- British Romanticism and the Critique of Political Reason by Timothy Michael
Does reason actually have much of a role to play in politics? Perhaps every generation asks a version of this question, but it is a particularly potent preoccupation of the Romantic age, according to Timothy Michael in his impressive British Romanticism and the Critique of Political Reason. Michael argues that the writers of this era engaged in a wide-ranging debate about what he terms ‘the conditions of “political knowledge”’: the idea, associated with the Enlightenment, that the brutality and chaos of politics was nonetheless comprehensible and could be countered by the assertion of human reason. Michael demonstrates that the concept of ‘political knowledge’ was a recurring theme throughout the eighteenth century, but given new significance by two major developments: the publication of Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason (1781); and the French Revolution.
In this context, the philosophical and political interfused: radicals argued their vision of an ideal society was based on a priori ideals of justice and liberty; whereas conservatives rejected the claim that political judgements could be made independently from experience, instead insisting that all such ideas were conditioned by history and tradition. Michael argues that the concept of political knowledge became central to the 1790s ‘Pamphlet Wars’: Burke asserted that the very idea was unintelligible, while Wollstonecraft and Godwin insisted upon its actualisation. In the context of this opposition, mid-period Coleridge and Wordsworth emerge not as turncoats to the radical cause, rather they occupy ‘middle positions […] synthesising elements of Godwin and Burke […] sensitive to both the promise of political reason and to the dangers it poses’. Coleridge conceives poetry to offer a more compelling form of freedom than politics, enabling the mind to recognise its own organisation and thereby more fully realise its potential. Wordsworth likewise turns to poetry, envisioning it as an empirical testing-ground for political and moral judgements, in which ‘[literary] pleasure is the condition of knowledge’ allowing the mind to achieve a genuine freedom perhaps unavailable in social reality. Shelley responded by reaffirming the role of reason in politics, developing the positions taken by Wollstonecraft and Shelley by aligning the structure of human thought with the history of social and political institutions.
Michael’s insistence on the interconnections between philosophy and politics enables us to examine familiar ideas about Romanticism from a fresh vantage-point. Far from a simplistic rejection of cold rationalism, Michael argues that ‘the defense of the imagination in the Romantic period is simultaneously a critique or a vindication of particular forms of reason’, pointing for example to Wordsworth’s invocation of imagination as ‘reason in her most exalted mood’ (1805 Prelude, Book XIII, line 170). Crucially, while the Romantic fascination with the complexities of the human mind is often regarded as a withdrawal from politics, according to Michael, ‘[t]he essence of the Romantic turn to the mind consists rather in establishing the subjective conditions of objective freedom’. Michael’s argument also involves drawing fresh attention to underappreciated texts. Michael rescues Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790) from the shadow of A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1791) and the author’s biography, describing it as ‘one of the most important contributions to late enlightenment political epistemology’. And he lauds Shelley’s A Philosophical View of Reform (composed 1819–20) as ‘a virtuosic history of “political knowledge”’ that provides the intellectual foundation for Prometheus Unbound (1820). [End Page 86]
However, Michael’s entreaty to place the question of reason at the centre of discussions of Romanticism can prove as problematic as it is thought-provoking. He observes that ‘Romantic studies has, for the past three decades or so, been keen on subverting the “Kantian/Coleridgean” version of Romanticism’. Yet it hardly seems necessary to point out this critical reappraisal stems less from suspicion of Kant as the ‘dubious importation of a foreign philosophic tradition’ and more from the realisation that the view of Romanticism as a complex philosophical conversation...