- Refusing Disenchantment:Romanticism, Criticism, Philosophy
Aremarkable revival of interest in Romanticism has taken place among some philosophers in recent years. Why should this be so? Romanticism has had a bad reputation among literary critics of a variety of persuasions throughout most of the twentieth century, when it was not even a topic for analytical philosophy in the English-speaking world. The philosophical movement most associated with Romanticism—German idealism—had been shunned by the curricula of a majority of the most prestigious British and American universities by the mid-twentieth century. Literary modernism and then various strains of postmodernism had a self-image of having overcome Romantic illusions. (Of course, Romanticism and Romantic philosophy continued to have a place in so-called “continental” philosophy, but generally that place was in a narrative of what had been overcome.) Richard Eldridge puts it thusly: “It is no news that Romanticism has had a bad press throughout much of the twentieth century, rising to a chorus of vilification in the past fifteen or so years. Romantic works are thought to suffer from overweening sentimentality and to retell a stale plot that is at best trivial and at worst a sham that distracts attention from the real forces that shape most human lives.”1 [End Page 549]
Nikolas Kompridis writes:
For much of the twentieth century, responding with modernist condescension to anything that emitted even the slightest whiff of romanticism was de rigueur. After all, romanticism was so nineteenth century, an artistically spent cultural force whose obsolete remains have been drained of vitality and meaning. To succumb to any warmed-over romantic impulses was to risk producing kitsch, or to make common cause with the forces of cultural conservatism, or to participate in the ideological distortion of reality.2
However, Kompridis goes on to note what he calls a “resurgent interest in romanticism” among philosophers, including Stanley Cavell, Charles Taylor, Richard Rorty, Dieter Henrich, Manfred Frank, Eldridge, and others—and, of course, his own name could be added to that list. In this brief paper I want to hazard a possible (partial) explanation for the renewed interest in Romantic thinking, even though that renewal might be a minority phenomenon in the world of English and American philosophy today.
All of the big terms of intellectual history—such as “Renaissance,” “Enlightenment,” “Modernism”—cover large and diverse periods of intellectual and cultural transformation. Often the differences between and among the artists and thinkers within a particular period are of the most interest to us. And yet the use of these terms may be justified by a cultural and ideological matrix of assumptions and concerns within which the thinking and art making of these periods operated. This doesn’t mean that we need search for a definition of “Romanticism.” Surely Friedrich Nietzsche was right when he wrote that “all concepts in which an entire process is semiotically concentrated elude definition; only that which has no history is definable.”3 Still, it would be worth considering a number of different approaches to characterizing the setting that is Romanticism.
Sometimes the attempt is simply chronological, attaching the term “Romanticism” to the work of painters, musicians, poets, and the criticism and philosophy that accompanied them, from sometime in the 1790s (with perhaps some precursor moments) to about 1830. Richard Holmes writes, “I have freely used the term with its modern, critical implications (disputed of course) to denote that new element of imaginative power [End Page 550] and intensity of self-expression which we now associate with the period of political and cultural revolution throughout Europe between 1780 and 1830.”4 A more precise version of this occurred in the English literature curriculum, in which Romanticism was essentially identified with the work of six “major” poets—Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats (although Blake was always the odd man out in this grouping)—along with the work of a few minor figures. This characterization by enumeration has the advantage of precision but the disadvantage of failing to show why we should group together these poets who are so different from one another.
Of course, this enumerative conception itself had been threatened in the general attack on...