Reading Schelling, or even only about Schelling, helps us understand Hegel’s frustration when he called the philosophy of the Absolute “the night in which all cows are black.” The Absolute covers everything under the sky, and rather than illuminating anything, it portrays everything as the same and allows no difference. You can say what you like about it without worrying that someone will point out any exception to what you have said. It is an easy way to sound profound without actually having to say anything.
But let’s try to think with Schelling for a bit. That there is for us a possibility of even trying to refer to “the Absolute” is interesting. What do we try to refer to? It; all of it, and everything. The Absolute is the domain we want to hear about when we ask why there is something rather than nothing. For it is hard for us to think there is no final foundation for explanations; or if we manage to think that, then we feel we are thinking a nonfinality that is itself absolute. But who are we when we think the Absolute? Do we stand apart from it, or within it? Or do we contain it within our thinking?
Schelling says it is all these things at once. He thinks Spinoza does not grasp the full truth when he claims our understanding is an object fully within an Absolute order. He thinks Fichte is similarly wrong to insist that everything is contained within an Absolute subject. Instead, they both are right: the understanding, the absolute truth, the inner well of subjectivity, and the objective world order are all the same, and the great animus of the cosmos is to wrap our heads around that identity.
Our noblest human endeavors – science, art, and religion – are how we set about doing it. In science we try to capture nature as an object. But in that nature we find beautiful symmetries and harmonies that present to us the order of a divine soul. In art we strive to present the glorious sweep of our feelings, but in doing so we must resort to symbols, and the laws and relations governing symbols are not of our own invention, but exhibit an objective structure like what we find in nature. Just as a trip outside returns us inside, the trip inside sends us out again. And in religion, which Schelling either by circumstance or by his own predilection had to place on top of it all, we recapture the unity of the Absolute by finding the personal within the impersonal. At first through myths, and then through Christianity, we find that the cold and terrifying world is in fact someone we know and have known all along.
Perhaps more basic than the unity of the Absolute in Schelling’s thought is the stubborn opposition – and yet ultimate unity – of opposites. It is hard for me not to think of the German Idealists as Kantian versions of the pre-Socratics, and if Fichte is Parmenides (“All is One”), then Schelling is Heraclitus. Heraclitus may have held that what we know as reality is always in a state of flux between opposing forces. Everything is always on its way to something else; and yet “the road up and the road down are one and the same”, meaning that there is some deeper unity in this tension between opposites. In Schelling’s thought, the oppositions of objectivity and subjectivity, and dogmatism and criticism, animate his thinking and provide the power behind science, art, and religion. We strive for unity amid opposition – and that, in a single slogan, is what we do whenever we try to understand and represent. We try to capture in a snapshot what is essentially on the move. Yet this does not occasion despair in Schelling; it instead fuels the romantic endeavor to grasp what transcends our grasp.