- The Romantic Absolute: Being and Knowing in Early German Romantic Philosophy, 1795–1804 by Dalia Nassar
Dalia Nassar presents the absolute as the guiding concept in the philosophies of Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel, and Schelling. The inclusion of Schelling in this study plays a key role in guiding the focus: rather than seeking to prove that Schelling was actually a Romantic philosopher, even if he did not fully identify with this movement, the text seems to argue that the Romantics were groping toward something like Schelling’s philosophy of nature in a less coherent way. As such, the study reveals fascinating parallels and makes an important contribution to understanding the unifying elements of the concept of nature in early German Romanticism, but underplays some important divergences and tensions in how to think of the absolute as an idea.
One of the most enlightening contributions of the book is to demonstrate the crucial influence of Goethe on these thinkers. Nassar persuasively argues that transformative moments in the development of Novalis and Schelling emerged from their encounter with Goethe’s work as a natural scientist. In particular, there are two themes in Romantic philosophy that she traces back to Goethe’s influence: the need to investigate nature in a less speculative and more experimental fashion, and the conception of nature as a self-generating, organic process of metamorphosis. In a sense, both being and knowing in Nassar’s account can be distilled into these two points of contact with Goethe: she sees the notion of natural metamorphosis in Goethe as the model for Romantic ontology, and she considers Romantic epistemology from a more empirical and less transcendental point of view. However, the weight that she attributes to Goethe points to a problem: while Goethe clearly had a great influence on Romantic philosophy, he also failed to enter into dialogue with it, as witnessed by his disdainful statements about the “sickliness” of everything Romantic. This leads to the question of whether there are not valuable and innovative themes in Romantic philosophy that cannot be distilled down into Goethe’s conception of nature; this question would perhaps lead to a more nuanced, tension-filled conception of the absolute.
A distinctive feature of Nassar’s reading is the emphasis on empirical themes: she argues that the Romantic philosophy of nature is not purely speculative, but also has a place for natural experimentation, which she argues through letters and biographical texts. However, the Romantic emphasis on natural observation is not so straightforward and involves a deep paradox that would need further explanation. Nassar comes closest to this paradox when she writes on Schelling’s notion of the experiment: that the experiment is merely a way of proving a priori truths (206). In addition, it would be helpful to consider texts by Novalis that seem to develop a deeply paradoxical and even mystical conception of what it means to perform an experiment on nature: the experiment is teaching nature to observe itself.
The work avoids or underplays those well-known texts in Schlegel that consider the absolute as fundamentally problematic, that is, as something that eludes our grasp and exceeds our powers of tangible knowledge. Nassar generally favors interpreting the absolute as a constitutive idea, in the manner of Schelling, rather than as regulative idea: she understands the absolute as a given, non-objective, holistic unity of which we are part, an organic force that underlies alteration and generates antagonisms and opposition out of its need to display itself. However much the Romantics (Novalis and Schlegel) shared such an organic idea of natural development with Schelling, and even used it as a way of thinking about historical development (as Nassar persuasively demonstrates), they also thought of the absolute in a somewhat skeptical way—that is, as a whole that could never be given in experience in a definite way. There are many passages in which they speak of their idea of nature as not yet existing, and relate this not yet existing, ideal nature to the...