No matter the era or culture, the greatest minds of the world consistently seek to validate the movements in which they play important roles. New ideas are seized upon and influence whole civilizations, yet those so influencing also tend to insist upon justifying the concepts in practical and/or scientific contexts. This is essentially epistemology and, with the Romantics, it is especially problematic. As Romanticism exalted art, individualism, nature, and the past, the leaders in the movement dedicated themselves to offering rationales as to why approaches were necessary, or even best, for humanity. In a sense, these are efforts to set subjective values within objective justifications for them. Remarkably, many Romanticists succeed.
For example, Giambattista Vico devotes extensive effort to clarify and present the fundamental rationales for Romanticism in his The New Science. Relying a great deal on the ancients, Vico offers a trajectory between ideologies and rationales for them, and with an emphasis on religion. With extreme care, he connects faith-based reasoning with faith itself, and thus reinforces religion as it was known in the ancient past as only one stage in the development all cultures evince. There is a perpetual need in civilization to support all aesthetic, metaphysical, and religious approaches with evidence of their value.
In Vico, and as in other Romanticists, the epistemological goal is to eliminate any belief that these approaches are irrelevant to the necessities of human existence. To some extent, Hume validates this need to appreciate era and culture in his, “Of the Standard of Human Taste.” Like Vico, Hume is unwilling to accept that universal standards apply, particularly in matters of art and faith, and that cultures are obligated to determine truth as they themselves evolve. Much of Hume reflects a kid of insistence on liberality of thought, which in turn connects to the Romantic idealization of nature. At the same time, and like Vico, Hume also upholds the human need to establish aesthetic standards that will endure as meaningful throughout time. More emphatic here is Schiller, in his Letters on Aesthetic Education. Writing to his patron, Schiller is able to take a more distanced perspective regarding the era and its relationship to the past. This allows him to defend Romanticism, not directly, but more through extreme criticism of the Enlightenment and the abuses he feels it set in motion. Like Vico, Schiller promotes the urgency of spiritual and aesthetic development, but he is also fearful of the absence of morality which undermines the benefits of achievement. Almost mathematically, he outlines how the “play drive” in human beings may be trusted as determining what is real art, and because this drive encompasses both appreciation of reason and the visceral sense of morality crucial in art as meaningful and positive. As with Hume and Vico, then, Schiller argues for methodology which supports the Romantic upholding of the senses and of nature. More in keeping with Vico, he also stresses the pragmatic attributes of faith when it is correctly seen as a means of affirming morality.
Departing from Vico, Hume, and, to a lesser degree, Schiller, Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry more looks to what Romanticism can, or should, be. In a sense, he takes the movement of his age and both investigates and expands its possibilities, and specifically regarding the imperative to better define art. Burke does echo Schiller in his belief that the power of the sublime in art may destroy as well as it may uplift. He does not insist on morality as essential, as Schiller does, but he relates that the causes of sublime experience derive from human fear or incomprehension of what is beyond its understanding. This then echoes Schiller’s insistence on some moral drive as crucial. Both thinkers also express, as do other Romanticists, what may be termed a “healthy fear” of art as too empowered to guide human belief. Hegel’s Philosophy of Fine Art, however, presents an epistemological contrast to such thinking. Essentially, he holds that art is responsible for nothing beyond itself; it is production of the human spirit and consequently legitimate as such. Radically, Hegel exalts art over nature, so he further distances himself from the Romanticist agenda of defining all human concerns as interdependent.
In a different way, Kant supports Burke’s ideas of beauty and the sublime, as well as Schiller’s “play drive,” which he translates to “free drive” regarding art and the interplay between imagination and sense in understanding art. In Critique of Judgment, there is as well the same determination to isolate and define aesthetics as in the other Romantics, as well as a reflection of Schiller’s concern for good or morality as necessary in art. Radically, Marx and Engels revert to Vico’s historical focus in their “Communist Manifesto.” More importantly, they extend the Romantic appreciation of the natural into the social. A political tract, the work nonetheless presents a logical rationale for the governing class to be wholly subordinate to the working class, and as the fruition of humanity’s natural order. Lastly, Mary Wollstonecraft also applies Romantic perspectives in her A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which in turn validates the reasoning behind the movement.
As the Romantic defies actual reason to be more guided by what is naturally right and innately moral, so does Wollstonecraft rely on these elements to shape an early feminist argument. As with Marx and Engels, she places social, educational, and political realities within the Romantic context; it serves as a means of justification, and in both intellectual and aesthetic, or moral, forms. Here, as elsewhere, the Romantic thinker employs all major facets of human existence, and the past and present, to simultaneously refute earlier thinking as in the Enlightenment, and demand that the world adopt a far broader understanding of the connections between nature, morality, art, and cultures.