Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought, 1790-1800

By Frederick C. Beiser | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

The Politicization of German Thought in the 1790s

During the 1790s in Germany, philosophy was dominated by a single dramatic event: the French Revolution. Like no other event before it, the breathtaking and epoch-making spectacle across the Rhine politicized German thought. While political concerns were central to German thought before the Revolution, they had never been as public, polarized, and partisan as in the 1790s. Philosophers who had previously written little or nothing on politics became virtually obsessed with the questions raised by the Revolution. Almost all the writings of Kant, Fichte, Schiller, Humboldt, Forster, Jacobi, Herder, Schlegel, Novalis, and Wieland in the early 1790s were inspired, either directly or indirectly, by the Revolution.

The politicization of German thought in the 1790s did not mean that philosophers abandoned the realm of abstract theory to discuss the more mundane issues of the day. Throughout the decade philosophers continued to address the classical problems of epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics, and they did so with renewed vigor. Yet even these apparently remote and abstract fields became politicized in the 1790s. An epistemological, ethical, or aesthetic theory became a weapon to justify or achieve political ends.

The politicization of German thought in the 1790s also did not mean that philosophers identified with, or committed themselves to, specific political parties or ideologies. The equivalent of modern political parties and ideologies did not exist in Germany at the time. They were in the process of formation, to be sure, but they were not developed, organized, or self- conscious. Nevertheless, German philosophers in the 1790s were politicized in a perfectly straightforward sense: they had definite views about the proper form of government and organization of society; and their epistemological, ethical, and aesthetic theories were used to justify these views or were formed in light of them.

The 1790s mark the end of an age of intellectual innocence in Germany. Before the French Revolution the philosophers of the German Enlighten-

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