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Kant's "Copernican revolution" in philosophy and the romantic "revolution" in English literature. Forst, Graham Nicol


The purpose of this study is to provide philosophical insight into the goals and achievement of the English Romantic poets by illustrating the relation between their understanding of the mind as generative of experience and the concepts of human freedom and creativity formally deduced by Kant in his Transcendental Idealism. Primarily, this relation is defined in terms of Kant's claim in the Critique of Judgment that the aesthetic function "mediates between" or "reconciles" the polarized realms of man and nature. But because the Critique of Judgment has been traditionally accepted as a mere afterthought for Kant, the force of this claim has been greatly underestimated. As a consequence, the full extent of the relation between Kantian and Romantic thought has not been appreciated. Therefore, I have introduced this study with a general survey of Kant's "Critical" teaching, designed primarily to examine the significance of Kant's claim for the aesthetic function, while at the same time outlining the philosophical background against which my main thesis is to be developed. Special attention is paid here to those aspects of Kant's system which most clearly define the terms of his own break from the dogmatic philosophies of his eighteenth-century predecessors, and which appear to relate most closely to Romantic thought: the deduction of the Productive Imagination and the consequent refutation of associationism; the necessity to distinguish between Verstand (Understanding) and Vernunft (Reason); the interpretation of man as self-legislating in the moral sphere, and the discussion of the origin and vital function of the sense of beauty and artistic creativity. In the second and more important part of this study, much of what is demanded in Kant by the sheer necessity of philosophical thought is shown to be present in English Romantic poetry as achievement and act. First, I demonstrate that the English Romantics were engaged in the same kind of inward-turning quest for certainty and permanence which led Kant to reject the dogmatic rationalism of the Enlightenment in favour of the "revolutionary" thesis that criteria of truth, goodness, and beauty are grounded not in "outward forms," but in the forms of human consciousness themselves. Second, I show how this reversal of the terms of naive empiricism leads the Romantics" into the same dualism of fact and value which emerges from Kant's critical investigation of human reason. Third, I show how the Romantics, like Kant, regarded this dualism as overcome in the aesthetic sphere, through the sensually "liberating" agency of beauty in art, and beauty or sublimity in nature. In this section my concern is not so much with the actual presence in Romantic literature of Kantian or Kant-like ideas, as with describing how Transcendentalist concepts "became constitutive" of Romantic poetry in terms of myth and symbol, and why such ideas were necessary for the "release" of poetry from eighteenth-century concepts. Thus, by respecting throughout the difference both in purpose and means between poetry and philosophy, Kant's theories and Romantic practise reveal themselves as complementary rather than antithetic modes of response to the spiritual and intellectual climate they shared.

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