from An Intellectual History of Modern Europe by Marvin Perry
and German Idealism
early nineteenth century saw the flowering of a new cultural
orientation. Romanticism, with its plea for the liberation of human
emotions and the free expression of personality and imagination,
challenged the Enlightenmentís stress on reason. The Romantic movement
embraced writers, artists and thinkers throughout the Western world.
Romantics were liberals and conservatives, revolutionaries and
reactionaries; some were occupied with religion and God while others
paid little attention to faith.
The philosophes of the Enlightenment had attacked faith because it distorted reason; now the Romantics denounced the scientific rationalism of the philosophes because it stifled the emotions and impeded creativity. Like the philosophes the Romantics gave high value to the individual, but they accused the philosophes of turning flesh and blood human beings into soulless thinking machines. The Romantics agreed with Rousseau that feeling not thinking is the essential part of our being and that a good heart, the moral self, is superior to a powerful intellect.
the philosophes had concentrated on those elements of human
nature shared by all people, the Romantics emphasized human diversity
and uniqueness. They encouraged artists and thinkers to discover and
express their individuality: cultivate your own imagination, play your
own music, write your own poetry, paint your own personal view of
nature, experience love and suffering in your own way. The philosophes
had asserted the autonomy of the mind; Romantics gave primary importance
to the autonomy of the personality and the individualís right to
fulfill the inner self. This intense introspection, the individualís
preoccupation with his or her own feelings, is the distinguishing
feature of Romanticism.
philosophes had regarded feeling as an obstacle to clear
thinking. They argued that the rational faculties should exercise tight
control over imagination, intuition, inspiration and sentiments. To the
Romantics, however, feelings were the human essence. Reason could not
comprehend or express neither the complexities of human nature nor the
richness of human experience. By always dissecting and analyzing, by
imposing deadening structure and form, and by demanding adherence to
strict rules, reason crushed inspiration and creativity, barring true
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a leader of the Romantic movement in British poetry, said,
Poetry is a true philosophy, the Romantics said: it can do what rational analysis and geometric calculation cannot. Poetry can speak directly to the heart, clarify lifeís deepest mysteries, and penetrate to the depths of human personality. The poetís imagination enables the individual to participate in the eternal and to discover the transcendent. To exercise the poetic imagination is to partake in Godís creative activity. God manifests himself in the human imagination
philosophes had viewed nature as a mechanism, a giant clock, all
of whose parts worked together in perfect precision and harmony.
Natureís laws, operating with mathematical certainty, were uncovered
by the methodology of science. Rejecting this impersonal mechanical
model, Romantics reacted to nature in an emotional way, inspired and
awed by its beauty, majesty and hidden powers. Instead of having created
a machine, God, to the Romantics, was immanent in the creation.
the Romantics, nature was alive and suffused with the presence of God.
Nature stimulated the creative energies of the imagination, and it
taught human beings a higher form of knowledge. It is not the
mathematicianís logic but the poetís imagination which unlocks
natureís most important secrets. The philosophes had seen God
as a great watchmaker, a detached observer of a self-operating
mechanical universe. They tried to reduce religion to a series of
scientific propositions. For the Romantics, religion was not science and
syllogism but a passionate and authentic expression of human nature.
Faith, thy said, did not derive from the mindís acceptance of dogma
but from an awareness of Godís presence in nature and the human heart.
Romantics and philosophes held different conceptions of history.
For the philosophes, history served a didactic purpose by
providing examples of human folly. To the Romantics, a historical
period, like an individual, was a unique entity with its own soul; it
could not be described in terms of universal principles. They wanted the
historian to portray and to analyze the variety of nations, traditions
and institutions that constitute the historical experience. Searching
for universal principles, the philosophes had dismissed folk traditions
as peasant superstitions and impediments to knowledge and progress. The
Romantics saw folk expression as the unique creation of a people and the
deepest expression of national feeling. Their celebration of folk art,
myth, song and legend was instrumental in shaping modern nationalism.
focusing on the creative capacities inherent in the emotions the
Romantics shed light on a side of human nature that the philosophes
had often overlooked or undervalued. Future artists, writers and
musicians would proceed along the path opened by the Romantics. Modern
art owes much to the Romantic Movementís emphasis on the legitimacy of
human feeling and its exploration of the hidden world of dreams and
fantasies. By recognizing the distinctive qualities of historical
periods, peoples and cultures, the Romantics helped create the modern
historical outlook. By valuing the nationís past, Romanticism
contributed to modern nationalism and conservatism.
Romanticsí emphasis on feeling found expression in humanitarian
movements that fought slavery, child labor and poverty. Romantics were
also among the first to attack the emerging industrial capitalism for
subordinating individuals to the requirements of the industrial process
and treating them as things. However, there was a potentially dangerous
side to the Romantic Movement. By
waging their attack on reason with excessive zeal, the Romantics
undermined respect for the rational tradition of the Enlightenment and
thus set up a precondition for the rise and triumph of fascist movements
in the twentieth century. By idealizing the past and glorifying ancient
folkways, legends, native soil, and native language, the Romantics
introduced a highly charged and non-rational component into political
new stress by Romantic thinkers on the primacy of the inner person also
found expression in the school of German philosophy called Idealism.
Idealists emphasized the values of the spirit over the logic of
materialism and explained the world in spiritual terms. Spirit
determines the form of the physical world. A higher reality, a world
of ultimate truth does exist and can be reached through our inner
nature, our spiritual self.
Hume, the great British empiricist and skeptic, cast doubt on the view
that scientific certainty was possible. Science rests on the bedrock
conviction that regularities observed in the past and present will be
repeated in the future. Science is based on the existence of an
objective reality which rational creatures can comprehend. Hume,
however, had argued that science cannot demonstrate even a fundamental
connection between cause and effect.
used the example of a match burning a finger to prove his point that we
cannot be absolutely sure of anything in nature. Just because a match
burns our finger, we assume a cause and effect relationship. However,
all we can acknowledge is a constant conjunction between the flame and
the burning sensation. It is merely habit and the mindís capacity to
make associations that lead us to link events in cause and effect
relationships. According to
Hume, a radical empiricist, sense perception is the only source of
knowledge, and our sense perceptions can never prove a necessary
connection between what we customarily perceive as cause and effect.
We can only have impressions of happenings, but we cannot completely
understand why they happen. Experience tells us only what happens at a
particular moment. It cannot tell us with certainty that the same
combination of events will be repeated in the future. What we mean by
cause and effect is simply something that the mind, through habit,
imposes on our sense perceptions. For practical purposes, we can say
that two events are in association with each other, but we cannot
conclude with certainty that the second was caused by the first.
skepticism extended to the most basic assumptions of science. He could
not prove that natural law is in effect in the universe. Therefore
scientific knowledge is not unqualifiedly certain. It is habit and not
certainty that leads us to conclude that the sun will come up in the
morning. Instead of thinking of the universe as a celestial watch, he
argued that it could just as easily be thought of as a celestial tomato:
donít all of its parts fit together as well?
great German idealists, Kant and Hegel, responded to Humeís challenge
and rescued reason and science from skepticism.
the great German
philosopher, was a
proponent of Newtonianism and the scientific method. He undertook the
challenge of rescuing reason and science from Humeís skepticism. In
doing so he articulated a new theory of epistemology, the branch of
philosophy which explains how we learn. His ideas mark a turning point
in the history of Western philosophy.
The Critique of Pure Reason (1781) Kant rejected Locke and
Humeís theory of knowledge as derived from sense impressions: the mind
conceived as a tabula rasa on which sensations determine our
experience. Instead, Kant
conceived of the mind as an active agent which structures, organizes and
interprets with inherent logic the phenomena of sensation. Kant
believed in inherent, a priori categories of understanding,
categories of thought with which we are born.
agreed with Hume that we cannot conclude a necessary link between cause
and effect based on experience alone. However, he rejected Humeís
contention that mere habit leads us to connect natural phenomena. For
Kant, cause and effect have an objective existence that is graspable by
an inherent component of human consciousness: reason. The mind allows us
to presuppose cause and effect in our experience with objects. The
mind itself imposes structure and order upon our sense experiences.
The mind creates our understanding of nature. These a priori categories
of the mind allow us to attribute certainty to scientific knowledge. The
physical world possesses certain definite characteristics because these
characteristics conform to categories inherent in our minds. ďThe
object must accommodate itself to the subject.Ē
We see nature in a particular way because of the mental apparatus we
bring to it. The mind gives coherence and law to the surging chaos
of phenomena which are the raw materials of sense experience.
rescued science from Humeís assault, but in the process, Kant made
scientific law dependent upon the mind and its a priori
categories. Objects in Kantís universe conform to the rules of the
human mind. The knowing subject creates order within nature. Kant saw
the human mind as an active agent, unlike Locke who saw it as a passive
receptacle for sensations. Kant invented a revolutionary new way of
conceiving the relationship between subject and object. It gave new,
unprecedented importance to the human mind. Since
Kant, Western thinkers have conceived of the objective world as always
to some degree the creation of the subjective mind.
also sought to preserve the validity of Christianity and the certainty
of morality in The Critique of Practical Reason (1788). To
preserve religious faith and universal morality, Kant had to place
limitations on the scientific method. Certain moral and religious truths
lay beyond the realm of experience and science. Truth precedes
agreed with Hume that we cannot know ultimate reality. Our knowledge is
limited to the phenomenal world. We also cannot perceive an objectís
truth separate from our mindís interpretation of it. Logic
can only work with our sensations of the object. for example, we can
say nothing of the sunís true nature, only the way that the sun
appears to us. Our impression of it is formed by the mindís ordering
of our sense experiences. Therefore, science deals only with the world
of appearances, of sense experience and not with ultimate reality. A
science which grasps "the world as it truly is" is impossible.
cannot prove that the individual has an immortal soul and free will; nor
can we prove that there are invariable moral laws, that there was a
creation, or that God exists. We also cannot prove Godís existence
through speculative logic, the way Descartes did. Nevertheless, Kant
argues, moral law does exist in our hearts. Human beings are not only
rational beings but moral beings as well. Like Rousseau, Kant held that
our inner voice, our conscience, is the source of morality; it tells us
what is right and commands us to do our duty. Our conscience leads us to
act as if God were observing and judging us. For
Kant, in effect, God reveals his existence in the human conscience.
Kant believed that the existence of God justifies the existence of moral
standards, free will and an afterlife-- a higher reality beyond
experienced phenomena. This ultimate reality is revealed to us
through moral experience, not through the experience of our senses. Each
individual person achieves freedom only by encountering that world.
For Kant morality is based on an ethical imperative: ďCan you will
that your maxim should also be a general law?Ē
He also urges us to treat others not only as a means but also as an end.
In other words, ďDo unto others as you would have them do unto you.Ē
He also urges us to treat others not only as a means but also as an end.
In other words, ďDo unto others as you would have them do unto you.Ē
Kantís response to the challenge of Humeís skepticism not only rescued the validity of the scientific method, but it transformed our conception of knowledge itself. The subjective human mind became the shaper of the objective phenomena of existence. Kant also rescued morality from the skeptics by insisting on the existence of an aspect of our consciousness beyond the categories of understanding, the conscience, which permits us to perceive ultimate reality through moral experience.
held that the knowledge of absolute reality is beyond the mindís reach
and is forever denied us. Gerog Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, another German
philosopher, could not accept this. He
constructed an all-embracing metaphysical system that attempted to
explain reality by uncovering the fundamental nature and meaning of
human history. In the process, he synthesized the leading currents
of thought in his day: the Rationalism of the Enlightenment,
Romanticism, and Kantian philosophy.
inherited from the philosophes a respect for reason and the conviction
that the universe is intelligible. The Romantics taught him to
appreciate the diversity of human experience and search for truth in the
varieties of cultural life in history rather than in an unchanging
natural order. He also learned from the Romantics the uses of passion as
a method of motivating the masses. From them he also acquired an
aspiration to see society as an organic unity of interdependent parts
which reflects the absolute truths of the universe.
agreed with Kantís conception of a human mind which imposes order on
objective reality, but he believed that ultimate reality is knowable to
the human mind. The mind can grasp the essential meaning of human
experience. He believed that there exists a Universal Mind - Absolute
Spirit - which expresses itself in the minds of individual thinkers and
can be apprehended through thought.
believed that true reality, the Idea, was static, timeless, unchanging
and transcendent; it existed in a higher world apart from the transitory
phenomena of life. Hegel
believed that ultimate reality was characterized by change and
development; it could be found in the concrete world of human
experience. Absolute Spirit expresses itself in cultural life, in
our institutions and in our political conflicts. Truth can be discovered
by developing a deeper understanding of existing things. To Hegel, the
study of history plays a central role in our understanding of the
Absolute Spirit. Truth unfolds
and makes itself known to the human mind in the arena of world history.
History studies the development and actualization of an immanent
believed history proceeds according to a purposeful plan. Each period in
world history has a distinctive spirit or character that separates it
from every preceding age. Each period possesses an organic unity which
coherently expresses itself in the art, philosophy, religion, politics
and leading events of the time. Hegel
believed that history is a dynamic, rational process: each historical
period is related to the period which preceded it and the one that
followed it. The purpose of history is the gradual manifestation of the
Absolute Spirit. Hegel believed that the end of this process would
be human self-knowledge. History is progressing towards greater freedom
for mankind. Nation states and their
most exceptional leaders are the medium through which the Spirit
argued that the spirit manifests
itself in history through a dialectical tension between opposing forces
or ideas. The struggle between one force (thesis) and its adversary
(antithesis) is evident in all spheres of human activity. This clash of
opposites gains in intensity and ends in a resolution that unifies both
opposing ideas in a higher form of the truth (synthesis). Then, after a
period of time, a new antithesis arises to oppose this form of truth,
and a new clash of opposing forces takes place. This struggle is
sometimes expressed in revolutions and wars, sometimes in art, history
and philosophy. Thus civilization progresses to higher and higher stages
of being, closer and closer to the realization of the divine Spirit. The
dialectic is the march of Spirit through human affairs.
believed that freedom is the essence of the human spirit. Through
history humans are progressing towards consciousness of their own
freedom. They are becoming aware of their self-determination and
better able to regulate their lives rationally. With experience and
maturity collective humanity is moving purposely from epoch to epoch
towards the goal of freedom.
understood the evolution of freedom as the gradual realization of an
idea. In the
ancient oriental world of despots where only one person, the tyrant, was
truly free, the people could not even conceive of the idea of freedom.
The awareness of freedom first arose among the Greeks, but their society
was still founded upon slavery. The Greeks only knew that some people
were free- not man as such. Hegel believed that the Germanic people
under the influence of Christianity were the first to attain the
consciousness that man, as man, is free. It would take centuries for
this principle of freedom, originating in early Christianity and
culminating in the Lutheran Reformation, to be applied to political
did not believe that freedom is a matter of securing abstract natural
rights for the individual, as was the goal of the French Revolution.
Rather, true freedom is attained only within the social group. Human
beings discover their essential character, their moral and spiritual
potential, only as citizens of a cohesive political community.
constitutions seek to provide a secure environment for individuals to
pursue their own interests. For Hegel, the state fulfilled a loftier
function. Like Rousseau, he hoped that the government would make
possible the individualís full development as a human being. Hegel
believed that reason had fully manifested itself in the modern state,
the highest form of human association. The state forcibly joins isolated
individuals into a community and substitutes a rule of justice for the
rule of instincts.
is not surprising that Hegel, who was no political revolutionary, found
that the pinnacle of the consciousness of freedom had been discovered in
the Germany of his own day. He deemed the Prussian state
which had an autocratic king, no constitution, no popularly
elected parliament, and government imposed censorship-- to be the summit
of freedom. The national state was the supreme achievement of Absolute
Spirit. Its constitution grows out of a peopleís historical
experience, not the human intellect.
state does not acknowledge abstract rules of good and bad but is bound
only by the duty of self-preservation. He justified war as something
that is fundamentally moral and necessary, the means by which Spirit
unfolds in history. He also extolled power. Hegel claimed that in every
historical epoch the World-Spirit hands over to a particular people a
mission of world-historical importance. This Romantic and mystical
conception of the nationís mission would be abused by later German