The German Romantic Philosophers (5 of 5)

And so at last we arrive at the finale of the overview of German Idealism, and, more generally, Romanticism. In the previous part, I looked at Humboldt, whose work in linguistics and education has carried over to today, and Schleiermacher, whose notion of Absolute dependence advocated a unique sense of individualism, a common theme throughout Romanticism, along with the already-discussed opposites, such as faith and reason, intuition and logic. Finally, we look at philosophy itself and the defining nature of it with Schlegel and Schelling.

Unknown-4.jpegIt is safe to say that Karl Friedrich Wilhelm von Schlegel (1772-1829), brother to August Wilhelm von Schlegel, another eminent Romantic figure, is more literary critic than philosopher; yet I have included him, for his contribution to philosophy, albeit small in extent, has indelibly directed the trajectory in which philosophy itself was heading. Because there is a lack of information regarding his philosophical background, I feel it appropriate to focus more on his career, which played out as follows: Schlegel was born to a literary family, evidenced by his and his brother’s place in Romanticism, with Friedrich studying European history, Ancient and Modern literature, and the philosophy of history, all of which plays a part in his role as a philosopher. Schiller classified two types of poets: the Naïve and the Sentimental, the former practical, the latter idealistic; Schlegel studied Schiller, and he took this distinction further, applying it to the Romantic and the Classicist, perhaps the turning point in the self-consciousness of Romanticism, insofar as Schlegel was one of the first Romantics to lead the movement by defining it against something else, in this case Classicism, which was identified with the rational Enlightenment period. Of all philosophical branches, there exists one which is incredibly introspective: metaphilosophy. Metaphilosophy, associated with Schlegel, who is sometimes called the first “metaphilosopher,” is quite literally the philosophy of philosophy. Schlegel began by dismissing first principles–the fundamental proposition on which all other propositions are founded. For example, Fichte’s pure ego and Descartes’
cogito ergo sum are all first principles, in that it is impossible to assert anything without first asserting the pure ego or cogito, as they are the foundations of philosophy, at least in the systems of Fichte and Descartes, respectively. It was pointed out by Schlegel that first principles are misleading, since they are not truly first principles: they too are propositions that require another, prior proposition, therefore creating an infinite regress, an infinite sUnknown-7.jpegeries of statements with no clear, reducible beginning. “Philosophizing was primarily a matter of intuitive insights, not of deductive reasoning or of proof.”[1] Once more there is the valuing of intuition contra “deductive reasoning,” inasmuch as proofs will always require proof, whereas intuition is direct and without need of explanation. Reasoning is to intuition as conception is to perception. Another notion Schlegel was enthralled by was irony, the intentional contradiction of that which is reasonable, of that which is real, of that which is ordered. If one statement must be built upon another before it, then it goes without saying that there exist other statements contrary to it, tens of them. In this sense, the ironist transcends his limits; the ironist rises above order, above the world. Just as every person can have a separate opinion, so every statement can have a contradiction; therefore, we arrive at the conclusion that there is no absolute answer, no starting point of philosophy, for philosophy “must start in the middle…. It is no straight line but a circle.”[2] Schlegel is saying that philosophy has no starting line; philosophy is not linear; it does not go from one point to the other; and for that matter, there is no end point, rather a loop that connects it all, running round and round, with no real goal in mind. Metaphilosophy, then, serves as the first holistic analysis of philosophy, the first check of many on the limits of philosophy and its intentions.

Unknown-3.jpegWhat is more fitting than to end this series with a look at its most shaping character, one whose philosophy encompasses all others I have previously explained, whose philosophy captures the true definition of Romanticism, whose philosophy has influenced countless poets and philosophers after him? I speak here of Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854), the last German Idealist we will be looking at. The other major metaphysician beside Fichte, Schelling created the more accepted of the two theories and has thus been welcomed with open arms. The philosophy of Schelling is appropriately called Naturphilosophie, as it revolves around the core concept of, you guessed it: Nature. Should you seek to read more about Schelling, you will find that historians tend to describe his system of thought in stages, four of them in most cases, each describing a different change in his thought since he did change his thought quite a bit; however, in organizing this section, about which I thought heavily as to how I should best explain it, I decided to go chronologically in terms of the creation of the world to the goal of the world; as such, I will be explaining one aspect, then jumping to a new one which builds upon it. Accordingly, Schelling begins with the creation of the world, a Cosmic Fall, as it is referred. Mirroring the Fall of Man outlined in the Bible, Schelling identifies this period as Man’s break with God. This God, which is sometimes used interchangeably with Nature in Schelling, is essentially the physical manifestation of chaos, ungrund, initially. At this stage God is indistinguishable, for He is literally an amorphous energy, with a great evil lurking within Him. Essence, or spirit, and ground, or matter, dual elements, compose God. In the beginning, there is more ground in God than essence, and hence there is a lack of balance, resulting in evil. When spirit is subordinate to ground, there can be no good, just pure anarchy and amorality. Evil has a reason for existing, though: evil exists solely to 'Adam's_Creation_Sistine_Chapel_ceiling'_by_Michelangelo_JBU33cut.jpgbe separated, inasmuch as there can be no good unless there is evil from which it can spring forth. Man then separates from God in a period of Genesis, where Man is expelled, cast out, broken off, an act called Abbrechen, or Sprung, from God. Since God is evil, since Man springs from God, Man is inherently evil, and so there exists deep within him a great darkness. From this point on, I will be referring to God as the Absolute spirit, or the Absolute, which at this stage is synonymous with Nature. The Absolute comprises a symbiosis between life and spirit, matter and nature, all of which are equivalent. If this is the case, then the Absolute pervades all, is all, thereby making Schelling’s philosophy one of pantheism. The goal of the Absolute is ultimate self-recognition. The Absolute does not know itself, yet it seeks to; within it is a yearning, a desire for self-consciousness, for recognition, for actualization. Were the Absolute to reach its end, were it to become aware of itself eventually, there would be no distinction between that which is the Absolute and that which is not, meaning everything would be made void; hence self-recognition is impossible for the Absolute, so its striving for awareness is infinite, with no end; while it can get closer and closer to recognizing itself with each adaption, it will never completely grasp itself. Such is a metaphor for Romanticism itself and the atmosphere it created–a yearning for something, something that is missing yet unknowable, a never-ending ambition for that which can never be attained, an unquenchable feeling known as Sehnsucht. As a result, the Absolute is never static but dynamic, in constant flux, more like the flowing river than the immobile rock. The process whereby the Absolute seeks itself is what Schelling calls Absolute abstraction, a process in which the Absolutes ego finds itself in opposition to the non-ego in hopes of finding itself. It is pretty much ripped right out of Fichte’s writing, this absolute abstraction, and not by accident, as Schelling read and was remarkably influenced by Fichte, but the former eventually divorced himself from the latter in his later writings. From the viewpoint of humans, the Absolute is not knowable through reason but intuition. “The nature of the Absolute itself… cannot be known by explanation, but only through intuition. For it is only the composite which can be known by description. The simple must be intuited.”[3] Jacobi is brought to mind here, his use of faith instead of reason to perceive things-in-themselves, his insistence on the simple rather than the complex. We arrive now at perhaps one of the most fascinating stages of images-1.jpegSchelling: the idea of a primitive evolution of sorts. He explains it in this way: “History as a whole is a continual revelation of the Absolute, a revelation which gradually discloses it.”[4] Tying in with the notion of self-recognition, the entire course of history has, since its beginning, worked its way up to now, constantly evolving, never stopping, increasingly becoming more and more sentient, more receptive. “Gradually,” Schelling says, the Absolute “discloses” as its complexity grows greater than before. Evolution moves from death to life, from the inorganic to the organic, and from the organic to spirit, and from spirit to freedom, which the highest point of an organism’s potential. Interestingly, while he is not correct according to today’s scientific standards, Schelling based this creation of his on the latest scientific findings of his day, making his idea of evolution, albeit prototypical, the most accurate for his time. The world began, then abiotic (inorganic) things, like rocks, began to spring up, followed by biotic (organic) things, like trees, leading to animals (spirit), and finally freedom (what the manifestation of this stage is will be saved for later). After this, Schelling, angered by Hegel, whom he accused of stealing his ideas, inspiring an irresoluble grudge between the two despite their being roommates in college, thought it necessary to distinguish two types of philosophies: positive philosophy, the correct type, in which Schelling placed himself, and negative philosophy, the wrong type, in which he placed Hegel. The difference between the two was that positive philosophy was dedicated to existence, whereas negative philosophy was dedicated to the speculative, the logical, which as we know, was considered contemptible during the Romantic period. Schelling has led some to think him an early proponent of Existentialism as a result of this stage in his philosophy, stage characterized by his question of “Why is there anything at all? Why not nothing?”[5] Schelling’s epistemology consisted of a four-part flow: sensation, perception, reflection, and will. Starting with sensation, the individual, á la Fichte, limits himself, opening himself to the world, to that which he is not; i.e., he differentiates his self from the world, therefore receiving it. This leads to perception, where the individual then recognizes the external world and makes sense out it. Now that the individual has a sense of the external, he must engage in the internal, or introspection, looking inside of himself. It is with this dual knowledge, inside and out, that he can will, which allows for him to act upon this knowledge as well as interact with other minds, other people. Schelling’s metaphysics, I said, have impacted many a fine Unknown-6.jpegpoet, most notably, mayhap, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was enchanted with this image of a living, pantheistic Nature, serving as the impetus for a number of his poems. Now we will talk about Schelling’s views on aesthetics and how Man fits into it all. We have spoken about God, the Absolute, and we have touched on the individual, specifically his origin and his source of knowledge; howbeit, we have not actually talked in depth about the nature of Man himself. In Schelling’s evolution, the final stage is freedom. Just below freedom is spirit, which is the creation of animals. Freedom, then, this final step in evolution, the most perfect organism, that which can have no superior, is none other than Man. But what makes humans different from animals? Are not we animals, after all? What makes humans different from and superior to animals is his ability to introspect. Recall that humans, through reflection, can internalize empirical information. Remember, too, that matter and nature are synonymous. Man happens to be actualized matter in the ladder of evolution, giving us the following syllogism:

Matter is Nature
Man is actualized Matter
Therefore Man is Nature

Man can thus do what the Absolute can only wish of doing: become self-aware. According to Schelling’s evolution, Man is the physical manifestation of freedom; Man is freedom in the physical embodiment of freedom! Since Man is self-conscious, and Man is Nature, it means Nature, too, is conscious; so Man, Nature, is able to discover himself, Nature. We come to the conclusion that Man is the highest being, evidently, and is necessary for the Absolute. “Nature is nothing more than the lifeless aggregate of an indeterminable crowd of objects…. Or the space in which… he [the artist] imagines things placed,”[6] writes Schelling. Nature is defined here as the place in which the artist acts, similar to Fichte’s theory of the world. He adds: “To philosophize about nature is to create nature.”[7] For this reason, Nature exists so we can shape it, so we can mold it to our liking. Just as there can be perfect art, so there can imperfect art, asserts Schelling. Imitation is seen as deplorable, like Plato said in the Republic, since it shames and blemishes Nature. Even worse are frauds, who say Nature is “not merely a dumb, but an altogether lifeless image.”[8] Such are enemies of beauty. Fine art, on the other hand, Schelling pairs with a Unknown-8.jpegbalance of form and soul, each of which are essential, meaning no one can be more dominant than the other. (As in the preponderance of ground over essence in God, imbalance results in evil.) The balance between the two necessities is achieved by grace, which Schelling finds to be the most important part of a work of art. On the act of creating art, of being a divine artist, Schelling writes: “Art springs only from that powerful striving of the inmost powers of the heart and spirit, which we call inspiration.”[9] Heart and spirit can be likened to the very relation of form and spirit, with emotion paired with faith. “Art, therefore, prefers to grasp immediately at the highest and most developed, the human form.”[10] Unfortunately, the greatest artists of the past, be they Homer, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, or van Gogh, will only come around once, according to Schelling. No one will ever emulate their greatness, nor will anyone be able to do what they did; but there will be new ones, now and in the future. While we may not recreate the great Greek sculptures or Sistine frescoes, we can create new works of art that will be looked upon and admired. The final sentence of Schelling’s essay “On the Relation of the Plastic Arts to Nature” is equally haunting as it is inspiring: “Nature never repeats herself.”[11]



[1] Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol. 7, p. 19
[2] Schlegel, Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe, Vol. 18, p. 518
[3] Schelling, Werke, Vol. 4, pp. 15-6
[4] Schelling, Werke, Vol. 2, p. 603
[5] Edwards, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 7, p. 309
[6] Adams, Critical Theory Since Plato, p. 446
[7] Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 369
[8] Adams, op. cit., p. 446
[9] Id., p. 457
[10] Id., p. 450
[11] Id., p. 468



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)
Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy
 3rd ed. by Simon Blackburn (2016)
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy
 by Ted Honderich (1995)
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)
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Friedrich Schlegel
Dictionary of Philosophy 
by Thomas Mautner (2005)
Critical Theory Since Plato
 by Hazard Adams (1971)
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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