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Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von

Category: Philosopher


Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (27 January 1775 – 20 August 1854), was a German philosopher. Described by Wikipedia as  ‘neglected’, he was overshadowed by many other important philosophers of the time; Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason had been published in 1781, when Schelling was 6; Johann Gottlieb Fichte was Schelling’s mentor in his early years, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had been his former university roommate and early friend in around 1790.  Schelling also shared the same room with Hölderlin.  In 1790, Kant’s Critique of Judgement was published.

In his twenties and thirties, August Wilhelm Schlegel befriended him and through him Schelling got to know Novalis.  Schlegel was a German poet, translator and critic. His translations of Shakespeare turned the English dramatist's works into German classics. Schlegel was also the first professor of Sanskrit in Continental Europe and produced a translation of the Bhagavad Gita.  As such, Schelling, even in his early years, was not without some spiritual influences. 

Unfortunately Schelling’s preference was for Schlegel’s wife Caroline, and they had an affair, starting around 1799.  Caroline had a daughter Auguste and at the time of the start of the affair, Auguste was 13, Schelling was 24 and Caroline was 36.  He eventually married her after Wilhelm and Caroline’s marriage was annulled in 1803.

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 24


...with the marriage, Schelling's life at Jena [university] came to an end. It was permanent, for Schelling's undoubtedly overweening self-confidence had involved him in a series of disputes and quarrels at Jena, the details of which are important only as illustrations of the evil qualities in Schelling's nature which deface much of his early philosophic work……
…From September 1803 until April 1806 Schelling was professor at the new university of Würzburg. This period was marked by considerable changes in his views and by the final breach on the one hand with Fichte and on the other hand with Hegel. In Würzburg Schelling had many enemies. He embroiled himself with his colleagues and also with the government.

Not a promising start one might feel, but it does change.

Life and Early works


Schelling was born on the 27th of January 1775 at Leonberg, a small town of Württemberg. He was educated at the cloister school of Bebenhausen, near Tübingen, where his father, an able Orientalist, was chaplain and professor.  Schelling was a very clever child.  He learnt classical languages at the age of eight, went to Latin school when he was ten but ‘returned to Bebenhausen when he was 12 because there was nothing more the school could teach him’.  He took classes at his father’s seminary alongside much older students, learned oriental languages and went to university at 16.  He was generally regarded as precocious and somewhat difficult.  After he had finished at university, he eschewed the normal route to professorship and as good as demanded an instant job as a professor.  His father, ambitious for his son, supported him.  Goethe eventually recommended Schelling for an unpaid professorship in Jena.

At 22, Schelling had already published a number of works – On the Possibility of a Form of Philosophy in General, Philosophical Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism, On the World Soul and Ideas on a Philosophy of Nature.  All best forgotten.  Schiller had a tendency to write about things others had already written about, thinking he could do better…

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 24

In 1793 he contributed to Paulus's Memorabilien a paper “Über Mythus, historische Sagen, und Philosopheme der ältesten Welt”; and in 1795 his thesis for his theological degree was De Marcione Paullinarum epistolarum emendatore. …. The Review of Aenesidemus and the tractate On the Notion of Wissenschaftslehre found in his mind most fruitful soil. With characteristic zeal and impetuosity Schelling had no sooner grasped the leading ideas of Fichte's amended form of the critical philosophy than he put together his impressions of it in his Über die Möglichkeit einer Form der Philosophie überhaupt (1794). There was nothing original in the treatment, but it … was hailed with cordial recognition by Fichte himself.


... which says more about the good nature of Fichte than the abilities of Schelling.

Wikipedia have also somewhat hit the nail on the head when they say that interpreting Schelling's philosophy at this time, is regarded as ‘difficult’ because of its apparently 'ever-changing nature'. 

So difficult is it, that it isn’t worth doing.

Much of what Schelling wrote in his early years is the product of an over inflated ego and an excess of competition from other philosophers.    

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 24

… Goethe, ..viewed with interest and appreciation the poetical fashion of treating fact characteristic of the Naturphilosophie, … while on the other hand he was repelled by Schiller's less expansive disposition.

Very tactfully expressed.

Practically everything he wrote up until his mid-forties might be better termed ‘work in progress’.  His Philosophie and Religion , for example, was rewritten and used in Of Human Freedom (1809), and in the preface to this work Schelling even says he is presenting the content he had put forward unsuccessfully in Philosophie and Religion.  Much of his early work comes across as pretentious and wordy.  But the turning point for him was the death of his wife Caroline and that of his step-daughter Auguste.

possible portrait of Auguste

 Auguste fell ill with dysentery in July 1800 and Schelling, not trusting doctors, intervened with his own prescriptions.  They failed, and on 12th July, Caroline’s only remaining child died aged just 15.  Caroline never got over the shock; she had already seen her two other children die. 

In 1804, Schelling was publicly attacked for causing Auguste’s death, but not by Caroline, whose loyalty never wavered and not by Schlegel, who even publicly defended Schelling.

But the attacks and the shock shook Schelling to the core and starting in 1802, he published his first poems, four in total under the pseudonym Bonaventura.  The seeds for a softer more open Schelling had been sown.

In 1809, September 7th Caroline died aged 46. 

Even nine years after Caroline’s death, Schelling was still mourning her loss and it fully awakened him to the spiritual, crushed his ego sufficiently to give him humility and changed his whole direction.  On 30th January 1811 he wrote that

‘I now live in such isolation that apart from a daily walk, I don’t go out of the house and I don’t see anyone apart from a young friend who is a keen zoologist and natural scientist who is my house and table companion”

The one event that appears to have been a revelation to Schelling were the last moments of Caroline on her death bed.  Although Schelling describes the event in a letter, he expresses it better in Clara, which appears at this point to be autobiographical:

As the shadow of death was approaching; a heavenly transfiguration shone within her whole being and that I believed never to have seen her so beautiful as in that moment approaching her demise… how her voice, which always had a melodic sound, then became heavenly music

Schelling himself realised that much of what he had written before was frankly, pretentious clap-trap.  He himself said that ‘only in the later years did I find the decisive ideas’.  After Caroline’s death, Schelling published very little.  Instead he attempted to rewrite everything he had ever written – many times over – and even then was never satisfied with what he had written.  Unfortunately one cannot turn a pig’s ear into a silk purse.

józef simmler death of barbara radziwił

In his early years, Schelling was trying to be a philosopher in the way philosophising was supposedly meant to be tackled.  It was only after the death of his wife and his ‘awakening’, that he realised where he had gone wrong.  In Clara [which we will come to shortly], his heroine criticises the difficult writing style of much of the philosophy of the day and wonders why philosophers don’t write more for the people instead of to impress each other.  Hegel had for a long time been something of a figure to emulate in Schelling’s eyes, although this changed after Caroline’s death.  At the time Hegel had just released his Phenomenology of Spirit and to call this ‘difficult prose’ would be a gross understatement.

Schelling’s preference in the end was for a more Platonic/Socrates style of dialogue.  Indeed, in his preface to Philosophie and Religion, Schelling actually stresses that conversation is a higher form for philosophical discussion, that it does not just serve as a means, it has real worth in itself.

As such it is only in his later works that we find anything of real value, and works far more indicative of his true philosophy.  These much later works are fascinating, and show a real understanding of areas that philosophy tends not to cover – such as the spiritual path.

The Spiritual works of F W J Schelling

Reproduction of J. F. A. Tischbein's portrait of Auguste in Georg
Waitz's edition of 1871 (by August Weger)

In Shellingiana Raroria, Schelling listed the works he felt to be representative of his later philosophy.  These include some which he specifically requested not be published.  And the main works are:

  • Clara – a work probably started around 1810, but not completed until much later and one he requested be destroyed, even though it is a marvellous piece of symbolic writing and one which appears extremely personal. As we have seen, Schelling’s wife Caroline died in 1810.  It proceeded in tandem with Schelling’s growing awareness and experience of spiritual phenomena, of which more shortly
  • The Ages of the World – was largely written between 1809-1827.  It was Schelling’s favourite project.  He never took it to print, and kept on working on it lovingly for many years.  It is now generally regarded as one of Schelling’s most famous and important works.  It is about the Great Work, the forces of Darkness and Light and how the two are needed in order for things to progress, the importance of contrast and the two forces of repulsion and attraction.
  • The Stuttgart seminars – Immediately after Caroline’s death, Schelling could not bear to live in Munich where there were too many memories of Caroline, so he moved temporarily to Stuttgart.  These lectures took place in 1810 for small gatherings of people – the ‘popular audience’ as opposed to students or academics.  They include the theme of life after death and are far more ‘spiritual’ than philosophic in content.  The Stuttgart seminars are informal and although written down were never published in Schelling’s lifetime
  • The Erlangen lectures - it was only in 1834, after the death of Hegel, that, in a preface to a translation by H. Beckers of a work by Cousin, Schelling gave public utterance to the antagonism in which he stood to the Hegelian and to his own earlier conceptions of philosophy. The antagonism certainly was not then a new fact; the Erlangen lectures on the history of philosophy (Sämmt. Werke, x. 124-125) of 1822 express the same in a pointed fashion, and Schelling had already begun the treatment of mythology and religion which in his view ‘constituted the true positive complement to the negative of logical or speculative philosophy’.

Other works of this time that appear to fit this same theme include:

  • Bruno  - or On the Natural and the Divine Principle of Things , trans. with an introduction by M. Vater, 1802 and
  • the Dream of Kirsos 

The Philosophy of Mythology was also an important work of the time, but suffered numerous revisions, as such it is difficult to know whether the text represents work in progress or his final ideas.  The recent discovery of the Original Version of the Philosophy of Revelation, that Schelling intended for publication and that Ehrhardt discovered in the library of the University of Eichstaett may also be worthy of inclusion in this list.

There are expressions that are the same in all languages.. one such expression is that one calls departed beings spirits and not souls.  Here one thinks of the whole person, but as spiritualised or essentialised


Clara is unique in philosophical literature, being a discussion told as a story; it can be read at a variety of levels, much like the Bible.  And just like the Bible, the text has a certain beauty as a result, because at times it rises to sheer poetry.

Clara, of course, means Light.  Or if you prefer enlightenment.

Clara is possibly Schelling’s only work that makes his thought more accessible and perhaps what is most ironic is that he never told anyone about the text except his son, and he told him to destroy it.  We can thank his son profusely that he did not obey his father’s wishes.

Clara is a story, but Schelling used the myth and story structure to describe some absolutely key concepts.  Clara, the heroine of the title, is the ‘feminine’ and thus the subconscious, the ‘doctor’ in the story is the ‘masculine’ and thus the Conscious and the Intellect. Schelling then uses the symbol of a priest [an odd choice, but it does work] to mean the Higher spirit.  [It may be helpful to have The Model of the Mind for reference whilst you read this]. The story is constructed like a dialogue between each three, with many references to the spiritual path and its stages. 

The story begins in Autumn which is of course the traditional symbolic stating point of all spiritual paths.  The story ends in Spring, which is allegorically the end stage of the spiritual path.  Given the rise of materialism and spread of Lutherism, one can see why Schelling was a little hesitant in revealing his beliefs. 

Rather amusingly he has a clergyman [a different character to the priest] espousing the view that the dead cannot be contacted, they are dead as regards this world and the two realms spirit and earth are entirely separate.  Our only link, according to this clergyman, with anything remotely spiritual is via our conscience. This is the Puritan view and Schelling very clearly did not believe it.  Schelling’s father was a clergyman in Leonberg, a theologian, and a man who had replaced a man called Paulus as the clergyman, because Paulus had been deemed to have “an unacceptable interest in spirit seeing”.  But it would seem that Schelling did not base the clergyman on his father, but on Paulus’s son, who took the opposite view to his father and became a ‘rational theologian’.  Paulus the younger later accused Schelling of ‘obscurantism’ and ‘mysticism’.

Schelling has all three of his other characters argue very convincingly that the clergyman does not know what he is talking about.  One of the fascinating facets of Schelling’s story is that ONLY the clergyman argues against trying to connect spiritual and physical.  The other three characters discuss the best way to complete the spiritual path, not that it can’t be done.

  • The priest [Higher spirit] – argues that the spiritual plays too small a role in this life and that at the moment we are not in balance, that we should make the spiritual a full part of life again
  • Clara – as the subconscious argues that a link exists between the spiritual and the non spiritual and she is in a sense that link
  • The doctor – as the conscious mind argues that we can find out about the spiritual by looking at the ‘physical’, in that the physical is a reflection of the spiritual.  Schelling had been a lover of Nature ever since his childhood and he appeared to believe that by observing Nature with the intellect one can find one’s way to the appreciate the spiritual realm.  This is a fascinating insight into how ‘science’ was intended to evolve, another route to spirituality and understanding

Equally important is that Schelling assumes there is a world of spirit.  He doesn’t seek to prove it, and it is clear that he is not interested in convincing anyone.  The story is for those who already believe or know.  Another assumption is that man is not a purely ‘physical’ being, as such the entire story proceeds from there.


Why did Schelling make these assumptions?  Well, as we have seen his dying wife provided his first entry into this belief, but Schelling also ‘knew’; he had not only had his own spiritual experiences, but had attended séances where he had witnessed any number of very interesting events.

In 1805, Schelling had moved to Munich.  Whilst there he worked with Ritter, conducting and publishing experiments on an Italian dowser named Campetti.  Furthermore, he read Jacob Boehme.  Schelling’s letters from 1806 to 1808 cover clairvoyance, dowsing, animal magnetism [forerunner of hypnosis and hypnotherapy] and he worked with his brother Karl who was actively engaged in experimenting with hypnosis.  One of Karl’s patients even predicted a death accurately.  Karl Schelling later published his study.

In 1807, Windischmann brought out a book on rebirths; and - extraordinarily -Schelling not only read the book, but told Windischmann that the book should have laid greater emphasis on the role of the will/ego and its breakdown.  This rather implies that Schelling had been through this process himself.

Tilliette (1970) in his research on Schelling found a letter that Schelling wrote to Schubert [not the composer] dated 30th December 1808, before Caroline’s death but after his step daughter Auguste’s death.  In the letter, Schelling told Schubert that clairvoyance was a foretaste of future life, and that it was the means by which one could contact those we have loved who have died.  Schubert in his turn sent Schelling details of his lectures on oracles, hypnotism and the symbolic role of the planets.

Tilliette (1977) further found that by 1817, Schelling had become totally fascinated by his brushes with the ‘paranormal’.  Schelling wrote to his brother in 1817, asking him what he thought of ‘action at a distance’ [psychokinesis] and spirits making knocking noises [apporting etc].  He incorporated his experiences in Clara, where there is a discussion about whether spirits can exert an influence from their world to this.

In other words, Clara is both autobiographical, describing Schelling’s progress on the spiritual path, as well as a philosophical treatise on his experiences.  A fascinating work from which we have drawn our observations.

Final years


Schelling eventually married again in 1812, to a friend of Caroline, a lady called Pauline. 

It was a very happy marriage and they stayed together for 40 years until his death.  They had six children.  Their sixth and last child Hermann was born in 1824, when Schelling was 49. 

Schelling spent his final years surrounded by children and lecturing.  In 1840, at the age of 65, he was called to Berlin to take Hegel’s chair.  He stopped lecturing in 1846, although his lectures were still very popular and his students had requested he stay. 

He died on 20th August 1854, in Bad Ragaz in Switzerland aged 79.  The Bavarian king erected a monument to him there which read simply “To the first thinker of Germany”.  On 13th December of the same year Pauline died too, aged just 67.

Introduction to Clara – Schelling
Ever since the peaceful harmony broke up in which the sciences lived not so long ago, philosophy can be characterised as an intense striving toward the spiritual that decidedly lacks a corresponding capacity to rise to it… just when philosophy wanted to take its highest approach to the spiritual, it sank to the very bottom and became more and more inadequate and incapable in relation to all higher objects.  ….our express intention is to show that a tie may be found going out from nature through which our as yet earthly sciences could continually rise up  toward heaven, for heaven does indeed appear to be their true fatherland



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