A Restless Striving: Friedrich Schlegel and the Complementarity of Poetry and Philosophy through Absolute Idealism

FRIEDRICH Schlegel (1772-1829) is another Romantic who, just like fellow countrymen Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), Novalis (1772-1801) and Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854), is conveniently overlooked by historians of philosophy. In truth, Schlegel was a key part of the Absolute Idealist tradition and yet it is G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) who always receives the credit for having transcended the earlier thought of both Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814).

This, notwithstanding the fact that Hegel’s own dialectical conception of self-consciousness is a perversion of Absolute Idealism itself. After all, whilst the German Romantics overcame the subject-object dichotomy by essentially rebooting the metaphysical ideas of Plotinus (204-270 CE) within an Enlightenment setting – that is, by way of Spinozism, Platonism and Vitalism – Hegel went on to confuse matters by suggesting that the infinite realm is an ontologically later development than the finite, something which is clearly impossible from the perspective of self-causation and the fact that unless the infinite comes into being ‘at once’ it inevitably requires some other agent to bring it to fruition. How this can be possible when the Absolute is the sum of everything is anyone’s guess, but perhaps the enormous influence of Hegel’s dialectics on political figures such as Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) and Karl Marx (1818-1883) partly explains the historical marginalisation of Schlegel and his Romantic associates?

Schlegel, who later converted to Catholicism, came from a family of Lutherans and his influence on the poets of his day was unprecedented. Once he moved to the leading university city of Jena, Schlegel not only continued his literary studies in relation to the work of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), at which time he met the aforementioned Novalis and Schelling, but duly immersed himself in philosophy. Famously, Schegel had a bitter 1797 disagreement with poet, playwright and philosopher Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), after the latter had objected to his polemics. Eventually, Schlegel relocated to Berlin and found lodgings with Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), a leading theologian. Schlegel eventually married Dorothea Veit, a divorcee and daughter of the famous Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). Schlegel went on to produce several works of literary history and develop his vision of a progressive union of poetry and prose in the German Romantic tradition.

Prior to his marital adventures in Berlin, however, Schlegel had spent his time at Jena wisely and soon became the foremost exponent of Absolute Idealism. At the same time, Schlegel was never fully able to organise his philosophy into a rigorous system and the material he left for posterity is mostly comprised of assembled lectures that were often hastily scribbled down in various notebooks. In league with Hölderlin, Novalis and Schelling, by 1796 the Hanoverian poet had come to reject the ideas of Fichte on account of his former idol’s philosophical foundationalism. In other words, Schlegel had began to take issue with Fichte’s theories of knowledge and no longer accepted that they were based on a system of sound beliefs.

Influenced by the anti-foundationalist circle gathered around Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer (1766-1848), a theologian who had previously co-edited a philosophical journal with Fichte himself, Schlegel rejected Fichte as a result of claiming to be an Idealist and yet never quite managing to formulate a concise system of first principles. Schlegel described Fichte as a mystic who had no right to postulate the Absolute without being able to demonstrate it beyond some kind of “empirical egoism”. As far as Schlegel was concerned, philosophy must adopt a non-foundationalist approach in order to become more regulatory. Whilst he was not opposed to mysticism per se, Schlegel nonetheless argued that foundationalism prevented the philosophical inquirer from exploring it in any meaningful sense. Similarly, Fichte’s hopeful declaration that “the ego ought to be absolute” did not make it so.

At this point, in line with his Romantic associates, Schlegel called for more rationalism and took a stronger interest in certain aspects of Baruch Spinoza’s (1632-1677) posthumous 1677 work, Ethica, in relation to theories of universal “substance”. Other chief influences included the Dutch Platonist, François Hemsterhuis (1721-1790) and his revival of Plato’s (d. 348/7 BCE) eternal forms. Indeed, before long Schlegel was using classic Hemsterhuisian terminology such as “longing for the infinite” and encouraging philosophers to engage in a “restless striving after activity”. With Fichte reducing the objective world to the level of appearances, Schlegel’s interpretation of Idealism was radically different and his new anti-foundationalism preferred to relate the infinite to the archtypal. This meant (i) the rejection of all first principles in philosophy, be it ‘I think’ or ‘I am,’ (ii) the application of criticism, or what he described as “a philosophy of philosophy,” and (iii) the rejection of “the myth of the given,” or the false notion that empiricism is rationalism, because it is impossible to state that something is without saying what it is.

In 1797, Schlegel had announced in his Über das Studium der griechischen Poesie (‘On the Study of Greek Poetry’) that one must apply a neoclassical aesthetic by which all art must be judged. However, it soon became impossible for Schlegel to maintain this systemic framework because he was unable to pass his own rigid standards of self-criticism. By denouncing first principles in the philosophical sphere, Schlegel had eradicated any possibility for criticism in relation to his own literary outpourings. This realisation led him to reject his former “rage for objectivity” and find an aesthetic that took his anti-foundationalism to the next level. This, he achieved in the cultural domain through Romanticism and freshly conceived notions of “irony” and “romantic poesy”. Although he was unable to devise a complete system, he did manage to use the philosophical “striving” that he had borrowed from Fichte to create an approximation of his ideals.

Using his concept of “irony” he outlined the conflict between the conditioned and the unconditioned by insisting that to know the unconditioned by way of reason would make it just as conditioned as its counterpart. The truth, he said, lies in the unconditioned itself. A secondary aspect of Schlegel’s “irony” concerns “the impossibility and necessity of a complete communication,” meaning that although an attempt to mediate between the conditioned and unconditioned is impossible as a result of our limited understanding, complete communication is still necessary because to postulate the ideal of the whole means that we begin to arrive at the truth.

Schlegel’s “romantic poesy,” on the other hand, was a way of conveying his interpretation of aesthetic striving for truth itself. The poet uses “romantic poesy” in the same way that the philosopher applied “irony” in his own theatre of operations. As he explains, “The life and vigor of poetry consists of the fact that it steps out of itself, tears out a section of religion, then withdraws into itself to assimilate it. The same is true of philosophy.” Schlegel highlights this similarity by explaining that the work of the poet forever becomes and never achieves completion. Meanwhile, both poet and philosopher are united in their rejection of rigid formulae that restict one’s free will. At the same time, one might question how this fits in with Schlegel’s anti-foundationalism and firm belief in the appliance of critical method.

Schlegel’s thoughts on “irony” and “romantic poesy” soon led him into the arms of mysticism. Ironically, of course, he had earlier criticised Fichte’s own mystical approach but over time Schlegel realised that his commitment to Absolute Idealism and “longing for the infinite” meant that the only way that he could begin to approach an understanding of the Absolute was through mysticism itself. Hölderlin, Novalis and Schelling had each arrived at the same conclusion and taken Spinoza’s idea of “substance” to its logical conclusion: that of intellectual intuition. Initially, Schlegel did not follow the example of his fellow Romantics and continued to reject mysticism as a result of other philosophers forcing rational enquiry to accord with the narrow tenets of their own religious beliefs. Mystics, he assumed, were attempting to take a shortcut to the truth.

In December 1796, Schlegel sent Novalis a collection of his musings on mysticism and it was clear that he was beginning to change his mind. In fact he suggested that philosophy can learn a great from mystics, that they may even be seen as masters of the infinite and that mysticism is the method by which humanity will arrive at a new ideal: “Its essence and its beginning consists in the free positing of the absolute.” His correspondence with Novalis still contained traces of hostility towards mysticism, especially with regard to its uncriticial nature, but it is still possible to detect something of a significant sea change in Schlegel’s overall attitude.

An important encounter with future housemate Friedrich Schleiermacher, in July 1797, saw Schlegel embrace mysticism once and for all and make it a central mainstay of his developing philosophy. As he remarked at the time, “With the mystical everything begins and ends. Only from the mystical must be derived physics, logic, poetry, ethics”. In his August 1798 essay, Über die Philosophie (‘On Philosophy’), Schlegel asserts that religious mysticism is essential for the harmony of the universe and that this is above and beyond everything. This can be achieved, he contends, through love and the realisation that creating unity between the individual and the Absolute is imperative. Love creates harmony between people and makes for a more harmonious world in the sense that we gradually begin to see the world in our beloved and vice versa.

From 1800 onwards, when he was still at Jena University, Schlegel found that he could reconcile his newfound mysticism with his persistent belief in rational enquiry by making a thorough examination of Transcendental Idealism. One of Kant’s objectives had been to explain how it is possible for this form of philosophy to account for the empirical reality of things in space if it identifies them with Platonic appearances. For Kant, the transcendental ego builds knowledge from sense impressions and universal concepts that it imposes upon them. As far as Schlegel was concerned, one must distinguish between a “principle” which gives us some idea of what is original or primary, and an “idea” that provides us with knowledge of the whole. This would lead to the unity of the conditioned and the unconditioned. Furthermore, if we posit the Absolute as the sum of all reality then it also follows that it must be affirmed both negatively as something which is opposed to the finite and positively as a result of having infinite reality. Schlegel wished to negate the reality of the finite as something which is opposed to the Absolute, because a reality of this kind would ultimately lead to the limitation of the infinite. Schlegel was also able to proceed beyond the question of our right to posit the Absolute by suggesting that we can approach the sublime through poetry. Intellectual intuition, or mysticism, therefore determines the reality of the Absolute itself. It cannot be explained, perhaps, but it can be interpreted through poetic experience.

Finally, Schlegel’s interpretation of Absolute Idealism was realised through his firm belief that the individual is the image of a single, infinite substance, and that “God creates the world to portray himself”. God becomes akin to a sculptor who has carved the world for the purposes of self-knowledge. Likewise, the poet can attain philosophical wisdom through the mysticism of his own creative actions.

Further reading:

Frederick C. Beiser; German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism, 1781–1801 (Harvard University Press, 2002).

Nivala, Asko; The Romantic Idea of the Golden Age in Friedrich Schlegel’s Philosophy of History (Routledge, 2017).

Millan, Elizabeth; Friedrich Schlegel and the Emergence of Romantic Philosophy (SUNY Press, 2012).

Forster, Michael N. & Gjesdal, Kristin (eds.); The Oxford Handbook of German Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe & Nancy, Jean-Luc Nancy; The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism (State University Press of New York, 1988).

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