Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph

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Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph (1775-1854): German Philosopher.

J. W. F. Schelling was a German Idealist philosopher. Although less known than other German Idealists, like Hegel, Schelling’s probing of the very limits of transcendentental idealism would be of great importance to Romanticism, theology, and contemporary philosophy.

Schelling was born in Leonberg, in Wurttenburg (Germany), in 1775. He was the son of a Lutheran minister. As preparation for a life devoted to the church, his family sent him to the theological seminary at Tübingen. As a student, his friendship with G.W.F. Hegel and Hölderlin, Johann Christian Friedrich would have a lasting impact on his thought. Through impassioned discussions of the French Revolution, Greek tragedy, and philosophers like Spinoza, Kant, Immanuel, and Fichte, Johann Gotlieb, these three students mutually forged one another’s ideas in this fertile environment of intellectual exchange.

Like Hegel and Hölderlin, Schelling would not go into the priesthood, but sought to tutor for a wealthy European family. After tutoring for several years, Schelling’s Wunderkind status was confirmed: he was offered a professorship at the University of Jena at the young age of 23. As a professor at Jena, Schelling was a colleague of Fichte, and at the very center of German Romanticism. Here, Schelling was influenced by Romantics like Tieck, Ludwig, the poet Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg), and Schlegel, August Wilhelm and Friedrich. In 1803 Schelling married the ex-wife of August Schlegel, and was extremely productive philosophically until his wife’s death in 1809. Although Schelling did not publish another book after 1809, he continued to lecture and publish, and was promoted to various universities throughout Germany until his death in 1854.

In 1795 Schelling would first stake out his position in philosophy through a criticism of the knowing subject or transcendental “I”. In his work, The I as Principle of Philosophy, or on the Unconditional in Human Knowledge, he critiqued the work of Fichte in order to show that the “I” was not absolute, but was itself dependent upon an unconditioned element. Although Schelling’s work is notoriously difficult and obscure, and can be understood to occur in four distinct phases, his subsequent works like, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1797), The System of Transcendental Idealism (1800), and The Ages of the World (1827-28), can all be broadly understood as further elaborations, or attempts to work out this idea of the unconditional or absolute that precedes, and thus conditions, any human knowing. Like Romanticism’s critique of the limits of Enlightenment rationality, Schelling’s philosophy forcefully emphasized the finitude and contingency of human thought before the absolute.

The work of Schelling has had a large, but often understated, impact on the history of philosophy. Schelling’s work not only influenced his contemporaries like Fichte, Hölderlin, and Hegel, but also philosophers as diverse as Kierkegaarde, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Habermas, and Rorty.

Further Readings:

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

F. Scott Scribner