Schelling's reading of the Timaeus: On Plato's "invisible matter"


Something I've been thinking about having been inspired by two books - Iain Grant's Philosophies of Nature After Schelling and the more recent The Barbarian Principle edited by Jason Wirth and Patrick Burke, is how Schelling's transcendental naturephilosophy picks up upon Plato's notion of invisible matter in the Timaeus.

Essentially Schelling reveals how a distinction might be made, at least in one reading of that Plato text, between visible and invisible matter.  To be more precise, only matter that has taken form becomes ordered and thereby visible.  On the other hand, "matter" is distinct as an invisible (i.e. insensible) "element" that determines "matter as form."

Schelling points out how the elements, "matter", or perhaps "materials," are invisible (insensible) because they have not yet acquired form by way of the divine understanding. Once engendered by the activity of the understanding (the Idea) they obtain form and then congeal into visible nature according to their "ultimate empirical constitution."  It is through human understanding that the elements appear to the philosopher, though not through any empirical phenomenal appearance or representation, but rather through intellectual intuition alone - the "true organ of philosophy." Intellectual intuition is for Schelling the highest activity of any transcendental philosophy, exhibited for example in conducting a speculative physics of nature or by enacting mathematical and logical philosophy, particularly through abductive (not deductive) reasoning.  This is contrary to Aristotle's thinking about the relationship between matter and form which is both empirical and inductive. Against Aristotle's view of matter, Schelling instead, in agreement with Plato's Timaeus, invokes a Platonic physics of the Idea, writing that any object of nature begins "in invisible and shapeless form - all receptive - but partaking somehow of the intelligible."  In this way Plato's "invisible materialism" is responsible for material substances taking on the form that they do - rendered by, but not due to, the activity of intelligence: a "divine reasoning" available to the human within speculative philosophy (thus in this sense reasoning is "in-human" as much as it is "extrahuman").  The powers of insensible matter, the elemental at the base of visible material being, is therefore responsible for any determinate empirical and singular character filling out the activity of a respective form. As Schelling tells us, this power is "base" in its being One despite its infinite distribution throughout many. Thus a "power" ontology where through decomposition (the literal self de-composing of the Absolute) the Absolute's basal becoming fragments and multiplies, proliferating the real and the visible matter of it. Here it is important to note that despite a plurality of materials in which this activity is found there is still only one basal condition of activity, and so it may be better to speak of "ground" rather than "grounds," "power" rather than "powers." Or in the words of Plato, other than being One, Being *is* power. (Here I must note that if we follow Plato in the Sophist fully and state that there is only power where there are things, then still, power must be of a general type - a category - that despite its being in things is not partitioned in its own universal integrity according to those things being its consequence.  This is to say that, if we say there are as many powers as there are things, then what activity is common to these things despite their multiplicity?)

This is all fitting considering it is Schelling's goal to provide a reading of Plato as a "one-world theorist."  Finding duplicity in unity between real and ideal, there is only one "nature" for Schelling, and in the Timaeus an aesthetic materialism finds its development through the concept of insensible or invisible matter.  Grant picks up on this in his Philosophies of Nature After Schelling book, as does"Schelling on Plato's Timaeus" in the Barbarian Principle.  (An introduction to that may be found HERE).

Concerning novel readings of Plato, see also After Nature posts "Dewey and the Ancients + Schelling's 1794 Commentary on the Timaeus" HERE.  Also "The Materialist Tradition in Ancient Greek Aesthetics" HERE, and "Plato on Beauty: Was He Right?" HERE.

As an aside,  I find THIS SEP entry on Plato's aesthetics helpful when thinking about Plato's materialism.