Issue #72 June 2024

Schelling on the Organic Genesis of Space

Dieter Roth, "Thomkinspatent", (1968)

In Kant’s transcendental idealism, insofar as space, time, and causality are to arise from the subject, we are left with an aspatial, atemporal and acausal super-sensible substratum in the thing-in-itself beyond the subject, of which we can say nothing. I will argue that this leaves us with simple and straightforward questions that Kant unsatisfyingly relegates as unanswerable. Looking at space specifically, we might want to know how it could emerge from an aspatial substratum. An account of this would be able to inform us of the conditions of what counts as a transcendental subject (which perhaps has, though I will not explore these here, profound ethical implications). It would also allow us tentative access to think organisms in their interiority, as self-sufficient unities, as opposed to being stuck with having to think them through pure exteriority, as complex material mechanisms. But this is precisely the kind of question that Kant’s is systematically unable to answer.

I will argue that Schelling’s philosophy of nature provides us with an answer to this question. That is, how to think of space emerging from an aspatial super-sensible substratum, Schelling’s development of the notion of excitability providing the key. The structures of the transcendental subject, the a priori forms of space and time, and even the matter that populates these forms, can be seen as emerging in the structure of excitability. The pay-off of this reading is we are thereby offered by Schelling the tools we need to think developing transcendental subjects. Kant left us with an ‘all-or-nothing’ transcendental picture. Schelling, in showing how this picture develops, lets us grasp the subject, and space itself, in the degrees and multiplicity appropriate to the diversity of natural beings beyond humans.




Kant asks us, in the Critique of Pure Reason, “What, then, are space and time?” (CPR, B37|A23). His answer is that space and time are the mere a priori forms of sensibility, the frame laid down by our capacity to be affected by something beyond us. Space-time is the formal ‘screen’ upon which individual perceptions (intuitions) are organized. This screen is within us, as part of the fundamental machinery of representation, not ‘out there’ in the things-in-themselves. Because of this, geometry, for example, can gain a priori and synthetic status because it is a science of the features of the screen, prior to any particular empirical givens: the objects before me, dispersed throughout space-time, insofar as I know them only in how they appear to me, or anyone, naturally fall into the logic of this screen and how it orders things, thus are everywhere and always amenable to geometric and arithmetical synthesis, and conform perfectly to the a priori findings of geometry.

This ‘securing the foundation’ of mathematics (and, with the addition of the categories, the sciences too) only works insofar as we exorcize all traces of ‘transcendental realism’. There must be no idea of space beyond the formal conditions of our representations of objects:

“It is therefore from the human point of view only that we can speak of space, extended objects, etc. If we depart from the subjective condition, under which alone we can obtain external intuition, or, in other words, by means of which we are affected by objects, the representation of space has no meaning whatsoever.” (B43|A27), CPR)

Meanwhile, the communicably and commonality of experience is given by the fact that we are all similarly constituted, and thus have an inter-subjective accord. If I see an object over there just now, I can trust that you will similarly construct and project all of the requisite given in a similar form to be able to agree.

“We know nothing more than our mode of perceiving them [exterior objects], which is peculiar to us, and which, though not of necessity pertaining to every animated being, is so to the whole human race.” (B59|A42, CPR)

A question naturally emerges at this point: if every human I meet can be reliably depended upon to project internally a space-time manifold that is commensurate with the one that I myself project, so that we can coordinate our observations and activities, can the same be said of animals? On the assumption that birds and dogs also ‘represent’ a sensuous world to themselves, and seemingly coordinate (the dog chases, the bird takes flight), then it seems we must also admit the projection of the same space-time manifold in each of them. However, Kant leaves this question open:

“It is, moreover, not necessary that we should limit the mode of intuition in space and time to the sensuous faculty of man. It may well be that all finite thinking beings must necessarily in this respect agree with man (though as to this we cannot decide).” (B72, CPR)

“As to the intuitions of other thinking beings, we cannot judge whether they are or are not bound by the same conditions which limit our own intuition, and which for us are universally valid.” (B44|A28, CPR)

But if it is so undecidable, then by what manoeuvre do we universalize to all and only humans? “We cannot decide” means there is no such manoeuvre, so the set is necessarily fuzzy. Does a dog perceive itself in space? If not then it seemingly could not intuit itself at all, i.e., it would be a pure complex mechanism with no interiority. It seems reasonable, against this Cartesian conclusion, to allow the ‘fuzz’ of the ‘we cannot decide’ on the border of the set to stretch over cats and dogs. It seems, however, somewhere there is a cut-off point, a point where we can decide that there is no space-time manifold being projected, and thus only a pure exteriority. Thus, even a massively fuzzy cut-off point/region needs to taper off somewhere. Who are the cases of which we cannot decide? Plants, slugs, birds, mammals, or even fellow humans?

This question persists even when considering a single human subject. ‘When’, in the embryonic development of the human being, was this infinite space-time manifold unfolded for the ‘first time’? And what was this unfolding like? Did space ‘grow out’ from a centre, or begin emanating like a vibration from a surface? Neither fanciful option seems right, because both, for Kant, presuppose space as an infinite manifold already (to grow out into).1placeholder Space, considered as transcendental form, seems all-or-nothing; it does not admit of development or evolutionary degrees.

Both of these questions (Where in the natural world do transcendental subjects emerge? When did I as a transcendental subject first emerge?) are the same one, to wit: what are the conditions of genesis for the transcendental subject? The infinite manifold of space-time for Kant must emerge as a pure formal condition at some stage for beings like us, and emerges just as many times elsewhere in nature depending on how far we should extend the concept of ‘finite thinking beings’. However, these limits are left undetermined until we can explain the emergence of transcendental subjects themselves. And it is precisely this question that Kant cannot answer. The bounds that he famously proscribes around possible knowledge cut off precisely at the ‘edge’ of space. It is the formal frame of space-time that provides the contours of the total set of all possible intuitions/perceptions, and it is this set that then grounds all rational inquiry. Questions concerning the (necessarily) aspatial, atemporal origins of the machinery of representation fall outside of the field of possible representations and knowledge.2placeholder

Kant by design cannot approach this question, but perhaps we could just respond that Kant probably thought that ‘higher animals’ were proto-transcendental subjects,3placeholder plants probably not, and where the cut off is just one of those Kantian unknowables, indicated by the above “as to this we cannot decide” (CPR, B72). Likewise, at some stage each developing human becomes a subject, but the precise point of development at which this happens, and what it is like to be a subject when this happens (the unfolding of space) can just receive a shrug.

But the question becomes ever pressing in the Critique of Judgment when Kant turns his eye to organisms and the science of life. The antinomy he unearths there, and his apparent solution, leaves us hopeless: organisms must be explained mechanically, as our understanding’s requirement for all explanation, even if we can’t help but represent organisms teleologically (as purposiveness organizations). This means that there is no hope to gain the onto-genetic conditions of space: if we must ultimately resolve all organisms down to Cartesian style mechanisms, then we will only ever understand organisms in their exteriority, even the organisms that we ourselves are! But if space is within finite thinking beings, a pure interiority, no amount of external mechanism is going to settle how far we can stretch our own case through analogy to other creatures. In Kant’s solution to the antinomy,4placeholder the kind of unity that organisms seem to possess escapes us, as it were, to ‘somewhere’ beyond the spatial manifold, and, at the same time, the spaces they inhabit for themselves do likewise.

Beginning within transcendental space we are limited to a mechanical causation which cannot fully explain organisms, insofar as we take them as organized.5placeholder This organization cannot be merely spatial in character (as just, say, matter arranged ‘bird-wise’) as this already establishes the dominion of mechanism, and in itself a mere spatial unity can’t account for the generation of beings.6placeholder Thus, the question of the organization of the organism is linked to the question of the onto-genetic conditions of space, not only insofar as this organization is more than spatial, so needs to be given in terms anterior to space, but also, insofar as at least for organisms like us, these organisms are productive of space itself (as the form of how things appear to them): it is in virtue of our organization that space emerges at all. Thus, the onto-genetic conditions of space are implicated with the question of organization itself.

I want to argue that Schelling, in the First Outline of A System of A Philosophy of Nature (hereafter, FO), can be read as offering precisely these onto-genetic conditions for the emergence of space, and the transcendental subject. However, these conditions will in no way privilege the human being in regards to it being a locus of space-time, but will instead find such loci throughout organic nature. That is, the transcendental construction of space (and time) is the mark of the organic as such.

In fact, it is precisely in Schelling that we should look for such conditions. His ‘Philosophy of Nature’ requires them. Absent these onto-genetic conditions for the transcendental subject, philosophy of nature risks falling back into being a mere branch of transcendental philosophy.7placeholder Schelling requires an account of how the transcendental subject can emerge from something prior to it, to “explain the ideal by the real” (FO, p.194) otherwise all of the premises of natural philosophy can just be related back to an already given transcendental subject, for whom these very premises would be illegitimate exercises of reason (given the bounds Kant has established of what is knowable for such a subject). As Heußer-Kessler, considering the radical project of natural philosophy inaugurated by Schelling, writes:

“Space, time and matter were no longer regarded as given, but as emerging from a non-spatial, non-temporal, and non-material past. Like matter, space and time thus originate in the course of the dynamic “self-construction” of nature and are not – as Kant asserts – a priori forms of pure intuition with which we subjectively order phenomena in a structure of coexistence and succession. Nature itself produces, intrinsically, its own temporal and spatial organization.” (Heußer-Kessler, 2016, p45)

How to think the production of such organization occurring within nature is our task here.

Dieter Roth, Plate (folio 9) from "Book AC", (1958-64, published 1964)


For Schelling’s philosophy of nature change, transformation, generation are assumed as par for the course – Nature as an infinite, active force of productivity is the fundamental axiom and domain of inquiry (the unconditioned of this particular science (FO, p.13)). The challenge, mystery, and central problematic is, instead, to explain permanence: “The chief problem of the philosophy of nature is not to explain the active in Nature … but the resting, permanent.” (FO, p.17) How is it that individual things can maintain themselves as beings, for a time, in the face of an infinite productivity that would have them disintegrate instantly (and which always does so, eventually)? Why, or how, does becoming come to rest in an interval as being, while still being able to become? The problem is complicated by the fact that there is not a simple and total opposition here: individual beings can only sustain themselves in virtue of a productivity that would see them constantly renewed, rejuvenated through a constant becoming, but they then must, conversely, resist or limit this force within bounds in order to sustain themselves as beings, identical things.

Where we join Schelling is where he is examining this question in the context of organisms:

“Now, the problem, to deduce a dynamic graduated series of stages in Nature, presupposes the permanence of individual natures. We cannot succeed in the solution to this problem before another problem is solved, namely: how the individual is preserved in Nature at all. …

Determined more precisely, our problem is this: How can any individual nature hold its own against the universal organism?” (FO, p.54)

Schelling’s answer is the organism, as individual, needs to turn those very forces that are attempting to dissolve it back against it: “In order that it not be assimilated, it must assimilate; in order that it not be organized, it must organize.” (ibid) The most elementary form of this counter-movement, this opposition, is the establishment of a division of forces into internal and external. These directions are engendered by the opposition, not the opposition made with reference to already given possible directions:

“In this act (of opposition) inner and outer are divided for it [the individual]. It is an activity that works from the inner toward the outer. But how could this direction be distinguished otherwise than in opposition to another activity that operates on it as on an external factor? And moreover, how could the latter operate on it as on an external factor, if it did not oppose itself to the inclusion into that activity (strive against the identification with the universal activity of Nature)?” (FO, p.54)

Thus, inner and outer are distinguished and defined through an activity of opposition: what is opposed is a factor that then becomes, through this opposition, external. The opposition is an action upon an action, this orientation of activity then taking on the quality of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’. But how are we to think this difference of inner-outer orientation which is supposedly engendered here without recourse to an already given space (a recourse closed to us insofar as we trying to catch the genesis of space in its becoming)?

That is, once we have an already given space, we can easily see that organisms manage their boundaries as determined in this given space as an empirical matter. But starting from here we return to Kant: this maintenance of the boundary will be explained in mechanical terms, and we are no closer to the genetic conditions of space (or the why there is this unified maintenance at all). Instead, to see what Schelling is up to, we have to think this opposition between inner and outer as an activity that doesn’t presuppose space, but engenders it. But if we are not to understand the division as one of ‘dirt outside, guts and blood inside’, with the mechanical properties of skins and cell walls explaining the difference, then how to understand it? Not as a physical boundary, but as activity.

Schelling borrows from English physician John Brown the notion of excitability as the fundamental mark of the organic. Excitability is the general term for the combined capacities of organic systems to be receptive to forces of their environment, and active in regards to these. But Schelling takes this further. An organism’s being receptive is already an active state. That is, there is no passive receptivity in the organism:

Its RECEPTIVITY to external nature is conditioned by its ACTIVITY against it. Only insofar as it strives against external nature can external nature act upon it as upon an inner factor.” (FO, p.54)

For an organism to be receptive to some aspect of its environment, it needs to structure itself such that this aspect of its environment can impinge upon it. Absent this structuring, the ‘external’ aspect passes invisibly past the organism. It does not even exist for it.8placeholder Not only this, but an organic system, in actively selecting which aspects of the external are to be able to affect it, everywhere and always changes the nature of these effects or forces. A patch of colour, or even a pattern of neural activity, is not the stream of photons flying in straight lines. Photons cannot affect us directly at all, but only in virtue of indirect effects, optical and nervous effects:

“No one can in any way experience the pure effect of any material as such, in—and on—the organism, for the effect is determined both in mode and degree through the activity of the organism. Matter cannot operate according to its forces freely and uninhibitedly in the organism. The connections of universal chemical affinity are dissolved by the organism, and new affinities are instituted. Whatever steps into the sphere of the organism adopts, from this moment forward, a new mode of action, alien to it, which it does not abandon until it is given back to anorganic nature.” (FO, p.60)

Schelling gives the examples of poison (FO, p.56) and opium (FO, p.63). One would search in vain for the secrets of their effects within the compounds themselves – in both cases there is just a certain arrangement of matter. Instead, one must investigate how these particular arrangements of matter are interpreted by the organism they act on. This ‘interpretation’ (various enzymes, receptors, and so on) are as much part of the poison or narcotic (qua poison and narcotic) as the pharmacological structures in the substances themselves.

We should also keep in mind that an active organic ‘receptor’, thus characterized, needn’t dispassionately track isolated features (individual, identifiable molecules, for example), it needn’t ‘carve nature at its joints’, but instead most likely gerrymanders9placeholder across clusters of activity. But even if it did track ‘pure’ causal series,10placeholder its action alone inevitably converts the impact of these series. In a simple example, a continuous cause may become discrete ‘pulses’ within the organism, or vice-versa, or the reduction of the intensity of cause might be converted into a rising intensity of the effect, or vice versa (think here of the body’s temperature regulation).

This is how to make sense of Schelling’s remarks in On The World Soul concerning the difference between causation in straight lines and curved lines:

“To me, organisation in general is nothing other than an arrested stream of causes and effects. Only where nature has not inhibited this stream, does it fly forward (in a straight line). Where it inhibits it, it turns back on itself (in a circular line). Therefore, the concept of organism does not rule out all succession of causes and effects; rather, this concept indicates only a succession that enclosed within certain limits, flows back on itself.” (WS, p.70, emphasis original)

In a sense, we can think of this flowing back in on themselves of causes and effects, occurring through the active receptivity of organisms, as exemplified by consciousness. However, it is not only at the level of the ‘whole organism’ (or particular neural systems) that the dual directions of excitability act, but even within the organism, between its systems.

“There are individual systems of specialized excitability in the system of the organism. We thus deny the absolute identity of excitability throughout the whole organism; but not because we deny that that which acts as stimulant on the organ would also act as stimulant on the whole organism. It does not happen that every excitation of the part propagates itself to the whole organism on account of the absolute intensity of excitability, but is due to the synthetic relation of individual systems of the organism to one another, in which they must all be thought in reciprocal relations of causality.” (FO, p.127)

For example, my lungs and heart are external to each other, though receptive of what is occurring in the other in their own ways: the actions of the lungs are received by the heart in a different form, and vice-versa. But also I, whatever ‘I’ may be, am external to both of them, yet at the same time mildly receptive, in a particular way alien to them, of what is going on between them, especially when the intensity of their activity is raised over a threshold, whereupon I might attempt to intervene directly through action (focussing on my breathing, etc). And what goes for hearts and lungs also goes for individual cells. The image here is of a Matryoshka doll, where, on the one hand, individual organs or systems stand in this relation of active-receptivity to one another, variously treating themselves as inner and others as outer, inciting each other to action, but also, on the other hand, ‘layers’ of systems being actively-receptive to each other11placeholder (up to the “whole organism”).12placeholder It is essential we also include this vertical nesting alongside the horizontal: the organism is a total ‘system of systems’, not an aggregate of systems at some arbitrarily privileged level (I.e., it’s not that cells are organisms and animals are the effect of the mere aggregate of them). In this way Schelling can say that the organism “must ITSELF be the medium through which external influences act upon it” (FO, p.107) while at the same time maintaining the “individual systems of specialized excitability” (FO, p.127).

Dieter Roth, Plate (folio 8) from "Book AC", (1958-64, published 1964)

Now, Schelling wagers that each system, once its fundamental activity has established an inner and an outer orientation, will always grapple with what is external to it as anorganic matter.

“We struck upon the solution that the individual only exists through the pressure of an external nature. Inner and outer, however, are only differentiated in an act of opposition; therefore, there must be a mutual opposition between the individual and its outer nature; i.e., if the former is, in relation to the latter, organic, the latter must be anorganic in relation to the former. Therefore: no organic nature, no anorganic. No anorganic, no organic.” (FO, p.69)

That is, what is external to the organism (but of interest, insofar as the organism is receptive to it) is always going to be so much external stuff ‘out there’. This mutual implication of organic and inorganic matter can only be grasped from a higher perspective, which can grasp the unity between the interior and exterior perspectives. For the fox, a rabbit is just so much meat and bone, for the rabbit, the fox is just so much speed and teeth. The system rabbit-fox, if we could grasp it in its totality, would place them on par, as indeed we vaguely do when we treat both of them variously as just so much biological matter, or as systematically connected in an evolving eco-system. But from within this unity, each of them is external to the other, and thus grasped as a pure exteriority, that is, as just so much matter of this or that quality (rabbit, fox, teeth, grass, dirt, water, blood).

This is perhaps easier to see in a more microscopic example. Think of a simple ideal cell which, because of the ongoing structuration of its membrane is porous to only certain substances which can nourish it, with others being excluded (we here adopt a ‘total perspective’ upon it). Already in this simple system everything beyond it is reduced to a binary pulse oscillating between subsumable and excludable continuities in the cell’s activity; all variation here is variation of intensity of one over the other. Thus, even this simple cell has a ‘world’ (which we can only dimly grasp by now adopting the particular ‘perspective’ of the cell). Through its discriminatory structure, all of the variegated forces of matter become converted into an oscillating pulse that engender the ‘features’ of its environment; valleys, deserts, all just variations in the oscillation (of frequency, of intensity) between the cell’s incorporative and expulsive tendencies. Matter, and space, in this world are the poles of the oscillation.

In a slightly later text,13placeholder Schelling approaches these dynamics at a high level of abstraction; no longer how the organism holds its own against universal nature, but now how mere particulars can arise from a universal all. Even at this level of abstraction, we see the same dynamic generation of space as a ‘world’: once a particular thing has emerged qua particular, as a pure difference from the universal, the universal thus differentiated from the particular appears, from the vantage of the particular, as space.14placeholder The particular object transforms the all into a seemingly ambivalent contextual field in its becoming the being that it is. The name for this field is ‘space’.

Despite the seemingly different focus (pure particulars and the universal) the dynamic here is the same as with the organism in the First Outline: from an action of opposition upon the action of nature, the inner-outer direction is established, along with the faculty of excitability which now deals with an ‘outside’ as just so much gappy matter. The character of this outside and the character of the matter, as well as the character of the intervals that form the gaps in the matter, are all made relative to the active receptivity of the organic system. Thus, there is a particularization (or individuation) of the organic system from out of the infinite productivity of nature at the exact same moment that the infinite productivity of nature now becomes an external world populated by this or that matter.

Elsewhere again, in the Ideas For A Philosophy of Nature, Schelling argues that matter and space should not be seen as having a ‘substance-container’ relationship fundamentally, but instead they are mutually productive abstractions fundamentally implicating each other:

“From this it is evident that matter and space alike are pure abstractions, that one gives proof of the inessential nature of the other, and conversely, that in the identity or common root of both, precisely because they are what they are only as opposites, the one is not space, and the other not matter.” (Ideas, p.181)

The Ideas is the earlier, more idealist text (Beiser, 2002, p.485), but already here Schelling commits to the position we have been describing within the First Outline – that space is engendered by what it appears to contain, in a mutual co-emergence/implication, and thus as a mere ‘opposite’, cannot be ambivalent to this contained object, but instead be seen as its context. A pure opposition that points us to an activity of division. In the First Outline this activity is that of an organic system, and thus the context, as its mere opposite ‘outside’, receives the character of the anorganic. The world of the organism, the matter it contains, and the space which encloses it, is engendered reciprocally with the organic system’s structures of active-receptivity.

This is why Schelling insists that this active receptivity, or ‘sensibility’ as he comes to call it in the context of animal life, is not something that organic matter evolves at a certain stage of sophistication, but rather it must appear as the very origin of the organic (the organized). This has the result that it is not the case that we are sensitive to an environment because we have a central nervous system, but rather precisely the inverse:

“In animal nature15placeholder all formation proceeds from an excitable point. Sensibility is present before its organ has formed itself; brain and nerves, instead of being causes of sensibility, are themselves rather already its product.” (FO, p.113)

We see that motility evolves far in advance of nervous systems, even simple ones, and this is exactly what Schelling would predict. Our ideal cell in the above example, with its world of oscillating intensities, could move precisely in relation to these intensities, to maintain them at a certain level, for example, perhaps rapidly shrinking and expanding its membrane in response to certain conditions, resulting in an exploratory proto-swimming. However, without this unconscious world formed by the activity of the cell through which to move, motility is not an adaptation that could be selected for. That is to explain the motility we need posit both a world, and a receptivity on the part of the organism to that world, even if this receptivity is, say, just a reaction to temperature changes that triggers a contraction and expansion resulting in the proto-swimming of micro-organisms. We may interpret this action (the proto-swimming) as purely mechanical in nature, however the key principle to keep in mind is that with organisms, no matter how simple, the ‘straight lines’ of mechanical causation are always curved: the organism sustains itself precisely by co-opting physical forces and radically altering their sense, not just their direction. Here, linking stable temperature-energies into oscillating ‘movement’ in tune with those temperatures. It’s this transformation that is key for separating Schelling’s account from the pure mechanism that Kant left us with:

“Now, we would admittedly degrade animals to the status of machines if we asserted that they were set in motion directly by an external impulse … for every merely mechanical impulse passes directly into motion. However, I assume that even where sensibility disappears directly into external movements (i.e., where the movements appear as completely involuntary) they are still not directly produced through the external impulse, but are mediated by sensibility (as the universal, dynamic source of motion) …

The animals would become machines if we concurred with the absurd opinion of the Cartesians that allows all external causes of excitation to act by impulse or attraction upon animals (in mass), for then these causes act only mechanically, i.e., in straight lines.” (FO, p.137)

This is ultimately the basis for Schelling’s answer to the problem he posed above; how an individual organism holds its own against the universal productivity of nature:16placeholder

“Every external force first passes by way of sensibility before it acts upon irritability, and sensibility is the source of life itself, precisely because through it alone the organism is torn away from universal mechanism (where one wave pushes the other forward and in which there is no standstill of force) and by this means becomes its own source of motion.” (ibid)


The Organic Genesis of Space

But not only is Schelling’s problem solved, our problem is here solved too. We wanted a way to think the onto-genetic conditions of space that Kant was systematically unable to provide. We have them right here. As explored above, the Kantian transcendental subject is precisely structured around the kind of active-receptivity that Schelling is describing under the Brownian heading of excitability. All we can know about things is how they can affect us, and their mode of affecting us is not a direct one (whereby we would be able to directly infer features of things-in-themselves from our affectations) but one that is absolutely mediated by an active construction in cognition. The form underlying this construction, its ‘ideal medium’, is space (and time). But with Schelling’s analysis of excitability in hand, we can see that the ‘finite thinking beings’ that we happen to be are just one case among a multitude. Whereever the organic arises, it does so through constructing its own transcendental a priori. In fact, this transcendental construction is the mark of the organic – it is how it holds itself apart from an infinite, productive, endless becoming. At the basis of this was the qualitative distinction between inner and outer directions which emerge co-presently in an opposition that arises within the productivity of nature itself. This opposition should not be thought of as occurring here or there, in an already given space, because (and this is to return to Schelling’s foundational axioms) the infinite productivity in nature cannot be conditioned or limited, (yet must all the same be opposed such that anything could arise from it at all):

“There is only one original point of inhibition to productivity; but any number of points of inhibition to evolution may be thought. Every such point is marked for us by a product.” (FO, p.207, my emphasis)

That is, even though we sense so many individual and variegated beings ‘out there’ in a spatio-temporal matrix, this needs to be understood as the result of the transcendental construction of our sensibility (as Kant agrees). Beyond that, we can’t assume an absolute spatio-temporal mapping in which the fundamental activity that produces this diversity plays out. But the Schellingian twist is that even the simplest biological systems, like our little ideal cell above, differentiate themselves from a universal productivity (or are themselves this differentiation) producing the qualitative distinction between inner and outer, and sustain themselves in their differentiating by transforming external forces into asymmetrical, internal effects, in a structured way that establishes an a priori for the system. Henceforth even this simple system has its world, and a certain form of space (as a priori condition undergirding the new effects the organism produces) – perhaps in its simplest rendering this space is a mere oscillation of intensities as described above, a kind of rhythm of matter and interval. Thus, sensuous consciousness (of the kind we are intimately familiar) is not a necessary requirement for the construction of space, and space loses its all-or-nothing property: though we can’t experience them, in Schelling we find the tools to be able to think spaces in development; the space of the embryo, the space of the cell, the slug, the bee, spaces that perhaps are not much more than pulses or loops of time, or cones or rings or hypercubes. Even unconscious spaces. We catch here the formation of the familiar, human, transcendental subject in formation, as just one possible form of nature’s inhibition surrounded by (and even composed of) countless others.



In his analysis of the concept of excitability, we can see Schelling both giving the onto-genetic conditions of the transcendental subject (now multiplied throughout nature as the basic, minimal feature of the organic) and a way of understanding the (re)production of the unity of organisms. As we had anticipated, neither of these aims could be achieved from a position where space is already a given, but instead required an account of how space, considered transcendentally, could emerge and develop. A requirement of such an account was it should make thinkable unconscious and partial (relative to our own) unities of space of vastly different degrees. Schelling’s account does this by giving us a novel understanding of how various a priori emerge for limited beings in their holding themselves out from, and co-opting of, the overwhelming tendency of nature.

John C. Brady is doing his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Sydney. He is also a co-editor of this magazine, for full disclosure.

Abbreviations & Works Cited


(CJ) Kant, The Critique of The Power of Judgment

(CPR) Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason

(FO) Schelling, First Outline of A System of A Philosophy of Nature

(Ideas) Schelling, Ideas for A Philosophy of Nature

(WS) Schelling, On The World Soul



Works Cited:

Beiser, F.C. (2002) German idealism: The struggle against subjectivism, 1781-1801. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dennett, D. (1991). Consciousness Explained. New York: Back Bay Books.

Gambarotto, A. (2019) Vital Forces, Teleology and Organization: Philosophy of Nature and the Ride of Biology in Germany. Cham: Springer.

Heußer-Kessler, M. (2016) Space Philosophy, in Angelaki, 21:4, 43-57.

Kant, I. (2000) Critique of The Power of Judgment. Translated by P. Guyer and E. Matthews. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kant, I. (2007) Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by M. Weigelt. London: Penguin Classics.

Schelling, F.W.J. (2004) First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature. Translated by K.R. Peterson. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Schelling, F.W.J. (1995) Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature. Translated by P. Heath and E.E. Harris. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schelling, F.W.J. (2010) ‘On the World Soul’, translated by I. Grant, in Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development, Vol. 6 (January 2010).

Schelling, F.W.J. (2021) ›System der gesammten Philosophie‹ und weitere Schriften (1804–1807). Edited by C. Binkelmann and D. Unger. Stuttgart: Frommann-Holzboog

Serres, M. (1982) Hermes: literature, science, philosophy. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

Watkins, E. (2019). Kant on Laws. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zammito, J. (2012) ‘Should Kant have Abandoned the “Daring Adventure of Reason”? The Interest of Contemporary Naturalism in the Historicization of Nature in Kant and Idealist Naturphilosophie’, in F. Rush and J. Stolzenberg (eds.) International Yearbook of German Idealism. 2010 edn. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Zammito, J. (2017) The Gestation of German Biology: Philosophy and Physiology from Stahl to Schelling. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


This peculiar feature of space, that a ‘partial’ space can only be understood in the context of an absolute space is one of the very features Kant uses to argue for the formal, ideal nature of space in the first place (CPR, B39|A25).


This is why we cannot arbitrarily point to some biological features as markers for transcendental subjectivity (for example: has a nervous system? Is a subject). This reduction of the transcendental to the physical flaunts the boundaries Kant sets to inquiry. Zammito (2017) relates an episode in which a neurophysiologist contemporary to Kant, Soemmerring, badgered Kant for a review of his book which aimed to discover the “seat of the soul” within the functioning of the brain. Consulting the early drafts of the eventual review, Zammito summarizes that:

“Kant simply overrode Soemmerring’s proposal about the need for a “transcendental physiology” as a hopelessly confused sense of the boundary in question. Physiology had nothing to say about the transcendental. Above all, the longstanding concern for a “seat of the soul” was a futile and contradictory misadventure of physics in metaphysics, a “subreption” that sought to materialize what was in essence immaterial, to spatialize (i.e., locate in “outer sense”) what was accessible only in time (i.e., in “inner sense”).” (Zammito, 2017, p.320-321)


Whatever this could mean.


I am interpreting Kant at face value here. In truth, there is a productive scholarship problematizing this whole section of the Critique of Judgment; interpretations that argue that Kant’s seeming solution is so overly simple (and defective) that Kant must be read as offering a far more nuanced solution. For an overview of this recent scholarship see Watkins (2019), chapter 7.


This connection between mechanism, as a specification of the category of causality and the pure forms of intuition (such as space) seems prefigured by the schematism. Basically, Kant argues that the connection between sensibility and the understanding cannot be arbitrary, so something must mediate their interaction (intuitions being subsumed under concepts) in order to preserve necessity. But once we’ve done that, the kind of mechanistic causation that belongs to the category of causality for the understanding becomes welded to the spatio-temporal form of intuition for beings like us.


Kant makes note of this in the following way: In the organism we intuit a unity, which, if we took it as uncritically just there in how it is presented to us, would be nothing but a spatial unity (matter arranged ‘bird-wise’, for example), because this is indeed how we find the organism presented to us. But this is not the unity we are hoping to explain – we wanted to the reason why matter was being arranged bird-wise. Kant notes that if instead we understand that the spatial presentation and the representation of the unity of the organism adhere merely to appearance, then we can leave the possibility open that the teleological unity of the organism, and the mechanistic properties of its spatial appearance, could be thought of as commensurate in the super-sensible substratum (even though we could never know this) (CJ, 5:408-409)


For an excellent overview around the conflicts that emerged between Schelling’s philosophy of Nature and Fichte’s critical (transcendental) philosophy, see Beiser (2002), Section IV. Chapters 2-3.


“only at the point from which that external activity is reflected into itself is there resistance— that which does not fall within this point does not even exist for the organism.” (FO, p.112)


This turn of phrase to describe this situation I borrow from Dennett (1991), who makes the same point in the context of discussing the evolution of colour vision.


Whatever this might mean.


Michel Serres, in The Origin of Language: Biology, Information Theory and Thermodynamics (1982), derives this exact image from considerations of the question why we are not deafened by the countless processes that are occurring within us, and thus provides a mechanism for how this ‘vertical’ excitability might function: in short, the interaction of elements at a certain level will produce additional ‘noise’ which will eventually accumulate and destroy all signal (retard the interactions between elements). However, if an element is placed at a ‘higher’ level, thereby receptive only to the total intensity contained in the system below it (signal and noise together), it would then extract a simple signal which would constitute the basis of its interaction with the system, now taken as element. The activity at this higher level could regulate the activity at the lower, without needing to ‘comprehend’ it – it can just be active in regards to the total summed intensity below it. Each ‘layer’ would then perform the role of the unconscious for the layer above it. This latter point aligns perfectly with Schelling’s understanding of the unconscious, a concept he perhaps can be seen as inaugurating.


Since, ultimately, Schelling holds the whole of nature is one giant organism, this ‘nesting’ runs upward and downward to a maximum.


System of Philosophy in General and of the Philosophy of Nature in Particular (1804)


“§.71. Der Raum ist die bloße Form der Nichtigkeit der Dinge, inwiefern sie von der absoluten Identität, der unendlichen Position getrennt sind, oder er ist Form des bloßen Affirmirtseyns der Dinge in seiner Differenz vom Affirmirenden.


Despite the specification of ‘animal nature’ Schelling has in mind the organic as such, as made clear a moment later: “Not to speak of the fact that one cannot even demonstrate those opposed systems in one-half of organic nature [plants] unless one is able to ascribe to it [them] the universal property of everything organic, excitability.” (FO, p.113) At one ‘level’, Schelling has a system for the classification of organisms based on the different combinations of the components of excitability (sensibility, irritability, and reproduction). Thus in plants, sensibility seems absent whereas reproduction is emphasized. For a good overview of this see Gambarotto, 2019, (chapter 5). However, owing to the dynamic interplay of the three forces, there can be no absolute zero point of sensibility without the complete collapse of excitability as such. Instead, there are only various critical thresholds where the balancing of the three forces hits upon different dynamic rules, sustaining different kinds of stability between them.


To cash Schelling’s insight out in a different way, if we permit ourselves the modern thermodynamic image of entropy, it is indeed astounding how organisms, as structured systems, can hold themselves against a physical world whose main tendency is the flattening out of all differences (rising entropy). In these terms, Schelling’s explanation is that the organism uses precisely this tendency of the universe to ‘flatten out differences’ as potential for all forms of dynamic motors. If heat tends to become evenly distributed, then by means of partitions and funnels and surfaces this tendency can be converted into motion by structuring the levelling out. And, most importantly for Schelling, the active and ongoing (re)construction of the organic system.


June 2024


Laughing at Darkness: Bataille’s Theory of Laughter

by Tung-Wei Ko

Schelling on the Organic Genesis of Space

by John C. Brady

Justice and Blindness: Antinomies of Violence

by Turner Roth

Diverse Thoughts on the Lightly Enlightened, circa 17th Century France, Part II

by Trent Portigal