Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling

The German idealist and romantic philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854) developed a metaphysical system based on the philosophy of nature.

Born in Württemberg on Jan. 27, 1775, the son of a learned Lutheran pastor, F. W. J. von Schelling was educated at the theological seminary at Tübingen. He became friends with two older classmates, G. W. F. Hegel and Friedrich Hölderlin, and shared their ardent support of the French Revolution. Schelling read widely in the philosophies of Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, and Johann Gottlieb Fichte. His first two treatises, Ü ber die Möglichkeit einer Philosophie überhaupt (1795; On the Possibility of a Form of Philosophy in General) and Vom Ich als Prinzip der Philosophie… (1795; On the Ego as Principle of Philosophy), were influenced by Fichte's philosophy of the Absolute Ego. Indeed Fichte's critics mockingly referred to Schelling as the "street peddler of the Ego."

Philosophy of Nature

In the second phase of his thought Schelling turned against Fichte's conception of nature. He then claimed that nature was not a mere obstacle to be overcome through the moral striving of the subject. Nature rather was a form of spiritual activity, an "unconscious intelligence." This organistic, vitalistic conception of nature was developed in Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur (1797; Ideas toward a Philosophy of Nature), in Von der Weltseele (1798; On the World Soul), and in several works on the physical sciences published between 1797 and 1803. Schelling's brilliance was quickly recognized; owing to J. W. von Goethe's influence, he gave up his position as private tutor and assumed the rank of full professor at Jena. He was only 23 years old.

Jena was the center of German romanticism. This prestigious circle included Ludwig Tieck, the folklorist; Novalis, the poet; Friedrich and August von Schlegel, the translators of Shakespeare; Caroline, August's wife; and in nearby Weimar, Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller. Schelling was briefly engaged to Caroline's daughter by her first marriage, but she died under mysterious circumstances. His affection quickly turned to Caroline, a woman of tremendous wit and intelligence. In 1803, after divorcing Schlegel, Caroline married Schelling.

In 1800 Schelling published the most systematic statement of his philosophy, System des Transzendentalen Idealismus (System of Transcendental Idealism). In this work and in Darstellung meine Systems der Philosophie (1801; An Exposition of My System), Schelling argued for the absolute identity of nature and mind in the form of reason. Although this third turn in Schelling's thought was probably influenced by Hegel's philosophy, it earned him only Hegel's scorn.

Munich Period

From 1803 to 1806 Schelling taught at the University of Würzburg. In 1806 he was appointed secretary to the Academy of Arts at Munich, a post that allowed him to complete his most interesting work and to lecture at Stuttgart. During this period his most important work was the Philosophische Untersuchungen über das Wesen der Menschlichen Freiheit (1809; Of Human Freedom). Schelling's emphasis on human freedom—"the beginning and end of all philosophy is freedom"—anticipates the major concerns of contemporary existentialism.

In just 14 years Schelling's kaleidoscopic philosophy had undergone several shifts. Hegel uncharitably remarked that Schelling "carried on his philosophical education in public." Schelling was, however, a rigorous thinker, although he never constructed a complete metaphysical system. Schelling wrote eloquent and impassioned prose, liberating German philosophy from its turgid, jargonistic style.

Later Period

Schelling's wife died in 1809, and that same year marked the rising prominence of Hegel. These two events dampened Schelling's philosophical enthusiasm and self-confidence. Schelling was remarried in 1812—to Pauline Gotter, a friend of Caroline's—but did not publish another book in the remaining 42 years of his life. From 1820 to 1827 he lectured at Erlangen, and in 1827 Schelling became a professor at Munich. Extremely bitter about the success of Hegel, he accepted a post as Prussian privy councilor and member of the Berlin Academy in order to quell the popularity of Hegel's disciples, the so-called Young Hegelians.

To combat further the influence of Hegel, Schelling lectured at Berlin for 5 years. His lectures on mythology and religion signaled the last stage in his thought, the opposition of negative and positive philosophy. God cannot be known through reason (negative philosophy), but He can be experienced through myth and revelation (positive philosophy). This relatively neglected aspect of Schelling's philosophy has aroused considerable interest among today's Protestant theologians. Never regaining his early prominence, Schelling died on Aug. 20, 1854, at Bad Ragaz, Switzerland.

Schelling was called the "prince of the romantics." With his immense charm, wit, and radiant spirit, he endeared himself to the coterie of intellectuals known as the German romantics. With them he celebrated, in both word and deed, the vision of artistic genius and the principles of organicism and vitalism in nature.

Further Reading on Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling

A short critical biography is in James Gutman's introduction to his translation of Schelling's Of Human Freedom (1936). Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy (7 vols., 1946; rev. ed., 7 vols. in 13, 1962), provides a thorough exposition of Schelling's thought. Other accounts of the development of Schelling's later philosophy are in the introduction to Schelling's The Ages of the World (a fragment of Die Weltalter), translated by Frederick de Wolfe Bolman (1942), and in Paul Collins Hayner, Reason and Existence: Schelling's Philosophy of History (1967). Recommended for the background of idealism and romanticism are Josiah Royce, The Spirit of Modern Philosophy (1892), and Eric D. Hirsch, Wordsworth and Schelling (1960).

Additional Biography Sources

Seidel, George J. (George Joseph), Activity and ground: Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, Hildesheim; New York: G. Olms, 1976.

Snow, Dale E., Schelling and the end of idealism, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

White, Alan, Schelling: an introduction to the system of freedom, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.