Balancing Acts: Modes of Equilibrium in Romanticism and Nature Philosophy around 1800

This paper explores the concept of equilibrium around 1800, to understand its use, and to trace the different ways in which Schelling’s positioning of equilibrium at the beginning of reflection transforms a commonplace scientific concept into a philosophically powerful one. Focusing on the early nature philosophy of Schelling and Eschenmayer and the aphorisms of Novalis around 1800—before turning to Eschenmayer’s later work on psychology from 1814—these readings concentrate on two related tendencies in the discussion on equilibrium: the first relating to its ability to move between the immaterial and the material, the second relating to questions of visibility that such movement entails.

Balancing Acts: Modes of Equilibrium in Romanticism and Nature Philosophy around 1800

Jocelyn Holland
University of California, Santa Barbara

1.         As is the case with its English counterpart, equilibrium, the German word Gleichgewicht is a concept whose origins are rooted in the world of materiality and practice. Both can be traced to the simple act of balancing objects on a scale (libra in Latin and Wiege in German, which is the root of Gewicht): this familiar practice and the equally simple instrument associated with it form the material basis for quantitative measures of equilibrium. For every case where equilibrium can be determined through calculations, however, there are others where it is deployed as metaphor to reflect intuitive impressions of balance or imbalance. Equilibrium’s conceptual mobility derives from the fact that it requires only a single act of differentiation to become applicable—at heart, it is a figure that describes a relation between a minimum of any two given things—and it can therefore be said to occupy a fundamental position within almost any conceivable discourse. Statics, medicine, and physiological theory have various models to account for things in and out of equilibrium, but so do theology, political science, and aesthetics. These “things” need not even belong to the same class: physical bodies can be in equilibrium, as can ideas, but it is also possible and even unremarkable to describe relations of equilibrium between material and non-material concepts. For example, any handbook of mechanics will contain descriptions of equilibrium between weights and forces, which underscores that equilibrium relies upon an equivalence of effect, not a relationship of identity. This truism is worthy of more attention in the contexts of Romanticism and nature philosophy around 1800, where ideas from the natural sciences are often repackaged in innovative ways, and where equilibrium has a fundamental role to play that hinges upon its ability to negotiate even the most radical differences. To paraphrase a thought by Schelling that will be taken up in more detail below, one could go so far as to say that once the first distinction of object and representation has been made—once their original identity has been replaced by a relationship of equivalence—equilibrium as metaphor is already in play. With this idea, Schelling links the concept of equilibrium inextricably to the physical or material origin of abstract thought. [1]  In anticipation of Nietzsche, he reminds us of the metaphorical structure of language itself. [2] 

2.         Schelling’s willingness to grant equilibrium a central position in philosophical thinking by situating it at the beginning of reflection can be considered as one moment in a conceptual narrative that develops and takes different turns in nature philosophy and Romanticism before receiving its most dramatic formulation in the psychology of Carl Eschenmayer a decade later. We see traces of this same narrative, for example, when the mechanical balance and the mathematical laws associated with it are used as a figure of thought even in contexts removed from the sciences. To be sure, there is a pre-history for integrating quantitative thinking in qualitative contexts, also where equilibrium is concerned: already in Kant’s 1763 essay, “Attempt to Introduce the Concept of Negative Quantities into Philosophy” (Versuch, den Begriff der negativen Grössen in die Weltweisheit einzuführen), we find the concept of equilibrium used in an audacious application of mechanical and mathematical thinking to quantify human feelings. In subject philosophy, German Romanticism, and early nineteenth-century psychology—i.e., wherever theories of the self are set into juxtaposition with the laws of nature—one finds the physics of equilibrium invoked to make arguments in more speculative contexts. In other words, one can say that the defining characteristic of equilibrium as concept for Schelling, its ability to move between the material and non-material, becomes a topic for reflection and a tool of philosophical thinking in its own right. The use of the mechanical balance as figure of thought is simply a variation of the same theme.

3.         This paper will take a closer look at the concept of equilibrium around 1800, to understand its use, and to trace the different ways in which Schelling’s positioning of equilibrium at the beginning of reflection transforms a commonplace scientific concept into a philosophically powerful one. It will first focus on the early nature philosophy of Schelling and Eschenmayer and the aphorisms of Novalis around 1800 before turning to Eschenmayer’s later work on psychology from 1814, simply because for each, their work on equilibrium combines familiarity with physical theories with philosophical experiments in speculative contexts. To be sure, the encyclopedic thinking of Novalis, as well as the willingness of Schelling and Eschenmayer to allow a number of scientific ideas and theories to permeate their writing, challenge any univocal understanding of how quantitative descriptions of equilibrium are applied to systems of thought not native for them. This is particularly true since equilibrium itself is well-suited to serve the familiar Romantic strategy of bringing oppositions into productive tension with one another. Against the backdrop of this intellectual landscape, the following readings will concentrate on two related tendencies in the discussion on equilibrium: the first relating to its ability to move between the immaterial and the material, the second relating to questions of visibility that such movement entails.

1. Schelling and Eschenmayer

4.         When Schelling depicts the beginning of philosophical reflection as a division of the self from the world, he describes this event as a disruption of an equilibrium state. In the Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1797), he suggests that we, as thinkers, emerge from an original condition in which there is “an absolute equilibrium of forces and of consciousness,” a condition which can be both removed and reinstated (in a qualified way) through the free act of the will (Ideas 71). [3]  Schelling then allows this hypothesis about the origin of reflection to be embodied in the narrative of the first person to exercise his will in such a way: “Who first found that he could distinguish [unterscheiden] himself from external things, and that he could thereby distinguish his ideas from objects, and conversely, [objects from ideas], was the first philosopher. He was the first to interrupt the mechanism of his thinking, to displace the equilibrium of the consciousness, in which subject and object are united” (Ideas 72). With the distinction of ideas from objects, the world becomes observable and our thinking about it does as well. Schelling thereby establishes a vital connection between equilibrium and the problem of visibility in the broadest sense, one to which he will return throughout his work.

5.         For Schelling, there is no complete return to absolute equilibrium in the course of life from the subject’s point of view—such a state of absolute rest would be an absurdity or Unding (World Soul 79). Equally undesirable is a situation of living in complete isolation from the reality of the world, caught up in the chimera (Hirngespinst) of one’s imagination. Instead man finds himself in dynamic relation to a world “which has influence upon him, lets him feel its power, and upon which he can react, to exercise all his forces: between him and the world therefore there must be no fast divide, contact and exchange must be possible between both; for only then will man become man” (Ideas 71). [4]  This model of equilibrium defined by “contact and exchange” must necessarily, by Schelling’s own definition, be considered relative, not absolute, and it allows the relationship between object and thought to be maintained without risk of either total identity with the world or total detachment from it. The correlating state from the physical world that Schelling references here is one of opposing pairs of forces that influence and limit each other and which are able to enter states of relative equilibrium (see Ideas 102). The departure from absolute equilibrium is therefore a rejection of the initial identity between self and world that nonetheless allows relations of thought to object and the distinctions between them to be maintained.

6.         Eschenmayer’s Propositions from Nature-Metaphysics Applied to Chemical and Medicinal Objects (1797), published the same year as Schelling’s Ideas, approaches the discussion of equilibrium from a different direction, first focusing on states of nature rather than situating absolute and relative equilibrium in a philosophical narrative of intellectual emergence, as Schelling does. For Eschenmayer, relative equilibrium emerges when “two opposed degrees of reality work in opposition” (Propositions 22). Like Schelling, he makes a critical distinction between forces which are completely sublated (aufgehoben), so as to be considered identical, and those whose effects are considered equivalent. For Eschenmayer, however, absolute equilibrium is a special case in the physical world: it is “there where two forces completely sublate their effects, so that they are no longer an object, neither for mathematical construction nor for the analysis of experience” (ibid.). Eschenmayer thereby introduces the relation of equilibrium to consciousness indirectly, not as the beginning of philosophical reflection, but in terms of a particular experience that would constitute the end of cognitive “visibility.” He then uses the example of the mechanical lever (which is essentially the same object as a balance) in order to reinforce the idea that equilibrium, whether relative or absolute, is something to be expressed in terms of visualization. He first takes the case of relative equilibrium: when the forces applied to a lever or balance are divided upon the arms around a fulcrum point, Eschenmayer writes, then one calculates whether their mechanical moments are equal in order to ascertain whether or not the object is in a state of relative equilibrium. He then adjusts the imaginary lever for the case of absolute equilibrium: if the forces acting upon the lever are simply joined in the fulcrum point—the visual correlate being a lever with no arms—then the lever’s magnitude of motion becomes zero: “this is the absolute mechanical equilibrium which is no longer an object for the mathematician” (ibid.). Though the context is different, Eschenmayer’s strategy is analogous to Schelling’s: just as Schelling positions the concept of equilibrium at the division of thought and object, Eschenmayer manipulates the lever so that it allows us to visualize both relative equilibrium, which is defined as the presence of forces in tension, and absolute equilibrium, in which these forces are completely sublated. To paraphrase Eschenmayer, it allows us to visualize even that which is no longer there, to model invisibility as a special case of the visible. He also emphasizes that this same idea has currency in other scenarios, such as the relationship between positive and negative electrical charges, or the forces of expansion and repulsion in matter. These are scenarios where it would be difficult to visualize the lever or incorporate it into an experimental setting, but where the spatial image of distances from the lever’s fulcrum collapsing to zero can still be retained as metaphor—where the trace image of the lever’s materiality continues to play a role.

7.         The examples from Schelling and Eschenmayer referred to above, as revealing as they may be of a philosophical interest in equilibrium, are also indicative of the difficulties involved in pinning the concept down. After all, “absolute equilibrium” cannot itself be considered a firm reference point, given that, for all their overlap, Schelling’s and Eschenmayer’s “absolutes” emerge in two very different contexts—Schelling’s within a description of the subject, and Eschenmayer’s in the context of mechanics. The examples they give of relative equilibrium are also drawn from different physical and philosophical contexts. In each case, however, equilibrium or a related concept such as the mechanical lever connects in some way to the boundary between the material and the immaterial, conditions that are turn expressed in terms of visibility and invisibility. This state of affairs argues for an aesthetics of equilibrium—i.e., that there are aspects to how the concept of equilibrium is utilized around 1800 that can be codified in general terms of techniques of visualization that begin with Schelling’s original association between reflection and the loss of equilibrium and then return in surprising ways. At the very least, the basic distinction between absolute and relative equilibrium lends itself to being understood as the presence or absence of an aesthetically neutral state prior to or deprived of representations, whether in a global sense (Schelling) or a local one (Eschenmayer).

8.         First, however, the question of what kinds of equilibrium states deserve to be called “visible” in the nature philosophical context, and what an aesthetics of equilibrium might entail, deserves to be considered in more detail. This requires a further look at Eschenmayer’s definition of absolute equilibrium and his comment that something in this state is no longer an object. He implies that such a construction of absolute equilibrium is not of interest because it has been effectively rendered neutral: it has ceased to call attention to itself as something in need of contemplation and analysis, and is no longer a catalyst of change for the particular mechanics of the system under observation. For those of us who are neither mathematicians nor nature philosophers, however, and who are considering precisely those cases where the mechanical laws of equilibrium are being imported into different contexts, the question of analytical visibility versus transparence is perhaps more interesting than Eschenmayer would have us believe. This holds true for both Schelling and Eschenmayer’s own nature philosophy, because it suggests that there is an aesthetic code with its own logic that corresponds to natural law. For Eschenmayer, the absence of absolute equilibrium becomes a precondition for the visibility of the phenomenal world, just as it is the precondition for philosophical observation in Schelling.

9.         Their use of spatial descriptions also argues for an aesthetics of equilibrium: just as Eschenmayer understands the difference between the absolute and the relative in terms of the distance from the fulcrum point, Schelling’s distinction between these two states is also dependent on concepts of spatiality. This is an idea which could also be explored further in Schelling’s writing about art, and in particular, his 1802–03 lectures. There, he draws upon the concept of equilibrium as a problem for artistic composition, such as the balancing of colors and grouping of objects in painting, and as a problem for the observer of the work of art, whose spirit Schelling describes as maintained in a state of “the highest desire, between disturbed and restored equilibrium, at once in motion and in peace” (Lectures 188). The observation of the work of art generates a particular cognitive experience defined in terms of a relative equilibrium where the “forces” in question have not been sublated. [5] 

10.         In the context of Schelling’s nature philosophy, however, the notion of an “aesthetics” of equilibrium can be understood even more broadly because it has the ability to connote various registers of visibility (and invisibility), whether in the context of a subject philosophy, as an instrument of thought, or in terms of equilibrium states in nature. With regard to the latter, Schelling and Eschenmayer understand the transition from absolute to relative equilibrium to be accompanied by phenomena that emerge through the process of attaining and maintaining relative equilibrium, a process that endlessly echoes the original disruption from the state of absolute equilibrium. In the World Soul, for example, Schelling observes a general striving for equilibrium in all of nature. Every principle, once aroused, awakens an opposed principle with which it comes to be in equilibrium (125): “The tension of posited and opposed forces is itself productive, as in the case of chemical processes: Because in every chemical process there emerge qualities which were not there before, and which owe their origin simply to the striving of opposed forces to place themselves in equilibrium” (World Soul, 126, emphasis in the original). Schelling rephrases this idea from a more general perspective of physical objects when he comments that the only reason we can perceive matter in space is because of its tendency toward equilibrium states: “One has to claim that both attractions stand under the same original law, namely the one according to which matter reveals its existence in space through a continuous striving for equilibrium, without which all substances would be submitted to dispersal into the infinite” (ibid.). Here, the perspectives of physics and philosophy coincide: from the point of view of a subject philosophy, our departure from absolute equilibrium guarantees our ability to observe forms in nature, and from the point of view of physics, perception of form is always to some degree the perception of an equilibrium state. These examples also make the processual nature of equilibrium clear—i.e., that it has temporal duration—and highlight the fact that it persists even after having been (relatively) attained. Eschenmayer’s Propositions also describe the process through which equilibrium itself is achieved—i.e., as something that emerges by degrees (“nach und nach,” 23)—and indicate that our perception of phenomena such as an electrical charge depends upon such systems not being in a state of absolute (mechanical) equilibrium. The idea of equilibrium emerging by degrees is important because it takes a process that might be beyond the empirical experience of the observer and artificially slows it down and makes it quantifiable, thereby stretching time and revealing the duration of phenomena that might appear to occur instantaneously.

11.         Taken together, these passages from Schelling and Eschenmayer show how different scenarios emerge—i.e., the departure from absolute equilibrium, the striving for and maintenance of relative equilibrium, along with the inevitable disruptions and restorations—within which the concept of equilibrium connects and articulates the differences between the material and the non-material, between objects and their representations, and between the effects of natural processes and the forces that produce them. Yet rather than vanishing within the dynamics of its own philosophical function, equilibrium both acts in the service of visibility and acquires this quality for itself, becoming both the subject and object of its own aesthetic interests.

2. Romantic equilibrium

12.        With reference to nature philosophy, to Idealism and the subject philosophy of the 1790s, and not least of all to its own poetic concerns, early German Romanticism also incorporates equilibrium into its conceptual vocabulary. Novalis’s notes and fragments on equilibrium draw from multiple sources, but they are joined by a concern for applying the language of mechanical equilibrium to philosophical and poetic contexts. It comes as little surprise that Novalis collects examples from the work of other philosophers, including Fichte and Eschenmayer, who share the same interest in importing mechanical models for their own use. In his notes on Fichte, Novalis transcribes the philosopher’s description of a “pure ego” (reinen Ich) that brooks neither change nor opposition, permitting only rest and identity. Only with regard to a subject does it allow for division: “The ego is absolutely unity—the subject absolutely divided—reciprocity of the ego in itself—it wants unity, it wants to be divided. In the pure ego . . . no change—no opposition—no continuity—standstill—rest—identity—With relation to the subject its character—activity conditioned by rest—must be a manifold” (2.133.44). The relationship between the pure ego and the subject is well-trodden ground, thanks to the work of Dieter Henrich and Manfred Frank, among others. [6]  What such accounts of Fichte’s subject philosophy (and Novalis’s reception of it) tend to overlook, however, is that, as is the case with Schelling and Eschenmayer, the language Fichte uses to describe the original unity and division of the ego is the same that is used to describe mechanical states of absolute and relative equilibrium, which comes as a surprise regarding a generation of philosophers generally thought to have eschewed mechanical metaphors for organic ones.

13.         Novalis engages extensively with Eschenmayer’s early nature philosophy, and in particular the 1797 Propositions. He transcribes passages from the section on mechanical propositions which references the definition of mechanical equilibrium discussed above, as well as the passage on what constitutes an analytical “object” from a mathematical perspective (i.e., when forces act at a distance as opposed to being collapsed and completely sublated at the fulcrum). He also notes Eschenmayer’s analogy between mechanical equilibrium and electricity and was therefore familiar with the idea that simple systems of equilibrium could be used to describe various kinds of phenomena. Although there are numerous references to equilibrium in Novalis’s work, two aphorisms move more clearly than the others to conceptualize it in terms of a speculative aesthetics that still pays homage to its nature-philosophical basis. Though different in their emphases, each aphorism connects equilibrium to cognitive processes that include (without being limited to) visual metaphors and play with the distinction between the material and the immaterial. In the first, from his notes for the encyclopedia project, Novalis writes,

The temper [Stimmung] of the consciousness—of representation of all kinds is the tenor of crystallization, of formation—and multiplication—thus maintained rest—static force—rationalizing (equilibrating) force—proportional force of evolution—a constant quantity in the variable change (point of rest on the lever). (3.432.836)
The tone of the aphorism is much closer to a nature philosophical model of the consciousness than it is to Fichte’s discussion of the ego. Even though it indexes various modes of growth (mineral, organic, and mathematical), these differences collapse in light of the aphorism’s essential analogy between representation and relative equilibrium. We are far from a scenario (such as Schelling’s absolute equilibrium or Fichte’s pure ego) where forces (or differences) are indistinct, and very much in a vibrant, living state of equilibrium where they are allowed to emerge, to change, and to persist, all the while held in check. Like Eschenmayer, then, Novalis also invokes the image of the mechanical lever as a technique of visualization, both through visual metaphors and through the quantification of immaterial things. These rhetorical shifts mirror the mechanics they describe, allowing different aspects of equilibrium to emerge that move the mind’s eye without creating an imbalance.
The second aphorism returns to the same idea, approaching it from a different direction: The theory of relations belongs to algebra—or the natural history of quantities. (The verbs [Verba] are the actual word forces [Wortkräfte]—the so-called nouns [Substantiva] have emerged from verbs—and the verbs have emerged from nouns. Motion and rest [Ruhe]—Variable—constant x. All rest [Ruhe] is figure.) (3.400.691)
There are various points of reference that could be invoked in order to orient oneself with regard to this aphorism. One could, for example, refer back to an idea discussed above that Schelling first articulates in the Ideas and then repeats in the World Soul (a text also read and noted by Novalis), where he claims that forces of attraction and repulsion are necessarily in equilibrium in individual bodies, which is why they keep their form, and that this necessity is felt only in opposition to the possibility of equilibrium being destroyed. Or one could turn to the passage in the World Soul, cited above, where he adds that the only reason we perceive matter in space is because of its striving for equilibrium: physical bodies are visible to us because they achieve a relative equilibrium. These ideas help substantiate Novalis’s understanding of active rest—i.e., relative equilibrium—as figure. The second tradition this aphorism recalls, if less overtly, is connected to Kant’s use of algebraic notation to quantify emotions referred to at the beginning of this essay. Both Kant and Novalis use algebraic ideas and notation to quantify and create relations (in Kant’s case, between feelings of pleasure and displeasure, and in Novalis’s case, between words that are not physical objects but are effectively treated as such). Novalis taps into these traditions from the perspective of the formation of language. In his vision, words stabilize into figures—and not just rhetorical figures, but actual forms. We can also observe a certain interplay between the function of nouns and verbs and their integration into this mode of equilibrium. As suggested by the German, nouns (Substantive), however abstract they may be, are rooted in the notion of substance. Verbs, in German (as was the case in Novalis’s day), are also known as Zeitworte because they express change and temporality; this aspect is deemphasized by Novalis’s use of the Latin Verba. Novalis plays with such superficial distinctions, noting that both verbs and nouns have the ability to transmute, each into the other, and it is this linguistic phenomenon that underscores the analogy with mechanical equilibrium as a figure that can join the material and immaterial. The Romantic contribution to the aesthetics of equilibrium therefore lies in considering questions of perception not only from the point of view of consciousness, in the tradition of Fichte, Schelling, or Eschenmayer, but also from the point of view of a most fundamental poetics, the emergence and balance of words themselves. In addition to the two cases discussed above, there are other aphorisms by Novalis that take up the concept of equilibrium from the point of view of poetic production: in one case, wit (Witz) is defined as both a consequence of equilibrium’s disruption and as the instrument of its reestablishment (2.424.30), and in another case, Novalis refers to a perfect genius (a loose translation for “eine vollendete, genialische Constitution”) where the inner and outer senses are in equilibrium (2.454.93). In Novalis’s notes, one can even find a glimmer of an analogy to Schelling’s “first philosopher.” Given that, for Novalis, the interplay of change [Veränderung] and persistence [Beharrung] are the defining characteristics statics and mechanics (3.780), [7]  then with regard to his statement that “The philosopher changes in the eternally persistent” [“Der Philosoph verändert sich im ewig Beharrlichen”] (3.693.705), one see that the activity of Novalis’s philosopher, like Schelling’s, is also defined in comparable terms. If Schelling’s philosopher equates the origin of philosophical thinking with the disruption of absolute equilibrium, then Novalis’s philosopher is his logical disciple, someone who exists in an actively restful state of relative equilibrium.

3. Applied equilibrium: Eschenmayer’s psychology

14.        Eschenmayer’s 1817 treatise, Psychology in Three Parts as Empirical, Pure, and Applied, exhibits the most advanced theoretical thinking about equilibrium’s function to connect the material and non-material and as a concept that becomes an object of visualization in its own right. Eschenmayer’s text invokes the lever’s law of equilibrium in each section, shaping it according to the context, such that it emerges each time as the physical counterpoint to a subjective understanding of equilibrium. In this treatise, psychology usurps the place of philosophy. It has become the master discourse that is, for Eschenmayer, nothing less than the “elementary science or the root of all philosophy” (Psychology 2). It is the psychologist who embodies one of the central arguments Eschenmayer develops—arguably the most important one, and certainly the one that bears most directly on the concept of equilibrium—because it is the psychologist, not the philosopher or scientist, who is aware that that all laws of nature are corollaries of subjective intuitions, and that this structure is replicated in psychological theories on the structure of the brain itself.

15.        Even though Eschenmayer’s thinking about equilibrium is most extensive and innovative in the section on applied psychology, it is helpful to see how it enters the discussion in the first two sections of his treatise because the function of equilibrium in the final section enacts a synthesis of what comes before. In the first section, on empirical psychology, the faculty of feeling is the one most worthy of attention according to Eschenmayer because it is situated both “in the middle row of the faculties” and “in the middle point of the entire human,” a position analogous to the fulcrum (Psychology 85). [8]  The centrality of this faculty functions for Eschenmayer within a logic of equilibrium, because it is here that one finds “the absolute unity or the absolute equilibrium of the entire mental [geistigen] organism in man” (ibid.). Absolute equilibrium should not be understood here as “original” as described by Fichte and Schelling but rather in the sense of an absolute mechanical equilibrium advocated in Eschenmayer’s earlier texts, as a constant point of departure and return among a stream of external impulses. The metaphor Eschenmayer uses—a purely aesthetic one—is the plucking of a string: “Thus what enters into the faculty of feeling plucks as it were all of man’s strings at once, and its harmonious or disharmonious tone, that is, pleasure or displeasure, is felt in the entire human” (ibid.). Eschenmayer mobilizes his description of the faculty of feeling as a point of departure for a series of ever farther-reaching comparisons, whereby man is always in the middle point, between the traditional dichotomies such as spirit and nature, mind and body. The mechanical model of equilibrium is prefigured here without yet receiving the full exposition it will in the following sections, but the example Eschenmayer gives of the figure of navigation between the material and the immaterial fits well with the dichotomies listed above: “All mental oppositions in man are mediated through the ego . . . thus in mechanics, for example, the hypomochlion on the lever [is] that which mediates between force and weight” (Psychology 188, emphasis in the original).

16.         In the second section, on pure psychology, we learn the degree to which Eschenmayer is willing to pursue his comparison between equilibrium among the components of his model of the self and the law of equilibrium as it applies to the mechanical balance or lever. The self, for Eschenmayer, is at the fulcrum or hypomochlion of being and knowing: “self-consciousness is a knowledge of the self about being” whereby the self serves as “copula” between the two (Psychology 287). Though being and knowing have a relation to each other through their mutual relation to the self, Eschenmayer is careful to point out that this common relation does not make them identical: “what matters here is that we do not confuse a relational [beziehungsweises] equivalence with a complete identity” (ibid.). [9]  In other words, we are dealing with a model of relative equilibrium, of effects that have not been completely sublated. Once again, Eschenmayer turns to the lever’s law of equilibrium, this time as an example that includes a diagram that could be found in any textbook on classical mechanics that symbolizes the act of balancing between something material (a weight) and something abstract (force):

Force and weight are opposed to each other, but both balance each other out relatively [beziehungsweise] in a third, namely the hypomochlion, without however becoming identical to each other.

Nature philosophy distinguishes between a relative and an absolute equilibrium. Relative is the equilibrium on the lever, when weight and force lie beyond the hypomochlion, and for that reason are also object of intuition and calculation. If one brings, however, weight and force closer and closer together, and finally too close, so that they collapse with the hypomochlion, then equilibrium becomes absolute and thus has nothing more to offer the intuition.

In a similar relation, the three factors that lie in the proposition [Satz] of the self-consciousness can be portrayed:

Knowledge. Self. Being.

(Psychology 288)

For the first time in the treatise, Eschenmayer introduces diagrams as a technique of graphic visualization. In the first, the model of the mechanical lever is visualized, and it is presumably in relative equilibrium because “force” and “weight” have not collapsed in the hypomochlion. This diagram resembles a physical lever and functions accordingly, and it also instates its own artificiality as diagram and visualizes the theoretical construct that the physical lever embodies. It is a projection of the “object of intuition” in print. The second diagram—Knowledge . Self . Being.—only deserves such a designation because of the italics and white space that set it off from the rest of the text and because it is meant to recall the first diagram in its linear arrangement of three terms, whereby the outside two compete in their relations with the central term. The diagrams each function doubly: first, they show how the material assemblage of the lever (as it is faithfully represented as diagram) has the ability to make connections between abstract terms and things that are material or accessible to the senses. They also show, through the repetition of the second diagram, that equilibrium itself can serve as a hermeneutic tool, and that it is possible to make comparisons between equilibrium states to advance our understanding of how the mind works through a provocative analogy between the immateriality of knowledge and the materiality of being.

17.        Eschenmayer develops this model in his section on applied (or “practical”) psychology, which he describes as a “new attempt” (10) in the field. Although the phrase “applied psychology” appears as early as the 1790s in Karl Philipp Moritz’s Magazine for Empirical Psychology [Magazin für Erfahrungsseelenkunde], Eschenmayer’s text represents the first attempt to think systematically about an applied psychology in any depth. [10]  As he states in the introductory paragraph, the word “applied” is to be understood in the same sense as a mathematician—or indeed, any theorist—would take theoretical propositions and apply them to cases drawn from experience. We do not have to look far to encounter the concept of equilibrium once more: “Thus the general formulas and equations of mathematics, for example the proposition of the equilibrium of mass with speed, find their application in mechanics, statics, astronomy. Entirely in this sense I position a pure and applied psychology in opposition to each other” (Psychology 423). It is possible to see that equilibrium, a concept deployed in mechanics, statics, and astronomy, has come to embody the figure of application itself. It thereby becomes an example for how quantitative models can be seen to influence methodological approaches: metaphors of equilibrium have become metaphors of method.

18.         The purpose of an applied psychology is much more than a unidirectional application of theory to experience. It is an argument that “laws of thought” (Geseze [sic] des Denkens) become objective in “physical nature”—that there is complete congruence between the intellectual “realm of freedom” and the physical “realm of necessity” (Psychology 428). The discovery of this congruence may well begin with experience. The counterpoint to Fichte and Schelling’s narrative of “the philosopher” is Eschenmayer’s natural scientist (Naturforscher) who gathers elements of experience and observations of the world, orders them, and tries to find the laws governing them even as, unbeknownst to him, he is being led from the general law that exists within himself. Once again, the special case that illustrates this general point is the lever:

The physicist believes, for example, that he invented the law of the lever. The psychologist, however, shows him the prototype of it already in the law of self-consciousness and can demonstrate to the physicist that such an expression of equilibrium in nature must necessarily take place. (Psychology 435)
The law of the lever also illustrates how knowledge-building works in two directions, that physical laws can be “applied” to the self-consciousness to reveal something new even if these laws are images [Abbilder] of the mind. Eschenmayer reminds us that the opposition of force and weight mirrors that of knowledge and being, that the mediating function of being is expressed in the lever’s hypomochlion, and that “the equation of knowledge and being is expressed through the relative equilibrium of weight and force” (Psychology 448). There is another aspect to the law of the lever relevant here, however: that the lever or balance is in equilibrium when the ratio weight and force is the inverse of their distance from the hypomochlion. According to Eschenmayer, this is also applicable to the self-consciousness:
Knowledge namely becomes an even greater force, and stands in equilibrium with an even greater weight, the more it is removed from the standpoint of the self, and thereby approaches the standpoint of ideas. Thus the law of self-consciousness expresses in its objective form precisely that which the law of mechanics does in its objective form, and this correspondence is not a contingent, but rather a necessary one. Nature cannot appear to us otherwise than in such forms that are innate [eingebildet] to our spirit. (Psychology 435)
This passage reinforces the fact that at the heart of Eschenmayer’s “applied psychology” one finds an “applied equilibrium.” After its appropriation from the physical world in the service of philosophical theory, at one time it might have been sufficient to say that equilibrium’s instrumental value simply lies in the connection of material and non-material concepts, but Eschenmayer’s psychology proves that this is no longer the case. Equilibrium has been promoted to an instrument of reasoning in its own right. As the above examples have shown, however, this does not mean that the mechanical balances and levers have been left behind. Rather, they have remained, as diagrams and figures of thought, and as reminders that the concept of equilibrium itself has become necessary for continued negotiations between the physical world on the one hand and the world of abstract forces, knowledge, and consciousness on the other. Any “aesthetics of equilibrium” in the nature-philosophical context must therefore also refer to the negotiations that take place between the two.

Works Cited

Eschenmayer, Carl August. Psychologie in drei Theilen: als empirische, reine und angewandte. Stuttgart and Tübingen, Johann Georg Cotta, 1817.

---. Säze aus der Natur-Metaphysik auf chemische und medicinische Gegenstände angewandt. Tübingen, Jakob Friedrich Heerbrandt, 1797.

Kant, Immanuel. “Begriff, die Negativen Grössen in die Weltweisheit einzuführen.” Immanuel Kant’s sämmtliche Werke, edited by J. H. von Kirchmann, Berlin, L. Heimann, 1872.

Novalis Schriften. Die Werke Friedrich von Hardenbergs. Edited by Paul Kluckhohn and Richard Samuel, Kohlhammer, 1960. 6 vols.

Schelling, Friedrich. Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur. Edited by Manfred Durner and Walter Schieche, Frommann-Holzboog, 2001. Historisch-Kritische Ausgabe 7.

--- Von der Weltseele. Edited by Jörg Jantzen and Thomas Kisser, Frommann-Holzboog, 2000. Historisch-Kritische Ausgabe 6.

Wezel, Johann Karl. Grundriß eines eigentlichen Systems der anthropologischen Psychologie (zweiter und letzter Theil, empirische Psychologie). Leipzig, in der Dykschen Buchhandlung, 1805.


[1] For an in-depth discussion of equilibrium in the context of other key terms in Schelling’s nature philosophy, see Bernhard Rang’s Identität und Indifferenz, Vittorio Klostermann, 2000). BACK

[2] See Nietzsche’s essay, “On Truth and Lying in the Extra-moral Sense” [Über Wahrheit und Lüge im aussermoralischen Sinne].” BACK

[3] Unless otherwise noted all translations are mine. BACK

[4] “ . . . die auf ihn Einfluß hat, ihre Macht ihn empfinden läßt, und auf die er zurückwirken kann, alle seine Kräfte zu üben: zwischen ihm und der Welt also muß keine Kluft befestigt, zwischen beyden muß Berührung und Wechselwirkung möglich seyn; denn so nur wird der Mensch zum Menschen.” BACK

[5] I will elaborate on Schelling’s “aesethetics” of equilibrium in more detail in a forthcoming essay. BACK

[6] See especially Dieter Henrich, “Fichtes ursprungliches Einsicht,” Klosterman, 1967. Translated by D. R. Lachterman as “Fichte’s Original Insight,” in Contemporary German Philosophy vol. 1, no. 9, 1982; and Manfred Frank, The Philosophical Origins of Early German Romanticism, translated by Elizabeth Millan-Zaibert, SUNY P, 2008). BACK

[7] 780. Statistische und mechanische Veränderungen.
Statistische und Mechanische [sic] Beharrungen. BACK

[8] With direct reference to Kant, he identifies this faculty with that of “pleasure and displeasure” we have already had occasion to consider in the context of the essay on negative quantities. BACK

[9] This with reference to Fichte. BACK

[10] The only person who seems to have thought systematically about an applied psychology before Eschenmayer is Johann Karl Wezel. In Wezel’s text, there is no clear distinction made between empirical and applied psychology. BACK