In his System of Transcendental Idealism Schelling presents us with an attempt at overcoming. What he is trying to overcome is the chasm between the self and nature, the individual and the world into which it is inserted. This is the sort of opposition we see set up in Kantian thought, in which there is a separation between the subject and the object; for instance, Kant says that we can never really know what he calls the thing-in-itself. We can only know our own perception of it - this is the world we experience. For Kant, this is a gap that cannot be traversed. We can forever move toward that unification, but we cannot fulfill its promise. The works of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel are all focused at the possibility of unification or at least some sort of escape. Fichte tries to accomplish this through a nullification of nature. He tries to achieve a transcendence that will allow the individual to be unaffected by nature. Hegel, on the other hand, endeavors to fully unify the subject and the object by proposing to show that the subject is just as much in the object as it is in itself. He conducts this highly intricate and focused attempt in his Phenomenology of Spirit. For Hegel, we arrive at the goal via a continuous process of examination and understanding.

Schelling’s thought is closer to Hegel’s than Fichte’s in that it is aiming at a synthesis of two sides (the mind with nature) rather than the domination of one side over another (the mind over nature). While Hegel’s system is organic, interconnected and fluid, Schelling’s seems to be full of breaks, jumps and odd departures that do not cohere logic or what Hegel might call “Pure Science”. Where Hegel posits consciousness as the focal point for revealing truth, Schelling finds that focal point in art and aesthetics. Having aesthetics as the core of his system illustrates how Schelling’s system is fragmentary, for the leap from what he calls ordinary cognition (thought of the object or everyday perception) and transcendental cognition (thought of thought or self awareness) to an absolute consciousness requires something beyond normal rationality and perception. The reason for this is that artistic activity attempts to express what cannot be articulated with words or logic. Music, for example, can evoke strong feelings but it can never be boiled down to a propositional statement. This is where I think Schelling is going with his philosophy. In looking at this movement toward an absolute consciousness, I will here have a more detailed look at ordinary cognition,transcendental cognition, and the way in which Schelling wants to unify them. For each stage of cognition, he identifies their properties and then further identifies them as being limited in some way. Sensation, for example, is the perception of physical objects. It is a level of consciousness, yet it is limited in that there is no possibility of positive identification of objects - there is no understanding, only perception.

With this way of looking at Schelling in mind, I will have a look at how he moves across these limits and ultimately makes the leap into absolute consciousness. Ordinary cognition is quite simply the raw experience of the world of sense objects. As I just mentioned, sensation is the lowest order of ordinary cognition. Sensation is, of course, pure experience, without understanding or complex distinction. It appears as a resistance of the object world, and is in this way a negative sort of knowledge. Schelling writes that the “reality of sensation is depends on the fact that the self does not posit the sensed as having been posited by itself. It is sensed only insofar as the self intuits it as not posited by the self.”1 This is the most primitive sort of consciousness possible. In true dialectic fashion, it is a binary opposition, and this basic opposition is what leads us to more complex concepts of both ourselves and the world around us. The theme of limitation is also brought out here, for the realization that the self is limited is the product of the dialectical relationship. The realization is thus what moves us toward a higher stage of consciousness. The realization is self consciousness and self consciousness turns out to be an activity, not some static state of existence. Again, Schelling: “the act by which the self limits itself is none other than self-consciousness, and to this we must confine ourselves, as the basis for explanation of all limitation”2. When Schelling says that absolute consciousness is the thought of the subject and the object as one and the same, then we can see that self consciousness is actually a dialectical relationship of the self to the self. We begin with a very basic opposition and move into more elaborate oppositions between the subject and object, until we reach a point at which we can understand that they are the same thing.

By progressing through the stages of ordinary cognition, which begin with sensation, we arrive at a consciousness of ourselves as a consequence of coming to understand a world of objects that presents itself as separate to us. Ordinary cognition as an activity is the thought of the object. Of course, when we become self aware, we direct our thoughts to ourselves; this activity Schelling calls transcendental cognition. If one were to put Schelling next to Fichte, we would see that transcendental cognition is analogous to what Fichte writes about in Book Two of The Vocation of Man: knowledge. Fichte writes in this section that we become aware of ourselves as cut off from reality; being embroiled in thinking of thought, thinking of the self, we become skeptical and the object is negated. Transcendental cognition for Schelling is very similar. Schelling elaborates, saying that

if only the subjective has initial reality for the transcendental philosopher, he will also make only the subjective the immediate object of his cognition: the objective will become an object for him indirectly only, and whereas in ordinary cognition the knowing itself (the act of knowing) vanishes into the object, in transcendental cognition, on the contrary, the object as such vanishes into the act of knowing. Transcendental cognition is thus a knowing of knowing, insofar as it is purely subjective.3
It is directly opposed to ordinary cognition, and just as each involves its own internal dialectical struggle that allows progression from one to the other, there is a dialectic between both epochs. Just as pure sensation is a gross limitation on the self, so is the skepticism of transcendental cognition, because it negates a very real aspect of knowing.

So, what leads us to the resolution of this imbalance and conflict? Intuition and aesthetics are where Schelling looks for answers. The use of the word “intuition” seems to me to illustrate the nature of this final, absolute consciousness, especially in contrast with the way Hegel’s system works. It points to something extra-linguistic or even extra-rational, whereas Hegel tries to move toward absolute consciousness through precise rational processes and exercises. This is why Schelling, therefore, posits aesthetics as the activity which will unify ordinary cognition and transcendent cognition. Artistic expression, as previously mentioned, points to ideas, images and sentiments that are beyond the ability of language or reason to express. Also, Schelling refers to intuition as an act of construction or production:

Now it is certainly a productive activity that finds expression in willing; all free action is productive, albeit consciously productive. If we now suppose, since the two activities have only to be one in principle, that same activity which is consciously productive in free action is productive without consciousness in bringing about the world, then our predetermined harmony is real, and the contradiction resolved.4

So we see a move toward unification here. The conscious, productive activity of self willing thought combines with the unconscious experience of the object world. We absorb objects through experience and reflect that experience back into the world through conscious expression, understanding, intuiting. Through this activity, “both the objective world accommodates to presentations in us, and presentations in us to the objective world”5 come about in a harmony that Schelling says reflects an existing “predetermined harmony” between the two. Schelling presents an interesting argument. It is one that looks to the imagination and feeling as much as it looks to reason and understanding. Ordinary cognition, the awareness of the object world, begins with sensation (perception) and moves through to understanding. Transcendental cognition, the awareness of oneself, picks up from understanding and moves through reflection (understanding or recognition of the self) to intuition. The movement between these two epochs seems to happen more or less naturally; it certainly seems reasonable that coming to understand the external world would lead one to identifying it as separate and different than oneself, thereby leading one to understanding the self. The understanding that the object world only becomes such as a result of our consciousness is, in essence, the absolute consciousness. Objects are presented to us, but we observe, name and redescribe them; thus, we reflect and bring a world into being through our subjective mental activities. Despite the appealing nature of Schelling’s ideas, though, this does not seem to me to be an actual dialectical synthesis in the sense that the first two epochs do not give rise to a new, different epoch. It seems as though the subject is still given privilege over the object even when Schelling tries to say that the subject becomes unified with the object, because all activity happens within the self, and the object world becomes the world as a result of that subjective activity. Therefore, the self once again becomes something external to the world in which it finds itself; in this way Schelling’s system opens itself to the critiques of thinkers such as Hegel. It is similar to the way in which Fichte’s system breaks down - the subject is never quite unified with the object.


  1. Johann Fichte, The Vocation of Man, trans. Peter Preuss (1800; Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987), 21
  2. Fichte, 7.
  3. Fichte, 20-1.
  4. Fichte, 48.
  5. Fichte, 60.
  6. Fichte, 74.

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