The contemporary art world is not usually where first-rate philosophical work is found. It is more comfortable with warmed-up leftovers from last week's fashions, a kind of philosophical arbitrage in which previously vetted and assimilated thought, perhaps turning a bit green under the bright light of critical scrutiny, enters the world of art criticism with the appearance of freshness. Yet New York-based critic and curator Klaus Ottmann has recently published the first English translation of Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling's often overlooked publication Philosophy and Religion (1804) and thus makes an original and important contribution to philosophical scholarship. Ottmann is the Robert Lehman Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Parrish Museum of Art in Southampton, New York, has curated over forty exhibitions, including the work of James Lee Byars, Rackstraw Downes, Fairfield Porter, Wolfgang Laib, Kiki Smith, and Tom Friedman, and written countless articles and art reviews. He also has an M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy and is one of the world's preeminent philosophical curators, which, as Klaus would be the first to admit, isn't saying much. In addition to his curatorial practice, he is Editor-in-Chief of Spring Publications, Inc., a small publishing house based in Putnam, Connecticut that specializes in books on psychology, philosophy, religion, mythology, and art. Through his editorial vision, Ottmann is participating in infusing art discourse with a deeper philosophical mindfulness. For a role that is most often associated with parties and social events, Ottmann's curatorial practice stands as a beacon of hope for a profession in need of authentic intellectual seriousness. (See more about his work here.)
This translation is another manifestation of Ottmann's continued interest in the inextricable yet complex relationship of religion to philosophy and art. This project is part of a larger trend in philosophical thought that is re-evaluating the relevance of Schelling's critique of Kant and its usefulness to contemporary philosophical, religious, and artistic discourse. Schoolmates of and close friends with both Hegel and Hölderlin at the Protestant seminary in Tübingen and in contact with Goethe, Schlegel, and Novalis in Jena, Schelling assumed Hegel's chair of Philosophy in Berlin in 1841, where many of the most important thinkers of the day attended his lectures, including Kierkegaard, Engels, Ranke, Burkhardt, and Alexander von Humboldt. Yet it was not long afterward that Schelling's thought fell out of favor, from which it has yet fully to recover. In the late nineteenth century Heinrich Heine, credited by Adorno for single-handedly killing the German romantic soul, stated, "Here philosophy stops with Herr Schelling, and poetry, that is to say, folly begins" (XV).
Schelling's "folly" is the attempt to resolve the dualistic implications in Kant's revolutionary thought by unifying nature (which, according to Kant, was deterministic) and the subject (which Kant argued was freely ethical and self-determining) in and through a deeper reality. Kant recognized this dualistic problem but his answer was simply to assert that nature could indeed produce self-determining subjects. As evidence Kant pointed to the subject's capacity to contemplate nature's forms aesthetically, that is, in a manner that treats them as ends (self-determining) and not means (determining). (Therefore, his well-known idea of "aesthetic disinterestedness" is a means for Kant to demonstrate that a free subject can indeed come from nature.) For Schelling, and for a number of other thinkers, like Hegel, this only exacerbated the problem and begged the question, how can a transcendent free subject emerge from immanent nature? Schelling's answer was to pose a fundamental and deeper unity of nature and subject, which he called the Absolute, which grounded all being. However, unlike Hegel, Schelling was convinced that philosophy, i.e., reason, could not provide access to the Absolute, since it could not completely and transparently reveal itself to itself.
In a move that would influence Nietzsche and Heidegger, the answer could be found in art, in the particular embodiment of thought in and through forms, which offers a way for thought to think itself in and through nature, not through its own narrow limits of abstract thought. In a philosophical world transformed through the Kantian bomb of faith within the tightly constructed bounds of reason alone, Schelling's career is a desperate attempt, amidst the destruction of Kant's Critiques, to rediscover the path of transcendence as a legitimate means of philosophical reflection.
Ottmann has done an important service to Schelling's text in the English-speaking world by including selections from his correspondence with his close friend Carl August Eschenmayer (1768-1852), a philosopher who was deeply critical of Schelling subsuming God and faith within the Absolute yet was Schelling's most careful and sensitive reader. For Eschenmayer, Schelling still had not solved the problem of how, as Ottmann puts it, "the Absolute in [his] system can come out of itself and become difference" (XII). It needed a "higher act," the act of faith. Schelling's text is thus revealed to be an initial, tentative, yet creative foray into the relationship of religion to philosophy, faith to reason in a world forever altered by Kant.
In his insightful introduction to his translation, Ottmann observes,
Because of Schelling's determination to philosophize on the edge of the "originary abyss," i.e., in the face of the Absolute, his philosophy is associated—almost by default—with failure with its own impossibility. In wanted to complete Kant's philosophy, Schelling ended up failing philosophy altogether in an endgame of theory by repeatedly tearing down his own achievements (XV).
Ottmann continues that it is not only the content of Schelling's thought, the Absolute, that is ripe for evaluation, but its form, which seems to sputter and surge, change directions, and otherwise manifest an utter and aggressive dissatisfaction with its own patterns and discoveries. Ottmann associates this with what Deleuze and Guattari's called "minor literature" (Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, University of Minnesota Press, 1986), which they argue, is "always connected to its own abolition."
In this troublesome and problematic text, Ottmann has not only revealed "a need for Schelling" in contemporary philosophy, as Hermann Braun suggested in 1990 (XVI), but he might also be helpful for rethinking the philosophical relationship and kinship of art and religion. Buy this beautiful book here. In a subsequent post I will reflect on the potential relevance of Schelling's folly for re-conceiving this relationship.