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Kathleen M. Wheeler KANT AND ROMANTICISM Any discussion of rants influence on romantic thought must pay tribute to the debts Kant owed (and acknowledged) to earlier writers , in both the English and the German tradition, not to mention Plato and Aristotle. With this proviso in mind, let us, however, avoid the tangled intricacies ofhis intellectual inheritance, and begin by trying to identify the major impact that Kant consolidated, if not actually produced, on the minds of his younger contemporaries such as Coleridge , Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats. His most direct influence was on Coleridge and, via Coleridge, on Shelley, both of whom formulated sophisticated theories of literature based on an equally sophisticated knowledge of metaphysics and epistemology. Given Blake's achievements decades before Kant was weU-known in England, however, we cannot assert that Kant's influence was either necessary or decisive for the change from Augustan and Enlightenment attitudes to Romantic ones. Perhaps, then, we should more accurately view post-Blakean romantics as consolidating the radical transformations in poetry and theory that Blake had introduced, no doubt inspired by Kant's influential predecessor and, no doubt, reflecting the widespread but gradual intellectual shift taking place throughout the last quarter ofthe eighteenth century. Yet, how we characterize this shift is the point at issue, and if we say with, for example, M. H. Abrams in his influential book, The Mirror and the Lamp,1 that the shift was one from a theory of mind as passive and receptive to a theory of mind as active and creative, we shall have to admit that this tension was one that has existed in Western thought since pre-Socratic times. Indeed, one might, with Coleridge, describe the history of Western thought as the record of the conflict between 42 Kathleen M. Wheeler43 passive and creative mind theorists. Nevertheless, Abrams's characterization seems peculiarly apt for the eighteenth century, for such an interpretation does not, at least, do violence to what appears to later observers (such as ourselves) to have been a period of extreme intellectual tendencies. The influence of Hobbes (and more confusedly Locke) on the eighteenth century seems to have encouraged a fairly sharp consensus towards a passive, mechanistic, associationist account of mind, whether encouraging or encouraged by a type of restraint in the poetry of the period. There were certainly figures of stature, such as Berkeley, and to some extent Hume, who rejected the Hobbes-Locke orientation. Yet they were poorly understood (or indeed misunderstood ), their influence blunted as a result, until Kant and his predecessors , rereading them, were forced to see the total inadequacy of sensationalist, associationist theories that viewed mind as passive in the construction of experience. It would, however, be a mistake to equate this gradual shift in philosophy and aesthetics (perhaps science and religion as well) with a simple shift from empiricism to idealism. For certain aspects of empirical philosophy, such as the emphasis upon experience, experiment, and a sound method ofinquiry, were retained by those who rejected sensationalist-associationist accounts of mind and art. Nor is idealism, understood as a philosophy which endows mind with world-creating powers, an accurate description of Kant, Blake, Coleridge, Shelley, or many other of those figures who participated in a rejection of passive mind theories. Even a phrase such as "transcendental (as opposed to transcendent) idealism" cannot do justice to the nature of this shift, since the term "idealism," however qualified, still carries with it the encumbrance of a simple idealist philosophy which retains the old dualism between mind and nature (or subject and object) that cripples any genuine transformation in intellectual orientation. Let us characterize this shift, then, as a move away from and a critique of such dualistic thinking, towards a kind of thought that grounds itself in relation and integration rather than in division and antinomy. I am suggesting, then, that the gradual move towards a creative theory of mind (which seems to be at least one possible way of interpreting late eighteenth-century developments) was a move towards nondualistic thinking. Yet the effort to get beyond the traditional problems of philosophy generated by dualistic thinking took, as one can imagine, a number of different forms. Or, perhaps...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 42-56
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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