Inheriting Autonomy: The German Romantics Reconsidered

Frederick Beiser on Magnificent Rebels by Andrea Wulf

Andrea Wulf’s book Magnificent Rebels is a portrait of the early romantic circle in Jena from 1794 to 1806. It has a large cast of characters or dramatis personae—Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel, Friedrich Schiller, Ludwig Tieck, Caroline Böhmer, Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, Novalis, Dorothea Veit and Goethe—which fills its pages. She describes their ideas, personalities, actions and emotional lives in painstaking and vivid detail, so that they come to life before the reader. It is almost as if Wulf were the contemporary village gossip. The story is told in exacting and dramatic language, so that the reader wants to know what happens next. What we have here is “a page turner.”

On several occasions Wulf identifies her theme as “the Jena romantics.” A professional scholar would quarrel with Wulf’s casting and dating, however. He or she would tell us that Frühromantik was from 1797 to 1802, and that Fichte, Hegel, Schiller and Goethe were not really romantics at all. It is difficult to include Hegel, Schiller and Goethe among the romantics, the scholar would say, because they were in fact enemies of those called “romantics” in the strict sense. But a dispute about nomenclature is ultimately not revealing or interesting. Although it is indeed misleading to characterize all Wulf’s characters as “romantics,” it is necessary to treat the romantics with their enemies to make sense of the controversies amongst them. In any case, Wulf’s treatment of all these people has the advantage of fulfilling one of Aristotle’s requirements of tragedy: unity of time and place.

What literary genre are we to assign to Wulf’s book? It is not so common in the Anglophone world; but it is better known in the Germanic world. It is called Kulturkitsch, a lesser manifestation of intellectual history. Kulturkitsch is a popular introduction to a sphere of culture whose attractions are simplification of intellectual content and anecdotes about the personal lives of its creators. There is nothing wrong with Kulturkitsch, which can provide a great service as an introduction to a sphere of culture; but it degenerates if it provides simplistic, false or misleading accounts of intellectual content. Wulf’s book degenerates in all these ways.  She struggles to find a unifying theme for all her authors; but “the invention of the self” is a post-modernist cliché which does not apply to the romantics. Wulf’s great strength is her narrative skills; but her great weakness is philosophy, where she lacks the basics of conceptual rigor and analysis.

Wulf describes the ideas and concerns of the early romantics as revolving around Fichte’s philosophy, especially his idea of the ego or Ich. “The new emphasis on the Ich,” Wulf tells us, was “the centre of the Romantic project.” What excited the romantics about Fichte’s ego, we learn, was “the most thrilling of all ideas: free will.” She contrasts this idea of a free will with determinism, with the thesis that “humans remained cogs in a divinely ordained machine.” Wulf goes no further in describing the idea of freedom of the early romantics. But has she gone far enough?  

Andrea Wulf, Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self. Knopf, 2022. pp 512. $35.00, hardcover.

The idea of free will was already centuries old by 1789—its origins go back to Aristotle or Augustine—and Fichte never claimed to have discovered it. Wulf confuses the idea of free will simpliciter with Fichte’s characteristic concept of absolute independence, which he describes, in his Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre (1794) and in his Sittenlehre (1798), as complete self-determination, as absence of determination by external causes. The idea of free will is that the self has the power to do either X or non-X, that either action is consistent with its personality and upbringing. The concept of absolute independence states that the self is only what it makes of itself, that its essence or nature does not depend on anything outside itself to be what it is. The idea of free will is a more modest idea than absolute independence: it frees the self from dependence on external causes only regarding its decisions; it does not free the self in its entire nature from external causes. In providing such a paltry and inaccurate reading of the Fichtean idea of freedom Wulf has got her investigation off to a poor start.

Wulf’s further account of Fichte’s philosophy is even more confused.  She tells us that Fichte’s ego “originally and unconditionally posits its own being,” and that through “this powerful initial act the non-Ich—the external world that included nature, animals, other people and so on—came into existence.” This seems to be the popular interpretation of Fichte’s ego, according to which the ego creates the non-ego or the entire world through its own self-positing.  But Wulf wisely warns us against that reading. 

Fichte does not mean “that the Ich creates the world,” she writes, but all that he means is that the ego “creates our knowledge of the world.”  “Put simply, the world is the way we think it is and therefore it is knowable, unlike Kant’s thing-in-itself.” But if this is all that Fichte means, then his ideal of absolute independence is unrealizable because the world will still exist external to us, not as a thing-in-itself, of course, but at least as a knowable object which can limit and affect the ego. This is more a problem for Wulf than for Fichte. For Fichte squares his ideal of absolute independence with the existence of the external world by making absolute independence a regulative ideal, an ideal we can never reach but which we attempt to realize through an infinite striving to control and subjugate nature. This concept of infinite striving was really the heart and soul of Fichte’s early Wissenschaftslehre.  Nowhere, however, does Wulf mention it.

The most serious problem with Wulf’s Fichtean account of the romantic movement is that, by the end of the 1790’s, all the romantics were in open rebellion against Fichte’s philosophy. Hölderlin, Novalis, Schelling, Schleiermacher and Schlegel rejected the Fichtean ego as their first principle because they saw it as finite, as one-sided or limited by the non-ego.  The ego was the subjective side of the absolute; but it also had an objective side, the whole realm of nature. The romantics held that the absolute was the unity of the subjective and objective, the identity or “indifferencepoint” of the ego with the non-ego. The differences between the romantics and Fichte appears most visibly in their conflicting concepts of nature. For Fichte, nature was only the non-ego, the obstacle to the infinite striving of the ego; for the romantics, nature was an organism, an end in itself, of which the ego is only a mode.

Wulf notes the important shift in romantic thinking in the 1790s, but she downplays it because it contradicts her central thesis that the heart of the romantic project was “the new emphasis on the Ich.” She barely mentions some of the manuscripts in which the romantic rebellion against Fichte is most explicit: Novalis Fichte-Studien, Hölderlin’s fragment ‘Urteil und Sein’, Schleiermacher’s Die Religion, and Schlegel’s notebooks of the late 1790s. She says that Schleiermacher’s religion still had a Fichtean tinge to it because it was “personal and intimate;” but this is a mere fig leaf to conceal Schleiermacher’s Spinozism, the very opposite of Fichteanism.  

The Fichtean dimension of Jena romanticism is an old idea. It makes its first appearance in Rudolf Haym’s Die romantische Schule, which was first published in 1870. Haym’s book is now generally regarded as antiquated. Throughout the 20th century romantic research has grown exponentially with the discovery and publication of manuscripts which were not available to earlier scholars. It is another weakness of Wulf’s book that she does not take account of the latest romantic research, especially the work of Dieter Henrich and Manfred Frank. If she had studied their work, she would have seen the weakness of her emphasis on Fichte. 

Rather than taking romantic research forward, Wulf has unwittingly taken it backwards. Magnificent Rebels offers the non-specialist reader an entertaining narrative, though a philosophically misinformed one. (If one is looking for the best and latest research on the Romantics, it appears in a new journal, Symphilosophie: International Journal of Philosophical Romanticism, edited by Laure Cahen-Maurel and Giulia Valpione.) We need more romantic research; but not the kind offered by Wulf’s book.   

Frederick Beiser is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Syracuse University. He has been a major contributor to work on the history of modern philosophy, especially the history of German philosophy (Kant and German Idealism) and the English Enlightenment. His book The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte won the 1987 Thomas J. Wilson Prize for the Best First Book. He is the author of The Romantic Imperative: The Concept of Early German Romanticism (Harvard University Press). He has won Thyssen and Humboldt research fellowships to study at the Free University of Berlin and was a 1994 Guggenheim Fellow. He received a 1999-2000 NEH Faculty Fellowship (at Indiana University), and he has won awards for his outstanding undergraduate teaching. In 2015 he received, from Bundespraesident Joachim Gauck, the Bundesverdienstkreuz, which is the highest civil honor in Germany.