[excerpt from World as Idea]
We have already met one idealist – Kant, who claimed that by the point at which we are conscious of experience, it has been shaped into a certain order in just the way a lecturer prepares his notes. Indeed, Kant believed that the human mind is very ambitious in its formatting of experience: it dresses up experiences as objects in space and time, in thoroughgoing causal relation with one another, with features that prepare each item to be described in the terms of Aristotle’s logic. Kant believed that each human mind performs the same packaging in exactly the same way – or maybe he believed that in fact there is just One Human Mind which does all the packaging, and only later do we arrive at the belief that there are many separate human minds, each one linked up in a special way to some particular body in space and time. (He was not especially clear on this matter – and perhaps he thought no one could be.) Needless to say, he could not have believed that all this packaging was the work of some lobe in our brains; for brains themselves are causal, spatiotemporal objects, and so they belong in the “post-packaging” results rather than on the “packaging” team. The mind or minds that Kant has in mind are preconditions for what we experience, not anything we can experience directly.
Kant’s self-styled “Copernican revolution” – for it radically shifted once again our place in the universe – inspired a platoon of idealists who wished to go further. Karl Leonhard Reinhold (1757-1823), coming to Kant’s philosophy after having exhausted just about every religious vocation available to him, zealously advocated for the consequences of Kant’s ideas: that we can be confident of our ability to know the cosmos, and can be assured at the same time that human freedom, the soul, and divine justice are secure in the world of things in themselves, safely set off from science’s prying eyes. Reinhold also sought a fundamental principle from which all of Kant’s philosophy would issue. This was to be the “Principle of Consciousness,” or the fundamental truth that every act of consciousness is a subject forming a representation of an object; from this basic fact all else follows. Later idealists seized upon this search for a unifying principle that would bring all domains of knowledge under a single roof. Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) argued that the human mind cannot be seen as subject to any structure external to itself and still be entirely free. His fundamental principle was that the “I” freely posits its own existence, and sets about gaining a representation of itself by then positing a “not-I” – an Other – for the purpose of instructive contrast. Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854) – a mercurial thinker if there ever was one! – seized upon the dynamic interaction between the Fichtean I and not-I as fundamental. He was, in a sense, playing Heraclitus to Fichte’s Parmenides, prizing the flux and tensions of thought above any fixed stability.
And down the rabbit hole we go, with each idealist finding his own tea party in the heart of consciousness itself. Reading their massive works, at turns both wildly inventive and torturously difficult, it is all too easy to come to the conclusion that someone must have slipped a madness potion into the drinking water. And perhaps this is so – if we think of “madness” a bit more generously, and if we think of Romanticism as that potion. For the Romantic artists of the time drew inspiration from the broad unity of mind and world, and the power of the human spirit to create forms and emblems that somehow contain within themselves, in their secret natures, all the animating forces of love, strife, and freedom. These artists and the idealists were engaged in a single project, that of finding the right expression for the unlimited powers and tragedies of the human spirit.
The great literary artist Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805), writing of the “sublime,” or the thrill we find in what is both awe-inspiring and terrifying, found that the overwhelming strength and complexity of nature was in fact only the mirror image of the human soul:
So long as man was merely a slave of physical necessity, had not yet found an egress from the narrow sphere of his wants, and still did not suspect the lofty daemonic freedom in his breast, he was reminded by inscrutable nature only of the inadequacy of his conceptual faculties and by destructive nature only of his physical incapacity. The first he was obliged humbly to acknowledge and from the second he turned in revulsion. But no sooner has free contemplation set him at a distance from the blind assault of natural forces – no sooner does he discover in the flood of appearances something abiding in his own being – then the savage bulk of nature about him begins to speak quite another language to his heart; and the relative grandeur outside him is the mirror in which he perceives the absolute grandeur within himself.
So it was for the idealists. With the broad advances of knowledge, nature became less “inscrutable” and human confidence grew. And as philosophers like Kant encouraged us to see the order in nature as a reflection of the mind, the imposing grandeur of nature became a reflection of monumental human grandeur. As difficult as it may be for us to share this wonder, we can at least appreciate the thrilling scene in which the Romantics and philosophers looked out upon the world and found themselves.