NOVEMBER 2018 – Hegel, The Enlightenment, And Romanticism – Regarding Literary Theories

I went ahead and found a text book on LITERARY CRITICISM AND THEORY that has very
good reviews, for a book providing a compressed overview, without skimping on the in-depth details. And I want to do a section a month, which amounts to about 20 pages a month. I hope that we’ll get enough people following along to have some stimulating conversations.

In order to go in order, before we get into Romanticism, there’s a section on the 19th-century very-influential- philosopher, who I want to go through first for November, that philosopher being Georg Wilhelm Friedrich HEGEL. He’s one of the big ones. There’s a 20 page section devoted to him in the literary theory book I’ve linked to, and it directly preceeds two sections on Romanticism, and from there we can go through chronologically and cover many of the modern schools of thought. I think if we go through any faster we’ll only get a very superficial survey.

This speed and approach should give us a good look. But I am open to feedback if you think we should try something different. So, let me know what you think. Check out the book. You’ll notice the Modern section begins with a chapter on Immanuel Kant just before Hegel, but I think Kant, who I 1) don’t fucking understand and 2) think… his point was that there is no objective reality? Only our senses approaching some unknown THING out there, which could be something totally other than what it appears… Can be saved to a later time, so we don’t have two big wild philosophies before we get Romanticism. HEGEL, to me, is a very interesting philosopher because I think he uses language in a way that approaches CONSCIOUSNESS, to make Very Living Ideas, come back alive On The Page, and to do so, imploys Very Tricky Tricks with his convolutions, turns of phrase, etc. He tried to encompass all the philosophy that came before him, into his new philosophy. So it’s a good place to start, since he tries to found a new beginning, and his philosophy is caught right between the Enlightenment and Romanticism, and
he is enamored with The French Revolution, as many of the writers of the time were.

The Enlightenment, believed in perfecting humanity. The Revolution showed how chaotic things could become. So what is Romanticism? The synthesis of these cataclysms? We’ll look into the many things the Romantics spoke of! It’s a very rich period in literature. Read the chapter on Hegel and let’s go from there!

I’ve put together a guide of sorts for the chapter we’ll be going through, and pointed out some of the ways Hegel’s work relates to the art of writing and literary theory. If you want, take some notes and we can discuss your ideas at the Monday meetings in November! I know I’ve recommended the ‘Introducing: A Graphic Guide’ Series and the ‘For Beginners: Graphic Guide’ Series before, but wanted to point out that in addition to the Literary Theory editions, there is one devoted to Hegel as well, if you’re interested. Enjoy!:​

Why Study Hegel 

We’re studying the Philosopher HEGEL (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1770-1831) and
reading the chapter on him in the text book ‘A History of Literary Criticism From Plato to the Present’ (2005) by M. Habib. And then we’ll be proceeding chronologically, next through Romanticism, doing one section (about 20 pages) per month, after that.

Hegel, a monumental figure, is smack in the middle of a lot of traditions, is on the crux of many academic movements and conflicts as well – from the Enlightenment and Romantic movements, to the cataclysms of The French Revolution, to the two main schools of philosophy at work today known as Continental and Analytic Philosophy (worth investigating), his influence and importance, depth and difficulty, is universally recognized. 

Hegel united the poetic and personal aspects of philosophy and science in an attempt to totalize all that came before him.This is from ‘Introducing Hegel’ by Lloyd Spencer and Andrzej Krauze: “Hegel is a philosopher of awe-inspiring, monumental ambition. His philosophy aims to incorporate the history of all previous philosophies. He conceives of this entire history as a process of completion, as all of existence, indeed the cosmos itself, evolves to full self-consciousness. There is no room in Hegel’s philosophy for a God  outside or beyond the universe. His system presents itself not only as the self-consciousness of the cosmos, as Absolute Knowledge, but at the same time as an expression of the thoughts of God.”

Hegel’s belief in a path and purpose for history and consciousness is formed in his extremely difficult text ‘The Phenomenology of Spirit’, which outlines idea of conflict and overcoming through his system of ‘dialectic’ – how conversations and reasonable patterns of beliefs circuit through nature and one another from a Thesis- countered by an Antithesis, to recompound in a new belief with functions from both earlier beliefs- the Synthesis-. He shows his faith in the pathways of mind and in rationality itself by professing his philosophy of Absolute Idealism. His view that mind is evolving to greater awareness of its self, and that this greater self-awareness is reaching a new culmination even in his own philosophy, expresses both a view that History has some purpose and rationality, and also inclines one’s rationality to the faith in itself, his views have been seen as egoistic and overbearingly naive. His writing indicates that these universal themes of awakening are in natural expression all around us, and also in expression in
human works, but this has been questioned today after the twentieth century gave us things like World Wars and the holocaust as the receipts of this ‘World Rational Soul’.

But Hegel’s view was definitely right that events like the works of Descartes, who succeeded, with his statement ‘I think, therefore I am’, in separating theology from philosophy, giving us the individual mind standing on the earth as if for the first time, silted out as a substance, which Hegel proceeded to push forward into Subjectivity— And this is an important motion of Hegel’s. The move of substance to subject.


Substances, a main theme in philosophy of 17th century philosophers like Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz, had inherited talking in such ways from the Scholastic-Aristotelian tradition. It was largely an analytical way to divy up creatures and their attributes, to discuss how they behaved or theoretically could interact with one another. Like Descartes with his substances in the mind-body dualism. Or earlier discussions of angels and their relations to God in hierarchical great-chain-of-being speculations. Hegel takes the idea of Substances and moves into the realm of the subject, by cathecting the individual with their relationship with their environment, taking the Romantic view of the world that the subject and object (the Self and the World) are philosophically ONE. He makes this terrifying jump by at the same time claiming that the world is headed to perfection.

That reason in the end will win out. That there is a purpose to the madness of history. From static and individual, into a flowing interchange of becoming and transition. He strove to prove history a living tapestry, the very thoughts of God, by positing a striving towards some Absolute Reason – an idea very much in tune with The Enlightenment project, but also giving us the Romantic Science of his ‘Dialectic’, the pathways ideas take when they collide with each other in historical conflicts and the way progress is, allegedly, made. His Dialectic and his view of Art as an ideal form of expressing the Truths of reality, as well as his views on Aesthetics, make him a great study for artists. He finds ways to say the unsayable. His radical notion that, philosophically speaking, the ‘Nothing’ overlaps the same space as ‘The Everything’ and it is, in the shades and circuitous pathways between, around, fleeing, fleeting, escaping, BECOMING, that things exist, make him the author of a very sobering but also invigorating theory of STORYTELLING.

It is a very swift and maddening eye-opening potion, this metaphysics of his. In the portion of the article on him in the textbook, pay particular attention to the section where it speaks of the relationship of the bud, to the flower, and how one is never all one, or the other, but always becoming another.

The idea that one is never wholly one thing can say a lot about characters in our writing. One is never wholly a hero or villain, for instance, but always some shade of both, in one.


Romanticism is often said to be a reaction to the Enlightenment, which put a strong emphasis on grounding man in reason and getting rid of the superstitions of the past, (All Religion ranked among such, according to the philosophes of the time) and attempting to perfect man’s tenure on earth, even possibly wiping out the disease of mortality, according to the notes of one Benjamin Franklin.

The Terrors of the French Revolution were simply the birth pangs paid in the blood of the citizenry, and the incidental monarch, for what was largely a revolution orchestrated by the bourgeoisie, to establish a more mercantile and business ordered society. 

In many ways all of these trends were a continuation of Man’s track of individuation pushed forward by the Protestant Revolution, and the media revolutions of the printing press which fueled Martin Luther’s person-to-person religious apocalypses.

The Protestantism of John Milton, as he began his poem ‘Paradise Lost’ with the invocation to the Muse, summoning the Holy Spirit of God, “before all temples dost prefer / the upright heart and pure.” “He means just that; the is repudiating the temples, all of them, and offering instead his own arrogantly pure and upright heart as the true dwelling place of the crative Word of God. The Spirit that moved over the face of the waters and brought forth our world is identical with the shaping spirit dwelling within the soul of the inspired Protestant poet. [Harold Bloom, The Visionary Company]”

Harold Bloom describes this protestant spirit in his foreward to his book on the romantics ‘The Visionary Company’ (The forward being titled ‘Prometheus Rising’) says that John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ and Edmund Spenser’s ‘The Faerie Queene’ are the best preparation for reading Romantic Poetry.

“The spirit of Hazlitt (William Hazlitt, Romantic Critic), of Blake (William Blake), of the younger Wordsworth (William Wordsworth), of Shelley (Percy Bysshe Shelley) and Keats (John Keats), is a direct descendant of this Spenserian and Miltonic spirit— the autonomous soul seeking its own salvation outside of and beyond the hierarchy of grace. The spiritual nakedness of Hazlitt, Blake, and the others, is a more extreme version of that English nonconformist temper which had so triumphed in Milton that it made him a church with one believer, a political party of one, even at last a nation unto himself.[Harold Bloom, The Visionary Company]”


There was a view, espoused by Samuel Coleridge, that the French Revolution was the period of tribulation which preceeded the millennium, that is, the thousand year reign of heaven on earth. It is no wonder that a great theme of reaction to the Romantic upheaval was a great fear, that indulgence in one’s imagination, that this new emphasis on this thing, which poets were outlining and exploring, to separate it an exentuate it away from the powers of intellect and the less powerful ‘fancy’ (In Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’ for instance), to the point that it was thought imagination surely would lead to madness, and in fact many figures at the time spent parts of their lives institutionalized. Such as Swift, Cowper, Collins, Christopher Smart, and others (Samuel Johnson came dangerously close to it. [Bloom, The Visionary Company].

The most characteristic product of the Enlightenment is said to have been Denis Diderot’s ‘Encyclopede’. An attempt at a printed compendium at all human knowledge available at thetime. Diderot was one among a number of ‘philosophs’, who were the priests, soldiers, and propagandists of a new spirit of reason, tolerance, and progress. The ‘Encyclopede’ gave the definition of a philosoph as… ‘One who, trampling on prejudice, tradition, universal consent, authority– in a word, all that enslaves most minds– dares to think for himself, to go back and search for the clearest general principles, to admit nothing except on the testimony of his experience and his reason.”

“Josiah Royce passingly remarked a half-century ago that Hegel’s Phenomenology was akin to the contemporary Bildungsroman. (That is, a coming of age story.)

“We can be more precise and more circumstantial. By a remarkable feat of invention, Hegel composed the Phenomenology as a Bildungs biography, which is in a literal sense a spiritual history. It is, in other words, a biography of the “general spirit,” representing the consciousness of each man and Everyman, the course of whose life is a painfully progressive self-education, rendered in the plot-form of a circuitous journey from an initial self-division and departure, through diverse reconciliations and ever renewing estrangements, conflicts, reversals, and crises of spiritual death and rebirth. This plot turns out to be the unwitting quest of the spirit to redeem itself by repossessing its own lost and sundered self, in an ultimate recognition of its own identity whereby, as Hegel says in his concluding section, it can be “at home with itself in its otherness.” [Natural Supernaturalism, M.H. Abrams.

Holding up the Encyclopede against the Phenomenology, we see the Substance vs Subjectivity conflict writ large. A dictionary vs a living story.


The Romantics, who felt such a frisson when the French Revolution began, who rebelled
against the perceived cold rationality of the Enlightenment and sought to inject more feeling into the world, never referred to themselves as Romantics. This was a label provided afterwards by Victorian historicists. These writers referred to themselves with terms like ‘Sensuists’ and spoke often of ‘The Sublime’, and ‘Sublimity’ when speaking of their works.

The Roman-Era writer LONGINUS has a book ‘On The Sublime’ that outlined many of the
tenets of the Idea of ‘The Sublime’ which were revisited during the era Hegel was writing in, but which remain true and insightful today. These include:

Sublimity refers to a certain type of elevated language that strikes its listener with the mighty and irresistible power of a thunderbolt.

Unlike rhetoric, which merely persuades, the sublime overwhelms its audience, literally carrying the audience away to a higher realm of experience.
The sublime has the power to unite contradictions (concordia discors).

A sublime passage can be heard again and again with equal pleasure.

The sublime, and its power to transport, transcends both time and space. Consider, for
example, Tennyson’s poem Ulysses, especially the last fifteen lines.

It is not bathos or bombast: i.e., all that overwrought, pseudo-tragic clap-trap associated today with melodramatic soap operas.

It is not inflated, hyperbolic language that is used, inappropriately, to heighten subjects that do not merit such treatment.

It is not merely the use of fashionable expressions or fanciful images.


’On the surface, such a phrase would suggest that sublimity lies totally in the realm of genius, and is thus limited to those born with the gift.

Indeed, Longinus believed it was better to produce one great work of sublimity than a hundred faultless, but passionless, poems.

The sublime is the mixed product of both genius and art and, therefore, includes a component of skill.

This famous debate between genius and art is a perennial one in the annals of literary theory; we shall encounter it again.

There must be an appropriate, rational, organic relationship between form and content: high and low, serious and comic must not be allowed to mix (i.e., Longinus, like Horace, ascribed to standards of decorum). 

Poets should attempt to mimic in the sound of their poetry the sense that they are trying to convey. 

The best art hides itself; it seems more natural than nature herself.


All aspects of Hegel’s philosophy, logical, metaphysical, political, and aesthetic, are intimately tied to his philosophy of history. Hegel was the most articulate and influential advocate of what was later called “historicism,” the belief that we can understand phenomena – people, nations, events, and objects – only within their specific historical contexts, and that these contexts forman integral element in the constitution of these phenomena. Nothing, in other words, can be examined in abstraction from its particular history, its causes, its effects, and its specific position in a broader historical scheme, a scheme often said to be driven toward specific goals through the operation of inexorable laws.

In general, Hegel sees human history as a progress of absolute mind or consciousness toward self-conscious freedom. The movement toward freedom is equated by Hegel with a movement toward greater rationality, in both the operations of the human mind and the social and political arrangements which express these. Essentially, when our own minds have become rational and the laws and institutions that we live under are also rational, we shall freely consent to live by those laws. Hegel also characterizes this general movement as the progressive attainment of self-consciousness on the part of consciousness; in other words, as consciousness moves to higher levels, it perceives increasingly that what it previously took as the external world, as something alien and foreign to it, is in fact essentially constituted, at its deepest rational core, by its own operations. What was previously confronted as substance is now recognized as
subjectivity. Hence Hegel also describes this entire movement as a progression from substance to subject. It is a process that works both in the logical workings of consciousness and in the progression of consciousness through history.


This idea of substance becoming subjectivity is radical and also positive, though challenging because it gives us the responsibility for much of how the world is and can become. It says much of what we perceive of reality is dictated by what we have in ourselves as we are doing the perceiving. 

Between Being and Nothingness, is BECOMING.


Everything is one, and our characters don’t climb a ladder to arrive on the roof of their problem and thus ‘get over’ it, but instead, parts of their lives and their efforts and thoughts collide, their minds reflect, react, and the light bends and breaks from their heart and refracts in brilliant and troubling ways, with shadows and highlights, so that something shines out in the end, like kaleidoscope, where those things that shot through them are still a part of them. Our characters have conflicts, desires, and through their stories, they change. The important thing is that they take chances.

We move from substance – a man standing in a scene, flat and still– to subjectivity, a mind in a situation, trying, with desire, toward some goal, confronting some conflict.

“For Hegel, the most fundamental form of self-consciousness is desire.” As Hegel puts it,
“Self-consciousness is Desire in general.”


Read the section on Hegel’s Aesethics closely to understand the importance his philosophy places on Art.


THE EMPIRICISTS viewed Experience as an important part of how we receive knowledge and understanding. Hegel agreed with them on this, but went further by saying that we create much of our experience, and placing emphasis on this aspect of IMAGINATION like the Romantics (who thought the Enlightenment figures emphasized REASON too much in this place).

Hegel and the Romantics are thus great for philosophies of the Individual, the senses, and being present in the moment, and thus for stories and storytellers. Because much of what writers do is cultivating and expressing AWARENESS.

The MOTIONS of SUBSTANCE – INTO – SUBJECTIVITY – is an awesome alchemy. And we, as
writers, making our writing from what would appear to be mere words, (substance?), out of the daily lift of grind and grift, into something lofty and self-meaningful. Like Hegel’s aesthetic belief in ART as a way to rearrange reality into a way that shows the cut and shine, the facets of what seems plain glass, to diamond TRUTH. We take from our experience and research and Scrape together, from these and all we burn in the crucible, after we wipe the dross from the vial, we may FIND OUR GOLD…


The moving parts, crystalized into a language of our own,

Some style and STORY that fires the mind and we can believe in, like a holy thing.

We burn to reach that peak. And the work to get there might seem drudgery at times, but
inspiration is all around, and still we climb.

Hegel’s works are full of insight, and he speaks in language that seems difficult and obscure, but he has ways of taking that light to the gem and showing the deepest shines.

Good Hunting, Writers,


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