“Poetry is the Hero of Philosophy”: Novalis’s Metaphilosophy.


Novalis is perhaps best known to contemporary philosophers for his aphorism, “Philosophy can bake no bread; but she can procure for us God, Freedom, Immortality.”

But less well known is the following sentence: “Which, then, is more practical, Philosophy or Economy?”

In other words, Novalis is saying that philosophy is profoundly more practical than economics.

As opposed to Philosophy, with its fundamental interest in matters metaphysical and non-instrumentally moral, Economy can bake bread; but, given the existence, hegemony, and alienating, oppressive effects of capitalism, whether in the late 18th, 19th, 20th, or early 21st centuries, it’s at best bread-and-circuses.

Even less well known is Novalis’s metaphilosophy, which I’m particularly interested in because it seems to me to confirm beautifully what I wrote in “What is a Work of Philosophy?”

But I won’t repeat all that here, except to quote this:

If this is all correct, then … philosophers, for all their historical, recent, and contemporary activity, their mountains of publications, their hundreds of thousands (millions?) of “talks,” etc., etc.,

(i) have, thus far in the history of philosophy, only scratched or touched on the outermost surface and potential of what philosophical works can be and do (that’s the positive, exciting thought), and

(ii) as card-carrying contemporary professional academic philosophers, they’re systematically strangling, killing, banning, hiding, and/or suppressing indefinitely many actual or really possible works of philosophy, possibly even to the point that, later in the 21st century, if things go on in the same way as they do now, real philosophy will simply die, and so-called “philosophy” will survive only in a permanent, professional academic zombie-condition, the endless night of the philosophical living dead (that’s the negative, apocalyptic thought).

The rest of this edgy essay is taken verbatim, with one small elision, from Pauline Kleingeld’s all-around excellent article, “Romantic Cosmopolitanism: Novalis’s Christianity or Europe,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 46 (2008): 269-284, at pp. 276-278.

Novalis’s View of Philosophy

Novalis’s views do not lend themselves easily to the kind of description and analysis normally recommended in most Anglophone philosophy departments. Because he does not argue for his view, at least not in the strict, non-romantic sense of “arguing,” and because he believes that a direct, discursive exposition of his view is necessarily inadequate, even the description of his view is, methodologically and practically, a tricky matter. It is tempting to try to make romantic philosophers academically respectable according to current mainstream philosophical standards by steering clear of quotes filled with hot tears and banquets of love or with young churches in sweet embraces with loving gods. But selecting quotes on the basis of their palatability or expository nature leads to misrepresentations. It would make Novalis look like an ordinary philosopher by currently dominant standards, where in fact he rejects the customary view of the goal and methods of philosophy.

Yet Novalis was steeped in the philosophical tradition that includes thinkers such as Kant and Fichte, and he was highly reflective about his own stance toward that tradition. The metaphilosophical notes that he took during his philosophical studies provide the necessary clues for describing his view of philosophy in more customary terms, and these methodological notes also provide valuable hermeneutic keys to his poetry….

A good starting point is Novalis’s critique of Enlightenment philosophy. In his eyes, Enlightenment philosophers have adopted a mechanistic attitude towards thinking. They cling to definitions, neat categorizations, and the rules of logic. “They have learned to derive and infer like a shoemaker has learned to make shoes” (Bl, II 431: #47/17). Like other romantics, Novalis criticizes Enlightenment philosophers for undervaluing the role of the creative imagination. He objects to the common opposition of reason and imagination. Indeed, he occasionally equates the two by saying, “Reason is immediate poet—directly productive imagination” (AB, III, 421: #782).[i] In his view, philosophers who aim at exhaustively describing the truth in discursive and “literal” language, banning poetry from the realm of philosophy, will not attain it. Truth cannot be packaged and communicated ready-made by one person to the next. Arriving at, or better, striving for the truth is a matter of creativity and spiritual activity (and receptivity) on the part of the truth-seeking individual.[ii]

This view can be better understood against the background of (and as a radicalization of) the Copernican Turn in philosophy, on the one hand, and of Kant’s notion of the productive imagination and genius, on the other. Novalis shares  with Kant the view that the subject is world-constituting. Knowledge should not be understood in terms of the mind’s tracking independently existing objects. Rather, objects conform to the structures that the subject imposes on the world. But Novalis disagrees with Kant as to how the world-constituting role of the subject should be conceived. He loosens up Kant’s analysis of these structures, which he regards as too rigid, and he greatly expands the role of the imagination.

With Fichte, Novalis endorses the idea of an absolute ground of self and world. He criticizes Fichte, however, for what he sees as the latter’s foundationalism. He objects to Fichte’s account of the I’s immediate self-awareness and stresses that the absolute ground is not accessible and evades definitive description. Rather, using a concept from Kant, he calls it a “regulative idea” (FS, II, 254: #472). The idea of a ground of self and world, however, implies to Novalis that both are intimately related, that the distinction between thought and reality is fluid, and that the self is constituted in the process of cognizing/imagining the world as much as the world is constituted in the self’s act of cognizing/imagining it (ibid.).[iii]

Novalis combines the view of the world-constituting role of the subject with a broadened notion of genius (a much-debated notion at the time). Genius, Kant had said, is “a talent for producing something  for  which  no  determinate  rule can be given, not a predisposition consisting of a skill for something that can be learned by following some rule or other; hence the foremost property of genius must be originality.” The products of genius are so highly original, in Kant’s view, that although they serve as models once they are produced, artists follow no communicable procedure and are not able to “describe or indicate scientifically” how to bring such products about (CJ, V,  307–08).[iv] Novalis agrees with much of this account, but whereas Kant strictly limited the sphere of genius to fine art, Novalis lifts this restriction and regards genius as relevant to all areas of human experience. Consequently, there is no sharp distinction between the real and the imagined. Novalis calls genius “the capacity to discuss imagined objects as real ones, and also to treat them as such” (Bl, II, 421: #21/12).[v]

Novalis occasionally refers to his own view as “magical idealism” (TF, II, 605: #375; cf. AB, III, 315: #399), in contrast to Kant’s “transcendental idealism.” “Magic is the art of using the world of sense arbitrarily [willkürlich]” (Poeticismen, II, 546: #109). It is the art of turning external objects into thoughts and thoughts into external objects. “Both operations are idealist. Whoever has completely mastered both is the magical idealist” (AB, III, 301: #338). Hence, Novalis challenges the common distinctions between the internal and the external world, between the natural and the supernatural, between knowing, thinking,  and  imagining, and so on. Poetic inspirations (“revelations of the spirit”) are at once imaginings and reality.

This should not create the impression that just anything goes. Novalis rejects philosophical “anarchy” (FS, II, 289: #648). Philosophy, in his sense of magical idealism, is still oriented toward the idea of the absolute. By consciously juxtaposing different descriptions of it, however, it bears witness to the fact that this idea cannot be attained or even exhaustively described. It has “infinite determinations,” says Novalis (FS, II, 290: #649). Elsewhere, he speaks of “experimenting with lightness and multiplicity” and of the “free method of generation of truth” (AB, III, 445: #924): “Fichte and Kant . . . do not know how to experiment with lightness and multiplicity—not poetic at all—Everything is still so stiff, so fearful.”

In a passage in his Hemsterhuis studies, Novalis elaborates on his alternative view of philosophy:

Hemsterhuis has a wonderful passage on spirit and letter in philosophy. According to him the letter is merely a help for philosophical communication—the true essence of which consists in after-thinking [nachdenken].[vi] The speaker merely leads the direction of thought in the hearer—and thereby it becomes after-thinking. He thinks and the other thinks after him. Words are an untrustworthy medium of fore-thinking [vordenken]. The genuine truth must, according to its nature, show the way. Therefore, the only thing that matters is sending someone onto the right road, or better, giving him a certain direction towards the truth. He will then get there automatically, if only he is active, desiring, to get to the truth. The exposition [Darstellung] of philosophy consists, therefore, merely in themes, first sentences—certain sentences that push [Stoßsätze]—the exposition exists only for active lovers of the truth. The analytical elaboration of the theme is for slow or unskilled ones, those whom the mother first needs to teach how to fly, and how to maintain a certain direction. (HS, III, 373–74: #35)[vii]

Thus, while there is a propaedeutic role for “analytic” treatments, true philosophy points one in the right direction, instead of trying to secure particular conclusions. Philosophy is essentially a matter of communication between persons, between speaker and hearer. Both are active and creative in this process—Novalis also speaks of “philosophizing together” (Gesammtphilosophiren: HS, II,374: #35). He does not assign the task of “showing the way” to the guild of academic philosophers. He rejects the sharp distinction between philosophy and literature and holds that anyone with the love of truth and the right spiritual attitude counts as a philosopher—in fact, that most academic so-called philosophers do not fit this description and that many poets do. Because philosophy should provide Stoßsätze, be evocative instead of discursive, and give pride of place to the imagination and feeling, “poetry is the hero of philosophy” (Anekdoten, II, 590: #277; cf. CE, III, 515–16/69–71).[viii]


[i] See also FS, II, 258: #498: “Practical reason is pure imagination”; and AB, III, 418: #775: “The creative imagination is divided into reason, power of judgment, and power of sense [Sinnenkraft].

[ii] See also Novalis’s description of philosophy and its history in the Logological Fragments (1798), II, 522–32.

[iii] See also Beiser, German Idealism: The Struggle against Subjectivism (1781–1801) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 432. For an extensive discussion of Novalis’s views, situating him among his philosophical contemporaries (though with an emphasis on Novalis’s Fichte-Studien), see Manfred Frank’s Unendliche Annäherung, and its (shorter) English counterpart, The Philosophical Foundations of Early German Romanticism, trans. Elizabeth Millan-Zaibert (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2004).

[iv] References are to Kants Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Königlich Preußischen Akademie der Wissen- schaften (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1900–). ‘CJ ’ refers to Critique of Judgment.

[v] A more in-depth discussion of the differences and similarities between Novalis’s and Kant’s notions of genius lies beyond the scope of this essay.

[vi] In ordinary usage, the word means “to think.” Novalis here makes use of the fact that the word includes the preposition ‘nach’, which means “after.”

[vii] Also, but with some alterations and without reference to Hemsterhuis, in LLF [1798], II, 522: #3. Hemsterhuis’s own text is less radical. See his Alexis ou De l’age d’or, in Oeuvres Philosophiques (Paris: Jansen, 1792), vol. II, 168.

[viii] Novalis’s distance from Hegel is very clear here. On Hegel’s view, philosophy should move beyond poetry and be “strictly conceptual.” Novalis’s conception of poetic philosophy should make one wary of interpretations of him as a Hegelian avant la lettre, as found in Theodor Haering, Novalis als Philosoph.

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