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Schelling’s “ich=ich”

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Schelling’s “ich=ich


These remarks complement the earlier look at Kohnstamm’s book titled I am I.* Recall that the identity expression there intends the first I to be self considered as patient, actor, and controller, and the second I to be self as in contrast to any other self.


Writing in 1800, Friedrich Schelling took a proposition I am I, or self is self, for foundation of a systematic philosophy he had begun to craft. That philosophy was named the Identity Philosophy, and the book of that year was Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism. His philosophic thought was markedly influenced by Kant, Reinhold, and Fichte, but by this time had taken its own new turns and reaches.


The meaning of I am I of interest to Schelling is not the one on stage in Kohnstamm’s book, although there is a round about tie between them. Schelling’s expression is ich=ich, which in English would be I=I or self=self, as when we write A=A. In I am I Schelling intended not only that an I is itself; he intended self-consciousness. I am I conveying self-consciousness is, in Schelling’s philosophy, the ground of the logical principle A is A. What many would have thought the horse is rather the cart in Schelling’s view.


In her essay “For the New Intellectual,” Ayn Rand objected to “the prior certainty of consciousness” (1961, 28).[1] Against that way of looking at things, she had written in Atlas “A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something” (1015).[2] I’m gonna go with Rand on this one.


Schelling proposed that the conviction that there are things outside us, outside our conscious selves, is an innate and primary prejudice. That picture’s perspective is the setup in Descartes’ Meditations in taking consciousness to be most sure, more sure than any of its deliverances about the external world, at least until Descartes adds God to the picture. (Descartes famously embraced innate ideas, but he did not put knowledge of the physical world in that bin.) Against Schelling we might ask, Won’t it take another innate prejudice to know that that first primary one is indeed an innate prejudice? On and on, implausibility of the first is multiplied toward the inverse of zero. Its plausibility is zero. Picturing our grasp that there are things outside us as sprung fundamentally from our minds is the primacy of consciousness error having much currency in Europe after Descartes and Descartes-Kant. Schelling elaborates his position:

But now even for the common use of reason, nothing is immediately certain save the proposition I exist; which, since it actually loses its meaning outside immediate consciousness, is the most individual of all truths, and the absolute preconception, which must first be accepted, if anything else is to be certain. —The proposition There are things outside us will therefore only be certain for the transcendental philosopher in virtue of its identity with the proposition I exist, and its certainty will likewise only be equal to the certainty of the proposition from which it borrows its own. (8)


In Schelling’s philosophy, “The object as such vanishes into the act of knowing” (9).


Schelling rightly notices that there seems to be some immediate connection between I exist and There are things outside of me. He sets himself a problem “How can we think both of presentations as conforming to objects, and objects as conforming to presentations?” (11). Rand has a crisp, summary answer: “Existence is identity, Consciousness is identification” (AS 1016).


Schelling would not have it. “There is no question at all of an absolute principle of being, . . . what we seek is an absolute principle of knowledge. / Now undoubtedly this primary knowledge is for us the knowledge of ourselves, or self-consciousness” (16).

Even when the objective is arbitrarily posited as primary, we still never get beyond self-consciousness. We are then either driven back endlessly in our explanations, from the grounded to the ground, or we must arbitrarily break the sequence, by positing an absolute that is both cause and effect—both subject and object—of itself, and since this is initially possible only through self-consciousness, by again positing a self-consciousness as primary. (17)



Well, no. It is not only nor even most simply self-consciousness that has the character of being both its own cause and effect. One’s living activities of body with engaged mind has that character, and one would not attain grasp of self-consciousness without first grasping the self-generating, self-sustaining character that is one’s living existence (witness Kohnstamm 2007). Furthermore, one does not “arbitrarily posit” the objective world as object of consciousness as if one were freely positing some object for consideration in geometry. The world has been our object all along.


What we can know absolutely, unconditionally, according to Schelling, is only subject-side identical propositions such as A=A, with total abstraction from whether A has any reality. A is A “says no more than this: in thinking A, I think nothing else but A” (22). I think, rather, let A be an abstract for a thing, any thing, having some character, any character. Then it remains tethered to the comprehensive situation that existence is identity, and logic is something more situated in existence and in one’s own living conscious existence.


Schelling sharply contrasts A=A, and all other propositions known as identical propositions, with another sort, much to be desired: synthetic propositions. Identical propositions have subject and predicate linked “by mere identity of thinking,” whereas subject and predicate in synthetic propositions are linked “by something alien to the thought and distinct from it” (22). Not alien, I should say, if existence is identity, consciousness identification. But let Schelling continue. He aims to source any necessity and certainty we have in a synthetic judgment by identity with sources of the necessity and certainty we have in identical propositions. His attempt has the subject A in a synthetic judgment A=B stand for the objective, whereas B “the predicate, the concept, always stands here for the subjective” (22). In a synthetic judgment A=B, “a wholly alien objective coincides with a subjective” (22).


There is a proposition in which the identical is also synthetic, and vice versa. It is a proposition in which “the object and its concept, the thing and its presentation, are originally, absolutely one” (23). This proposition can be the basic principle of all knowledge, for in it “being and presentation are in the most perfect identity” (24). Such “identity of presenter and presented occurs only in self-consciousness” (24).


Schelling observes that the proposition A=A entails “a thing which immediately becomes its own object” (24). Yes, though I would amend Schelling by pointing out that it is not only identical propositions, but any proposition, that requires what today we call working memory and, moreover, self-monitoring  and even self-consciousness.


As stated earlier, the more basic proposition for Schelling’s philosophy is I am I, or self is self. In his analysis, this is a synthetic proposition equating opposites: the conscious self as producing and the conscious self as produced. “The proposition self=self converts the proposition A=A into a synthetic proposition, and we have found the point at which identical knowledge springs immediately from synthetic, and synthetic from identical” (30).


Rand used the expression Man is Man to say man has a specific nature, as any existent has a specific identity (AS 1016). Man has a continuing specific identity. Predications of anything of anything, including predications on man and self, are, if sensible, statements of characters of existents or of characters deriving from existents. To realize, as in the childhood realizations in Kohnstamm’s book, I am I connecting self considered as patient, actor, and controller, to self as in contrast to any other self, is to identify thinking subject with its wider character and ground, joined with identification of self across time and in its living variations in those moments.


In the era of Schelling, Bernard Bolzano joined other writers in logic and philosophy of logic in this verdict:

The adherents of the identity philosophy . . . . claim to have discovered that no complete truth can occur if it were not the case that the subjective and the objective, i.e., the idea and its object, are in a certain respect one and the same. Thus Schelling says: “How idea and object can agree is downright inexplicable if there is not, within knowledge itself, a point where both of them are originally one, or where there is to be found the most complete identity of being and representing.” Yet here I agree with the judgement of Krug and Schultze: “The system of absolute identity,” Krug writes, “arose from a misuse or arbitrary application of the logical principle of absolute identity, which alone is designated by A=A. For what in the world could justify us understanding by one A the real and by the other the ideal, thus transforming the logical identity between a concept and its characteristics into a transcendental (or rather transcendent) identity of the objective and the subjective?” Etc. And Schultze says: “If the consciousness of this difference (i.e. between thought and being) disappears, then the two admittedly become one, as indeed is the case with any things once the consciousness of their difference is lost. But what results from this unification of cognition and being is neither cognition, nor being, but simply nothing.” (Bolzano 1837, §44)




[1] Cf. Windelband 1901 (2nd ed.), 270, 276–80, 390–92, 466–72.

[2] Similarly minded on this point: Plato, Theat. 160b; Aristotle, De An. 427a20–22; Metaph. 1072b20–22, 1074b35–36; Abelard c.1119; Wolff 1719; Herbart 1824; Ortega y Gassett 1928, 198–99; Sartre 1937, 40; 1943, 21–22; 1948; Merleau-Ponty 1945, 395–96.


Main References

Bolzano, B. 1837. Theory of Science. P. Rusnock and R. George, translators. 2014. Oxford.

Kohnstamm, D. 2007. I am I – Sudden Flashes of Self-Awareness in Childhood. Athena.

Rand, A. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. Random House.

Schelling, F. 1800. System of Transcendental Idealism. P. Heath, translator. 1978. Virginia.

Edited by Boydstun

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