Knowledge without Constraints: How Friedrich Hölderlin Overcame the Kantian-Fichtean Stranglehold

FRIEDRICH Hölderlin (1770-1843), who explored the mystical links between philosophy and poetry, was possibly the central figure among the Romantic thinkers.

Despite the fact that his brilliant and delicate mind eventually collapsed under the weight of its own innate sensitivity, resulting in Hölderlin spending the final thirty-six years of his life at a lonely tower in the university town of Tübingen, in his youth he had become an accomplished poet and one of the most important progenitors of Absolute Idealist philosophy.

Hölderlin’s work later influenced that of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969), Michel Foucault (1926-1984) and Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Hölderlin had taken it upon himself to move beyond the Critical Idealism of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) and he achieved this in four crucial ways. Frederick C. Beiser explains:

First, it had to deny that subject-object identity consists in the self-consciousness of the ego alone, and it had to affirm instead that it exists only in the single universal substance, of which the subjective and objective are only appearances. Second, it had to dispute the purely regulative status of the absolute and to stress its constitutive role; in other words, it had to contend that the absolute is not only an ethical ideal but an existing reality. Third, it had to transcend the Kantean-Fichtean limits on knowledge and to claim cognition of the absolute. Fourth, it had to hold that nature is not a projection of consciousness, still less an obstacle to the will, but an autonomous organism having independent reality and inherent rationality. (German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism, 1781–1801, p.375)

These four distinguishing features enabled Absolute Idealism to overcome the errors of its philosophical predecessors, and Hölderlin – who shared rooms with Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854) and G.W.F Hegel (1770-1831) – was busy laying the groundwork for a new school of Western European thought at a time when Hegel was still a Kantian and both Schelling and Novalis (1772-1801) were paying lip-service to Fichte. It is not for nothing that Hölderlin is often regarded as the father of Absolute Idealism and it is he who first encouraged Schelling and Hegel to embark on a three-year collaboration between 1801 and 1804.

Although Hölderlin is usually remembered for his mystical poetry, philosophy was always a major interest during his time at Jena. Indeed, during the course of an October 13th, 1796, letter he told his step-brother that one

must study philosophy even when you have no more money than to buy a lamp and oil, and even when you have no other time than from midnight to the crack of dawn.

Nonetheless, Hölderlin’s equal fascination with poetry gave him an advantage in the sense that he sought to understand the relationship between the two. By way of his novel, Hyperion (1797), as well as the unfinished drama, The Death of Empedocles (1797-1800), Hölderlin concluded that poetry must have sovereignty over philosophy on the basis that aesthetic sense must triumph over reason. Furthermore, he believed that poetry could express what philosophy cannot and that the insights of the latter were only accessible if one employed the aesthetic sense of the former.

Fichte’s own Idealism, if we may even regard it as such, had stripped nature of its mystery and sublimity and this led Hölderlin to make nature an end in itself. Unlike Fichte, therefore, he did not view nature as a mere representation that had no reality beyond our own comprehension, but as something that exists in its own right. Even Kant and Schiller, Hölderlin argued, had failed to recognise the function of beauty in a metaphysical capacity and this meant that it was reduced to a form of pleasure. For Hölderlin, beauty was not an appearance but the harmonic structure of all reality. In The Death of Empedocles, the author uses the example of Empedocles himself to epitomise the crass Subjectivism of Fichean philosophy. Although the Ancient Greek thinker sets himself up as a God, he is forced to realise that he is but a mere part of something greater and that by surrendering himself to nature – rather than seeking to dominate it – man finally realigns himself with the Absolute.

The importance of Hölderlin to the development of Absolute Idealism does not merely lie in his thorough rejection of Fichte’s Subjectivist first principle and a belief in a single, universal substance, but his profound belief that we can know the Absolute through intuitive experience. Kant and Fichte were convinced that there are firm limits on the acquisition of knowledge, but when Hölderlin came to write his Tübinger hymns – most notably the 1791 ‘Hyme an die Schönheit’ and ‘Hyme an die Göttin der Harmonie’ – it was already apparent that his early admiration for Kant was being outweighed by the notion that we perceive the objective reality of ideas through their appearance in nature. The first of these hymns, which celebrates Urania as the createss of all things, perfectly encapsulates Hölderlin’s vision of monistic unity and universal harmony:

To find my image

more splendid within you

I breathed power and boldness within

To fathom the laws of my world.

[I made you] the creator of my creations.

Only in shadows will you sense me,

but love me, love me, my son!

Above you will see my clarity

Above you will taste the reward of your love. (I, 132)

This is a perfect example of Hölderlin’s two-pronged attempt to convey philosophy through poetry and to then justify his poetical pronouncements by elaborating upon them within the realms of philosophy itself. Reasoned understanding, he argued, becomes possible through an aesthetic awareness of the Absolute and this is precisely why Hölderlin never discounted the chances of our eventually coming to know the One. As he writes in Hyperion:

Just as Jupiter’s eagle heard the song of the muses, so I listen to the wonderful infinite tone within me. (III, 48)

Hölderlin’s early hymns had successfully moved German philosophy away from the limitations of Kant and Fichte, but as the eighteenth century came to a close he realised that he would have to expand upon his rather vague idea that the Absolute could be understood through intuition. Whilst aesthetic sense ensures that reason does not descend into scepticism, not to mention the fact that a sceptic is often the first to admit that he or she can ‘sense’ or ‘feel’ the presence of the Absolute, Hölderlin was still eager to demonstrate that the sceptic’s inability to fully perceive the whole does not preclude the potential for us to attain such an understanding.

The only way Hölderlin could outline this idea in a more concrete fashion, however, was to explain that by seeking to verbalise or conceptualise it we inevitably divide the whole and thus everything disintegrates into fragments of abstraction. This led him to conclude that the only way to describe intuition effectively is to express religious feelings through mythical language. This avoids creating artificial language that leads to abstraction. In other words, the only realistic medium in which to express that which cannot be fully explained through philosophy is poetry.

Ultimately, Hölderlin’s view of life is based on a deep appreciation of ourselves within the wider context of the natural world. The recognition that man has been provided with the choice to embrace his true identity is the only real safeguard against nihilism and despair. Rather than fight against nature, or posit the dangerous subject-object dichotomy of first principles that results in so much error and confusion, we must celebrate the fact that we are one and the same. As Hölderlin explains in Hyperion:

To be one with everything that lives! With these words virtue lays down its angry armour and the spirit of man its sceptre; all thoughts die away before the image of the eternally one world, like the rules of the struggling artist before his Urania; and iron fate renounces its rule. Death fades from the bond of all beings, and in-separability and eternal youth blesses and beatifies the world. (III, 9)

It is this belief in choice, or free will, which encouraged Hölderlin to favour the mediums of poetry and literature over philosophy. This, he would contend, is the only faithful means by which the philosopher can communicate reason; i.e. outside the insufficient environs of the academic domain. By rejecting the limits that Kant and Fichte had set upon knowledge, Hölderlin had shown how personal development relies on becoming one with the Absolute.

Further Reading:

Adorno, Theodor W. Adorno; ‘Parataxis: On Hölderlin’s Late Poetry’ in Notes to Literature, Volume II (Columbia University Press, 1992).

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

Constantine, David; Hölderlin (Clarendon Press, 1988).

Fioretos, Aris (Ed.); The Solid Letter: Readings of Friedrich Hölderlin (Stanford University, 1999).

Gethmann-Siefert, Annemarie; ‘Heidegger and Hölderlin: The Over-Usage of Poets in an Impoverished Time’ in Heidegger Studies (1990).

Gosetti-Ferencei, Jennifer Anna; Heidegger, Hölderlin and the Subject of Poetic Language (Fordham University, 2004).

Hayden-Roy, Priscilla A.; A Foretaste of Heaven: Friedrich Hölderlin in the Context of Württemberg Pietism (Rodopi, 1994).

Heidegger, Martin; Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister” (Indiana University, 1996).

Heidegger, Martin; Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry (Humanity Books, 2000).

Henrich, Dieter; The Course of Remembrance and Other Essays on Hölderlin (Stanford University, 1997).

Hölderlin, Friedrich; Selected Poems and Fragments (Penguin, 1987).

Hölderlin, Friedrich; Essays and Letters (Penguin, 2009).

Kleinberg-Levin, David Michael; Gestures of Ethical Life: Reading Hölderlin’s Question of Measure After Heidegger (Stanford University, 2005).

Laplanche, Jean; Hölderlin and the Question of the Father (ELS Editions, 2007).

Lernout, Gert; The Poet as Thinker: Hölderlin in France (Camden House, 1994).

Luchte, James; Mortal Thought: Hölderlin and Philosophy (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016).

Man, Paul de; ‘Heidegger’s Exegeses of Hölderlin’ in Blindness and Insight (University of Minnesota, 1983).

Shelton, Roy C.; The Young Hölderlin (Peter Lang Publishing, 1973).

Waiblinger, Wilhelm; Friedrich Hölderlin’s Life, Poetry and Madness (Hesperus Press, 2018).

Warminski, Andrzej; ‘Readings in Interpretation: Hölderlin, Hegel, Heidegger’ in Theory and History of Literature 26 (University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

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