The German Romantic Philosophers (3 of 5)

With Jacobi we found a scathing attack against the rationality of the Enlightenment. He found it sickly, believing instead we should stick to our emotions and our faith. The theme of faith, of intuition, will appear several more times, the former appearing in Fichte. Similarly, Jacobi popularized the idea of activity over speculation. This we shall see in Fichte as well. In this post we will look at Romanticism from an aesthetic and metaphysical position.

Unknown-6.jpegOne of the greatest aesthetes of the Romantic period, Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) was a prolific writer, his On the Aesthetic Education of Man a series of letters that explain his views on art, on society, and on how the two must be put together, which we will be assessing. Continuing the tripartite tradition of the human mind, inspired by Plato and inspiring Freud, Schiller said there were three drives that actively shaped the mind. The first drive was the sense-drive, the Stofftrieb. Like Freud’s Id, the Stofftrieb is primordial, the one inherent at birth which seeks out the material and is instinctive. This drive is uncivilized, but it seeks out change; it seeks out its place in time. As follows, the sense-drive looks for the limited, that which is finite, that which is subject to change. In contrast the form-drive, the Formtrieb, Freud’s superego, is rational and assumes a moral position. “It insists on truth and on the right.”[1] It gives us obligations; it binds us to reason, to logic. Unlike the sense-drive, the Formtrieb desires the infinite, that which is intemporal. While the Stofftrieb is practical, the Formtrieb is recondite and obscured. Out of necessity, though, both drives cannot peacefully coexist, so there must exist a third drive, a drive that will balance them out: the play-drive, or Spieltrieb–Freud’s ego. Without this fundamental drive, humans would lack a sense of beauty. The Spieltrieb is the aesthetic sense that allows us to recognize, rationalize, and emotionalize beauty. Further, it balances out the opposing two drives, since “it will… annul all constraint too, and set man free both physically and mentally.”[2] By “play,” in play-drive, Schiller refers to pure activity, not just games. Because the play-drive is the ultimate drive, the most coveted of them, it removes all limitations from the person, allowing for them to actualize themselves, to express themselves. If beauty is to exist, Schiller maintains, there must be balance, for balance is the key to beauty. Lamenting the good ole’ days, Schiller explained that Greece was exemplary for its balance, both in its art, captured in sculptures, pottery, and paintings, and in its humanity–the perfect balance between individualism and collectivism, rationality and passion. Greek culture was united, in that there was a perfect blend of mind, sense, and intellect, which Schiller thought was paramount. Modernity, contrariwise, he felt was divided, with no clear trajectory, either in art or in humanity. Time, in Schiller’s thought, is flux. Like Heraclitus, Schiller believed time was just present moment after present moment, a continuous stream that always flowed. From there Schiller develops the balance between Stofftrieb and Formtrieb. On the surface the two drives prove to be opposing forces, but they are not, reasons Schiller, because where sense
does not require the principles of form, form does not require the sensation of sense; therefore, they do not cancel each other out; rather, they 
limit each other, so as to prevent Unknown-8.jpegone from dominating the other, thereby maintaining an equilibrium. Were the sense-drive to dominate, it would result in hedonism, turning the person into pure force, rendering us a part of time; were the form-drive to dominate, our moral duty would be corrupted, our “selves” reduced to mere objects to be acted upon. The Stofftrieb receives, and the Formtrieb creates. Schiller also identifies different classes of artists: the naïve poet, who accepts and represents nature as it is, and the sentimental poet, who seeks nature as an ideal. There are three more divisions thereafter: the poet who is repelled from life is satirical; the poet who believes the ideal cannot be found is elegiac; and the poet who thinks the ideal present is idyllic. Aesthetics are the basis of Schiller’s system, and he suggests existentialist themes, as will Fichte. “The external world is known only as man constructs an image of it for himself,”[3] he writes, suggesting the phenomenal world is relative, implying we see the world how we choose. And in the following quote he sets up the idea that, when we embrace our sense of art, we can shape our life–we can choose who we become:

By means of aesthetic culture,… the personal worth [of man], or his dignity,… remains completely indeterminate;… he is henceforth enabled… to make of himself what he will–that the freedom to be what he ought to be is completely restored to him.[4]

Unknown-7.jpegAt last we arrive at the most influential philosopher of Romanticism: Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814). In Fichte we find a turning point in Modern philosophy, his metaphysics a divergence from his predecessor Kant towards future systems of thought. An amusing anecdote about Fichte–which can be found in pretty much every book in which he is mentioned–recounts how, upon publishing his first book, An Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation (1792), his name was not put on the book, leading readers to think the book was written by Kant, a follow-up critique on religion; but once Fichte’s name was revealed, he rose meteorically, although his image was tarnished by his beliefs about God as supplying us with our moral sense and by his contentious personality. Fichte begins by identifying philosophy as the Wissenschaftslehre, basically calling it the science of sciences, as it provided the basis for all other studies. Many books tend to complicate Fichte’s metaphysics, leaving the readers confused, so I will try my best to simplify and make the summary as concise, readable, and comprehensible as possible. His system is founded upon three starting principles. The first principle states that there is a pure–or transcendental, in Husserlian terminology–ego, or self. What is most important to understand about this Absolute ego is that it is objective; it is the highest form of self, and this means it cannot be known. When I say I am doing an action, the “I” represents my self, but there is still an “I” that, while I know that it exists, cannot be identified. This is what Fichte calls the first principle of philosophy. It, like Descartes’ Cogito, is the starting point of philosophy, insofar as without it, nothing else can be known for certain; therefore, we must start with the fact that there exists a pure ego. Another misconception is the idea that the Absolute ego is an entity, something that exists; the transcendental ego is, like Schiller’s Spieltrieb, pure activity, tathandlung. It is not; instead it does. Peter Watson write, “On this account, Fichte portrays the self as: ‘It wills, alters, carves up the world both in thought and in action, in accordance with its own concepts and categories.’”[5] Fichte was an admirer of Kant, so this principle is clearly reminiscent of Kant’s idea that the mind actively conceives and shapes the world according to its categories. The second principle is as follows: “The ego posits itself and in doing so posits the non-ego.”[6] At this point Fichtean metaphysics gets incredibly confusing with its talk of “pure egos,” normal “egos,” and “non-egos.” The above quote, simplified, states: the pure ego (the higher, objective self) sends out the ego (the self of which we are aware, of which we can speak) and a non-ego, which I will explain presently. “The ‘I,’ the ‘self’ in that sense of the word, is not the same as ‘me,’”[7] writes Isaiah Berlin. What Berlin is saying is that there are two understandings of the self: the pure ego (who we are) and the ego (who can be acted upon, who can be talked about). If someone hits me, they hit my ego, my subjective self, but not my pure ego, my objective self. Now to the non-ego. The non-ego, simply put, is the world; the non-ego is nature. Without the non-ego, we are just bodies with nothing to interact with–we are just selves. As we explained with Jacobi, the self can only be known through resistance. Black is only black if compared to white; cold only cold if compared to hot; and night only night if compared to day; therefore, the ego is only the ego if compared to that which is not the ego: reality, the physical world.

I became aware of myself, not as an element in some larger pattern but in the clash of the not-self, the Anstoss (Anstoß), the deadly impact of collision with dead matter, which I must resist and subjugate to my free creative design.[8]

In this quote Fichte explains that the ego cannot be known by looking at itself (“some larger pattern”), but rather when compared to the non-ego (“the not-self”), which is synonymous with nature (“dead matter”). In German, Anstoß (Anstoss) means “impetus,” or “kick-off,” and is extremely important to Fichte, as it denotes self-realization. When the ego recognizes itself through nature, through resistance, the Anstoß, the kick-off, occurs. Fichte writes in another work, “Who am I? Subject and object in one–the conscious being and that of which I am conscious.”[9] The subject is the ego, Unknown-9.jpegthe object the non-ego. A helpful way of thinking of the ego and non-ego is in terms of grammar: the subject is the one who acts, and the object is that which is acted upon; therefore, the ego acts on the non-ego. The self is nominative (“I”), and the non-ego is accusative (“me”). Fichte was accused of creating a system of subjective idealism, i.e., solipsism, by saying that the mind creates reality. He responded with his third and final principle, completing his dialectic. (It should be noted that the dialectic found in Hegel [thesis-antithesis-synthesis] was taken from Fichte’s writing.) In the third principle, the Absolute ego posits a finite ego and finite non-ego. This does not look much different from the second principle; all Fichte did was put a limitation on the ego and non-ego, which prevented him from falling into solipsism. The ego has a so-called productive power of imagination, says Fichte. This power allows the ego to experience the world, resulting in sensation, or empfindung. From this sensation we understand, creating concepts in the mind, then we make judgments, which commit those concepts to our thought.

[Fichte] proceeded to construct a system without any thing-in-itself, and therefore rejected the assumption of anything but what was our presentment pure and simple, making the knowing subject all in all, or at least making it produce everything from its own resources… he declared everything to be a priori.[10]

Unknown-11.jpegKant’s idea of the noumenal thing-in-itself was rejected by Fichte, who, as seen in Schopenhauer’s quote above, completely removed it in favor of the ego’s creation of the world. Schopenhauer criticized this movement in Fichte’s thought because he posited that everything comes from the mind. Whereas Kant’s ego shaped the world, Fichte’s ego created it. When Schopenhauer denounces Fichte for making “everything… a priori,” he is referring to the fact that Fichte, borrowing from Kant, said that the mind has innate categories; that is to say, the mind will automatically make sense of the natural world, or the non-ego, by nature. For example, scientific laws, according to Fichte, are not discovered and applied but are already prefigured and thus applied. We do not see objects fall and declare it the work of gravity; the concept of gravity is already hardwired into our minds, actively shaping, actively influencing our conceptions. “Knowledge is not in us, rather we are in knowledge.”[11] Therefore, knowledge of the world is within us; we understand the world inherently. Later in his thought, Fichte shifted from knowledge to faith in The Vocation of Man, which we will be exploring next.

Knowledge is not this organ: no knowledge can be its own foundation, its own proof; every knowledge presupposes a higher knowledge on which it is founded,… it is faith,… because only through this view can we fulfill our vocation.[12]

This skeptical idea of knowledge, which we will see later with Schlegel, expresses an infinite regress, so far as knowledge always builds on other knowledge, infinitely, until we reach a first principle, in Fichte’s case the pure ego. Once more we see a parallel with Jacobi in that faith is necessary to find truth. We now move to Fichte’s ethical and political theory. Fichte dedicated himself to creating a system of transcendental idealism rather than dogmatism, the belief that there is another world, a noumenal world, because the latter, he thought, introduced atheism (which he was ironically accused of), determinism, and materialism. The medial was of paramount concern for Fichte, for he, like Kant, wanted to find a way to justify free will in an apparently deterministic world. Fichte and Herder are credited as the great fathers of German nationalism, as we explored in the previous post. From 1807 to 1808, Fichte gave a series of orations called the “Addresses to the German Nation” after the reign of Napoleon to persuade the German people to unite, to rejoice in their common greatness. Another work of his, on the Closed Commercial State (1800), he wrote of the ideal state, incorporating trade with foreign nations, surpluses of food so the nation was well fed, a division of labor, and a social contract. Almost prophetically he wrote:

Until the existing culture of every age shall have been diffused over the whole inhabited globe, and our species becomes capable of the most unlimited inter-communication with itself,… then, without further interruption,… humanity shall move onward to a higher culture.[13]

So far as Fichte’s ethical theory is concerned, he placed great importance on the conscience as the force that allows us to carry out our individual duties. “Conscience is the immediate awareness of a particular obligation,”[14] he says. That little voice in our heads, that gut feeling, which tells us if something is right or wrong is our conscience. Fichte says we must adhere to this voice every time, since it has a moral sense. To be an ethical person, he says, “Act always according to your best convictions of your duty or Act according to your conscience.”[15] We individuals, when faced with a situation that endangers us naturally, as in hunger, and spiritually, as in duty, must always satisfy our spiritual above our natural needs, to the extent that our spiritual, moral obligations are of Unknown-12.jpegutmost importance. Freedom is equated with law–moral law, that is–in Fichte’s view. Jacobi, Fichte, and Schelling are surprisingly existential for their time, perhaps inspiring future existentialists such as Kierkegaard, who happened to attend several of Fichte’s lectures and was a student of Schelling, and Jean-Paul Sartre; the latter in particular seems to have been influenced by the following meditations on freedom from Fichte: “I am wholly my creation.”[16] This is an audacious quote, and he thus explains it: “My whole mode of thought, and the cultivation that my understanding receives, as well as the objects to which I direct it, depend entirely on myself.”[17] This quote is oft-cited when speaking of Fichte, occurring most often in the form of “My philosophy depends on what kind of Man I am.”[18] By this Fichte means we shape the world and we act according to who we are and what we choose to do–very Sartrean. One may think back to Fichte’s metaphysics and ask, Why is there a non-ego? Fichte explains: “From the necessity of action proceeds the consciousness of the actual world; and not the reverse way,”[19] and “my world is the object and sphere of my duties, and absolutely nothing more.”[20] In short, the ego requires activity and somewhere to act, so it posits the non-ego; and because the non-ego is nature, it means the ego has somewhere to act as a moral agent. Lastly, Fichte addresses the problem of other minds and how we ought to act toward others:

But the voice of my conscious thus speaks: “Whatever these beings may be in and for themselves, you shall act towards them as self-existent, free, substantive beings, wholly independent of you. Assume it as already known that they can give you a purpose to their own being wholly by themselves, and quite independently of you; never interrupt the accomplishment of this purpose but rather further it to the utmost of your power. Honor their freedom, lovingly take up their purposes as if they were your own.”[20]


[1] Adams, Critical Theory Since Plato, p. 420
[2] Id., p. 424
[3] Edwards, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 8, p. 313
[4] Adams, op. cit., p. 427
[5] Watson, Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, From Fire to Freud, p. 610
[6] Marías, History of Philosophy, p. 310
[7] Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism, p. 108
[8] Watson, op. cit., p. 610
[9] Beardsley, The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche, p. 492
[10] Bax, Philosophy of Schopenhauer, p. 195
[11] Marías, op. cit., p. 312
[12] Beardsley, op. cit., pp. 495-6
[13] Id., pp. 508-9
[14] Fichte, Sämtlichte Werke, Vol. 4, pp. 173-4
[15] Id., p. 59
[16] Beardsley, op. cit., p. 497
[17] Ibid.
[18] Watson, op. cit., p. 611
[19] Beardsley, op. cit., p. 500
[20] Ibid.
[21] Id., p. 499

For further reading:
The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Nietzsche by Lawrence Cahoone (2010)
Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud
 by Peter Watson (2006)

The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche by Monroe Beardsley (1992)
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. 7 by Paul Edwards (1967)
A History of Philosophy
Vol. 7 by Frederick Copleston (1994)
The Passion of the Western Mind 
by Richard Tarnas (1993)
The Story of Civilization 
Vol. 11 by Will Durant (1967)
Dictionary of Philosophy 
by Thomas Mautner (2005)
Critical Theory Since Plato
by Hazard Adams (1971)
Philosophy of Schopenhauer
by Belfort Bax (1949)
The Roots of Romanticism 
by Isaiah Berlin (1999)

History of Philosophy by Julian Marías (1967)
Story of Philosophy by Brian Magee (1998)



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