F.W.J. Schelling’s “Of the I as the Principle of Philosophy or On the Unconditional in Human Knowledge” (Vom Ich als Prinzip der Philosophie oder Über das Unbedingte im menschlichen Wissen, 1795) is a philosophical essay that he wrote while he was a 19-year-old student at the Tübinger Stift, a Protestant seminary in the city of Tübingen. Some of the philosophers with whom he is concerned in the essay, as he begins to formulate his own brand of philosophical idealism, include Kant, Spinoza, and the German philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819).
Schelling’s basic objection to the Cartesian cogito (“I think, therefore I am”) is that the unconditional in human knowledge can only be found in the absolute I, the identity of the subjective and objective, and not in the subjective or objective I. We cannot therefore properly say, “I think, therefore I am” or “I am, because I think,” as if “I” were a thinking subject and the act of thinking proves that “I am,” or as if “I” were an object that receives its existence from the fact that it is thinking. We can only properly say, “I think, I am,” where “I” is the absolute I, which is the unconditional in human knowledge and the original ground (Urgrund) of all reality.1
For Schelling, the absolute I is neither a subject conditioned by an object nor an object conditioned by a subject. Furthermore, it is neither an absolute subject nor an absolute object. Indeed, it does not belong to the sphere of subjects or sphere of objects at all.
The existence of the absolute I cannot be proved objectively, because the absolute I can never become an object. To prove objectively that the absolute I exists would be to demonstrate conditions of its existence; but there are no such conditions.2 Indeed, the absolute I cannot be said to “exist” at all, because existence implies the presence of conditions. The absolute I simply is; its being is absolute and unconditional.3
Two contrasting positions regarding the content of human knowledge are those of “dogmatism,” which posits a not-I (an objective reality) as antecedent to any I, and “criticism,” which posits an I (a subjective reality) as antecedent to any not-I.5 But neither of these positions leads us to the unconditional, real, and ultimate ground of reality of human knowledge. The chain of knowledge is conditioned throughout by the absolute I.
While “transcendent realism” is a positing of a not-I (a world of objects) as independent of an I (an empirical subject), “transcendent idealism” denies that the I is an empirical subject and that there is anything empirical about the I at all.
The absolute I is not a thing-in-itself, because it can never become a thing and can never be made subject to conditions of existence. The thing-in-itself is an absolute not-I posited as antecedent to, or independent of, every I.4
The essence of the absolute I is freedom, says Schelling, because the absolute I posits itself freely and absolutely. But this freedom is neither subjective nor objective. It is an absolute freedom that is present to the absolute I alone.6
1F.W.J. Schelling, “Of the I as the Principle of Philosophy or On the Unconditional in Human Knowledge,” in The Unconditional in Human Knowledge: Four Early Essays (1794-1796), translated by Fritz Marti (Cranbury: Associated University Presses, 1980), p. 75
2Ibid., p. 75.
3Ibid., p. 105.
4Ibid., p. 79.
5Ibid., p. 77.
6Ibid., p. 84.