- Irony and Idealism: Rereading Schlegel, Hegel, and Kierkegaard by Fred Rush
The founder of early German Romantic philosophy, Friedrich Schlegel, is a pivotal figure in the history of philosophy because of the way that he establishes many of the themes by which nineteenth-century continental thought separates itself from Kant. Yet our view of his depth and originality as a thinker has often been distorted by his proximity to Hegel, who propounded a highly polemical and reductive reading of Schlegel. One of the ways in which our view of Schlegel is distorted by Hegel's reading is our association of Schlegel with the stance of irony. While Schlegel considered irony as merely one of several fruitful ways to rethink the relation of the subject to the absolute, Hegel used a reductive reading of this notion of irony to dismiss Schlegel as an immoral and unserious figure with no binding positions or methods.
Fred Rush's study, Irony and Idealism, seeks to challenge the subordinate and lesser position of Schlegel within nineteenth-century thought, first by developing a reading of Schlegel as the key, founding figure in German Romanticism, and then by advancing from this reading, first to challenge the methodological primacy of Hegel as a dialectical thinker, and second to trace the Schlegelian provenance of certain themes in Kierkegaard's philosophy.
In the first main chapter, Rush constructs an argument to emphasize the originality and centrality of Schlegel as the key, founding figure in Jena Romanticism (rather than Novalis). Within the burgeoning field of Romanticism studies, this is hardly a claim that needs to be made, as most accounts already acknowledge Schlegel's founding status. (Indeed, Rush struggles to produce a single example of a scholar who would disagree with him.) The chapter demonstrates that irony is by no means the central figure in Schlegel's rich methodological vocabulary, and places more emphasis on Schlegel's use of the term Wechselerweis (reciprocal proof) and his notion that all experience is founded on regulative ideals. Schlegel challenges us to think of experience as guided by an absolute that is never given in experience and that does not and cannot exist as an object or event. Rush coins the term 'global regulativity' to describe Schlegel's epistemic method. This reading seems well suited to get us beyond a simplistic understanding of Romantic irony as an unserious, uncommitted or relativistic attitude, although it raises the question why subsequent chapters make irony into the central term of comparison.
Although I agree with many of Rush's conclusions about Schlegel, his style of exegesis makes it hard to reconstruct his reading because he seldom uses Schlegel's primary texts to advance his argument. Schlegel writes in a manner that is by turns fragmentary, provocative, fascinating, self-reflexive, enigmatic and confusing. First time students as well as seasoned scholars of Schlegel need help in unpacking the primary texts and seeing how they connect. Rush rarely cites key texts at crucial phases in his argument, and engages in heavy paraphrase, often using neologisms. At many points in Rush's argument, I found myself asking: what is his evidence for that reading? What phase of Schlegel's complex development would support that interpretation? [End Page 741]
The chapter on Hegel takes a bold line in reversing the customary order between Schlegel and Hegel: it works back from Hegel's well-known critique of Schlegel to develop an account that emphasizes the parallels between Hegel's dialectical method and Schlegel's irony; and then it argues that when we see the two positions in such close proximity, Schlegel has a methodological advantage. Rush argues that both irony and Hegel's dialectics involve a stance of immersing oneself in a shifting intellectual content while also maintaining a sense of distance and detachment as contradictions reveal themselves. But whereas Hegel's method allegedly involves working towards a final standpoint of closure, Schlegel makes his ironic stance into a regulative ideal that can never be achieved. In Rush's account, Schlegel's stance seems to involve greater...