Schelling, Friedrich von

views updated


SCHELLING, FRIEDRICH VON (1775–1854), German Romantic philosopher.

Although he never developed a finished system of thought, Friedrich von Schelling exercised a considerable influence on early-nineteenth-century intellectual life, leaving a mark on fields as diverse as art, medicine, theology, mythology, philology, and political philosophy.

The son of a Protestant pastor and Old Testament scholar, Schelling was born in the Württem-berg town of Leonberg. As a young boy he demonstrated remarkable academic gifts, and at the age of fifteen he enrolled in the Tübingen seminary (Stift). There Schelling befriended his older classmates Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Friedrich Hölderlin, while drinking in the spirit of radical Enlightenment inspired by the French Revolution. Schelling seemed destined for a career in theology until 1793, when he encountered the philosophy of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814). Just as the French Revolution had overthrown political tyranny, Fichte's system of transcendental idealism seemed to throw off the tyrannies of God and the empirical world, establishing the free conscious subject as sovereign and absolute. Inspired by this vision, Schelling published a series of studies on transcendental idealism, in some cases pushing the system in directions its creator had not intended. In particular, he located the absolute not in the realm of consciousness but in a prior, preconscious unity of thought and being. In addition, he turned to the study of nature, which, in a sharp break from prior mechanistic theories, he described as "unconscious mind." Schelling's Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur, 1797), written when he was just twenty-two, became a founding text of Naturphilosophie, influencing research and teaching in faculties of medicine and establishing his reputation in Germany and abroad.

In 1798 Schelling received an appointment as extraordinary professor of philosophy at the University of Jena. There he came into contact with the literary luminaries Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, as well as with some of the key figures of the emerging Romantic movement—the critics Friedrich and August Wilhelm von Schlegel and the poet Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis). Schelling's relationship with the Romantics was always tense, and it broke down completely in 1802 when he began an affair with August Wilhelm's wife, Caroline (they married the next year). Nonetheless, their interchanges left him with a renewed appreciation for the revelatory powers of art. In System of Transcendental Idealism (System des transcendentalen Idealismus, 1800), Lectures on the Method of Academic Study (Vorlesungen über die Methode des akademischen Studiums, 1803), and the unpublished Philosophy of Art (Philosophie der Kunst, 1802–1803), Schelling argued that art represented a union of finite and infinite, conscious and unconscious, that was the highest manifestation of the absolute. He also suggested that a new and higher art—a "new mythology"—might serve as the foundation for a renewed aesthetic, religious, and political order in Europe, healing the fragmentation and alienation of modern life.

A series of personal disputes and political squabbles caused Schelling to leave Jena in 1803, accepting positions first in Würzburg and then, three years later, in Munich. The change in locale coincided with a fundamental shift in Schelling's thinking, which became both more Christian and more conservative as he lost confidence in the French Revolution and came into contact with Catholic thinkers like Franz von Baader. At the heart of Schelling's late philosophy was an insistence on the real personality of God, who existed prior to and independently of his creation. In a massive series of lectures, most of which remained unpublished in his lifetime, he narrated the story of creation, humanity's fall from grace, the evolution of mythology from primitive star worship to Greek polytheism, and the final revelation in Christianity of the nature of freedom and the promise of a personal relationship with the triune God. Schelling's insistence on the primacy of personality (both human and divine) reinforced the restorationist defense of monarchy, influencing such conservative thinkers as Friedrich Julius Stahl (1802–1861). At the same time, it constituted a powerful critique of Hegel's "pantheism of reason," which by the 1820s had attained considerable influence in Germany, especially Prussia.

In 1841 Schelling was called by Frederick William IV (king of Prussia; r. 1840–1861) to the chair of philosophy in Berlin, where he was given the charge of wiping out the "scourge of Hegelian pantheism." His opening lecture in a series of lectures on Philosophy of Revelation (Philosophieder Offenbarung) was a public spectacle, attended by Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Engels, Leopold von Ranke, Ferdinand Lassalle, and Mikhail Bakunin, among others. Yet the difficult, obscure, and—many felt—overly mystical dimensions of Schelling's doctrine left most in his audience cold. The Philosophy of Revelation was dismissed as a reactionary relic of the Romantic era, and the philosopher soon retreated from public life. Despite their scorn for Schelling, however, the critiques by Kierkegaard and Ludwig Feuerbach of Hegelian idealism would follow along lines first traced by Schelling. Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, Schelling's philosophy would serve as a resource for thinkers (including Friedrich Nietzsche [1844–1900], Franz Rosenzweig [1886–1929], and Martin Heidegger [1889–1976]) who sought an alternative to the rationalist tendencies of the nineteenth century and a sustained examination of the darker, prerational aspects of nature, history, and humanity.

See alsoFichte, Johann Gottlieb; Germany; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich.


Bowie, Andrew. Schelling and Modern European Philosophy: An Introduction. London and New York, 1993.

Frank, Manfred. Der unendliche Mangel am Sein: Schellings Hegelkritik und die Anfänge der Marxschen Dialektik. 2nd ed. Munich, 1992.

Gulyga, Arsenij. Schelling: Leben und Werk. Translated by Elke Kirsten. Stuttgart, 1989.

O'Meara, Thomas. Romantic Idealism and Roman Catholicism: Schelling and the Theologians. Notre Dame, Ind., 1982.

Richards, Robert J. The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe. Chicago, 2002.

George S. Williamson

About this article

Schelling, Friedrich von

Updated About content Print Article