Schelling and Romanticism

Introduction – Tragic Freedom: Romanticism and the Question of Schelling

David S. Ferris, University of Colorado

  1. Within the study of Romanticism, Schelling has been best known for his unacknowleged contribution to Coleridge's Biographia Literaria. Although this contribution has been copiously documented by later criticism, the dense and philosophic character of Schelling's mode of exposition did not invite serious reading of his work. Indeed, rather than being read, Schelling became, as the Collected Coleridge is ample witness to, a series of footnotes in the study of Romanticism. Being so confined, it is not surprising that Schelling's work has had little presence in the study of Romanticism despite the fact that Schelling ranks as one of the three major figures in the philosophical and aesthetic history of this period. To ignore this history is to ignore the full context from which and within which Romanticism developed. The avoidance of this history is perhaps nowhere more present than when we use the word Romanticism to refer only to British Romanticism. Although the ideological sources of this nationalization still remain largely unrecognized within the criticism of the period, it is not the purpose of this collection of three essays to address this issue. Instead, these essays, Jan Mieszkowski's "Tragedy and the War of the Aesthetic," my "Indifferent Freedom," and David L. Clark's "Mourning Becomes Theory: Schelling and the Absent Body of Philosophy," have focussed on Schelling's treatment of a topic that has long been acknowledged as a central aspect of the Romantic period: freedom. Yet, rather than reiterate its thematic or even its ideological presence in the period, these essays have chosen to recognize and thereby confront the essential question of freedom, its presentation. In this way, freedom is displaced from its mythical role in order to open the question of its relation to experience, the question of its presence.

  2. Schelling's treatment of freedom dates from his early writings. It first appears in the tenth letter of his Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism (published 1795-96) where it is articulated in relation to literature, in particular, Greek tragedy. This relation is reiterated later in his Philosophy of Art. This work, although not published until the appearance of his collected works in 1859, was developed from a series of lectures given between 1799 and 1805. It is in the initial years of this period that Schelling also completes the major work for which he is most known, his System of Transcendental Idealism. Published in 1800, this work established the basis on which his lectures on art and its relation to freedom would develop during subsequent semesters until, in 1804-1805, it reached the form in which it was subsequently published. The work in which Schelling focuses exclusively on freedom, On the Essence of Human Freedom, is published four years later in 1809. This latter work is the most difficult of Schelling's reflections on this topic. No longer does literature serve as a mediating device and no longer is the individual the principal stake of the argument. Instead, what is undertaken is a complete reorientation of freedom away from its imprisonment within the opposition between determinism and free will. No longer is freedom defined as the mere presence or absence of a will. In place of this opposition which offers no alternative, Schelling conceives of a freedom without which neither determinism nor free will could be supposed. So conceived, Schelling has, in effect, opened the question of how the world and the place of the individual within it has been thought. As such, freedom becomes the condition of thought as it is displaced from its teleogocial throne at the end of a history unable to know its own end.

  3. This group of works, which spans a fourteen-year period at the height of European Romanticism, represent the period's most sustained reflection on freedom. That this occurs in the Romantic period is, of course, hardly coincidental; however, the understanding of freedom presented through these works and culminating in Schelling's treatise, On the Essence of Human Freedom, seems a world away from the vague paeans to liberty that have populated the critical landscape of Romanticism. Schelling's presentation of freedom is precise and rigorous in its argumentation. It offers a considerable antidote to those evocations of freedom that serve all too easily as the straw men of ideological criticism. By so doing, Schelling's reflections on freedom raise the stake of all ideological criticism to a level that will no longer suffer gladly the merely negative freedom such criticism has been powerless to avoid. At some point, if ideological criticism is to account for the freedom in whose name this criticism is made, it would have to pursue the path taken by Schelling. Otherwise it is doomed to the unceasing recognition of ideologically tainted versions of the past. To negate an ideology by exposing it through criticism is not to account for the freedom this criticism lays claim to as its badge of authenticity. There then remains the question of such a freedom as well as the question of where and how such a freedom is to occur—a question in which the historical and the philosophical are both implicated. This is essentially a Romantic question and preserving it as a question is perhaps the most historically accurate account we can give of its appearance in this period.

Published @ RC

January 2000

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