Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism

Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854) was born in Leonberg, Germany. He was professor of philosophy at the universities of Jena, Würzburg, Erlangen, Munich, and Berlin. He had close friendships with Hegel, Hölderlin, Goethe, and with other important figures in the German Romantic movement. He died in Bad Ragaz, Switzerland. His major works included Ideen zur einer Philosophie der Natur (1797, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature), System des transcendentalen Idealismus (1800, System of Transcendental Idealism), Philosophische Untersuchungen über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit (1809, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, and Die Weltalter (1811, The Ages of the World).

Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism is an explanation of how subjectivity may be either compatible or incompatible with objectivity. It is concerned with the question of how the self may become both subject and object for itself, and it attempts to show how the mutual concurrence of subjective and objective viewpoints in consciousness may establish the unity of the ideal with the real.

Transcendental idealism, according to Schelling, is a system for all knowledge.1 A system may be a comprehensive set of rules or principles, which are logically structured and which are internally consistent. Knowledge of reality may be attained when there is a reciprocal concurrence of the self with nature, of the subjective with the objective, and of the conscious with the unconscious.

Idealism is a philosophy that the nature of reality is mental or spiritual and that the world consists of ideas. Thus, transcendental idealism affirms that a transcendental unity of the self and nature, of subject and object, and of the conscious and the unconscious is a condition for knowledge.

If nature is primary, says Schelling, then the self (or intelligence) must arise from nature. If the self is primary, then nature must arise from the self. Nature philosophy makes nature the primary reality. Transcendental philosophy makes the self the primary reality.

Philosophy may thus be divided into two basic sciences: 1) the science of nature (or nature philosophy) and 2) the science of the self (or transcendental philosophy). These two possible approaches to philosophy may either develop an intelligence out of nature or develop a nature out of intelligence.2

From a subjective viewpoint, there is nothing in things other than what we attribute to them. Objective qualities or attributes of things would not exist unless the self could perceive them. Thus, the task of transcendental philosophy is to determine how subjective perceptions correspond to objects that are independent of them.

Acceptance of the premise that reality is subjective makes it difficult to assert that events are unalterably determined. If subjective perceptions may change, then so may the reality of the external world. Thus, an important question that must be answered is whether our perceptions conform to the phenomenal world or whether the phenomenal world conforms to our perceptions.

If the conscious activity that is expressed by the will is identical to the unconscious activity that produces the phenomenal world, then the problem of whether our perceptions conform to the world or whether the world conforms to our perceptions is resolved. Transcendental philosophy affirms the unity of the conscious and unconscious activity of the self. The conscious and the unconscious are unified by the creative activity of the self. Nature arises from the self, and the self arises from nature.

In Schelling’s transcendental philosophy, the self is the primary reality, and the natural world may be changed by an act of will. Thus, an object of art may be an expression of both conscious and unconscious will. Aesthetic activity may unify the self and nature, the subjective and the objective, the conscious and the unconscious. Aesthetic activity may unites the ideal world of art and the real world of objects.3

Idealism, according to Schelling, affirms that the boundary of the self is posited only by the self, but realism affirms that the boundary of the self is established by something other than the self. Idealism and realism may mutually depend on each other. Just as natural science leads from realism to idealism, because it discovers laws of mind by investigating laws of nature, so transcendental philosophy leads from idealism to realism, because it discovers laws of nature by investigating laws of mind.4

Just as idealism and realism may mutally depend on each other, theoretical and practical philosophy may mutually depend on eavc other. Theoretical philosophy may explain how the ideal nature of the self’s boundary may become a limitation for knowledge, while practical philosophy may explain how the real nature of the self’s boundary may become a limitation for knowledge. Theoretical and practical philosophy together may form a complete system of transcendental idealism.5

In the act of self-consciousness, the thinking subject may become the object of thought. However, the self is not merely a thing or object. The self is the same as the act of self-consciousness, which is both ideal and real. The self is ideal, because it is eternal and timeless, but it is real, because it may become an object for itself. The self is not only the source of all ideas but is the underlying principle of all reality.

Self-consciousness may affirm a self that is both ideal and real, and it may establish a boundary between the self and the phenomenal world that is both both dependent on, and independent of, the self. Self-consciousness may unify a subjective ideal with an objective reality

Schelling distinguishes between the limiting activity and the limited activity of the self. The limiting (i.e. ideal or subjective) activity of the self does not enter consciousness. The limiting activity of the self is also the activity of the pure subject. However, the limited (i.e. real or objective)activity of the self is the activity of the self as an object in consciousness. Neither the pure subject nor the pure object is the self of self-consciousness, says Schelling. The actual self of self-consciousness is both subject and object simultaneously.

The self may be both active and passive, because it may actively perceive and passively be perceived. Insofar as the self perceives, it is ideal, but insofar as the self is perceived, it is real.6

In order for the self to perceive an object, the inner sense of the self must be intuited as time, and the outer sense of the self must be intuited as space. Both inner and outer sense are involved in the perception of an object. Outer sense is objectified to inner sense when an object appears as having extensity. Inner sense is objectified to outer sense when an object appears as having intensity. Extensity and intensity may have a reciprocal relationship and may depend on each other.

Just as an object may have both extensity and intensity, so it may also have the properties of both a substance and an accident. A substance is that which only exists in space, while an accident is that which only exists in time. The properties of substance and accident are inseparable in any object of perception, just as outer and inner sense are inseparable in any act of perception.7

The activity whereby the self is objectively limited is different from the activity whereby the self subjectively limits itself. The self subjectively has infinite freedom, but objectively is limited. The self begins subjectively and ends objectively.

The self in its freedom begins consciously and ends unconsciously. Conversely, nature begins unconsciously and ends consciously. The unconscious operates through the conscious, so that the unconscious may become conscious. The identity of conscious and unconscious activity in the self is the poetry of the spirit, which may be expressed as art.

By creating works of art, the self may become fully conscious of itself. Works of art may have an unconscious infinity in their synthesis of nature and freedom.8 Works of art may also unify subjectivity and objectivity, the transcendent and the immanent, the ideal and the real.

Schelling's theory of the self is influenced by the idealism of Kant and Fichte, but the System of Transcendental Idealism develops a new philosophy of knowledge and a new interpretation of the self's relation to the world of nature. For Schelling, the objective world is not merely established by the self but is the self that is objectified by itself. The self and nature are a transcendental unity.

Schelling’s transcendental idealism, his philosophy of nature, and his philosophy of art had an important influence on nineteenth-century German Romanticism.9 His subjective idealism affirmed that to be free is to be fully conscious and that to be constrained is not to be fully conscious. For Schelling, the identity of conscious and unconscious activity that is expressed by the creation of wroks of art is also the unification of freedom and necessity. Freedom must be guaranteed by the rule of law (by the rule of necessity), but the rule of law must be guaranteed by freedom. Freedom may be a conscious lawfulness through which the aesthetic and productive capability of the self is fully realized.

Art may be an objectification of the subjectivity with which philosophy begins its investigation of reality, says Schelling. Art may thus enable philosophy to complete its task of discovering valid principles of knowledge.

1F.W.J. Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism (1800), translated by Peter Heath (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978), p. 16.
2Ibid., p. 7.
3Ibid., p. 12.
4Ibid., p. 14.
5Ibid., p. 41.
6Ibid., p. 67.
7Ibid., p. 105.
8Ibid., p. 225.
9Larousse Biographical Dictionary, edited by Magnus Magnusson (New York: W. & R. Chambers, 1990), p. 1304.


Schelling, F.W.J. System of Transcendental Idealism (1800). Translated by Peter Heath. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978.

Larousse Biographical Dictionary. Edited by Magnus Magnusson. New York: W. & R. Chambers, 1990.

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