ChapterPDF Available


Considering the significance of moods for philosophy, Schelling’s concept of Sehnsucht, objectless yearning that slides toward Angst, is an attempt to show something fundamental about life. From a dynamic perspective, Schelling proposed a process philosophy of the origin of life and human freedom. Thinking about life, at any level, meant conceiving an absolute that arises out of itself, epigenetically. Combining Aristotle and Spinoza, Schelling dismantled philosophical foundationalisms, even speculative ones concerning the divine. He turned away from Idealism toward Gnosticism and monism, arguing that what we call “life,” whether as nature or “God,” arises in and of itself, without remaining fixed or being able to endure eternally. God and cosmos thus become simultaneously finite and infinite. On this complex basis, Schelling reframed the meaning of freedom in terms of the relationship between natural drives and modalities of reason in nature and humans. This relationship can be discerned thanks to moods or attunements of existence. Freedom, an extension in humans of universal intelligibility, could only be truly determined if we could define “evil” concretely, as acts and passions. Kierkegaard, Schelling’s erstwhile student in Berlin (1841), repositioned Schelling’s philosophy of freedom in an existentialist framework, where anxiety, not freedom, was the true contrary of necessity. This essay unfolds Schelling’s Philosophical Inquiries into the Nature of Human Freedom, and compares it with the Kierkegaard and Nietzsche’s existentialism.
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
Schelling’s 1809 Philosophical Inquiries into the Nature of Human Freedom is rooted in
notes he took for a philosophy of nature. These notes first appeared in 1797 as part of a
preparation for the work On the World Soul and for a full-blown philosophy of nature. What
we should keep in mind from Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is its approach to existence, which
starts from a thinking of the Absolute, instead of working up toward the Absolute. Further,
the Absolute must be thought beyond antinomies and dialectics, which means that no
dialectical method could claim to reach it without the petition of supposing the Absolute
even before the system unfolded. Schelling understood that teleological dialectical logics, like
that of Hegel, begin with a knowledge that they claim to reach, as a whole, at the end of their
unfolding. I argue here that mood arises rather unexpectedly, in Schelling’s idealism, as part
of his rejection of teleological dialectics and his attempt to think life from within. Mood will
be understood less as an emotion than as a kind of trembling, or a tension that typifies
absolute life, or the live Absolute. Schelling showed that a living AbsoluteNature or
God—begins as the coexistence of two contraries, which cannot and do not pass over into
each other. As a complex, almost unthinkable origin, Schelling referred to the tensed
coexistence of contraries in indifference.” Although this coexistence resembles Aristotle’s
distinction between dunamis and energeia, in the Absolute it must be thought along the lines of
a proto-nature in which life is born out of itself. There would thus be no separation, of
causality or temporality, between the constituent terms. Moreover, Schelling’s Absolute is
not ultimately a dualism, and nothing “contains” its terms. In an effort to think something
like absolute lifeor a world soul, or again the ground of what-is, in terms of immanent
emergence, Schelling argued for a twofold first principle whose existence is characterized by
tension or an imperceptible striving called Sehnsucht.
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
Placing the term “God” in the place of the Absolute makes this logic appear
uncanny. It is motivated by the just intuition that what is non-relative must be alive in and
for itself. It would be alive before the phenomenal universe is alive, because out of it arises
every process of generation and destruction. Alive, and giving birth to itselfnothing gives
birth to God other than Godall things flow out of the Absolute, including the contraction
necessary for “God” to “become” a being. From there, we begin to understand the origin of
beings. In fine, the Absolute is absolute and relative; it is relative to itself and, to simplify,
might be conceived as analogous to a cell that comes to divide through immanent forces
existing in indifference to one another up to a certain point, until, for mysterious reasons,
they enact and undergo fission.
The complexity of Schelling’s system lies in his struggle to correct idealist philosophy
by forcing it to think life according to a logic proper to life itself. Schelling found even
Hegel’s Naturphilosophie overly formalist on this point. That is why Schelling’s Philosophical
Inquiries turns on a principle already found in his meditations on the philosophy of nature.
He recognized that idealist dialectics had failed to grasp the becoming of nature from their
starting point. Conceptualizing proto-forces coexisting in pure immanence without
mediation or contamination, his path to a living Absolute—and one that exceeded Kant’s
formal temporality and categories, especially those of substance, causality, and actuality
Schelling had recourse to a language affects, despite their inevitable anthropomorphism:
absolute life is affection and self-affection, simultaneously passive and active. Schelling
deemed the inaugural indifference Sehnsucht, a sort anxious longing and striving. The activity-
passivity of emotions and passions proved appropriate to the effort as it avoided more paltry
anthropomorphisms implicit in the image of creation as ratio.
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
What, however, is the affect of Sehnsucht, and how does it serve Schelling’s logic? The
term itself belongs to the Suchte or passions, which eighteenth century German expressed as
Leidenschafte, states of undergoing or suffering. As such, Sehnsucht is more than the “longing”
by which English translators have generally rendered it. Although “longing” is
anthropomorphic, Sehnsucht denotes a striving alternately inertial, as in Goethe’s “dreaming
yearning (träumende Sehnsucht),” and intentional, as in Kant’s observation that this yearning
can have a quite distinct object ([es] kann die Richtung auf ein bestimmtes Object sehr
scharf hervortreten”).
In this context, it appears less anthropomorphic than would figures
of reason, calculation or psychological motivation. We should note that Kierkegaard will
later present a similar concept in his Fear and Trembling, when speaking of the “movement of
We may reasonably assume that it is borrowed from Schelling. In the Philosophical
Inquiries, Sehnsucht is, in any event, a restless yearning without an object, an anxiousness lying
between an embodied sensation of disquiet and an affect that strives toward what it does not
yet know. Sehnsucht bestrides sensation and sentiment, sensibility and affectivity. It is
appropriate to understand it as desiderium quo quis quasi morbo laborat,
the unnamable process
of desire “by or for which something strives, quasi morbo,” almost morbidly. Sehnsucht permits
See the entry “Sehnsuchtin the Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jakob und Wilhelm Grimm, (Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1854-
1960), Vol. 16, 157. Here: Sehnsucht can evince a sharp orientation toward a determinate object, writes Kant.
The term was extensively employed in Romantic literature where it denoted a Krankheit des schmerzlichen
Verlangens, Liebeskrankheit, Liebesbegierdedisorders of painful longing or hankering, a malady of love,
love appetite, amorous neurosis; in short, Eros as force and excessive passion.
Kierkegaard describes the movement of infinite resignation by the Knight of Faith as rooted in the only
authentic mediation” possible: passion. “Every movement of infinity is carried out through passion, and no
reflection can produce a movement. This is the continual leap in existence that explains the movement,
whereas mediation is a chimera, which in Hegel is supposed to explain everything and which is also the only
thing he never tried to explain.” The passion inhabits the Knight in a way reminiscent of Schiller’s Räuber (“ich
glühe von SehnsuchtI am glowing with yearning): “He feels a …delight in letting love palpitate in every
never, and yet his soul is as solemn as the soul of one who has drunk the poisoned cup and feels the juice
penetrate every drop of blood.” In Repetition, the young man, author of letters to his “silent confidant,
struggles to be rid of “all the impatience and infinite striving of my soul,” to no avail. See Søren Kierkegaard,
Fear and Trembling/Repetition, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1983), respectively, 42n., 42, 214.
Sehnsucht” in Grimm, 157. Thanks to David Piché, Université de Montréal, for his assistance with the Latin.
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
Schelling to present, in their reciprocal contrast, power and suffering, against a horizon of
unknowing. This passion describes pains of birth, the possibility of a proto-matter coexisting
in place and time with an uncertain factor that initiates its own self-organization, the way a
genetic code first ‘manifests’ itself in the movement of proteins.
In this figural depiction of incipient becoming, which is likely inspired by Luther’s
translation, among others, of Psalm 63 “Sehnsucht nach Gott,” it is the indefiniteness of
condition and tone that prevails.
With the emergence of his philosophy of life, Schelling proposed a mediation that
combined the vis inertiae of mechanics and the virtuality of simple organization in the form of
a common mood. Sehnsucht is the tonality of the conjoined dualism, denoting the
coexistence-in-tension of force and resistance, with neither conflict nor dialectic. This
typified romantic biology’s conception of life which invariably set out, as did Schelling, from
the concept of a general organism and envisaged individual beings as so many particular
halting points in its universal unfolding. Unlike his contemporaries in zoology and
embryology, notably Friedrich Tiedemann, Schelling carried the unity and parallelism of the
living world into the Absolute or God itself.
Now, it was to quite different ends that
Kant spoke of Sehnsucht as “der leere Wunsch,” or the empty wishing that corresponds to the unbestimmtheit des
Gemütszustandes,” which may be translated as a mood. When Luther writers of Sehnsucht it is in the midst of a
lack; his soul thirsts after God in the confusion of the ste or wilderness. Lacking a concrete object, Sehnsucht
functions anti-teleologically, as an indeterminate hope.
Tiedemann published his respected Zoologie between 1808 and 1810, precisely around the year that the
Philosophical Inquiries was published (1809). Criticized by French materialists, German biologists shared a
metaphysical concern with, in the words of a sceptic, Pierre Flourens, “a general organism, which [they]
postulated as a real being: [thus] particular beings were no more…than simple stages, simple arrests of development
of this organism. Apart from their (degree of) complication, all beings are similar; the different classes are
nothing but different ages of a single (being).” The unity of living beings was often illustrated by comparing
embryos to polyps, following the hypothesis of genetic parallelism. See E. Clarke and L. Jacyna, Nineteenth-
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
Kierkegaard would extend the cosmological speculations of Schelling, adapting them to an
existential anxiety in his 1844 The Concept of Anxiety (Angest). There anxiety, again as tension
and striving, argued in favor of a spiritual evolution of humans and nature. In the former,
anxiety was the symptom of self-consciousness in light of the sinfulness “of the race,” even
as anxiety motivated the overcoming of guilty sin. Kierkegaard wrote, “Because in innocence
[a state of nature] spirit is qualified only as dreaming spirit, the eternal appears as the future,
for this is…the first expression of the eternal, and its incognito. Just as…the spirit, when it is
about to be posited in the synthesis [of body and psyche], or, more correctly, when it is
about to posit the synthesis as the spirit’s (freedom’s) possibility in the individual, expresses
itself as anxiety, so here the future in turn is the eternal’s (freedom’s) possibility in the
individual expressed as anxiety. As freedom’s possibility manifests itself for freedom,
freedom succumbs, and temporality emerges in the same way as sensuousness in its
significance as sinfulness” (COA, 91).
Conceived as a whole, humans are the synthesis of two incompatible principles,
provided what effectuates that synthesis“spirit”is not repelled by excesses on the
material or sensuous side. The work of spirit, whose “translation” as freedom echoes both
Hegel and Schelling here, is expressed as a two-sided anxiety that drives humans forward and
exhausts them. Kierkegaard’s adaptation of Schelling is evident in his insistence on a
subjective, psychological anxiety and a natural or objective anxiety; both of which denote the
tensions and possibilities of mortal life.
Before proceeding to examine the Philosophical Inquiries more closely, I want to cast
light on mood in Schelling as opposed to mood in relation to Hegel’s concept. Without this,
Century Origins of Neuroscientific Concepts (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1987), 40-41. Hereafter
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
it is difficult to understand Schelling’s innovation. In the Phenomenology of Spirit, which
appeared two years before the publication of the Philosophical Inquiries (1809), and which
probably accounted for the end of their friendship, Hegel argued that absolute knowledge
culminates in the spirit assuming all the various shapes and modes of its historical unfolding.
As a “self” (Selbst), spirit has fully externalized itself in the world and its Gestalten can be
known thanks to the history of culture. Through philosophical science, spirit is aware both
of its evolving forms and it ‘philosophizes’ with them in higher orders of self-consciousness.
The evolution of these forms will be called a “restless activity” that “consists in cancelling
and superseding itself,” or again, a “negativity.”
Spirit as negativity is the accompaniment
and the end of a process of temporal unfolding: “in thus concentrating on itself, spirit is
engulfed in the night of its own self-consciousness….Here it has to begin all over again at its
immediacy, as freshly as before” (PM 807). Nevertheless, “the goal of the process is the
revelation of the depth of the spiritual lifethe Absolute notion(PM 808). In Hegel, the
quality characteristic of the movement of reason into spiritthrough its various formations
and reflections in self-consciousness—is restless activity. The ambiguity of a mood like
Sehnsucht is not evident here. Restless activity, or negativity, represents a telos, or fragile
culmination, which presumably begins again repeatedly, but which is nevertheless a logical
terminus. For Schelling, who begins with the Absolute and thinks it more physiologically,
mood bespeaks the Gemütszustand
or ‘state’ of a pre-spiritual duality able to give birth to
itself. The birth or self-generation strikingly resembles the path of Hegel. Both philosophers
employ distinctly Lutheran concepts of restless immanentization or Insichgehen, and kenosis, or
externalization in the world. For all that, the Philosophical Inquirieswhose general arguments
G.W.F. Hegel, “Absolute Knowledge,” in Phenomenology of Mind, tr. J. B. Baillie (New York: Harper
and Row, 1967), 807. Hereafter PM.
A typical translation of Gemützustand or Gemütsanlage would be frame of mind, state of mind.
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
Hegel certainly knew from his collaboration with Schelling, and which Hegel had
anticipatively stood on their head by mocking the indeterminacy of Schelling’s two originary
principles—place a particular emphasis on mood and desire. Straightaway equated with
negativity, Hegel’s restlessness appeared formalist (and anti-romantic) by comparison. Now,
because he strove to surpass Fichte and Kant, Schelling’s Lutheran Sehnsucht found itself
playing the uncanny role of expressing a logic as old as Gnosticism and Kabbalah,
reviving a
(Christianized) version of Tsim-tsum; the kabbalistic self-contraction of Absolute to make way
for creation. Here, however, the contraction of the Absolute is a birth, and in no way the
product of a dialectical, or even historical, unfolding. In Schelling, the first creation is God as
One. That means that the first creation is the same as that from which it arose,
distinguishable only as a sort of intensification relative to a ground or base.
In this metaphysics of life, whose influence on Nietzsche and later strains of vitalism
should not be underestimated,
Schelling has merged mystical speculation on a living divinity
with a physiology of forces in conflict and balance. Nineteenth century German biology
eschewed French materialism, as well as vitalisms that imposed life force on beings from
without. Schelling will reject the notion of ‘life-force’ itself as contradictory: in a logic of
immanence, forces come from forces and produce concrescences, or intensifications. All
forces we can know are finite, which means that some aspect of the living Absolute itself will
be finite or prove to be somehow limited. However, because limitation is present in the
Schelling credits Marcion with this logic; he reads Kabbalah through Franz Baader.
Despite his derision toward the “theologians,” Hegel, Schelling, Kant, and despite the laughter that rings in
Beyond Good and Evil (§11) about Schelling’s baptism of the “Übersinnliche,” Nietzsche had pondered
Schelling’s (and the German romantics’) philosophy of nature, and may have returned to it for his multifaceted
Wille zur Macht upon shaking off the vestiges of the mechanism that attracted him as he wrote Human, All Too
Human in 1878. Also see Nietzsche, Kritische Studienausgabe, Vol. 3, eds. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari
(Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1967-1988), p. 163; and Vol. 5, p. 25.
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
Absolute, limitation must be in relation with something such that there are always at least
two forces, and never simply one, extrinsic ‘life force’.
But no force is finite by nature except insofar as it is limited by one opposing it. Where we
think of force (as in matter)we must also presume a force opposed to it. Between opposing
forces…we can only conceive a double relationship. Either they are in relative
…then they are thought of as at rest, as in matter…[and] said to be inert. Or one
thinks of them as in perpetual, never-settled conflict, where each in turn prevails and submits
(IPN, 37).
While relative equilibrium is a state that characterizes life in Schelling’s proto-
universe, it promises to reemerge with the ultimate self-realization of that universe, at a
metaphoric point where the two inaugural grounds prove to be part of a single totality. Even
then, equilibrium may not wholly supplant conflict. And, while we discern ongoing conflict,
or resistance, throughout nature as well as in humans, it is not the fundamental characteristic
of the worldor not the sole characteristic, as that would lead either to one of two things:
the destruction of one of the terms, and therefore both ultimately (since the one depends on
the other), or it would lead to an oscillation of domination out of which nothing new could
arise. For this reason, the Absolute holds together two modalizations of its self’, whose
symptom or expression is the troubled Sehnsucht or anxious yearning. In the Absolute, the
presence in indifference of the two processes generate their own third term in the
contraction of the Absolute into the One. In nature, by contrast, the tension between
material and form-giving forces also requires a third term, as it also had done in Heraclitus’s
“(In absolute equilibrium, they would both be completely eliminated),” adds Schelling. See
“Introduction,” Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, p. 37.
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
philosophy of becoming. Schelling argues that this third term cannot itself be a force, lest it
join or replace one of the other two. Instead, we find at work a third term that is analogous
to the relationship between the dualist base and its contraction into the One. For his natural
philosophy Schelling proposes to call this third term “soul” or “principle of life” because the
separation of thinking and extension is a difference of expression. In this, he is of course a
Spinozist. More importantly perhaps, he understands that any logic that separates the
concept from what it collects and specifies, will prove as inadequate to grasping life as the
vitalism that imposes life force extrinsically.
In order to comprehend [the] union of concept and matter, you assume a higher divine
intelligencewho designed his creations in ideal forms and brought forth Nature in
accordance with these ideals. But a being in whom the concept precedes the act, the design, the
execution, cannot produce, [it] can only form or model matter already there, [it] can only
stamp the impress of the understanding and of purposiveness upon the matter from without.
What he [the higher divine intelligence] produces is purposive, not in itself, but only in
relation to the understanding of the artificer, not originally and necessarily, but only
contingently. Is not the understanding [thereby made into] a dead faculty? (IPN, 33)
When Schelling thinks a third term in nature, not a force but as soul—just as when
Schelling thinks the self as the unfolding of the Absolute—he is working out of a very
consequent vitalism: nothing self-creates from without. There is no divine artificer in
Schelling. God and nature are processual, and both arise from themselves, although de facto
nature appears to stand in a relation of analogy to the emergence of the Absolute. This has
led commentators like Werner Marx to argue that when Schelling investigates human
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
freedom starting from the Absolute, he could just as well be starting from life itself.
It is a
matter of a difference of levels, here, between life as observable, phenomenal, and life as its
own genetic condition and self-production. This difference of levels would be a
transcendentalism were it not for the fact that Schelling above all wants to hold together the
speculative and the empirical. In that sense, he anticipates Heidegger, provided we read
Heidegger’s Being as illumination, clearing, and not as an invisible transcendental.
Nature, in its dual aspectsthe seen and the unseenarises everywhere in the same
way. In the Absolute, the birth of God to itself from itself may be likened to the emergence
of two cells out of one, or the emergence of a definite entity out of the indeterminacy of a
seed or a droplet condensing from a cloud. The best example may well be Schelling’s own,
which speaks of the emergence of light, drawing away from dark gravity but carrying with it
the resistant inertia of its own obscure ground.
For Werner Marx, this equivalence, God and Nature, is clearest in the young Schelling of the “Philosophy of
Identity.” “In view of Spinoza’s system, Schelling recognized quite clearly that the proof of freedom’s
predominance in both realms, in nature and in spirit, can be convincing only if the appearances of finite
freedom are founded in divine freedom. Therefore, Spinoza’s causa sui, the freedom of the absolute as absolute
‘groundlessness’, must previously have been conceived of as such if freedom within the finite realm is to be
secured….Schelling had taken great pains to model himself after Spinoza and to conceive the absolute, God, as
the unity of mind and nature, as the unity between the ideal and the real. From the standpoint of absolute
reason, it is obvious that both these aspects are ‘not actual’ [wirklich] in God’s essence…[but] at the same time,
divine Being is the ‘universe’, ‘absolute totality’.” After works like the Presentation of My System, the dialogue
Bruno (1802), and the Philosophy of Nature (1805-1806), the diremptions inherent in according a positive reality to
evil, or ‘non-being’, shifted the emphasis of Schelling’s system, and freedom had to be thought in light of the
freedom to enact evil. Marx argues that this concern led Schelling to expand his version of Spinozism with
themes from mystics like Jakob Böhme and the theosophist, Christoph Oetinger. Werner Marx, The Philosophy of
F. W. J. Schelling, tr. Thomas Nenon (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1984), 60 ff. These
inflections toward “the irrational and the demonic” opened onto consciousness of freedom as the “most vivid
feeling” that is elicited by “the fact of freedom.” This affective semiotics is extended all the way to the absolute.
Compare G. Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, pp. 28-31. Deleuze recalls a scale of differences the minimal
conceivable being “contrariety”as in contrariety in the species or the genre. Here, difference is not the
difference called “opposition,” it “alone expresses the capacity of a subject to bear opposites while remaining
substantially the same (in matter or in genus).” Now, contrariety represents the relationship of the ground to
the élan of the lightning, and Deleuze, picking up on Schelling, will use precisely this example and others to
illustrate the creation of difference, there were there was repetition and accompaniment. He concludes, in a
Schellingian tone, “Thought ‘makes’ difference, but difference is monstrous. We should not be surprised that
difference should appear accursed…There is no sin other than raising the ground and dissolving the form” (p.
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
We must imagine the primal longing [or desire] in this way—turning towards reason,
indeed, though not yet recognizing it, just as we longingly desire unknown, nameless
excellence. This primal longing moves in anticipation like a surging, billowing sea,
similar to the ‘matter’ of Plato, following some dark, uncertain law, incapable in itself
of forming anything that can endure. But in response to the desire that is, qua still
obscure depths, the first emotion of the divine Being is formed as a reflective internal
representation taking shape in God himself, thanks to which God perceives himself
as in an image (Ebenbild), since there can be no other object here than God (NHF,
35, trans modified).
The dynamic ground of this total life called God, or the Absolute—which evolves by
emanation or ec-stasis into the natural worldis thus anxious desire without an object.
Facing the conundrum of rendering this “primal longing” and “anticipatory surging,”
Schelling’s French translators proposed désirement (process of desire) and angoisse for the
notion. It is after all the first “emotion of divine Dasein,where emotion must be understood
as e-movere or a moving outward. The zero degree of phenomenalizationthat is, of a
speculative, genetic self-phenomenalization—is an absolute mood, prior to any understanding
and accompanying both the stasis that surrounds birth and the process by which difference
emerges from sameness, without becoming alienated from it. It is not hard to see why
readers like Slavoj Zizek find in Schelling a precursor to the psychoanalytic, drives
unconscious, much less why Deleuze illustrates his concept of minimal difference, i.e.
contrariety, using the Schellingian example of lightning that stretches outward from the
Grimm provides the following examples of the use of Ebenbild, all of them Neo-testamentary. “denn welche
er zuvor versehen hat, die hat er auch verordnet, dass sie gleich sein solten dem Ebenbilde seines Sohns.
Romans 8:29; welcher (Christus) ist das Ebenbilde Gottes” 2 Corinthians 4:4. Welcher ist das Ebenbilde des
unsichtbaren Gottes. Colossians 1:15.
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
dark ground that accompanies it without engulfing it.
These are Schelling’s thematic debts
to Aristotle and above all to Spinoza and Leibniz. As he says of God’s first contraction:
This image is the first in which God, viewed absolutely, is realized, though only in
Himself…This image [or re-presentation, a return at a different level] is at the same time
understandingthe Word, the “logos” of this desire, and the eternal spirit that feels in itself
the word and at the same time infinite desire… (NHF, 36)
Schelling can call this ‘precipitate’ or concrescence “understanding” for the simple
reason that it corresponds to a primitive Vor-stellung, which is emotion and sense, not an
idea; comparable to an intensification of the initial Sehnsucht. At this level, Vorstellung and
passion correspond like passivity and activity, as something crystallizes out of its own
ground, yet is different from the ground insofar as virtuality precedes and produces actuality,
although not in a singular “time.” Nothing external is superadded and there is no higher
temporal framework. As flow and counter-flow, this is the structure of representation or
Vorstellung, the inadæquatio that contracts into a temporary adæquatio, or the excess whose
Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, tr. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 31:
“Indifference has two aspects: the undifferentiated abyss, the black nothingness, the indeterminate animal…but
also the white nothingness, the once more calm surface upon which float unconnected determinations like
membra disjecta….Is difference intermediate between these two extremes? Or is it not rather the only
extreme…[I]nstead of something distinguished from something else, imagine something which distinguishes
itself—and yet that from which it distinguishes itself does not distinguish itself from it. Lightning, for example,
distinguishes itself from the black sky but must also train it behind, as though it were distinguishes itself from
that which does not distinguish itself from it. It is as if the ground rose to the surface, without ceasing to be the
ground….We must therefore say that difference is made, or makes itself, as in the expression ‘make the
difference’,” 28. The example, and the notion of types of differentiation, including the intermediary
“contrariety” (pp. 29-30), comes, at least, out of Schelling. And Deleuze would say of the latter: “The most
important aspect of Schelling’s philosophy is his consideration of powers. How unjust, in this respect, is
Hegel’s…remark about the black cows! Of these two philosophers, it is Schelling who brings difference out of the night
of the Identical, and with finer, more varied and more terrifying flashes of lightning than those of contradiction:
with progressivity. Anger [or again, positive evil] and love are powers of the Idea which develop on the basis of a
onin other words, not from a negative or a non-being (ouk on) but from a problematic being” 190-191 (first
emphasis added). This effectively recapitulates Schelling’s thinking of the gestating, oppositional yet
undifferentiated Absolute.
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
concentrations mirror it to itself. If we are inclined to say that Schelling is naïvely projecting
the model of thought onto something he has called the Absolute, we need not long await his
reply. This is not a naturalized Fichte. It is the insistence that we begin with something that
is “neither a subjective nor an objective Idea” (IPN, 46), above all not the production of a
scholastic casuistry.
If anybody wishes to remind the philosopher…that [the] absolute ideal is once again only for
him and only his thinking, as empirical idealism especially can…bring nothing against Spinoza
except…that he erred in not reflecting again upon his own thought, [whereby] he would…
have realized that his system…is just a product of his thinking, then we invite such a one…to
heed the simple consideration that…this very reflection, by which he makes this thinking his
thinking, and consequently subjective, is again only his reflection, and thus a merely
subjective affair, so that here one subjectivity is corrected and removed by another (IPN, 45-6, final
italics added).
The point is simply that there is no way to objectify subjective universality or a
subjectivist formalism, other than by further (human) insight, redoubling and limiting a first-
order subjectivism. The problem is not solved by enlisting a community of external
observers and Schelling is not pleading for the objectivity of his system. He is arguing, on the
contrary, that we approach thinking as the spontaneous ordering of differentiated miasmas,
which do not persist in stasis and should never be limited to human subjectivity. We would do
much better to see, in the work of understanding, complex combinations and oppositions
that are also found in so-called natural processes. Because the hypothetical paradigm of
natural processes will be called the Absolute, Schelling will argue that here we have the
possibility of approaching being and becoming before they are conceptually, or even
ontologically, separated. At the level of phenomenality, whereby we imagine this process, a
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
conception of time, qua accompanying-duration or succession, cannot be avoided and
therefore the unity seems more dynamic than static. Yet in Schelling, it is really as if the
phenomenal level existed together with its own possibilitywhich is the case with life, as
well. Unity is never completely dissolved, “but…because…Nature and the ideal world each
contains a point of absoluteness, where both opposites flow together, each must again, if it is
to be distinguished as the particular unity, contain the three unities distinguishably in
itself…we call them potencies” (IPN, 49). The three unities in question are: being as
production and dynamism, the dissolving of dynamism into static form, and those states of
affairs where the first two exist conjoined in indifference.
To return, now, to the Philosophical Inquiries into the Nature of Human Freedom. If we take
what Schelling calls “understanding”that first metaphoric fold of desire within the
Absolute—whereby it mirrors itself, or stands as if facing itself, we can also trace this
“understanding” in nature. What follows is a structuralist account of this so-called
The first effect of understanding in nature is the fission of forces, which is the only
way in which understanding can unfold and develop the unity which was held in it
unconsciously, like a seed, and yet, necessarily. Just as in humans there comes to
light, when in the dark longing to create something, thoughts separate out of the
chaotic confusion of thinking, in which all were connected but each one prevents the
other from coming forthso the unity appears which contains all within it and
which had lain hidden in the depths. Or it is as in the case of the plant which escapes
the dark fetters of gravity only as it unfolds and spreads its powers, developing its
hidden unity as its substance becomes differentiated. For since this Being (Wesen) of
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
primal nature is nothing else than the eternal basis of God, it must contain within
itself, locked away, God’s essence, as a light of life…but longing or desire, roused
now by the understanding, strives to preserve this light of life…within [the base], and
to close up in itself so that they always remain [together in the] ground (NHF, 36).
Sehnsucht, or the anguished yearning intrinsic to virtuality, carries a disturbing, dual
movement. As a symptom and as the medium of the trembling of birth out of itself,
Sehnsucht characterizes a temporary stasis that is both absolute, simple, and becoming relative
as two. Unity must unfold itself in order ultimately to return to itself with internal
differentiations. In the “dark longing to create something,” separation occurs as a leap;
however, the intensification of unity that produces two entities is not a sublimation. The
ground, being itself alive, exerts a force on the new entity, whether this is light, a plant, or a
complex body. In the speculative recapitulation of the emergence of God out of itself, the
base can be seen as the very being, the Wesen, of all that will unfold from it. As such,
impelling yet resisting the intensification through which it becomes two, the base protects
itself by “striving to preserve this light of life within it.” As the erstwhile student of Schelling,
Kierkegaard will extend this to human angst and speak of “in-closing reserve.” He too
distinguishes between an objective and a subjective anxiety, although his project turns from a
speculative physics explaining positive evil to a psychology that justifies Christian dogmatics’
approach to evil as “sin.”
When Kierkegaard adapts Sehnsucht to his more personalist and psychological perspective, he will distinguish
between a subjective anxiety and anxiety in nature. Objective anxiety is the finitude and incompleteness of
nature itselfKierkegaard illustrates this with the chasm. The chasm ‘works’ as chaos or opening, in the eye of
the beholder, but it is also ‘there’ in the world as the quality of what is abyssal, like a tear. See Søren
Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling/Repetition, 61. Hereafter COA.
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into
the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much
in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. (COA 61)
Kierkegaard deliberately inflects Schelling, recoiling from what he conceives as his
vigorous and full-blooded anthropomorphism (which, he argues, nevertheless “has
considerable merit”) (COA 59n). Above all, Kierkegaard focuses on the meaning of anxiety
as preceding the creative leap, which in humans is freedom enacted and in nature points to
the struggle to self-transform.
Schelling’s main thought is that anxiety, etc., characterizes especially the suffering of
the deity in his endeavor to create….The mistake, however, is a different one…Here
is an example of how strange everything becomes when metaphysics and dogmatics
are distorted by treating dogmatics metaphysically and metaphysics dogmatically.
(COA 59n)
For Kierkegaard, the interest of Schelling’s work lies in its conceiving the ways in
which evil can be positive—thus something more than mere privation. Nevertheless,
Schelling failed to consider the way in which evil passes into human history and into the
psychology of cultures themselves (“the history of the race”) as a growing gravitas, to be
understood as anxious melancholia and as a capacity for spiritual discernment and
[A]nxiety is of all things the most selfish, and no concrete expression of freedom is
as selfish as the possibility of every concretion. This again is the overwhelming factor
that determines the…ambiguous relation [to anxiety as] sympathetic and antipathetic.
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
In anxiety, there is the selfish infinity of possibility, which…ensnaringly disquiets
[oengster]… (COA 61)
What occurs in Schelling’s God or Absolute life, plays itself out at the psychological
level for Kierkegaard, where it is precursive to any spiritual awakening. Schelling might well
have accepted such a variation in perspective, though his endsand his approach to
beliefremain more formal and intellectualist.
Nevertheless, because Schelling too works through perspectives, anxious longing
shows us that the Absolute is invariably but never dialectically two-in-one. What goes for
vegetal life is also the case for human existence. We speak of entities as unities containing
plurality because, in their respective existence, their inner multiplicity holds together. For
Schelling, the ultimate sign of the simultaneous presence of unity through the diversity of
natural and spiritual history will be illustrated by what looks like a final unification; final
because indemonstrable and non-chronological. Unity, whose pluralist aspects express
themselves in nature and in humans, must be viewed as ‘holding’, sometimes even in-closing,
as in Kierkegaard’s psychological inclosing reserve (COA, 123-135). In the Absolute, the
dynamism of unity is both force and ‘love’, by which Schelling refers to something not unlike
Freud’s Eros, which draws together: for there is love neither in indifference nor where
antitheses are combined, which require the combination in order to be; but rather…this is
the secret of love, that it unites such beings as could each exist in itself and nonetheless
neither is nor can be without the other(NHF, 89). This is why we must consider absolute
unity according to two perspectives, while understanding that the two original forces are in a
sense one. At the end of their cosmological pluralizationfollowing the trials of positive evil
and freedomwe can imagine either a return to the state in which “neither is nor can be
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
without the other” or acknowledge that this unity is present throughout the ages of the
cosmos, as virtuality.
The dualist and monist perspectives are co-present and co-necessary. They can
hardly be envisioned at the same time, however. For human understanding, the explication
of the duality makes possible a final approach to its fundamental unity, which is not a
Hegelian telos to be attained.
Moreover, there is a processual quality already in the initial
fission because, without the emergence of what I am calling the intensification, or Schelling’s
the One, emerging out of itself, out of the base, there could be no further development and
therefore no way in which to see the unifying efficacy of love or Eros. The unity is invariably
there, virtual; love does not come from the outside to reconcile the anxious dualisms spread
across natural and cultural history. Love and desire are aspects of the same dynamism,
although their relation to each other, as emotions, or moving powers, is unclear. Schelling
suggests that we consider this through the example of meaning, produced by actual words:
morphemes constitute phonemes thanks to voiced and non-voiced components guided by
intrinsic invisible rules; substantives take on attributes, and verbs are committed or come to
pass thanks to higher levels of combinatorial norms. Sounding again like Deleuze to post-
modern ears, Schelling refers to vowels as light elements and consonants as dark ones,
against which what is voiced stands forth.
These are all approaches to the same fundamental question: How to conceive the co-
originarity of the simplest meaning and life, in and for themselves? Schelling no doubt
represents the ultimate idealist attempt to think life without falling into vitalism or into a
In a sense, Hegel is speaking, in 1807, of the phenomenalization, the becoming-discernable, of spirit in history;
he is not speaking of the a-chronic logic that presides over the process. Thus the “gallery” imagery: “Spirit
externalized and emptied into Time…This way of becoming presents a slow procession and succession of
spiritual shapes (Geistern), a gallery of pictures, each of which is endowed with the entire wealth of Spirit, and
moves so slowly just for the reason that the self has to…assimilate all this wealth of substance,” in Phenomenology
of Mind, 807.
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
mechanistic physics, although Schelling himself published extensively in his Zeitschrift für
spekulative Physik. There, he opposed the physicalist reductions of his age (like F. J. Gall’s
work on the origin of the nervous system in 1809),
just as he opposed grounding “rational
philosophy by means of the physiology that should serve as [its] foundation.” The whole,
subsequent school of thought, inspired by Schelling, urged that “in the universe there was no
absolute distinction between the material and the spiritual: mind was immanent in all matter
and particular natural objects could be regarded as thinking beings” (NCO, 272, 82).
Following a logical strategy as ancient as Philo’s pre-Plotinian emanations, Schelling
argued that out of the intensification, which breaks free from and concentrates the base into
the one, there also emerges meaning. He called meaning or sense, das Wort.It denoted the
productiveness of what Schelling characterized as the divine fold or mirroring
“understanding.” This will ultimately be the model of human reason. Yet the ground is also
differently productive. From it arises what we call “matterin the world. In nature, matter
and form, inertia and dynamism coexist with a stability that resembles the indifference of the
principles in the divine Grund. Therefore, nothing in nature ever enduringly disrupts the
order of its cycles of becoming. If the divine Word phenomenalizes naturally as lighta
light that breaks free of that attractive, basal force devoid of illumination, i.e. gravity
meaning in the human being is an illumination of a different sort. Predictably, the dualism of
principles is united in humanity as well, but Understanding does not always coexist well with
the drive ground that Schelling calls ipseity, or self-will when speaking of humans. It happens
that self-will enters into conflict with Understanding or the light principle, or spirit; in which
See Clarke and Jacyna, Nineteenth-Century Origins of Neuroscientific Concepts, 274-280. Gall’s most important
contribution was a monist conception of mind, although his assimilation of mental activities with ‘organs
meant that the brain was composed of distinct ‘localities’. He himself authored a work on The Origin, later, in
1825. Abbreviated in the text as NCO.
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
case the natural relationship of the two principles is reversed, and a hypertrophy of drives
Man’s will may be regarded as a nexus of living forces; as long as it abides in its unity with
the universal will [also called Love], these forces remain in their divine measure and balance.
But hardly does self-will move from the center which is its station, than the nexus of forces
is also dissolved; in its place a merely particular will rules which can no longer unite the
forces among themselves…but must therefore strive to form or compose a…peculiar life
out of the now separate forces, an insurgent host of desires and passionssince every
individual force is also an obsession and passion. (NHF, 41)
This is Schelling’s account, both of the positivity of evil and the necessary resistance
opposed by self-will to human freedom; no force being what it is, virtually, unless it can act
against a limiting counter-force. The positive account of the origin of evil and the effectivity
of freedom is aligned with Schelling’s major élan which extends out of his “identity
philosophy,” first formulated in the 1800s, and into his philosophy of nature as a concern
that ultimately guided his whole philosophical endeavor. The positive account of evil is
faithful to his early conception of intellectual intuition, or the tension he maintained between
a pre-conscious and a conscious activity, out of which creation arises spontaneously and
unfolds humans’ mental powers. In regard to nature, Schelling kept a similar, structural
transcendentalism, distinguishing between empirical nature and its deeper conditions of
possibility. Consequently, he was able to develop the outlines of a chemistry and physics of
finite forces that were not reducible to mechanical necessity or to an anti-mechanistic
vitalism. Each level of his thought mirrors the other by placing emphasis on grounds,
consisting of degrees of inertia and activity, in principle. The higher-level intensities explain
the effectivity or ‘mind’, which works like a genetics of life and reason. This becomes
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
particularly important insofar as what we call evil is often the result of a positive choice, of
enthusiasm, and even intense pleasure. The drive of the pre-conscious center to raise itself
into the periphery, taking the place of reason, is Schelling’s conception of a recurrent
tendency in human beings, whose outcome is not determinable in advance, though it
explains the embrace of cruelty. This does not, however, define the essence of a human
being. For Schelling, we are simply our acts. The motor of our choices are passions. These
are not intrinsically evil; rather they express, and can prioritize the drives. In privileging our
narcissism, whose attractive force functions like the gravity that dogs the emergence of light;
we give weight to what Schelling called a “false imagination” of outcomes. At the drive level,
a collection of impulses are thus privileged, which come simultaneously to resemble
profound anxiety and one dimension of Plato’s Eros: “The general possibility of
evil…consists in the fact that, instead of keeping his selfhood as the basis or the instrument,
man can strive to elevate it to be the ruling and universal will, and, on the contrary, try to
make what is spiritual in him into a means” (NHF, 68). With this, the balance of forces in us
becomes skewed and incomprehensible—although the imbalance is common, and easily
misunderstood. Schelling struggles to express it.
[If] the two principles are at strife, then another spirit occupies the place where God
should be. This, namely, is the reverse of God, a being which was roused to
actualization by God’s revelation but which can never attain to actuality…which
indeed never exists…and which, like the ‘matter’ of the ancients, can…never be
grasped as real by…reason but only by false imagination” (NHF, 68).
False imagination thus realizes, in an image or an aspiration, a stasis, an uncanny
fullness and a sort of rest, resulting from sur-potency and satiety. We might speak here, in
Freudian terms, of the duality of drives coming apart, and of the base drives pursuing their
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
course alone. Yet, it remains that the imbalance is a passage from being into a kind of non-
being or alienness, although its enactment is de facto evil. A matter of perspective, we see the
two possible approaches clearly enough in Schelling’s observation: There springs the
hunger of selfishness, which, in the measure that it deserts…unity becomes ever needier and
poorer; but just on that account, more ravenous, hungrier, more poisonous. In evil there is
that contradiction which devours and always negates itself, which just while striving to
become creature destroys the nexus of creation and, in its ambition to be everything, falls
into non-being” (NHF, 69).
An intuitive representation of these movementsor disruptionsis given to us as
mood. Moreover, it is mood that remains with us, semi-consciously, in the perverse fullness of
the expanded drives base. It is mood that indicates that psychic harmony has been broken,
just as a mood precedes creation. True freedom is in accord with a holy necessity of a sort
which we feel in essential knowledge, when heart and spirit, bound only by their own law,
freely affirm that which is necessary” (NHF, 70). Schelling’s necessityis one that unfolds;
one that moves through time at the empirical level. However, for love to triumph, the
inertial and the intensified principles, body and mind, drives and rationality, must remain
together and balanced in their difference. It is precisely this that Kierkegaard will glean from
The synthesis of psychical and the physical [must] be posited by spirit; but spirit is
eternal and the synthesis is, therefore, only when spirit posits the first synthesis along
with the second synthesis of the temporal and the eternal….Just as…the spirit,
when it is about to posit the synthesis as the spirit’s (freedom’s) possibility in the
individuality, expresses itself as anxiety, so here the future in turn is the eternal’s
See also Schelling, NHF, 96: “The nexus of our personality is the spirit.”
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
(freedom’s) possibility in the individuality expressed as anxiety. As freedom’s
possibility manifests itself for freedom [in a decisive act], freedom succumbs, and
temporality emerges in the same way as sensuousness in its significance as sinfulness
[in persons and over time].” (COA, 91)
Kierkegaard’s aforementioned concern to connect the individual and the human
racewhile insisting upon each person’s freedom to leap freely into actionobliges him to
work out various dialectics between individuals and groups (’the race’). In this way, anxiety
denotes the possibility of freedom and anxiety expresses the weight of phylogenetic sin or evil.
The Kierkegaardian dialectics depend on the preservation of unity between body and mind:
spirit. Desire, affect and reason are for him the work of spirit as an evolving, moral self-
consciousness. Thus Kierkegaard’s “spirit” reproduces Schelling’s “love,” at a level where
history and psychology unite in single individuals. For his part, Schelling always remained
closer to the structural conditions of possibility of freedom, a choice resulting from his
enduring engagement with post-Kantian idealism.
In fact, Schelling inherits significant aspects of Kant’s conception of evil, as seen in
the latter’s essay “Religion in the Bounds of Mere Reason.” For Kant, radical evil was more
structural than positive, in the sense that we are never able consistently to determine our will
according to a maxim in harmony with the Categorical Imperative. Kant nevertheless
refrained from determining why we are unable to hold fast to our practical maxims. He
acknowledged that the ultimate ground of the adoption of our maxims, which must itself lie
in free choice, cannot be a fact revealed in experience, [and therefore] the good or evil in
man…is…posited as the ground antecedent to every use of freedom in experience.”
This innate
ground was as far as human understanding was permitted to go in tracing the origin of evil.
Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, tr. Theodore Greene (New York: Harper
and Brothers, 1960), 17, emphasis added.
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
Indeed, Kant’s transcendental empiricism explains why Schelling first developed his
philosophy of identity, which first focused not on evil but on the pure, spontaneous
upwelling of creative thought or intellectual intuition. Schelling’s original point of departure
held consciousness and pre-consciousness, activity and passivity, in correlation, and in a state
of indifference. As the condition of possibility of intellectual intuition, it is redolent of the
spontaneity psychoanalysis, notably Lacanian, pinpoints, “Ça parle tout seul.” Something
means by itself, spontaneously. Something unfolds, limiting itself and its world, in what is
called, at the empirical level, the discovery of the not-I or exteriority. I cannot explore
Schelling’s identity philosophy in depth, here. It is crucial to note however that, rather than
dismissing affect and passion as proper merely to a pragmatic anthropology or a reflection
on everyday psychological states (Kant’s position), Schelling employed a speculative
philosophy to explore the indeterminacy that preceded self-differentiation and autonomy in
life forms.
In the place of Hegel’s “work of the negative,Schelling, and Kierkegaard after him,
placed a passion: restless desire for the one, anxiety and earnestness for the other (COA 15).
Only an affect that was both passive and active could precede founding distinctions between
necessity and freedom. The affect had a specific relationship to human motivation and acts,
whether for good or for evil. If freedom could be evinced as real for humans, thanks to the
possibility of positive evil, the unfolding of evil had to be tied to a drives conflict, whose
corollary was, in turn, an indeterminate passion.
This evil, though it is entirely independent of freedom with respect to present
empirical life, was at its source man’s own deed…the same cannot be said of that
equally undeniable disorder of forces which spread as a contagion after the initial
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
corruption [initial is not a concept of time here, but of duality]. For it is not the
passions that are in themselves evil, nor are we battling merely with flesh and blood,
but with an evil…which attaches to us by our own act, [and] does so from
birth…and it is noteworthy that Kant, who did not in theory rise to a transcendental
act determining all human being, was lead in later investigations, by
sheer…observation of the phenomena of moral judgment, to the recognition of a
subjective basis of human conduct…which preceded every act within the range of
the senses… (NHF, 66-7)
Schelling’s project requires that this subjective basis be structural rather than
corporeal or psychologicalmuch the way early psychiatry and psychoanalysis had to point
to inherited predispositions to ground their etiology of psychic disorders attached to
circumstantial trauma or disturbance. It is not important to my purposes, here, to decide
whether Schelling’s Philosophical Inquiries are a treatise of theology or a new transcendental
exploration of the perversions of the drives core in humans and its relationship to freedom.
For Schelling, human freedom is best illustrated starting from the origin of the Absolute,
whether that is God or nature, or both at once. As the end of the essay makes clear, the best
revelation of the structure of the Absolute, with its base of forces existing in tension and
fundamental indifference to each otherthe best revelation we have is indeed nature. The
unfolding of God is thus the unfolding of empirical natural being and its condition of
possibility. The contraction of the divine base explains how an entity that is simultaneously
natural and cosmological, immanent and transcendent (as love), is possible. Humans thus
arise, in and like nature, from and with God. However, humans’ emergence comes from the
aspect of the Absolute which has already undergone a fundamental precipitating change with
the emergence of the One and the Word that is its active signification. We should pause here
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
and observe that, in order to explain evil as a reality, and as pleasure and enthusiasm,
Schelling declares:
It would require nothing less than the whole power of a…thoroughly developed
philosophy to prove that there are only two ways of explaining evilthe dualistic,
according to which there is assumed to be an evil basic being…alongside the good; and
the Kabbalistic, according to which [positive] evil is explained by emanation and
withdrawal….Every other system must annul the difference between good and evil.
(NHF, 93)
If we are to understand the importance of mood in philosophyat least in
nineteenth century post-Kantianism—we should note that moods arise at the point where
dialectics proves too formalist, even ‘hyper-transcendental’, thereby threatening immanent
self-development or life. Mood arises with the difficulty of justifying freedom and evil in a
system where practical and pure reason stand divided. Schelling attempted to read life into
Hegel’s dialectic of history thanks to Spinozism. He had recourse to kabbalistic imagery,
borrowed from Franz Baader as he attempted to surpass Kant’s antinomies of freedom and
necessity, practical postulates versus pure impossibilities (God, the soul, freedom). Schelling
knew that “a transcendental act determining all human being (alles menschliche Sein) could only
be realized intuitively through images we would grasp. At the heart of this work, then, we
‘perceive’ a base inhabited by the strange movement called Sehnsucht, which seeks to denote
unrest without concepts. If longing seems closer to desire than to anxiety, we might note the
futility of proposing a single noun to characterize a motion that engenders but goes nowhere.
What arises out of the base is the base mutated, precipitated, just as understanding
concentrates indeterminate experiences into what we call concepts. Nietzsche would later say
that conceptuality is the sign language (Zeichensprache) of forces in bodies. For Schelling,
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
something comparable occurs in nature, and it is fair to regard the sprout as belonging to its
seed, light as belonging to gravity as well as opposing resistance to it. These images present
the unfolding of what does not express itself directly in the seed or in the gravitational field.
Between 1841 and 1842, Kierkegaard was impassioned by Schelling’s lectures on the
philosophy of mythology. By 1844, when he published The Concept of Anxiety, he was
convinced that, despite his genius, Schelling’s fidelity to Idealist logic meant that he would
theorize life without ever reaching existence. Thus, Kierkegaard—and Heidegger after
him—would take up anxiety as the true opposite of necessity, the embodied precursor of
freedom, and the sign of powerthat concomitant excitation and exhaustion which
accompanies our striving to do or create.
Within the framework of the meaning of moods for philosophy, the concept of
Sehnsucht, which in Schelling occasionally slides into Angst,
is both anthropomorphism and
an attempt to show something fundamental. From a dynamic perspective, which attempts to
get past the fixity of Idealist formalism, there is no simple origin of life, much less of freedom and
consciousness. By extension, there is no pure foundation, even of God. Life is characterized
by the curiosity of arising in and of itself, without remaining recognizably what it first was,
and without being able to endure eternally in a developed form. When God is thought on
the basis of life, as Schelling does with his dual principles, God becomes mortal, finite
under one aspect. However, even if a species or other subdivision of life proves to be finite,
we recognize that something about the organization called lifeis not similarly limited by
In section 1, part 7, Schelling writes of human striving: “Die Angst des Lebens selbst treibt den Menschen
aus dem Zentrum, in das er erschaffen worden; denn dieses als das lauterste Wesen alles Willens ist für jeden besondern
Willen verzehrendes Feuer; um in ihm leben zu können, muss der Mensch aller Eigenheit absterben.” Thus anxiety drives life
as the conscious cognate of instincts, but it must be surpassed, in part because like today’s stress, it weakens us,
but also because nothing in creation can remain ambiguous. This Schelling argues about the evolution of the
ground. Kierkegaard picks it up in a logic of the either/or.
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
mortality. For Schelling, the duality of finitude and infinity had to be thought metaphysically,
as genesis and reconciliation. This characterized German language post-Kantian thought
after him, as well; from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche, at least in the concept-experience of
“Eternal Recurrence.” Hence Schelling urges, late in the treatise, that in fact, this God of two
principles is also one. Grasping this primordial unity means thinking the groundless, the anti-
ground, which is borders an absurdity.
Perhaps we can envision this through a change in
perspective, which required the entire, foregoing analysis of cosmos and nature. Love,
naming the “neither-nor” logic of divinity as two and one, is related to the Sehnsucht that
characterized divine duality-in-indifference. A mood thus names the impossible movement’,
which we know only because we feel it at the human level. Vigorously anthropomorphic, as
Kierkegaard would say, Sehnsucht is the registers affectively the two ambiguous potencies in
relation. The core of Schelling’s philosophy, like that of Cohen, Rosenzweig, and Levinas
after him, turns on the ways that fundamental relationality passes through modes and
moods. If the origin lies in the indifference and indistinctness of the base, the base
nevertheless contains forces in relation. Before their relation evolves into a generative
tension, it is dynamic coexistence. This can be compared to Schelling’s earlier
characterization of elements like “vital air”—“the product of light and [a] fundamental stuff”
(IPN, 22)as against atmospheric air,” which makes vital air breathable only when they
mix, even though atmospheric air is “directly opposed to vital air” (IPN, 23).
The same is true of the embodied human being. How could we know such a thing?
We can observe those who derive positive pleasure from evil, we may also be able to observe
NHF 86-87. Here at last we reach the highest point of the whole inquiry. The question has long been heard:
What is to be gained by that initial distinction between being insofar as it is basis, and being insofar as it exists?
For either there is no common ground for the two…absolute dualism; or there is such common groundand
in that case…the two coincide again….We have already explained what we assume in the first respect: there must
be a being before all basis and before all existence…before any duality at all; how can we designate it except as…the
‘groundless’ [Ungrund]?”
The Birth Pangs of the Absolute: Longing and Angst in Schelling and Kierkegaard
Bettina Bergo, Université de Montréal
creative spontaneitythe sign of Schelling’s freedom. The artist reveals at least that much to
us. In nature, the dual principles never separate. They remain in a relationship of equilibrium.
In humans, the mood of anxiety shifts our focus onto the relation between our own drives
base, and the understanding, which can either move past the inclinations of the drives or
raise them into prominence. As Heidegger realized, albeit using different language,
Schelling’s Sehnsucht points us precisely toward the question that we are and, beyond this, to
the one that asks, Why is there is being instead of simply nothing? Schelling, however,
preferred to ask, ‘Why is there life instead of nothing?’ As historians of philosophy, we might
observe, here, that Idealism moved toward vitalism and gnosticism as Kant’s successors
strove to simplify or amend his system. This motivates a more contemporary question as
well: Toward what will the grand ‘idealism’ of the twentieth century, phenomenology, move?
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Future Philosophy / Friedrich Nietzsche ; translated by Ian Johnston Note: The University of Adelaide Library eBooks @ Adelaide.
Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jakob und Wilhelm Grimm. Leipzig: Hirzel. Universität Trier for the online edition. On-line: http:// germazope. uni-trier
  • Jakob Grimm
Nineteenth-Century Origins of Neuroscientific Concepts
  • Edwin Clarke
  • L S Jacyna
Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone
  • Immanuel Kant
Ideas for a Philosophy of
  • F W J Schelling
Kritische Studienausgabe
  • Friedrich Nietzsche
Oeuvres métaphysiques (1805–1821). Trans. Jean-François Courtine and Emmanuel Martineau
  • F W J Schelling