The German Romantic Philosophers (2 of 5)

As we have seen, Romanticism was a revolt against the rational, ordered view of the world, an outlook championed by the Enlightenment, particularly in France. The Germans responded vehemently with their own revolution, inspiring a surge in faith, in the visceral, the emotional. Intuition was favored above knowledge, perception above conception, passion above reason. Part two shall analyze the first two figures of German Romanticism, Jacobi and Herder, the former in favor of faith, the latter nationalism.

Unknown-2.jpegFriedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819) was a controversial figure, partly because he wrote several polemics, many of which sought to challenge the status quo established by the Enlightenment, and partly because of his fiery personality, the cause of many a bitter friendship (like the pantheism controversy), despite befriending several vanguards of the time. Recognized primarily as a polemicist, Jacobi was an obstinate critic of the Enlightenment. He saw the apotheosis of reason as distasteful, as reason was, in his view, subordinate to faith, an opinion held by a fellow Romantic and, at one time, friend, Johann Georg Hamann. Science, obtained by observation, supposedly based on reason, had its foundations built upon empiricism, thus making it not objective, as it is so advertised. Jacobi detested science, not only because it aided the Enlightenment in forming a logical theory of the universe, but because it deified the objective, the so-called “true reality.” In all reality, all the scientists were doing was watching phenomena through their senses, then turning those observations into laws, laws that put boundaries on the world, limiting it, depriving it of its beauty, supplanting faith with reason. This, Jacobi thought, led to nihilism, a term actually first used by Jacobi himself. The Enlightenment was nihilistic in that it was fatalistic–it condemned humanity, the entire universe, to a predetermined course, all of its occurrences explainable by scientific laws, thereby reducing all values to science. Immanuel Kant was one of the biggest influences on the German philosophers, on modernity, and at one point, on Jacobi; yet this did not last long, for Jacobi later criticized Kant, dismissing his theory of things-in-themselves, imputing Kant with creating a system of subjective idealism. Faith, as I have said, was central to Jacobi, and the definition of faith, in German glaube, caused some problems for Jacobi when it was interpreted in different ways. Hence Jacobi identified faith with both its traditional definition and with belief, since he felt both were necessary. Intuition was an experienced truth supported with faith, according to Jacobi. If we drop an object, it will fall. But just seeing this truth in action is not enough; we must also have faith in this empirical observation, because without it, there still exists doubt, uncertainty. Further, faith and feeling are superior to reason simply for the fact that reason is formed after sensation, after feeling. First we see the object drop, then we formulate the notion that there is an effect which draws the object downward. In order for faith to work, Jacobi invites us all to take a salto mortale, a leap of faith, a concept mistakenly contributed to Unknown-4.jpegKierkegaard. Faith is almost like a blind trust, for we must put our whole certainty into something, regardless of whether we are certain or not. This leap, then, signifies our trust in the world. This is the first principle upon which philosophy is based for Jacobi. Critiquing Kant, Jacobi wrote that the thing-in-itself, existing in the transcendental noumenal realm, cannot be grasped by reason, precisely as Kant said. If that is so, how can Kant be sure the things-in-themselves exist? Jacobi says that we know they exist not through reason, but through faith. Faith in the phenomenal world means faith in the noumenal world, it follows. Jacobi can hardly be called an Existentialist, but he did place emphasis on the person, rather than speculative metaphysics. In an idea we will further investigate with Fichte, Jacobi said there is an I and a Thou, in other words a subject and an object. Only through the object can the subject be known, for the subject, by resisting something outside of itself, is revealed. With too much emphasis on theory in philosophy, Jacobi turned to action, stating that we are identifiable through action; we are what we do.

Unknown-3.jpegWhile arguably one of the most influential Romantics yet also one of the most unheard of, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) has made a lasting contribution to civilization, not only as a philosopher, but as a historian, a debatable nationalist, a psychologist, and a linguistic theorist. Nationalism can be traced neither exactly nor accurately to Herder, but he definitely is responsible for a different type: Cultural nationalism. In his four-volume series Ideas for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (1784-1791), Herder sets up the idea of a creative consciousness. This consciousness is a historical process, one that has shaped, shapes, and will shape society, its work seen throughout history. Creative consciousness is not exactly a forerunner of evolution, yet it is similar, inasmuch as it relates society to a species of some sort, constantly evolving, adapting, assimilating, progressing. As this consciousness progresses, cultures come and go, cultures being different groups of people sharing in common beliefs and practices. Every culture is unique from its contemporaries, exhibiting its own characteristics, the likes of which have never been seen before nor will be seen again. Cultures, therefore, are unique, and there exists no blueprint, no recognizable pattern, for them, as they cannot be predicted, so far as there is no objective framework on which they are to be based; cultures are blank slates, each able to have a special impress made on them. Herder believes in world peace. He thinks cultures should coexist without encroaching on one another. He thinks cultures should respect one another. Based on these beliefs, Herder did not like empires, nations that conquered other nations: by removing a culture and reorienting it, empires are removing an entire past, an entire history distinct to that culture alone; and that history can never be recovered, for it has already been disrespected. Moreover, it removes the identity of the culture itself, practically wiping it clean from the world. The discipline of historicism was also influenced by Herder. To understand a certain aspect of a culture, Herder said, you must understand the entire culture. For example, I took a similar approach when researching this topic: So that I could understand the environment in which the Romantics were operating, I had to study not just the philosophy of the period, but the history, the art, the literature, the music, and the people. Reserved for every culture is a specific goal, a main focus, what Herder calls the schwerpunkt of a culture. Identifying this central idea will help you envisage the context into which you are delving. And what is culture without people? The people, volk, constitute a collective spirit, a volksgeist, that is immanent in that culture. A culture is created by the nature of humans, their expression, and their environment. Regarding the first, humans are sociable; second, Herder praises art, seeing Unknown-5.jpegit as the expression of not just a person but of a people, where there is no objective beauty, allowing cultures to figuratively speak to one another; third, he sets up environmental studies, asserting that the development of a culture is dependent upon its environment. “We live in a world we ourselves create,”[1] and, “Nature has separated nations not only by woods and mountains, seas and deserts, rivers and climates but most particularly by languages, inclinations, and character…,”[2] he says. Also a psychologist, Herder can be called an eliminativist, a view I explain here. Simply put, Herder rejects all “folk psychology,” meaning he discredits any claims about sensations like “reason,” “will,” or “desire.” He also believes that Man is entirely physical, entirely discarding Cartesian dualism, stating that only the brain and the body make up the individual. The idea that the brain is compartmentalized, with individual sections hooked up to individual functions like eating, is also rejected. Herder thought it ridiculous, mystical even, that one part of the brain could do one thing and another something else. Predating Gestalt theory, he says, “The inner man, with all his dark forces, stimuli, and impulses, is simply one.”[3] The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, in other words. Man is not identified with his desires, with his thinking, with his instincts, but with all of them; Man is not a single part but a collection. Within every man is an animating force, Kraft. Herder theorized this living force as fundamental to being, to existence; without it, there would be no life. Kraft is what allows us to function, to live, to interact with the real world, with objects outside of us, phenomena. Moving onto his linguistic theory, we find a revolutionary view, one that gave me an epiphany. Language developed and evolved alongside humans–that much is evident, and it was accepted. Each culture had a language that was different from its neighbors, for they progressed differently, and their language had to fit their specific needs. This led Herder to create a theory that inspired the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Because language was relative to each culture, it followed that language must accordingly affect how cultures experienced the world. Insofar as there is no such thing as a perfect translation, it must mean that words will have different connotations to different people; therefore, we all see the world differently based on our language. What made me really think was Herder relating the conscience to an “inward speaking.”[4] This, coupled with Wittgenstein’s picture theory of language, makes up the internal dialogue of the mind. We tend to think in pictures, and when we talk to ourselves in our heads, there is an inaudible voice, but a voice that we can altogether understand, as it uses language–it speaks.


[1] Smith, The Norton History of the Human Sciences, p. 337
[2] Meinecke, Cosmopolitanism and the National State, pp. 25-26
[3] Herder, Sämtlichte Werke, Vol. 8, p. 179
[4] Herder, Sämtlichte Werke, Vol. 21, p. 88


For further reading:
Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud by Peter Watson (2006)
Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy 3rd ed. by Simon Blackburn (2016)
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy
 by Ted Honderich (1995)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy 
Vol. 3 by Paul Edwards (1967)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy 
Vol. 4 by Paul Edwards (1967)
The Passion of the Western Mind 
by Richard Tarnas (1993)
The Story of Civilization 
Vol. 10 by Will Durant (1967)
Dictionary of Philosophy 
by Thomas Mautner (2005)
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Friedrich Jacobi
The Roots of Romanticism 
by Isaiah Berlin (1999)


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