excerpted from An Intellectual History of Modern Europe by Marvin Perry

Romanticism and German Idealism

The 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 Philosophe vs. the Romantic

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.

Where 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.

The 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, 

[The poet], unsubdued by habit, unshackled by custom, contemplates all things with the freshness and wonder of a child.

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

Nature, God and History

The 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.

To 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.

The 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.

The Impact of the Romantic Movement

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.

The 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.

German Idealism

The 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.

Humeís Skepticism: Challenge to the Enlightenment

David 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.

Hume 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.

Humeís 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?

The great German idealists, Kant and Hegel, responded to Humeís challenge and rescued reason and science from skepticism.

Immanuel Kant  (1724-1804)

Rescuing Scientific Validity

Kant, 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.

In 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.

Kant 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.

Kant 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.

Rescuing Christianity and Morality

Kant 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.

Kant 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.

We 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

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.

G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831)

Kant 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 Kantian philosophy.

Hegel 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.

Hegel 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.

Reason and History

Plato 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.

Hegel 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. Hegel believed that the end of this process would be human self-knowledge. 

Hegel 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.

Hegel 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.

Hegel 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.

Political Thought

Hegel 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.