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  • Die schöne Seele als Denkfigur: Zur Semantik von Gewissen und Geschmack bei Rousseau, Wieland, Schiller, Goethe by Marie Wokalek
  • May Mergenthaler
Marie Wokalek.Die schöne Seele als Denkfigur: Zur Semantik von Gewissen und Geschmack bei Rousseau, Wieland, Schiller, Goethe. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2011. 400 pp. 49.90 (Hardcover). ISBN 978-3-83530-924-1.

Marie Wokalek’s first book, which is the published version of her dissertation, advised by Peter-André Alt, has the paradoxical goals of “conceptualizing that which eludes concepts and of systematizing the unsystematic,” the “beautiful soul,” without reducing it to “buzzwords like ‘ideal of femininity’ (Weiblichkeitsideal) or ‘ideal of education’ (Bildungsideal)” (357). As her main scholarly opponents and alleged users of these “buzzwords” (Schlagwörter), who help motivate her intended correction and extension of the history of literature and ideas, Wokalek cites the recent studies on the beautiful soul by Robert E. Norton and Ralph Konersmann (the latter is, in other instances, also cited in support of the author’s argument) as well as feminist critiques of the figure (i.e., Ebrecht, Berger, and Stephan; 16–21). [End Page 251]

At first sight, Wokalek’s approach presupposes the early Enlightenment’s scientific ideal against which proponents of the beautiful soul were reacting in the name of “intuition” and “emotion” (370). Yet, the author seeks to employ concepts and develop systems that can capture the non-conceptual character of her subject, terming it convincingly, if with little justification, a “figure of thought” (31) or, with Cassirer and insufficiently explained, a “symbolic form” (27). Moreover, she ascribes to this figure or “trope” three “heuristically” distinguishable but in reality “reciprocally related” or even “overlapping” functions of “effect, representation, and expression” (Wirkung, Darstellung, Ausdruck) (25– 26). For each function of the beautiful soul, the author proposes a corresponding thesis. She believes that the figure was developed as a solution to the interconnected political/social, epistemological, and aesthetic challenges of the later 18th century—the beginning of what Reinhart Koselleck famously termed the “saddle time” (Sattelzeit, 1750–1850), a period of rapid modernization. Building on Luhmann, Wokalek describes these challenges as an internal differentiation of society and a transition of social structures from interaction to communication (37). More specifically, she mentions the growing insight into the “unreliable ‘nature’ of the human being,” the “erosion of the old metaphysical order” in the face of new scientific discoveries, the “destabilization of political absolutism,” and the “interest in the world-constituting powers of imagination,” leading to a critique of art as mimesis of an ideal (369). The author maintains that the beautiful soul was supposed to mediate, with the help of “conscience” (Gewissen) and “taste” (Geschmack), between the oppositions that disrupted, with unprecedented force, traditional ideals of truth, virtue, and beauty—oppositions between subject and object, self and norm, form and content, soul and rationality, among others (369).

Wokalek tests her theses by exploring four canonical examples—the theoretical discussions and literary, mostly novelistic, representations of the beautiful soul by Rousseau, Wieland, Goethe, and Schiller (of whose work only one poem is discussed). To each author, she devotes one chapter, divided into three sections about the ethical, epistemological, and aesthetic functions of the beautiful soul, respectively. Yet, just as Wokalek relativizes her insistence on clear concepts and systems by referring to Cassirer’s cultural philosophy and admitting the fuzzy nature of distinctions, with respect to the beautiful soul, she turns what may seem to be an overly rigid argumentative structure into a complex, detailed, and rich history. Consequently, it is impossible to do full justice to her argument in a review. I would like to approach Wokalek’s book from an angle that she herself suggests: her critique of accounts of the beautiful soul as a regressive ideal of education and femininity.

Wokalek aims to offer a more differentiated, historically sensitive, and accurate history of the beautiful soul by demonstrating how already the proponents of this figure of thought pointed to its ambivalent nature. The author locates this ambivalence, which she finds especially in novels (17), in the fragile balance that the beautiful soul strives to achieve. The soul is in danger of [End Page 252] loosing herself in selfish...


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