Ferris, "Indifferent Freedom"

Schelling and Romanticism

Indifferent Freedom[1]

David S. Ferris, University of Colorado

  1. Before writing his better known text, the 1809 work On the Essence of Human Freedom, Schelling had taken up the question of freedom in relation to art, in particular, the way in which Greek tragedy had already formulated Schelling's idealist understanding of freedom. In the tenth letter of the Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism, Schelling provides a concise presentation of this relation of tragedy to freedom and, despite the youthfulness of this text (it is written in 1795-96 when Schelling is twenty-one years old), it provides the basic outline of his later remarks on freedom and art as discussed in his lectures from 1804-1805 (subsequently published in 1859 as The Philosophy of Art)[2].

  2. Schelling's turn towards Greek tragedy as a model for his understanding of freedom repeats the frequent gesture of his work towards art as the place in which the historical development of philosophy can be fulfilled[3]. The tenth letter of the Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism [Philosophische Briefe über Dogmatismus und Kritizismus], which contains Schelling's first account of the relation of freedom to art, begins with just such a gesture towards the aesthetic:

    There is an objective force (Macht) that threatens to destroy freedom . . .to struggle against it, and in this way to succumb to it is to call forth freedom in its entirety . . . . this possibility (Möglichkeit), which has been long invisible beneath the light of reason, must be preserved for art, for what is highest in art. (106)
    As Schelling's words indicate here, to understand freedom according to possibility is to preserve it from the forces, the objective forces that would everywhere restrict freedom by subordinating it to the mere existence of an object of experience.
  3. By taking up the question of freedom in this way, Schelling has, in effect, taken up what is the only philosophical question that remains after Kant's Critiques. This question is the question of philosophy itself and, after Kant, this becomes the question of its own possibility, that is, the question of the possibility of a ground for knowledge that would not rely on merely guiding principles or as the Critique of Judgment concludes when faced with a radical conflict within judgment: "we can do no better than eliminate this conflict."[4] The adoption of such guiding principles prevents a sliding back into a pre-Kantian attempt to discover the truth of reason, God, etc., in an objective representation. Briefly, this attempt to understand the absolute in terms of an object is precisely the dogma from which philosophy is to be freed for both Kant and Schelling.[5]

  4. Although the Kantian critique seeks to define the possibility of human knowledge in a way distinct from dogma, its overcoming of dogmatic prejudices does not protect it from an impasse that arises from its own critical intentions. The difficulty that produces this impasse is not the difficulty of locating something conceptual in an object. To see the impasse in this way is to place Kant's critique, as Heidegger observes, "negatively under the presupposition that beings as a whole must be knowable in the sense of experience or else not at all" (Schelling 54). As Heidegger explains, what experience means in this instance is an understanding that views whatever exists in terms of an object[6]. Hence, whenever concepts such as God or freedom are subject to experience, they are to be knowable as objects or not at all. As Heidegger remarks, this represents not just a negative view of Kant's critical project but it is also based on a presupposition that is not supported by what Kant says. Heidegger continues:

    Kant has only shown that what is meant by the Ideas is not knowable if it is an object and can only be made certain of as an object in the experience of things of nature. Kant has not shown that what is represented and meant in the Ideas, is an "object." (Schelling 45).
    The difficulty posed by Kant does not arise from limiting the dogmatic reign of objects in the realm of thought. Such a difficulty can only induce a crisis in the relation of thought to object. Nowhere does it raise the question of a thought no longer conceived within a positive or negative relation to the world of experience and its objects. Indeed, the refusal to judge thought in terms of an objective world puts thought into a crisis that it can easily recover from by becoming the history of its own inadequacy. As Heidegger points out, the unknowability that informs this sense of inadequacy is only tenable if the existence of the Idea is not distinguished from our experience of nature: to say that the thing-in-itself is not knowable if it is an object is not to say that it is an object. It is in the opening created by this distinction that Schelling's remarks on freedom are to be located. But, as Schelling and Kant are also aware, whenever experience is refused as an arbiter of thought, there arises a question about judgment since judgment is now effectively cut off from the traditional source of its authority: judgment must occur without reference to anything capable of confirming its judgments. Only by emphasizing its inability to rely on an external source such as experience can judgment appear to overcome this difficulty. It is this step that leads to the systematic development of thought that characterizes philosophy after Kant, a development in which thought is to experience itself as itself and on the basis of this experience, a self-knowledge that obviates the need for judgment is to arise[7].
  5. It is the philosophical account of this recourse that takes place in the tenth letter of Schelling's Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism, an account that faces the question of a knowledge that, to cite Heidegger on Kant again, "must know that it is not supposed to know objects, but rather to know what is non-objective, but still not nothing at all" (Schelling 45).

  6. At this point Schelling's relation to the legacy of Kant's critique can be seen most clearly. If what Kant regarded as unknowable is no longer thought of as an object, then, the ability to think something that is non-objective but not nothing becomes the task of thinking freedom itself since any account of the non-objective is an account of its freedom from the objective. To take up this task is to involve thought in a contradiction: freedom cannot be thought without the necessity of the objective but freedom cannot be thought in terms of the objective.

  7. In his attempt to systematize such a contradiction Schelling will resort to the aesthetic as not just the place of its manifestation but the form of its existence. It is this role that Schelling would give to art in the opening paragraph of the Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism when he speaks of freedom as a possibility that "must be preserved for art, for the highest in art." The necessity that governs this preservation emerges almost immediately when Greek tragedy, as the example of a contradiction, first appears in Schelling's argument:

    One has often asked how the reason of the Greeks could have tolerated the contradictions of their tragedy. A mortal, by fate determined a criminal, yet himself struggling against fate is horribly punished for a crime that was the work of fate! The ground of this contradiction, what makes it tolerable, lies deeper than one suspects, it lies in the strife between human freedom and the might (Macht) of the objective world, a strife to which the mortal necessarily succumbs when the might of this objective world is overpowering. (106)
    The contradiction Schelling presents as the distinguishing characteristic of tragedy takes place through an individual who admits to a crime that is the result of fate. The capacity to admit to and thereby become the agent responsible for crime defines the individuality of the tragic hero. The expression of this individuality is, in Schelling's argument, the moment in which freedom occurs because it is a moment in which innocent protagonists choose to accept responsibility for a crime of which they are innocent. In the same moment, freedom is both asserted and lost but, since this moment depends on the protagonist's choice to accept a role, freedom and necessity occur as the result of the protagonist's acceptance of a performance demanded by fate or necessity. To know that this is necessary is all that the protagonist need know[8]. In such knowing, as Schelling puts it, the choice becomes tolerable (erträglich) because to recognize it as necessary is to recognize it as part of a larger strife: "the strife between human freedom and the might of the objective world." Here, the tolerability of admitting to a crime one is not responsible for arises from the protagonist's understanding that freedom and individuality are both essentially aesthetic, that is, they are only knowable within an aesthetic form that demands the death of its hero. As such, the hero, the tragic individual becomes the aesthetic medium of a freedom that can only be realized by the denial of this same individual[9]. For Schelling, the individual succumbs to a history they must choose if their freedom is to be known both to history and for history. Knowledge of this freedom is what survives in art thereby making a history of the aesthetic the history of a freedom that succumbs to and is thus preserved by the downfall demanded by its own presentation.
  8. As Schelling's remarks make clear this is a demand made by the aesthetic form of a work of art. By being an aesthetic object, the work of art thus becomes the place in which the history of freedom is written as the limiting of freedom. In the work of art, this limiting occurs by means of its form, that is, it occurs by adhering to the formal conditions of existence of any work of art. In the tenth letter, Schelling makes these formal conditions play a defining role in the tragic hero's acceptance of fate:

    By letting its heroes struggle against the superior might of fate, Greek tragedy recognizes human freedom; in order to avoid crossing the limits of art, it must succumb to fate [Um nicht über die Schranken der Kunst zu springen, musste sie ihn unterliegen] (107)
    To recognize human freedom is to recognize art as the aesthetic medium of not just freedom but also the individual for which freedom exists. Thus, the aesthetic tells the story of the necessity of succumbing to fate if the aesthetic is to exist as such a medium. Here, fate becomes the means by which the aesthetic is known to be aesthetic--a knowledge that may be traced back to the moment when the protagonist of tragedy takes on the role of a criminal. But what this knowledge gives rise to is, as always, of more importance because it is there that what is at stake is invariably revealed.
  9. When Schelling writes that, "Even Greek tragedy could not maintain defeat and freedom side by side" he appeals to Greek tragedy as the highest example of an art in order to assert that even this highest example remains incapable of a synthesis in which defeat and freedom can coexist. Again, the reason for this inability is the aesthetic form of art since any such synthesis would erase the struggle in which the individual is brought to an experience of freedom[10]. Indeed, to ignore this inability is to cross the limit demanded by art as the limit of its form, of its difference to an objective world that would subject it to the banality of mere existence.

  10. Why freedom must be experienced in an aesthetic form as the erroneous judgment of the individual on itself becomes clearer as Schelling recapitulates his remarks on Greek tragedy. It is at this point that Schelling explicitly reveals the dialectical development of his argument as a characteristic of the aesthetic work. It is the loss of freedom that signifies the occurrence of freedom in an act that defines the individual as the exercise of a will. Schelling writes:

    This was a noble idea to admit that man consents to accept a punishment even for an inevitable crime and, in this way, displays his freedom by the loss of this same freedom and puts an end to the struggle by a declaration of his free will. (107)
    By means of its defeat freedom comes to exist as what subjects itself to necessity and the force of the objective. But, rather than signify a return to the dogma in which a concept is defined by the objective, Schelling distinguishes this act of subjection from dogma by means of the act through which the protagonist of Greek tragedy accepts fate. As we have already seen, this act only has significance for Schelling to the extent that it is performed by a hero who cannot be held guilty of the crime for which this act takes responsibility. In this context, the act of taking responsibility and succumbing to fate points all the more strongly to the freedom that is lost and through which such an act can only take place (for, as Schelling would argue, if one were not free how could one chose necessity?). It is this articulation of freedom that Schelling refers to when he states that, "Here, as in general, Greek tragedy is the rule/standard" [Wie überall, so ist auch hier die griechische Kunst Regel]" (107). And the rule of Greek art is nothing less than the rule of an art that must always reenact the sacrifice of freedom in order to preserve the aesthetic as the form of such reenactment (and therefore the form in which freedom occurs even if this occurrence can only happen as negation, as the loss of the experience of freedom).
  11. How the aesthetic may become a model of freedom becomes clear when Schelling discusses the humanity of the Greeks and their relation to nature. This discussion of the human relation to nature is at the same time a continuing determination of the form of art. Not only is the vocabulary used the vocabulary for discussing art and literature but the problem broached is that of aesthetic representation. Schelling writes:

    [Man] indicates the objective world by determining limits across which he must not step. In representing an object to himself, in giving a form and a continuing existence to it, he dominates it. . . . as soon as he crosses these limits, as soon as the object is no longer representable, that is, as soon as man ventures beyond the limits of representation, he feels lost and prey to the terrors of the objective world. To an object without limits he can no longer give a form. (107-108)
    The necessity of form affects both the work of art and any attempt to understand the objective world. To be human, as Schelling explains it here, is to recognize this necessity. Since what makes Greek tragedy the highest art is also a recognition of this necessity, then it is through the recognition of its limit as art that Greek tragedy attains the highest level. To put this another way, it is only by recognizing that it cannot be confused with or determined by the objective world that literature can be an art rather than, for example, sociology, history, etc., which each would view literature as if its aesthetic representation of an objective world could be taken for granted.
  12. The understanding of the aesthetic Schelling presents in the tenth letter of the Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism is indispensable to the concept of freedom presented in this letter. This aesthetic is so necessary that Schelling's concept of freedom would be unthinkable without it since then this concept would require an objective representation of its own. The aesthetic gives freedom a means of representation that allows freedom to be recognized while avoiding the necessity of appearing for itself (if it could, as Schelling is aware, there would be no such thing as fate and therefore no limit for freedom to struggle against). Here, freedom is thought not simply as an effect of the aesthetic but as an effect of the self-limitation of the aesthetic, as an effect of why the aesthetic is so limited. In this instance, the aesthetic not only allows freedom to be thought but through its formal limit it preserves freedom as the persistent but elusive subject of its own representation. That the aesthetic retains freedom as its subject can be deduced from this limit since it is this limit that provides the model to think whatever exists as different from the objective world while at the same time recognizing that what is being thought is not nothing. It is into such a category that freedom falls. What this means is that the question of freedom may only be conceived according to the aesthetic. This is why Greek tragedy, as Schelling observes, gives a rule for the appearance of freedom that is also general. (Schelling writes: "Wie überall, so ist auch hier die griechische Kunst Regel"). Generalized according to the aesthetic, freedom continues to exist as a retreat from the limit that allows it to be thought and at the same time requires this retreat as a condition of such thought.

  13. The freedom described by Schelling poses the question of what literature is when it can only exist in its difference to an objective world and when, because of this difference, its significance is restricted to the expression of a will. In the final analysis, what is expressed here is a will to history for it is to such an outcome that Schelling's protagonist succumbs in a history that demands the failure of the individual will. In this failure, the will and its freedom exists for Schelling as it resists the objective world it cannot be a part of. By making art the privileged example of this will to an individuality that can only take place by succumbing to what demands the end of individuality, Schelling will in effect define the aesthetic as a mode of representing what is not itself an object but which is yet not nothing. This understanding of the aesthetic, as Schelling's example demonstrates, enables the concept of freedom he defines. Defined in this way, freedom becomes what must be recalled from the aesthetic, but when the aesthetic is also the means of recall, the only choice is to succumb to its limit, for it is only in recognizing such a necessity that freedom can be recalled. Although this is articulated by Schelling as a formal issue, it gives rise to no mere formal problem—at least if one considers how our inability to resolve it fosters the most rampant dogmatism; or if one wants to be more literary, it fosters the most practical readings (at least in the Kantian sense), that is, readings whose concern with what ought to be confuse freedom with a groundless moral imperative that would view the objective world as the judge of the aesthetic and thereby become theoretically irrefutable and groundlessly correct. In the end who would dare refute the tragic hero's freedom to become a tragic hero, who would dare give Oedipus back his eyes? Only in this blindness, this blindness of fate without which Schelling's concept of freedom would itself die does freedom appear but then it appears as what cannot appear as itself. In this aspect, Schelling's freedom reveals itself to be a freedom that can only be derived from a form that threatens its existence. In response to this threat Schelling's freedom has no choice but to deny the form of its own existence in order to survive. This denial, as Schelling clearly sees, can be nothing else except the act of a will. In the end, it is by this act that freedom attains existence by denying itself. In this way, it becomes something rather than nothing but in so doing freedom is no longer free since it has become the performance of an act whose significance lies in a repeatability that always recalls its last occurrence in order to assert its freedom. In such a freedom, an indifference is at work, an indifference to freedom itself for it matters not in what form freedom has occurred only that it has occurred (and here the tense is crucial, freedom becomes the recall of what it is to be free). Such an indifference sustains the whole possibility of a discourse on freedom, which is to say, the possibility of philosophy itself.


    1 A longer version of the following essay in which the relation of Schelling's remarks on tragedy and freedom are discussed in the context of Romantic Hellenism is forthcoming in Silent Urns: Romanticism, Hellenism, Modernity (Stanford University Press).

    2 In his remarks on Greek tragedy from The Philosophy of Art, Schelling refers to his earlier work as follows: "This, as presented here as well as in my own Philosophical Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism, is the innermost spirit of Greek tragedy" (254). Unlike Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, Schelling's remarks on tragedy have generated little critical or interpretive attention even though Schelling is the first to shift tragedy away from an affective and into a properly philosophical aspect. Only Peter Szondi has recognized this watershed in Schelling. See Szondi's brief remarks on Schelling's understanding of tragedy in "The Notion of the Tragic in Schelling, Hölderlin and Hegel" (43-46).

    3 See for example, Schelling's System of Transcendental Idealism (229-233).

    4 This elimination is offered as a solution to the antinomy of taste in '57 of the Critique of Judgment. Since judgments of taste make an appeal to universal assent they lay claim to a universal principle even though such judgments are judgments of taste precisely because they do not follow any such principle. It is this contradiction that Kant needs to eliminate in order to account for judgment according to a universal principle but, as Kant confesses here, if such an account were attained there would no such thing as a judgment of taste and therefore nothing for the universal principle to account for: "It is absolutely impossible to provide a determinate, objective principle of taste that would allow us to guide, to test, and to prove its judgments, because then they would not be judgments of taste" (213).

    5 As Kant observes, and Schelling will reiterate in the course of the tenth letter, dogma has a considerable attraction precisely because it is irrefutable: dogma requires an objective representation that cannot be determined by what it represents, hence, it can neither be proved nor disproved (e.g., the social construction of reality, science, the earth, the universe etc.).

    6 What this means in the realm of art is spelled out by Heidegger in "The Age of the World Picture" when he remarks: "A third equally essential phenomenon of the modern period lies in the event of art's moving into the purview of aesthetics. That means that the art work becomes the object of mere subjective experience (Erlebnis), and that consequently art is considered to be an expression of human life" (116).

    7 That self-knowledge is to be the defining object of thought for Kant and subsequent philosophy is announced by Kant in the first preface to the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant speaks of this work as "a call to reason to undertake anew the most difficult of all its tasks, namely, that of self-knowledge" (9). This call, as the history of philosophy confirms, is essentially Greek since it is Socrates who first formulates this as the primary task of philosophy in the imperative gnothi seauton. On this imperative in the romantic period see my "The Ghost of Coleridge Past" in Theory and the Evasion of History.

    8 What Schelling describes as freedom underwrites the sense of history elaborated by Frederic Jameson in The Political Unconscious when he asserts that "History is the experience of Necessity" and then goes on to say "Necessity is the inexorable form of events" (132). In both cases, necessity is the means through which freedom is to be experienced (this history for Jameson is a history free from its "thematization or reification as a mere object of representation"). On the formal and therefore aesthetic category that Jameson must evoke here (and which Schelling already recognizes as essential to such an experience of freedom) see, Samuel Weber, "Capitalizing History."

    9 In this respect, Schelling's remark gives a more philosophical interpretation of Winckelmann's desire to write a history of art that would no longer be a history of individual artists.

    10 As this sentence implies, what is at stake in freedom is its experience and, above all where its aesthetic representation is concerned, the stake is the imitability of freedom. Here, the question Winckelmann broaches in relation to Greece (how its inimitability is to be imitated) can be seen as a formulation of the essential problem of freedom posed by art. On freedom and its experience, see Jean-Luc Nancy's superb reflection, The Experience of Freedom (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), especially p. 205, n. 9, for remarks addressed specifically to the relation of art to freedom.

    Works Cited

    Ferris, David S. "The Ghost of Coleridge Past." Theory and the Evasion of History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993. [page range?]

    Heidegger, Martin. "The Age of the World Picture." The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York: Harper, 1977. [translator?]

    ---. Schelling Abhandlungen über das Wesen der Menschlichen Freiheit (1809). Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1971.

    Jameson, Frederic. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

    Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.

    ---. Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Norman Kemp Smith. London: Macmillan, 1982.

    Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Experience of Freedom Stanford: Stanford UP, 1993).

    Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von. Philosophische Briefe über Dogmatismus und Kritizismus. Historische-Kritische Ausgabe. Stuttgart: Frommann, 1982. 1.3: 47-112. [editor?]

    ---. The Philosophy of Art. Trans. Douglas W. Stott. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989.

    ---. System of Transcendental Idealism. Trans. Peter Heath. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1978.

    Szondi, Peter. "The Notion of the Tragic in Schelling, Hölderlin and Hegel." On Textual Understanding and Other Essays. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.

    Weber, Samuel. "Capitalizing History." Institution and Interpretation. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987. 49-54. [editor?]