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A Change In World View

Updated Thursday 8th December 2005

Derek Matravers explores the origins of Romanticism.

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Romanticism developed in Europe in the mid to late eighteenth century. It was at its height around the 1830s and had a strong influence on painting and poetry. However, other aspects of the intellectual scene such as philosophy were also influenced. Samuel Taylor Coleridge has some claim to being an academic philosopher. He left extensive philosophical writings, and did much to introduce German thought into British academic life. The roots of Romanticism in Philosophy can be seen through the work of more established academic figures, in particular, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Rousseau was born in Switzerland in 1712, and died in France in 1778. His life, therefore, overlapped far more with the great intellectual climate of opinion that preceded Romanticism:  the Enlightenment. It is no easier to characterise the Enlightenment than it is Romanticism. For every aspect one picks out, one can always find some figure who does not conform to it. Having said that, Enlightenment thought seems characterised by at least these features: a commitment to reason as the route to progress, and so a distrust of tradition and a preference for ‘science’.

Like Romanticism, the Enlightenment flourished in many European countries but perhaps particularly in France, Germany and Scotland. The most representative figures in France were the so-called Encyclopaedists (as they were engaged in the project of writing an Encyclopaedia that they hoped would collect together all the best thoughts of the day). Rousseau was one of this group, and contributed about 200 articles on music, and one on political economy. However, Rousseau had doubts that went to the heart of the Enlightenment view. 

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Consider the following analogy of Enlightenment progress. Imagine a small village where everybody scrapes along, grazing their animals on the green and paying a tenth of their income to the Church. People are comfortable (unless they fall ill) but not well off. Then a reformer visits. He persuades people to give him their animals and sell him the green. In exchange, he will build a farm and employ them all at good wages. He will use some of the surplus to pay for medical care for the sick, and run a school which will, amongst other things, teach them the groundlessness of religion. In one sense, this is progress. The people have better houses, need not fear illness, and are better educated.  

Rousseau’s view, however, was that this comes at a terrible cost. It is difficult to state exactly what this cost is: certainly there seems to be a loss of freedom (although a gain of other freedoms – such as a freedom from illness). More nebulously, it is a loss of a holistic relation to one’s environment and the world. One has ceased being fully human and become more like a cog in a machine. Rousseau shocked his contemporaries when he wrote A Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, as he argued that what counts as progress for these two areas of enquiry is not really progress at all.

The notion of a person forming a unity with their life and environment, a unity that can be undermined by rational thought, is an idea central to the Romantic world view. Rousseau, then, is sometimes seen as a bridge between the two climates of thought. I have focussed on Rousseau in part because he is of great independent interest, and in part because his story is similar to others who took the path from the Enlightenment to Romanticism. In Germany, philosophers such as Schlegel and Schelling reacted against what they saw as a modern turn against alienation and disenchantment, towards a unity with each other and with nature.

How viable is the Romantic world view? We can press our analogy a little further to reveal a problem with the politics of Romantic thought. What is the answer for our village? One tendency in Romantic thought has been to want to leave things as they are, because this is the way they have always been. However, such a deeply grained conservatism is of limited appeal. Otherwise (and this is the line Rousseau explored in his book), On the Social Contract one changes the society but, because one alters the people as well, they do not end up being alienated from the result. However, the notion of altering people looks even more dubious now, following the experience of the Nazis and the Communists, than it ought to have looked even then.

Romanticism poses a challenge to what is meant by ‘philosophy’. The word seems to have at least two uses. First, there is a broad use, for example when people talk about their ‘philosophy of life’. Here, they seem to mean something like a view of their general approach to life. Second, there is a narrow sense in which the word is used to refer to an academic discipline. This itself exhibits a great deal of variety, but, is generally characterised by the practice of attempting to make matters clear through the rigorous use of reason. Romanticism certainly accords with the broad use. In its narrow use, however, philosophy can be seen to be antithetical to Romanticism which generally downgrades reason in favour of the mysticism, the emotions and untutored intuition. I have put the contrast starkly: perhaps too starkly.

Romanticism, with its emphasis on individual self-fulfilment, opposed systems of authority (such as organised religion) in favour of a society organised more rationally, that would allow free discussion and individual rights (the Romantics were great supporters of the French Revolution before it turned into a bloodbath). Of course, our lives need a philosophy in both the broad and narrow sense. We need to apply some clear thought to our philosophy of life, otherwise it will just tail off into an unsystematic mess. On the other hand, if our lives had only philosophy in the narrow sense, it would lack those elements that people such as Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth spent so much time showing us was important.


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