The work of Hegel has undergone a remarkable process of domestication by Anglo-Saxon philosophers over the past thirty years. Hegel is no longer the ambitious metaphysician he had always seemed to be—and as he was still portrayed by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his monumental Hegel (1975). With an initial impetus from Robert Pippin’s Hegel’s Idealism (1989), analytic philosophers laboured to make the German thinker safe for the academic establishment of the English-speaking world by essentially presenting him as a radicalizer of Kant. Just as Kant’s critical project was not itself a metaphysical theory, but an enquiry into the conditions of possibility of metaphysics, so Hegel was now seen as a thinker who merely tightened the screws on Kant’s project of delineating the general thought-structures that render metaphysics possible. In this view, Hegel was no longer the cautious political philosopher who, as he puts it in the Preface to his Philosophy of Right, restricts himself to painting philosophy’s retrospective ‘grey on grey’, once a shape of life has ‘grown old’. Instead he emerged as a radical social critic, advocating a programme for the overthrow of capitalism that strongly anticipates that of Marx. In a startling twist, this approach has recently found its way back to Germany, and is manifested in the work of what remains of the Frankfurt School of critical theory.
This recasting of Hegel makes him only a little more ambitious than Kant in the realm of metaphysics and, equally remarkably, only a little less so than Marx in the realm of social thought—in spite of Marx’s own understanding of himself as a radical critic of Hegel. One serious consequence of this reinterpretation is that Hegel’s relationship to his contemporary Schelling starts to become illegible. Indeed Schelling, in this light, looks so outré that he can be treated only as an aberrant deviation from the true path leading from Kant to Hegel. To understand how the rehabilitated Hegel serves to obscure the relationship with Schelling, we might start by rehearsing the famous early episodes of their shared intellectual biography.
When Schelling came to study at the Protestant Seminary in Tübingen in 1790, at the precocious age of fifteen, he not only shared lodgings with Hegel and Hölderlin, themselves just twenty, but formed with his two older contemporaries an inextricably joint intellectual life. The explosive events of the French Revolution had detonated a matching ferment of ideas in Germany, where Kant’s ‘revolution in philosophy’ had just unleashed a new set of questions concerning the unity and reach of reason. The contributions of each of the trio to the intensely ambitious and systematizing philosophical activity that became known as German Idealism cannot now be untangled, but it is clear that Schelling, despite his youth, was from early on the driving force. Both Schelling and Hegel left unsigned the texts they each contributed to a new review that they co-produced, the Critical Journal of Philosophy (1802–3). Hegel’s first important philosophical text, The Difference Between Fichte’s and Schelling’s System of Philosophy (1801), firmly took the side of Schelling against that of Fichte. Schelling had by this time produced a series of works setting out the various fluctuating versions of his philosophical system, and of the ‘philosophy of nature’ that was a crucial component of it, publishing his System of Transcendental Idealism in 1800.
Hegel was slower than his Wunderkind friend to reach philosophical maturity. As he came to reject Schelling’s ‘identity philosophy’, he caused an unhealable rift between the two, cauterized in remarks he directed at Schelling in his first philosophical masterpiece, The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). Once installed as professor of philosophy in Berlin in 1818, Hegel began to portray himself as not only the culmination of German Idealism—the apex of a triad of which Fichte and Schelling were supporting elements—but of philosophy as such. While Hegel’s alleged ‘accommodation’ to the increasingly conservative political circumstances prevailing in Prussia may be debated, he was unequivocal that further progress beyond him in philosophy was not to be countenanced, with his system set out in complete and cast-iron form in his Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, first published in 1817. Only after Hegel’s sudden death at the height of his powers in 1831 did Schelling have a chance to offer a philosophical reply to his former friend. In 1841 he was called to a professorship in Berlin with the instruction to ‘stamp out the dragon seed’ of Hegelianism. His inaugural lecture course was attended by Friedrich Engels, Søren Kierkegaard, Mikhail Bakunin, Jacob Burckhardt and Leopold von Ranke. Whether or not Schelling effected the hoped-for restoration in political terms, the scene was indeed set for a confrontation with Hegel’s legacy.
This familiar narrative is difficult to make sense of in light of the rehabilitated Hegel, standing in a line from Kant whose only intermediate station is Fichte—with Schelling appearing as an embarrassing and even shocking deviation. Never fitting easily into the story of German Idealism, Schelling’s critique of Hegel seems, on this reading, like mere reaction, in two senses of the word. Schelling is merely reactive, in that he simply responds to Hegel’s already formed philosophy—as opposed to renegotiating on his own terms an intellectual project of which he had been an original progenitor. And this reactiveness is explained by reaction in an ideological sense—Schelling’s tendency to theological bloviation and predilection for the mythological. Reflection on the joint intellectual trajectory that Hegel and Schelling pursued, in utmost earnestness, before they went their separate ways, helps to render this picture implausible. A decisive demonstration of this implausibility requires, however, a detailed co-examination of both Hegel and Schelling.
Such a detailed philosophical examination is what Peter Dews offers in Schelling’s Late Philosophy in Confrontation with Hegel, the distillation of decades of scholarly and philosophical work. Dews does not limit the book to an analysis of the late Schelling’s critique of Hegel—something for which Anglophone precedents exist. Instead, he compares Hegel’s thought with Schelling’s late philosophy ‘along a broad front’, in the service of mounting a defence of Schelling. In doing so, he draws deeply on the work of German scholars such as Michael Theunissen and Manfred Frank, still underappreciated by Anglophone interpreters. Dews’s approach allows him to illuminate the challenge that Schelling poses to Hegel, a challenge that the rehabilitated version renders invisible. An appreciation of Schelling’s profound understanding of his former friend and colleague’s project allows us to read him as striking at that system’s root.
Schelling’s Late Philosophy is a work in three parts. The opening chapters trace the complex evolution of Schelling’s early work, from the debate with Fichte to his elaboration of freedom in the Freiheitsschrift. A constant through this early work is Schelling’s insistence that philosophy is bipartite, and that its two parts, transcendental philosophy and the philosophy of nature, stand on an equal footing. Schelling changes his mind over time, however, on the status of these two parts relative to each other—are they coextensive, or do they mutually require each other as complements? For a period, he pursues a Spinozistic ‘identity philosophy’, according to which they are coeval and equipollent. The central section of the book takes us into Schelling’s late philosophy. Dews’s principal aim here is to delineate the two philosophical strands that Schelling calls ‘negative philosophy’ and ‘positive philosophy’. Although the respective roles of these strands might loosely be compared to those of Hegel’s logic and Realphilosophie—his philosophy of the ‘real’ which covers nature and spirit, in turn—it is important that, on the whole, the distinction is a different one. ‘Negative philosophy’ is an a priori science, and in that sense like Hegel’s logic, but it is not a theory of ‘thought-determinations’ that form a self-contained whole. It is a theory of ‘types of entity’, and so of what there can be. ‘Positive philosophy’, for its part, has nothing to do with positivism, or even with the idea of ‘starting from the positive’—that is, of what is given to the senses—as conceived of, for instance, by Feuerbach. Beginning from a hypothesis produced by negative philosophy as it encounters its limit, positive philosophy engages in a hermeneutics of the history of human consciousness. Positive philosophy could be characterized as empirical, with the stricture that its basis is an experience of the sheer facticity of the world—what Schelling calls ‘un-pre-thinkable being’. The final section of Dews’s book sets out the general tendency of positive philosophy, concerned largely with the transition from mythological consciousness to revelation, and from there to what Schelling calls ‘philosophical religion’.