Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling was born in 1775 to Joseph Friedrich Schelling, a chaplain and professor of Oriental languages, and Gottliebin Marie, in the town of Leonberg in Württemberg (now Baden-Württemberg). He was good friends with Hegel and the poet, Holderlin. The three were roommates for awhile at Tübinger Stift, a seminary of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Württemberg. Here, Schelling studied the Church Fathers and the ancient Greeks.
We are now getting very close in our series to the beginning of modern depth psychology. By the time Schelling publishes his first philosophical work in 1795, we will be a mere one hundred years or so away from Freudian psychoanalysis. We will see that Schelling has contributions to make to the already constellating forces that will bring forth the idea of the unconscious from the whirling maelstrom of European thought, and then sweep the knowledge of depth psychology around the globe, making Sigmund Freud one of the most famous men in the world.
When I was a philosophy undergraduate in the mid-nineties, my professors totally ignored Schelling. I suppose it was because his teachings did not tow the Hegelian party line. Hegelianism was very powerful in Schelling’s day. It was the philosophical orthodoxy at that period in European history. Besides this, there was the rampant Cartesianism, which had led to a scientism that refused to accept a Schellingian philosophy of mythology or philosophy of nature. Bertrand Russell, the famous British philosopher that one of my old professors fondly referred to as “Bertie Russell,” dismissed Schelling’s importance in three lines:
Schelling was more amiable [than Fichte] but not less subjective. He was closely associated with the German romantics; philosophically, though famous in his day, he is not important (Russell 575).
Schelling was part of a movement that was extremely popular in Germany in the nineteenth century called Idealism. German Idealism reacted against Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, where he had asserted a distinction between phenomenon and noumenon, the external thing and the thing-in-itself. Kant had said that we could have absolutely no knowledge of the noumena. Johann Fichte contended that there was no distinction between phenomenon and noumenon, and that the ego was the source of all external things. Fichte’s philosophy was similar to Kant’s, except that the knowing subject, the ego, was at the center of everything.
Schelling, influenced by Fichte, attempted to develop this further by claiming that Fichte’s “I” requires the “Not-I” in the experiencing of the external world. The subjective requires the objective in order for experience to occur. In fact, in Schelling, the subjective and objective are one and the the same.
Schelling made very important contributions to the emergence of the idea of the unconscious in the nineteenth century. Borrowing somewhat from Jacob Boehme’s idea of Ungrund, Schelling first used the term, unconscious (das Unbewusste), in the year 1800, “in the context of his analysis of the unconscious conditions of self-consciousness and the sources of art” (Ffytche 13). In arriving at the idea of the unconscious, Schelling ran into the difficult problem of developing “certainty through a metaphysics of the Absolute; the desire to outline a history of nature; and the concern to articulate a principle of individuality and of individual freedom” (Ffytche 102). Schelling found himself in the unenviable position of trying to integrate three ideas: the individual and the Absolute; the emergent nature of life itself; and necessity and freedom. He needed to forge these together into one unitive ontology. It was at this juncture that he employed the idea of the unconscious as a jumping-off point.
In order to resolve these ontological contradictions between individuality and the absolute (whether this latter is conceived as reason, God, nature or the I) Schelling will come to rely on a third, mediating space — beyond the cogito and the framing powers of reason, but within the ontological space of the individual. A psyche that emerges besides the ‘I’, as an alternative, more radical site of connection between the self and its metaphysical foundations, is not just the sign of a counter-Enlightenment return to the structures of religion — the transcendent language of soul — but an attempt to naturalise within the framework of psychology a site for thinking self-identity, for positing an identity with oneself (Ffytche 105).
The psyche is this mediative point of departure for Schelling. In the
psyche, one finds a mediatrix between one’s individual self and the
Like Giordano Bruno before him, Schelling borrowed from Aristotle’s doctrine of form and matter. After applying this to his project, two ideas emerged. First, matter somehow identifies with the Absolute because it is “pure possibility in relation to the actual” (Ffytche 109). Secondly, matter is identified with the source, the origin. Schelling said,
rough matter strives, as it were blindly, after regular shape, and unconsciously assumes pure stereometric forms (Plastic Arts 7).
The fact that we are required to “strive after regular shape” assumes there is a lack of consciousness. In fact, Schelling once said, “In the concept of every beginning lies the concept of a lack” (qtd. in Ffytche 111). In this lack, this nothingness, lies unconsciousness. The connection of nothingness and non-being with individuality makes Schelling a direct predecessor to existentialist philosophers like Sartre, who make nothingness central to their thinking. More importantly, for our study, Schelling’s idea of unconsciousness initiates a discussion in psychology that will eventually lead to Freud’s use of the idea, and then Jung and modern depth psychology.
Schelling also contributed to psychology in his ideas of mythology and the imagination. Now, that I am slightly more familiar with him, I will delve further into those topics for future articles.
One other thing, notice, in the image above, if you will, Schelling’s eyes. His eyes are very distinctive, very deep, and very indicative of a man consumed with the soul. The eyes always give it away.
Ffytche, Matt. The Foundation of the Unconscious. Cambridge: Cambridge, 2012.
Russell, Bertrand. History of Western Philosophy. London: Routledge, 2009.
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