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Schelling on the Kinship of Philosophy and Art


[. . .]          

The Artist and the Work of Art

We are now in a position to see how in aesthetic production the conscious subject, or the self, is reconciled with the nonconsious object, or the world, in an absolute identity. Now such an absolute reconciliation of the no less absolute opposition between the self and the world is possible only because the absolute itself can be found nowhere else than in the very person of the artistic genius.

Schelling finds no difficulty in locating in the artistic genius the abode of the absolute. It is after all plain for Schelling that no other being is predisposed or falls prey more easily to contradiction, paradox, and conflict than the artist. Unlike the scientist who does not go beyond what is evident, and the logical philosopher who is afraid of contradictions, the artist not only thrives in opposition, but is himself a living contradiction.

One such contradiction is the ability of an artist to paint what he nowise saw nor could possibly see, to say what he does not fully understand or mean, or create what he could never have imagined himself capable of creating. Some of us are familiar with those instances when, after writing a poem or drawing a landscape, or even something as simple as taking a photograph, we sometimes are beside ourselves in disbelief that it was us who while no poet wrote that perfect couplet, that is was us who while no painter revealed the secrets of a hidden face or disclosed the faint sorrow of the hills, us who while no photographer saw through our lenses what the naked eye could not possibly see. Such a contradiction, while felt and experience rarely by most of us, as though accidentally, is for the artistic genius his very being and essence—at once a blessing and a curse, at once providential and punishing. Whence the mad genius, or the tortured artist. Whence a van Gogh, a Beethoven, or a Hölderlin.

There is in each artist, according to Schelling, a “dark unknown force,” a spirit, as it were, which inspires him (in+spirare: to be inflamed, breathed into by a spirit) to create what he otherwise cannot create by himself. And where else can that spirit come other than from the very world which speaks and oppresses all great artists? It is through the hands of the artist that the world is able to speak, and in the work of art the world is able to make itself manifest. Through that secret “power” bestowed by the world, the genius is granted a kind of “destiny” which enables him to realize in his works “without [his] knowledge and even against [his] will, goals that [he] did not envisage.”[i] Like a possessed man or a deranged criminal, the artist is able to see or say or show what he was not completely aware of at the moment of creation.

Sometimes the purpose of artistic creation is nothing benevolent or profound. Some artists create for selfish ends: they only wish to relieve themselves of the conflict between their consciousness and unconsciousness, minds and souls, to reconcile the voices within and without, and arrest the fleeting visions which from nowhere flash before the mind’s eyes. Schelling thus claims that

The fact that all aesthetic production rests upon a conflict of activities can be justifiably inferred already from the testimony of all artists, that they are involuntarily driven to create their works, and that in producing them they merely satisfy an irresistible urge of their own nature; for if every urge proceeds from a contradiction in such wise that, given the contradiction, free activity becomes involuntary, the artistic urge also must proceed from such a feeling of inner contradiction.[ii]

But in involuntarily setting down in a work of art what previously possessed him with no end, the artist also freely grants us a vision of the world no man can ever replicate. And the stronger the violence and tension inside the artist, the more striking his work appears to us. Yet to be sure, neither is the tension in the artist suddenly arrested or neutralized in the work of art, nor does it happen that the intensity of the artist is amplified in such a way that the work itself becomes violent to us. On the contrary, an eerie silence, at once resounding and entrancing, resonates in a great work of art. All great works of art possess the qualities of intensity and silence in equal measure; in them opposition and tension are sustained in constant equilibrium as if in indifference.

This, however, can only be possible if the artist before the moment of creation already bore and absorbed within him the opposing forces of self and world; thus in creating his work he as it were “merely” sets and freezes that indistinct opposition and tension into a lucid, yet no less striking, harmony—which we in turn are able to see and feel upon beholding it. Upon the accomplishment of his work, the artist is finally able to deliver himself from the infinite opposition to which he had succumbed, enabling him to at last experience that longed-for peace.

Schelling speaks of a unique kind of tranquility shared by both the artist and his work upon the completion of artistic creation:

Every aesthetic production proceeds from the feeling of an infinite contradiction, and hence also the feeling which accompanies completion of the art-product must be one of infinite tranquility; and this latter, in turn, must also pass over into the work of art itself. Hence the outward expression of the work of art is one of calm, and silent grandeur, even where the aim is to give expression to the utmost intensity of pain or joy.[iii]

Caravaggio. Judith beheading Holofornes (1600)

This infinite tranquility congealed and held in a visible work of art, able to capture and retain our restless gaze; or this infinite harmony which is both set down and set free in a piece of art, able to speak to us personally in its mute silence; or that ineffable holiness and invisible purity[iv] that illuminates all great works of art—this, above all, is what we call beauty. For Schelling, beauty is nothing other than “the infinite displayed in the finite.”[v] “The basic feature of every work of art,” Schelling concludes, “is therefore beauty, and without beauty there is no work of art.”[vi] As the resolution of “an infinite opposition in a finite product,”[vii] it is in a materially finite yet infinitely beautiful work of art that man is at last reconciled with the world which had once opposed and threatened to destroy him.

The Kinship of Philosophy and Art

After deducing the nature of the work of art, Schelling ends System of Transcendental Idealism with his reflections on the kinship of art and philosophy, and the affinity of the artist and philosopher. According to him, what the transcendental philosopher is able to subjectively conceive in an intellectual intuition, the artist is able to produce objectively by way of his imagination: “aesthetic intuition simply is the intellectual intuition become objective.”[viii] In other words, what for the transcendental philosopher is necessarily subjective and ideal—thus alienated and estranged from the objective world,—is for the artist what could be objectively produced, made visible, and shown in reality. “The work art,” he says, “merely reflects to me what is otherwise not reflected by anything, namely the absolutely identical which has already divided itself even in the self.”[ix] What the philosopher stammers in articulating, the artist is eloquently able to depict in his art. Or, to reverse Wittgenstein, what otherwise cannot be said can nevertheless be shown.

            Hence the kinship between philosophy and art: transcendental philosophy is the absolute intellectually intuited and ideally expressed, while art is the absolute aesthetically intuited and beautifully illustrated. Philosophy and art are of kin in that philosophy provides the conditions of the possibility of art—namely, contradiction and opposition, dichotomy and distinction between the self and the world; while art for its part resolves and reconciles in beauty the differentiation and destruction all philosophizing necessarily leaves in its wake.[x] Thus if one is to concede that art is philosophy made objective or seen, then “it is self-evident,” Schelling says, “that art is at once the only true and eternal organ and document of philosophy, which ever again and continues to speak to us what philosophy cannot depict in external form . . ..”[xi] In the artist’s ability to gather what the philosopher leaves shattered, Schelling thus concludes that

art is paramount to the philosopher, precisely because it opens to him, as it were, the holy of holies, where burns in eternal and original unity, as if in a single flame, that which in nature and history is rent asunder, and in life and action, no less than in thought, must forever fly apart.[xii]

In what perhaps raised the eyebrows of other academic philosophers at that time, Schelling, who was called by some as the “Prince of the Romantics,” elevates the status of art to a rank as high as, or even higher, than that of philosophy itself. For if philosophy in its origins according to Aristotle began as the desire to know; and if knowledge, as Plato says, is the longing of man to be reunited with what has been lost to him—Schelling now declares that art, as the accomplishment of an absolute identity and unity between man and the world, is both the beginning and end of philosophy, its source and its hope: in it dwells in its original purity what philosophy after its inception can only wish to recover, and hidden by it is the magic stone by which the philosopher is able to transform all things back into himself.[xiii]

The final aim of philosophy is to return to the simple marvel and wonder of art, where  all distinction before us disappears, and we once again or for the first time see ourselves with the infinite—an experience which Schelling elsewhere said Plato had once likened to death.[xiv]

excerpts from a paper for German Idealism class
15 March 2011

[i] F.W.J. Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism (1800), trans. Peter Heath and with an introduction by Michael Vater (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001), 222.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid., 225.
[iv] Ibid., 227.
[v] Ibid., 225.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Ibid., 226. Further on, he says regarding on imagination: “This productive power is the same whereby art also achieves the impossible, namely to resolve an infinite opposition in a finite product.” See 230.
[viii] Ibid., 229.
[ix] Ibid., 230.
[x] “Philosophy sets out from an infinite dichotomy opposed activities; but the same dichotomy is also the basis of every aesthetic production, and by each individual manifestation of art it is wholly resolved.” Ibid., 230.
[xi] Ibid., 231.
[xii] Ibid., 231.
[xiii] “Philosophy was born and nourished by poetry in the infancy of knowledge, and with it all those sciences it has guided toward perfection; we may thus expect them, on completion, to flow back like so many individual streams into the universal ocean of poetry from which they took their source.” Ibid., 232.           
[xiv] Schelling, Works, cited by Heidegger in Schelling’s Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom, __.



  1. Pardon me, but this was fucking fantastic. I can't belive how much I enjoyed this. Are you thinking of publishing it?

    All the best in your studies.


  2. Hi, Michael. Good to hear from you. I hope all is well.

    Glad to hear you liked it, or that it resonated with you. It's a work in progress, part of a draft for a course I took some months ago. Well, I'll see if it's something that I can pass; the thing is, I don't know if this kind of writing is something that people will publish around here. It might be too, well, "lyrical."

    Thanks for stopping by. Cheers.


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