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Why The World Does Not Exist But Unicorns Do

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3:AM: I’m interested in whether your position is a development of Schelling’s notion of philosophy’s relation to ‘cultural evolution’? Perhaps to start with you could sketch what Schelling’s position is. I know that you show that there are four phases to his thought but you also say that there is a coherent line of thought running through him expressed from different perspectives.

MG: In my publications on Schelling I argue that the unity of Schelling’s thought is based on the idea of a history of self-consciousness. Fichte first came up with this concept (as a reading of Kant’s philosophy of history) and Hegel has made it famous with his Phenomenology of Spirit (which on many levels is really just an elaboration on Schelling’s earlier System of Transcendental Philosophy). The line of thought behind this goes something like this. The human being, as we know it from its oldest extant texts, can be characterized as the “God-positing consciousness,” as Schelling puts it. By this he means that human beings have a conception of the whole that is at the same time a conception of how they fit into this whole. What a given culture or text presents as divine does not refer to a quasi-scientific posit introduced in order to make sense of natural phenomena. The divine is rather a name for a conception of the whole in which human beings do find a place. Our ancestors did not wonder whether thunder was caused by Zeus or was something else (like an electromagnetic meteorological phenomenon). They really were not like us in that the very notion of scientific explanation as we conceive of it had not been invented at all. Schelling wholeheartedly rejects the extremely naïve conception of mythology one can later find at the end of Quine’s Two Dogmas of Empiricism according to which Homer’s Gods are “cultural posits” designed to establish cognitive order among the phenomena. They are not at all part of an empirical theory. The view that we are subjects that find themselves in opposition to a (natural) world order of which we try to make sense by any means is itself a mythological view. One way of looking at Schelling’s project of a history of self-consciousness is to read it as a genealogy of the very idea of such a distinction between mind and world. He argues that this distinction comes very late in the history of humanity and that it would be anachronistic to think of the forging of many of the concepts we owe to the longest past of human history in terms of a subject trying to make sense of nature by means of empirical theories.

He makes similar points in his so called Naturphilosophie. His philosophy of nature like that of Spinoza’s is not naturalistic in the contemporary sense. For Schelling (maybe in contradistinction to Spinoza, certainly, in opposition to Hegel), “nature” is a name for a commitment to an external form of realism, meaning, to the idea that what there is might radically transcend our ways of conceiving of it. In one of my favorite quotes, he sums up his entire approach in the following question: “the world lies caught in the nets of reason; but the question is: how did it come to be in these nets?” (translation from a passage from his Erlangen lectures by Iain Hamilton Grant). Already in his earliest works he reads Kant’s “how are synthetic judgments a priori possible?” as the same question as “why is there anything at all and not nothing?” His idea is that there is no necessity whatsoever that we look at what there is in the way we do through the lenses of what we count as rational at a given historical period. Schelling rejects “magical theories of reference” according to which the world cries out to be named or described in certain ways (there are no reference magnets). But for him this also means to reject the view that nature is what our best scientific empirical theories take nature to be on the basis of projecting the logical form of our theories onto what there is.

Schelling believes that we need to make room for the idea that what there is might not at all have the form of objects falling under concepts, of individuals laid out there in spacetime, or, to borrow a metaphor from contemporary metaphysics: of pegs on a pegboard connected by rubber bands. In a very Schellingian spirit Nietzsche later came up with a similar view: “Nature has thrown away the key, and woe betide fateful curiosity should it ever succeed in peering through a crack in the chamber of consciousness, out and down into the depths, and thus gain an intimation of the fact that humanity, in the indifference of its ignorance, rests on the pitiless, the greedy, the insatiable, the murderous—clinging in dreams, as it were, to the back of a tiger. Given this constellation, where on earth can the drive to truth possibly have come from?”

Schelling’s trajectory can be seen as a development of the position that nature might not be intelligible by any standards we define throughout the history of self-consciousness. Schelling uses this idea in order to undermine Fichte’s idealism. He clings to a version of the Kantian thing in itself according to which it is not a transcendent moral realm (or a moral aspect under which we can describe the world so as to be able to regard ourselves as free agents), but rather the domain of what is already there, as soon as we enter the scene and of what need not be subject to any of the rational constraints we impose on our self-conceptions throughout the history of self-consciousness. He comes up with various names for the “nature”-part of that story: absolute identity, the unconscious, absolute indifference, nature, the non-ground, and unprethinkable being (there are more).

3:AM: Why isn’t his notion of subjectivity, and the role he has it play, not analogous to that of ‘world’ in other unifying metaphysics? It seems to replace the puzzle of the world existing with that of subjectivity existing – doesn’t it face analogous problems and if so isn’t that fatal?

MG: That is why I am not a Schellingian! Indeed, Schelling is constantly puzzled by the existence of self-conceptions. One of his big questions is how we could think of the very first truth-apt thought ever occurring as so much as hooking up with a reality independent from that thought? He entertains the possibility that reason is a kind of madness (in his Stuttgart Lectures he writes: “what we call understanding is really nothing but rule-governed madness”). However, Schelling is a crucial step in understanding the conundrums of the contemporary metaphysical question how subjectivity fits into an apparently entirely ontologically objective, meaning- and feelingless universe. It is not a coincidence that Thomas Nagel describes his most recent metaphysical turn in Mind and Cosmos as “objective idealist in the tradition of Plato and perhaps also of certain post-Kantians, such as Schelling and Hegel” (p. 17). The very imagery of nature (in his later works: unprethinkable being) becoming aware of itself via one of its products is at the center of Schelling’s philosophy. Wolfram Hogrebe in his seminal book Predication and Genesis has spelled this out in terms of a weak anthropic principle supporting the view of our universe as “auto-epistemic”. Be that as it may, I do not believe that this is the right picture of subjectivity, as it is not yet an ontological view, but remains a metaphysical2 one, although one which nicely brings out the aporias of the idea that subjectivity somehow has to emerge via bottom-up, subjectless, merely natural processes. Again, this is an unfortunate dualistic picture, in this case, one where we come to wonder how nature can host sensations, thoughts, feelings, or propositional attitudes.

3:AM: You contextualise post-Kantian idealism (Fichte, Schelling and Hegel) by placing them in between the opposing camps of Anglo-American transcendental (scientistic) epistemology on the one hand and the French ontology of Badiou and Meillassoux on the other. Can you first sketch the two pole positions before explaining the post-Kantian one you elaborate?

MG: Another big question! You are giving me a hard time. Well, roughly the idea goes something like this. Scientistic epistemology assumes that there is a domain of objects out there that we are trying to describe by building theories on the basis of the deliverances of our senses. While this may be a good enough characterization of something we sometimes do, it is a gross overgeneralization when it comes to knowledge-acquisition and justification on a more global human level. If we go to a museum and defend the knowledge claim that Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is a much better painting than the (admittedly amusing) veggie paintings of the Italian renaissance artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, we are not thereby trying to make sense of sensory input in the way envisaged if we take ourselves to be the kind of thought-mongering creatures confronted with glimpses of an external reality that still inhabit the grey zone in contemporary philosophy between epistemology, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of perception. Or if we defend the knowledge claim that liberal democracy is a better political order than North Korean dictatorship we do not thereby create models of a given reality out there on the basis of sensory input. The senses are entirely overrated in scientistic epistemology (not to speak of the problem that it is often based on problematic construals of what the senses and their deliverances are, construals to some extent corrected by McDowell and subsequent discussions). In my view, post-Kantian idealism argues that Kant overrated the role of sensory input for knowledge-acquisition or rather for the very concept of knowledge. Knowledge – post-Kantian idealism argues – is not paradigmatically represented by empirical knowledge of the external world. Isolating that part of our knowledge from our overall body of knowledge (to which knowledge about art, religion, politics, social facts in general etc. belongs) and privileging it in our epistemological account of our standing with respect to what there is is the mistake that post-Kantian idealism is trying to avoid.

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Badiou and Meillassoux tend to agree, as both believe that recent, modern philosophy has overly emphasized the finitude of human knowledge on the basis of skeptically inclined pictures of how we relate to the world. Instead, they propose to privilege mathematical knowledge over all other forms of knowledge so as to make sense of our capacity to grasp absolute facts, that is facts that are not somehow tied to our species-relative perspective. Whereas in vision we look at objects from a particular angle (which might create skeptical worries), in pure mathematical and logical thought we transcend that finitude and achieve insights into conditions of the multiplicity of objects as such (Badiou’s preferred form of knowledge is set-theoretical knowledge).

Badiou and Meillassoux are right in insisting that we are able to grasp the absolute. In the wake of Hegel this is now called “speculative” where speculative thinking is thinking After Finitude, to quote Meillassoux’ famous book title.

In contradistinction to both scientistic epistemology and Badiou’s and Meillassoux’s respective projects of speculative mathematical ontology, I characterize post-Kantian idealism as “transcendental ontology”. By that I intend to refer to the idea that any conception of knowledge has to make sense of the fact that thoughts occur within the reality at which they are directed. We neither look at the world from an imaginary outside, nor “sideways on”, nor from nowhere. Truth-apt thought is situated in the very domain it tries to conceptualize. This is what Hegel meant when he said that we need to think of the true (the totality of facts) not only as substance, but also as subject: if there is such a thing as reality as a whole (what Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel in my reading assume), then any thought directed at it has to belong to it. Here I depart from much of German Idealism (with the possible exception of Schelling) in that I give up on the requirement that situating thought in domains presupposes the availability of a maximal domain. I propose to look at the debates among the post-Kantian idealists in light of their disagreement over what exactly it takes to make sense of the fact that thought itself is part of any reality we are able to conceive. All of them try to avoid both subjective idealism on the one hand and conceptions of reality as a whole which make our own existence as finite thinkers look mysterious or spooky.

3:AM: It’s a key to the post-Kanian position for you that it refuses to transcend finitude isn’t it? Is this one of the reasons for dismissing Heidegger’s notion of ‘Being’?

MG: Well, in some sense this is correct. Of course, Heidegger himself was trying hard not to transcend finitude. In his (generally terrible) Contributions to Philosophy (On Enowning) he constantly speaks of “the finitude and singularity of being”. He thought that the finitude of our understanding was a function of being itself. Being withdraws from our attempts at grasping it. To be a bit polemical here: Heidegger’s being is like a Cartesian evil demon without a demon. It is a blind process (an “it”, which he identifies with the dummy subject in the German expression “es gibt” = there is, literally: it gives) which makes it impossible ever to clearly make sense of reality as a whole without obscuring some of its features. His famous “clearing” is supposed to illustrate this. The clearing is an open region in a forest we happen to come across while strolling through the woods. There is no reason why there is a clearing and why it has this particular shape. It is just there, for no reason, and it gives us a very partial view of the heavens. For Heidegger, finitude is not a feature of subjectivity or of our knowledge, but of being itself, meaning: as things happen to be, we can only ever try to make sense of a given section of what there is, a section revealed to us historically situated thinkers for no specific reason at all. For Heidegger, we cannot ever hope to transcend the finitude of being, as even our apparently quite successful attempts of going beyond our epistemic niche (such as modern science-cum-technology) will ultimately depend on being’s random deliverances. There is always another clearing for him (in terms of a Matrix-style philosophy of science à la recent Chalmers): maybe the universe is a holographic projection of noumenal structures beyond our ken? Maybe it literally is a computer?

On this basis Heidegger committed the fallacy that there is no point in attempting to enlarge the sphere of human knowledge, as he thought that we could never achieve anything on our own unless being made another random turn (what he calls “an event”). He seems to have used this fallacy when it came to his personal justification for his decision for national-socialism in Heidegger’s extremely provincial interpretation of what was going on in Munich first and then in Berlin in the early 30s. He had no adequate conception of political manipulation and power struggles according to which actual agents are able to determine the belief-systems of people over which they have ideological control. When he realized what was going on in actual national socialism, he still came up with a bullshit story (he calls “meta-politics”) according to which the national socialist propaganda and even the second world war are really nothing but ways for technological thinking to realize itself in a historical shape. What is even worse is that in his so called Black Notebooks (which I had to read carefully, as I reviewed them for the newspaper Die Welt) he believes that the forces of being take the shape of national stereotypes represented by historically created races (such as the Jews, the Germans, the English, the French, the Greeks, etc.). He is a racist, albeit not based on pseudo-biological considerations, but based on historically created stereotypes. Having said that, his personal and political fallacies are not entailed by his conception of the finitude of being, which one might share without thereby becoming a Nazi. To the extent to which he might have used his philosophical thinking as a justification for his decision to become a Nazi and live out his resentments, his thought is entangled with national socialism. But this does not invalidate all of the points he was making.

3:AM: Was the transcendentalist turn a result of trying to resist skepticism?

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MG: Absolutely! While I was completing my Heidelberg dissertation on Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology, Crispin Wright gave a seminar at the University of Heidelberg on his treatment of various forms of skepticism followed by another seminar later on topics from his Truth and Objectivity. These seminars profoundly impressed me, which is why I decided to work on skepticism for my Habilitation. As a consequence, I decided to spend a year as a Postdoc at NYU. Talking to some of the great philosophers there (in particular to Tom Nagel, Stephen Schiffer, Crispin Wright and Paul Boghossian) convinced me of the flaws in certain ultimately skeptical tenets I was implicitly committed to. It dawned on me that a suitable realist ontology might be the right way to resist many forms of skepticism and that it was not enough to try to deflate skeptical worries by construing skepticism as just a “family of paradoxes” (an idea impressively spelled out by Crispin Wright). The first result of this was a book (published in German) called At the Limits of Epistemology. The Necessary Finitude of Objective Knowledge as a Consequence of Skepticism. In this book I try to bring together Wright’s accounts of the Cartesian and the Humean stripes of skeptical paradoxes and argue that they can be avoided by accepting the right account of the finitude of human knowledge.

This then led to the transcendentalist turn, if you like, in Transcendental Ontology. I realized that the very setup of a transcendental ontology in German Idealism is an anti-skeptical move. Instead of answering the skeptical challenge (or diagnosing the flaws and glitches of skeptical paradoxes) on the epistemological level, transcendental ontology locates the skeptical threat on the level of our metaphysical conception of the integration of our epistemic powers into the domain which we are trying to make sense of. Skepticism, for them, interestingly is primarily a side effect of metaphysical problems.

3:AM: Schelling had a view of ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ philosophy. Can you say what the distinction is and why it’s important?

MG: For Schelling, negative philosophy is “purely rational philosophy”. As I understand this, negative philosophy is radically a priori armchair metaphysics, a view of reality as a whole through the lenses of a metaphysically loaded interpretation of formal logic. Schelling agrees with Kant that logic is not a metaphysical guide to reality or to its fundamental structure. This is why he argues that we need a “positive philosophy,” where a positive philosophy starts in the middle of things by undermining the a priori/a posteriori-distinction. Schelling explicitly presents positive philosophy as “higher empiricism (höherer Empirismus),” which anticipates a Wittgensteinian (On Certainty) picture according to which no proposition in our belief system is metaphysically a priori: what counts as a priori and what counts as a posteriori historically varies and the idea that there is a metaphysical order among propositions that we try to detect by correcting our beliefs over the course of history for Schelling is just one of many mythologies corresponding to negative philosophy’s conception of the nature of philosophy itself. Unfortunately, many of the valid – protopragmatist/Wittgensteinian – insights spread out through Schelling’s discussions of the distinction between negative and positive philosophy are obscured by the vocabulary of his later texts as well as by his additional claim that positive philosophy gives us clues to the effect that human beings are at the center of the cosmos. Unfortunately, he did not stop at a philosophy of mythology, but had to add a Christian triumphalist Philosophy of Revelation to the mix.

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3:AM: Why do you argue that the role of mythology, madness and laughter in German Idealism is so important? Is this about showing why illusions are structurally necessary to a metaphysical system?

MG: Exactly! The German Idealists Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel all elaborate Kant’s idea from the Transcendental Dialectic in the First Critique that metaphysical systems are expressions of illusions. Kant calls his enterprise in this area a “logic of illusion (Logik des Scheins),” and his followers are indeed post-Kantians in that they share Kant’s view that metaphysical systems are based on illusions. They just add that this helps us to decipher the outlines of the cultural evolution of humanity.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books you could recommend to us at 3:AM that will take us further into your philosophical world?

MG: Only five is hard! In addition to the obvious and more classical ones like Kant’s First Critique, Hegel’s Science of Logic and Schelling’s Historical-Critical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology here are five books that have really shaped my thinking. They all share the virtue of belonging to the genre of philosophy written beyond commitment to the analytic/continental divide (which, by the way, is ridiculous and offensive to someone actually living on the continent of Europe. Continental philosophy is like a continental breakfast in that it is not served in Germany, France, Italy or any other country in my neck of the woods. As we all know: Kant, Nietzsche, Frege, Carnap, Husserl, and Heidegger were all German citizens – actually citizens of very different legal and political structures associated with the word “German” – all of which makes the category of “German philosophy” devoid of any methodologically relevant content. And I see no reason in general that would lead me to look for philosophical treasures exclusively either in Frege or Husserl).

Anyway, here are the five books:

– Wolfram Hogrebe: Predication and Genesis. Metaphysics as Fundamental Heuristics on the Basis of Schelling’s Ages of the World. (currently being translated by Iain Hamilton Grant and Jason Wirth into English; like his early book on Kant’s transcendental semantics and all of Ernst Tugendhat’s work a major breakthrough in the German literature bridging the divide between recent analytic philosophy and German Idealism).
– Robert Brandom: Tales of the Mighty Dead.
– Adrian W. Moore: The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics.
– Thomas Nagel: The View From Nowhere.
– Anton Friedrich Koch: An Essay on Truth and Time (not yet translated into English; the German title is Versuch über Wahrheit und Zeit. Münster: Mentis 2006).


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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 10th, 2015.