Reading Schiller (and others)

On the road to science (the times of science #3) the nature of the domain to be explained remains unclear, as does, of course, just how the new science will go about its explaining — with what units acting and interacting in what ways. These questions get answered — progressively answered — only when the new science finally takes off as an open collective enterprise.

In the event, decisive advances made along that road must be read as oracular prophesies delivered in a kind of code.  The expositor does not know the goal, or the way by which it is to be reached or, of course, what particular steps might lead along that way. She quite literally does not know what she is talking about. And yet, through a kind of second sight, through some sort of strange intuition, decisive perceptions are attained which anticipate that goal and can even make contributions that will prove to be important when the new science eventually is able to undertake its investigations in the unknown future.

As an example, consider this sentence from Schiller’s sixth aesthetic letter:

Einseitigkeit in Übung der Kräfte führt zwar das Individuum unausbleiblich zum Irrthum, aber die Gattung zur Wahrheit.

One-sided exercise of its energies leads the individual inevitably into error, but the species into truth.

As may particularly be seen in countless absurd readings of Schiller (and even more of Hegel), it is tempting (as more than two centuries of responses to Schiller and Hegel amply demonstrate) to read Schiller here as characterizing the human species as some kind of mystical ‘world spirit’. The relation of the erring individual to that specter is imagined as if the species, so conceived, were to come into its truth through us erring individuals, or as it being already in truth but somehow requiring our recognition of this, or as it somehow finding its truth despite us, behind our backs, so to say, in a kind of ruse — etc etc etc.1

But Schiller was no more accurately seeing the actions of some mega-spirit here than were alchemists accurately investigating dragons and green lions. What Schiller was seeing through a glass darkly was rather the elementary structure of experience whose range or species is composed of ‘individual’ expressions of it — just as the table of chemical elements is composed of individual instances of the same basic structure (or ‘species’). Further, he was seeing that it is through identification and specification of that elementary structure alone that the factual level of individual and collective experience can at last be understood (through ongoing collective investigation).

Of course, if experience comes in different units of the same basic structure, the question must be posed how one of these, or a compound of these, comes at any moment to be the form of my experience — or the form of anyone’s experience. This has to do with the difference between the elements of physical nature and the elements of experiential nature. And here, too, Schiller exercised great penetration:

Der Wille des Menschen steht aber vollkommen frei zwischen Pflicht und Neigung, und in dieses Majestätsrecht seiner Person kann und darf keine physische Nöthigung greifen. Soll er also dieses Vermögen der Wahl beibehalten und nichts desto weniger ein zuverlässiges Glied in der Causalverknüpfung der Kräfte sein, so kann dies nur dadurch bewerkstelligt werden, daß die Wirkungen jener beiden Triebfedern [Pflicht und Neigung] im Reich der Erscheinungen vollkommen gleich ausfallen und, bei aller Verschiedenheit in der Form, die Materie seines Wollens dieselbe bleibt, daß also seine Triebe mit seiner Vernunft übereinstimmend genug sind, um zu einer universellen Gesetzgebung zu taugen. (Aesthetische Briefe, # 4)2

Schiller seems to be talking in quasi-Kantian terms here about concrete human beings and the conditions of their acting morally. But what may be discerned between the lines of this passage is the elementary form of experience which can be expressed as the range over which the ratio of A to B (here inclination and duty) extends, as marked by a relative preference for the one and/or the other. It is such differentiated weighting that Schiller calls ‘the human will’, the ‘magisterial (right of) personality’, and the ‘power of (re)solution’: these mark the elementary forms of human experience in a way that the elementary forms of physical nature are not marked. What differentiates the individual expressions of the general A/B ratio — unlike the difference in number of electron/proton which differentiates the chemical elements — is exactly the different marking or weighting or valorizing that may be exercised on that ratio in the spectrum between A at one of its ends and B at the other where all of the points between these ends are co-variable A/B ratios.

Again, when Schiller speaks of ‘universal legislation’, he is using Kantian language. But what is at stake is a whole new way of humans understanding themselves and deciding on their individual and collective actions through open research. Once the elementary structure of experience is exposed for collective investigation, humans will understand their actions —  and thereby pursue their actions — in a whole new way. They will know in advance the predictable effects of their experience, know it to be optional (ie, variable through the ‘magisterial right of personality’) and know its available alternatives along with their effects: 

Er kommt zu sich aus seinem sinnlichen Schlummer, erkennt sich als Mensch eine Wahl, deren er damals nicht fähig war, und verfährt nun nicht anders, als ob er von vorn anfinge und den Stand der Unabhängigkeit aus heller Einsicht und freiem Entschluß mit dem Stand der Verträge vertauschte. (Aesthetische Briefe, # 3)

The human being [both individual and collective] comes to itself out of its waking sleep, recognizes a choice which it could not make before, and sets to work as if beginning anew, exchanging the state of bondage by and for one of insight and free determination…

  1.  Such ‘dialectic’ may then be taken to represent the relation of the individual to God since the question arises whether the species, you and me and all the rest of us, might not actually be God. As a PhD project, somebody at some point will audit how much money has been spent over the last couple centuries paying professors to excogitate upon such idiocies. Such an accounting will demonstrate the enormous resources we have dedicated, not only to drivel, but to attacking ourselves and driving ourselves nuts.
  2.  Bartleby translation (with corrections and clarifications in brackets): “But the will of man is perfectly free between inclination and duty, and no physical necessity (can or ought to interfere) in this magisterial (right of) personality. If therefore he is to retain this power of (re)solution, and yet (also be an admitted) link in the causal concatenation of (internal and external) forces, this can only be effected when the operations of both these impulses (of inclination and duty) are (equally subject to expression) in the world of appearances. (And this) is only possible when, with every difference of form (in the relation of inclination and duty), the (differentiating) matter of man’s volition (so) remains the same (that the relation of these three factors is) sufficient (to give birth to the possibility of) a universal legislation.”