Jón Thor Gíslason

Be a Realist, Turn Romantic

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written by Jón Thor Gíslason

With manifold meanings, in our modern world the noun “Romanticism” and the adjective “Romantic” appear more and more often. The desire of becoming more familiar with nature and a strong need for an identity of one´s own are on the increase. How can that be?

The perception of our reality is getting more and more abstract, strange and objective, the gulf between man and nature wider and wider. The experimental sciences with their mechanical, external, artificially designed view of the world, sociobiology, the cognitive neurosciences, the inductive natural sciences – all of them keep working towards this alienation, which has arisen between subject and object. As a consequence of such an objectification of reality, the self is likely to disappear gradually. If inward experiences, if the feeling we gain through our immediate senses, if these things have to be dismissed as a pretence, an illusion that cannot provide us with any persistent answers concerning reality – what then could we stay familiar with? Materialism, too, is trying hard to materialize the self. Dialectic materialism as represented by Marx, Engels and Feuerbach, who put Hegel´s idealism upside down, says that it is not the idea that “exists” and creates and moves reality but matter “exists” and moves by itself and will only in the human head change into an idea. Thus matter decides on whatever we do or leave. Accordingly, the self, self-consciousness, is just a link in a chain of cause and effect.

Romanticism regards the union of subject and object as something self-evident. The Romanticist´s poetical approach to his object unites man with the world. Romanticism also means creativity and imagination, which are apt to bring about new modes of seeing, hearing, imagining and expressing; Romanticism means sensory thinking that strives for a holistic understanding of the world. What counts is not that which is isolated from the entirety but the entirety as a revelation of truth, the subjective notion, the effect of the complex organism. This is why Romanticism seems to be a proper means against the alienation of nature and the ego. Besides, Romanticism does not necessarily deal with any facts or some determinable style but with a mode of thought instead, a feeling. What we today call “Romanticism” or “romantic” had existed long before it was given a name. You need only think of the minnelied and the medieval romances of chivalry. Romanticism seems to have been  a constituent part of the human soul from the very beginning, even though to  varying degrees. Yearning and imagination allow us to hope, make anything imaginable and worth considering.

Yet, melancholy and adversity also belong to Romanticism. “The Romantic element lies in contrast”, says a statement from August Wilhelm Schlegel´s lectures on “Philosophische Kunstlehre” held at Jena in 1798. In Romanticism contradictions are always present, which is, by the way, not at all unknown to our modern world. Melancholy and optimism, intellectualism and irrationalism, idealism and realism, religiousness and atheism, pantheism and dualism – they all belong together. This is due to the Romantic urge for the reunion of opposites or a response of the Romantic creative imagination to times at which great changes in the ways of thinking show up. To all appearances, this also holds for the present time. At the moment, however, the urgent need is to rediscover the self as a reliable means of experiencing the world. In this respect, it is important to remember that Romanticism and Idealism were modern ideas in the 18th and 19th centuries, children of Enlightenment. Romanticism was, at that time, an outcry for freedom. Idealism was at then taken as seriously as were later, about the beginning of the 20th century, Henri Bergson´s theories on intuition as an expansion of the mind joining the instinct with the intellect. Eventually, however, the classic natural sciences gained prevalence and have, supported by materialistic philosophy, determined our world until today.
The Romantic view may well influence the sciences, as the romanticist is a person who makes the relevance of sense perception noticeable; he can enforce the internal dynamics of world experience and the enormous weight of the whole as an effective factor of our reality. Even kitsch and sentimentality, which may, according to their position in everyday life, be considered typically romantic, can be meaningful in this context. Kitsch – the only relic of the immediate sense perception of art – may, for this reason, be looked upon as a starting point, a gate opening on the world of sense perception.  Above all, the Romantic way of thinking might encourage those searching for new scientific methods so as to take the ego with its subjective interpretations seriously and include it in the research. In this connection, art regarded as the idealistic union of shape and content may be helpful, too. It is necessary to capture the inner fusion of shape and content by means of a subjective aesthetic perception (e.g. while looking at a work of art).The philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer calls this phenomenon the aesthetic non-distinction or the replenishment of recognition. It is an encounter with ourselves, with the mysteries of reality. Similarly, the sensual contemplation of nature  will often give us a feeling of distance at the same time close and familiar.
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In search of the sense of life, the autonomous mind grapples with transitoriness because the question of our responsibility for ourselves, for our fellow humans and for the life on earth in general is more urgent than ever. Sartre´s novel “Disgust” reflects the zeitgeist of the 20th century quite powerfully; its protagonist is filled with the feeling of futility and rejects the “perseity of things”. In this situation of resistance to nature he believes to comprehend the true sense of life, a freedom without values and taboos, the liberating sense of senselessness. About 150 years ago, it was Immanuel Kant who laid the foundation for this idea, which, for example, comes clear from the following quotation: “The mind does not derive its laws from but imposes them upon nature.”
Having turned away from “pure” theory for the sake of a positivist-materialistic basic attitude, we cannot but pay a high price for the loss of intimacy with nature. Originally, theory was always identical with existence allowing what can be recognized of entity to be obvious and true “in its own being”. Experimental physics, however, forces  true nature to find the final answer concerning reality among its pre-designed possibilities. The fact that the balance of flora and fauna has got out of joint is an unmistakable proof of the experimental challenge having gone beyond any limits.  Environmental pollution and the dramatic increase of natural disasters caused by climatic changes are also a distinct message to mankind, a writing on the wall. Man and nature belong together, we are part of this nature and therefore can neither ignore it nor do with it what we like – we ought to have become conscious of this by now, at the latest. Whatever we do to nature, we do to ourselves.

A permanent dominion over nature and the increasing objectification of reality mean a process that will destroy man´s body and soul unless we stop it. In our rational world, the rational-analytical methodology of the natural sciences inevitably rejects the subject´s inner experience, the immediate unity with nature, as an illusion. So, the reappearance of the Romantic is, finally, a genuine response of the human nature, which reflects the necessity of a change in thinking.