Schelling’s Transcendental Idealism

The thought of Schelling has enamored me for years. I first encountered Schelling while reading the Dutch Reformed Theologian Herman Bavinck in his Reformed Dogmatics. My turn towards Schelling was initially prompted by my studies in impassability and my interest in God and suffering. Eventually, I enrolled in a doctoral program where my aim was to synthesize the concept of suffering in the philosophy of Schelling with the Christology of St. Cyril of Alexandria. That being said, my studies of Schelling were mostly of his middle and late period, where his philosophy continued to evolve and grow. His early period, which included his philosophy of nature and transcendental idealism, I had neglected for sometime. Therefore, I thought it apropos to go through Schelling’s earlier works to fully understand his development: and thus my foray in his System of Transcendental Idealism.

Schelling published his System when he was just 25 years old and held post as a professor at the University of Jena in Germany.

Reading Schelling’s system, which he published in 1800 during his extremely productive early period, enabled me to understand Schelling’s development much better. The majority of the book is discussing his three epochs of the emergence of self-consciousness through sensation, productive intuition, reflection, and ultimately self consciousness. The driving force for this is what he calls productive intuition. It’s productive because it’s active (in actu). Schelling made a big deal about how all nature is not passive or an object to be studied but is active in his philosophy of nature. It’s intuition because it’s a form of knowledge but not because it’s conscious because it’s not, as we don’t reach self consciousness until the last stage. In this it’s something like a blind mechanic albeit it’s purposive. 

Schelling published his philosophy of nature before this and then moved towards his transcendental idealism. His goal was to harmony his philosophy of nature (the real) with Fichte, his mentor, and his philosophy of Ego (Ego=Ego viz, Ego=subject-object). Eventually Schelling realized that these two systems were one in the same and he eventually worked hard to synthesize the two together (Fichte criticized him in this for Schelling misunderstanding the objective side of his “productive intuition.” as if one has to have a separate system and was not the same mechanism of the ideal). Schelling would publish Presentation of my Philosophy a year later which essentially was the start of harmonizing his transcendental philosophy and his philosophy of nature. He would attempt to fully flesh his metaphysic in Ages of the World in his later philosophy, although even this work was never was actually published–Schelling revised it multiple times throughout the end of his career.


Schelling posits his Absolute Identity as a subject-object (A=A) which he used to ground the objective and subjective. He attempts to prove that this proposition must be both analytic and synthetic simultaneously. Schelling fleshes out his absolute identity in this work, but ultimately doesn’t break from Fichte. I found Schelling’s initial comments on his theory of productive intuition a good summary of his entire project.

“Descartes the physicist said: give me matter and motion, and from that I will fashion you the universe. The transcendental philosopher says: give me a nature made up of opposed activities of which one reaches out into the infinite, while the other tries to intuit itself in this infinitude, and from that I will bring forth for your the intelligence, with the whole system of its presentations. Every other science presupposes the intelligence as already complete; the philosopher observes it in its genesis and brings it into being, so to speak, before his eyes.”

System of Transcendental Idealism, 72-73.

Hegel, who developed a dialectical Absolute that integrates all forms of knowledge through the Absolute’s actualization of history, criticized Schelling’s simple Absolute as “the night in which all cows are black”. Schelling a year later would publish his Presentation where he fixed the ontology of his Absolute by adding a differentiation and synthesis in Absolute Being (A²=A+B). In fact, Schelling discusses thesis, antithesis, synthesis dialectic in his Transcendental Idealism well before Hegel did. His system was just not yet fleshed out the way Hegel systematically did, but we all know how that story goes.

After explicating his three epochs of self-consciousness at length, he turns to discussing how his system relates to ethics, history, and art. I enjoyed these sections the most. In his history section, you can see him lay the foundation for his “three periods” which he lectured on and fleshed out in History of Philosophy of Mythology. Incidentally enough, he only did this after he changed his understanding of the role of art. Schelling used Art originally as the heuristic mechanism whereby the infinite becomes objectified through the subject into the finite. The dualism of self conscious man is overcome and the original primordial unity of the Absolute is displayed objectively through art or poetry. Schelling calls this “genius” and is the highest form of productive intuition which is in stark contract to Hegel who saw philosophy as the highest form. Schelling would publish works on his philosophy of art a few years later, although eventually art was replaced by Myth. Mythology ultimately becomes the tool for Schelling whereby the Absolute is manifest. This can be seen in his History of the Philosophy of Mythology.

Lastly, there are some really good insights on what Schelling calls imagination. Indeed, I plan to write another blog post about Schelling’s concept of imagination and as it relates to being human, curiosity, and freedom. Nevertheless, I much prefer the later Schelling than this early Schelling, which I find much to Fichtean, as Schelling was really attempting to unite his earlier philosophy of nature with Fichte’s philosophy of the Ego (All consciousness is constitutive of God and the primordial self=Absolute and the Absolute=the primordial self). Later Schelling has a more fleshed out theogony and more distinction/separation in his ontology of God and Man after he broke away from his earlier mentor, Fichte, and developed his philosophy. Even still, I will admit I thoroughly enjoyed reading this classic work of German Idealism for its importance in the history of the aforementioned, but also as a prodigious and inventive work in its own right.


In sum, I would recommend this to any student of Schelling, German Idealism, or those looking to understand how we got from Spinoza to Hegel (hint, you have to read Kant, Fichte, and Schelling). I would not recommend for the casual reader or those with a general interest in philosophy but have not done the contours and basics because this assuradly isn’t light reading.

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