Fichte and the Romantics

  • Fichte and the Romantics

    Posted by Whit Blauvelt on March 2, 2024 at 5:35 pm

    Happened to start my car recently and the radio came on with a Vermont Public Radio discussion with a scholar of the original Romantic movement in Jena. Of particular interest, in connection with McGilchrist’s positive valuation of the Romantics, was the scholar’s description of how the original circle of youth from whom it sprang were avidly attending Fichte’s lectures in Jena at the time, and were particularly impressed with his strong claim to base ethics in the fundamental, “formal freedom” of the self. Fichte’s work was seen by both himself and Kant as an extension of Kant’s, who had initially discovered him and sponsored his first book’s publication.

    Fichte did recognize that for our freedom to be effective, our world has to obey deterministic principles such that we can freely cause determined effects. In the context of the hemispheric hypothesis might we associate our transcendental freedom (if Fichte, the Romantics, and the New England Transcendentalists are right that we have such) with the RH, and our facility with deterministic effects — necessary to effectuate our freedom — with the LH’s more object-oriented approach? That would fit the “master, emissary” frame.

    Where McGilchrist moves from his respect for the Romantics back towards the romance of medieval Catholic mysticism, Fichte was explicitly aligned with the Enlightenment prospect that we might progress beyond such myths. I’m curious whether the originators of the Romantic movement, enraptured by Fichte’s lectures and especially the focus on the essential freedom of the self, and the ethics that should follow from that recognition, romanticized the past, as McGilchrist somewhat does, or more headed towards a transcendental future which — well — transcended that.

    As a more practical question, might a philosophic approach focused on Fichte’s “formal freedom” be useful in — well — determining a healthier balance in our own hemispheric tuning?

    Gary replied 4 months, 2 weeks ago 2 Members · 4 Replies
  • 4 Replies
  • Gary

    March 4, 2024 at 7:38 pm

    Hi, Whit,

    I am impressed also deeply impressed that the Romantics, including folks like Fichte, Schelling and Blake, were blazing a new trail that has been quashed by the excesses of the nominalistic materialism of modernity and the overriding dominance of the left hemispheric worldview which has brought us now to the edge of oblivion. In the general approach of the way of the Romantics, I would include the work of French phenomenologists, Henri Bergson, Maurice Marleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Lévinas (as quite distinct from his colleague Martin Heidegger), and the American ‘father of pragmatism’, Charles Sanders Peirce, as well as the writing of Jungian disciple, Erich Neumann, and historian of human consciousness, Jean Gebser ( especially as laid out in his book, ‘The Ever-Present Origin’ ). I think there is something important in the distinction between the left and right hemispheric approaches to temporality, the former being ‘Chronotic’ and discontinuous, and the latter being ‘Kairotic’ and continuous. I think this comes out most clearly, with respect to ethics, in the philosophy of temporality of Lévinas, who described his philosophical ‘project’ as the ‘de-formalization of time’. With respect to understanding the Lévinasian approach to time and the key issues addressed in his philosophical oeuvre, I found this paper by James Mensch to be extraordinarily helpful along with some other resources addressing Lévinas’s philosophy of time… Like Eric Severson’s book, ‘ Lévinas’s Philosophy of Time’…published by Duquesne University Press…

  • Whit Blauvelt

    March 6, 2024 at 3:33 am

    Hi Gary,

    Thanks for the reading suggestions. As for the focus on time, I’m just finishing Raymond Tallis’s Of Time and Lamentation. His conclusion is very much focused on time, and on the artificiality of our parsing the world into objects. It’s a shame he and McGilchrist are antagonists, with such an overlap of insights. But then, Tallis is also far more logical in style and structure than McGilchrist — although no where near so much as Fichte.

    Part of my puzzlement in this territory is with the notion that our modern cultures have strayed from Romanticism, since my own circles have largely not. But then, I studied with Allen Ginsberg, who was entirely Blakean in his orientation. I also studied with Paul Grice, whose focus on intentionality dovetails nicely with Tallis’s. I learned mushroom hunting from Paul Stamets, a fellow student then. Subsequently I was in the Seattle generation from which grunge emerged (the best of which is quite Romantic), then in the initial waves turning formerly quite parts of Brooklyn bohemian, subsequently decamping to small town Vermont — a largely Romantic state for centuries. My friends who haven’t been artists have been art critics, art historians, art handlers, art restorers … and a few writers and crafts people.

    I just read an entirely wonderful book, Rethinking Thought, by Laura Otis, who like McGilchrist straddles neuroscience, which she got her masters in, and literature, which she currently teaches alongside being a successful novelist. The book is based on her interviews with creative people, about the modalities of thinking in which they do their work — high-end function rather than the examples of dysfunction Iain focuses on. There are many different ways to do well, in terms of working in verbal, visual, spatial and other modes, and their translations and combinations. She does not care for the common (i.e. pre-McGilchrist) characterization of the LH as “bully” and the RH as the visual-spatial superior. She also focuses on how the visual and spatial intelligences are, per recent research, not the same, with spatial intelligence (like language) somewhat based in Broca’s area. She argues that those who make the most creative contributions often achieve them through developing whichever modalities come to them with the most difficulty.

    The question I’ve just submitted for Iain is: “Is it possible to shift the origin of the introspective gaze from one hemisphere to the other? Can one look alternately from the point of view of the master, or of the emissary? Or, if they each somewhat independently persist with their own point of view, is there some superior, third point of view which may integrate them, or may be achieved as the realization of their best harmonization?

    “Then, might the seat of will, as the point of origin of consciously-mediated action, also shift between hemispheres?”

    I suspect the answers to each of these is “Yes.” Also, Fichte’s “formal freedom” is a clue.



  • Whit Blauvelt

    March 6, 2024 at 4:32 pm

    The Mensch article is excellent. I don’t know Levinas at all. The issue of projection or prospection is nicely discussed with a more America accent in Homo Prospectus ( ). There’s also Max Velmans’ work on projection, for a British voice. What Heidegger seems to be missing, by Mensch’s account, is the whole awareness of presence, in which the projected prospects of self are not accepted as constituting self such as Heidegger mistakes them for. In is only by being in presence, temporally, that we have prospects to project ourselves in and thus find ourselves reflected there. At least, that’s where Tallis ends up. What should I read of Levinas?

    • Gary

      March 6, 2024 at 8:20 pm

      So, I have a whole section of my private library related to Lévinas, both translations of his original writing from French to English, and secondary literature commenting on his ideas. I think that a good basic introduction to Lévinas would be the Colin Davis Jr book ‘Levinas. An Introduction.’

      But if you are interested in Levinas’s project as he defined it–the ‘de-formalization of time’–then I have found the book by Eric Severson called ‘Levinas’s Philosophy of Time’ published by Duquesne University Press to be a summary of Levinas through the lens of this particular perspective which is a theme that runs throughout Levinas’s philosophical writings. Levinas’s major focus is ‘Ethics’ from the perspective of French phenomenology as well as Husserlian German phenomenology, although approaching Levinas as a counterpoint to the phenomenological perspective of Husserl’s rebellious student, Martin Heidegger, as Heidegger laid in out in ‘Being and Time’, and who was a powerful early influence on Levinas, who had gone to Freiburg to study with Husserl, but ended up encountering and being influenced by Heidegger while being supervised in his thesis by Husserl. But World War II produced a fundamental ‘parting of the ways’ between Levinas and Heidegger. Levinas, who was Jewish and originally from Lithuania, joined and became an officer in the French Resistance, was captured and interred, and lost most of his family back in Lithuania, while Heidegger became a Nazi. While Levinas utilized the basic philosophical framework that Heidegger had developed, as pointed out by Mensch in his essay, they had fundamental differences in how the ideas were to be applied in the context of human existence. While Heidegger placed his emphasis on ontology, self-preservation, and the need to live courageously and ‘authentically’ in the shadow of the certainty of one’s own death, Levinas recognized that relation to the Other, and the ethical approach to relationship, and obligations in relationship to alterity–ie. to the ‘Other’, were of greater importance and concern than a self-referenced ontological focus. Another summary of Levinas’s philosophical project oft quoted is that ‘ethics precedes ontology’. Responsibility is of higher value than freedom, and that freedom is a necessary prerequisite for fulfilling obligations to care for the Other and to address their needs. I think this stark contrast between Levinas and Heidegger is included fairly nicely in the essay by Mensch.

      There are a number of good books about other aspects of Levinas’s philosophical oeuvre… ‘Levinas and the Wisdom of Love’ by Christopher Beals, the Levinas guide page on the Duquesne University Press website… , ‘Levinas and the Trauma of Responsibility’ by Cynthia Coe reviewed here: , and ‘Longing for the Other. Levinas and Metaphysical Desire’ by Drew Dalton see:

      …is also a good book about Levinas’s particular ideas regarding different forms of ‘desire’.

      So there are some ideas for you, Whit. The other towering figure in the context of modern philosophy for me is Charles Sanders Peirce, father of American pragmatism (which he termed ‘Pragmaticism’ in order to distinguish his form of this philosophical approach from related others).

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