Saturday, April 22, 2023

The Jena Set 2

I have now finished reading Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics by Andrea Wulf. The second part was focused, to a considerable degree, on the wayward personal relationships of the first generation of German Romantic thinkers.

I wrote in my last post:

...if we start from the point of pure subjectivity, conditioned only by our own feelings and passions, then relationships will be thought more pure and elevated the less they are based on pragmatic rational considerations and the more freely bestowed they are, without any "limiting" claims being made on the feelings or passions of the other person.

The early Romantic thinkers seem to have acted along these lines, or something similar, in their love lives. August Schlegel, for instance, married a much older single mother, Caroline Böhmer, but happily allowed her to live in his house with her lover, the much younger philosopher Friedrich Schelling, while he himself (Schlegel) pursued the heavily pregnant, married sister of the poet Ludwig Tieck. Freely bestowed emotions overrode considerations of age and fertility, of marital status, of fidelity, of honour and of self-respect. Passion über alles. It makes for gruesome reading.

August Wilhelm Schlegel

As I wrote in my previous review of the book, there were some positive aspects of the German Romantics. They reacted against the mechanical materialism of the Enlightenment, insisting on a more poetic experience of life. They upheld the transcendent value of beauty and promoted the idea of nature as a living organism. They were open to the culture and religion of the medieval world. We can thank the Romantics, at least in part, for beautiful neo-Gothic churches, for the nature poetry and painting of the nineteenth century, and for the music of Beethoven and Schubert.

But there were problems. It is said that much of philosophy is based on establishing the triadic relationship between God, man and nature. During the Enlightenment, there was an emphasis on man existing outside of nature. Man was an observer, measuring and classifying and seeking to master nature. I am going to call this a process of "exteriorisation" in the sense that man is no longer an active participant within nature, but places himself outside of it.

The Romantics reacted against this. In part, this meant acknowledging the sense of connection between man and nature, including the responses of awe and wonder to nature. However, philosophers like Fichte also created problems in establishing the relationship between man and nature. He was in the tradition of Descartes, in the sense of looking into the operation of self-consciousness to discover truths about human existence. It led him to a belief that we establish our freedom of will, as opposed to being conditioned by the material world, by recognising that it is the "ich" (the "I") that creates the limiting conditions on the self and that these therefore can be dispelled by the "ich". As Andrea Wulf describes it:

As Fichte stood at the podium in Jena, he imbued the self with the new power of self-determination. The Ich posits itself and it is therefore free. It is the agent of everything. Anything that might constrain or limit its freedom - anything in the non-Ich - is in fact brought into existence by the Ich.

This philosophy did not readily harmonise the relationship between man and nature. Fichte himself wrote:

My will alone...shall float audaciously and coldly over the wreckage of the universe.

We could call this trend in Western thought "interiorisation" in the sense that it is a turn away from the idea that we are influenced or conditioned by an external nature, or even a given nature, but that we subjectively "posit" our own self and in so doing reject the "limitations" imposed by what is outside of our own volition. Some of the critics of the Jena set complained at the time that this was a "metaphysical egotism" (p.350) and Ralph Waldo Emerson described the new age in 1837 as an "age of Introversion" (p.351). Friedrich Schlegel, the brother of August and at one time a follower of Fichte, later turned against his ideas, writing that Fichte was "idolising the Ich and the self" and that he had confused the self with the divine.

(Schelling, another influential Romantic philosopher, tried to connect man and nature, apparently by arguing that both were identical in some sense, i.e. that the "ich" was identical with nature.)

I've focused on this distinction between exteriorisation and interiorisation because it seems to me that both have been bequeathed to the modern world, even though they are not entirely consistent with each other. They are simply two of the accretions that the modern world runs with.

Man the observer, standing outside of rather than participating from within, is found in the modern liberal personality. It is evident in those moderns who enjoy observing and experiencing other cultures, as something like tourists (outsiders), but who renounce a culture of their own (or who are simply oblivious to it). Similarly, exteriorisation is also evident in those moderns who praise Aborigines for having a rich relationship to nature but who are strangely unaware of the importance of the relationship to nature expressed within their own culture.

They have inherited the exteriorised mindset in which they are onlookers, standing on the outside of both nature and culture, rather than participants from within. This explains, in part, why they are so little touched by questions of loyalty or duty - you have to stand within something, as an active participant, for either loyalty or duty to have a claim on you.

The influence of interiorisation in our own time is even greater (and more obvious). What we self-identify as is asserted to be what we really are. The "self-positing ich" is extending its reach far beyond anything envisaged by Fichte and his contemporaries. 

Instead of coming to a better understanding of the triad of God, man and nature, we have just left things as history left them, to our own considerable detriment.


  1. The “exteriorization” process certainly seems like a parody of God or a sort of way of trying to become God, who of course exists independently (and therefore outside) of the universe by His nature.

    I suspect there is probably a similar thing going on with the “interiorization” process and (probably) the Incarnation.

    1. Interesting. In our Melbourne Trads reading group, we've discussed examples of this happening, i.e. when the triad is reduced to just man and nature, that there is a picking up of the qualities of God by one of the two remaining elements, ordinarily man. I will have to think about this one. Usually the explanation has to do with the dropping of the idea of final causes, in favour of efficient ones, with the aim of providing "useful" knowledge that would give man mastery over nature, and therefore to create the material conditions for man to better pursue his wants/desires.