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  • 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 the idea of a literary canon from critical and feminist theory in recent years, but it always contained a lacuna that was unrecognizable after the separation between the study of literature and philosophy in the twentieth century. If you were to look at the index of a book like Oskar Walzel’s German Romanticism, first published in English in 1932, you would find that the table of contents and index are filled with the names of philosophers: Herder, Schlegel, Schleiermacher, and Schelling are especially prominent. Naturally, figures like Tieck, Novalis, and Holderlin are also discussed at length, but the governing presupposition of the book is that they cannot be dealt with as though they were independent of the philosophers who had influenced them, directly and indirectly.5 If philosophy is that deeply implicated in literary Romanticism, one might expect that literary Romanticism should be of some interest to the English/American philosophical tradition in the twentieth century, as it has always been in the German tradition, but that was not the case.

A more judicious method of drawing out the thematic background and concerns of the Romantic poets and critics is that of M. H. Abrams in his classic study of Romantic criticism, The Mirror and the Lamp, first published in 1953. No one could complain that he neglects the philosophical background of the poets—indeed, his whole project is to show why they practiced a new kind of criticism, based on a new kind of literary theory, in order to be able to write their poetry. At the same time, Abrams is careful to emphasize the importance of the background of eighteenth-century aesthetic theories and the differences among Romantic thinkers and poets. He writes, “To generalize about a large and complex intellectual movement is almost inevitably to lay down convenient simplifications which must be qualified in the sequel.”6 With this caveat, he does go on to list a family of metaphors of the mind, of [End Page 551] principles of the expressive essence of poetry (hence, establishing the paradigmatic status for poetry of the lyric), and of ideas of the mind’s relationship to the world (or nature) that he finds to be characteristic of the transition to the Romantic era from its immediate predecessor.

Of course, even if this series of family resemblances did exist, there were variations among individual formulations that he is careful to note. Despite Abrams’s very useful characterization of Romantic themes, topics, and tropes, important aspects of the motivation for the changes he notes seem to be neglected. In his essay “English Romanticism: The Spirit of the Age,” we find the most detailed discussion of the political/ cultural background that may be most crucial for our understanding of Romanticism.7 Abrams emphasizes the 1790s, and the impact of the French Revolution, as the crucial locus of the flowering of English Romantic poetry. This interpretation was of course an old story at the time of Abrams’s retelling of it; indeed, in this essay he is most often trying to convey how the generation of Wordsworth and Coleridge was viewed by their contemporaries and by the next generation. Wordsworth gave his own account of the effect of the French Revolution and his feeling about the possibility of world-historical change in The Prelude, though that work was not published until 1850. Abrams writes of Blake, Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge (and inferentially of later Romantic poets, especially Shelley): “They were all centrally political and social poets. It is by a peculiar injustice that Romanticism is often described as a mode of escapism, an evasion . . . of the modern industrial and political world. The fact is that to a degree without parallel . . . these writers were obsessed with the realities of their era.”8

This claim of course must be reconcilable with Harold Bloom’s characterization that “Wordsworth’s Copernican revolution in poetry is marked by the evanescence of any subject but subjectivity, the loss of what a poem is ‘about.’”9 The reconciliation must involve the articulation of the great Romantic theme of the necessary symbiosis of self and world, but this symbiosis in turn must be understood against the background of Kant’s Copernican revolution, as Bloom’s reference assumes. This is not news to students of Romantic literature, but in the English/American world of philosophy not many were prepared to study Romantic literature as an alternative path out of Kant until relatively recently. For many of us, Stanley Cavell’s work on Thoreau and Emerson led the way toward an enlarged conception of what might count as a philosophical response to Kant. Cavell begins a later work on Romanticism by recounting how his writing of the final part of The Claim of Reason had been “deflected” [End Page 552] by “outbreaks of romantic texts.” “After completing the manuscript I would from time to time ask myself for some account of this interference. What is philosophy for me, or what has it begun showing itself to be, that it should call for, and call for these, romantic orientations or transgressions?”10

The Literary Absolute by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy was published in English in 1988, but a partial translation of their book published the same year in France included French translations of German texts from the journal Athenaeum. In their commentaries on these seminal texts of early Romanticism, Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy made the strongest claims possible for viewing the Kantian problematic as crucial for the emerging view of literature in these texts.

Romanticism is rigorously comprehensible (or even accessible) only on a philosophical basis, in its proper and in fact unique (in other words, entirely new) articulation with the philosophical. . . . Kant opens up the possibility of romanticism. . . . One must set out from this problematic of the subject unpresentable to itself and from this eradication of all substantialism in order to understand what romanticism will receive, not as a bequest but as its “own” most difficult and perhaps insoluble question.11

Various possible ways exist of presenting the position that they advance in this book. All of them involve thinking of Romantic thought as recasting the ideas of philosophy and literature and of their relationship to each other at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. In this recasting, the creative/constitutive power of the mind as necessarily linked to the world it encounters is given primacy (indeed, a primacy far beyond that accorded to it by Kant). Why is this so?

If we draw back from the large span of European history that is characterized by those large terms of historical generalization I have discussed, what is the major turning point? From the point of view of modernity, a very strong candidate would have to be the beginning of modernity itself. We need not attempt too great a precision at locating some particular moment as the beginning of modernity: the Protestant Reformation; revival of ancient skepticism; scientific revolution; and the Baconian, Cartesian, or Hobbesian reformulations of the foundations of philosophy have all been proposed and, of course, they are related to one another in complex and crucial ways.

In any case, a major shift took place in every aspect of European thought, technology, art, literature, philosophy, political organization, and economic practice over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. [End Page 553] One way to characterize an important thread of the change was the secularization of European culture. This does not mean the people in general, or intellectuals, or philosophers became unbelievers all at once. It does mean that the geography of belief was radically changed. Prior to this shift, the world was understood by almost all of Europe in what we would call religious terms. After this shift, religious belief had to accommodate itself to science—perhaps partially respecting it and partially rejecting it, perhaps reinterpreting it so that religion no longer made claims about the literal truth of some of its historical claims. Most of the movements of philosophy and religion over the next couple of centuries can be seen in light of this new understanding of humanity and the world. (We need to understand Jean-François Lyotard’s term “the post-modern condition” as indicating the time since the beginning of modernism, rather than as a time after modernism, and apply it, as he does, to thought that is much earlier than what literary theory has come to call postmodernism.)

Not surprisingly, the settlement worked out in Kantian critical philosophy was designed to reconcile a scientific understanding of the (phenomenal) world with the possibility of faith—faith in the human freedom necessary for morality, in the existence of God, and in the immortality of the soul. The historical instability of the Kantian settlement, I think, can be partly attributed to the unacceptability for many—philosophers and poets alike—of the limitations on knowledge of the self, the motif of the “subject unpresentable to itself” mentioned by Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy. A possibility that the scientific understanding of the world had seemed to open was that the world was really dead, that a reductive materialism might be the whole story of human existence and that, if it were, then every idea of meaning and significance would be undermined—all we could have would be a tale told by an idiot. Sometimes this possibility is called the disenchantment of the world. It is expressed most beautifully in Schiller’s poem “Die Gotter Griechenlands,” a stanza of which was set by Schubert in one of his most moving Lieder. The line “Schöne Welt—wo bist du? Wo bist du?” (Lovely world, where are you? Where are you?) captures the despair that the poem and Romanticism in general were attempting to dispel. (I’m, of course, not implying that this despair is a necessary consequence of modern science, but it seemed a possibility to figures as disparate as Goethe, Blake, and Coleridge.)

If we take this long-range characterization of modernity as correctly associating its beginning with the new, scientific knowledge of the world, then the second stage of this large (now four-plus centuries) movement [End Page 554] was the reaction against the prospect of disenchantment. Notice that this reaction was not generally conceived as a rejection of science. To take one representative figure, Coleridge had a lifelong fascination with science. (Indeed, Richard Holmes has published a book about the great Romantic poets’ interest in and connection to their contemporary science—something that was true also of the American heirs of Romanticism, Emerson and Thoreau.) They all rejected a reductive, materialistic interpretation of the new physics of the seventeenth century, which seemed to them to imply the death of nature.

The Romantic theme of the recognition of the animation of the world is part of an ongoing attempt to resist the disenchantment proffered by this scientism. Romanticism wanted what Stanley Cavell calls “texts of recovery”—recovery at both the individual and the social level.

The most crucial figure in the assessment of Romantic thought philosophically is Coleridge. He is the one of great English Romantic poets, who directly attempted to confront the philosophical issues of Romanticism in his critical writings and lectures. He was the one who actually read the post-Kantian German philosophers. He was the main channel through which the thought of German idealism and the thinkers of the early Romantic period, like Friedrich Schlegel, were introduced to the English-speaking world. Indeed, the publication of Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection, with a long explanatory introduction by James Marsh, president of the University of Vermont, introduced German idealism to the United States. This book influenced some radical Unitarian and ex-Unitarian ministers who, inspired by it, formed the core of what came to be the Transcendental Club. One of them said that Marsh’s essay was the Old Testament, and Emerson’s Nature the New Testament, of transcendentalism.

Almost all of Coleridge’s prose is directly concerned with what is obviously philosophy from any point of view—and yet Coleridge, despite his distinguished place in literary history separated from philosophy, has never had a place in the history of English/American philosophy (as Emerson and Thoreau have traditionally not had a place there). Was Coleridge a philosopher? Reasons not to think so abound. He never was able to write the philosophical treatise that he promised over the last twenty or twenty-five years of his life, no doubt at least partly due to his ongoing opium addiction. In terms of our modern conventions of the attribution of texts and ideas, he was a plagiarist of the texts of German philosophy that were so important to him. Still, Coleridge left his own stamp on the ideas he acquired from Schlegel and others. One [End Page 555] authoritative voice was raised on behalf of Coleridge in 1840, after his death, when John Stuart Mill published his two extended essays on recent philosophical history, taking as his representative figures Jeremy Bentham and Coleridge. Mill writes:

The influence of Coleridge, like that of Bentham, extends far beyond those who share in the peculiarities of his religious or philosophical creed. He has been the great awakener in this country of the spirit of philosophy, within the bounds of traditional opinions. . . . By Bentham, beyond all others, men have been led to ask themselves, in regard to any ancient or received opinions, Is it true? And by Coleridge, What is the meaning of it? . . . With Coleridge . . . the very fact that any doctrine had been believed by thoughtful men, and received by whole nations or generations of mankind, was part of the problem to be solved, was one of the phenomena to be accounted for. . . . The long duration of a belief, he thought, is at least proof of an adaptation in it to some portion or other of the human mind; and if, on digging down to the root, we do not find, as is generally the case, some truth, we shall find some natural want or requirement of human nature which the doctrine in question is fitted to satisfy, among which wants the instincts of selfishness and of credulity have a place, but by no means an exclusive one.12

Mill acknowledges that Coleridge was not the creator of his philosophical views, but he also acknowledges that he shaped them. “Coleridge has left on the system he inculcated, such traces of himself as cannot fail to be left by any mind of original powers . . . [but] although Coleridge is to Englishmen the type and the main source of that doctrine, he is the creator rather of the shape in which it has appeared among us than of the doctrine itself.”13 Of course, Coleridge conceived of himself as the philosopher in a symbiotic relationship with Wordsworth, the poet, just as he conceived of poetry and philosophy as in a symbiotic relationship, just as he conceived mind and world to be in a necessary symbiosis. Is this enough to make him a philosopher from our point of view? How can we answer this without being clearer about the relationship of philosophy and literature? Does this mean we won’t be able to answer it?

In conclusion, for my bit of speculative genealogy, I return to the issue of why Romanticism now? I think the correct answer is that we have never reached a post-Romantic moment in our intellectual history. Modernism and postmodernism in their twentieth-century artistic and cultural formations are continuing moments in Romanticism. The nineteenth-century figure who saw this the most clearly was Nietzsche [End Page 556] (despite his denunciations of Romanticism), and we still face the issue of what he called “nihilism”—how might we survive the disenchantment of the world.

Stanley Bates
Middlebury College


1. Richard Eldridge, The Persistence of Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 1.

2. Nikolas Kompridis, “Romanticism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature, ed. Richard Eldridge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 247.

3. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 1992), p. 516.

4. Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772–1804 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989), pp. xvi–xvii.

5. Oskar Walzel, German Romanticism (New York: Capricorn Books, 1966).

6. M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1958), p. 70.

7. M. H. Abrams, “English Romanticism: The Spirit of the Age,” in Romanticism and Consciousness: Essays in Criticism, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1970).

8. Abrams, “English Romanticism,” p. 101.

9. Harold Bloom, “The Internalization of Quest Romance,” in Bloom, Romanticism and Consciousness, p. 8.

10. Stanley Cavell, In Quest of the Ordinary: Line of Skepticism and Romanticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. ix.

11. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), pp. 29–30.

12. J. B. Schneewind, ed., Mill’s Essays on Literature and Society (New York: Collier Books, 1965), pp. 291–92.

13. Schneewind, Mill’s Essays, p. 294. [End Page 557]

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