Daniele Fulvi, Schelling, Freedom, and the Immanent Made Transcendent: From Philosophy of Nature to Environmental Ethics. London: Routledge, 2023; 296 pages. ISBN: 9781032351544 

Benjamin Norris, Rowan University 

Thorough in its engagement with the literature and bold in its intent, Daniele Fulvi’s Schelling, Freedom, and the Immanent Made Transcendent: From Philosophy of Nature to Environmental Ethics provides an expansive survey of the Schelling scholarship of the 20th and 21st centuries.  This work is clearly argued and provides a much-needed supplement to the narrative that Schelling was somehow forgotten and then rediscovered by scholars during the early 21st century. What sets Fulvi’s work apart from other contemporary interpreters who embrace what Woodard calls the “continuity thesis” is that Fulvi puts forth what could be called a unity thesis, namely that Schelling’s philosophy as a whole rests upon a unified ontology that is continuous, consistent, and without variation. Fulvi defines Schelling’s unified ontological project as follows: 

Schelling’s immanentism…implies a form of radical monism, according to which the unconditioned principle of philosophy is not the expression of an original and pure transcendence but rather the original and immanent unity of the principles of good and evil, ideal and real, and subject and object. (117)  

To support the continuity thesis, one must show how Schelling’s project is oriented around the development of a single theme, for example, as a naturalized physics of the Idea (Grant), as the conspiracy of life (Wirth), as a dynamic naturalism of nested systems (Woodard), or as an ontology of powers (Alderwick). The unity thesis can be viewed as a version of the continuity thesis insofar as both deny the presence of radical breaks in Schelling’s philosophical development. However, the unity thesis must clear a higher evidentiary bar and demonstrate that from beginning to end Schelling holds steadfastly to a single ontological framework without any significant development or meaningful variation. This means that even Schelling’s late philosophy must be reducible to the ontology of his earliest writings, and this is the case that Fulvi seeks to make. 

Fulvi divides Schelling scholarship into two camps: the “transcendentist” camp and the “immanentist” camp. According to the transcendentist “the true principle of Being and of God is beyond every possible immanent reality” (1). Alternatively, for the immanentist, “there is no ontological detachment between God and nature and between Being and particular beings” (1). Fulvi’s survey of secondary literature begins with Heidegger and Jaspers. Fulvi argues that Heidegger erroneously concludes that Schelling’s Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom (the Freiheitsschrift) fails to achieve its ends because Heidegger ignores the immanent core of Schelling’s ontology. Jaspers too makes this erroneous judgment due to his emphasis on the importance of transcendence for understanding both experience and freedom. Chapter 3 turns to Tillich, Marcel, and Pareyson and the problem of mysticism but generally expands upon the critique presented in the previous chapter. Tillich, Marcel, and Pareyson, Fulvi argues, also improperly insert a transcendence into Schelling’s thought in service of their own philosophical goals. 

Fulvi then addresses the immanentist readings of Schelling. First, Fulvi highlights the continuity between Deleuze’s readings of Spinoza and Schelling, dismissing the critiques Deleuze presents of Schelling as again falling prey to the transcendentist error of his predecessors. Following this, Fulvi focuses on the role played by nature in the interpretations of Schelling articulated by Merleau-Ponty, Grant, Alderwick, and Wirth insofar as each shares a commitment to the importance of Schelling’s early Naturphilosophie for his later philosophical endeavors. Chapter 6 builds upon the reading of the Freiheitsschrift in Chapter 1 to connect Schelling’s 1809 ontology to his late characterization of God as the “immanent made transcendent.” Chapter 7 turns to the notion of resistance (Widerstand) to generalize this notion as the material ground of freedom spanning from Schelling’s early Naturphilosophie to the Freiheitsschrift and beyond. This analysis of Widerstand serves as the transition to Fulvi’s concluding discussion of Postcolonial theory and environmental ethics.  

The key passage for understanding Fulvi’s title is found in the Grounding of Positive Philosophy where Schelling claims “God is not, as many imagine, the transcendent, he is the immanent (that is, what is to become the content of reason) made transcendent.” (Grounding, 209; SW II/3,170) By way of a careful analysis of the original German as well as several possible translations, Fulvi interprets this passage in the following way: “Schelling is talking about a transcendence that is immanent-made, namely made of immanence” (186). There is some important context that is missing in Fulvi’s utilization of this passage. Here, Schelling is discussing immanence and transcendence in relation to Kant’s critique of the ontological argument in the Critique of Pure Reason’s “Transcendental Dialectic.” What Schelling is outlining are the internal limits to negative philosophy and how positive philosophy’s claim to Being alone can bypass Kant’s prohibition of the transcendent use of reason. Fulvi’s suggestion that transcendence itself is “made of immanence” is intended to convince the reader that “Schelling’s late philosophy must be read as a strong ontological commitment in continuity with his early and middle immanentism, rather than a transcendentist account of Being that radically breaks from his previous works” (199). In the Grounding Schelling does famously claim that “it is not because there is thinking that there is being [Seyn], but rather because there is being [Seyn] that there is thinking” (Grounding, 203 note xx; SW II/3, 161 note 1) and I understand why this would seem to lend itself to an ontological conclusion. However, I am not convinced that the language of ontology can remain faithful to Schelling’s own understanding of the differences between negative philosophy and positive philosophy. 

Schelling concedes that negative and positive philosophy are two sides of a single philosophical project, however, in his attempt to fit both negative and positive philosophy into a single unified ontology, I fear Fulvi has repeated what Schelling viewed as Hegel’s fundamental error: “The philosophy that Hegel presented is the negative driven beyond its limits” Schelling claims, “it does not exclude the positive, but thinks it has subdued it within itself” (Grounding, 145; SW II/3, 80). To characterize Schelling’s discussion of Being in these late works as ontological in a way reducible to “Schelling’s early and middle immanentism” fails to maintain the distinction Schelling draws between the rational determinations of “what” a being is and the mere fact “that” Being is (the distinction between Was and Daß central to the difference between negative and positive philosophy). Fulvi could counter this characterization by claiming that what transcends both God and Being must be understood as an immanence from which transcendence emerges and to which this transcendence subsequently returns, and there is some textual evidence for this conclusion. The problem, however, is that for positive philosophy immanence itself must be constructed, and in part this is what differentiates it from negative philosophy which assumes immanence in advance. This means that in the beginning there is neither immanence nor transcendence as both notions are belated determinations of what Schelling calls unforethinkable Being [unvordenkliche Seyn]. To understand the significance of this, consider Schelling’s following characterization of what he calls in this instance “the One”: “of itself, the One is unknown, it has no concept through which it could be designated, but rather only a name…in name He is himself, the singular being who has no equal” (Grounding,  212; SW II/3, 174). When Schelling claims that this One “has no concept through which it can be designated” we must understand this to include all the concepts of ontology including monism, transcendence, and even immanence.

Fulvi could object that I am simply begging the question in favor of a transcendentist analysis, and it is true that Schelling is not always the most reliable narrator when it comes to his own characterizations of his philosophical trajectory. However, even if we accept Fulvi’s ontological generalization of Schelling’s claims outlined above regarding God, transcendence, and immanence we still must attempt to articulate what kind of immanence is able to make itself transcendent. When Schelling speaks of God in the positive philosophy and elsewhere, he clearly is not referring to the God of either traditional theology or philosophy, and so he is indeed a critic of a kind of transcendentist metaphysics. Yet he is also critical of monistic immanentist metaphysics in the Freiheitsschrift, Fulvi’s primary textual point of orientation. There Schelling writes “the concept of immanence is to be set aside completely in so far as thereby a dead containment of things in God is supposed to be expressed” (Freiheitsschrift, 28; SW I/7, 358). Fulvi’s proposed immanentist monism is not strictly speaking one of the dead containment of things in God. Instead, Fulvi argues that Schelling is committed to a kind of panentheistic monism in which something of God remains in all created things. This characterization is not altogether incorrect, yet we must still take seriously Schelling’s claim that the concept of immanence must be set aside. If there is nothing outside of ontological immanence, then the conditions of immanence becoming transcendence must already be present within immanence itself. For Fulvi this means that “the source of God and of Being itself is not given in a supernatural and immaterial formulation, but on the concrete interplay and interdependence of material forces and occurrences” (11-12). Fulvi will later connect this “interplay of material forces” to his discussion of Widerstand as the material ground of freedom. The problem with this discussion is that Fulvi emphasizes the continuity of the notion of material resistance and human freedom leaving him with insufficient resources to account for the unique character of freedom Schelling attributes only to humans and not to other inorganic and organic forms, or even God.

Fulvi’s commitment to monism and drive for unification leads him to emphasize the continuity and interdependence of forces thereby losing sight of their equally important discontinuity and independence. The fundamental discontinuity and constitutive disorder of forces in the middle Schelling is captured nicely by Žižek, one notable high-profile reader of Schelling perspicuously absent from Fulvi’s narration (likely because Žižek’s Schelling does not fit neatly into either the immanentist or transcendentist framing). In reference to Žižek’s Lacanian appropriation of Schelling’s Ages of the World, Johnston explains 

the Grund of the drives isn’t a solid, cohesive, unified ontological foundation of harmoniously integrated natural energies and impulses…but, rather, a fragmented and perturbed juxtaposition of conflicting elements lacking overall symmetrical measure, proportion, or ratio. (Žižek’s Ontology, 92) 

Contrast this to Fulvi’s claim that “the only reality is the ‘immanent preestablished harmony’ provided by the oneness of the Absolute, that is the organic unity and the concrete ground on which life itself unfolds” (164). If the Absolute is a oneness that provides for a preestablished harmony, then this is a oneness without life and without the possibility of becoming otherwise because, as Fulvi himself constantly acknowledges, for Schelling, “where there is no struggle, there is no life” (Freiheitsschrift, 63; SW I/7, 400). The characterization of immanence as a harmonious, monistic unity robs immanence of the internal dynamics and of the fundamental conflict through which it could make itself transcendent. In other words, it remains too close to the immanent monism of Spinoza whom Schelling argued could account for neither the self-determining dynamics of nature, the reality of human freedom, nor the personality of the divine.

Fulvi’s book is a helpful resource for those looking for an innovative reading of the role played by the Freiheitsschrift in Schelling’s overall ontological project as well as a broader survey of the multifaceted ways that Schelling has been read. Yet, despite Fulvi’s clean organization of Schelling scholarship into immanentist and transcendentist readings, when taken as a whole Schelling’s own writings rob these categories of their descriptive capacities and interpretive utility. Schelling himself dwells within muddy waters of interpenetrating principles that only find life in the conflict generated by their mutual attraction and repulsion, by their harmony and dissonance, and by the unity of their identity and difference. The traditional notion of transcendence as defined by Fulvi does indeed fail to capture fully what is going on when Schelling speaks of God, nature, and the emergence of human freedom. However, we do not provide any clarity into these muddy waters if we resort to a notion of immanence understood as an ontology of monistic harmony. Immanence must, as Schelling argues, be set aside. 

Additional References 

Adrian Johnston (2008), Žižek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press).

F. W. J. Schelling (1856-1861), Sämmtliche Werke [SW], K.F. A. Schelling (ed.) (Stuttgart: J. G. Cotta).

F. W. J. Schelling (2006), Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, Jeff Love and Johannes Schmidt (tr.) (Albany: State University of New York Press).

F. W. J. Schelling (2007), The Grounding of Positive Philosophy: The Berlin Lectures, Bruce Matthews (tr.) (Albany: State University of New York Press).