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Thankless Trouble: Ethical Contemplation of Nature
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‘Nature’ and ‘philosophy’ are among the words that come under discussion in the recently published Dictionary of the Untranslatable, but nothing is said of Naturphilosophie. And yet, among the many untranslatable words that have entered into the lexicon of modern German thought, none is perhaps more resistant to translation than Naturphilosophie. This is not because the terms from which it derives are obscure; on the contrary, it is perfectly reasonable to translate each of the terms separately, one as ‘nature’ and the other as ‘philosophy,’ but the relation between the words, beyond their conjunction, remains elusive. The aim of this essay is to explore this conjunction. A brief passage from the introduction to the revised (1803) edition of Schelling’s Ideen zur Naturphilosophie [Ideas toward Naturphilosophie], can serve as a précis of the principle on which the construction of nature proceeds: “Philosophy is the science of the absolute, but since the absolute in its eternal activity necessarily comprehends two sides as one, the real and the ideal, so philosophy, considered from the side of form, necessarily has to divide itself in accordance with the two sides, although its essence consists solely in seeing both sides as one in the absolute act of cognition. The real side of the eternal act is revealed in nature; nature in itself, or eternal nature, is just spirit born into objectivity.” Far from being something opposed to mind or consciousness, nature is thus the “objective side” of the infinite activity in which the absolute consists, persists, and therefore exists. The very infinity of “natural” productivity then poses the defining problem to which Naturphilosophie must somehow answer: how can there be such a thing as finite nature, made up of delimitable objects, each of which is a mere product that in this way marks the cessation of infinite productivity? Instead of responding to this question—which is tantamount to “doing” Naturphilosophie—this essay will reflect on a supplementary question that is directed less at the construction than at the motivation behind the constructor. Questions of this kind were raised soon after Schelling published the first version of Ideas toward Naturphilosophie in 1797. And it was not simply his philosophical opponents who found it necessary to ask “why trouble oneself with the construction of nature?” Doubts about the motivation for Naturphilosophie are nowhere more succinctly expressed than in a contribution to one of the journals Schelling himself edited during this period: “I do not comprehend why anyone would want to take on the thankless trouble of working out a method of constructing nature when nature constructs itself.”

So writes Carl August von Eschenmayer in an essay that was published in the second and last volume of Zeitschrift für spekulative Physik [The Journal of Speculative Physics]. From a certain perspective, Eschenmayer’s misgivings seem out of place, for, if the “method of constructing nature” is understood as a version of a theoretically-informed empirical inquiry, the trouble of constructing nature is far from thankless. On the contrary, it is nothing less than the acquisition of knowledge, whereby an object is constructed in theory, with the aim of evaluating the construction in light of experimental evidence. But as readers of Eschenmayer’s essay in The Journal of Speculative Physics would already know, the method of Naturphilosophie cannot be understood as a theoretical venture that is to be evaluated by means of empirical research. On the contrary, the infinite productivity of nature cannot appear as such; only inert products are capable of appearing by virtue of their productive incapacity. More precisely (although still only as an approximation), the construction of nature is the construction of the object “in” the absolute, which is itself not an object of inquiry but is, rather, the pure act of knowing on the hither side of the distinction between cognizing subject and recognizable object. All of this is well-known, of course, to students of German Idealism, even among those who have little interest in, or familiarity with, the paths and byways of Schelling’s thought. Eschenmeyer’s remark is trenchant because it expresses skepticism about the motivation for undertaking the program of Naturphilosophie from within the broadly defined school of thought that...



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