Thinking Our Way to God: Romantic Philosophy and the Coming of Absolute Idealism

SPEAKING in a purely philosophical context, I would describe myself as an Absolute Idealist in the same rough mould as German Romantics such as Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), Novalis (1772-1801) and Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854). Most historians of philosophy tend to overlook the valuable ideas of the main Romantic thinkers and they are presented elsewhere solely in terms of their literary and cultural achievements, particularly in the English-speaking world, so in the following essay I shall briefly outline their precious contribution to Absolute Idealism.

Over time, these important figures began to contest the Cartesianism of René Descartes (1596-1650), the Transcendental Idealism of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and the Subjectivism of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), eventually formulating their own groundbreaking interpretations of what was to become Absolute Idealism. In fact there were three main schools: the Romantic circle of Schelling, Novalis and Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829); the Bund der Geister of Hölderlin, G.W.F Hegel (1770-1831), Isaac von Sinclair (1775-1815) and Jakob Zwilling (1776-1809); and the Bund der Freien Männer of August Ludwig Hülsen (1765-1809), Johann Erich von Berger (1772-1833), Johann Smidt (1773-1857), Johann Georg Rist (1775-1847), Johann Casimir Böhlendorff (1776-1825) and Johann Herbart (1776-1841).

Reacting against Fichte’s own disastrous efforts to develop a form of Idealism, the Romantic philosophers based their ideas on three important strands of thought: Monism, or the idea that the universe is not a plurality of substances, but one unified whole; Vitalism, the notion that the single universal substance is an organism that involves constant growth and development; and Rationalism, the fact that this process conforms to an idea or purpose. Absolute Idealism is therefore opposed to pluralism and dualism. What this did, essentially, was reapply to German philosophy the kind of naturalism that Fichte had so conveniently downplayed.

Indeed, given that the Critical Idealism of Kant and Fichte insisted on a more empirical interpretation of thought in the sense that an object is merely independent in terms of its conformity to universal laws of consciousness, the Absolute Idealists insisted that the universal substance cannot be reduced to the realm of subjectivity. Whilst Kant’s ‘I think’ and Fichte’s ‘I am’ begin with the subject as first principle, the Absolute Idealists demonstrate through the application of reason that individual subjects are simply different parts of a greater whole. As far as Hölderlin, Novalis and Schelling are concerned, the Absolute cannot be placed either within or without consciousness. One finds this error in Cartesian dualism and the Romantic philosophers therefore reject the dissection of the Absolute into separate parts on account of it being impossible for the universal substance to become absorbed within the realms of experience. On the contrary, it is the Absolute which makes all experience possible and with the arrival of this new philosophy the narrow self-consciousness of Kant and Fichte was transcended once and for all.

Thinkers such as Hölderlin, Novalis and Schelling forged their Absolute Idealism from three important components: Spinozism, Platonism and Vitalism. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), often dismissed as an atheist, may seem an unlikely source for those who developed a Romantic philosophy, but its engineers were very selective and took several crucial elements from his work. Most important of these was Spinoza’s identification of substance, which is considered both in terms of itself and of being conceived through itself. In other words, substance is formed independently and is therefore infinite, just like the universe. Anything less would mean depending on something outside itself. It is, therefore, a self-sufficient essence.

Spinozism had been accidentally revived by Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819) during the course of his philosophical discussions with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), when he warned against the dangers of atheism and inadvertently sparked fresh interest in Spinoza’s work among German youth. Spinoza himself had sought to combine religion and science, but the Romantics came to regard him not as an atheist but as a pantheist who saw God in all things. The Jewish philosopher’s call for the separation of church and state also inspired a generation of young Germans who saw Protestantism as a symbol of religious tolerance. On the other hand, the Romantics had little time for Spinoza’s mechanistic rationalism.

The second of three main influences on Absolute Idealism was Platonism. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Ancient Greek philosophy was enjoying something of a resurgence and the Dutch Platonist, François Hemsterhuis (1721-1790), was greatly admired for endorsing a unity of truth and beauty, poetry as a medium of knowledge, love as a power of the soul, and encouraging a deep yearning for a return to the eternal. Platonism was centred on unity of the one with the many, although its mystical aspects were tempered by a belief in rationalism. Another important feature of Platonism was intellectual intuition, said to be perfectly encapsulated by the ecstasy of the poet.

The third influence on Absolute Idealism was Vitalism. Although a number of French thinkers had established that the essence of matter does not consist in extension, another Cartesian notion, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) had suggested that mechanised physics was not the answer and that an object could be realised by way of living forces. If matter had the ability to both move and organise itself, there was no need for a supernatural creator.

Vitalism appeared once the German biologist and pioneer of Naturphilosophie, Carl Friedrich Kielmeyer (1765-1844), had proved that nature was an organic whole. Meanwhile, the philosopher and theologian, Johann Gottfried (1744-1803), applied Vitalism to Spinoza’s theory of substance and this gave it a decidedly Monist flavour. As a result of their fascinating blend of Spinozism, Platonism and Vitalism, the Absolute Idealists arrived at the conclusion that the mental and physical aspects of humanity represent differing organisational degrees of a living force. What they had done, in the very midst of the Enlightenment, was to revive metaphysics in the face of a rapidly developing scientific world.

Ironically, whilst Kant had refuted metaphysics the Absolute Idealists now claimed that they had taken his philosophy to its logical conclusion and unleashed what should have been its true spirit. More importantly, they announced that subject-object identity and objective knowledge can be resolved by establishing identity between subject and object. This means that self-conscious dualism is transformed into a single infinite whole in which both are seen as attributes or differing degrees of organisation. By way of Vitalism, in particular, the intellectual and empirical spheres become unified in realisation of one another. Put simply, the subject’s knowledge of the object is nothing less than the object knowing itself through the subject.

This leaves us with the urgent question: what is the Absolute? Novalis once said that “we seek the unconditioned and find only things,” and for the Romantic philosophers aesthetic experience became the ground of knowledge by which all things are known. Although we cannot know the existence of the Absolute by way of reason, we can though intuition and seeking oneness enables us to transcend our narrow circle of consciousness. Art and nature are identical. It is impossible for a sceptic to refute this assertion, too, because it requires sensitivity in the same way that sight, sound and taste canot be conceptualised. We either have the experience or we do not, meaning that we must seek to express it through music, art and poetry.

Finally, whilst the Romantic philosophers have shown that the subjectivist ideas of Kant and Fichte are based on a total fallacy, everything we see around us may be interpreted as the appearence of the Idea. This is not something which is confined to the individual mind, however, because it represents the form, archetype and structure of reality in general. It transcends the limitational dichotomy of subjective and objective, but is nonetheless manifest in both. This, at least in a philosophical regard, is my personal understanding of ‘God’.

Further reading:

Altmann, Matthew C. (Ed.); The Palgrave Handbook of German Idealism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Beiser, Frederick C.; The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte (Harvard University Press, 1987).

Beiser, Frederick C.; German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism, 1791–1801 (Harvard University Press, 2002).

Beiser, Frederick C.; Late German Idealism: Trendelenberg and Lotze (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Dudley, Will; Understanding German Idealism (Acumen, 2007).

Dunham, Jeremy, Iain Hamilton Grant & Sean Watson; Idealism: The History of a Philosophy (Acumen, 2011).

Ewing, Alfred Cyril; Idealism: a Critical Survey (Methuen, 1934).

Ewing, Alfred Cyril; The Idealist Tradition: From Berkeley to Blanshard (The Free Press, 1957).

Findlay, John N.; Ascent to the Absolute (George Allen & Unwin, 1970).

Foster, John; The Case for Idealism (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982).

Nauern, F.-G.; Revolution, Idealism, and Human Freedom: Schelling, Hölderlin, and Hegel and the Crisis of Early German Idealism (Springer, 2013).

Pinkard, Terry; German Philosophy 1760–1860: The Legacy of Idealism (Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph; Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph; System of Transcendental Idealism (University of Virginia Press, 1978).

Sprigge, Timothy S.; The Vindication of Absolute Idealism (Edinburgh University Press, 1983).

Sprigge, Timothy S.; The God of Metaphysics (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Thomas, James; Intuition and Reality: A Study of the Attributes of Substance in the Absolute Idealism of Spinoza (Ashgate, 1999).

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