- System of Transcendental Idealism by Friedrich Schelling


Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775–1854) belongs to the German idealist tradition in philosophy. His contribution to this thinking follows Fichte and is followed by Hegel. 

It was Kant who first proposed the modest doctrine of transcendental idealism in his Critique of Pure Reason as part of his quest for a synthesis between rationalism and empiricism. He argued that the objects which we know are appearances (phenomenon), not things in themselves (noumenon). However, his followers Fichte, Schelling and Hegel took this view to a radical new level, transforming it into absolute idealism. This holds that things in themselves (noumena) are a contradiction in terms, since in order to be an object a thing must be an object of consciousness.

German idealism aimed at systematising the main parts of philosophy such as logic, metaphysics, epistemology, moral and political philosophy and aesthetics. Kant thought that they could be derived from a small array of related principles. Fichte, Schelling and Hegel radicalised this concept into one first principle: the Absolute.

Fichte taught Kantian philosophy in Jena and gradually developed his own concepts on transcendental idealism. The Kantian subject receives sensory information in a passive manner (phenomenon) and actively constructs the perceived object (nomena). Fichte rejects the thing in itself and concentrates on the cognitive subject alone. He reforms Kant's third person interaction of subject and reality as a first person interpretation. 

Schelling was appointed to a lectureship at Jena at the age of 23. He joined a group of thinkers who were followers of transcendental idealism, including Fichte. Schelling later broke from Fichte's philosophy by including both the subjective and the objective aspects of knowledge, in a new synthesis he called Naturphilosophie

Schelling agreed with the transcendental tradition's view that the subject has priority in knowledge and experience, but nature is primary in the order of being. This clarified the difference between transcendental and natural priorities. He upheld both paths but had a preference for his own Naturphilosophie where the metaphysical powers of nature create the transcendental subject. Since nature is so involved in the human mind then understanding nature is like reading a work of art, which is a construction.


The System of Transcendental Idealism (System des transcendentalen Idealismuswas published in 1800.

Schelling sets out four premises:

- The epistemological theory that truth includes correspondence between ideas and their represented realities. All knowledge needs a relationship between the subjective mind and the object of knowledge.

- The assumption that there must be an union in origin of subject and object. (This is Spinoza's argument that two entities which exist in the same universe have a common unity.)

- The self is a limitation. It sets boundaries between oneself and things outside the self.

- He claims that the self is an act, not an object. (Hume had contended that humans do not experience the self as an object.)

His logical argument proceeds as follows:

Knowledge is the relationship between subject and object so there must be a previous grounding for them. This ground cannot be either subject or object, nor can it be described in categories of knowledge. It is not a thing so it must be an act. As it is prior to knowledge categories, it must be limitless, because limitation is a category. Instantiation needs self-consciousness through limitation. If limitation happens, that implies a second limiting act. This means that there are two identical infinite activities, but in opposite directions:

-The Real, the attempt to imagine Self as an object:

"no other than the original, infinitely extending, activity of the self."

-The Ideal which is an introspective attempt to imagine the self in the act of looking out and so limiting it. 

Schelling's dialectic proceeds as thesis and antithesis. The self cannot imagine itself as an object since it is an act. This limitation of the real activity is countered by the unlimited ideal activity. This creates an infinite loop.

These activities move through three epoch points of instability:

The first epoch creates a chaos like that of Genesis 1 and as a reaction the Absolute rises, which is a pantheistic God.

In the second epoch matter arises. It is not that of the empirical world since this is an idealist one and matter only appears in perception.

In the third epoch the self returns on itself because it cannot apprehend itself as an object and moves into a mode of abstraction.

In his introduction Schelling promises a synthesis uniting subject and object, but this is postponed indefinitely. The solution focuses on identity and aesthetics. Art is the human activity that mirrors the divine creation. He argues that art is a conscious production and is also determined by the unconscious. It is a conscious expression of the problem of consciousness which tries to create awareness of the self as an object, although it is not, or even existent as such. 

What appears to drive Schelling's system is the Will, an uncontrolled movement towards self-representation.



Schelling's naturphilosophie views everything as rooted in Nature. He embraced an organic, unorthodox philosophy. This is in line with contemporary biological thinking, finally leading to the process of evolution, though not natural selection. This is a development which seves an end: the consuming of the finality which all life possesses.

Schelling's concept of finality is concerned with external body prospering, not the soul. Nevertheless, it was the rational mind (the soul) that would comprehend to what end the body existed. This generates the unity of rationalism and empiricism, of the subjective and objective, in his system. He applied it to all things: art, culture, animals, plants, politics... Hegel later agreed with him that all things would be united in time and that finality would be understood through the consummation of the whole of consciousness.

The philosopher worked towards a synthesis of the rationalist traditions of Plato, Plotinus, Christianity and Descartes with the objective, empirical, natural world. To understand the self Schelling believed that it was necessary to comprehend the environment in which it existed. This would avoid the solipsism of Descartes and Fitche, the evasion of the world in platonism, the misunderstanding of the world in Christianity and the nihilistic material philosophies of Epicurus and the British empiricists.


Artistic activity, for the author, is the sensorial depiction of philosophical ideas. Art and philosophy move in complimentary ways as regards freedom: naturphilosophie moves to freedom within a blind lawfulness; artwork moves from freedom to a new form revealing the synthesis that necessity and freedom are two sides of the same coin.

Art, for Schelling, also opens the possibility of establishing new narratives which can combat social alienation. He had hoped that the philosophy of art could offer the German-speaking community a mythology to unite different tendencies and the descent of values into utilitarianism.


In 1809 Schelling published Philosophical Inquiries into the Nature of Human Freedom. Here freedom is not the will to master a sensuous nature, but the liberty to do evil. The problem for idealist philosophy is that freedom appears as unsystematic, which means that it is incomprehensible. Their thinking demands the systematisation of freedom which is unconditional and free.

Evil is not divine or nasty but forms part of human freedom. It is uniquely human in that the animals are governed by necessity and the divine is free. Humanity participates in divine freedom but is separated from it by an abyss.


Spinoza was said to be a pantheist and so an atheist. He identified God with the world, which leaves no place for an unconditional reality. Jacobi tried to demonstrate that rational knowledge cannot arrive at the unconditioned since it is the starting point for reasoning about it. It can only be reasoned after a leap of faith which leads him to conclude that all rational knowledge is nihilism. 

Schelling agrees with Jacobi on the limitations of rational knowledge but disagrees with his limits on the concepts of system and freedom. The philosopher argues for a dynamic idea of the system to explain freedom, instead of the formal logical conception. Human freedom is distinguished from the absolute freedom of God. It is the human capacity for evil.


The problem of consciousness turned into a problem for Idealism itself. Schelling argues that self-consciousness is grounded in the unconscious. However, this grounding is always inaccessible to consciousness.

On this basis the author affirms that philosophical cognition is limited and also that art is important. The work of art does not represent the synthesis of consciousness and unconsciousness but portrays it. The artist works with a conscious intention and, in an unconscious, unintentional way, shows infinity without mentioning it. This is what constitutes art - showing over saying.

Hegel later argues that the work of art is something from the past and has no relationship to the Absolute. Schelling, on the other hand, views works of art and of philosophy as different modes of the Absolute. 

Are both art and philosophy joined by the nature of human thinking, as Kant had already intimated and Nietzsche would second: narratives interpreting reality?

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