The German Romantic Philosophers (1 of 5)

Ideally, one Kant write about German Idealism without mentioning Kant or Hegel, as both are Germane to the topic; regardless, in this and the following four posts I seek to explicate the philosophical background of the Romantic period. I have limited my research to only the philosophy of the period, but I wish not to discount the hundreds of other defining figures of the period, among them the famous dramatists, novelists, artists, and poets. Accordingly, I will not be covering all of the Romantic personalities, those often identified with the movement, such as Goethe or Byron, for the topic demands extensive research; I hope to do a follow-up series in the future, though, where I will in fact cover the non-philosophers of the Romantic period. In this post, which serves as an introduction, I will be discussing the nature of Romanticism, the background of 18th century Prussia, and the various recurring themes that will show up throughout the series.

Having succeeded a time of austere rationalism and order, having grown tired of authority, having been “misunderstood,” and having struggled with its identity for too long, Romanticism was, as I like to say, the rebellious teen of history. Romanticism was a cry for help in some ways, letting history know that it had put too much focus on the rational side of human nature, that the creative instinct was not heard enough and was unfairly neglected. The Romantic period was a direct response to the Enlightenment, which the Romantics despised, since they felt it removed the sense of beauty and mystery from Nature. Whereas the Philosophes liked to “reduce [everything] to an abstract generalization,”[1]
the Romantics had a “love of the unclassified.”[2] Scientific and philosophical advancements during the Enlightenment, in other words, loved to observe nature, then proceed to make laws which governed the world and how it worked, using inductive reasoning to build a theory of the universe and its function. Another thing about Unknown.jpegRomanticism is that it is notoriously hard to define, because its character is so diverse, so complex, and no single definition can effectively summarize it–not that the Romantics would want to be subjected to “an abstract generalization” anyway. Many people, when asked what they think Romanticism is, think of quixotic troubadours–though that is certainly a part of it. While no specific insight can be made, it is best that I use a few common motifs: Because reason had been in the spotlight for so long, the Romantics found their calling in emotion. Emotion, thought the Romantics, was superior to reason, like Hume said; without emotion, humans are robots whose actions are biologically and psychologically determined, therefore removing free will. Reason can say nothing of what one is feeling and cannot properly translate one’s mental state, but emotion can. This idea of the emotional, the visceral, the gut feeling, was based on intuition, which was preferred to knowledge. Intuition is perception, and knowledge is conception. If we see life conceptually, constantly classifying things, always deducing facts, then what point is there in enjoying life? We must perceive life from our perspective, seeing things as though we are seeing them for the first time, with wonder, with excitement, with curiosity, not with cold calculation. And another part of enjoying life is being able to act according to our instincts, free of the constraints of reason. It is better to live the sensuous life of a libertine than the sensible life of a scientist in the eyes of the Romantic. Carpe diem! and do not waste a second of your life when you could be traveling the world, tasting exotic foods! The painter is superior to the philosopher, for he has what the other has not: Creativity. At the core of Romanticism is self-expression. A liberated individual is an individual who can express himself, who can put what he feels, what he experiences, in a work of art; and art is not just an imitation of nature, as Aristotle suggested, but an imitation of the self, because the self is nature–a theme that will be explored in Schelling. Aesthetics found its way back into history, with philosophers like Kant and Schiller writing about beauty once more. Literature was yet another expression of the self, evidenced by the prolific authors of the time, like Hoffmann, Goethe, and the Schlegels.

The genesis of Romanticism can truly find itself in Prussia during the 18th century, where we find it at its apogee with Frederick II, known better by his epithet “the Great.” Just as Romanticism was a result of the Enlightenment, so Prussia was post-French Revolution and post-Napoleon, resulting, ultimately, in an atmosphere that can best be described as Francophobic. Isaiah Berlin wrote: 

There was no sense of growth, dynamism and power…. [T]he French… managed to crush and humiliate them… and this dug an enormous ditch between the Germans and the French… [T]his is perhaps one of the roots of the German opposition to the French from which Romanticism began.[3]

To further exacerbate the antipathy the Prussians had for the French, their own leader, Frederick the Great, wrote entirely in French, for he felt it was superior to his native Unknown-1.jpeglanguage. The utter humiliation of which Berlin writes stuck deep with the Prussians, causing them to wholly resent the French, their culture, their thought, and their way of life. From France, all they got was overly logical, systematic, and hopeful thinking from the Enlightenment; political upheaval and anarchy from the French Revolution; and despotic organization from Napoleon, not to mention the devastating defeat inflicted upon the Prussians by the French in the Thirty Years’ War. Before Napoleon, Prussia consisted of loose, separate states, each ruled by a prince; hence Prussia was not a united nation and thus lacked a sense of identity. Interestingly, we can see from this the rise of nationalism, which we will further investigate in Herder and Fichte, the latter famously giving a series of orations known as the Addresses to the German Nation. Thereafter, “Germany became fascinated by the idea of political unity and national greatness precisely because it had neither.”[4] A great deal of importance was placed on creating a single nation, fittingly. Herder, who will be covered in part two, contributed much to the concept of Volk, the common people, and Volksgeist, the spirit of the people, embracing the uniqueness of every people and their part in the nation, considering “like much else in Romanticism, it emphasized genius or intuition rather than reason.”[5] Seeing as the Enlightenment was not much of a success–at least to the Germans–the Germans had an enlightenment of their own, an Aufklärung, referred to as the Sturm und Drang, translated into “Storm and Stress.” Their enlightenment, as you may guess, was centered around emotion and literature, the title itself referring to the emotional and mental turmoil within us all.

The different philosophers we will be exploring, in chronological order, are: F.H. Jacobi, J.G. Herder, F.J.C. Schiller, J.G. Fichte, F.D.E. Schleiermacher, W. Humboldt, K.W.F. Schlegel, and F.W.J. Schelling. Though their philosophies differ from one another, despite some borrowing from each other, they all share common thoughts that serve as the foundations for Romanticism. First, the German philosophers loved the idea of activity, of dynamism. Nothing in the universe is fixed or stagnant; rather it is all a process. As history became a serious discipline (because of Wilhelm von Humboldt), the idea of progress appealed to philosophers. The universe started out, then humans, and eventually the latter developed along with the former to where we are today. But this activity has no goal, no end, because should it reach said goal, there would be inactivity; therefore, activity is infinite. Second, the self is placed at the center of the universe, figuratively and metaphysically, as in the case of Fichte. Individualism is cherished above collectivism, so the eccentric is cherished above the conformist. Because everyone is unique, because everyone has their own creativity, their own inner-beauty, it is expected of the individual to express himself artistically, which society cannot do as a whole. Further, subjectivism is the norm. The world appears differently from person-to-person, meaning no view is “correct,” and reality is relative. Third, the idea of the Absolute is indispensable in metaphysics. Hegel is the first person to come to mind when we hear “the Absolute,” though it was first used by Schelling. Be it a pantheistic God or Nature as an all-pervading force, the idea of a higher power that orders the universe was used by all of the Idealists. This Absolute is unknowable to man, especially through reason, yet it is everywhere. Pantheism, popularized by Spinoza, was a controversial theory at the time, however. Fourth, freedom. The French Revolution fought in the name of freedom; whether it was achieved or not is debatable, but the Germans sought to explain the notion of freedom metaphysically. Morality became an issue of freedom, insofar as it was up to the individual to choose whether to be good or evil, because the Enlightenment left the unsatisfactory idea that the universe is deterministic, leaving no room for free will, for morality, for that matter. The artists, too, required an explanation for why they had unlimited, unbridled creative genius.


[1] Palmer, History of the Modern World 5th ed., p. 428
[2] Ibid.
[3] Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism, pp. 42, 47
[4] Palmer, op. cit., p. 403
[5] Id., p. 402


For further reading: A History of the Modern World 5th ed. by R.R. Palmer (1978)
The Roots of Romanticism by Isaiah Berlin (1999)


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