Tag Archives: Iain Hamilton Grant

The Schelling Effect?: Philosophy in the Shadows


I gave a guest-lecture for one of the graduate seminars here at MUN last week. The course is a historical reading of Schelling’s Freiheitsschrift, providing the context necessary for a thorough reading of Schelling’s essay from Spinoza, to Kant, to Fichte, to Boehme. My lecture took the opposite strategy, making a case for taking Schelling as a significant figure by tracing his ideas and concepts through post-Schellingian thought. I’ve decided to post the handout from this otherwise unscripted lecture since I know there are people who frequent this blog who are very much interested in Schelling and his effect on philosophy. I hope this will help those interested further their study of some of Schelling’s key concepts.

I have posted the handout here on my Academia.edu page.


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Systems of Thought and the Issue of Names

As some of you know by now, I’ve taken something of a pet interest in the Speculative realism Wikipedia page. This isn’t because I feel like I’m any sort of authority on the subject, but I’ve read a lot of the material and basically no one else was chomping at the bit about it. Actually, as both Nick and Graham mentioned (though it was Nick who brought it to my attention), the page was basically stillborn, with so little there that people were threatening to delete it.

So I fixed it up a bit and added subsections and publications and mentioned some of the presses that have shown an interest and I think it’s a pretty decent little page now. It certainly fits the criteria of something worthy of being on Wikipedia. So now we’re out of the woods, we’re not in danger if dying of exposure without a wikipage.

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Infinite Immaterial Actants

From Graham:

“The more sophisticated move is to say that ultimate reality is not made of objects at all, but of some “heterogeneous yet continuous” realm of pre-objectivity. While increasingly popular among today’s avant garde, it doesn’t seem to me to be a coherent theory. (I made a post about this in January.) You can’t say that ultimate reality is both heterogeneous and continuous, because these two qualities work against one another. If ultimate reality is continuous, it will slide toward an unarticulated apeiron unless artificial corollaries are introduced to prevent this disaster. If you say instead that ultimate reality is heterogeneous, it cannot be thus unless entities are partly withdrawn from any relational expression, and then you have object-oriented philosophy. And this is the ultimate choice, as I see it… you can have monism, or you can have objects, and monism is inadequate as a philosophy of our world.”

I think I qualify as someone who takes ultimate reality to be “heterogeneous yet continuous,” as if the early Schelling. It’s probably just Schelling that I’m going to talk about here, but we’ll see (as I’ve said many times lately, my own position is only just emerging and so there are many gaps I have yet to fill as I feel my way through the problems I want to account for). I think this will serve to show the novelty of Schelling’s position on Nature, and maybe even shed some light on Grant, since I know Graham is working on a piece on Grant (and thus on Grant’s Schelling).

Schelling begins his First Outline for a Philosophy of Nature (1799) by stating simply that what the philosopher seeks is the unconditioned, that is, the starting point of all reality. What he seeks is the unconditioned in Nature (he will seek it in the Subject in The System of Transcendental Idealism, thus forming his Philosophy of Identity, or, the organic relationship between Spirit and Nature).

“The unconditioned cannot be sought in any individual “thing” nor in anything of which one can say that it “is.” For what “is” only partakes of being, and is only an individual form or kind of being. — Conversely, one can never say of the unconditioned that it “is.” For it is BEING ITSELF, and as such, it does not exhibit itself entirely in any finite product, and every individual is, as it were, a particular expression of it.” (Schelling, First Outline, 13)

We are not seeking a particular thing, but that in which all particular things participate.

“If, according to these very principles, everything that exists is a construction of the spirit, then being itself is nothing other than the constructing itself, or since construction is thinkable at all only as activity, being itself is nothing other than the highest constructing activity, which, although never itself an object, is the principle of everything objective.” (Schelling, First Outline, 13-14)

The unconditioned in Nature is to be thought of as nothing more than the constructing of Nature itself. Graham recently described Grant’s position as Spinoza having too much to drink, and I think that’s actually pretty accurate for Schelling as well. Schelling accepts the Spinozist view of natura naturans and natura naturata. For Schelling, all is Nature, but there is a difference between the productive activity itself and the products of that activity:

Nature as productivity = Nature as Subject = Natura naturans (Naturing nature).
Nature as product = Nature as Object = Natura naturata (Natured nature).

This is why he will say that the products of Nature are ephemeral, that they are the retardations of the infinite process of Nature. Things come to be accidentally, at the points of inhibition where the process of Nature acts against itself. Nature is not to be thought of ultimately as the things we experience, but the struggle (conatus) beneath the surface. This strife is itself the struggle for infinity:

“Evidently every (finite) product is only a seeming product, if again infinity lies in it, i.e., if it is itself again capable of an infinite development. If it engages in this development, then it would have no permanent existence at all; every product that now appears fixed in Nature would exist only for a moment, gripped in continuous evolution, always changeable, appearing only to fade away again. The answer given above to the question, “how could Nature be viewed as absolutely active?”, is now reduced to the following PRINCIPLE:
Nature is absolutely active if the drive to an infinite development lies in each of its products.” (Schelling, First Outline, 18)

And to a footnote on the same page, which I think is one of the greatest passages Schelling ever wrote, containing his whole early system in a simple metaphor:

“A stream flows in a straight line forward as long as it encounters no resistance. Where there is resistance—a whirlpool forms. Every original product of Nature is such a vortex, every organized being. E.g., the whirlpool is not something immobilized, it is rather something constantly transforming—but reproduced anew at each moment. Thus no product in Nature is fixed, but it is reproduced at each instant through the force of Nature entire. (We do not really see the subsistence of Nature’s products, just their continually being-reproduced.) Nature as a whole co-operates in every product.” (Schelling, First Outline, 18f)

So what does this mean for Graham’s problem with a “heterogeneous yet continuous” monism? What is the “stuff” at the root of Schelling’s early system that makes it a monism? Nothing. Literally, no-thing. There is no substance at the base of this system, but an infinite set of powers, forces, and drives which he calls “actants” (Schelling, First Outline, 5). He has already said that the unconditioned cannot be a thing, but must be that which allows for things. This means that the unconditioned is an activity, so the active processes cannot themselves be things, but must be non-objects. In short, the processes of Nature, the substrate of reality, must be drives or forces. Some of the examples he gives of actants are gravity, the sexual drive, and the drive of combination. These are forces of repulsion (expansion) and attraction, which create matter (and substance!). He explains the birth of the universe as the result of a series of explosions (Schelling, First Outline, 31) which are of course nothing but attraction at extreme velocity resulting in expansion, resulting ultimately in the universe as we know it.

“The whole of Nature, not just a part of it, should be equalivalent to an ever-becoming product. Nature as a whole must be conceived in constant formation, and everything must engage in that universal process of formation.” (Schelling, First Outline, 28)

Graham concluded that if you have a continuous reality, it results in incoherent immateriality, or if you have a heterogeneous reality, it results in OOP. What Schelling says is that you have have both if what is continuous is itself immaterial but results in materiality. That is, if reality is a continuous process of infinite productivity (immateriality!) that impedes itself, resulting in, what he’ll call in his System of Transcendental Idealism, abortive objects, or, a system of accidental objects. Nature is itself nothing more than the infinite construction of infinite objects, and I think this complicates Graham’s dichotomy.

Addendum: Compare all of this with the following from Schelling’s Ages of the World, I think there’s a tremendous amount of continuity here:

“A true beginning is that which is the ground of a steady progression, not of an alternating advancing and retreating movement. Likewise, there is only a veritable end in which a being persists that does not need to retreat from itself back to the beginning. Hence, we [230] can also explain this first blind life as one that can find neither its beginning nor its end. In this respect we can say that it is without (veritable) beginning and without (veritable) end.

Since it did not begin sometime but began since all eternity in order never (veritably) to end, and ended since all eternity, in order always to begin again, it is clear that that first nature was since all eternity and hence, equiprimordially a movement circulating within itself, and that this is its true, living concept.

These are the forces of that inner life that incessantly gives birth to itself and again consumes itself that the person must intimate, not without terror, as what is concealed in everything, even though it is now covered up and from the outside has adopted peaceful qualities. Through that constant retreat to the
beginning and the eternal recommencement, it makes itself into substance in the real sense of the word (id quod substat), into the always abiding. It is the constant inner mechanism and clockwork, time, eternally commencing, eternally becoming, always devouring itself and always again giving birth to itself.” (Schelling, Ages of the World, 20)


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an ontology of unfinished reality

In reference to my earlier post on a Schellingian weird realism, Zizek actually articulates this quite well in his Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, as seen in this clip.

All that I would add is that it is not only human beings that are haunted by “alternate versions of themselves,” but that all of reality is in some sense haunted both by what has been as well as what could have been. The whole universe then possesses this quality of spectrality, and we are all haunted by the spectral universe.

[ADDENDUM:] I want to add that I am not speaking of spectres as mysterious things-in-themselves, but rather what Schelling refers to (and Iain Hamilton Grant picks up on) as the retarded (that is, impeded) productive activity of Nature. What this means is that there are parts of Nature that are incomplete or stunted and appear as possible voids or ghosts in reality. The universe is itself imperfect.

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