One of a handful of intellectuals in Britain with a deep sympathy for the golden age of European culture known as German Romanticism, Isaiah Berlin nevertheless resisted what he thought of as the intoxicating effects of the more extreme Romantic ideas. (The handful would surely also include the literary critic George Steiner - like Berlin, an émigré of Jewish descent). The end result of the “passionate, fanatical, half-mad” doctrines of Romanticism, he concludes in his study The Roots of Romanticism, is an understanding of the plurality of values and therefore - paradoxically - “liberalism, toleration, decency and the appreciation of the imperfections of life”.
This sane and erudite liberalism naturally also colours Berlin’s readings of Russian intellectual history (e.g. in the volume Russian Thinkers from which the quotes that follow are drawn) - which arguably constitute his other main contribution to British intellectual life. His understanding of German romanticism makes him uniquely able to discern its massive impact on 19th century Russian thought, allowing us to conceive the then emerging Russian intelligentsia - more than the French or American, and certainly more than the English - as the true heirs of the ideas of Herder, Schelling and Hegel.
Central to German Romanticism, Berlin perceived, was a recognition of the limitations of the mechanistic understanding of the universe which the European Enlightenment had brought to the fore, and a consequent exploration of non-scientific modes of understanding the world. While enlightenment thinkers sought to extend the methods of natural science to understand culture, the romantics sought a generalised hermeneutics modelled on the intuitive, unformalisable way we understand works of art, or each other. No longer a giant machine composed of separate parts, the universe became “a single spirit, a great, animate organism, a soul or self, evolving from one spiritual stage to another”. Understanding such a universe was therefore closer to aesthetic experience or mystical vision than a patient accumulation of facts and a formulation of laws.
Though sympathetic to these ideas, Berlin rejects them not merely because of the harmful political consequences he identifies them as having, but because they “vastly exaggerated the power and reliability of this kind of intuitive and poetical insight”. The romantic programme, despite important kernels of truth such as “the notion that the many activities of the human spirit are interrelated”, is ultimately “a fantasy, or at any rate a form of highly subjective poetry in prose”. Such judgements echo those of the logical positivists (with whose work Berlin would have been thoroughly familiar - he was a lifelong friend of A J Ayer, for example) who dismissed the entire history of metaphysics as literally nonsensical, or at best a form of poetry misunderstanding itself as philosophy.
There is, however, an air of confusion in this criticism of German romanticism. For if, as Berlin recognises, the romantics consciously modelled their epistemology on aesthetics, the idea that their theories can be seen as a product of ‘fantasy’ (a word whose greek etymology points towards imaginative insight, despite the negative connotations of the term in modern usage), and a form of ‘poetry in prose’ should be highly congenial to them: far from being a criticism of their theories, it could be seen as their consequence. Berlin half-recognises this problem in qualifying the term ‘poetry’ with the phrase ‘highly subjective’ - as if recognising that his criticism would be weakened if the poetry were of a more universal kind. A non-subjective, universal poetry, one that expresses the ‘spirit of the age’ and ultimately “the spirit of the universe conceived pantheistically as a kind of ubiquitous divinity” was of course just the kind of poetry Berlin accurately describes the romantics as striving for.
So the crux of this particular criticism of German romanticism is whether such a universal, non-subjective poetry (Progressive Universalpoesie was Schlegel’s definition of romantic poetry) is possible, or whether attempts to realise it inevitably degenerate into something purely subjective. And this question in turn depends on how we understand the distinction between subjectivity and the universality it is supposed to lack. On the romantic conception of subjectivity or selfhood, subjectivity and universality are not necessarily opposed. The idea of a ‘merely subjective’ poetry presupposes an enlightenment ideal of scientific objectivity whose pretensions the romantics sought to deflate.
Berlin is ready to grant that “the French philosophes may have exaggerated the virtue…of the application of the criteria of the natural sciences to human affairs”. Perhaps not surprisingly, a proper evaluation of German romanticism hinges on understanding the precise extent to which modern man has exaggerated the power of science to bring ‘objective’ knowledge of the world, as opposed to merely providing the tools to transform it.
Berlin concludes The Roots of Romanticism with the claim that the romantics were “hoist with their own petard” because their ideas lead naturally to a sceptical, pragmatic liberalism, despite the romantics’ intentions. Perhaps the truth is exactly the opposite: a sceptical, pragmatic liberalism leads naturally to a scepticism of exaggerated claims to scientific objectivity, and therefore a renewed appreciation for the ‘subjective’ powers of the romantic imagination.