Partly in response to the radical Enlightenment, in what some have called the ‘Counter-enlightenment’, Romanticism developed from the second half of the 18th century, with mostly German philosophers, but with Rousseau as an important instigator. In the notion of romanticism, as a style and vision of life, much, perhaps too much, is thrown together. In an attempt to create some order in this I propose a conceptual differentiation between four aspects of romanticism: the romanticism of individualization, of transcendence, of unification and of feeling. These four aspects of romanticism can in various ways go together.
In the romanticism of individualization, partly in reaction to the universalism of the radical Enlightenment, the individual strives for selfhood, in self-expression, development of the self, the creative self, the transgression, breaking or shift of boundaries, making oneself free from the coercion of rules and conventions, in anarchy, heroism, in an intrepid self-consciousness, in the fullness of life. The self is an adventurer, or conqueror, and genius is glorified.
On a national level there is the striving for the nation’s own distinctive identity, with its own spirit (‘Volksgeist’), with its unique culture, in religion, morality, habits, mythology, symbolism, art, etc. and their roots in ‘blood and soil’. The paradox of that is that the individuality of national spirit and nationalism overpower the individualization of the individual. The individual is subordinate to the collective of the nation.
In the romanticism of transcendence one looks for transcendence of the self and the world, groping for the sublime, the infinite, the eternal. There is nostalgia for the religious. Platonism is romantic in this sense.
In the romanticism of unification one wants to belong to a large whole, to be absorbed in something greater than the self. In the Enlightenment it was found in the whole of humanity. Romanticism found it in the nation, as an organic whole, united in national spirit, in which the individual is rooted. The human being does not make its society but is made by it.
In the romanticism of feeling one seeks an escape from the chains of reason, again partly in opposition to the radical Enlightenment. Rapture and ‘truths of the heart’ replace or qualify reason and empirical evidence, and revelation replaces truth. Especially here, the influence of Rousseau is evident. One reaches for a vitality that is opposed to rationality, imagination as opposed to knowledge, poetry as opposed to philosophy, feeling as opposed to reason, spontaneity as opposed to deliberation, passion as opposed to prudence, myth as opposed to logic, body as opposed to mind, nature as opposed to culture. One wants to say the ineffable. Here we see a striving for fantasy, surprise, passion, mystery, and also the dark, and a fascination with death.
The orientation towards change, growth and transcendence of the self, in a way out from nihilism, which I plead in this blog, may perhaps be called romantic in the first sense of romanticism, moving across or shifting boundaries to the self.