Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

From the Work of Art to Absolute Reason: Schelling's Journey toward Absolute Idealism

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

From the Work of Art to Absolute Reason: Schelling's Journey toward Absolute Idealism

Article excerpt

ONE OF THE MOST INTRIGUING EPISODES in Schelling's philosophical development is the transition from the System des transzendentalen Idealismus (1800) to the Darstellung meines Systems der Philosophie (1801), the starting point of the identity system. Looking back on that latter text, Schelling in 1805 declares that "then to me the light went on in philosophy." (1) This sounds as if the preceding years of philosophical investigation, including the System des transzendentalen Idealismus that was written one year earlier, had to be considered merely propaedeutic and that the Darstellung was his real entry into philosophy. Schelling maintained this view of his philosophical development and in the contemporary Schelling-Forschung scholars widely agree that the Darstellung, being the outset of the identity system, marks the birthplace of so-called absolute idealism--to which Hegel's system of philosophy probably still is the most spectacular and successful heir. But if this common interpretation is true--and I would not deny it in the generality in which it is stated--then the question inevitably arises: what happened in the transition from the System des transzendentalen Idealismus to the Darstellung, and above all, what made this transition possible? What, in other words, caused the constitution of absolute idealism?

It is my conviction that this transition is the result of the transposition of the inner structure of the work of art, as it is conceived in the System des transzendentalen Idealismus, to the inner structure of absolute reason in the Darstellung. In the Darstellung, the features that until then privileged the work of art are now ascribed to absolute reason. This, I would like to argue below, is a major shift in Schelling's philosophical appreciation of the capacity of human reason to gain absolute self-knowledge. It documents the passage in the history of German idealism from what I would call romantic idealism to absolute idealism.

The key texts at stake here are, on the one hand, the famous chapter on the work of art in the System des transzendentalen Idealismus, in which art and the meaning of the work of art are still conceived from the romantic point of view, and, on the other hand, the initial sections from the Darstellung meines Systems der Philosophie, in which Schelling defines the concept of absolute reason. Again, the essence of the whole argument is to point to the remarkable affinity between the romantic concept of the work of art and the concept of absolute reason as it is articulated in the Darstellung. Absolute reason is endowed with an aesthetic capacity that was restricted to art one year earlier, that is, to the artistic genius and its product, the work of art.

I

In the System des transzendentalen Idealismus the subject is striving after an adequate self-consciousness which is only reached, in the end, through aesthetic intuition, that is, through the intuition of a work of art. (2) This work of art is an external object that has the structure of an absolute identity of subjectivity and objectivity, that is, of nature and freedom, as Schelling would put it. (3) The adequate selfconsciousness aimed at is realized because the subject finally recognizes its own foundation and condition of possibility in the work of art. Put more precisely: in the subject-object identity of the work of art, the subject recognizes the revelation of its "primordial self." (4)

This suggests that in order to realize adequate self-consciousness, the subject must rely on or is dependent on an aesthetic object outside itself. The features of that aesthetic object are: (1) it is an objective phenomenon, (2) that as such transcends the subject, (3) but in which the subject recognizes its own essence. (4) This essence transcends the subject not only because it appears in an external object but also because it represents precisely what the subject, by itself, is unable to bring to consciousness: the absolute identity of the "primordial self' (das Urselbst) as its most inner essence. …

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