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Philosophy and Literature 26.1 (2002) 125-142

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Hölderlin's Poetic Self-consciousness

James H. Donelan

Nur ihren Gesang sollt' ich vergessen, nur diese
Seelentöne sollten nimmer wiederkehren in meinen
unaufhörlichen Träumen.
I should forget only her song, only these notes of the soul
should never return in my unending dreams.

Hölderlin, Hyperion


FOR MANY YEARS, Friedrich Hölderlin has occupied a crucial position in both literary and philosophical history. Well-known literary theorists, such as Walter Benjamin, Peter Szondi, and Paul de Man, have described him as the poet who made the transition from German Classicism to Romanticism. Several major philosophers, including Dieter Henrich and Manfred Frank, claim that Hölderlin's insights into Kantian and Fichtean metaphysics were vital to Schelling's and Hegel's far more famous accounts of subjectivity. Either contribution alone would make Hölderlin an important figure in intellectual history; it is almost miraculous that he managed both, especially when one considers the brevity of his career, a span of only ten or twelve productive years.

What accounts for this remarkable dual achievement? Historical accident and tremendous talent give us only a partial answer. Hölderlin was fortunate to have Hegel and Schelling as close friends at the Tübinger Stift, and to move to Jena precisely when it had become a center for new thinking in both literary and philosophical circles. He had enormous ability both for ancient Greek and poetic meter, allowing him to benefit from his predecessors and his contemporaries [End Page 125] in remarkable ways. However, his parallel accomplishments in philosophy and poetry are linked by more than just happenstance and genius. In my view, they represent the continuous development of a solution to a single problem, that of self-consciousness, realized in poetic form through an idea of music. For Hölderlin, making the transition from philosopher to poet required him to establish a connection between Idealist theories of self-consciousness and the material world. To meet this challenge, he constituted himself as a self-conscious poet through both theoretical and actual poetic creations, and constituted a musical-poetic voice, or Gesang, within his poetry as a means of joining the abstractions of philosophy with the concrete voice of the poet.

The background of this transformation lies in the complex history of the idea of self-consciousness, or subjectivity. In the early Idealist accounts of self-consciousness of Kant and Fichte, the subject recognizes its existence by juxtaposing itself with an object. However, the nature of this object, and the connection between the abstract, theoretical construction of the subject and the actual, practical experience of the conscious self posed a problem that neither philosopher solved definitively. For Kant, self-consciousness emerges from a pre-reflective sense of the self's existence as the subject of different experiences of phenomena over time; self-consciousness therefore arises from a deduction of empirical experience. However, this formulation contains a surprisingly belated and unmotivated version of the self, with no clear account of its origin.

Fichte answered the question about the origin of the self by stating that the self posits itself through its opposition to a material object, a non-self he calls the Nicht-ich, and becomes self-conscious by differentiating the Ich from the Nicht-ich and declaring "I am I." Fichte's explanation of self-consciousness as an act rather than an entity nevertheless relies on a kind of solipsism and still does not sufficiently address the ultimate cause of the process. The Ich that declares its own existence must distinguish itself from the Nicht-ich somehow; the relation between the two terms presupposes a subject that already possesses sensory apprehension to create the distinction between Ich and Nicht-ich necessary for the initial positing of the self.

Either explicitly or implicitly, both Kant's and Fichte's versions of subjectivity rely on the category of the aesthetic, defined as the experience of precognitive sensation in general, to mediate the encounter between subject and object. Kant later expanded his inquiry [End Page 126] into...


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