The Question of Romanticism

In Alison Stone (ed.), The Edinburgh Critical History of Philosophy: Volume 5—The Nineteenth Century. pp. 47-68 (2011)
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‘Romanticism’ is one of the more hotly contested terms in the history of ideas. There is a singular lack of consensus as to its meaning, unity, and historical extension, and many attempts to fix the category of romanticism very quickly become blurry. As a result, the great historian of ideas, Arthur Lovejoy, famously concludes that: ‘the word ‘romantic’ has come to mean so many things that, by itself, it means nothing. It has ceased to perform the function of a verbal sign’ But his pessimistic advice has not stopped scholars from trying to define romanticism. If anything, it has brought renewed vigour to the determination with which critics try to pinpoint the term. There are several approaches to take, for those who attempt to do so. One class of critics tries to enumerate the features shared by the authors and texts generally considered romantic. An alternative approach would try to identify the fundamental unity that informs romanticism and gives rise to the empirical commonalities. But what would this essential feature be? Both of these approaches take an external perspective on romanticism, seeing it as the object of inquiry. An alternative approach, which we will pursue, looks at romantic subjects, and romanticism as a self-constituting category, rather than merely as an externally imposed one. In other words, we will take as basic neither an (empirical) array of candidate properties constituting romanticism, nor a supposed underlying (rationalist) essence from which properties can be derived, but rather we will focus on how the romantics themselves took up the idea of romanticism and transformed it into a self-conscious movement. We will treat the question of romanticism with respect to England, but above all Germany. Although romantic movements arose and flourished elsewhere in Europe (and in France in particular), German and English romanticism were uniquely theoretically sophisticated and philosophically nuanced.

Author Profiles

Alistair Welchman
University of Texas at San Antonio
Judith Norman
Trinity University


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