The Anthropocene and the Literal Reading of Nature

We are not yet in the Anthropocene, at least, officially speaking.  The Holocene still in theory represents our geological epoch according to the latest (2018) report by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS).[1]This is not to say we are literally (this is a problem of Naturphilosophie, to begin with) still in the Holocene.  Let us say, the official lacks a literal content to seal a maximal reading of the era, ex hypothesi. The geological era of the Holocene ends in 1950, literally the beginning of the present.[2]The year 1950 is assigned as the continuing present we have today, albeit, an ‘uncomprehended present’ for we still have to designate a literal reading of Nature’s presentation of its most current geohistory. It is in this sense that geological science is one literal reading of Nature, yet, as it is grappling with a designation, is at a loss today. A literal reading is confronted by a summons coming from the future, i.e., supposed to be the era of the Anthropocene. At present, we are literally un-literal beings devoid of a (natural) substrate.

The continuing present is, thus, a perfect representation of the Schellingian point-attractor, the pressure point, between the present and the future in an uncomprehended present. As point-attractor, the present must, at least, be able to generate an Idea that represents the indifference of the two, the present and the future. Schelling, in an early essay, speaks of the same problem for Naturphilosophie in terms of how to demonstrate two terms that are mutually indifferent, say, A and B:

But there is no reason that one should be posited as predominant over the other. Therefore both must be posited as predominant simultaneously, and this again is inconceivable without the two reducing their opposition to quantitative indifference. Therefore neither A nor B can be posited in itself, but only the identical with predominant s.[ubjectivity] and o.[bjectivity] at the same time, and the quantitative indifference of the two.[3]

Two geological temporal terms, the Holocene and the Anthropocene, are roughly the predominant poles of Nature’s expression which is ‘one Nature naturing itself,’ i.e, on the one hand, into the subjective pole which refers to the state of knowledge or human will at a given point of time, or the objective pole which refers to the comprehended state of knowledge which transcends the subjective knowledge (the indeterminate status of knowledge seeking for objective completion). Nonetheless, as Schelling argues in strict logical terms, “[s]ubjectivity and objectivity can be posited as predominant only in opposite tendencies or direction.”[4]This is the precise condition of what Schelling designates by the indifference of the Absolute, the ‘absolute’ being the point of indifference between A and B. In short, knowledge cannot attain the absolute. It can only approximate the absolute as long as this absolute appears to it as the indifference point between +1 or -1, but not 0. It is the mean between 1 or nothing. [5]

But there is a curious twist to this indifference equation. In the Hegelian sense, both geological timescales are complete with moments assignable to a being-for-itself, a standard entity (either A or B), in regard to the other from which it is distinct:

[B]ecause of the present immediacy, these distinctions are no longer only moments of one and the same self-determination but are at the same time posited as existents. The ideality of the being-for-itself as a totality thus turns at first into reality – a reality, moreover, of the most fixed and abstract kind, as a one. In the one, the being-for-itself is the posited unity of being and existence, as the absolute union of the reference to another and the reference to itself; but also the determinateness of being then enters into opposition to the determination of the infinite negation, to self-determination, so that what the one is in itself, it is that now only in it, and the negative consequently is an other distinct from it.[6]

The distinction between the Holocene and the Anthropocene, the continuing past and the future, is marked in each by the ‘opposition to the determination of the infinite negation’ which allows us to think that a unity between the two is forthcoming. The unity can only be marked by a point in the present, the pressure-point between the two. Hegel says: “Something has its existence outside its limit (or, as representation would also have it, inside it); in the same way the other, too, since it is something, has it outside it. The limit is the middle point between the two at which they leave off. They have existence beyond each other, beyond their limit; the limit, as the non-being of each, is the other of both.”[7] Both Holocene and Anthropocene have actually marked, in each, their opposition to infinite negation by the very presence of a middle point with which both share and environ, which also points to the fact that each is already both a subjective and objective pole in itself, i.e., both have overcome their finiteness as knowledge, their indeterminacy as contents of knowledge have already been transcended. Both are valid scientific knowledge.

In Hegel, the middle point is countenanced in logic by the function of the middle term, “itself a conscious Being [the mediator], for it is as an action which mediates consciousness as such; the content of this action is the extinction of its particular individuality which consciousness is undertaking.”[8] Through the middle term qua (present) consciousness, Hegel went on to argue: “This syllogism is for this reason the syllogism of necessity, because its middle term is not any adventitious immediate content but is the immanent reflection of the determinateness of the extremes. These have their inner identity in the middle term, whose content determinations are the form determinations of the extremes.—Consequently, what differentiates the terms is a form which is external and unessential and the terms themselves are as moments of a necessary existence.”[9]

The first problem of the presentation of Nature, in relation to its current geohistory, is the problem we are positing here, contra Hegel: What is now the status of the present geohistory if, by logical operation, it reflects the Natural condition of the indifference of two opposing geological timescales with no logical substrate to proceed from except a mutual point of indifference? In all appearances, this can be resolved, with less drama, by logical sublation through the conscious middle term.

This leads us to the second problem of the presentation of Nature – How does one proceed beyond Logic? [10], in light of the uncomprehended present (which seems to provide the perfect opportunity for Hegelian sublation) — that we are breaking down into two objectives: 1) How do we isolate the present from its uncomprehendedness?and 2) How to un-become (uncomprehending) Hegelians? We intend to address this concern via a return to Naturphilosophie which is, so to speak, the comprehended content of the present, its sublated content as indifference otherwise allows a logical operation to succeed which serves as its simple basis the abstract character of a given condition, hence, in itself potentially determinable in thought through a process of mediation.[11]

As to ‘how we can isolate the present from its uncomprehendedness’, Schelling states in the First Outline: “[T]o philosophize about nature means as much as to create it … [to] find the point from which nature can be posited into becoming.[12]This point is not the Idea conceived as a pressure point for a sublation of two temporal terms, present and future, but rather, the Idea that is Nature (pre-logically) becoming itself. This is no longer discernible in logic, but rather, in the philosophy of art, which leads us to the real kernel of Schelling’s identity-philosophy, namely, that Identity is not to be obtained in logic, but rather, in art which alone could demonstrate that Identity is none other than Nature lending itself to an aesthetic understanding of its (in)comprehensibility. This does not mean that logic should be entirely abandoned – quite the contrary.

But it is at this point where Schelling subordinates the completion of logic no longer to the affirmation of identity, as conceived in the Hegelian light, i.e., identity as “the identity of identity and non-identity,”[13]but rather, to a notion of Identity as original duplicity, in the manner of Nature naturing itself as one in duality, ala Spinoza. When Schelling says that the “[s]upreme problem of the philosophy of Nature [is] what cause brought forth the first duplicity (of which all other opposites are the mere progeny) out of the universal identity of Nature?[14]Schelling is basically proposing that if this problem is normally addressed by logical means, i.e., through the mediation that negates the negation of two terms, say, A or B, thus, produces the “affirmative [or a] being that has reinstated itself out of restrictedness,”[15]it only suggests that it is Nature that opens the way for thought to address the concern logically. It is Nature that actually performs the logical operation, albeit, pre-logically.

The thought that ‘Nature thinks’ in this way leads us to the second question (outlined above) – how to un-become uncomprehending Hegelians.  Iain Hamilton Grant is helpful in this regard: Nature environs the Mind, such that when the Mind thinks, it is already thought by that which environs it, or ‘thinking’ as the ‘remainder’ subtracted from that which environs, thinks it.[16] That is to say, to comprehend the present one starts with understanding Nature as that which environs, thinks and produces.

Even so, there is the third question: How do we decide on the Earth’s geohistory? Up until this question, both the logical sublation (of Hegel) and Nature’s self-construction (in Schelling’s philosophy) are still in mutual opposition. Logic is an essential determination in Nature’s construction, and vice-versa. Due to the ‘sectarian spirit’ of thinking in terms of quantitative difference, their mutual opposition is yet to be negated in order to constitute an affirmative Being, the being that will resolve the uncomprehendedness of the present. For Schelling, this sectarianism represents the predominant spirit of his time, marked by obsession with quantitative differences in terms of positing a determinateness in relation to the other, say, A or B. It is here that Schelling invokes the power of Nature with which “no foreign power can interfere.”[17]Schelling argues at length:

The power that bursts forth in the stuff of nature is the same in essence as that which displays itself in the world of mind, except that it has to contend there with a surplus of the real, here with one of the ideal, but even this opposition, which is not an opposition in essence, but in mere potency, appears as opposition only to one who finds himself outside indifference, who fails to view absolute identity itself as primary and original. It appears as a produced identity only to the one who has separated himself from the whole, and to the extent he isolates himself …. But how is it possible for anything to separate itself from this absolute totality or be separated from it in thought, is a question that cannot yet be answered here, since in its stead we prove that such a separation is intrinsically impossible, that it is false from the standpoint of reason, indeed (as can readily be seen) the source of all errors. [18]

To this extent, even if the ICS decides that the Anthropocene officially represents a new geological era (roughly, a ‘being reinstated out of restrictedness’, its indeterminacy), thereby breaking the impasse of almost seven decades-old ‘age without present’, the crisis of the present will not cease to be the problem of the uncomprehendedness of its content. As Elizabeth Povinelli suggests, “the Anthropocene, the geological age of the Human Being, will be the last age of humans and the first stage of Earth becoming Mars…”[19]In the Anthropocene, the Earth will cease to be a planet and begin to be a ‘system’ of its own, its evolution to be humanly governed for the first time, a geocybernetic evolution that as early as the 1990s one climate scientist described as promising to be the second Copernican revolution.[20]This revolution “will be in a way a reversal of the first: it will enable us to look back on our planet to perceive one single, complex, dissipative, dynamic entity, far from thermodynamic equilibrium — the ‘Earth system’.”[21]

In Schellingian terms, the loss of the Earth as a planet (and its beginning as an independent system) is the negative phenomenon of Nature becoming Mind (this is the whole essence of the Anthropocene), vis-à-vis the positive notion of unity that Schelling advanced in one of his most anti-Fichtean polemics, the Statement on the True Relationship of the Philosophy of Nature to the Revised Fichtean Doctrine. This positive unity is none other than the ‘collapse of the world with the world of Nature ‘in the sense that the former collapses in the latter, the Earth as a system becoming one with the unprethinkable. (That is to say, the negative phenomenon of ‘Nature becoming Mind’ conceals the separation between the two, nature and mind, under a false sense of unity). The Statement suggests that, for instance, with the collapse of the world in the sense mentioned, our conceptions of the good, whose origin is unprethinkable, will cease to be an ethical or moral commandment, but will become part of the ‘nature of our soul’.[22]Here the true unity of nature and mind can only occur in terms of the latter collapsing into the world of nature that environs, thinks and produces it.

No doubt, the Earth as a system will change our conception, or the overall question, of Nature, but this time it will be the question, “will there still be Nature”? And ‘will there still be the possibility of the Good’ against the background of the Anthropocene which is promising to be the highest principle of the annihilation of Nature?


Concerning a maximalist reading of Nature, we are indebted to Daniel Whistler who has done enormous work in terms of emphasizing the role of art in the a priori construction of Nature. His most important work in this regard is Schelling’s Theory of Symbolic Language: Forming the System of Identity. As is the merit of Iain H. Grant’s unique contribution to the resurgence of Schelling, Whistler’s major significance is having offered an approach to interpret Schelling’s philosophy ‘to the letter’. Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is a maximal, almost literal, reading of Nature as it speaks, thinks, and produces. Whistler would follow up his 2012 book with a short but compelling essay on literalism, building on Schelling’s use of the concept of tautegory in his examination of mythology and revelation. (See Daniel Whistler, “The New Literalism: Reading After Grant’s Schelling,” in Symposium 191 [2015]). Whistler would define this literalism as ‘maximal naturalism’, drawing early inspiration from Schelling’s identity-system.

virgilio a. rivas


[1]See Phil Gibbard, “Formal Subdivision of the Holocene Series/Epoch,” – Accessed 5 June, 2019.

[2]The year 1950 is designated as the base of the Holocene, immediately preceding the second World War, meaning, it must literally end in the mentioned year. Onwards, humanity has changed the planet in ways that it has become literally the Nature that natures the planet. At least, in the Holocene era, the understanding is that it is pure Nature that changes life on Earth, i.e., Nature as subject-producer of changes in the Earth’s history. The year 1950 is the start of the so-called Anthropogenic pressures on planetary boundaries (that we will discuss in Chapter 6). See B. Pillans and P. Gibbard, “The Quaternary Period,” in The Geologic Time Scale 2012, ed. Felix M. Gradstein, James G. Ogg, Mark D. Schmitz, and Gabi M. Ogg (Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier, 2012), 1001. See “ – Accessed 5 June, 2019.

[3]Schelling, “Presentation of My System of Philosophy,” in The Philosophical Rupture Between Fichte and Schelling, 158.

[4]Ibid., 159.

[5]Schelling, First Outline, 205.

[6]Hegel, The Science of Logic, 132-133.

[7]Ibid., 99.

[8]Hegel, Phenomenology of the Spirit, 136.

[9]Hegel, The Science of Logic, 617.

[10]Cf. Schelling, “Hegel,” in On the History of Modern Philosophy, 154.

[11]Hegel says: “Consequently, that which constitutes the beginning, the beginning itself, is to be taken as something unanalyzable, taken in its simple, unfilled immediacy; and therefore as being, as complete emptiness” (Hegel, The Science of Logic, 52). Few pages after Hegel states: “[T]his emptiness … passes over – more than that, it forces itself over to a better content, that is, one which is somehow more concrete and to this extent, however bad as content, still better and truer” (ibid., 74).

[12]Schelling, First Outline, 5.

[13]Hegel, The Science of Logic, 51.

[14]Schelling, First Outline, 10.

[15]Hegel, The Science of Logic, 109; bracket emphasis mine.

[16]Grant, “Everything is Primal Germ or Nothing Is,” 112.

[17]Schelling, First Outline, 17.

[18]Schelling, “Presentation of My System of Philosophy,” in The Philosophical Rupture Between Fichte and Schelling, 153-154

[19]Elizabeth Povinelli, Geontologies: A Requiem for Later Liberalism (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016), 36.

[20]See H.J. Schellnhuber, “’Earth system’ analysis and the second Copernican revolution,” in Nature 2 402 (1999): 19-23; see also H.J. Schellnhuber and J. Crop, “Geocybernetics: Controlling A Complex Dynamic System Under Uncertainty,” in Naturwissenschaftten 85(1998): 411-425.

[21]Schellnhuber, “’Earth system’ analysis and the second Copernican revolution,” 20.

[22]Schelling, Statement on the True Relationship of the Philosophy of Nature to the Revised Fichtean Doctrine, 30.

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