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S.J. McGrath, The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious. London and New York: Routledge, 2012; 217 pages. ISBN 978-0-415-49212-6.

Review by J.A.F. Marshall, McMaster University

S.J. McGrath’s 2012 monograph, The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious, contains much to recommend it, in particular because it accomplishes so much within a relatively thin volume. First and foremost, the book is a work of historical scholarship, tracing the development and exploration of the notion of the unconscious throughout F.W.J. Schelling’s long career, beginning with his nature-philosophy of the late 1790s and early 1800s and running to the philosophy of revelation of the 1830s and 1840s. In essence, McGrath argues that the notion of the unconscious plays a significant structural role in each period of Schelling’s philosophy. McGrath is clear from the outset that the book does not aim merely to be an “exposition” of Schelling’s philosophy, but rather engages in “hermeneutic refraction.” (36) Perhaps the most significant part of McGrath’s “refraction” is that he reads Schelling’s philosophy “psychologically,” revealing the original psychological insights contained within Schelling’s metaphysics.

The introductory and second chapters explore Schelling’s debt to Jacob Boehme, the 17th century German mystic and theosophist. Contrary to most recent English scholarship on Schelling, McGrath argues that Boehme’s “alchemico-theosophical psychology” is the true, historical basis for “the psychodynamic notion of the unconscious,” which Schelling is partly responsible for developing. (1–2) McGrath demonstrates that Schelling’s debt to Boehme extends also to Franz von Baader, whom Schelling met and befriended in Munich after he moved there in 1806. Although Schelling had clearly been exposed to Boehme’s works prior to his friendship with Baader, it was only after moving to Munich that Schelling incorporates explicit theosophical ideas into his philosophy as part of his account of the genesis and development of personality in both God and the human being.

The book’s third chapter clarifies Schelling’s standing relative to early 19th century German Romanticism and Idealism. McGrath argues that although Schelling’s early philosophy contains elements that are Romantic and Idealist in orientation, it ultimately exceeds both programmes. On the one hand, Schelling differs from the Romantics in part because his philosophical goal is not a mystical union with nature; rather he seeks to understand it. (84) Relative to Idealism, Schelling’s early philosophy already affirms a notion of the real that is neither the posited regulative product of mind—the negative of consciousness—nor something that can be wholly appropriated to rational ends; instead, the real is a productive drive in relation with the ideal. Out of this relation, mind emerges in order for nature to attain self-knowledge. Even the Fichtian register of the System of Transcendental Idealism does not resolve Schelling to Idealism. In that work—the first of Schelling’s works that explicitly names the unconscious (Unbewußte), though it does not yet have the speculative psychological connotations present in later texts—Schelling employs idealist notions without committing to them as a definitive presentation of his philosophy. Although Schelling embraces Idealism as a way to formulate and test his ideas, ultimately it must be taken alongside his nature-philosophy.

At various points, the book works through two topics of particular interest for McGrath: distinguishing Schelling’s philosophy from Hegel’s and developing the notion of dissociation. In the book’s “Introduction” McGrath presents what he calls “Schelling’s Neoplatonic Logic.” (23–26) In part the discussion is meant to expose Schelling’s debt to Neoplatonism but it also anticipates McGrath’s later comparison of Schelling to Hegel. While Schelling’s logic is grounded in two drives or oppositional forces that are irreducible to one another and cannot be mixed together to produce a higher third moment of dialectical becoming, Hegel proposes this kind of synthesis: to reduce contrary identities to a single logical progression, guided by the Idea, whose ideal agenda appropriates the real for its own rational purposes. Far from merely differentiating Schelling’s logic from Hegel’s, this section also supports McGrath’s clarification of Schelling’s notion of the real, which, in turn, questions Slavoj Žižek’s proto-Lacanian reading of Schelling. (184) McGrath takes great care in demonstrating why Žižek’s interpretation is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Schelling’s notions of the real and dissociation.

The notion of dissociation—signifying division in the self—is key to McGrath’s exploration of “speculative psychology,” discussed in Chapter 4 with particular emphasis on Schelling’s late philosophy of revelation. McGrath sees dissociation as central to Schelling’s conception of personality, as well as of being itself. Without some kind of dissociation, personality is not possible, nor is determinative being. In effect, the manifestation of anything temporal and finite is not possible without dissociation. McGrath’s affirmation of “speculative psychology” is philosophically significant not only because it situates Schelling within the history of psychology but also because it represents an attempt to generate new philosophical and psychological possibilities from out of Schelling’s work. Arguing that Schelling’s psychology is “dissociationist,” McGrath reads Schelling as offering a different conception of the psyche and psychological health than do Freud, Jung, and Lacan. McGrath distinguishes between “negative dissociation” (epitomized by neurosis and psychosis) and “positive dissociation”; the latter is conceived as a productive division in personality driving the fulfillment of inner, psychological ends (telos). (32, 133) In effect, out of McGrath’s reading of Schelling’s Christology, a major part of the philosophy of revelation, emerges a “speculative psychology” grounded in Schelling’s metaphysics.

Underlying this part of McGrath’s investigation is a deeper question: how might we breathe life into speculative psychology as a distinct psychological approach, even as a treatment method for mental illness? For McGrath, Schelling’s philosophy offers ways of grounding and developing speculative psychology, a project that was undertaken in the 19th century by some of Schelling’s students and disciples. It is noteworthy that McGrath is not only a professor of philosophy but also trained in Jungian analytical psychology. It seems to me that there is a larger project at work in this book which McGrath works out to some extent through his hermeneutic of Schelling and the unconscious. The larger goal is to think through and extend into the psychoanalytic traditions the possibility of a revived speculative psychology. McGrath himself notes two options for Schelling-inspired psychology. The first is exemplified by post-Freudian and post-Jungian psychologies, which “overhaul the whole enterprise in the direction of clinical and statistical work.” (20) The other option seeks to disclose the “crypto-metaphysics” of depth psychology in order to create “more adequate speculative concepts.” (20) In effect, McGrath suggests that depth psychology up the philosophical ante, so to speak, by taking its metaphysical basis seriously so that it might “use the a priori and the a posteriori element in psychology and approach the empirical through the metaphysical.” (20) In light of the possibility of speculative psychology, McGrath contends that Schellingian psychology must be grasped not as “self-psychology” but as “personality psychology” and affirms that Schelling’s teleological metaphysics and dissociative psychology contain therapeutic possibilities. (32–33) These possibilities, it would seem, remain to be discovered and explored; nonetheless, they represent fertile ground for psychological research.

The final point of McGrath’s book, convincingly argued in Chapter 5, is that Schelling’s philosophy can be interpreted as various attempts at constructing a theory of desire. (179) Two significant points are presented. First, desire is never “uni-directional” but is “by definition divided” (179); this accounts for Schelling’s “dissociationism.” Second, the unconscious part of desire, which is identified with “ground” during Schelling’s middle period (the philosophy of freedom) “possesses unconscious intelligence.” (186) In other words, ground acts not for itself or without a plan or design, but in “secret alliance” with the conscious part of desire (identified as “existence”). Ground and existence operate together, rather than against one another, in order to bring about the ends to which “psychic energy is teleologically oriented.” (182) On McGrath’s reading of Schelling, psychic energy is directed “toward personal relationship,” which requires, first, a negative power or drive which withdraws from the possibility of relationship in order to be for itself. In turn, this negative drive stands in opposition to a positive drive or power to be for others. On their own, excluded from the other, these drives are unproductive; but in tandem, that is in cooperation with one another, they manage to produce a proper and healthy centre (or ego, if you will) from which relationships with others become genuinely possible. For Schelling, a healthy amount of ego is necessary in order for relationships and the affirmation of externality and otherness (others) to be possible. McGrath summarizes the relation between the negative and the positive succinctly when he writes: “the negative obstructs the positive so that something irreducible to both might be revealed.” (180) This is the basis of what McGrath calls “Schellingian libido theory,” which represents the culmination of the book. In this final chapter, McGrath states: “The development of Schelling’s thought might be characterized as an ever deepening understanding of what exactly is made possible, made manifest or revealed, by negative desire.” (180) Here McGrath provides a simple key to understanding the trajectory of Schelling’s thought: in the Early Schelling, nature is revealed; in the Middle Schelling, personality is revealed; and in the Late Schelling, God is revealed. (180) Here, again, McGrath emphasizes Schelling’s debt to Boehme. Counter to Freudian and Lacanian forms of psychoanalysis, McGrath states that “Schelling’s psychology is at bottom life-affirming” and that the telos of personality and self, growing out of division and dissociation, is ultimately “for the sake of love.” (183) Love emerges as a pivotal and, for McGrath, a “radical” notion of Schelling’s philosophy: “We are only truly ourselves when we love, that is, when we love ourselves, others, and God.” (188)

McGrath’s feeling for Schelling’s philosophy not only realizes an original and engaging work of scholarship but also the indication of new, unexplored paths for philosophy and psychology into the mysteries of psyche and personality. In revealing the priority of negative desire and its relationship with its opposite, McGrath finds “a recurring structure in Schellingian philosophy” (179) which is applied consistently to different subject matter. Following McGrath’s interpretation, the philosophical questions of nature, personality, and God represent three distinct ways in which Schelling tries to understand and formulate the nature of desire and thus also of relationship: being oneself and being with another. The tension that exists between these two drives, distinct as they are, forms the centre of Schelling’s rich and inexhaustible thinking. It is my recommendation that more of us follow the path into Schelling’s thinking that McGrath has cleared with this book. Along it many more philosophical possibilities remain to be discovered.