Although largely neglected in Schelling scholarship, the concept of bliss (Seligkeit) assumes central importance throughout Schelling’s oeuvre. Focusing on his 1810–11 texts, the Stuttgart Seminars and the beginning of the Ages of the World, this paper traces the logic of bliss, in its connection with other key concepts such as indifference, the world or the system, at a crucial point in Schelling’s thinking. Bliss is shown, at once, to mark the zero point of the developmental narrative that Schelling constructs here (from God before creation, via the natural, historical, and spiritual world, to the fully actualized, ‘true pantheism’) and to interrupt it at every step. As a result, bliss emerges here in its real utopian force but also its all-too-real ambivalence, indifference, and even violence, despite Schelling’s best efforts to theorize it as ‘love’; and Schelling himself emerges, in these texts, as one of modernity’s foremost thinkers not just of nature or freedom, but also of bliss in its modern afterlives. At stake in Schelling’s conception of bliss, I argue, is the very relationship between history and eternity, the not-yet and the already-here, the present, and the eschatological—as well as between Spinozian immanence and the Christian temporality of salvation, so important for modernity (with what is often called its process of ‘secularization’)—not to mention the complex entanglement of indifference, violence, and love or the ideas of totality, nonproductivity, and nonrelation that Schellingian bliss involves.
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Adorno 2005, 155–157.
Rousseau 1992, 66: “I would slip away and go throw myself into a boat that I rowed to the middle of the lake when the water was calm; and there, stretching myself out full-length in the boat, my eyes turned to heaven, I let myself slowly drift back and forth with the water…”I am grateful to Joseph Albernaz for this reference.
It is also, of course, an important medieval mystical term, closely related to Wonne (best translated as “joy”)—and Schelling does sometimes speak of Wonne alongside Seligkeit. I have chosen to translate Seligkeit as “bliss,” although it could also be translated as “beatitude” or “blessedness.” Ultimately, all these translations are valid, but my reasons for opting for “bliss” are threefold. First, originally in 1795 Schelling introduces “bliss” in contrast to (and in the context of his discussion of) happiness—precisely as the higher, nonempirical, pure happiness—and I prefer this more general meaning to the more narrowly religious connotations of “blessedness” and “beatitude” (which it, importantly, does not exclude). Relatedly, in the context of modernity, this term seems philosophically more relevant than the other two. Finally, “bliss” is a key Romantic term (in British Romanticism in particular)—also in the sense of a higher happiness—and this connection between Schelling and Romanticism is one I wanted to maintain, even if I do not focus on it explicitly here.
It is the 1795 Philosophical Letters that establish the concept of bliss as the complete “annihilation” (Vernichtung) of the finite world and the latter’s structure of conflict (Widerstreit) and striving. See Schelling 1982, 91–99. Already in Of the I as Principle of Philosophy, however, written earlier in 1795, Schelling speaks of “pure happiness” (Schelling 1980, 123–125, 173–175)—contrasted by him with empirical happiness and configured as the complete cessation of all oppositions that define finitude (including the subject-object opposition, but also that between happiness and morality)—which paves the way for the Letters’ introduction of the term “bliss.” For the late Schelling’s central discussions of bliss, see, e.g., his Groundwork of Positive Philosophy (Schelling 1972, esp. 335–336) and the concluding lecture of the Philosophical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, or Presentation of the Purely Rational Philosophy (Schelling 1856, 553–572).
On the contemporary theoretical significance of the opposition between immanence and the Christian as well as secular discourses of futurity and the world, see generally the work of Daniel Colucciello Barber—in particular Barber 2016. For an important discussion of immanence vis-à-vis “the world” (of modernity) and the subject in the world, see Dubilet 2018, 1–7 and 173–178.
Cf. Alanen 2012, 252–3. Importantly, Spinoza was the originator of the thinking of bliss in (modern, post-Cartesian) philosophy. As Anthony Gottlieb elegantly puts it, “Descartes was beset by doubt; Spinoza was troubled by futility. Descartes wanted certainty, but Spinoza sought bliss.” Gottlieb cites the famous opening lines of Spinoza’s Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect: “After experience had taught me that all the things which regularly occur in ordinary life are empty and futile… I resolved at last to find out whether there was … something which, once found and acquired, would continuously give me the greatest joy, to eternity” (Gottlieb 2016, 108). The state of bliss—the culmination of the entire logic of totality in the later Ethics—is where this joy of eternity is acquired. That must have resonated with the young Schelling, too, who starting from his early works continuously circles around a similar set of concerns, even if the underlying metaphysics is, in Schelling’s bliss, in many ways different from Spinoza’s.
Throughout this paper, translations from Schelling are mine unless otherwise noted, although I have also consulted existing English translations where available.
Gleichgültigkeit denotes a state in which two opposing terms or emotions are “equally gültig,” i.e., equally valid. It is important to note that Schelling himself explicitly connects the two senses of indifference (as Gleichgültigkeit and as Indifferenz) in his discussion of the primordial divine essence as “a state in which everything is still all-together without separation… [an] endless plenitude not just of the like but of the completely unlike in complete inseparation (Ungeschiedenheit). … This is the state that we have called the indifference (Gleichgültigkeit) of potencies in God” (Schelling 2017, 94–95)—a state in which, as Schelling notes slightly before that, potencies “lie in God in full indifference (Indifferenz) or indistinguishability (Ununterscheidbarkeit)” (84). In this Gleichgültigkeit, nothing is thus singled out or preferred—to the point of not distinguishing between, or not caring to distinguish between, anything at all. Later Schelling again uses Gleichgültigkeit in the sense of at once indifference and indistinction: “We can conceive of these [opposed] principles [i.e., love and egoism], too, as being originally in God in a certain [state of] indifference (Gleichgültigkeit), and yet, if they were to persist in this indifference, neither God nor anything else could develop” (108). In this state, God cannot or does not care to develop—or, for that matter, to differentiate between his own “love” and “egoism.” Cf. also Schelling 1946, 130: “We have also considered this indifference (Gleichgültigkeit) elsewhere under the name of absolute indifference (Indifferenz), and designated it as the absolutely first.”
This is, in fact, already the case in the 1795 Philosophical Letters. See Schelling 1982, 95 (on bliss as the state preceding the Fall) and 99 (on “absolute bliss” as “the final goal”). The system-narrative itself and the interaction between the logic of bliss and this narrative get, however, more complex in the middle Schelling.
An expression encountered verbatim in the description of divine bliss at the beginning of the 1811 Weltalter, too (Schelling 1946, 17).
Cf. Negri 1991, 45: for Spinoza, “existence is not a problem.”
The logic of what I am here calling “indifferentiation” is inherited by the middle Schelling from his earlier “identity philosophy” (ca. 1801–1806), which is radical precisely by virtue of doing away with the “not-yet” and processuality. For the best account of the identity system, see Whistler 2013. In the Stuttgart Seminars, Schelling tries to combine indifference and processuality into one system-narrative, with interesting results (as this paper hopes to show).
Note the link, too, between Substanz, Auflösung, and Verzehrung, also important for the middle Schelling’s concept of bliss.
Love and anger are thus, we could say, modes of operativity of bliss, too, which as such—in its purity and indifference—cannot be characterized as any specific emotion. This is why Schelling omits practically any theorization of bliss in terms of pleasure, passion, joy, or happiness—except in terms of the kind of purity (such as the “pure joy,” reine Frohheit, at the beginning of the 1811 Weltalter) in which all difference between individual emotions is suspended and what results is pure serenity.
In this, Schelling is also a Spinozist. To quote Lilli Alanen’s questioning of Spinozian bliss: “But where are we [in bliss]? … Whose self is it? … Is this really something that a finite subject can attain? … At the third level of knowledge, we are supposed to see things sub specie aeternitatis, from God’s perspective, that is, the perspective of the universe as a whole. But then do we not have to distance ourselves from these finite selves that remain entrapped in their temporal existence with their joys and sorrows, and which qua temporal remain inaccessible to true cognition? From the point of view of eternity, I surmise, there are no joys and sorrows” (Alanen 2012, 252–253). What is at stake here, I would argue, is the constitutive impossibility of Spinozian-Schellingian bliss from the point of view of the world—which is the standpoint of binary and Gegenwirkung, joy or sorrow. What thus, perhaps, troubles Alanen is, among other things, the positive inhumanity of bliss (as indifference or purity, but even more generally—as a No to any further possibilities, joys and sorrows, or concerns, worldly or personal).
This aspect is, I believe, constitutive of the logic of bliss more generally (as pure and immanent dissolution of, and indifference to, the world), no matter how much Schelling wants to tone it down by speaking of “love” all the time. In its indifference, bliss does not—and furthermore, cannot—differentiate between pure love and pure violence; both coincide, and not necessarily in the way that Schelling wants them to (i.e., so that violence is subordinated to love).
A formula in which Spinoza meets St. Paul, to the point of indistinction—but also a formula whose placement at the end of the narrative of indifferentiation exposes the conflict between the two.
While a detailed comparison between Schelling’s and Spinoza’s concepts of bliss would be out of scope for this paper, it should be noted that it is in his identity philosophy that Schelling’s bliss is the most straightforwardly Spinozian—precisely because during this period Schelling re-visions the world as nonprocessual and nonfinite, refusing development, history, and the not-yet. The main ways in which the logic and the significance of bliss differ in Schelling compared to Spinoza, have to do with how—both before and after the identity-philosophy period—the finite world gets configured in Schelling as a process of development, history, etc., and bliss as the state of immanence which precedes finitude but also into which the entire world eschatologically resolves. This is due to the fact that, outside his identity philosophy, Schelling wants to think both the absolute immanence of bliss and the finite world in its finitude (and thus its negativity and not-yetness)—and not just as the immanent expression of the absolute in a Spinozistic manner, the way identity philosophy thinks it (where it is “only what expresses the law of identity that is of interest to the philosopher,” as Daniel Whistler formulates it; Whistler 2019).
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This paper was first presented at a Schelling conference held at the University of the West of England in May 2017. I am grateful to the participants of that event for their incisive questions and remarks. I would also like to thank Joseph Albernaz, James Martel, Simona Schneider, Gilad Sharvit, and the anonymous referees for Sophia for their valuable comments and suggestions.
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Chepurin, K. Indifference and the World: Schelling’s Pantheism of Bliss. SOPHIA 58, 613–630 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11841-018-0700-7
- German idealism
- Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling