Naturphilosophie refers both to the specific philosophical program Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775–1854) initiated with his Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur (1797; Ideas for a philosophy of nature) and to the movement during the German Romantic period that Schelling's work is said to have spawned. The context of both is the achievement of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), whose philosophical system formed the background against which many of the themes of Romantic thought emerged. In this case, dissatisfaction with Kant's treatment of nature, in which there could be cognition only of the appearances of nature but not of nature-in-itself, provided the occasion for several individuals to attempt to complete what they thought Kant had only begun.
Schelling was by no means the first thinker who departed from Kant's understanding of the natural philosopher's role as a lawgiver to nature. Others from the 1790s who independently of Schelling addressed for various reasons what they saw as the inadequacy of Kant's system where nature was concerned included Franz Xaver von Baader (1765–1841); Carl Friedrich Kielmeyer (1765–1844); Karl August Eschenmayer (1768–1852); and in his dissertation of 1799, Hans Christian Ørsted (1777–1851).
The Work of Schelling
But it was Schelling who set out to locate the knowledge of nature within a larger system of philosophy. He came to this task as a participant in the general philosophical examination of Kant's system that was underway in the 1790s. In addition to those largely sympathetic to Kant, there were others, especially Johann Fichte (1762–1814), who questioned Kant's reliance on the existence of things-in-themselves. Since we cannot have knowledge of things-in-themselves, how could Kant insist that they were the source of the sense data that reason utilized to create knowledge of the world? Schelling's initial sympathy for this critique made it appear that he agreed with Fichte's claim that even the manifold of sense had been produced by us out of our own creative faculty. But in spite of his agreement with Fichte that the possibility of our knowledge of nature did not depend on the existence of Kant's things-in-themselves, it was Schelling's ultimate disagreement with Fichte's reliance on the absolute ego that led to his wish to construct a system of philosophy in which nature retained its own integrity.
At first, in the Ideen, Schelling insists merely that our belief in a reality outside ourselves grew up at the same time that our belief in our own existence appeared, that one was as necessary as the other. But this first book is best seen as a preliminary attempt, a beginning to the new enterprise. In it Schelling does not yet himself realize the basic foundation of his later Naturphilosophie. The Ideen contains, like Baader's work before it, an attack on atomism as an outlook sufficient to capture the depth of nature's reality. In place of atomism Schelling proposed a dynamic conception of underlying polar forces he believed were more up to the task. With these he felt that he could show how what we experience of nature derives from the same source that gives rise to our belief in a nature outside ourselves.
So far he has not gotten outside the mind, since he is here speaking about instances of our belief. But with the rapid appearance of a series of works between 1798 and 1801, in which the work of Benedict de Spinoza (1632–1677) was influential, he would make clean the break from Fichte and insist that the realm of the real has equal status to that of the ideal. It was these works that inspired many to abandon the viewpoint of Kant in favor of what they saw as the more realistic understanding that Schelling's approach provided.
It was likely while he was writing the Ideen that Schelling came to the realization that the realm of the organic, which had been dealt with only cursorily in his first work, altered fundamentally the direction in which he had been going. In the next book, Von der Weltseele (1798; On the world soul), the new emphasis became clear in the subtitle: An Hypothesis of Higher Physics to Explain General Organism. By recognizing that the metaphor for reality was not mechanism but organism, Schelling found a means by which he could overcome Kant's fracturing of human experience into two separate realms. If nature was an organism, then knowledge of organism would include knowledge of nature as a living whole. And that whole would include the life of the mind and soul as well as that of the body. There would not be, as Kant taught, two separate realms, only one of which was accessible to knowledge. For Schelling there was only one realm.
This perspective resonated with many in the early years of the nineteenth century. As a prolific author in Jena, Schelling had become an important member of the famous Romantic circle that had assembled there. He also got to know Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), who spent many hours together with Schelling reading the latter's work. Because of his youth—he was twenty-three when he received the call to Jena—Schelling established a reputation as a successful young genius.
Supporters and Detractors
Physicians were especially drawn to Schelling's focus on nature as an organic whole. Many of them found his emphasis on the organic especially appealing because they felt that healing was impossible without seeing the body in intimate connection to the soul that inhabited it. Of forty readily identifiable sympathizers of Schelling's system, for example, more than 70 percent held medical degrees. Given the development of what has been called an ideology of Wissenschaft that accompanied the upsurge of German culture during the latter half of the eighteenth century, scholars have also pointed to the promise some physicians felt that organic Naturphilosophie held for medicine. Because in these years medicine suffered from criticism that it lacked the systematic structure enjoyed by other Wissenschaften, physicians hoped that the rigorously reasoned program Schelling had outlined in his many works would supply the kind of intellectual foundation medicine needed.
Other natural philosophers were also attracted to Schelling's attempt, as he once said, to give wings to physics, that is, to give the natural philosopher the responsibility to move from particular empirical results to the larger meaning of the entire enterprise of natural science. Regarding nature as a living whole, for example, entailed the assumption that all of nature's forces were interrelated. A number of experimenters from the physical sciences persisted in exploiting this assumption, including Hans Christian Ørsted, whose commitment to the philosophical unity of nature's forces played a direct role in his discovery of electromagnetism in 1820.
While Schelling himself always retained great appreciation of and respect for empirical research, eventually the charge arose, in some cases justifiably, that his followers dealt primarily with the play of speculative ideas and had little interest in the empirical side of natural science. In addition, those still devoted to a Kantian position on nature and natural science, like the philosopher-physicist Jakob Fries (1773–1843), composed informed critiques of Schelling's work.
After the first decade of the century, Schelling turned in his writing to other matters, and his influence as the founder of Naturphilosophie waned. By the 1820s there were only a few who were willing to identify themselves as Naturphilosophen. Among those who were, however, was Lorenz Oken (1779–1851), who was the motive force behind the emergence of a German scientific community in the modern sense of the term. His founding of the journal Isis and his leading role in establishing the Society of German Natural Investigators and Physicians in 1822 were accomplished in spite of his reputation as an unrepentant Naturphilosoph.
See also Biology ; Kantianism ; Life ; Medicine: Europe and the United States ; Organicism ; Philosophy ; Physics ; Religion and Science ; Romanticism in Literature and Politics ; Science .
Beiser, Frederick. The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.
Bonsiepen, Wolfgang. Die Begründung einer Naturphilosophie bei Kant, Schelling, Fries und Hegel: Mathematische versus spekulative Naturphilosophie. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1997.
Broman, Thomas. The Transformation of German Academic Medicine, 1750–1820. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Gregory, Frederick. "Kant, Schelling, and the Administration of Science in the German Romantic Era." Osiris 5 (1989): 17–35.
——. "Die Kritik von J. F. Fries an Schellings Naturphilosophie." Sudhoffs Archiv 67 (1983): 145–157.