Speculative Geology

Dale E. Snow


We are not at peace with nature now. Whether it is the record-setting rain on the east coast or the raging wildfires in the west, distant news of melting permafrost or bleaching coral reefs, or the unexpected eruption of Mount Kilauea a few miles from here, things seem increasingly, and increasingly violently, out of control. I would like to suggest that there are resources in Schelling’s Naturphilosophie we can use in the twenty-first century to help us think differently about both the power of nature and our own relationship to it. Although Schelling saw himself, and was seen by many, as antagonistic toward the mechanical science of his own time, it would be a mistake—and a missed opportunity—to see his view as a mere Romantic reaction. It is a speculative rethinking of the idea of nature itself that finds a place for even those phenomena which seem most distant and alien. Schelling described his philosophy of nature as “speculative physics” both to distinguish it from what he calls the dogmatic or mechanistic model of nature, and to announce a new approach to natural science, concerned with the original causes of motion in nature (SW III: 275). Since every “natural phenomenon … stands in connection with the last conditions of nature” (SW III: 279), speculative physics can bring us to an understanding of nature as a system. Geology presents an illuminating case of this approach, as can be seen from Schelling’s characteristically enthusiastic introduction to a paper published by Henrik Steffens in Schelling’s Journal of Speculative Physics (Zeitschrift für speculative Physik) on the oxidization and deoxidization of the earth.1 After praising Steffens’ work on a new and better founded science of geology, Schelling reflects darkly on the too long dominant mechanical approach to geology. However, a new light has dawned, he declares, and as is well known, there are two ways forward—one can proceed from the lowest to the highest processes, or from the highest to the lowest. Steffens has elected the first method, and promises to connect the most general chemical processes to the “highest dynamic forces” (SW IV: 509), including the most powerful, the volcanic.

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