The Potencies of God(s): Schelling's Philosophy of Mythology

by Edward Allen Beach

State University of New York Press. Albany, N.Y. 1994.
$18.95 paperback ISBN 0-7914-0974-0
$57.50 hardcover ISBN 0-7914-0973-2


This book explores the metaphysical and hermeneutical principles underlying Schelling's final theory concerning the nature of religious mythology, worked out in the last two decades of his life and delivered in a celebrated lecture series in Berlin between 1841 and 1846. Treatment of this topic requires a combination of methodological approaches -- historical, literary, and philosophical, but my primary emphasis is on the last of these. I give a detailed analysis of Schelling's "Potenzenlehre" (theory of Potencies) and discuss its logical implications for both the "negative" (abstract a priori) and "positive" (concrete a posteriori) branches of his philosophy.

According to Schelling, the positive branch is needed in order to provide independent confirmation of the results obtained by the negative branch. He criticizes Hegel and his followers for failing to recognize this need and for reducing human experience to a bloodless series of logical categories. I show that the root of the disagreement between Schelling and Hegel lies in their differing conceptions of proper dialectical method. On due consideration, I conclude that Schelling's position, while interesting and provocative, is unconvincing.

Despite the flaws of his philosophical principles, Schelling's hermeneutical approach to mythology -- especially Greek mythology -- enabled him to uncover some of its hidden dynamics. Most Western thinkers at the opening of the nineteenth century still tended to dismiss representations relating to deities outside the Judeo-Christian tradition as mere fictions told by credulous, superstitious primitives. Schelling was one of the first to probe beneath the surface layers of the seemingly arbitrary narratives in search of deeper symbolic significances. My work shows how in the process he anticipated many of the developments of modern psychoanalysis.

Schelling suggested that the ostensible meaning of a myth often might be just a superficial facade constructed by the conscious mind in order to dissemble the true motivations of the unconscious. Should the repressed motives unexpectedly emerge into view, the result could be an experience of the "uncanny" (das Unheimliche) -- i.e., that which one has sought to keep secret (heimlich). I argue that Schelling's discovery of the role of the unconscious was his most important contribution to the study of religious symbolism.

I next take up the analysis of Schelling's theory of potencies. The first of these, symbolized as "B," represents the moment of the non-rational, which is at the same time the foundation of all existence. Schelling argues that something prior to reason must precede all other developments, for how else could reason gain a leverage point from which to proceed? Individuality and concrete volition are necessary, he claims, in order to provide the ground for any subsequent elaboration of conceptual relations. (There are obvious anticipations here of Feuerbach's as well as of Kierkegaard's respective critiques of Hegelianism. Both thinkers were influenced by Schelling.)

The second potency, "A2," has its dialectical function in the gradual subduing and rationalizing of the first. Essence succeeds existence and works to make it comprehensible. Special problems emerge in the course of this process: The imposition of form onto what was originally formless threatens to undercut the second potency's logical independence. A dialectical struggle between the two moments ensues. This struggle can only be mediated, according to Schelling, when the third potency, "A3," emerges on the scene and introduces a harmonizing balance. In this manner, both the particularity of existence and the universality of reason find their places within a reconstituted principle of spirit.

While acknowledging the legitimate concerns that led Schelling to formulate this intriguing new doctrines, I find his solution to be deficient in several ways. The chief difficulty is that, in his effort to make room for free will in his dialectic, Schelling leaves his system vulnerable to charges of arbitrariness.

Nevertheless, although much of his argument is flawed, in my judgment, it is a potentially rich source of insights for ongoing and future work in the comparative philosophy of religions.