Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Freedom and Autonomy in Schiller

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Freedom and Autonomy in Schiller

Article excerpt

Much has been said lately about the development of the concept of autonomy up to Kant.1 This essay will examine what happened to the concept immediately after Kant, specifically how it fared at the hands of the German playwright and Kantian Friedrich Schiller, who was famous for his support of human freedom and self-determination. Commentators have drawn attention to his employment of different concepts of freedom and autonomy.2 Others have complained about the inconsistency found in Schiller's Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man regarding the aesthetic ideal of play and the moral ideal of practical reason.3

This essay will try to provide a systematic as well as chronological account of Schiller's use of the concepts of freedom and autonomy. It will show that one of these concepts is Kantian, while the others are not. One non-Kantian concept is Schiller's notion of natural autonomy; another one is connected to a particular concept of free will that he took over from the philosopher Karl Leonhard Reinhold. This concept of the will in turn influenced Schiller's reconstruction of the Kantian dualism of sensibility and intellect and his attempt at overcoming this dualism with the help of the concepts of freedom and play. Lastly, I will address some specific problems that arise from Reinhold's and Schiller's concepts of freedom and autonomy and show how the simultaneous employment of different concepts of autonomy leads to conflicting ideals of aesthetics and morality in Schiller.

Schiller's writings on ethical and aesthetic theory fall mainly in the period 1792-96. After some years of struggles in his work as a dramatist-he finished the Don Carlos in 1787 after five years of writing-he turned to theory, reading widely in the areas of history, aesthetics, and philosophy. Most of all it was the philosophy of Immanuel Kant that influenced him, a fact well known and much written about. After initially reading some of Kant's shorter essays on history, it was Kant's third Critique, the Critique of Judgment, that impressed Schiller enduringly.

The Kallias-Letters, written to his friend Christian Gottfried Korner during January and February 1793, was his first detailed reaction to Kant's aesthetic theory.4 Schiller tries there to refute Kant's claim that no objective concept of beauty is possible. He does so by utilizing Kant's concept of moral autonomy, the moral self-legislation of practical reason, in the realm of the aesthetic. He assigns the "appearance," the similitude, of autonomy to natural or artificial objects that appear to be "determined from within" themselves, by their own "nature." "Nature" is the particular essence of a thing, "so to say, the person of a thing," as Schiller puts it.5 In inanimate objects it is the form that expresses this essence and correspondingly must shape the material of the object completely; in animate objects the living forces perform this task. "We perceive beauty everywhere, where the mass is completely dominated by the form and (in the plant and animal kingdoms) by the living forces (in which I locate the autonomy of the organic)."6 For this kind of autonomy, Schiller uses the term "heautonomy," which he takes over from Kant.7 In contrast to Kant, he employs the concept in order to describe the regulative character of aesthetic, not teleological judgment. "What is perfect can possess autonomy, in so far as its form is determined purely through its concept; but only beauty possesses heautonomy, because only in beauty is the form determined by the inner nature."8

Moral autonomy is the self-legislation of practical reason in a sensible-- rational, human being. Schiller takes this concept from Kant. "Free" in this context means "through reason," and that means through concepts. "Pure self-- determination in general is the form of practical reason. When a rational being acts, it must act from pure reason, if it is to show pure self-determination. When a mere natural being acts, it must act from pure nature, if it is to demonstrate pure self-determination; for the essence [Selbst] of a rational being is reason, the essence of a natural being is nature. …

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