How Does Romanticism Fit in with the Rest of Philosophy?

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Romanticism’s main objective is to find the Absolute, which is thought of as a spiritual entity. In its basic approach it is that feelings and emotions are the key to the understanding of a thing (especially the Absolute). It values imagination and discounts reason. It wants to eject rules and conventional thinking. Passion might be its guiding principle. Reason is rejected as sterile and interfering with the goal of finding the Absolute. It wants to throw off all restraints and stresses the use of art as a tool for expressing the imagination. Nature is an important avenue in this movement. It has a high regard for the immediacy of feeling, which it sees as valuable in its quest for the Absolute.

Romanticism faces objections in that, while it pointed to the importance of nature, when approached with feelings it can give blurry pictures of it. It offered little in a consistent approach for gaining knowledge. It misses an adequate approach to causality. It also provides no way of categorization accept for experiencing a thing without being able to provide a guide to its substance. And, there is many ambiguities in their way of expression. Its experience is gain through art and feelings that are exclusively on the subjective side of things.

(The previous was my adaptation of the pdf version of The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. For access to it copy this link: stoa.usp.br/rdeangelo/files/-1/10954/Cambridge+Dictionary+of+Philosophy.pdf)

The romantic philosophers beginning in the eighteenth century sought to explore nature and the mind by the means of passion, which included feelings and emotions. There were also the romantic artists, writers, poets, and composers, who were approaching their craft in the same manner. They had a disdain for reason and analytic (critical thinking) and rejected modernism. Romanticism took off in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. Today, I think it is less popular.

Personally, I have never appreciated or liked (I would even lean toward despised) this type of philosophy. First, I find most of it gobbledygook (unintelligible) and/or expressing woo-woo-ness¹ (way out there). So, I must admit I have never made it (if tried at all) through any of these works, and I dislike most of the artwork from this school of art and practically none of the composers’ works of this period. I cannot say much on romantic poetry as I in general do not read much poetry, and practically none of the romantic school. The only exceptions is what might appear in the nonfiction works I read (e.g. philosophy, science, history, ect.).

Some romantic philosophers are Goethe and Coleridge (both poets too), Schiller, Schelling, Fichte, Carlyle and Schlegel. This, of course, is not a complete listing, only some that I recognized from a google search. Some of the artists which I heard of are Blake, Delacroix, Goya, and Gainsborough (I actually do like some of Romanticism’s artwork).

So, I dislike to despise Romantic philosophy. What kind of philosophy do I consider good? And, what do they have to do with Romanticism. There are many philosophies to look at and to decide on.

You could go backwards, way back, to the presocratic philosophers. The problem here was that they did not know much, and so had to make it up as they went along. Without giving names one liked water, one liked air, one liked change, and one liked all is one and no change at all. There is actually not a whole lot of the work by these philosophers presently accessible today. Mostly, we have just pieces here or there, or missing work quoted or commented on by later philosophers. So, much of their work is probably lost forever. I am not particularly impressed by this period and Romanticism seems minimal at best.

And then came Socrates. While he did not write himself, his ideas are brought forth by Plato (although was it Socrates speaking through Plato, or was it just Plato speaking about his own ideas through Socrates.). One must keep in mind that not all of Plato’s dialogues is Plato expressing Socrates’ ideas, but only his own. There were a few others that wrote about Socrates, but Plato handles the bulkwork of those relating what Socrates had to say. There are a collection of scholars that attempt to figure out when it was Socrates actually speaking in the dialogues. I only admire a few of his explorations, which he is quite skilled at. These explanations are know thyself, know that you do not know everything (he actually said nothing, so I adapt here), and the importance of asking questions when investigating a concept. The rest of it is not exactly spot on for me. Romanticism basically fails to insert itself in the Platonic dialogues, where emotions and feelings are severely discounted. So, once again romanticism does not seem so important in this period, and Plato was positively against it as far as I can see.

The next time period of philosophy in the West, which I wish to concentrated on, is called the Hellenistic period. The major movements in this period were Epicureanism and Stoicism, with some interest in Cynicism and Skepticism. Epicureanism combines an atomic view with living a life of pleasure. Pleasure here is more than just doing what you want and damning the consequences. Bad consequences work against pleasure. You eat too much and then suffer with an upset stomach, or you say an unkind remark that seems good, but later brings shame and guilt upon you, so that you must suffer the consequences because of what you said to others. Later on Lucretius (99 BC – c. 55 BC) wrote a long essay like poem idolizing Epicurism called On the Nature of Things. It is funny, but I could find it only in prose. Still, it is a valuable book for the understanding of this school of philosophy. While there is probably some romanticism in this type of philosophy it is mainly absent in Lucretius’ work

Stoicism is based on a recurring determinant universe where our life is fated to be what it will be (Que Sara Sara). Their goal is to live a life with a serene mind for whatever occurs. Stoicism had its luminaries including the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Epictetus was another, maybe its major theorist. Here Romanticism could add a dose enjoyment.

I do not think cynicism or Skepticism had as big of a following as the other two. The cynics disdained civil life, especially one of the founders, Diogenes. And, from what I read about the skeptics of this period (I really was not up on what their beliefs were) they were not like Pyrrho’s (before the Hellenistic period) and his populizer, Sextus Empiricus (during the Hellenistic period, also our main source of Pyrrho’s thoughts). Pyrrho thought that no theory was true or false because you could argue either way. He kind of reached a truce with perceptions; although, there were some others that saw them as not leading to something that could be trusted. I suppose cynicism (do what you want) had some or even quite a bit of romantic notions to it, while Skepticism was not all that friendly with it.

During the Hellenistic period Neoplatonist appeared, reached its heyday, and declined after the close of Plato’s academy (529 AD). The most famous of the works that came out of Neoplatonism was the Enneads by Plotinus. The main thrust of this movement was on the comptaplating of Plato’s ideal forms with the intended goal of reaching a mystical experience of the one. Seeing how it is based on Plato’s views I cannot see how Romanticism would be a strong component in it; although, some practitioners would have had some attraction to it. There were also several Christians who were attracted to it; I think partly because of it mystical components.

A decent website to get some understanding of Hellenistic types of philosophy is (https://www.utm.edu/staff/jfieser/class/110/3-hellenistic.htm). What I have written about this period might be different than what is stated at this website, since I wrote from my own understanding of it, but the website did look like it could be informative, and possibly add or subtract to some of what I have written here.

The Dark Ages began in the fourth or fifth centuries AD after the preeminent theologian Augustine died and the fall of Western Roman empire. He was mainly referred to because of his interpretations of Christianity. Certainly, Augustine was in love with god, so he was at least a bit of a romantic, but he was mainly discussed because of his interpretations of original sin and predestination in Christian theology.

In the long period of the Middle Ages philosophy and its cousin theology slowly began its climb to dominance. Alfred the Great was perhaps the first theologian of note, and he also brought the study of Aristotle onto the scene. The greatest of these Middle Age theologians was Saint Thomas of Aquinas, who manage to marry Aristotle to Christianity, except those parts that were in contradiction with Christian Doctrine. At these times he chose Church Doctrine over Aristotle. Little else of consequence occurred except a few mavericks in theology – Don Scotus and Anselm (who had an affair with a nun, Heloise). But, the most deviant works where those of Roger Bacon, who actually did experiments, not just worked with reason as the others of this period had done, and that of William of Ockham,* whose Nominalism, and not Realism (Plato’s version) was deemed the correct way of interpreting universals. Plato believed that ideas or forms had a perfect existence in another realm (a kind of heaven), which is were reality resided, not with the everyday world that our senses provided us. Nominalism claimed Realism was wrong along with the Platonic realm of reality. Instead, the ideas of things and concepts were convient holding places for the universals, which had no real existence other than in human minds. While some of Romanticism must have occurred to some of these philosophers, much of it was concentrated on rational thought, This type of thought has been labeled Scholasticism, which modern philosophy would leave on a respirator struggling for air.

Towards the very end of the Middle Ages a movement began to sprout and eventually would have a whole era of its own—the Renaissance. A number of famous artists, like Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, were working with the new rules of perspective proposed by Leon Battista Alberti. And, there was Dante who straddled both art and theology in his most famous work in poetic form, The Divine Comedy. Some important thinkers of this period were Machiavelli, Erasmus, and Mirandola. These last two greatly participate in the humanism movement, and the first was the first political writer to significantly exclude theology from his political works. The philosophers in this period were the first to challenge Scholasticism. I would say that the Renaissance period planted the seeds of Romanticism. The natural world was given some major input then. And, another important component to Romanticism is Humanism (in respect to human beings being the center of the universe), which got its start in this period. For the most part Humanism mainly focused on ancient texts, like Cicero’s, more for his latin style then for his content, unlike today’s secular humanists, who focuses on how to accomplish social goals or solve problems without the aid of religion.

As the Renaissance came to a close we enter the Early Modern period. Philosophers of note here were Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Voltaire, and Mills (both father and son). These mostly turned back to rationalism; although, Berkeley was an idealist, and feelings figure into Hume’s morality. At this time the Enlightenment came on the scene. It was similar to a scientific outlook, looking for evidence and rational arguments for things and arose after the scientific revolution, started by Copernicus. It was kicked off by the French Philosophes; Diderot seemed like a leader in this group, who edited with help a multi-volume encyclopedia.

But, hold on. Here comes Idealism and in its train Romanticism. I think Kant started it of with the statement that “one cannot know a thing in itself.” However, how ever hard it was to understand(?) him, he wrote with much rationality. But, then there is Hegel; he might not have been the first of the idealists, but perhaps he became the most famous. He had a monist take on the world—it was all mind (or spirit). It seems unlikely that artists and poets would have gotten much from him because he wrote in gobbledygook. The reverse situation of Romanticism influencing Idealism might be more likely. I also admit I have never been attracted to Idealism or Romanticism (already mentioned).

After idealism started to petered out, early in the twentieth century we come firmly into the period of Modern philosophy; although, there are some Idealaists that are still around, most would shift mostly to Postmodernism and its cousins. Postmodernism devalued truth, rationality, and science. Their writings tended toward gobbledygook and/or woo-woo-ness. They abandoned the standard types of definitions for truth, replacing it with whatever individuals or groups thought—magic—think and it is true. Derrida’s deconstructionism evicted the writer from the written text and twisted the word meaning and the writer’s intention. Without some stability in word meaning they are hardly helpful to Romanticism, but some must have tried to bend toward it. I would not suggest reading any of these postmodernist, but that is just my own truth.

Another difficult to follow philosophy is Existentialism. Just try reading Heidegger, Sartre,  or Camus. The last two also wrote works of fiction, but I have never read any of it. Mainly, because I do not read fiction, and when I do I would not choose to read their works. Existentialism’s basic notions are fear of death or the discontinuity of life, and because of this the world somehow winds up meaningless, so they live in dread trying to find meaning, knowing all the time that it does not matter because they are going to die anyway. As for any connection with Romanticism it is hard to see its importance within the existentialists’ world, but Romanticism is also about feelings, and they have at least one feeling to explore (dread), and Sartre and Camus wrote their plays and other fictional works, which expressed feelings, like practically all fictional works.

Finally, I will discuss analytic philosophy. The way I think of it is that it comes in three varieties: (1) logical positivism, (2) ordinary language, and (3) concept exploration (my own favorite). Logical positivism seems to have lost its attraction these days. These philosophers (A. J. Ayer and Carnot were two of the leading proponents for it; although, not the originators) thought that a statement had to be either proved in logic (they except mathematics) or some empirical verifiable evidence (possible evidence was okay) to indicate whether one could determine the correctness (truth) of an utterance, which was the standard for whether a statement was meaningful. All else, to them, was meaningless. It is just not a good way to analyze statements because only a few would have meaning. When looked at close enough, other utterances have meaning too. I am attracted to their logic and evidence in determining truth or falsehood of a statement, but I cannot swallow the whole program. Anyway, I cannot see any philosopher of this ilk that would want to have anything to do with Romanticism.

Ordinary language philosophy seeks to analyze the words in statements. They seek a better way of looking at the meaning of these statements. A good group of them think that the problem with philosophy resides right in middle—all philosophical problems can be solved through the proper use of language. If they could be successful with their analyses, philosophy would fade away. Again, I cannot see much Romanticism has to offer within this type of philosophy; this is because they look to only ordinary language to figure out what’s what. If anything, romantics seek to create new language or new ways of using it.

Analysing concepts appears to be a close match to ordinary language philosophy, but the end result wanted is different. Yes, understanding concepts can sometimes remove problems in philosophy, but I good deal of this form of philosophy is to build up ideas and show that they are valid and useful. This is the main way that I approach exploration in philosophy; although, I am not disagreeable with other analytic forms and, not on purpose I explore existentialism, but this would be via the analytic approach (see why below).

The best philosophers or the ones I admire most like Daniel Dennett would say the philosopher needs a tool kit (various ways of analyzing things and ideas)^. So, he is one of my favorite philosophers. Another whom I like is Susan Haack. I mostly admire her intellectual honesty† and her use of whatever form of thought would best express her views or her arguments against others views. I also like the Churchland’s (Paul and Patricia). Again they use whatever philosophical tools that are available and appropriate. Plus, I like their eliminative materialism in philosophy of mind. The last I will mention is Kai Nielsen. He is similar to Susan Haack in his intellectual honesty; although, I have for now only read one of his books, I plan on reading more of his books. Now, just because I like and admire these philosophers does not mean I agree with everything they write. One can see this in some of my reviews of their works on Goodreads and other mentioning of the their works in my other blog posts. But, do any of their works involve romanticism? If you consider that a major focus of Romanticism is the exploration of feelings, these philosophers (maybe minus the Churchlands) and others not mentioned show an interest in and the importance of feelings in their works. What about nature? This is usually not approached in a romantic way, but looks to science to get things as right as possible. There are some philosophers like Peter Singer, who defends the ethical treatment of animals, and so shows a great interest in nature. But again, these works do not use the romantic approach either.

The last paragraph can be a kind of summary of my way of philosophy and views that I have of it. If one wants to know more of my views, one can read my What Is Philosophy?  post. But again, I do not see this post to be my whole view of philosophy, which could or should be a future work.

To wrap things up I will  point out that I am not familiar with Romanticism’s work, but I think I understand their purport. I walk two times a day, which started out as part of the treatment of type 2 diabetes when I was diagnosed several years back. In these walks I often look at the natural things I encounter and wonder about them. Feelings I pay much more attention to, which was not so true in the past, when it was harder to take care of my bipolar illness. I can also understand some focus on passion; being passionate about something means being dedicated, and so in my mind I see it as a feeling which can help one carry out her or his goal(s). So, looking at and analysing feelings keeps me mentally well, and it provides me with philosophical explorations as well, but still I would not call it Romanticism and would fall within the analytic domain of philosophy.

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Ah, the romantic life

¹ I believe this term was concocted by Daniel Dennett for philosophy that contains a good dose of mysteriousness.

*  Also know for Ockham’s razor—which, loosely, says do not multiply things needlessly. This is that the fewer things involved in explaining something is usually best.

^ He actually has a whole book discussing his tool kit – Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking

† I intend to write a future post on this, which for to me is a very important trait to exhibit in philosophical explorations.

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