Schelling’s English-Language Reception: A Partial History
[What follows is an expanded, English-version of an entry in the 2018 Schelling-Handbuch being published by Metzler. The full citation is: Daniel Whistler, ‘Schellings Rezeption: Englischsprachige Philosophie.’ Schelling-Handbuch, edited by Paul Ziche (Stuttgart: Metzler; forthcoming). It is both partial insofar as it is incomplete, summary and very much of its time (Summer 2017) and also partial insofar as it is my very personal take on this history. For a far more comprehensive list of English translation of and secondary texts on Schelling, see the Resources section of this website.—Daniel Whistler.]
- British Idealism
Acquaintance with F.W.J. Schelling’s philosophy in the English-speaking world began in earnest with Henry Crabb Robinson’s visit to the University of Jena in the year 1802-3. Crabb Robinson mediated German intellectual developments to his British friends, notably Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who began reading Schelling himself in 1806, and by 1816 was familiar with around 11 of Schelling’s texts. His most intense period of engagement with Schelling’s works subsequently took place in collaboration with Joseph Henry Green, a London-based surgeon. Green studied philosophy in Berlin with Solger in 1817 and on his return to England, in 1818, read Schelling intensively with Coleridge.
Traditional readings of this milieu (e.g. Marcel 1971) identify the System of Transcendental Idealism as the key text in British Idealist appropriations of Schelling, because, firstly, Coleridge himself misleadingly asserts in the Biographia Literaria that he was only familiar with this text (1985, 163), and, secondly, because it forms much of the theoretical background to Coleridge’s most famous quasi-Schellingian claim in the Biographia Literaria that ‘the primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.’ (1985, 304-5) Nevertheless, recent research (e.g. Rajan 2018) has placed far more emphasis on Schelling’s early Naturphilosophie in this British Idealist reception, particularly the First Outline and Zeitschrift für spekulative Physik. Indeed, Coleridge owned and heavily annotated the volumes of the Zeitschrift. Through such means, Schelling influenced Coleridge’s unpublished Theory of Life, as well as Green’s later Hunterian lectures—and, through them, the work of Richard Owen and Humphry Davy too, leading to a whole tradition of British scientists, including the likes of Faraday and Maxwell, with indirect ties to Schellingian Naturphilosophie (Grant 2006).
Nonetheless, this was a tradition of Schellingianism rarely acknowledged: most famously, Coleridge would later erase Schellingian traces from his thought. This was partly an expedient to neutralise the notorious accusations of plagiarism in the Biographia Literaria. It was also, more substantially, due to a growing concern with the pantheistic consequences of Schelling’s philosophy, the Freiheitsschrift in particular. As Rajan has recently written of Schelling’s name in Coleridge’s writings, ‘“Schelling” is [to be] seen as a space for projecting, disavowing, yet secretly holding onto solutions and irresolvable issues about the relationship among idealism, nature and religion.’ (Rajan 2018)
- American Transcendentalism
The first known English translation of one of Schelling’s works was the 1841 ‘Introductory Lecture at Berlin’ which appeared in The Dial, the official literary organ of the transcendentalist movement in 1843. It was succeeded a year later by an unpublished attempt at the Freiheitsschrift by James Elliot Cabot, from whom Ralph Waldo Emerson borrowed the manuscript at the end of the year noting, ‘All philosophy begins from Nox & Chaos, the Ground or Abyss which Schelling so celebrates. And in every man we require a bit of night, of chaos, of Abgrund, as the spring of a watch turns best on a diamond.’ (1960-82, 9:223) Emerson would later extract a similar passage from Cabot’s Freiheitsschrift in his essay, ‘Fate’ (Greenham 2015). Moreover, the co-founder of the Transcendental Club with Emerson, Frederick Henry Hedge, subsequently published an extract from Cabot’s translation of ‘On the Nature of the Plastic Arts to Nature’ in his 1848 Prose Writers of Germany.
Schelling’s impact on the ‘New England mind’ of transcendentalism and early American Idealism (Rasmussen 2018) has long been acknowledged, if not always detailed. Later in the century, Josiah Royce popularised Schelling’s philosophy in lectures and publications; The Journal of Speculative Philosophy’s published a series of Schelling-translations; and in Canada, John Watson, Chair of Logic, Metaphysics and Ethics at Queen’s University, Ontario, lectured on Schelling from 1872 onwards, publishing in 1882 Schelling’s Transcendental Idealism: A Critical Exposition, the first book-length analysis of Schellingian thought in the English language. Watson focuses on the System of Transcendental Idealism, but also provides an overview of all of Schelling’s works split into three distinct ‘phases’, thereby inaugurating a debate around the continuity of Schelling’s development that rumbles on in the English-language scholarship to this day.
The most famous American Schellingian of the late nineteenth century is, however, Charles Saunders Peirce. He writes, ‘My views were probably influenced by Schelling,—by all stages of Schelling, but especially by the Philosophie der Natur… If you were to call my philosophy Schellingism transformed in the light of modern physics, I should not take it hard.’ (in James 1992-2004 7:487) Scholars have conjectured endlessly about the precise character of Peirce’s self-identification as Schellingian—whether it describes his commitment to a metaphysical absolute and critique of nominalism, his reconceptualization of the ‘living’ dialectic as Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness, or even his theorisation of abduction (Frank 2015; Tritten 2012, 61-3). The result, one way or another, is the most explicitly ‘Schelling-fashioned idealism’ (Peirce 1992, 2:12-3) in English-language philosophy.
- The Dark Years
The second phase of British Idealism in the late nineteenth century was resolutely Hegelian: Bosanquet and T.H. Green had little time for Schelling. And the rise of analytic philosophy in Britain and of pragmatism in the US only exacerbated this neglect. Schelling’s name is famously missing from the index of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, and even when features of early twentieth-century philosophy seem to have much in common with aspects of Schellingian thought—such as Whitehead’s process philosophy or even Russell’s own early panpsychist monism—there was no pre-existing familiarity with Schelling’s thinking to help make these links explicit. In the end, Schelling’s obliteration from serious philosophical discussion in the Anglo-American academy lasted a century, for it was only in the mid-1990s that it began to be seriously challenged.
In this respect, the English-speaking world is an unfortunate exception: while diverse forms of neo-Schellingianism flourished in the early and mid-twentieth century in France, Germany and Russia, such trends passed by both Britain and North America almost entirely. Exceptions included, most prominently, Columbia University where James Gutmann prepared his translation of the Freiheitsschrift in the mid-1930s, Frederick Bolman a translation of the third draft of the Weltalter for his doctoral dissertation in 1942 and Paul Tillich first lectured after his emigration from Germany. The teaching of European emigrés from the 1930s onwards also helped reestablish Schelling’s reputation at various US institutions, such as the colleges in Oregon where Fritz Marti worked and Indiana University where Eric Voegelin briefly taught and Tillich gave the Powell Lecture in May 1955 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Schelling’s death.
Nevertheless, interest in Schelling was rare, and there prevailed the traditional conception of Schelling as a footstool to Hegel—a ‘blurred image’ of Hegelianism, as even a commentator as sympathetic to Schelling as Michael Vater could write in 1984 (1984, 85). Whenever defences of his thought were undertaken, such as, most significantly, in Joseph L. Esposito’s 1977 Schelling’s Idealism and the Philosophy of Nature, an inordinate number of pages were spent justifying the very idea of devoting a book to Schelling in the first place. The problem was exacerbated by Timothy Lenoir’s 1982 thesis, which proved extremely influential in English-language history of biology, that philosophies of nature, as exemplified by Schelling’s work, were speculative aberrations from the genuine development of sober biological reasoning. Again, Schelling was not to be taken seriously.
- The Schelling Renaissance
Over the last twenty years, however, this picture has dramatically changed. The ‘footstall to Hegel’ narrative has been debunked, Schelling’s contemporary relevance is continually insisted upon and even the philosophy of nature is considered both conceptually interesting and historically significant. Between 2013 and 2016 alone, there appeared four special issues of English-language academic journals and five substantial monographs dedicated to Schelling; the vast majority of his major works are now translated into English; and the North American Schelling Society, founded in 2012, holds an annual conference. The reasons for this reversal in Schelling’s fortunes are manifold.
First, Andrew Bowie’s 1993 Schelling and Modern European Philosophy popularised Manfred Frank’s reading of the late Schelling, thereby demonstrating to a new audience this alternative to Hegelianism. More significantly still, Bowie spelled out the substantial connections holding between this period of Schelling’s philosophy and the poststructuralist critical theory holding sway in the Anglo-American academy of the 1990s: Schelling was recast as a late modern critic of systematic closure, of the transparency of representation and of ontotheology. Secondly, in 1996 Slavoj Žižek published The Indivisible Remainder, a study of Schelling’s middle period that, once more, demonstrated his contemporary relevance. Žižek’s own role as popular intellectual further cemented the idea of a fashionable Schelling for postmodernity—an idea exploited in edited collections of the period, such as The New Schelling and Schelling Now. Thirdly, at the time there was increasing awareness in the English-language scholarship of Schelling’s role in Heidegger’s development after Sein und Zeit—that is, in the wake of Joanna Stambaugh’s translation of the 1936 lecture course on the Freiheitsschrift, there emerged a huge number of studies on Heidegger’s debt to Schelling, as well as on the Freiheitsschrift itself. One of the consequences of the above has been a slew of works by David L. Clark (1995), Kyriaki Goudeli (2002), and Jason Wirth (2003, 2015), among others, bringing Schelling into conversation with twentieth-century trends in European philosophy. Also important has been the growing availability in English of works by contemporary German scholars, such as Manfred Frank (2004) and Markus Gabriel (2013, 2015).
However, the most decisive event in the English-language Schelling renaissance was the 2006 publication of Iain Hamilton Grant’s Philosophies of Nature after Schelling. This book proved significant not only for the visibility it gained as a result of Grant’s subsequent involvement with the short-lived but influential ‘speculative realist’ movement (2010-12), but also for its interrogation of many of the sacred cows of English-language Schelling scholarship. First, Grant points to the problematic existentialist bias implicit in so many readings of Schelling which place freedom before nature, contending, instead, in favour of a Schellingian naturalism. Echoing Schelling himself, Grant writes, ‘The enemy is all post-Cartesian European philosophy’s elimination of the concept, even the existence, of nature.’ (2006, x) Secondly, he throws out the presumption, prevalent since Watson’s 1882 work, that Schelling’s development was to be apportioned into a series of stages, and he does so in the name of a ‘continuity thesis’ that treats Schelling as a philosopher of nature throughout. And thirdly, Grant argues that far from being closest to poststructuralist critiques of metaphysical closure, Schelling’s most natural allies in contemporary philosophy are precisely ambitious metaphysicians, such as those constructing power-based ontologies or vital materialisms.
Grant’s book chimed with new work being done in English-language history of philosophy, particularly Frederick Beiser’s reappraisal of the importance of the philosophy of nature to the development of German Idealism (2002), and also with contemporary research in the history of biology that contested Lenoir’s thesis (Gambarotto 2018). Moreover, over the decade since its publication, research by a new generation of Schelling scholars (Bruno, Matthews 2011, McGrath 2013, 2018, Nassar 2018, Tritten 2012) has also begun the sorely-needed task of providing detailed reconstructions of specific Schellingian texts, concepts and arguments, as well as re-immersing them into the minutiae of German Idealist controversies. While much more remains to be done in this latter respect and also in drawing Schelling studies into the ambit of contemporary debates in analytic philosophy, it is still the case that for those working in the UK, North America or Australia, recent developments really have marked a Schelling renaissance.
Beiser, Frederick C.: German Idealism: The Struggle against Subjectivism, 1781-1801. Cambridge, MA. 2002.
Bowie, Andrew: Schelling and Modern European Philosophy: An Introduction. London 1994.
Bruno, G. Anthony (ed.): Freedom, Nature and Systematicity: Essays on F.W.J. Schelling. Oxford 2018.
Clark, David L.: “‘The Necessary Heritage of Darkness’: Tropics of Negativity in Schelling, Derrida, and de Man.” In: Intersections: Nineteenth-Century Philosophy and Contemporary Theory. Ed. Tilottama Rajan and David L. Clark. Albany, NY. 1995.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor: Biographia Literaria. In: The Collected Works of S.T. Coleridge, Vol. 7. Ed. J. Engell und W. J. Bate. Princeton 1985.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo: The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Hg. von William H. Gilman. 16 vols. Cambridge, MA. 1960–82.
Esposito, Joseph L.: Schelling’s Idealism and Philosophy of Nature. Lewisburg 1977.
Frank, Manfred: The Philosophical Foundations of Early German Romanticism. Albany, NY. 2004.
Franks, Paul: ‚Peirce’s „Schelling-Fashioned Idealism“ and the „Monstrous Mysticism of the East.“’ In: The British Journal of the History of Philosophy 23.4 2015, 732-55.
Gabriel Markus: Transcendental Ontology: Essays in German Idealism. London 2013.
Gabriel, Markus: Fields of Sense: A New Realist Ontology. Edinburgh 2015.
Gambarotto, Andrea: Vital Forces, Teleology and Organization: Philosophy of Nature and the Rise of Biology in Germany. Dordrecht 2018.
Goudeli, Kyriaki: Challenges to German Idealism: Schelling, Fichte and Kant. Basingstoke 2002.
Grant, Iain Hamilton: Philosophies of Nature after Schelling. London 2006.
Greenham, D.: ‘“Altars to the Beautiful Necessity”: The influence of F. W. J. Schelling’s ”Inquiry into the Essay of Human Nature” in the development of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s concept of nature.’ In: Journal of the History of Ideas 76.1 2015, 115-37.
Heidegger, Martin: Schelling’s Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom. Athens, OH. 2005.
James, William: The Correspondence of William James. Ed. E. Berkeley und I. Skrupskelis. 12 vols. Charlottesville 1992–2004.
Lenoir, Timothy: The Strategy of Life: Teleology and Mechanics in Nineteenth-Century Biology. Chicago 1982.
Marcel, Gabriel: Coleridge et Schelling. Paris 1971.
Matthews, Bruce: Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy: Life as the Schema of Freedom. Albany NY. 2011.
McGrath, Sean: The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious. London 2013.
McGrath, Sean: The Late Schelling and the End of Christianity. Edinburgh 2018.
Nassar, Dalia: The Romantic Absolute: Being and Knowing in Early German Romantic Philosophy, 1795-1804. Chicago 2013.
Norman, Judith and Alistair Welchman (eds): The New Schelling. London 2004.
Peirce, Charles Sanders: The Essential Peirce. Ed. Nathan Houser und Christian Kloesel. 2 vols. Bloomington 1992.
Rajan, Tilottama: ‘Immunitary Foreclosures: Schelling and British Idealism.’ In: The International Journal of Philosophy and Theology 78:1-2 2018.
Rasmussen, Joel D.: ‘Schelling and the New England Mind.’ In: The International Journal of Philosophy and Theology 78:1-2 2018.
Tritten, Tyler: Beyond Presence: The Late F.W.J. Schelling’s Criticism of Metaphysics. Berlin 2012.
Vater, Michael G.: ‘Translator’s Introduction.’ In: F.W.J. Schelling. Bruno, or On the Divine Principle of Things. Albany, NY. 1984.
Watson, John: Schelling’s Transcendental Idealism: A Critical Exposition. Chicago 1882.
Wirth, Jason: The Conspiracy of Life: Meditations on Schelling and his Time. Albany, NY. 2003.
Wirth Jason (ed.): Schelling Now: Contemporary Readings. Indianapolis 2004.
Wirth, Jason: Schelling’s Practice of the Wild: Time, Art, Imagination. Albany, NY. 2015.
Žižek, Slavoj: The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters. London 2007.