meaningless. Anything we might label a cultural representation belongs always already to intra-activity, to the configuration of ontological reality, the actual production of things rather than to their representations.
Leaving my issues with Barad’s straw man of the “linguistic turn” aside, and returning to Schelling’s theories of nature and unity for a minute: that moment of abandon we observed, in which the seeing self and seen self become one, the night in which for Hegel “all cows are black,” is possible because of the nature of nature itself. Materiality does not exist for Schelling as a series of discrete “things” awaiting human representation to become “objects,” but in Schelling’s view actually has much in common with Barad’s notion of intra-activity. In some sense, the “one with everything” idea for which Hegel chides his former roommates is an attempt to move beyond a purely representationalist model of reality. Clearly it is not a posthumanist model (let alone post-human) as it retains a teleology that sees human self-consciousness as the end of nature, along with an anthropomorphized World Soul that attempts to express itself through the products of nature. Yet connecting this model with concepts such as “thing-power,” “agential realism,” and “intra-activity” come closer to what Schelling is getting at than simply labeling his version of the Absolute “romantic” or given to some fuzzy intuition. Naturphilosophie stages a mingling of spirit and thing that is at once antagonistic — a wrestling match as it were — and at the same time erotic — a melding of bodies into oneness. It desires, in its way, to turn matter into spirit, but can finally only do so by turning spirit into matter.
Schelling’s description of the origins of matter itself underscores the connection between Naturphilosophie and contemporary notions of a vibrant materiality that retains “agential” qualities. He frequently relies on the metaphor of a stream whose flow is inhibited such that an eddy arises, with this eddy or whirlpool (Wirbel) standing in for the natural object. We find, for example, a variation of this metaphor in The First Attempt at a System of the Philosophy of Nature (1799):
Think of a stream, which is itself pure identity, but where it confronts resistance an eddy (Wirbel) emerges. This eddy has no permanence, but continually disappears and reappears. So in nature, originally everything is indistinguishable. All natural objects [Produkte] are dissolved and invisible in the general productivity of nature. Only when points of resistance emerge do objects gradually distinguish themselves and rise forth from the general identity. The stream turns back on itself at this point (productivity is destroyed), and yet each moment another wave arrives to fill any emptiness.19
Of course, even contemplating the creation of thingness would be heresy for Fichte.20 Yet, Schelling’s metaphor points to more than simply a dark swamp of unity or a night of invisible cows: absolute energy (sometimes poeticized as the World Soul) flows out like an electrical current, uninhibited until its own difference from itself creates friction or points of resistance. Around the point of resistance there forms a swirl, eddy or vortex — Wirbel. And this eddy is an object in nature — not a dumb lump, but a constantly flowing vibrant part of the intra-active totality. Human consciousness itself arises from just such a vortex. Following this logic, a “thing” for Schelling is “a product that is itself eternally productive” (“ein Produkt, das ins Unendliche produktiv ist”).21 And since we are all swimming in the same stream of productivity — or rather, following Schelling’s metaphor, we are actually the whirlpools in the stream — there is no ultimate reason to distinguish people from things. We are simply more advanced whirlpools, more clearly articulated expressions of the absolute.22 We are all Wirbel. This vortex is what makes Schelling’s moment of abandon possible — it is a reconnection with the vast stream of energy that removes any sense of objectivity.
Following Žižek’s reading, this stream (or its attendant metaphors and concepts) becomes a “protocosmic abyss of chaotic, ontologically not yet fully constituted reality.”23 Would you be surprised to learn that Žižek reads this “protocosmic abyss” as a figure of the Lacanian real? For Žižek, out of this background hum of electricity beyond articulation, which he also calls a “pre-ontological netherworld,” there emerge any number of possible parallel universes — “fictions” we bring into being through representation.24
Žižek’s reading rehabilitates Schelling’s “romanticism” in a very weak way, I find, never really taking Schelling seriously as a philosopher of nature, as a theorist of thingness. If we were to turn away from Žižek, and look instead to notions like Bennett’s “thing power” or Barad’s “intra-activity,” what Žižek reads simply as the white noise of the Lacanian Real — as everything that has not yet been drawn into representation — Schelling’s Naturphilosophie begins to take on more dynamic qualities as an attempt to eliminate the gap between Subject and Object by figuring both the human and non-human as part of a vibrant materiality of entanglement and constant motion. As Barad puts it:
The world is a dynamic process of intra-activity and materialization in the enactment of determinate causal structures with determinate boundaries, properties, meanings, and patterns of marks on bodies. This ongoing flow of agency through which part of the world makes itself differentially intelligible to another part of the world and through which causal structures are stabilized and destabilized does not take place in space and time but happens in the making of spacetime itself.25
Vibrant matter congealing, yet constantly breaking itself apart and reforming, is indeed how Schelling describes the productivity of nature. As he puts it, the same force runs through the entirety of things, from “a speck of moss, on which there is barely any sign of organization, to the most ennobled form that appears to have cast off the constraints of materiality.”26 Each expression of nature contains the entirety of the whole, as it were, in embryo, not as a representation but as a vital, moving, self-transforming production. As I wish to insist, it is not a black night of black cows, nor simply a “protocosmic abyss,” but an eddy, a swirl, a vortex of unstoppable energy. We are all Wirbel.
William Davis is associate professor of Comparative Literature and German at the Colorado College. He works on British and German romanticism, connections between philosophy and literature, and literary theory. He is currently working on a project on Romantic Hellenism with the working title One with Everything.