The Romantic Absolute: Being and Knowing in Early German Romantic Philosophy, 1795-1804

The Romantic Absolute: Being and Knowing in Early German Romantic Philosophy, 1795-1804

by Dalia Nassar

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The absolute was one of the most significant philosophical concepts in the early nineteenth century, particularly for the German romantics. Its exact meaning and its role within philosophical romanticism remain, however, a highly contested topic among contemporary scholars.  In The Romantic Absolute, Dalia Nassar offers an illuminating new assessment of the romantics and their understanding of the absolute. In doing so, she fills an important gap in the history of philosophy, especially with respect to the crucial period between Kant and Hegel.             
Scholars today interpret philosophical romanticism along two competing lines: one emphasizes the romantics’ concern with epistemology, the other their concern with metaphysics. Through careful textual analysis and systematic reconstruction of the work of three major romantics—Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel, and Friedrich Schelling—Nassar shows that neither interpretation is fully satisfying. Rather, she argues, one needs to approach the absolute from both perspectives. Rescuing these philosophers from frequent misunderstanding, and even dismissal, she articulates not only a new angle on the philosophical foundations of romanticism but on the meaning and significance of the notion of the absolute itself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226084237
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/24/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Dalia Nassar is assistant professor of philosophy at Villanova University and an Australian Research Council Fellow at the University of Sydney. She lives in Sydney, Australia. 

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Being and Knowing in Early German Romantic Philosophy, 1795–1804



Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-08406-0


Interpreting theFichte-Studien


In his 1989 Einführung in die frühromantische Äshtetik, Manfred Frank makes the remarkable statement that Novalis's Fichte-Studien offer "the most significant philosophical contribution of early romanticism." In this way, Frank places Novalis and the Fichte-Studien at the center of philosophical discussions of early German romanticism. In his earlier writings on the romantics, Frank's concern had been to distinguish Novalis from hegel and the neo-Platonist tradition. In Einführung, by contrast, his thesis is that in the Fichte-Studien, we witness a "break" with idealism as elaborated by both hegel and Fichte.

Frank's reading of Novalis, and his emphasis on the Fichte-Studien, are in large part due to the fact that Frank's primary interlocutor is Dieter Henrich. In a more recent work on the romantics, "Unendliche Annäherung." Anfänge der philosophischen Frühromantik (1997), Frank acknowledges that he was in part inspired by henrich's recent "discoveries." Frank's concern, however, is not to follow henrich, but to challenge his claim that hölderlin was the first realist critic of Fichte and German idealism in general. Novalis, he argues, offered a critique of idealism as early as (but independently of) hölderlin. Frank's goal, therefore, is to illustrate that in the Fichte-Studien, composed in 1795–1796, Novalis arrives at the conclusion that being or "pure being (Nur Seyn)" is "given" rather than "constructed" by the I, and that being eludes conceptualization.

Frank's reading focuses on two main ideas. The first is that for Novalis, intellectual intuition does not (as it does for Fichte) realize or produce the self—rather, the self has to have already been there in order for intuition to take place. In other words, the ground of the self is not the self's own activity, but a "being" that precedes and eludes the self in its attempt to know itself. This leads to the second point, namely, that intellectual intuition does not grant insight into the ground of the self. Rather, in intellectual intuition an inversion ("ordo inversus") of the ground with the grounded takes place, such that what appears to us as primary (self-consciousness) is in fact only secondary to the true primary (being). The ground of reality is therefore "given" and not "constructed" by intuition. As such, it is ultimately intractable and unknowable. In the place of self-knowledge, Novalis offers "feeling" or "self-feeling (Selbstgefühl)." In this way, Frank argues, Novalis provides a biting critique of the Fichtean notion of intellectual intuition and of idealism in general.

Precisely because Novalis recognizes that the self's activity depends upon an already "given" ground—a ground that is infinitely unknowable—Frank argues that Novalis is putting forth a realist, nonidealist understanding of being, in other words, being as "outside of consciousness," or "mere being (Nur Seyn)." Novalis is, in other words, a skeptical realist and not an idealist. Frank's fundamental argument is that Novalis, and the romantics in general, remain true to Kantian restrictions. They acknowledge the impossibility of a philosophical presentation of the "infinite absolute" and thus turn away from philosophy to art. Frank locates this turn in the Fichte-Studien because they begin with a general skepticism toward philosophical method and conclude in art.

In deep contrast to Frank's interpretation, Gezá von Molnár and Bernward Loheide have rehabilitated the old interpretation of Novalis as a Fichtean whose philosophical and artistic goals can be understood as a continuation of and expansion upon Fichte's thought. In his reading of the Fichte-Studien, Molnár interprets Novalis's search for the absolute (which Frank locates outside the I) as the search for the I. Molnár acknowledges one significant difference between Fichte and Novalis: Novalis emphasizes the manifestation of the absolute unity within the empirical opposition of subject and object. Ultimately, however, for Molnár, Novalis remains within the realm of the self and intellectual intuition.

Loheide argues that Fichte played a significant role not only in Novalis's early works but also in his later writings. The interesting aspect of Loheide's interpretation, in contrast to that of Molnár, is that it agrees with Frank's reading of Novalis, but disagrees with his claim that there is a substantial difference between Novalis and Fichte. Rather, in Loheide's reading, not only Novalis, but also Fichte, developed skepticism toward intellectual intuition and elaborated a philosophy of finitude and realism. In this way, Loheide sees both Novalis and Fichte as continuing in the Kantian tradition of transcendental philosophy, differentiating themselves only in emphasis. What unites Fichte and Novalis is their prioritization of the moral over the theoretical and their conception of the self as primarily active and ethical. like many of Novalis's contemporary interpreters, Loheide's goal is to show that Novalis (and Fichte) is an enlightenment philosopher, and his turn to art was a rational, philosophically justified turn that had nothing to do with Schwärmerei or religiosity. According to Loheide, for both Novalis and Fichte, the self is a finite being who becomes aware of its finitude, and its inability to know the absolute, through transcendental philosophy.

although Molnár's and Loheide's interpretations clearly differ from Frank's, they agree with his emphasis on Fichte and the claim that Novalis was in some sense working in relation to Fichtean (transcendental) philosophy. For this reason, they emphasize the centrality of the problem of self-consciousness and self-knowledge for Novalis. Insofar as the Fichte-Studien are Novalis's attempt to work through Fichtean philosophy, the problem of self-consciousness was a key concern in that context. However, it plays a less important role in Novalis's later writings, and Novalis's philosophical interests cannot be reduced to the problem of self-consciousness. Therefore, by emphasizing Fichte's concern with the self and self-consciousness and interpreting Novalis in light of it, they overlook the fact that Novalis was also interested in questions that cannot be limited to or interpreted in terms of the question of self-consciousness and self-presentation. Furthermore, by focusing on Fichte's influence, all three fail to notice the ways in which other thinkers influenced Novalis. An examination of the Allgemeine Brouillon, the encyclopedia project which Novalis undertook in 1798–1799, reveals Novalis's interest in Kant and Fichte as well as in the neo-Platonist Plotinus, in Goethe, and in spinoza (to name a few).

In addition, there are important logistical problems with the Fichte-Studien that prevent them from being the groundbreaking work that Frank considers them to be. First, Novalis is taking notes while reading Fichte, and thus at times it is unclear whether Novalis is writing his own thoughts or trying to work out or work through Fichte's. As Loheide has illustrated, many of Novalis's notes closely correspond to, even mirror, Fichte's own words and thus can be understood as either a working out of Fichtean ideas or as an attempt to draw out the consequences of some of Fichte's claims—consequences that, according to Loheide, Fichte also draws out. Second, Novalis broaches many topics of concern to Fichte and at times provides solid counterarguments to Fichte's claims; however, some of what are considered to be Novalis's key positions at the beginning of the notes fall by the wayside toward the end of the work, or change somewhere in the middle. Third, in the Fichte-Studien, there are at least two key ideas that are ambiguous and even confused—leading in part to some confusion in Frank's interpretation. The first of these ideas is being.

on the one hand, Novalis speaks of being as "mere being [Nur Seyn]." Frank takes this to be the key idea of the Fichte-Studien and argues that it implies that being is outside of and beyond consciousness and presentation. On the other hand, Novalis develops a conception of being as relation or mediation. In fact, at times Novalis seems to be saying that being is presentation or mediation. Thus, he writes that being only exists if it is "recognizable (erkennbar)" and that being is always already "recognition (erkennen)" (Ns 2, 248, no. 462; Ns 2, 249, no. 463). Frank does not consider the two different uses of the term being, nor does he attempt to reconcile or explain the differences.

The second confusion in the Fichte-Studien concerns the status of being. On the one hand, it appears that being is an ontological reality—whether in the first or the second sense described above, being has an ontological (i.e., existential) status. On the other hand, Novalis assigns it the status of a regulative idea, such that it is merely a limiting concept that has nothing to do with reality or existence. Frank adopts both conceptions of being—being is an ontological reality and an epistemological limiting idea. However, as Frederick Beiser has pointed out, one cannot hold both conceptions: it is either the case that being is an ontological reality that has some positive value (even if we cannot know it) or it is merely a limiting or negative concept, and has no ontological status. The contradiction in Novalis's thought is most clear when he claims that being is merely regulative while simultaneously stating that being is an object of feeling and faith.

This does not mean, however, that the Fichte-Studien cannot function as a starting-point in the attempt to understand Novalis's thought. Indeed, it is my contention that the Fichte-Studien are a fruitful basis from which the reader can first glimpse Novalis's questions and concerns. Although the Fichte-Studien do not provide any clear answers, they illuminate the direction of Novalis's thinking and thus help us to interpret his later writings. Furthermore, although the Fichte-Studien contain two mutually exclusive conceptions of being and of the status of being, these contradictions disappear through an alternative interpretation of Novalis's understanding of the term "mere being." rather than taking "mere being" to imply an ontological reality that exists beyond or outside of consciousness, I will argue that "mere being" can be interpreted to mean a formal principle of simple identity which makes no ontological claims. This, in turn, is contrasted to ontological being—reality—which implies difference, relation, and determination. Although this conception of being is closer to Fichte's in that it implies determination and does not exclude consciousness, it is dissimilar in that being is not determined by (or constructed through) the act of consciousness, but is self-determining. It is, therefore, the first articulation of Novalis's notion of the absolute as an internally differentiated, active, and dynamic unity. However, although Novalis makes suggestions that support this reading, he does not elaborate on them. Therefore, any interpretation of the Fichte-Studien should be solely preparatory for reading Novalis's later writings.

My goal, then, is to consider the ways in which the Fichte-Studien can be read and argue that an interpretation of being as activity and determination—an interpretation which is commensurate with Novalis's later works—can be found in these notes, but ultimately to show that what the Fichte-Studien leave us with are questions and not answers. I thus begin with an elaboration of the two possible readings of being to be found in the Fichte-Studien and illustrate the tenability of an alternative reading to Frank's.


Novalis begins the Fichte-Studien with a general, albeit poignant, critique of Fichte's methodology. Within the first few lines of his notes, Novalis challenges Fichte's purportedly self-evident statement of identity by pausing to think about the nature of presentation. He writes,

In the proposition "a is a" lies nothing other than a positing, differentiating and connecting. It is a philosophical parallelism. In order to make "a" more clear, "a" is divided. "Is" is posited as universal content, "a" as the determined form. The essence of identity can only be presented in an illusory proposition [Scheinsatz]. We abandon the identical in order to present it [um es darzustellen]—either this takes place only illusorily—and we are brought to believe it by the imagination—what occurs, already is—naturally through imaginary separation and unification—or we represent [vorstellen] it through its nonbeing [Nichtseyn], through a nonidentical [Nichtidentisches]—sign. (Ns 2, 104, no. 1)

Instead of accepting the self-evidence of the proposition of identity, Novalis pauses to take a look at what it assumes. It is not merely identity that Novalis considers to be problematic, but also its presentation (Darstellung). In order to present identity, we must abandon it; in order to present the originally undivided identity, we divide it. The problem is that identity can be presented only through nonidentity, through a loss of the original unity that is identity.

Two things are going on here. First, for Fichte, the proposition of identity is the starting point, the foundation, of philosophy. By grounding philosophy in the proposition of identity, which is determined as the undeniable and unconditioned first principle of philosophy, philosophy can proceed without making any illegitimate assumptions. In positing a first, unconditioned ground and from there deriving a philosophical system, philosophy legitimizes itself. By questioning the adequacy of this claim and then undermining it, Novalis is doing nothing less than questioning the foundations of philosophy.

This leads directly to the second matter at hand, namely, presentation, for it is in presenting identity that we must abandon it. Thus, the question emerges as to whether there is an adequate way by which to present identity. And if so, what is its relation to (and effect on) philosophy.

Presentation was not a new topic in German thought at the time; it played a significant role in both Kant's first Kritik and his third (though Kant only rarely made it the subject of explicit discussion). Indeed, one of the goals of the first Kritik is to delineate the imagination's capacity to schematize and in turn to represent (vorstellen) the object of cognition. For Kant, all knowledge is a matter of representation. Presentation plays an even more significant role for Fichte, who, through intellectual intuition, attempts to make present the self to itself. Thus, in "ueber den Begriff der Wissenschaftslehre" (1794), Fichte explains that "the reflection, which dominates the whole of the Wissenschaftslehre, insofar as it is a science of knowledge, is a presentation [ein vorstellen]. In the Wissenschaftslehre the I is presented [vorgestellt]" (Ga 1/2, 149). Knowledge and presentation are therefore intimately tied, for it is only in presenting the self to itself that the self comes to have knowledge of itself and, more significantly, actually becomes a self.

Insofar as the Fichte-Studien were composed in light of these developments in philosophy, it is self-evident why presentation plays a central role throughout the notes. As Novalis sees it, philosophy can no longer be separated from presentation. He is thus taking the cue from his predecessors in recognizing the importance of presentation in philosophy. However, he goes further by questioning what they had assumed. Indeed, what Novalis does in the first few lines of the Fichte-Studien is not so much follow a trend as challenge its assumptions. In questioning the presentation of identity, Novalis is doing nothing less than asking the question: Is philosophy possible?


Excerpted from THE ROMANTIC ABSOLUTE by DALIA NASSAR. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments Abbreviations   Introduction   Part One: Novalis 1.   Interpreting the Fichte-Studien 2.   Beyond the Subjective Self: Hemsterhuis, Kant, and the Question of the Whole 3.   Romanticizing Nature and the Self 4.   A Living Organon of the Sciences       Conclusion to Part 1: Romanticism and Idealism   Part Two: Schlegel 5.   New Philosophical Ideals: Schlegel’s Critique of First Principles 6.   From Epistemology to Ontology: The Lectures on Transcendental Idealism 7.   Becoming, Nature, and Freedom 8.   Presenting Nature: From the System of Fragments to the Romantic Novel       Conclusion to Part 2: Schlegel as Philosopher   Part Three: Schelling 9.   The Early Schelling: Between Fichte and Spinoza 10. The Philosophy of Nature 11. From the System of Transcendental Idealism to the Identity Philosophy 12. Identity Philosophy and the Philosophy of Art       Conclusion to Part 3   Conclusion: The Romantic Absolute   Notes Works Cited

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