publisher colophon
  • The Crisis of Subjectivity:The Significance of Darstellung and Freedom in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman”

E. T. A. Hoffmann’s work has been largely unrecognized in philosophy. The aim of this essay is to correct this oversight by an examination of his presentation of subjectivity in “The Sandman.” The presentation of the subject reached a point of crisis with Kant and thus became the central question for German Romanticism. This crisis prompted a “will to system” first taken up in “The Earliest System Program of German Idealism,” in which the spirit of philosophy is captured through literary depiction. I argue that a possible resolution to this crisis is presented in “The Sandman,” therefore establishing Hoffmann’s philosophic interest.


In the latter part of the eigthteenth century, philosophers faced a problem with respect to moral freedom. They were concerned not only with an account of how one could be free in the Newtonian system of nature but also with how it might be possible to represent that freedom. The imagination provided an answer. The imagination, thought to have limitless potential through aesthetic experiences and judgments, provided the bridge between our abstract, intellectual understanding of the world and the conditions of our morality. In constructing a system of knowledge, the possibility of moral freedom set the rational limit to our abstract, intellectual understanding of the world.1 For Immanuel [End Page 44] Kant, this possibility of moral freedom as a rational limit is represented in the following passage from the second Critique: a “human being would be a puppet, or a Vaucansonian automaton built and wound up by the supreme master of all artificial devices; and although self-consciousness would turn the automaton into a thinking one, yet the automaton’s consciousness of its spontaneity, if regarded as freedom, would be mere delusion, because this spontaneity deserves to be called freedom only comparatively.”2

The free play of the imagination, then, snipped the strings of the human as marionette and gave rise to the idea of the genius who could transcend the rational limit of knowledge (CPrR, p. 205). Since ideas cannot be presented directly in sensible form, it is the work of art as a representation (Darstellung) of the imagination that presents the idea as an aesthetic idea. A work of art is beautiful, then, because it leaves room for the freedom of the imagination and seeks to approximate a representation of the concepts of reason.

Yet a problem remained with Kant’s solution. In his quest for a comprehensive theory of knowledge, Kant bequeathed a troubling paradox to his successors, namely, the German Idealists and the German Romantics: the subject, as the groundwork for this system, must necessarily be posited for the system to be complete, yet cannot be represented within that very system, thus preventing completeness. Stated differently, in order to provide a totality of knowledge (more geometrico) as a philosophic system, the subject is necessarily absent, guaranteed by an original intuition (intuitus originarias). But to avoid lapsing back into metaphysics, the transcendental imagination cannot be a substance, and so must be presented. Yet, to establish the subject as presented (Darstellung) would inevitably end in a self-reflexive contradiction.

This paradox, the unrepresentable subject, formed a sort of “crisis of subjectivity” out of which the German Romantics are born. Their task, then, was to try to provide an answer to this crisis: an absolutely free subject who, as a “genius,” posits a “will to system” through literary art. If “man” does not have absolute freedom, then “he” is seen as a “manipulated puppet who dances to the pull of strings he neither sees nor can begin to understand.”3 A possible answer to this crisis of subjectivity, I believe, can be found in the aesthetic idea as literary idea, and I argue that this answer can be found specifically in the work of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman.”

The name E. T. A. Hoffmann, though, may draw blank stares from most philosophers. If I am right in my proposal, this ought to change. [End Page 45] I am joined in this suggestion at least by Leonard Kent and Elizabeth Knight, who, in their introduction to the Tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann, claim that “above all, Hoffmann’s fictional world is worth knowing because in it is to be found his complex vision of humanity, of man engaged in an archetypal struggle to establish identity in a hostile, absurd, and remarkably modern world” (TH, p. xxxix). Hoffmann’s obscurity cannot be attributed solely to the fact that Hoffmann is a literary author, because upon mentioning the names of Novalis or Hölderlin, one finds not blank stares but recognition among philosophers, because their work has been established as having philosophical merit.

The aim of this paper, then, is to remedy this oversight in Hoffmann’s case by establishing, in a provisional way at least, the philosophic interest of his work, namely, his presentation of subjectivity. To accomplish this goal, I first review how the work of Kant situates him not as the doctrinaire “father” of German Romanticism, but as its “father” by crisis. Second, I turn to “The Earliest System Program of German Idealism” in order to assess the philosophic specification of German Romanticism within the larger movement of German Idealism. Finally, I examine Hoffmann’s short story “The Sandman” to grasp its depiction of human subjectivity, which is its philosophic interest.


Since Kant is the “father” of Romanticism by crisis, I am going to trace his development of the subject briefly through his three critiques to see where he left the Romantics. Here, I will provide an overview of the development of this crisis through Kant’s three critiques and then, because this matter is complex, situate this problem for the German Romantics.

In the first Critique, Kant aims to establish how a priori synthetic knowledge of mathematics and science is possible for human cognition, and why metaphysical questions cannot be answered, but arise spontaneously nonetheless. In the case of mathematics, space and time (as the two forms of sensibility) roughly account for the a priori synthetic knowledge of geometry and arithmetic respectively. Alternatively, pure concepts of understanding (the categories) establish the possibility of science. But Kant, of course, is not concerned only to make this distinction between mathematics and science. Kant’s concern, rather, is with the science of the rules of sensibility in general (treated under the transcendental aesthetic), as opposed to the science of the rules of the [End Page 46] understanding in general (treated under transcendental logic). If one follows Kant’s reasoning through transcendental logic, one observes that the transcendental logic itself may be subdivided into two portions that concern the rules of the understanding in general: (1) a transcendental analytic, which dissects (analyzes) all our a priori knowledge into the elements that pure understanding itself yields, and (2) a transcendental dialectic, which concerns concepts for which there cannot be any intuition given. Kant’s argument branches into three sections within (1) the transcendental analytic: the analytic of concepts, the analytic of principles, and the transcendental deduction. The section entitled “Transcendental Deduction” is our concern here.

In the transcendental deduction, Kant establishes the subject as the synthesizing unity of consciousness through which experience and knowledge are objectively realized. By “deduction,” Kant means the demonstration of right or legal claim (quid juris) something has.4 In the transcendental deduction, then, he is interested in establishing the right of human cognition to apply the categories to the sensory manifold (space and time). This application is transcendental because it applies to the pure forms of space and time. In brief, his argument establishes the necessity of the synthesizing unity of consciousness for perceiving and thinking. It must be “possible for the ‘I think’ to accompany all my representations,” he argues, “for otherwise something would be represented in me which could not be thought at all, and that is equivalent to saying that the representation would be impossible” (CPR, p. 153). In simpler terms, my experience is not random but occurs in space and time, and has such relations as cause and effect (a category). This means that my cognition synthesizes these aspects, but none of these aspects would really be synthesized unless they happened in my, one consciousness. I am what is added (ad-perceived) to every cognition in such a way. It is the “I” who synthesizes all cognitions and thus earns the name of transcendental unity of apperception. It is through the connection of the manifold to the one self-consciousness, then, that objective experience and knowledge are realized (CPR, p. 160, B144).

But what determines how the categories are applied? Kant’s answer requires the role of the transcendental imagination (Einbildungskraft). The transcendental imagination is the power (Kraft) that relates both to the manifold, which is sensible, and to the categories, which are thought, in such a way that it forms (bilden) their relation to the one (Ein). And it does so regularly because it follows rules called schemata. More specifically, a schema is, in general, a rule for the production of [End Page 47] images that schematize a category, thus permitting its application to appearances. It represents a general procedure for the making of images. Unfortunately, Kant runs into a self-reflexive problem concerning the subject, because the subject is unrepresentable to itself on account of being the transcendental imagination. Although it is presented in terms of its synthetic function, the subject still remains insubstantial, and this point forces Kant to posit a new form of the subject in his second Critique.

In the second Critique, the condition for the subject remains unresolved when Kant posits the subject as freedom. That freedom cannot be proved was established in the transcendental dialectic of the first Critique, but Kant argues that it is not a logical contradiction to think that we are noumenally free. In order for us to act morally (i.e., to act from pure duty), however, it is practically necessary for us to conceive of ourselves as free; for we know that the will of a rational being cannot be a will of its own unless it acts under the idea of freedom. Thus, our assumption of freedom is necessary for us to be moral and requires that we regard ourselves as belonging to two worlds: the phenomenal and the noumenal. If we are tied solely to the world of sense, the phenomenal, we are determined by natural laws. Likewise, if we are tied solely to the world of the intelligible, the noumenal, we are then subject to God’s awful majesty, so that “most of the actions that conformed to the law would be done from fear, a few only from hope, and none at all from duty” (CPrR, p. 176).

In this case, Kant writes, a human’s conduct “would thus be changed into mere mechanism, in which, as in a puppet show, everything would gesticulate well but there would be no life in the figures.” Hence, it is necessary for Kant that we be tied by ignorance to both worlds, in order to act as we ought. Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy make an illuminating point on this score. This state of the subject as freedom, they note, does not suggest that “there is any cognition—or even consciousness—of freedom, for freedom in turn is posited only as ratio essendi of the moral law within us, which, because it is only a fact, can provide only a ratio cognoscendi of freedom, which produces no cognition.”5 Thus, even as a moral subject, the substance of subjectivity cannot be recovered, except in its operation, which forces Kant’s final attempt at a correction in the third Critique.

In the final Critique, Kant aims to provide a solution to his insubstantial subject through his theory of judgment by attempting to make “possible the transition from the domain of the concept of Nature to that of the concept of freedom.”6 To bridge his first two critiques, then, [End Page 48] Kant develops a theory of judgment, which has two forms: as determinate, which subsumes the particular under a rule, and as reflective, in which only the particular is given and the role of judgment is to find the universal. The second, reflective judgment unites the two domains because it enables us to think of Nature as not entirely alien, but as beautiful. This reflective judgment is an aesthetic judgment of taste. Additionally, the purposiveness of Nature, which finds expression in teleological judgments, enables us to conceive the possibility of actualizing the ends of nature in harmony with its laws.

It is by the reflective judgment of taste that Kant proposes a twofold solution to the insubstantial subject. First, Kant proposes that the subject, in its synthetic function, is reflected in reflexive judgment. For the judgment of taste, as the play of imagination, brings about the unity of the subject “insofar as the subject sees itself in the image (Bild) of something without either a concept or an end,” as Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy note (LA, pp. 31–32). Second, Kant envisages a resolution in the presentation (Darstellung) of the insubstantial “substance” of the subject by means of the beautiful in art, nature, and culture. Still, in the judgment of taste, reflection is a function of the synthesis of imagination in its pure state, thus producing no object. It only brings about the unity of the subject by the subject’s reflection in the image of something, but lacking either a concept or an end. Similarly, following Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, we can see how the presentation of the subject is delineated “by means of the beautiful in works of art, by means of the ‘formative power’ (bildende Kraft) of nature and life within nature, and finally by means of the Bildung of humanity” (LA, pp. 31–32). The difficulty here, however, is that the use of Bilden is, as Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy observe, merely an analogical characterization of Darstellung, and so is not yet a presentation of the subject. Thus, Kant fails to provide a solution for his unpresentable subject, and the Idea remains merely the “regulatory idea” or regulatory subject.

But why is the subject as unpresentable a problem? Because for Kant the absence of the subject guaranteed by an intuitus originarios as the first evidence to organize the totality of knowledge more geometrico means that the philosophic system that he so deeply desired is incomplete—it is lacking foundation precisely where it is most needed.7 Yet, to establish such an intuition would inevitably result in some self-reflexive contradiction. For example, think of the difficulty Kant later faced explaining auto-affection. [End Page 49]

Though Kant does not elaborate on the problem or even recognize it as one in §26 of the transcendental deduction in the B-deduction, one can understand why his statements have caused so much consternation for later commentators. One could put the problem (under one formulation) as follows: Kant’s epistemological project aims to undercut the claims of metaphysics and absorb their virtues into his critical philosophy. The transcendental imagination, therefore, cannot be a substance (or have other metaphysical properties), since it is what applies these categories to the sensory manifold. What is its ontological status, then? This question must be answered, because it is the very foundation of Kant’s system. Yet because of Kant’s epistemological aims, it is very difficult to do so without lapsing back into just the kind of metaphysics he was trying to avoid.

The problem, then, is a self-reflexive one, since it asks after the critical status of the foundation of Kant’s critical philosophy. Regardless of where the original intuition could be situated, whether in the beginning (arche), the end (telos), the divine, or the human, the insurance of the philosophical vanishes. For Romanticism, all that remains is an empty subject that accompanies its representations. Thus, German Idealism and German Romanticism alike are born out of this crisis.

But the crisis is not without a specification of this general concern. In bequeathing this crisis of insubstantial subjectivity, an abyss opens up between art and philosophy through the aesthetic presentation of the problem of reason in the third Critique, across which the Romantics must build a bridge to the other side. Freedom, we have seen, plays a key role for the subject because it lies in ignorance as a gap between Kant’s two forms of knowing, which would result in our determinism. Thus, to attack the question of freedom is to attack the question of the subject. The subject as a regulatory ideal, then, prompts a “will to system” to complete this hiatus of freedom for the German Idealists. The task, then, for the Romantics, one group of German Idealism, is to develop an answer to this crisis; the answer they choose is a system-subject as art—specifically literary art. So, to begin our quest in search of the Romantic understanding of humanity, it is necessary to examine the Romantic philosophy of the subject behind the “will to system,” and then to explore how this philosophy is properly depicted in literature. [End Page 50]


The essay that first attempts to bridge this hiatus of the subject is “The Earliest System Program.” The goal of the author, surmised to be Schelling, was to complete a system of all ideas, which would be a guideline for speculative idealism as an attempt to reconquer the possibility of effective speculation. The first proposition, he argues, is “the conception of my self as an absolutely free being.”8 From this proposition, an entire world is created out of nothingness alongside this free, self-conscious being. The system that contains the subject, envisaged in the name and form of a will, does not yet exist because it is the last work of humanity. Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy argue that it presupposes a conversion of the Kantian moral subject “into the ideal of a subject absolutely free and thereby conscious of itself” (LA, p. 33). In order to get around the Kantian dilemma, the author, unlike Kant, posits the absolute freedom of consciousness as a possibility of the system, which in turn affirms the self as self-consciousness.

This pivotal move for “systematic programming” turns the world into “a corollary of the subject,” Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy observe. The move differs from Kant’s because this world is now organized in terms of absolute freedom and morality. It is the “only true and conceivable creation out of nothingness,” but, he asks, “How should a world be constituted from a moral being?” (“SP,” p. 161). In other words, how should a world be constituted from the moral subject?

To answer this question, the author turns to various possible sources for moral humans. The author does not care for physics as a source for the moral, because he views it as lacking creative spirit; hence, he desires to expand this notion of physics through nature into metaphysics. The source as the state, too, is disagreeable to him because the state is too mechanical for free humans. Thus, the Idea earns the rightful place as the object of freedom and what constitutes the moral being. Furthermore, all ideas, from peace to goodness, are subordinated to the highest Idea: beauty. Taken in the Platonic sense, the idea of beauty unites all ideas. As a result, the author concludes that reason is an aesthetic act in which truth and goodness are united in beauty. Thus, the will to system as a metaphysical position reserved for the Idea of Beauty is called an aesthetic ontology. This system is formed by connecting all the mysteries in “the subject’s self-presentation of the true form of the world” (LA, p. 33). But what is this “system-subject” who “systematically programs”? [End Page 51]

To assume the status of the system-subject, it is first necessary to note that there is a basic need for (a) a sociality based in freedom and (b) a social metaphysics based in the subject. To be the system-subject (and to be consistent with the organism in Nature) it must be a living system, which is a system animated by the beautiful through the work of art. This Idea of the subject is constituted through a kind of “internal folding of ideality in general” in terms of beauty, resulting in beauty as the generality of the Idea (LA, pp. 34–35). This generality, taking place as depiction (Darstellung), sublates the opposition of the system to freedom in the idea of the beautiful. Therefore, if the idea in general is the presentation of the thing of which there is an idea, then the beautiful Idea is the “very ‘presentability’ of presentation” (LA, pp. 34–35). Philosophy, then, must complete itself in the work of art.9 Thus, the philosopher must accumulate as much power as the poet—note that this is particularly a literary art. That is why “the philosophy of spirit is an aesthetic philosophy,” a claim in “The Earliest System Program” that designates the very essence of the “system-subject” (“SP,” p. 162; LA, p. 34).

Since the philosophy of spirit is now tied to aesthetics, particularly in literature, as a literary depiction (Darstellung), we shall have to turn next to literature. Maria Tatar, in her commentary, gives some reason why we should think of Hoffmann for this goal when she writes: “of all the German Romantics, E. T. A. Hoffmann perhaps most successfully translated the theoretical pronouncements of his colleagues into literary practice.”10 Thus, we turn to Hoffmann’s short story “The Sandman” in order to see the unfolding of the philosophic understanding of the subject.


Like Kant and the System Program, Hoffmann asks what it means to be a subject. In “The Sandman,” Hoffmann introduces this question through the wooden automaton, Olympia, that Nathanael and others mistakenly believe is human. Her stiff and rigid motions, her perfect figure, her shrill singing, and her dull and lifeless eyes are all qualities that townspeople indicate to separate her from humanity. In particular, Siegmund asks Nathanael, “How is it possible for an intelligent fellow like you to have fallen for that wax-faced, wooden puppet across the way?” (Hoffmann, p. 117). Yet for Nathanael and others, her motions are awkward because she is nervous, or she has lifeless eyes because she is dull-witted. When Nathanael discovers that she is a wooden doll, [End Page 52] many of the townspeople begin to doubt their own beloveds as well. Lovers ask their beloveds to make mistakes, to play with puppies or knit, to think and express emotion—anything to assure them that they are human. Even the narrator makes an apology for the townspeople by repeating the tea party–goer’s question: why, for example, “would anyone have had his suspicions aroused by the fact that Olympia … had sneezed more often than she had yawned?” asks a tea party guest (Hoffmann, pp. 121–23). What is striking is that all of the characters point to particular acts or habits instead of an essence of what makes someone human. So the question we will pursue here is: what is this essence for Hoffmann?

To begin to answer this question, let us consider another aspect of automata. At the beginning, we have Nathanael’s letter recounting the time he was caught, as a child, spying on his father and Coppelius. He writes that Coppelius “seized me so violently that my joints cracked, unscrewed my hands and feet, then put them back now this way, then another way” (Hoffmann, p. 98). His description of the event parallels Spalanzini’s construction and destruction of Olympia in that she has removable parts. It is almost as if Nathanael is questioning his own humanness. This issue of the automaton arises again when Nathanael reads his horrific love poem to Klara, his fiancée. Instead of being appreciative, she tells him to “throw that mad, insane, stupid tale into the fire” (p. 110). He reacts in rage, crying, “You damned, lifeless automaton!” With such cavalier use of that image, one might begin to suspect that Nathanael is unsure of his own humanness.

Unlike Nathanael, though, Hoffmann is sure of humanness, and he shows this particularly in the role freedom plays in differentiating humans from puppets. When Nathanael asks Spalanzini for Olympia’s hand in marriage, Spalanzini says “he would allow his daughter to make a perfectly free choice” (Hoffmann, p. 119). This statement is, of course, ironic because Spalanzini knows that his “daughter” is a wooden doll that is incapable of making choices.11 Hoffmann also appears to be making an offhand criticism of Kant’s moral subject, who must act “as if” it is free, in a practical sense, in order to be moral; it appears that, for Hoffmann, only automata act “as if.” Furthermore, in one of his dark moods, Nathanael says, “Any man, although imagining himself to be free, [is] in fact only the horrible plaything of dark powers, which it [is] vain to resist.” Nathanael notes that it is “foolish to believe that man’s creative achievements in art and science [result] from the expression of free will; rather … the inspiration requisite for creation comes not [End Page 53] from within us but results from the influence of a higher principle” (Hoffmann, p. 107).

But what is this higher principle? When Nathanael reads the love poem he has just written for Klara, he is “stricken with fear and a wild horror and he [cries] out: ‘Whose horrible voice is that?’” (Hoffmann, p. 107). He then dismisses this unknown voice and praises himself for having written a very successful poem. These complaints and reactions from our hero not only reference a possible unconscious but also doubt the stable reality, or world, in which the story is set.

This problem of reality resurfaces in other places as well. In Nathanael’s slipping in and out of consciousness and in his encounters with the Coppelius/Coppola problem, for instance, one finds a prime example. After Nathanael has been manhandled by Coppelius, or the Sandman, in his father’s room as a child, Nathanael falls unconscious. Upon awakening he believes that a “somber destiny has really hung a murky veil over [his] life, which [he] will perhaps tear through only when [he] die[s]” (Hoffmann, p. 99). One year later, Coppelius returns to the house and stands before Nathanael “with fiery eyes, laughing at [him] malevolently.” Nathanael is hurried off to bed, but is unable to sleep due to his terror and then, hearing a loud explosion, rushes out of his room to witness the death of his father. He confronts Coppelius and then loses consciousness. This trauma is unearthed in the fateful meeting with the barometer dealer, Coppola.

The reader begins to question whether any of these run-ins with Coppelius are figments of Nathanael’s mind, or, in the least, exaggerations. Even the clear-thinking Klara tells Nathanael that Coppelius “will exist and work on you only so long as you believe in him; it is only your belief which gives him power” (Hoffmann, p. 107). As readers we agree with Klara when Nathanael struggles to keep the “ugly image of Coppelius” in his imagination and writing.

Yet reality changes again for Nathanael after paying for the spyglass. The wooden doll, Olympia, comes alive and Nathanael forgets Klara, falling in love with Olympia. At this point, Nathanael appears insane and one wonders whether everything takes place in his mind. But then, the narrator slips. When Nathanael is climbing the stairs to propose to Olympia, he overhears two people arguing. According to the narrator, “The voices causing this uproar belonged to Spalanzini and the abominable Coppelius” (Hoffmann, p. 119). Nathanael rushes in and sees the professor “grasping a female figure by the shoulders, the Italian Coppola had her by the feet, and they were twisting and tugging her [End Page 54] this way and that, contending furiously for possession of her.” With these lines the narrator reveals that Coppelius and Coppola are the same person. What is the significance? If Coppelius and Coppola are the same person, then Nathanael’s world is the narrator’s world. To sort out the problem of reality, then, we need to address the narrator’s role in this phantasmagoric tale.

As a system-subject, the narrator creates the world of this tale out of nothing. To recall, in order to get around the Kantian dilemma, the author of “The Earliest System Program” posits the absolute freedom of consciousness as a possibility of the system, and this absolute freedom affirms the self as self-conscious. Thus, instead of trying to move from the outside world to the subject, as Kant does, the author moves from the subject to the outside world: that is, the world is constituted as a corollary of the subject. This line of thought is present in the narrator’s actions. At the beginning, the narrator specifically fragments the story to tell the reader his difficulty in deciding how to start the narrative and states: “I tormented myself to devise a way to begin Nathanael’s story in a manner at once creative and stirring.” He tries in media res and once upon a time, and then decides to begin by quoting three letters.

The narrator presents himself as a living system within the story idea he has posited as an aesthetic act of a will to system. As a living system, he is a system-subject animated by the beauty of literary art. The narrator’s relation to his characters as a creator mirrors the relation of Spalanzini to Olympia. In his writing, the narrator describes Klara as he does Olympia: “Architects praised the perfect proportions of her figure,” and although “many chided Klara for being cold, without feeling, and unimaginative,” those who had a “conception of life [that] was clearer and deeper” knew she was intelligent and tenderhearted (Hoffmann, pp. 105–6). Olympia has a perfect wasplike figure and is cold and unimaginative, but to Nathanael, she is a “deep soul, in which [his] whole being is reflected” (Hoffmann, pp. 114–15). Klara and Nathanael, along with the other characters, are the narrator’s creation, just as Olympia is the creation of Spalanzini. And like Olympia, the other characters do not have freedom concerning their fates. Nathanael, as the poet, has already foreseen his end. Klara finds the marital bliss her personality requires. Spalanzini escapes and Coppelius vanishes as quickly as he appeared.

The only “character” whose fate is not decided, required, or fettered is the narrator’s, because it is his world. It is this creative power of the genius that gives freedom. Thus, in “The Sandman” the narrator is depicted (Darstellung) as the system-subject delineated in “The Earliest [End Page 55] System Program,” for the narrator alone functions as the subject who creates his own world out of nothing and is completely free.

While one could argue that at least one other person—Hoffmann himself—shares the same freedom as the narrator, Hoffmann is not represented in the story. Because the idea in general is the presentation of which there is an idea, the beautiful idea is the “presentability” of presentation witnessed in the narrator’s role as both within and outside the story he creates. This generality takes place as his depiction (Darstellung), or representation, of himself thrust into the story idea he has posited. With the representation or depiction of the narrator as a system-subject, then, German Romanticism finds a solution to Kant’s crisis.


The hiatus of the subject troubled Kant throughout his three Critiques. In his quest to establish a systematic account of knowledge, Kant relied upon the role of the subject as a linchpin. But by relying upon the subject to posit his theory, he established a paradox: the subject cannot be both presented in the inside and unrepresented outside this system. On the one hand, it cannot be represented within the system since it serves as the foundation for that system. On the other, by placing the subject outside the system, Kant cannot represent the very subject he posits. This paradox results in a crisis of subjectivity for Kant’s three Critiques, and it is this crisis that is bequeathed to the German Idealists and Romantics.

To respond to the crisis, “The Earliest System Program of German Idealism” set the general outline for the “will to system” embraced by Idealists and Romantics. E. T. A. Hoffmann, in particular, may be understood to contribute a solution to the crisis in “The Sandman.” Unlike Kant, Hoffmann depicts the system-subject (the narrator), by representing the subject in terms of freedom, which is not characterized by indeterminism but by creativity. In this way, Hoffmann earns his rightful place among the literary authors to be recognized by philosophy.

Let us return, then, to our initial question of freedom for moral beings and the role the aesthetic idea plays in providing a bridge between a complete system of knowledge and moral freedom. While the freedom given to us from the “moral law within” establishes the limits of reason alone, it is literary art, developed by the literary “genius,” that provides the solution to the self-reflexive contradictory relation between freedom and subjectivity. Thus, it is Hoffmann who solves the paradox of the [End Page 56] subject: by positing the narrator as a represented creator of a system, given to us by the imagination, who transcends the crisis facing the German Romantics. Rather than the mere puppetry found in spiritless determinism, it is the romantic imagination that gives us our freedom as moral beings.

Elizabeth Purcell
State University of New York, Cortland


1. See Ernst Behler, German Romantic Literary Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Marshall Brown, The Shape of German Romanticism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979); Jerry Day, Voegelin, Schelling, and the Philosophy of Historical Existence (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003); Shelley Frisch, The Lure of the Linguistic: Speculations on the Origin of Language in German Romanticism (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 2004); Henry Hatfield, Clashing Myths in German Literature: From Heine to Rilke (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974); John Shannon Hendrix, Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Spirit: From Plotinus to Schelling and Hegel (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005).

2. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Practical Reason, trans. T. K. Abbott (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1996), p. 128; hereafter abbreviated CPrR.

3. Leonard Kent and Elizabeth Knight, “Introduction,” in Tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann, ed. and trans. Leonard J. Kent and Elizabeth C. Knight (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), p. xvii; hereafter abbreviated TH; “The Sandman,” from the same volume, hereafter abbreviated Hoffmann. For comparison in the treatment of various poets and authors within German Romanticism for philosophic significance, see Glyn Tegai Hughes, Romantic German Literature (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1979); Bernadette Malinowski, “German Romantic Poetry in Theory and Practice: The Schlegel Brothers, Schelling, Tieck, Novalis, Eichendorff, Brentano, and Heine,” in The Camden House History of German Literature, vol. 8, ed. Dennis F. Mahoney (Rochester: Camden House, 2004), pp. 147–70; Alan Menhennet, The Romantic Movement (Totowa: Barnes and Noble Books, 1981); Brigitte Nerlich and David D. Clarke, “Mind, Meaning and Metaphor: The Philosophy and Psychology of Metaphor in 19th-Century Germany,” History of the Human Sciences 14 (2001): 39–61; Azade Seyhan, Representation and Its Discontents: The Critical Legacy of German Romanticism (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992); Elisabeth Stopp, German Romantics in Context: Selected Essays 1971–86 by Elisabeth Stopp, ed. Peter Hutchinson, Roger Paulin, and Judith Purver (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1992).

4. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. B116; hereafter abbreviated CPR. Quotations from The Critique of Pure Reason are from the B deduction.

5. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute, trans. Philip Barnard and Cheryl Lester (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), p. 31; hereafter abbreviated LA. [End Page 57]

6. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, trans. J. H. Bernard (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2000), p. 40; hereafter abbreviated CPJ.

7. This desire is indicated in his Opus posthumum.

8. Anonymous, “The Oldest Systematic Program of German Idealism,” in Philosophy of German Idealism, ed. Ernst Behler (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 1987), p. 161; hereafter abbreviated “SP.”

9. Schelling makes a similar claim that “the philosophy of art is the construction of the universe in the form of art.” Schelling seems to follow along the same line of thought as “The Earliest System Program,” in that he locates transcendental idealism in a philosophy of art. In The Philosophy of Art, art is rooted in the power of productive intuition, which is the tool of transcendental idealism. The ego has to produce, or re-create, the history of consciousness in a systematic manner through the productive intuition. Aesthetic intuition has the same power as the productive intuition, but differs in that its direction is outward instead of inward. It is only in the aesthetic intuition that the basic truth of the unity of the unconscious with the conscious, of the real with the ideal, is illuminated. See specifically Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, The Philosophy of Art, ed. and trans. Douglas W. Scott (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 103.

10. Maria Tatar, “E. T. A. Hoffmann’s ‘Der Sandmann’: Reflection and Romantic Irony,” MLN 95, no. 3 (1980): 585–608.

11. Tatar notes that the aim of Romantic irony is “to lead the reader to knowledge of this concealed meaning,” whether or not the protagonist or narrator is aware of it (596–97). This aim of Romantic irony appears to be present in Hoffmann’s portrayal of Nathanael. [End Page 58]

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.