Schelling’s Timescapes

A great deal went down in 1908.  Henry Ford built his first Model T; the Wright Brothers patented their first aircraft (and shortly thereafter Lt. Thomas Selfridge crashed one of their planes to become the first fatality of human flight); Robert Baden-Powell founded the Boy Scouts; Ethel Hedgeman Lyle established Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority; a large meteoroid exploded over the Tunguska River in Russia, causing what is believed to be the largest impact event in our planet’s recent history; Mother’s Day was observed for the first time in Grafton, West Virginia; and in Cologne, Germany, physicists gathered for the 80th Assembly of German Natural Scientists to hear Albert Einstein’s mathematics professor Hermann Minkowski give an address entitled “Space and Time.”  Out of this address came the now ubiquitously anthologized declaration that “space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.”  Thus the notion of block time, or the block universe, had something of an official entry in scientific discourse.

Minkowski’s idea of a four-dimensional spatio-temporal block that does not become (but just is) follows from Einstein’s discovery of the relativity of simultaneity, a discovery that seems to have spelled the irrevocable end of the idea of Absolute Time.  The relativity of simultaneity refers to the elastic relationship between the here-and-now and the there-and-now of different events.  Perhaps nothing explains the notion more clearly than Paul Langevin’s famous twin paradox—or perhaps it would be better to call Langevin’s thought-experiment a parable, since essentially it retells the tale of the good son and his prodigal brother.  Two events bracket Langevin’s parabolic narrative: at one end we have a parting and at the other a reunion.  At event A, the twins part: the good son stays on earth to tend dutifully to family business while the prodigal selfishly blasts off on a rocket and travels at nearly light speed to a distant planet—no doubt to have a dinner of husks with a race of highly evolved pig-men—only to turn around and return to Earth to reunite with his disgruntled brother at Event B.  The paradoxicality or peculiarity of the tale becomes evident when neither the brothers nor their clocks can agree on how much time has passed between the two events.  If twenty years might have passed for the good son, only twelve might have passed for the prodigal.  Setting aside the implicit moral of the story, that the more prodigal you are the younger you stay, its scientific point is that the time between events is relative to each observer and that all such accounts are equally valid.  In other words, Newton was wrong.  There is no such thing as Absolute Time.  In the universe of relativity theory, it is therefore possible for you to presently witness an event that I would consider to be in my future or past.  And how is this possible?  As popular science writer Paul Davies puts it, “there is only one rational conclusion to draw from the relative nature of simultaneity: events in the past and future have to be every bit as real as events in the present” (AT 71).  In more philosophical terms, the relativity of simultaneity shows that there is no ontological difference between past, present and future.  Each tensed dimension has as much reality as the others; each has an equal share of being.  Events thus appear to be embedded in a block of time, a “timescape” that is always and already given in its entirety.

Such a notion seems completely at odds with the sober human experience of time, an experience that privileges the present as ontologically distinct from past and future.  Aristotle exemplified the “presentist” view of reality when he asserted in his Physics that everything exists only at the moment “now,” a moment which connects the past that has been but no longer is and the future that will be but is not yet.  Underwriting Aristotle’s presentism is the presumption that the world is strictly three-dimensional.  As he states in On the Heavens, “A magnitude if divisible one way is a line, if two ways a surface, and if three a body.  Beyond these there is no other magnitude, because the three dimensions are all that there are” (268a).  Thus in presentism the extended world is three-dimensional and exists only one moment at a time, a moment which turns the indeterminate future into a fixed past, one kind of nothingness into another.  In the double movement in which the present moment flies out of the past into the future as the future itself is ceaselessly borne back into the past, we are left with the sense of the flow of time, that time itself is subordinated to the movement of the world in its becoming.

Alongside this feeling is another: the feeling, or rather, the perception that we ourselves exist only one moment at a time and that our magnitude is exhausted within the three dimensions of the Aristotelian body.  In other words, while we are clearly extended three-dimensionally in space, we do not appear to ourselves as physically extended in time.  We rather feel ourselves carried along in time’s flow, and like the rest of the world, exist only in the fleeting moment of the present, wedged tightly between the nothingness in our rear and the nothingness in our van.  However, relativity theory again would deem this feeling or perception as illusory.  If the world is four-dimensional, so too are all the entities, beings, systems that comprise or populate it.  What we perceive as a three-dimensional object is in reality a relative cross-section of a four-dimensional event, extended in time as much as in space.  Indeed for the relativist the natural or physical body of a human being would, despite its appearance, be much more considerably extended in time than in space.  Hence relativists speak of things like the “worldtube” or “worldline” of an object.  Again, this entails that one’s past, present and future have equal shares of being, regardless of one’s limitation to directly perceive anything but one’s present.  From the point of view of relativity theory, then, there is no real becoming, for becoming is possible only in a three-dimensional world that exists one moment at a time.  In actuality, one exists, impassively, as a fixed event in a static universe.  Becoming, as Einstein would say, consoling the widow of a departed friend, is at best a stubborn illusion.  And time itself, as one commentator explains, “is simply the dimension in which [an observer’s] world-line happens to extend through the four-dimensional continuum” (Dunne 123).

In 1949, Einstein’s close friend and fellow perambulator at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, the logician Kurt Goedel published a paper entitled “A Remark About the Relationship between Relativity Theory and Idealistic Philosophy.”  In this essay and elsewhere, Goedel insisted that Relativity constituted a scientific vindication of Kant’s view of time.  As he wrote in an unpublished manuscript, “the agreement described between certain consequences of modern physics and a doctrine that Kant set up 150 years ago in contradiction both to common sense and to the physicists and philosophers of his time, is greatly surprising, and it is hard to understand why so little attention is being paid to it in philosophical discussion of relativity theory” (quoted in Dorato, 332).

Returning to the First Critique, it indeed appears that the conceptual revolution claimed by relativity theory as its own has already taken place.  First and foremost, Kant’s Copernican reversal involves the revaluation of the relationship between time and movement.  In speaking of the passage of time, of time flowing at the same rate for all, the commonsensical presentism of Aristotle or Newton subordinates time to movement, and thus defines time in terms of succession.  Kant reverses all this in his transcendental aesthetic, declaring: “neither co-existence nor succession would be perceived by us, if the representation of time did not exist as a foundation a priori” (C 54).  Time is thus the inbuilt mode or form through which things can appear to the human being.  As the formal condition a priori of all appearances, time does not move.  Moreover, it is one—that is, it has only one dimension.  As Kant writes, “Different times are merely parts of one and the same time.  … The infinity of time signifies nothing more than that every determined quantity of time is possible only through limitations of one time lying at the foundation” (55).

No longer definable by succession, time has become an unchanging, unmoving form.  As Gilles Deleuze puts it in his primer on Kantianism, time is “the [immutable] form of everything that changes and moves” (K 29).  Granted, time is not a physically real form that exists outside of and apart from the mind.  Time’s reality is strictly transcendental.  It is, Kant says, nothing other than the form of the internal sense, “of the intuitions of ourselves and of our internal state” (C 56).  As the mode of self-representation, time effectively hollows the human being out, splits it in two or doubles it into an “I” and a “me.”  Deleuze notes that for Kant the I “is an act … that actively determines my existence… but can only determine it in time, as the existence of a passive, receptive, and changing self…. The I and the Self are thus separated by the line of time, which relates them to each other only under the condition of a fundamental difference.  My existence can never be determined as that of an active and spontaneous being, but as a passive “self” that represents to itself the “I” … as an Other that affects it” (K 30).

It seems to me that the Kantian distinction between the “I” and the Self anticipates and expresses more fully the inexplicable difference posited in relativity theory between the illusory three-dimensional object of perception that appears to become and the imperceptible but really existing four-dimensional object-event that just is.  Even if we cannot directly observe the object as event, Einstein’s discovery of the relativity of simultaneity binds us to infer the reality of its status as such.  Kant’s ontology suggests a reason why we cannot directly perceive or function in anything more than three dimensions: we would have to be outside of time to do so.  But our minds and our bodies seem constructed in such a way that we can only perceive and therefore work in three dimensions of space and successively one moment at a time.  What this suggests is that it is not time that is interior to us; it is we who are interior to time.  The “I” that congeals, thinks, perceives, and acts in the moment is totally contained inside the quadrature of the temporally extended Self.  The unity of time thus reflects the transcendental unity of self-consciousness and vice-versa.  If the noumenon is the “thing-in-itself,” the phenomenon is that which is contained in the in-itself of the thing: the internal restlessness of the externally impassive, being’s dream of becoming.

Kant’s transcendental aesthetic gives a clear enough account of the internal relationship of the Self to itself, but we do not find therein a clear notion of the external relationship of the Self to other temporally extended events like it.  In other words, we do not have a sense of the cosmos into which these impassive events are woven like so many figures in a carpet.  If Kant does not give a conceptual account of the cosmos in its fixity, it would perhaps be for two reasons—firstly, because any concept of the cosmos would go beyond the possibility of experience, and secondly because any such concept would automatically involve a concomitant conception of God as Creator, which would likewise require transgressing the bounds of experience.  In retrospect, of course, Kant’s peculiar inhibition did not successfully translate into a universally regarded prohibition.  A generation later Friedrich Schelling elaborated a block-type conception of the cosmos derived from what he called his “consummate” concept of God.

Schelling of course has an infamous reputation as a kind of philosophical Proteus, formulating and abandoning one system after another during the course of his career, the only invariant of which one might say is precisely the infinitely frustrated will-to-systemacity.  But perhaps it would be more generous as well as more precise to describe Schelling the way that Deleuze described himself: that is, as a philosopher of one system, but of a system that exists in a state of “perpetual heterogenesis.”  Schelling suggests as much when in Ages of the World he insists that movement is what is essential to knowledge or that the being of knowledge consists in a progression from simplicity to complexity.  Thus as Schelling’s system “others” itself in its temporal extension, some concepts are left behind, while some are retained, however baroquely elaborated or severely altered to suit the transmuted system’s new conditions of existence.

This seems to me a defensible enough position to take with respect to the relationship between the Freedom Essay of 1809 and the later project of Ages of the World.  (Of the three extant versions of this project, I will be referring strictly to the 3rd version of 1815).  Both of these works share the same core concerns, which might be summed up in two sets of oppositions, the abstract opposition between necessity and freedom, and the concrete opposition between nature and God.  These core conceptual concerns seem thematizations of the structural tension of Schelling’s protean system, a tension that could perhaps be characterized as one between romantic and classical tendencies, between a wild and unregulated creation of concepts and a counteracting will to attunement and hierarchical accord.  The concept of a block time or the image of a block universe would then seem to emerge in Schelling’s philosophy as a consequence of the latter movement.

As the Relativists would affirm, all points of the timescape in a block universe must always and already be given.  Events just are, and persist to be: no matter how far flung into the future or how far back into the recesses of the past they might be situated in relation to any given observer.  Schelling certainly takes for granted the persistent being of all events, however much one might distinguish them tenselessly in terms of “before and after” or in the tensed terms of past, present and future.  As he declares in Ages of the World:

For different times (a concept that, like many others, has gotten lost in modern philosophy) can certainly be, as different, at the same time, nay to speak more accurately, they are necessarily at the same time.  Past time is not sublimated time.  What has past certainly cannot be as something present, but it must be as something past at the same time with the present.  What is future is certainly not something that has being now, but it is a future being at the same time with the present.  And it is equally inconsistent to think of past being, as well as future being, as utterly without being (A 76).

However, as much as inference may force one to posit the ontological equivalence of past, present and future and therefore the stasis or fixity of the timescape in its entirety, any observer (at least any sober human observer) is bound to note that any event observed, whether of one’s own present or of someone else’s past or future, always shows things in movement, in the process of becoming or changing.  For Schelling, this difference between the inferred reality of being and the observed reality of becoming seems to pose no especial difficulty of reconciliation.  “In the circle out of which all things become,” he writes in the Freedom essay, “it is not a contradiction that what engenders one thing is itself regenerated by it.  Here there is no first and last, because all things mutually presuppose each other; nothing is the other, and yet nothing is without the other” (237).  Elsewhere in the same essay, Schelling repeats this thought in a different formulation, declaring: “There is greatest harmony in creation, and nothing is as separate and successive as we must portray it to be, but in the prior the subsequent, too, is already coacting, and everything happens at once in one magical stroke” (261).

In these passages, Schelling seems to suggest that the real being of the block universe is a consequence of the real becoming of all events at once.  Does this mean that only the totality has being, but that particular things do not?  We should recall that for the Relativists, the concept of becoming can hold true only for three-dimensional objects that are not extended in time.  To be sure, Schelling declares in the Freedom essay that, “the concept of becoming is the only one commensurate to the nature of things” (238).  But in the practically the same breath, he also asserts that “as man acts now, so he has acted from eternity and even in the beginning of creation.  His action does not become, as he himself as a moral being does not become; rather it is eternal by nature” (261).  Is Schelling so careless to allow for such a contradiction in the space of a few pages?  I would suggest that a careful scrutiny of the first statement shows that the contradiction is merely apparent.  For what Schelling seems to mean by asserting that “the concept of becoming is the only one commensurate to the nature of things” is that becoming pertains strictly to that which in things is their nature.  There is something in a thing that becomes, and this is its nature.  But in addition to this nature that becomes, and indeed subtending this nature, a thing also possesses an impassive intelligible being that just is.

This leads us to an important point.  Schelling’s notion of a physical universe as a block in which all things happen at once demands a corresponding notion of an eternal ground of origination.  If things become in time, they originate outside of time, or outside of physical time in an eternal time.  In both the Freedom essay and Ages of the World, we find Schelling making this argument.  Thus in the former work, Schelling states, with respect to the human being in particular, that:

Although man is born in time, he is created in the beginning of creation (the center).  The act by which his life in time is determined does not itself belong to time, but to eternity, nor does it precede time, but moves through time (untouched by it) as an act by its nature eternal.  Through this act man’s life extends to the beginning of creation; thus through it he is beyond creation as well, free and himself eternal beginning (259)

In terms of its “action” its “moral being,” the human creature does not therefore become, but just is, produced complete by the eternal ground of the cosmos, which is of course at the same time the ground of God’s own being.  In Ages of the World, Schelling expansively elaborates on this inchoate conception of the ground or the center of creation firstly by stating that in the ground the individual creature originally exists in the mode of an archetype, as a kind of spiritual image, a pure determinate potentiality of body, spirit and soul awaiting, or rather, yearning for actualization. But the archetypes cannot actualize in the ground because there is neither space nor time in it to do so.  As Schelling describes it, there is no true up or down or left or right or before or after in the ground.  Rather, it is a kind of dimensionless, infinitely involuted singularity, a black hole within which three divine potencies (corporeal, spiritual, and psychic) circulate in an unending rotary motion, literally fighting over the locus of being.

However, the very dynamism of the annular drive suggests some kind of temporality, and therefore some kind of before and after.  As Edward Allen Beach points out, in the incorporation of “genetic principles into the very core of [his] ontology,” Schelling undertakes the temporalization of the eternal and the essential (P 112).  In the proto-temporality of the ground, Schelling thus declares that there is an “inexorable progression, a necessary concatenation, from the first potency to the third.  When the first potency is posited, the second is also necessarily posited, and both of these produce the third with the same necessity” (A 19).  But this inexorable progression, this self-positing or auto-production of the Potencies, immediately coils in on itself to become a perpetual cycle.  “The antithesis eternally produces itself,” Schelling writes, “in order always again to be consumed by the unity, and the antithesis is eternally consumed by the unity in order always to revive itself anew.  This is the sanctuary, the hearth of the life that continually incinerates itself and again rejuvenates itself from the ash,” “a completely involuntary movement that, once begun, makes itself from itself” (20, 21).  Taken together, the Potencies thus constitute, as Beach puts it, “a network of intermeshing essences, a kind of blueprint for all that conceivably might be” (P 130).  The “figure of being” that this totality of possibilities constitutes generates within itself the inchoate timescapes of the world of nature and the spirit world.

It is only with the primordial event of the emergence out of the ground of the Godhead as such—that is, divinity in its freedom as opposed to its necessity—that the simultaneous actualization of the natural and spiritual realms, and all the little potential creatures they would contain, becomes possible.  In this genesis of the cosmos, Schelling asks us to imagine the Godhead literally emerging by fiat out of its dimensionless ground.  The only way the Godhead can break out of essence into existence is through the first Potency’s inversion of itself.  The transformation of A1 to B bespeaks the origin of existence in chaos.  This inward-drawing, collapsing power of pure selfhood exerts its force of contraction to pull everything back into the singularity.

By necessity of this transformation, the second Potency likewise inverts itself into existence, to become a subjective principle of ordering at work simultaneously at all points of the timescape.  Through this principle, it seems, all the archetypes that generated in the ground spontaneously self-organize—spatially and temporally—to ensure their mutual engendering.  Thus Schelling boldly proposes, in a passage as strange as it is sexist, a model of biological generation in which the child, qua archetypal being created in the ground from all eternity, becomes the quasi-cause of its parents’ coupling.  As Schelling thus writes,

for nature in the woman draws the spirit of the man to herself and the man, in turn, draws the world spirit to himself.  And hence, here that guiding connection and concatenation of members, each independent from the other, is produced, whereby the last becomes capable of being active in the first and the highest becomes capable of being active in the lowest.  For no being can begin the course of its existence without immediate divine reinforcement.  Each new life commences a new time existing for it that is immediately knotted to eternity.  Hence, an eternity immediately precedes each life.  And in temporal generation, just as in the first generation, everything external is only a part or a member of a concatenation that goes up to the highest (67)

Insisting that each new life commences a new time, Schelling delivers a bold interpretation of Kant’s transcendental aesthetic.  At the same time, he anticipates Einstein’s revolutionary overthrow of absolute time.  Einstein pronounced the relativity of time confronted by first the thought experiment and then the experimentally verified physical fact that different observers can experience different intervals of time between the same two events.  If there is no absolute, cosmic time in the natural world then time indeed is something dependent upon an observing life.  The only thing absolute left in nature is thus the timescape of events, which from Schelling’s perspective, is drawn into being out of the rotary ground in one single magical stroke by the forces on the upper floor of the cosmic brownstone, that is, from the forces residing in the spirit world.

If the rotary ground of the Potencies stands in relation to the world of nature as the absolute past, the spirit world thus stands in relation to the world of nature as the absolute future.  As such, the world of nature stands in relation to the spirit world as something totally past, and therefore, as knowable.  This would explain why, for Schelling, in that second degree of inner life to which the phenomena of dreaming and magnetic sleep introduce us, the spiritual element in the person would become “free in relationship to the soul and would draw the soul to it in order to show it, as if in a mirror, the things hidden in the soul’s interior and what lies still wrapped up in the soul itself (pertaining to what is future and eternal in the person)” (A 70, emphasis added).  What is future to the person dreaming or entranced in the world of nature is already past and therefore of one piece to the spirit that comports itself as that person’s “Guide” (46).  Hence Schelling’s Absolute presents itself as a progressive series of blocks within blocks, timescapes within timescapes: the block of rotary ground contained within the block of nature contained within the block of the spirit world and finally engulfed in the Godhead.

This implicit serialism of Schelling’s onto-theo-cosmogony opens up a critique of the uni-dimensional conception of time in both Kant and the Relativists.  In conceiving of time in only one dimension, Kantian idealism and the physical sciences appear destined never to fully solve the mystery of time.  The only question they can think to ask is the ontological question: what is time?  But this question obscures another, more urgent question, namely: “What is time for?”  Schelling makes time a part of that which in the creature is their nature.  But the full actualization of the creature, which is that which the creature yearns for more than anything else, demands that it transmute its natural life into a spiritual life, for the latter is more fully actual than the former.  Time is therefore the fuel that the creature must combust in order to escape the gravitational pull of the rotary ground and jettison itself into a form of existence in which it is no longer interior to the time of its nature, or divided by it, but is rather set free upon a higher timscape to enact the universal history of the lower.


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