Rationality and Romanticism
Overview
Two contrasting views of the proper relationship between the logical and emotional elements of the human psyche, which may be thought representative of distinct lines of development of western philosophy are dissected with a view to a synthesis.
We look to the origins of Romanticism as a reaction against the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment was a period of excessive zeal for reason and science in which their scope was grossly overstated.
Romanticism reacted against the idea that purposes and values could be scientifically determined with an endorsement of values and purposes revealed to us by our own personal inner voice.
A romantic existential expressionist philosophy of life is conceived of as a philosophy on a more fundamental plane (at least existentially) than the rational search for knowledge. That enterprise may still form a part of such a life, if, perhaps, held in line with appearances by an appropriately sceptical attitude.
Introduction
We look to the origins of Romanticism as a reaction against the Enlightenment.
Preamble

My search for a synthesis here derives from the desire to bring my philosophical thinking and writing to bear upon those matters which seem most important in my own day to day life. Romantic philosophy, its modern descendents such as existentialism, seem better oriented towards these matters and so to integrate something of their concerns with the objective rational interest in the world which we find in contemporary descendents of The Enlightenment.

Not being at all well acquainted with Romanticism I looked first to Russell (which was unhelpful) and then t Isaiah Berlin for some idea of what it was all about.

I turned to Isaiah Berlin for a fuller discussion of Romanticism, and the material here is largely based on his writings (click on header above for my notes).

While dispelling oversimplification of the positions, Berlin identifies a very special challenge offered by Romanticism to The Enlightenment view of the potential for rational determination of objective values and ideal social orders. Romanticism placed at the epicentre of approbation heroic devotion to an inner vision, rejecting the possibility that individuals should be judged against values and purposes rationally determined by scientists or intelligentsia.

Bertrand Russell
Here is Russell's very unsympathetic description, which is offered to show how diverse views of Romanticism can be. In his History of Western Philosophy [Russell46], speaking of the first romantics he says that they:
"... greatly admired what they called sensibilité, which means a proneness to emotion, and more particularly to the emotion of sympathy. To be thoroughly satisfactory, the emotion must be direct and violent and quite uninformed by thought."
Romanticism seems most substantially to have been a literary phenomenon, but in philosophy its most prominent figure was Rousseau. His most influential work was "The Social Contract" which was a political tract proclaiming the romantic ideal of individual liberty but describing a political system which became the prototype for totalitarian regimes far removed from these romantic roots.
The Enlightenment
The Enlightenment was a period of excessive zeal for reason and science in which their scope was grossly overstated.
Reason and Science

The Enlightenment is a philosophical movement of the 18th century most conspicuous in valuing reason and scientific method rather than tradition and religious or other authorities as a basis for determining what is true and valuable. It is associated most strongly with the French philosophes among whom perhaps the most famous were Voltaire and the Encyclopaedists.

The Enlightenment was a philosophical child of the successes of science and reason. The publication of Newton's Principia was not only revolutionary in its own right, but laid the ground for a flood of new science, and encouraged men in the belief that there were no limits to what the new scientific method might achieve.

The Enlightenment elevated this optimism into dogma. A dogma which was, however, individualistic in holding that talented men could, through reason and science, discover truths overturning the authority of institutions and tradition.

Enlightenment and Values

To the philosophers of the enlightenment, science knew no bounds. It could expect (though it had not yet demonstrated) success in human and social sciences no less than those already seen in Newtonian physics. From a scientific understanding of human nature and society it would be possible by reason to proceed from what is, to what ought to be.

The details of this transition are not of present interest, its consequences are. The primary consequence is the belief in objective values; the belief that questions of human conduct and of the best way to organise society can be settled objectively and definitively by those blessed with reason and ability.

Thus the Enlightenment, while celebrating the liberation of creative men from the constraints imposed by tradition and authority, liberated them only to use reason and science. This conferred upon a new intellectual elite, a new superior kind of authority. One which might reasonably be expected to prevail over the mistaken ideas and values of others.

Romanticism
Romanticism reacted against the idea that purposes and values could be scientifically determined with an endorsement of values and purposes revealed to us by our own personal inner voice.
Elements of Romanticism
Romanticism is a very diverse socio-cultural phenomenon. We will consider here only a few elements of it:
  • The Inner Voice
  • The Cult of Romantic Heroism
  • The Romantic Will
The Inner Voice

Romanticism, insofar as it interests us here, is significant in its recognition of the legitimacy of the inner voice. It recognised that people may differ from each other in what they value, and hence rejected the Enlightenment conception of values as objective truths falling under the domain of reason and science.

The Cult of Romantic Heroism

Romanticism does not merely approve the inner voice. It attaches great value not merely to adopting a considered and independent value system, but to the pursuit of some inner ideal without regard to the consequences of this pursuit for the individual. Not only does the romantic hero consult his inner voice in defiance of tradition and authority, he also then pursues the ideals which it reveals regardless of personal cost.

This is rather a caricature of the romantic hero. The manner of dedication to the ideal is more flexible, and need not involve disastrous self-sacrifice. Beethoven for example is representative of the artist as romantic hero, because of his dedication to his own artistic vision and his disregard for social convention and personal circumstance.

The Romantic Will
The last element of interest here is the endorsement not merely of the freedom of individuals to pursue their own inner vision, but of their imposing that vision upon the world as a laudable act of will. The archetype of this kind of romantic hero is Napoleon Bonaparte.
A Synthesis
A romantic existential expressionist philosophy of life is conceived of as a philosophy on a more fundamental plane (at least existentially) than the rational search for knowledge. That enterprise may still form a part of such a life, if, perhaps, held in line with appearances by an appropriately sceptical attitude.

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