Schelling on the University in an Age of Utility

HomeArticlesSchelling on the University in an Age of Utility

“Reason is not a faculty, not a tool, nor can it be used. Anyhow there is no reason at all which we could have, but only a reason which has us.”[i]


Along with the technological progress of the modern world has come an increasing awareness of the need for reflection on the moral status of technology.[ii] Modern technological development has facilitated unprecedented contributions to the “relief of man‘s estate,”[iii] but it has also been an accomplice to many evils—in many cases, a single innovation has given cause for both celebration and condemnation. This tension illuminates the moral ambiguity of technology: the very fact that the same technology can be used for good or evil suggests that the moral question does not lie with the technology itself but rather with the one who puts it to use. Technology is a means, not an end in itself, and, as such, its moral status depends on the ends for which we employ it.

Yet it is also true that technology exercises a seductive charm upon us. Its potential conveniences, the power it offers, the good it can do—all of these lure us toward it. The possibility ever remains that we will succumb to the tendency to servilely develop technology, while forgetting the need to question the ends for which we use it—that we will allow our enthusiasm for technological progress to compromise our moral existence. But again, the source of the danger is not within technology itself but within us, and, in fact, the tendency to develop technology without question is just one manifestation of a deeper inclination in modernity to which we are prone. This inclination has been labeled in a variety of ways by twentieth-century political theorists.

Eric Voegelin, for instance, has argued that one of the defining features of modernity has been a turn away from the transcendent and toward the immanent.[iv]  Leo Strauss has criticized the development of the distinction between facts and values in the social sciences and the loss of the question of the best regime as the guiding question of political science.[v]  Hannah Arendt has detailed how life itself (rather than some higher end) has come to be the highest good in modernity.[vi]  The list could go on, but the upshot is that we no longer think of the world as a finite reflection of an immortal realm of ideas, or as a time of preparation for a better world to come, as our Greek or Christian predecessors might have. Instead, we tend to think that the world is all we have, that what matters is the here and now. It is perhaps no wonder, then, that we struggle to preserve an awareness of the need to maintain moral control over technology. In the absence of such an extra-worldly point of orientation, it is not clear that we have a reason to question what appears to contribute to progress in the world.

As some scholars have recognized, the reduction of reason to its instrumental mode is concomitant with this view of the world.[vii]  Reason as noetic—as illuminating the order of being of which we are a part—is forgotten or repressed in favor of the view that reason is a tool. Reason is no longer understood as the horizon of our existence or as an end in itself; instead, it is thought to be an implement for achieving certain ends that are external to it. This instrumentalization of reason lying at the heart of the modern technological impulse diminishes our humanity because it dulls us to the moral and spiritual aspects of our existence. More than that, it threatens to pervert our existence because it inverts the order of things: the reason that is our capacity for moral and spiritual reflection is placed in the service of our material existence. What is of ultimate worth is subordinated to what is fleeting.

This, at least, is F. W. J. Schelling’s argument in his 1802 Lectures on the Method of Academic Study,[viii] where he rails against the tendency to reduce philosophy and science to the ends of utility and practicality.[ix] Against the “shallow apostles of practicality in science,” who would have the universities serve the pragmatic needs of the state, Schelling argues that the pursuit of knowledge is an end in itself and that it must be treated as such; any so-called useful knowledge that may come from the pursuit of science must remain secondary. To have it otherwise, Schelling argues, is to pervert science by pressing a higher end into the service of a lower one.

Schelling’s Lectures on university education are relevant to a discussion of technology because they address the deeper issues in modernity that underlie the problem of technology: the instrumentalization of reason and the dominance of the utilitarian perspective. Schelling addresses these issues through his critique of the modern university, but he identifies them as characteristics of the modern world in general; thus, Schelling links his critique of the modern university to a critique of modernity as a whole. The link is both legitimate and important to recognize in Schelling’s mind because he thinks that developments in philosophy and society mutually impact one another. As he sees it, the corruption of the universities both reflects and exacerbates the underlying turn to utility and practicality across society. Insofar as technology is another manifestation of the same general trends in modernity, it seems safe to conclude that much of what Schelling has to say about these trends in the Lectures would equally apply to the inclination to blindly pursue technology without moral reflection.

With this connection in mind, it can be said that Schelling’s Lectures contribute to the discussion concerning technology in several ways. First, Schelling provides a metaphysical context within which we can understand the deeper forces that are at work behind the modern technological impulse. Second, he points to the potential consequences of reducing reason to its instrumental mode and blindly pursuing utility as our end. Finally, he offers us a way to inoculate ourselves against the danger that is occasioned by technology and suggests how the modern world might still regain a sense of the higher aspect of human existence. All of these points emerge from Schelling’s critique of the modern university.

The “Absolute” Purpose of a University

Schelling definitively sides with those who hold that the university should be a place for liberal learning and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. In his own terminology, this means that the purpose of the university should be the pursuit of “absolute knowledge,” which is the eternal and unified knowledge of the whole that serves as the archetype for our finite and fragmented understanding of reality. As Schelling writes, it is “unconditioned knowledge, one and entire—the primordial knowledge, which in the phenomenal world exists only in separate branches, no longer as one single great tree of knowledge.”[x] As such, absolute knowledge serves as “both the source of all the sciences and their final destination,”[xi] a fact which, in the context of Schelling’s metaphysics, confers inherent worth upon the sciences.

The possibility of absolute knowledge depends on the assumption of the “essential identity of the real with the ideal,”[xii] that is, on the assumption that being and thinking are identical. Schelling thinks that this unity cannot be proven, but he maintains that it is the fundamental condition of the possibility of all science, and, therefore, must be accepted.[xiii] To illustrate his point, he provides the example of a universal law of nature. The purpose of such a law, according to Schelling, “is to resolve the concreteness and opacity of particular phenomena in a universal rational knowledge which should be self-evident and transparent.” In other words, a universal law of nature represents an attempt to idealize some aspect of the objective world by rationally explaining it. But this presupposes in a way that the ideal already informs the real, that it is already present within it, waiting for the scientist to discover it and raise it up into the realm of knowledge. Thus, when he seeks to uncover a universal law of nature, the scientist is assuming that there is at least the possibility of a correspondence between thinking and being. In fact, Schelling argues, the scientist is assuming that the ideal is substantially the real and vice versa, for “knowledge would be altogether inconceivable unless the intrinsically ideal, which in temporal knowledge appears in finite form, were not itself the reality and substance of things.”[xiv]

As the preceding illustrates, Schelling’s concept of absolute knowledge depends on his metaphysics. In fact, the possibility of all knowledge depends on the reality of the absolute: the identity of the real and the ideal, of the known and the knower, is possible only because in the absolute they are, in fact, substantially one. The unity of subject and object in our thinking depends on their prior unity in reality. As Schelling explains: “This essential identity between the absolutely ideal and the absolutely real, is possible only because that which is the one is also the other. Now, this is nothing less than the Idea of the absolute—that is, in relation to the absolute, Idea is also Being. In other words, the absolute is the supreme presupposition of all knowledge, the first knowledge.”[xv]  Absolute knowledge is knowledge of the absolute, which, as the unity of the real and the ideal, is the whole of reality. As such, it is the horizon of our thinking—“all other knowledge is in the absolute and is itself absolute”[xvi]—and all attempts to know that fall outside of the absolute are rendered null: “There can be no true knowledge which is not directly or indirectly the expression of primordial knowledge.”[xvii] Everything is contained within the absolute.

As has already been suggested, the absolute in its pure absoluteness necessarily escapes our grasp. Our finite minds are limited (i.e., not absolute), and, therefore, by definition cannot grasp the absolute in its absoluteness. Yet, by virtue of our existence within the absolute, we have an inward capacity to know it: “Although primordial knowledge is originally present only in the absolute itself, it is also present in ourselves in the idea of the essence of all things and in the eternal idea of ourselves; and our total system of knowledge can be only a copy of that eternal knowledge.”[xviii] The philosopher in particular has the ability to gain insight into the absolute through an intellectual intuition of the absolute: “Philosophical intuition is rational or intellectual intuition and identical with its object—with primordial knowledge itself.”[xix] Thus, while it is true that we never hold knowledge of the absolute in its absoluteness, it is also true that we are never cut off from participation in its truth, however imperfect our knowledge of the absolute may be.

The recognition of our incomplete grasp of the absolute is what drives us to philosophize. There is a sense in the text that philosophizing is for Schelling more than an intellectual activity. After explaining Pythagoras’ invention of the term philosophia to emphasize that “God alone is wise,”[xx] Schelling proclaims that “all knowledge is a striving for communion with the divine essence, for participation in the primordial knowledge of which the visible universe is the image and whose source is the fountainhead of eternal power.”[xxi] The language of “participation” and “communion with the divine” suggests that, for Schelling, philosophizing is an existential movement of the soul. Spurred on by the recognition of our incomplete knowledge of the absolute, we philosophize out of a desire to better attune ourselves to the order of being. This view is further supported by Schelling’s remarks concerning the absolute identity of thinking and acting. He claims that “knowledge and action are opposed only at the finite level,” that “there can be no true action which does not express . . . the primordial action, and through it the divine essence.”[xxii] Both thought and action, then, are properly directed toward the absolute.

Returning to the university, it would seem that, as the home of philosophy and science, it houses the human search for knowledge of the order of reality and our place within it. Since we do not have knowledge of the absolute in its absoluteness, we must pursue absolute knowledge in a piecemeal fashion through the various sciences (which, according to Schelling, should be organized by philosophy[xxiii]). The purpose of the sciences, then, is absolute knowledge, the attainment of which is the end of human existence. Since the sciences emanate from the absolute and strive toward it, they are ends in themselves: “Everything . . . which springs directly from the absolute is itself absolute; it has no purpose outside itself, is an end in itself.”[xxiv] This is why Schelling holds that all practical applications of science (including technology) must be secondary and subordinate to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. In fact, Schelling seems to think that the study of the uses of science may not have a place in the university. Instead, the university should only be concerned with the pursuit of absolute knowledge. As Schelling writes, “Universities can have only an absolute purpose—beyond that they have none.”[xxv]

The Tension between Philosophy and “Theory”

Unfortunately, Schelling laments, university studies are not always orientated toward absolute knowledge as their essential goal. Registering a complaint that is still heard today, Schelling notes that universities are expected to provide training and skills that will be useful in the workforce, rather than to develop students in intellect and culture.[xxvi] Indeed, the students themselves often come to a university with such expectations. “It happens too often,” Schelling notes, “that concern for universal culture is neglected in the individual’s concern for his profession: the student trying to make himself a good lawyer or physician loses sight of the far higher purpose of learning, which is to ennoble one’s mind through knowledge.”[xxvii] Such students attend university in order to acquire what Schelling refers to as “theory,” rather than to pursue philosophy or true science.

Theory, as Schelling understands it, is the sort of knowledge that is aimed at useful or practical applications in the so-called “real world.”  It is unlike philosophy because it does not aim at a speculative insight into the nature of the whole. Instead, theory is concerned with obtaining knowledge about the world that can be practically applied. Theory is developed by abstracting universal laws from the world of particulars; thus, unlike philosophy, its “starting point is always a specific object, not a universal and absolute insight.”[xxviii] In fact, theory is much closer to ordinary experience than it is to philosophy. It “differs from experience only in this, that it expresses experience more abstractly, apart from accidental conditions.”[xxix] As “a mixture of the particular and the universal,” theory is thus fundamentally different from philosophy, which seeks only the universal, i.e., knowledge of the pure absolute.

The connection between technology and Schelling’s text is found most explicitly in his remarks concerning theory. Whereas philosophy is the existential search illuminating our existence and the concern of everyone, theory is the concern only of “those who regard knowledge as the means and action as the end [and] derive their idea of knowledge from everyday activities, in which knowledge indeed serves as a means to action.” Such people believe, Schelling continues, that:

“theory is supposed to tell them how to raise crops, how to develop the arts and crafts, and how to rebuild their dissipated powers. They think that geometry is fine, not because it is the most self-evident science, the most objective expression of reason itself, but because it teaches how to measure fields and build houses or is useful in plotting the courses of merchant ships. . . .”[xxx]

In other words, theory is a product of reason in its instrumental mode, and, as these passages suggest, it includes technology.

Schelling is not against theory (or, by extension, technology) in and of itself. Rather, his concern is that his contemporaries tend to think that theory is more important than philosophy or pure science. To Schelling’s mind, this is an inversion of the true order of things, since philosophy and science are concerned with absolute knowledge, which is higher than practical knowledge. It is a perversion of their purpose to judge them according to their practical usefulness. As Schelling writes:

“To speak of the uses of philosophy I consider beneath its dignity. Anyone who can ask what its usefulness might be is assuredly not capable of any conception of it. By its very nature it is exempt from consideration of utility. It exists for its own sake alone; its very essence would be destroyed if it existed for the sake of anything else.”[xxxi]

As the highest science, philosophy contains and orders all of the others. Therefore, to subordinate philosophy to another form of knowledge would be an offense against both philosophy and our humanity—in both cases for the same reason: the universal would be placed in service of the particular.

According to Schelling’s metaphysics, human beings are conscious participants in both the real and the ideal aspects of reality, but it is the ideal that is higher in dignity. Our existence transcends the material world in some sense, so submitting ourselves to the finite, practical world as our ultimate end results in a diminishment of our humanity. Thus Schelling is critical of those students who, unfit for the true pursuit of science, “practice resignation from the outset, keep to the beaten track, and at most try to assimilate—applying themselves mechanically, merely memorizing—only as much knowledge as they suppose will be profitable in their future trade or profession.”[xxxii] These students are not concerned with developing their intellects or broadening their horizons; instead, they view their education as a means to some other end that is external to it. In fact, Schelling adds, that by subjecting their studies to some external end, these students are elevating that end above the true end of their own existence. “Students of this kind pursue knowledge exclusively for utilitarian purposes; in other words, they look upon themselves as a mere means.”[xxxiii]

The last passage is especially remarkable in light of Schelling’s later analysis of evil in his 1809 Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom.[xxxiv] In the Investigations, Schelling argues that evil arises in the attempt to pervert the true order of reality by subordinating a higher level of being to a lower one. The analysis again depends upon Schelling’s metaphysics, and, in particular, on the distinction he draws between “being in so far as it exists and being in so far as it is merely the ground of existence.”[xxxv] The ground is the basis for existence, but it is neither the entirety of existence, nor its purpose. Evil arises when one attempts to elevate the ground and assert it as the end of existence instead of leaving it in its role as a foundation; it is manifested when a peripheral part strives to become the central principle of the whole of which it is a part. Thus, evil is a perversion of the proper order of a whole. In human beings, this occurs when we make the finite our end rather than the infinite: “The general possibility of evil consists, as shown, in the fact that man, instead of making his selfhood into the basis, the instrument, can strive to elevate it into the ruling and total will and, conversely, to make the spiritual within himself into a means.”[xxxvi]

Schelling’s analysis of the consequences of choosing evil in the Investigations also runs parallel to his views on the subordination of philosophy and science to utility. As a manifestation of a perversion of order, Schelling holds that evil is a real possibility, and an active force in the world; yet, properly speaking, it is nothing: “As disease is admittedly nothing having inherent being [nichts Wesenhaftes] . . . so it is with evil”[xxxvii]  Evil is a turning away from being, since it is a turning away from the source and principle of being. On account of this, evil (although quite obviously present to us) can never actually succeed in establishing itself as the principle of being. The turn toward evil, therefore, is necessarily a turn toward non-being.[xxxviii] “In evil there is the self-consuming and always annihilating contradiction that it strives to become creaturely just by annihilating the bond of creaturely existence and, out of overweening pride to be all things, falls into non-being.”[xxxix] Although the effects of evil are quite obviously present in our world, and the consequences of choosing it are real, evil itself can never gain a foothold on being.

And so it is, according to Schelling, when we blindly develop technology without moral consideration, or sacrifice the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake in favor of the useful. In so doing we attempt to place the particular above the universal and invert their true ranking. Yet our efforts must ultimately prove fruitless and even self-undermining. Although we can attempt to subordinate our absolute purpose to our finite ends (and do great harm in trying), we can never succeed, for we cannot break with the true order of being in the end. The finite aspect of our existence will always remain the ground for our participation in a higher order of being. By subordinating the pursuit of knowledge to its practical applications or devoting ourselves to technological development without moral control, we thus engage in a potentially destructive and ultimately futile struggle against our absolute purpose.

The Turn from the Absolute in Modernity

Schelling suggests two reasons for why he thinks that the universities themselves are partly to blame for the turn away from the absolute in modernity. The first concerns their organizational structure. More specifically, Schelling points to the specialization of the sciences, which he attributes to an increasing concern with the history of science and the need to process the “great mass of already existing material.”[xl]  As a result of the growing interest in the wisdom of the past, “knowledge was divided into as many different branches as possible,” and “this fragmentation eventually brought about a situation in which knowledge itself was almost lost sight of in an ever narrower concern for means and institutions.”[xli] In the wake of specialization, scholars became absorbed by their particular field of study and they forgot the absolute unity of which their sciences are a part. Concerning this development, Schelling acerbically remarks, “While a host of busywork scholars were mistaking the means for the end and trying to impose this view, knowledge, which is one and entire—and absolute in its oneness—withdrew to the higher disciplines and even there rarely exhibited much independence.”[xlii]

The second factor that Schelling identifies, closely related to the first, is that the professors themselves have lost sight of the absolute purpose of their research. They no longer strive for absolute knowledge or understand how their particular fields contribute to it. In some instances, scholars allow the criteria for knowledge to be obscured. “It is one thing to make the past an object of scientific investigation,” Schelling writes, but it is “another to put acquaintance with the past in the place of knowledge itself. Historical erudition in this sense becomes an obstacle to true knowledge; what it asks is no longer whether a thing is true, but whether it is in conformity with some derivative of the original insight, some imperfect copy of it.”[xliii] Others place their research in the service of practical goals, even though this is a distortion of their science: as Schelling puts it, “a scientist is faithful to the spirit of the whole only to the extent that he considers his field an end in itself, an absolute.”[xliv]  In either case, by turning away from the absolute purpose of science, the scholar undermines his field: “the less able he is to conceive of it as universal, the more will he—consciously or unconsciously—comprehend it only as a means, for that which is not an end in itself can only be a means.”[xlv] In such cases, even the professors themselves contribute to the perversion of the idea of the university.

Beyond these internal factors, however, Schelling contends that there are broader cultural forces contributing to the forgetting of the absolute in the universities—that the corruption of the universities is itself only one manifestation of the broader trajectory of modernity. The ultimate source of the corruption of the universities is the turn away from the absolute and toward utility in the general understanding of philosophy. In Schelling’s text, this issue arises in the context of a discussion concerning the alleged threat that philosophy poses to the political community.

Schelling denies that true philosophy is dangerous to the state, but he concedes that “there is one philosophical tendency that is pernicious to the state and another that undermines its foundations.”[xlvi]  The first is witnessed “when ordinary knowledge claims that it is absolute knowledge or that it can act as judge of the latter.”[xlvii]  Ordinary knowledge belongs to the “common understanding,” by which Schelling means “the understanding nurtured by false and superficial education, taught to be content with hollow, empty ratiocination and to think of itself as highly cultured.”[xlviii] The predominant characteristic here is the exercise of reason as ratiocinative without reference to the noetic function of reason. Thus, “philosophy” becomes a threat to the state when it is characterized by the “elevation of the ratiocinative understanding above reason.”[xlix]

Within Schelling’s metaphysical framework, this amounts to a perversion of the true order of being, since it places a lower order of knowledge above a higher one. The consequences of such a perversion are potentially grave because it cuts us off from the eternal ideas that inform the true order of reality. By turning away from the absolute, we risk a fall into immorality, for “there is no morality without Ideas, and all moral action is moral only as an expression of Ideas.”[l] Schelling points to the “atrocities” of the French Revolution as an illustration of the latent danger that lurks when ratiocinative understanding displaces noetic reason, and he concludes with a warning: “The elevation of the common understanding to the role of arbiter in matters of reason leads inevitably to ochlocracy in the realm of the sciences and sooner or later to mob rule in every other domain.”[li] Once we no longer orient our existence towards the absolute, we invite the possibility of an arbitrary replacement, whether that be wealth, power, esteem, or some other lesser end.

So-called philosophy becomes an even greater danger to the state when it succumbs to the tendency to “aim only at the useful.” According to Schelling, this possibility “absorbs the first,” so that, in the final analysis, the turn towards utility in modernity is the core of the problem that Schelling is addressing. Having reduced reason to its ratiocinative or instrumental mode, we then apply it to utilitarian purposes—utility is the end that we have put in place of the absolute. This is distressing, for, as Schelling ominously remarks, “surely nothing is more variable and less reliable than such a norm; what is useful today will be harmful tomorrow.”[lii]  Utility is neither an absolute, nor a stable measure of our thoughts and actions; by setting it as our end, we submit ourselves to the arbitrary whims of the day.

It should now be clear how Schelling’s analysis applies equally to the moral problem of technology as well. The technological impulse, like the turn to the practical in the modern university, is a manifestation of the turn to utility in modernity. Just as the absolute purpose of the university is threatened by such a move, so too is our relationship to technology. The problem is that all such developments threaten to blind us to the absolute purpose of our existence. When we become the blind servants of technology, or subordinate science to its practical applications, we subject our moral and spiritual existence to the rule of our material existence. But the tendency to do so is really just a product of a wider cultural tendency to pervert the true order of our existence by making utility and the practical our measure. Fortunately, Schelling thinks, we are not fated to maintain this path (a view which distinguishes him from Martin Heidegger, for instance, who famously claimed that “only a god can save us”[liii]). The answer for Schelling begins, at least in part, with a reinvigoration of liberal education and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake in the universities.

Prospects for Modernity

Schelling’s solution is at once simple and difficult. He thinks that we must regain a living sense of our participation within the absolute, both in philosophy and in society as a whole. Rather than turn away from the absolute, we must strive to live within it. The task depends on individual effort,[liv] and, at least in the case of the universities, it must begin with the professors, who are responsible for guiding the students toward a true understanding of the sciences. University teachers must understand how their sciences fit into the pursuit of absolute knowledge as a whole, or else they risk obscuring the true nature and purpose of their research: “A methodology of university study must be rooted in actual and true knowledge of the living unity of all the sciences, and…without such knowledge any guidance can only be lifeless, spiritless, one-sided, limited.”[lv] Moreover, professors must regain a living understanding of their sciences, for many discoveries “are of a kind whose inner essence can be grasped only by a kindred genius through a rediscovery in the literal sense of the word.”[lvi] Only those who have an inward understanding of their science and its connection to the whole will be able to guard against a corruption of purpose.

Such an approach is, moreover, a criterion for teaching: “The university lecturer is supposed to explain his subject genetically. This is the real advantage of live instruction: the lecturer does not merely give results, as the writer does, but shows—in the higher sciences at least—how these results were reached.”[lvii] Consequently, “a man who lives within his science as though on another’s property, who is not himself in possession, who has never acquired a sure and living feeling for it, who is incapable of sitting down and reconstructing it for himself, is an unworthy teacher even when he attempts no more than to expound ideas of others.”[lviii] University teachers must not only study the history of their science, but they must become practitioners of it. Only then will they be qualified to help the students who come to them for education. For, as Schelling writes, “the young student, as he starts his academic career, is getting his first experience of emancipation from blind faith; for the first time he is acquiring and exercising his own judgment.”[lix] In order to help students in their development in this respect, the professors themselves must be able to help the student acquire a personal and inward understanding of the subjects they study.

Thus, the ultimate goal is to convey to the students not only information, but the creative impulse that leads to scientific discovery and inward understanding. For Schelling, this is an imperative of human existence: “All rules for study are summed up in this one: learn only in order to create. Only by his divine capacity for production is man truly man; without it, no more than a tolerably well-devised machine.”[lx] This is what Schelling means when he writes that “mere transmitting of knowledge without personal creative understanding is not enough if the teacher is to obtain the results he should.”[lxi] The teacher must help the student to “grasp the particular science in such a way that he is not a slave to it, but a free man within it.”[lxii] Science is a vehicle that can liberate us by carrying us toward an absolute understanding of our existence.

Although the preceding reflections are confined to the question of how the universities can be reformed, it is evident that Schelling hopes his Lectures will have a broader impact. Schelling believes that the world of thought cannot help but have an impact on the broader world, and, therefore, he is confident that improvements in the philosophical situation will lead to improvements in the cultural one. As he writes: “Changes in the external world correspond to quieter but no less profound changes in the minds of men, in accordance with a necessary law.”[lxiii] Indeed, Schelling’s conviction that the world of science can have an impact on the world as whole is clearly one of his reasons for giving and subsequently publishing these Lectures: offered as a public and simplified explanation of his philosophy, he could hope that they would reach a wider audience than his other works.[lxiv] This fact also indicates the important role that Schelling thought the universities would have to play in the revitalization of western culture, which again suggests the broader impact that Schelling was hoping to have.

So, Schelling is optimistic that reform is possible. Despite what he has to say about the loss of absolute purpose in modernity in the Lectures, Schelling also expresses confidence that the modern world is beginning to regain its proper course. He believes that philosophy, the universities, and, ultimately, modern culture are heading toward a healthier state of affairs. He expects improvement, first, in terms of the universities themselves: referring to the influence of the growing unity of art and the sciences, he suggests that the “process of interpenetration will eventually do away with the present confusion and give rise to superior institutions.” In other words, Schelling thinks that the universities will regain a sense of unity and rediscover their absolute purpose. He also suggests that: “the modern world is ultimately destined to formulate a higher, truly comprehensive unity. Both science and art are moving in that direction.”[lxv] Led by the recovery of the absolute in the sciences, the broader world will regain a sense of the absolute. His optimism is palpable when he claims: “An epoch such as our own is surely bound to give birth to a new world.”[lxvi]

Over 200 years later, modern commentators may find it difficult to share Schelling’s optimism. For one thing, there are still many similarities between Schelling’s criticisms of universities and those heard today, making it far from evident that the arts and sciences have regained their lost sense of absolute purpose.[lxvii] It is even less clear that the modern world has regained a sense of the absolute purpose of human existence. Yet the fact that we are still caught up in the same tensions should not cause us to reject Schelling’s reflections on the solution, for it only reinforces the continuing relevance of his analysis. As Eric Voegelin has suggested, it may just be a matter of time before Schelling’s work will begin to enjoy greater influence:

“A philosopher of the stature of Schelling can be relegated from the public scene when the movements occupying it are spiritually decadent, but he cannot be prevented from exerting an undercurrent influence that will swell in importance with time. The very tension between the realist and his age that precludes an immediate effectiveness will be dissolved in a delayed effect when the spiritually blind forces have run their course into helpless confusion.” In Voegelin’s opinion, “the effectiveness of Schelling . . . has hardly begun. [. . .] But we can see his work emerge as one of the most important points of orientation for a modern philosophy of human existence.”[lxviii]

It is in that spirit, then, that we should turn to Schelling, for he stands as a philosopher of the absolute in a time when the absolute tends to be forgotten.

Conclusion: Schelling’s Lectures and the Moral Problem of Technology

Some might think that Schelling’s Lectures on the Method of Academic Study seem at first glance to be a strange choice for an essay on the dangers associated with modern technology. Yet, as the preceding has shown, the Lectures go far beyond their titular subject to provide a critique of the modern age, and this critique is of great relevance for the moral questions arising from the continuing development of modern technology. According to Schelling’s analysis, the core problem of modernity—within the universities and without—is an unbalanced concern for the practical and the useful, and, as was shown, this encompasses technology as the practical application of science. Thus, while the Lectures are not predominantly about technology, Schelling addresses the question of technology indirectly through a discussion of the deeper source of the danger it presents.

Schelling does not argue that the useful, the practical, or technology are bad in themselves. Rather, he shows that they become problematic when we allow them to displace the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake as the end of philosophy and science. The consequence of this displacement is a forgetting of the absolute and a turn toward the finite as the ultimate end of existence. For Schelling this amounts to a perversion of not only science, but of human existence itself, since it lulls us into an intellectual and spiritual slumber that causes us to lose sight of our participation in the absolute. The consequences of this are potentially severe, for it is only through our orientation toward the absolute that we remain in balance with the metaphysical order of which we are a part. When we attempt to replace our absolute purpose with material ends (technological or otherwise), we place ourselves on a trajectory that is inherently unstable and potentially dehumanizing.

In the end, Schelling argues, it is up to us to maintain the balance between our absolute purpose and technological development. We cannot overcome the absolute horizon of our existence, which is to say that we can never escape the moral tension between our absolute end and the demands of our material existence. But we cannot abandon technology either. Rather, we must resist its attraction even as we pursue it; we must remain steadfast in our efforts to exert moral control over it. Technology in itself is a good. It corrupts our existence only when we permit it to overwhelm the moral considerations that flow from our absolute purpose.



[i] F. W. J. Schelling, “Aphorismen zur Einleitung in die Naturphilosophie (1806)” in F. W. J. Schelling, Ausgewaehlte Schriften, Bd. 3: 1804-1806, ed. Manfred Frank (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1985), 637-638 (Aphorism 46).  Translation from: “Schelling’s Aphorisms of 1805,” trans. Fritz Marti, Idealistic Studies, v. 14 (3) 1984, pp. 237-258, 250.

[ii] The most famous example is probably Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), but there is a growing tradition of reflection on technology.  A recent collection brings together selections of many of the most important works on the philosophy of technology: Robert C. Scharff & Val Dusek, ed., Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition: an Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003).  For some recent reflections on the Philosophy of Technology see David Tabachnick & Toivo Koivukoski, ed., Globalization, Technology and Philosophy (Albany: SUNY Press, 2004).

[iii] Francis Bacon, The Oxford Francis Bacon, vol 4: The Advancement of Learning, ed. Michael Kiernan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 32 (quotation modernized).

[iv] See, for instance, Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1952).  For a similar argument, see Karl Löwith, Meaning in History (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1949).

[v] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1950); Leo Strauss, “What is Classical Political Philosophy?” in  An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays by Leo Strauss ed. Hilail Gilden (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989).

[vi] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd ed. (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1958).

[vii] See, for instance, Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992); David Walsh, Guarded by Mystery: Meaning in a Postmodern Age (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1999) and The Third Millennium: Reflections on Faith and Reason (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1999).

[viii] F. W. J. Schelling, On University Studies, trans E. S. Morgan, ed. Norbert Guterman (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1966).  For the original German see Manfred Schröter, ed., Schellings Werke, vol. 3 (Munich: Beck and Oldenbourg, 1927). Citations of the translation are followed by the corresponding page numbers from the Schröter edition in parentheses.

[ix] Note that the German word for science, Wissenschaft, has a broader meaning than its English counterpart, so that it includes philosophy as well as the natural and social sciences.

[x] Schelling, On University Studies, 9 (237).

[xi] Ibid., 42 (270).

[xii] Ibid., 9 (237).

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid., 10 (238).

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid., 15 (244).  Schelling makes several likeminded statements throughout the text.  “Every thought not conceived in this spirit of unity and totality is intrinsically empty, of no account.  Whatever cannot be incorporated into this active, living whole is dead matter to be eliminated sooner or later.” Ibid., 11 (239).  “Only knowledge in its totality can be a perfect reflection of the archetypal knowledge, but each single insight and every individual science are organic parts of this whole, and hence all knowledge that is not directly or indirectly related to primordial knowledge is without reality or meaning.” Ibid., 15 (244).

[xviii] Ibid., 10 (238-9).

[xix] Ibid., 49 (277).  Schelling elaborates: “Philosophical construction interprets what is grasped in intellectual intuition.  The particular identities, which, like the universal identity, express absolute primordial knowledge, can be grasped only in intellectual intuition, and in this sense are Ideas.  Philosophy is therefore the science of Ideas or the eternal archetypes of things.” Ibid.

[xx] Ibid., 11 (239).

[xxi] Ibid., 11-12 (239).

[xxii] Ibid., 13 (242), 15 (244).

[xxiii] In Schelling’s time, this was a relatively new idea.  See Daniel Brezeale, “Philosophy for Beginners: A Comparative Reading of Fichte’s Crystal Clear Public Report and Schelling’s Lectures on the Method of University Study,” in Schelling: zwischen Fichte und Hegel, eds. Christoph Asmuth, Alfred Denker & Michael Vater  (Amsterdam & Philadelphia: Grüner/Benjamin, 2000).  As Breazeale notes, Kant was the pioneer in this respect.  See Immanual Kant, The Conflict of the Faculties, trans. Mary J. Gregor & Robert Anchor, in: Immanuel Kant, Religion and Rational Theology, eds. Allen W. Wood & George di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[xxiv] Schelling, On University Studies, 12 (240).

[xxv] Ibid., 29 (258).

[xxvi] Incidentally, Schelling thinks that this expectation both threatens the purpose of the university and undermines itself.  He explains that what those who hold such expectations do not realize is that such training is best served when it is considered secondary to the pure pursuit of science.  “The usual view of the universities is that they should produce servants of the state, perfect instruments for its purposes.  But surely, such instruments should be formed by science.  Thus, to achieve such an aim through education, science is required.  But science ceases to be science the moment it is degraded to a mere means, rather than furthered for its own sake.” Ibid., 23, n. 6 (251).  So the increasing concern for practice and utility undermines the practical usefulness of the sciences and limits the usefulness of the students who receive such an education.

[xxvii] Ibid., 6 (234).

[xxviii] Ibid., 120 (344).

[xxix] Ibid.  Schelling adds at another point: “What deals directly with the particular or with empirical means designed to achieve a given end is not philosophy but merely theory; philosophy is unconditioned, an end in itself.” Ibid., 149 (372).

[xxx] Ibid., 14-15 (243).

[xxxi] Ibid., 50 (278).

[xxxii] Ibid., 6 (234).

[xxxiii] Ibid., 35 (264).  The Kantian tone of this remark is evident.

[xxxiv] F. W. J. Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Jeff Love & Johannes Schmidt (Albany: SUNY, 2006).  For the original German, see: F. W. J. Schelling, Sämmtliche Werke, vol. 7, ed. K. F. A. Schelling (Stuttgart: Cotta, 1856-1861), 331-416.  Citations of the translation are followed by the corresponding page numbers from the K. F. A. Schelling edition in parentheses.

[xxxv] Ibid., 27 (357).

[xxxvi] Ibid., 54 (389).

[xxxvii] Ibid., 35 (366).  In another passage, Schelling writes that “Evil is, however, not a being, but rather a non-being [Unwesen] that has reality only in opposition and not in itself.” Ibid., 71 (409).

[xxxviii] Ibid., 44 (378).

[xxxix] Ibid., 55 (390-1).

[xl] Schelling, On University Studies, 21 (249).

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] Ibid.

[xliii] Ibid., 20 (248-9).  Cf. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, trans Peter Preuss (Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 1980).

[xliv] Schelling, On University Studies, 25 (254).

[xlv] Ibid.

[xlvi] Ibid., 51-52 (280).

[xlvii] Ibid., 52 (280).

[xlviii] Ibid.

[xlix] Ibid.

[l] Ibid., 53 (281).

[li] Ibid.

[lii] Ibid.  In a note, Schelling adds the following remarks: “When supreme value is assigned to usefulness, the state’s ignominious self-seeking must eventually produce a similar attitude in the individual, and self-seeking must become the sole remaining bond between the state and the individual.  But there is no bond more fortuitous than this one.  The only true bond, whether linking people or things, must be a divine one, i.e., one in which every member is free, because each wills only the unconditioned.” Ibid., 54, n. 11 (282).  It should also be noted that Schelling critiques, once again presaging Nietzsche, the nobility of utility.  He says of such an attitude that it “must stifle all sense of greatness and energy in a nation.”  “If a philosophy could make a nation great, it would be one wholly founded on Ideas—not a philosophy that ruminates about pleasure or sets love of life above all else.” Ibid., 54 (282).

[liii] “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten,” Der Spiegel, 31 May 1976, 193-219.

[liv] As Schelling writes, “Every young man has an opportunity to take part in this process of universal renewal.” Ibid., 8 (235).  Cf. Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, 77.

[lv] Ibid., 7 (235).

[lvi] Ibid., 26 (255).

[lvii] Ibid., 27 (256).

[lviii] Ibid., 26-27 (255).

[lix] Ibid., 21-22 (250).

[lx] Ibid., 34 (263).

[lxi] Ibid., 28 (256).

[lxii] Ibid., 7 (235).

[lxiii] Ibid., 20, n. 5 (248).

[lxiv] Schelling suggests in his “Preface to the First Edition” that, on account of the large audience who heard his talks, “some of the ideas expressed may eventually influence the development of our universities.”  He adds that “their generally accessible style, as well as the view they offer of the sciences as a whole, may be of some interest to the wider public.  These reasons, the author felt, justified publication.” Ibid., 3 (231).

[lxv] Ibid., 69 (297).  Cf. Ibid., 67 (295).

[lxvi] Ibid., 8 (235).

[lxvii] The most famous contemporary critique of the modern university is probably still Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987).

[lxviii] Eric Voegelin, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, vol. 25: History of Political Ideas, vol. 7: The New Order and the Last Orientation, ed. Juergen Gebhardt & Thomas A. Hollweck with an introduction by Juergen Gebhardt (Columbia & London: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 199-200.


This excerpt is from Technology, Science, and Democracy, Lee Trepanier, ed. (Southern Utah University, 2008).

Steven F. McGuire

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Steven F. McGuire is a Research Fellow at the Ryan Center for the Study of Free Institutions and the Public Good at Villanova University. He is co-editor, with Lee Trepanier, of Eric Voegelin and the Continental Tradition (Missouri, 2011) and, with R.J. Snell, Subjectivity: Ancient and Modern (Lexington Books, 2016).