Schelling on Negativity

(excerpt from Self-correcting Paths of Negativity and the Positive in Nature:

We have to concede, though, with Hegel when he puts it that there is a logical possibility to recover the ‘whole’, in the guise of the singularity of the Subject (described in the Phenomenology of the Spirit as somewhat analogous to Substance) referring to the same concept of identity but expressed as a logical proposition: “The concrete identity of the concept that was the result of the disjunctive judgment and constitutes the inner foundation of the judgment of the concept – the identity that was posited at first only in the predicate – is thus recovered in the whole (SL, 586).

Even in Hegel’s system, this logical expressibility presupposes the foundational organisation of the ‘idea’ in Nature in which “universality is manifested” but “only negatively” to the extent that “subjectivity is sublated in it.”[1] What was already found in Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, speaking of the original ‘diremption’ (FO, 205) that marks off the organism or individual from nature, which, paradoxically, constitutes their unity as “identity in duplicity” (ibid., p. 180), in Hegel this ‘separation’ involves the process of singularising itself (on the part of the organism) from the ‘vitality’ of nature. Hegel means the ideal progress of recovering nature’s logical beginning owing to the intrinsic flaw of vitality whose desire to make itself into the universal hastens its death – “it is in this universality that the vitality itself dies; for since vitality is a process, opposition is necessary to it, and now the other which it should have had to overcome is for it no longer an other” (HPN, 441). For Hegel, this separation must progressively culminate in “an ethical system, and finally into a religion that recaptures the simplicity of the original idea” (di Giovanni in SL, xvi). Hegel summarises his point in his lectures on the Philosophy of Nature:

The form in which this separation is accomplished is, precisely, the consummation of the singu­lar, which converts itself into the universal but cannot endure this universality. In life, the animal maintains itself, it is true, against its non­-organic nature and its genus; but its genus, as the universal, in the end retains the upper hand. The living being, as a singular, dies from the habit of life, in that it lives itself into its body, into its reality. (HPN, 442)

Still, for Hegel, this separation merely constitutes what he otherwise described, without mincing words, the “death of natural being” (ibid.) This death has to be compensated spiritually to the extent that the Spirit is the “last self-externality of Nature” and, thus, has “passed over into its truth” (ibid., p. 443). The death of the natural being paves the way to “ethical, substantial nature” (ibid., p. 338). By contrast, Schelling does not accord the ethical organism the capacity to sublate nature’s self-externality and rejects the dialectical principle that nature’s “existence is a relativity, and so, as a negative, its being is only posited, derivative” (ibid., p. 444). Thus, Schelling’s positive philosophy at the outset preempts the logical pretence of the dialectic,[2] that is, to “find in [nature’s] externality only a mirror of ourselves” (ibid., 445) but ‘ourselves’ as the negativity implicit in the death of natural beings, the “free reflex of spirit” (ibid.). To succeed in this goal of preventing the logical pretence of the dialectic to take its course without supervision, Schelling, however, gives the dialectic what is due it:

[T]he negative triumphs as the science in which thought, after it has liberated itself from its immediate, that is, accidental content, first really attains its goal whereby its necessary content becomes dominant, and upon which thought now looks on in freedom … Therefore … to the extent it is philosophy, the negative is itself positive since it posits the latter outside itself, and, thus, there is no longer a duality. From the very beginning our earliest aspirations have sought a positive philosophy. (GPP, 197)

The triumph of negativity is acknowledged by positive philosophy in the sense that it sees in negativity the work of self-awareness, its ethical autonomy that finally recognises in nature the “necessary content of freedom” (ibid.). But it is not simply this acknowledgement of negativity by the positive embodiment of the in-itself, freedom, that is already in the negative to begin with, that the negative “becomes certain of its status” (ibid., 198). Without a deeper realisation that it is groundless sans the positive, negativity will continually be under pressure, for instance, to produce an actual God, “not the mere idea of God” (ibid., 197), or, as Hegel himself put it, “not in the contemplation of him as spirit, but … his immediate existence” (HPN, 445). Hegel’s sublation of nature out of which the Spirit arises is, therefore, only conceivable on the assumption that the ‘reflex of the spirit’, or the realisation of the autonomy of freedom, is “put in the position to remain with and equal to [the positive]” (GPP, 198). This is the whole kernel of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie that Hegel simply put to motion, but only half of it – “to bring forth realism out of idealism, in that it materialises the laws of mind into laws of nature” (STI, 14). As Schelling announced in his Berlin lectures, the other half is responding to the demand of the positive, that is, to bring philosophy in service of life.

[1] G.W.F. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature. Part Two of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences 1830), trans. A.V. Miller, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970, p. 441; henceforth, HPN.

[2] As G. Anthony Bruno argues, “It is beside the point to observe that Hegel’s logic is coherent, for its coherence raises the question of its value. It is equally irrelevant to observe that merely deciding to take up the Logic does not determine its structure,48 for the issue is not what reason’s logical structure is, but that it is—not its concept, but its existence” (202). See G. Anthony Bruno, “The Facticity of Time: Conceiving Schelling’s Idealism of Ages,” in Schelling’s Philosophy: Freedom, Nature and Systematicity, ed. G. Anthony Bruno, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020, pp. 185-206.

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