Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol 13, No 3 (2017)

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Schelling and The Sixth Extinction: The Environmental Ethics Behind Schelling’s Anthropomorphization of Nature

Vincent Le


What Elizabeth Kolbert has called the ‘sixth mass extinction’ due to anthropogenic climate change has obliged us to rethink our traditional assumptions about the rapport between ourselves and nature. While the reconceptualization of nature has largely been led by scientists and environmental theorists and activists, this paper argues that Schelling provides the best and earliest model for rethinking nature in the Anthropocene. To this end, Schelling critiques two approaches to nature. Schelling repudiates Fichte’s idealism for reducing nature to an instrument for the self-assertion of our egos much like modern industrial capitalism views nature as an economic resource to be exploited for human gain. Further, Schelling critiques Spinoza for mechanizing nature as a structurally invariant system in the same way that climate change denialists hold that the earth’s ecosystem is perfectly homeostatic. Having dismissed these two approaches, Schelling develops another environmentally ethical conception of nature to answer the question of how the free human subject emerges out of an allegedly blind and lifeless nature. Schelling’s solution to safeguarding nature is to paradoxically anthropomorphize it further by reconceiving it as always-already structured as per the dynamic free spirit. This paper shall thus conclude by extracting two environmentally ethical principles that Schelling’s anthropomorphization of nature entails. Contra Fichte, the ‘dependency principle’ states that humans are radically dependent upon nature rather than nature being dependent on our positing it as an object of our intuition. Moreover, the ‘contingency principle’ stipulates against Spinoza that nature is itself contingent, dynamic and precarious. In this way, Schelling provides a conceptualization of nature befitting the demands placed upon thought in the age of the sixth extinction.

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