I recently took the time to read Schelling’s Grounding of the Positive Philosophy, and got to thinking about how it compares with Meillassoux’s project. As Markus Gabriel observes, there is definitely an onto-theological tendency in Schelling as in Fichte and Hegel, but it is also possible, he says, to read each of these thinkers as neither succumbing to this regressive tendency nor as developing entirely sanitised proto-analytic philosophies in the vein of Brandom or McDowell. The proposed middle path is named transcendental ontology by Gabriel, and I am interested in the question of whether it is a genuinely viable tertium datur. Obviously this question can’t be adequately addressed here, so instead – at the risk of exchanging the overly wide for the overly narrow – I’ll just focus on one specific question I have. Namely, in what sense is “unprethinkable being” being? I’ll be interacting primarily with Gabriel’s book Transcendental Ontology, which is a worthwhile read.
Unprethinkable being is a paradoxical concept, and we should expect to find a variety of descriptions of it that do not straightforwardly square with one another. Thus on the one hand, it is not even nothing, since it is not identical to itself. It comes before the concept and hence before predication, which means it is indeterminate as well as that this indeterminacy is itself subject to indeterminacy. In other words, being has sense only as the senseless, it is included as the excluded.* The other half of these paradoxical formulae is the discovery of a superior contingency, which for me seems spurious. Gabriel reads Schelling as saying not only that God isn’t necessarily the necessary being, but that the being referred to as the necessary being – i.e. unprethinkable being – isn’t necessarily the necessary being either. Modalities are predications, which are judgements, and consequently always contingent (we are told). As such, we can only predicate necessary existence contingently. Of course, by the same reasoning, it is also true that contingency can only be predicated contingently. And yet, although unprethinkable being isn’t intrinsically contingent or necessary, Gabriel nevertheless intimates that the extrinsic nature of modality itself depends upon a deeper contingency, which moreover is not merely epistemic – precisely because it indicates the point of indistinction between epistemic and metaphysical modality. However, I’m not sure I understand where this latter indistinction is supposed to come from.
*We might as well add: there is an emptiness of emptiness. All of this seems to rest on a questionable inference from ‘lacking predicates’ to ‘lacking properties’, but I ignore this for now.
In any case, it should be clear that the concept of an unprethinkable being – which is of course not a being, or even Being itself in any straightforward sense – and which carries within it an irreducible contingency that grounds a philosophy of hope directed towards a god-yet-to-come, bares striking resemblances to Meillassoux’s project. Specifically, unprethinkable being can be glossed as a close sibling of Hyperchaos. The differences however are important: Meillassoux posits a possible future god, but not the possibility of necessary existence. That is, both Meillassoux and Schelling posit an auto-normalization of Chaos, but only for Meillassoux does this exclude the possibility of a necessary being. Meillassoux could even reconfigure Schelling’s own words and say: what is not now necessary cannot become so. Anyway, the manner in which Meillassoux understands the auto-normalization of Chaos illustrates in general how he purges from the absolute the paradoxes that Schelling sees in it (according to Gabriel). To be clear, I’m not convinced that Schelling really does intend to say that unprethinkable being is not intrinsically the necessary existent: he does say, after all, that to doubt something presupposes the possibility of its being otherwise, whereas necessary existence is indubitable for just this reason. But then, if judgement also always takes place against the backdrop of this presupposition (as Gabriel contends), then it would seem that necessary existence is prior to judgement, which (at least) suggests that we have as good a reason to think of unprethinkable being as necessary as we do to think of it as contingent. I’m not an expert on Schelling, however, so will leave off at this point.
- Markus Gabriel, Transcendental Ontology: Essays in German Idealism, (Bloomsbury: 2011).