Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling

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Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (January 27, 1775 - August 20, 1854) was a German philosopher.



Schelling was born at Leonberg in Württemberg. He was first educated at the cloister school of Bebenhausen, near Tübingen, where his father was chaplain and an Orientalist professor. Three years early, he then enrolled at the Tübinger Stift (seminary of the Protestant Church in Württemberg), where he became friends with the future philosophers Georg Hegel and Friedrich Hölderlin. In 1792 he graduated from the philosophical faculty, and in 1793 contributed to Heinrich Eberhard Gottlob Paulus's Memorabilien; in 1795 he finished his thesis for his theological degree, De Marcione Paullinarum epistolarum emendatore. Meanwhile, he had begun to study Kant and Fichte. The Review of Aenesidemus and the tractate On the Notion of Wissenschaftslehre greatly influenced him. Schelling had no sooner grasped the leading ideas of Fichte's amended form of the critical philosophy than he eagerly put together his impressions of it in his Über die Möglichkeit einer Form der Philosophie überhaupt (1794). Although unoriginal, his work showed such depth of appreciation for the new ideas of the Fichtean method that it was acknowledged by Fichte himself, and immediately made for Schelling a reputation among philosophical writers. His more elaborate work, Vom Ich als Prinzip der Philosophie, oder über das Unbedingte im menschlichen Wissen 1798, while still remaining within the limits of the Fichtean idealism, exhibited unmistakable traces of a tendency to give the Fichtean method a more objective application, and to amalgamate Spinoza's views with it.

After two years tutoring two youths of a aristocratic family, and at only 23 years of age, Schelling was called as an extraordinary professor of philosophy to Jena midsummer 1798. He had already contributed articles and reviews to the Journal of Fichte and Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer, and had thrown himself with characteristic impetuosity into the study of physical and medical science. From 1796 date the Briefe über Dogmatismus und Kritizismus, an admirably written critique of the ultimate issues of the Kantian system; from 1797 the essay entitled Neue Deduction des Naturrechts, which to some extent anticipated Fichte's treatment in the Grundlage des Naturrechts, published in 1796, but not before Schelling's essay had been received by the editors of the Journal. His studies of physical science bore rapid fruit in the Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur (1797), and the treatise Von der Weltseele (1798).

The philosophical renown of Jena reached its culmination during the years 1798-1803, when Schelling was resident there. His intellectual sympathies united him closely with some of the most active literary tendencies of the time. With Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who viewed with interest and appreciation the poetical fashion of treating fact characteristic of the Naturphilosophie, he was on excellent terms, but on the other hand he was repelled by Friedrich Schiller's less expansive disposition, and failed altogether to understand the lofty ethical idealism that animated Schiller's work. He soon became the acknowledged leader of the Romantic school whose impetuous litterateurs had begun to tire of the cold abstractions of Fichte. In Schelling, essentially a self-conscious genius, eager and rash, yet with undeniable power, they hailed a personality of the true Romantic type. With August Wilhelm von Schlegel and his gifted wife, Karoline, herself the embodiment of the Romantic spirit, Schelling's relations were of the most intimate kind, and a marriage between Schelling and Karoline's young daughter, Auguste Böhmer, was vaguely contemplated by both. Auguste's death in 1800 (due partly to Schelling's rash confidence in his medical knowledge) drew Schelling and Karoline together. Schlegel had removed to Berlin, and a divorce was arranged, apparently with his consent. On June 2 1803 Schelling and Karoline were married, and Schelling's time at Jena came to an end. Schelling's self-confidence had involved him in a series of disputes and quarrels at Jena, which led to his departure.

From September 1803 until April 1806 Schelling was professor at the new University of Würzburg. This period was marked by considerable flux in his views and by a final breach with Fichte and with Hegel. In Würzburg, Schelling had had many enemies. He antagonized his colleagues and also the government. In Munich, to which he moved in 1806, he found a quiet residence. A position as state official, at first as associate of the academy of sciences and secretary of the academy of arts, afterwards as secretary of the philosophical section of the academy of sciences, provided him ease and leisure. Without resigning his official position, he lectured for a short time at Stuttgart, and seven years at Erlangen (1820-1827). In 1809 Karoline died, and three years later Schelling married one of her closest friends, Pauline Gotter, in whom he found a faithful companion.

During the long stay at Munich (1806-1841) Schelling's literary activity seemed gradually to come to a standstill. The "Aphorisms on Naturphilosophie contained in the Jahrbucher der Medicin als Wissenschaft (1806-1808) are for the most part extracts from the Würzburg lectures; and the Denkmal der Schrift von den göttlichen Dingen des Herrn Jacobi was drawn forth by the special incident of Jacobi's work. The only writing of significance is the "Philosophische Untersuchungen uber das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit, which appeared in the Philosophische Schriften. vol. i. (1809), and which carries out, with increasing tendency to mysticism, the thoughts of the previous work, Philosophie und Religion. In 1815 appeared the tract Über die Gottheiten zu Samothrace, ostensibly a portion of a great work, Die Weltalter, frequently announced as ready for publication, but of which little was ever written. It is possible that it was the overpowering strength and influence of the Hegelian system that constrained Schelling, for it was only in 1834, after the death of Hegel, that, in a preface to a translation by H. Beckers of a work by Cousin, he gave public utterance to the antagonism in which he stood to the Hegelian, and to his own earlier conceptions of philosophy. The antagonism certainly was not then a new fact; the Erlangen lectures on the history of philosophy of 1822 express the same in a pointed fashion, and Schelling had already begun the treatment of mythology and religion which in his view constituted the true positive complements to the negative of logical or speculative philosophy.

Public attention was powerfully attracted by these vague hints of a new system which promised something more positive, especially in its treatment of religion, than the apparent results of Hegel's teaching. For the appearance of the critical writings of Strauss, Feuerbach and Bauer, and the evident disunion in the Hegelian school itself had alienated the sympathies of many from the then dominant philosophy. In Berlin, the headquarters of the Hegelians, the desire found expression in attempts to obtain officially from Schelling a treatment of the new system which he was understood to have in reserve. The realization of the desire did not come about till 1841, when the appointment of Schelling as Prussian privy councillor and member of the Berlin Academy, gave him the right, a right he was requested to exercise, to deliver lectures in the university. Among his students there were Søren Kierkegaard, Mikhail Bakunin, and Friedrich Engels. The opening lecture of his course was listened to by a large and appreciative audience. The enmity of his old foe, HEG Paulus, sharpened by Schelling's apparent success, led to the surreptitious publication of a verbatim report of the lectures on the philosophy of revelation, and, as Schelling did not succeed in obtaining legal condemnation and suppression of this piracy, he in 1845 ceased the delivery of any public courses. No authentic information as to the nature of the new positive philosophy was obtained till after his death (at Bad Rogaz, on the 20th of August 1854), when his sons began the issue of his collected writings with the four volumes of Berlin lectures: vol. i. Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology (1856); ii. Philosophy of Mythology (1857); iii. and iv. Philosophy of Revelation (1858).


Whatever judgment one may form of the total worth of Schelling as a philosopher, his place in the history of that important movement called generally 'German philosophy' is unmistakable and assured. It happened to him, as he himself claimed, to turn a page in the history of thought, and one cannot ignore the actual advance upon his predecessor achieved by him or the brilliant fertility of the genius by which that achievement was accomplished. On the other hand he nowhere succeeds in attaining to a complete scientific system. His philosophical writings are the successive manifestations of a restless highly endowed spirit, striving unsuccessfully after a solution of its own problems. Such unity as they possess is a unity of tendency and endeavour; in some respects the final form they assumed is the least satisfactory. Hence it has come about that Schelling remains for the philosophic student but a moment of historical value in the development of thought, and that his works have for the most part ceased now to have more than historic interest.

It is fair to connect the apparent failings of Schelling's philosophizing with the historical accidents of his career. In his early writings, for example, more particularly those making up 'Naturphilosophie', one finds in painful abundance the evidences Of hastily acquired knowledge, impatience at the prospect of the hard labour and requisite minute thought, over-confidence in the force of individual genius, and desire to instantaneously present even in the crudest fashion the newest idea which has dawned upon the thinker. Schelling was prematurely thrust into the position of a foremost productive thinker; and when the lengthened period of quiet meditation was at last forced upon him, there unfortunately lay before him a system which achieved what had dimly been involved in his ardent and impetuous desires. It is not possible to acquit Schelling of a certain disingenuousness in regard to the Hegelian philosophy; and if we claim for him perfect disinterestedness of view we must accuse him of deficient insight.

At all stages of his thought he called to his aid the forms of some other system. Thus Fichte, Spinoza, Jakob Boehme and the Mystics, and finally, the great Greek thinkers with their Neoplatonic, Gnostic, and Scholastic commentators, give respectively colouring to particular works. But Schelling did not merely borrow, he had genuine philosophic spirit and no small measure of philosophic insight, and under all the differences of exposition which seem to constitute so many differing systems, there is one and the same philosophic effort and spirit. But what Schelling did want was power to work out his ideas methodically. Hence he could only find expression for himself in forms of this or that earlier philosophy, and hence too the frequent formlessness of his own thought, the tendency to relapse into mere impatient despair of ever finding an adequate vehicle for transmitting thought. It is fair in dealing with Schelling's development to take into account the indications of his own opinion regarding its more significant momenta. In his own view the turning points seem to have been--

  1. the transition from Fichte's method to the more objective conception of nature-- the advance, in other words, to Naturphilosophie
  2. the definite formulation of that which implicitly, as Schelling claims, was involved in the idea of Naturphilosophie, that is, the thought of the identical, indifferent, absolute substratum of both nature and spirit, the advance to Identitatsphilosophie;
  3. the opposition of negative and positive philosophy, an opposition which is the theme of the Berlin lectures, though its germs may be traced back to 1804.

Only what falls under the first and second of the divisions so indicated can be said to have discharged a function in developing philosophy; only so much constitutes Schelling's philosophy proper.


The Fichtean method had striven to exhibit the whole structure of reality as the necessary implication of self-consciousness. The fundamental features of knowledge, whether as activity or as sum of apprehended fact, and of conduct had been deduced as elements necessary in the attainment of self-consciousness. Fichtean idealism therefore at once stood out negatively, as abolishing the dogmatic conception of the two real worlds, subject and object, by whose interaction cognition and practice arise, and as amending the critical idea which retained with dangerous caution too many fragments of dogmatism; positively, as insisting on the unity of philosophical interpretation and as supplying a key to the form or method by which a completed philosophic system might be constructed. But the Fichtean teaching appeared on the one hand to identify too closely the ultimate ground of the universe of rational conception with the finite, individual spirit, and on the other hand to endanger the reality of the world of nature by regarding it too much after the fashion of subjective idealism, as mere moment, though necessitated, in the existence of the finite thinking mind. It was almost a natural consequence that Fichte never succeeded in amalgamating with his own system the aesthetic view of nature to which the Kritik of Judgment had pointed as an essential component in any complete philosophy.

From Fichte's position Schelling started. From Fichte he derived the ideal of a completed whole of philosophic conception and also the formal method to which for the most part he continued true. The earliest writings tended gradually towards the first important advance. Nature must not be conceived as merely abstract limit to the infinite striving of spirit, as a mere series of necessary thoughts for mind. It must be that and more than that. It must have reality for itself, a reality which stands in no conflict with its ideal character, a reality the inner structure of which is ideal, a reality the root and spring of which is spirit. Nature as the sum of that which is objective, intelligence as the complex of all the activities making up self-consciousness, appear thus as equally real, as alike exhibiting ideal structure, as parallel with one another. The philosophy of nature and transcendental philosophy are the two complementary portions of philosophy as a whole.

Animated with this new conception Schelling made his hurried rush to Naturphilosophie, and with the aid of Kant and of fragmentary knowledge of contemporary scientific movements, threw off in quick succession the Ideen, the Weitseele, and the Erster Entwurf. Naturphilosophie has had scant mercy at the hands of modern science. Schelling had neither the strength of thinking nor the acquired knowledge necessary to hold the balance between the abstract treatment of cosmological notions and the concrete researches of special science. His efforts after a construction of natural reality are bad in themselves, and gave rise to wearisome and useless physical speculation. Yet it would be unjust to ignore the many brilliant and sometimes valuable thoughts that are scattered throughout the writings on Naturphilosophie--thoughts to which Schelling himself is but too frequently untrue. Regarded merely as a criticism of the notions with which scientific interpretation proceeds, these writings have still importance and might have achieved more had they been untainted by the tendency to hasty, ill-considered, a priori anticipations of nature. However, perhaps we are being too harsh here, and we should recall what Schelling wrote in his 1809 Freedom essay: "It cannot be denied that it is a splendid invention to be able to designate entire points of view at once with such general epithets. If one has once discovered the right label for a system, everything else follows of its own accord and one is spared the trouble of investigating its essential characteristics in greater detail."

Nature, as having reality for itself, forms one completed whole. Its manifoldness is not then to be taken as excluding its fundamental unity; the divisions which our ordinary perception and thought introduce into it have not absolute validity, but are to be interpreted as the outcome of the single formative energy or complex of forces which is the inner aspect, the soul of nature This we are in a position to apprehend and constructively to exhibit to ourselves in the successive forms which its development assumes, for it is the same spirit, though unconscious, of which we become aware in self-consciousness. It is the realization of spirit. Nor is the variety of its forms imposed upon it from without; there is neither external teleology in nature, nor mechanism in the narrower sense. Nature is a whole and forms itself; within its range we are to look for no other than natural explanations. The function of Naturphilosophie is to exhibit the ideal as springing from the real, not to deduce the real from the ideal. The incessant change which experience brings before us, taken in conjunction with the thought of unity in' productive force of nature, leads to the all-important conception of the duality, the polar opposition through which nature, expresses tself in its varied products. The dynamical series of stages in nature, the forms in which the ideal structure of nature is realized, are matter, as the equilibrium of the fundamental expansive and contractive forces; light, with its subordinate processes--magnetism, electricity, and chemical action; organism, with its component phases of reproduction, irritability and sensibility.

  1. Just as nature exhibits to us the series of dynamical stages of processes by which spirit struggles towards consciousness of itself, so the world of intelligence and practice, the world of mind, exhibits the series of stages through which self-consciousness with its inevitable oppositions and reconciliations develops in its ideal form. The theoretical side of inner nature in its successive grades from sensation to the highest form of spirit, the abstracting reason which emphasizes the difference of subjective and objective, leaves an unsolved problem which receives satisfaction only in the practical, the individualizing activity. The practical, again, taken in conjunction with the theoretical, forces on the question of the reconciliation between the free conscious organization of thought and the apparently necessitated and unconscious mechanism of the objective world. In the notion of a teleological connection and in that which for- spirit is its subjective expression, that is, art and genius, the subjective and objective find their point of union.
  2. Nature and spirit, Naturphilosophie and Transcendentalphilosophie, thus stand as two relatively complete, but complementary parts of the whole. It was impossible for Schelling, the animating principle of whose thought was ever the reconciliation of differences, not to take and to take speedily the step towards the conception of the uniting basis of which nature and spirit are manifestations, forms, or consequences. For this common basis, however, he did not succeed at first in finding any other than the merely negative expression of indifference. The identity, the absolute, which underlay all difference, all the relative, is to be characterized simply as neutrusn, as absolute undifferentiated self-equivalence. It lay in the very nature of this thought that Spinoza should now offer himself to Schelling as the thinker whose form of presentation came nearest to his new problem. The Darstellung meines Systems, and the more expanded and more careful treatment contained in the lectures on System der gesammten Philosophie und der Naturphilosophie insbesondere given in Würzburg, 1804 (published in the Sammtliche Werke, vol. vi. pp. 131-576), are thoroughly Spinozistic in form, and to a large extent in substance. They are not without value, indeed, as extended commentary on Spinoza. With all his efforts, Schelling does not succeed in bringing his conceptions of nature and spirit into any vital connexion with the primal identity, the absolute indifference of reason. No true solution could be achieved by resort to the mere absence of distinguishing, differencing feature. The absolute was left with no other function than that of removing all the differences on which thought turns. The criticisms of Fichte, and more particularly of Hegel (in the "Vorrede" to the Phenomenologie des Geistes), point to the fatal defect in the conception of the absolute as mere featureless identity.
  3. Along two distinct lines Schelling is to be found in all his later writings striving to amend the conception, to which he remained true, of absolute reason as the ultimate ground of reality. It was necessary, in the first place, to give to this absolute a character, to make of it something more than empty sameness; it was necessary, in the second place, to clear up in some way the relation in which the actuality or apparent actuality of nature and spirit

The briefest and best account in Schelling himself of Naturphilosophie is that contained in the Einleitung zu dern Ersten Entwurf (S. W. iii.). A full and lucid statement of Naturphilosophie is that given by K Fischer in his Gesch. d. n. Phil., vi. 433-692.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.


Selected works are listed below. For a more complete listing, see this page (

  • Über die Möglichkeit einer Form der Philosophie überhaupt (1794) (On the Possibility of an Absolute Form of Philosophy), Vom Ich als Prinzip der Philosophie oder über das Unbedingte im menschlichen Wissen (1795) (Of the I as the Principle of Philosophy or on the Unconditional in Human Knowledge), Philosophische Briefe über Dogmatismus und Kriticismus (1795) (Philosophical Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism) in The Unconditional in Human Knowledge: Four early essays 1794-6 (1980) translation and commentary by F. Marti, Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press.
  • Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur als Einleitung in das Studium dieser Wissenschaft (1797) Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature: as Introduction to the Study of this Science (1988) translated by E.E. Harris and P. Heath, introduction R. Stern, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • System des transcendentalen Idealismus (1800) System of Transcendental Idealism (1978) translated by P. Heath, introduction M. Vater, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
  • Bruno oder über das göttliche und natürliche Prinzip der Dinge (1802) Bruno, or On the Natural and the Divine Principle of Things (1984) translated with an introduction by M. Vater, Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Philosophie der Kunst (1802-3) The Philosophy of Art (1989) Minnesota: Minnesota University Press.
  • Vorlesungen über die Methode des akademischen Studiums (1803) On University Studies (1966) translated E.S. Morgan, edited N. Guterman, Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.
  • Philosophische Untersuchungen über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit und die damit zusammenhängenden Gegenstände (1809) Of Human Freedom (1936) a translation with critical introduction and notes by J. Gutmann, Chicago: Open Court.
  • Die Weltalter (1811-15). The Ages of the World (1967) translated with introduction and notes by F. de W. Bolman, jr., New York: Columbia University Press. The Abyss of Freedom/Ages of the World (1997), trans. Judith Norman, with an essay by Slavoj Zizek, Anne Arbor: The University of Michigan Press
  • Über die Gottheiten von Samothrake (1815) Schelling's Treatise on ‘The Deities of Samothrace’ (1977) a translation and introduction by R.F. Brown, Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press.
  • Zur Geschichte der neueren Philosophie (probably 1833-4) On the History of Modern Philosophy (1994) translation and introduction by A. Bowie, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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