from An Intellectual History of Modern Europe by Marvin Perry
Romanticism 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 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 understanding.
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.
By 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 thought.
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.
Rescuing Scientific Validity
the great German Enlightenment philosopher, was a proponent of Newton 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
Christianity and Morality
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 experience.
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"
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.
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
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. Georg 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
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
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
Reason and History
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 God.
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. (the zeitgeist!)Hegel
believed that history develops rationally: 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. History is
progressing towards greater freedom for mankind. Nation states and their most
exceptional leaders are the medium through which the Spirit expresses itself.
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. In this way, civilization progresses to higher and higher stages
of being, growing 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 relations.
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.
Liberal 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.
It 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.
The state does not acknowledge abstract rules of good and bad but is bound only by the duty of self-preservation. He justified war as fundamentally moral and necessary, the means by which the 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 nationalists.