Romanticism Research Paper

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Romanticism was a broad intellectual movement within modern Enlightenment that aimed at bringing the arts together with philosophy, history, and religion and attempted to aesthetisize life. The central objective was a philosophico–political reconciliation of the fundamental connectedness of life, which was seen as damaged in the present, with the individual, with love, and with beauty. Although it was a wide European movement, it was in particular German romanticism that significantly influenced art and literature as well as the philosophy, psychology, and history of modernity. The key participants in the circles of Berlin and Jena as well as of Heidelberg, as the most important groups, were August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767–1845), Dorothea Caroline Michaelis/Schlegel/Schelling (1763–1809), Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829), Brendel Mendelssohn/Dorothea Veit/Dorothea Schlegel (1763–1839), Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis, 1772–1801), Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), Rahel Antonie Levin Markus/Varnhagen von Ense (1771–1833), Henriette Herz (1764–1847), Karoline Gunderrode (1780–1806), Sophie Schubart/Merau/Brentano (1770–1806), Clemens Brentano (1778– 1842), Bettina Brentano/von Arnim (1785–1859), Achim von Arnim (1781–1831), Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775–1854), Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814), in the broader environment Friedrich Holderlin (1770–1843); as well as Johann Joseph Gorres (1776–1848), Jacob Grimm (1785–1863), and Wilhelm Karl Grimm (1786–1859).

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The impact of romanticism on the emerging social sciences can be demonstrated across the following areas: (a) knowledge and hermeneutics; (b) culture and society; (c) critique of modernity; and (d) reason and aesthetics.

1. Knowledge And Hermeneutics

Whereas Enlightenment thought starts out from the assumption of the intelligibility of the world and lets its knowledge of the world predetermine its view of the arts, romanticism turns this relation around and— with reference to Kant’s critique of reason—denies philosophy’s primacy with regard to knowledge. Science (Wissenschaft) was to be ‘beautiful’; analogies and metaphors were to enrich and complement scientific-scholarly practices; and the ‘novel of life,’ in which all arts and sciences unite, should unfold from an ever-open, progressive concept of form. ‘The absolute,’ ‘freedom,’ and ‘nature’ become key concepts of philosophical debate. Within such core of romanticist perspectives, however, important differences and contradictions co-exist. Friedrich Schleiermacher, for insistence, turns against Friedrich Schlegel’s progressive universal poetics (progressive Universalpoesie) and insists on the boundaries and relative separateness of the diverse aspects of reality (religion, science, art, aesthetics). In addition, the new mythologization appears to him as an unwarranted intervention of human action into the absolute. He contradicts Schlegel’s characterization of infinity with its inclination towards dissolving ethics, since under conditions of achieved finite freedom the autonomy of the other needs to be respected. Even though he rejects any ahistorical contractual thinking, he thus combines an ethics of obligation with an ethics of virtue.

Within this framework, the task of hermeneutics according to Schleiermacher emerges from the following movement of thought. If thinking occurs in intersubjective individuality, then there needs to be an art of understanding, which compares that which is one’s own critically with that which is of the other. Thus, such art can approach the infinite spirit that is always already at work in everything individual. Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics—which can well be seen as part of an aesthetics, of a ‘theory of artistic activity’ (Schleiermacher 1984, p. 154)—investigates writing and speech under the following aspects: with regard to general grammar, in psychological-subjective perspective with regard to the genesis of authorship and work, by comparative procedure and, finally, by divinatory procedure. Understanding occurs in a historical process that encompasses both reader and author. Although understanding aims at agreement, this process can nevertheless not be closed (see Frank 1977). Not least Walter Benjamin (1991) has demonstrated that it is only the reader as the extended author who completes the work of art. Thus, he showed that the romantic way of ‘raising reflection in the work to a higher power’ contained a ‘more modern’ theory of art than can be found in Goethe. The impact of hermeneutics continued through Wilhelm Dilthey to Hans-Georg Gadamer (Ferraris 1998).

Beyond hermeneutics, theology, the study of religion, classic studies, and philology, psychology and psychoanalysis show signs of a romantic heritage. Early romanticism showed a particular interest in phenomena at the margins of reason, such as magnetism, occultism, somnambulism, and telepathy (Johann Wilhelm Ritter 1776–1810, founder of electrical chemistry). Late romanticism—Gotthilf Heinrich Schubert (1780–1860)—was concerned with the analysis of the human unconscious and systematic studies in the symbolism of dreams as a linguistic system (Symbolik des Traums, 1814), in particular, can be considered as predecessors to Freud and his cultural criticism (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, 1912). Themes of the split I (the motif of the Doppelganger), trauma, loss of identity, melancholy, and delusion as well as, in particular, the imagery world of sentiments in, for example, the works of Johann Ludwig Tieck, Jean Paul, Heinrich von Kleist, or E. T. A. Hoffmann were well known to Freud.

2. Culture And Society

There is a clear impact of romanticist thinking on Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm (1785–1863 and 1778–1859), whose historically and empirically comparative research on language opened the space for the identity-constituting role of the emerging Germanistik (German studies) and at the same time already separated the natural sciences from the human sciences.

Romanticist impact, though, is particularly evident in that problem area that is currently discussed under the denomination of ‘identity’ (Friese 2001). Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803; Uber den Ursprung der Sprache, 1772; Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit, 1784–1791), whose work connects Rousseau to romanticism, already meant what is now called ‘collective identity’ when he spoke of the inalienable ‘character’ (Geburtsstamina) of a people. Following up on Herder and relating to motifs in Friedrich W. Schelling—motifs that found their continuation in the theory of archetypes as developed by C. G. Jung and Mircea Eliade, Aby Warburg but also in Ruth Benedict’s work—the search was for universal and constant features of culture that found regionally diverse expressions. These concepts have in common that they postulate a universalism in terms of the laws of the human psyche on the one hand, while working with a particularism in terms of the variety of different ‘identities’ of peoples on the other. The assumption of ‘collectively shared’ representations was also one of the conceptual pillars of the ‘psychology of peoples’ (Volkerpsychologie) and of the emerging sociology. It was Wilhelm Wundt who provided the most comprehensive view of psychology and the cultural sciences. His late writings (Grundrisse der Psychologie, 1898, Volkerpsychologie, 1917) focused on those psychic phenomena that are significant for the social life of human beings and that are at the roots of community and of the emergence of creations of the collective spirit. The reference to Herder’s ‘spirit of the people’ (Volksgeist), which describes the supra-individual features of the members of a people, is as evident as the one to Wilhelm von Humboldt whose comparative linguistic investigations entailed a comparison of ‘people’s characters.’ The impact of Wundt—whose writings were known by Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski, but also by Emile Durkheim—extended as far as Lucien Levy-Bruhl.

Next to the emphasis on linguistic and psychical factors for the formation of identities, the distinction between Gemeinschaft (mostly translated as ‘community’) and Gesellschaft (‘society’; see Schleiermacher, Theorie des geselligen Betragens, 1799) as well as the particular relations between society and state (Fichte, Beitrage zur Berichtigung der Urtheile des Publikums uber die franzosische Revolution, 1793), that were established in romanticism and reaching from republicanism to a thinking in terms of natural rights to a skepticism towards the state, lived on in the emerging social sciences. Even though they were considerably altered, these conceptual oppositions had an echo in virtually all dualisms between ‘traditional community’ and ‘modern society’ that were established by ‘classical’ sociology and maintained from Max Weber, Georg Simmel, Emile Durkheim onwards to the present day.

3. A Modern Critique Of Modernity

The crisis of the modern subject was made a central literary topic in romanticism (and was continued, inter alia, in Robert Musil or Franz Kafka). Friendship and love (Schlegel 1988) were counterposed to modern loneliness, loss of self, and the break of the individual with the icy machinery of society (as presented in Ludwig Tieck or E. T. A. Hoffmann). At the same time, forms of sociality were theorized as well as practiced in which an unadapted, anticonventional subjectivity mediated between the romantic individualism and the freedom of the subject on the one hand and the exchange with others on the other. Such forms of sociality were considered as the ideal of education (Bildung) in a comprehensive humanistic sense. Romanticism thus created an intellectual space in which women in particular, who were excluded from the university as an institution, occupied a central place.

The crisis of the modern subject, the romantic-enlightened cultural criticism and its dream of the ‘noble savage’ were in the background of the emerging field of anthropology (Georg Friedrich Creuzer, 1771–1858) and in the ‘imaginary ethnography’ of the nineteenth century (Kramer 1977, Said 1979). It continues to be effective as the escapism into the exoticism of the other as well as in the current constructions of (cultural) identity and ‘difference’ in the era of ‘globalization.’ The modern critique of modernity, as prefigured by romanticism, is taken up in a variety of quite different strands of thought. Karl Marx states the human alienation under conditions of capitalism; Friedrich Nietzsche celebrates the ‘great separation’ against both Christendom and bourgeois morality; Max Weber condemns the ‘iron cage’, Martin Heidegger the being ‘fallen to the they’ (Verfallenheit im Man); Theodor W. Adorno denounces the administered world and the culture industry and Walter Benjamin laments the ‘loss of aura’. The (social) philosophy of the early twentieth century reclaims ‘authenticity’ and ‘emancipation’ and all these perspectives share in the critique of the Modern world as developed in romanticism and they point to a—indeed often denied—romantic heritage (in which, in particular, the connection between aesthetic experience and renewed religion, characteristic of early romanticism, is visible). The romantic critique of modernity, however, is an integral moment of the Enlightenment, and not its subjectiveirrational counterpart. This latter verdict has often been cast, and peculiar intellectual alliances can be found sharing it. It stretches from Hegel and the LeftHegelians to Heinrich Heine’s rejection of romanticism to Nietzsche and Carl Schmitt’s critique of ‘romanticism as subjective occasionalism’ as well as to George Lukacs. It finally culminates in the reproach that the modern-bureaucratic mass annihilation is a result of the romantic critique of modernity—a modernity that precisely created such horror.

4. Reason And Aesthetics

For August W. Schlegel, formulating the program of romanticism in his lectures on ‘arts and literature’ (Schone Kunst und Literatur, 1801 04), reason is founded not just on empirical perception, and the autonomous validity of poetry is thus emphasized. Romanticism, however, never abandons the concept of reason. Even when the technical-instrumental use of reason against nature is opposed, a comprehensive concept of reason is sustained. Despite all criticism of idealist systemic thinking, romanticism moves within the path of Kantian philosophy, behind which there is no falling back, and it shares in Kant’s rejection of the utilitarian grounding of morality in selfishness. Schlegel knows perfectly well the distinction between concepts of the intellect, which refer to the world of appearances, and concepts of reason, which refer to ideas and states that since ideas can be judged only by a reason that has enlightened itself about the limits of the possibility of knowledge.

In this context, early romanticism reacted to a situation in which the Enlightenment attempts to deal with the question of religion were difficult to sustain. Kant’s critique made the argument for belief on the basis of reason impossible. Lessing intervened into the enlightened criticism of the bible by publication of the Reimarus papers; the dispute over this inheritance culminates in F. H. Jacobi’s reproach of Spinozism (The dispute over atheism, 1789–99). Fichte justified his ‘Attempt at a critique of revelation’ (Versuch einer Kritik der Offenbarung, 1792) with the argument that revelation constrains the moral freedom of the human being. For Schleiermacher, the bible is a historical expression in the ever-incomplete path of Christendom, in the infinite perfectability of the world.

At the same time, romanticism addresses the problem of Enlightenment after the unity of reason and the tangible world could be cast only as the telos of action in the sense of a regulative idea, which never becomes real. Kant’s critique of reason had demonstrated that the claim that nature is the bearer of moral norms could not be justified. Nevertheless, human action in the process of history can provide experience as to whether reality is constituted by the actualization of regulative ideas. Such a concept of Enlightenment in which the relation between ideas and the world of appearances can be sensually experienced in the course of an infinite rapprochement has been expressed by Novalis and F. Schlegel by means of infinitesimal calculus, which lets the tendency towards the infinite be grasped within finitude.

A different path towards the unity of idea and world of appearances is provided by imagination and the arts. Fichte described productive imagination as ‘the faculty that is suspended in the middle between determination and nondetermination, between the finite and the infinite’ (Grundlage der Wissenschaftslehre, 1794, II, 360). The objective is here not reconciliation, but rather the insistence on remaining within a space of contradictions.

Fichte exerted decisive influence on Friedrich Schlegel’s aesthetic conceptions such as the ‘progressive universal poetics’ and infinite irony as poetic reflection. Such poetcs can ‘remain suspended in the middle on the wings of poetic reflection and free of all real or ideal interest, it can ever again produce such reflection and multiply it as in an infinite row of mirrors; […] the romantic art of poetry is still in its becoming; it is even its authentic being that it can ever only become and can never be completed’ (F. Schlegel 1988, II, pp. 114–15; Athenaums–Fragment, p. 116; see also Lyceum-Fragment, p. 108). The concept of infinite irony reassumes such a moment of infinite reflexivity, a reflexivity that is not limited by any fixation. Hegel—in the Phenomenology of Spirit and in the Aesthetics—attacked such conception, just as he criticized the transfer of Fichte’s philosophy into the arts.

  1. Schlegel referred here to Socratic irony, as presented by Plato (see Plato, Symposium, 216e), which according to Quintilian (Institution oratoria, IX, 2,44) brings the opposite of what is said to understanding. Irony is, in a dialogical reference, a double negation. It reflects on the possibility of things being different from what they seem to be and thus opens an ‘ironic space of play’ (Allemann 1956, p. 10). In contrast to allegory and metaphor, irony demands a principled and reflective understanding of the ambiguity what is meant and what is said, of essence and appearance. Friedrich Schlegel develops irony in particular in the Lyceum and Atheneum fragments and explains it in his essay ‘On unintelligibilty’ (Uber die Un erstandlichkeit, 1800): ‘The French Revolution, Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre and Goethe’s Meister are the grandest tendencies of the age’ (Fragment 216)—‘I wrote this fragment with the most honest intention and almost without any irony’ (237). The ‘system of irony’ (239)—in the plural forms of irony, from the raw to the fine, dramatic and double irony to the ‘irony of irony’ (239)—is turned here from a rhetorical trope into a basic element of philosophical reasoning. Irony becomes the infinite play back and forth between opposite moments, none of which can be led into univocality. Infinite irony is thus distanced from any kind of identity or mediation—as, for instance, in the sense of Hegel’s dialectic. When ‘idea’ is characterized as ‘a concept completed to the level of irony […] the change, ever again recreating itself, between two thoughts in dispute’ (Fragment 121, 115), then it is not a conceptually mediated identity that is at issue, but the persistent creation of difference. ‘Irony of irony,’ however, contains infinite regress, namely ‘when one speaks without irony about irony, as it has just been the case’ (239), thus when irony can no longer be mastered, ‘when one is no longer able to step outside of irony, as it appears to have been the case in this essay about unintelligibility; […] when irony, so to say, ironizes the poet […] when irony has to be made against one’s will […] when irony turns wild and lets itself no longer be governed’ (239–40).

Schlegel’s writings on irony have been received as well as criticized by, among others, Schelling, Schleiermacher, Novalis, Karl Wilhelm Solger (1780–1819), and Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55). Even though Solger (Vorlesungen uber Asthetik, 1819) remains with the negativity of irony that excludes absolute mediation, irony, originally thought of as infinite, is turned by him—and by Hegel—into a dialectically conceived moment of artistic activity. Following up on both Solgers and Hegel, Kierkegaard (Uber den Begriff der Ironie mit standiger Rucksicht auf Sokrates, 1841) regarded the infinite irony of romanticism as a subjective moment, seeing itself capable of separation from the positivity of reality. ‘For irony, everything turns into nothing’ (Kierkegaard 1993, p. 263)—and therefore Kierkegaard counterposes a controlled, limited irony to the infinite romantic irony.

Although the recasting of romantic irony thus appeared to have reached its end, recent attempts at rehabilitating irony refer back to this heritage, multiply broken and rewritten as it may be. Richard Rorty (1989, p. 123) attempted ‘to cleanse romanticism of the last traces of German idealism’—but ‘he overlooks that German romanticism has no need for him, since the inventor of theoretical irony had already taken his distance from early German idealism himself’ (Bohrer 2000, pp. 11–12). Rorty (1989, p. xv) then designs a liberal society in which irony has become universal, thus reducing irony to a plain liberal principle. The idea here is that a plural society with its variety of lifeprojects, language-games, and contingencies can no longer be determined or mastered from an allegedly superior viewpoint.

Beyond such political thinking, the heritage of romanticism has a particular current significance in theories of language. The determined opposition between what is meant and what is said, between the authentic and the inauthentic is, once it has been separated from its foundation in transcendental philosophy, dissolved in ‘infinite suspense’ and deconstructed as the vertigo of infinite recombinability in Paul de Man and as the emphasis on principled ‘undecidability’ in apparently fixed semantic orders of meaning in Jacques Derrida. The recent theoretical approaches, however, can hardly be considered a continuation of romanticism, but rather as the rewriting of romanticism, Enlightenment, and modernity as an inextricable philosophical complex, as ‘the rewriting of some traits that had been claimed by modernity’ (Lyotard 1988, p. 43).


  1. Allemann B 1956 Ironie und Dichtung. Neske, Pfullingen, Germany
  2. Benjamin W 1919/1991 Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik. In: Tiedemann R, Schweppenhauser H (eds.) Gesammelte Schriften. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Vol. I 1, pp. 7–122
  3. Bohrer K H (ed.) 2000 Sprachen der Ironie—Sprachen des Ernstes. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
  4. Ferraris M 1998 L’Ermeneutica. Roma GLF editori, Laterza, Italy
  5. Frank M 1977 Das individuelle Allgemeine. Textstrukturierung und -interpretation nach Schleiermacher. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
  6. Friese H (ed.) 2001 Identities. Berghahn, Oxford, UK
  7. Kierkegaard S 1841/1993 Uber den Begriff der Ironie mit standiger Rucksicht auf Sokrates. In: Hirsch E, Gerdes H (eds.) Gesammelte Werke. Gutersloher Verlagshaus, Gutersloh, Germany
  8. Kramer F 1977 Verkehrte Welten. Zur imaginaren Ethnographie des 19. Jahrhunderts. Syndikat, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
  9. Lyotard J-F 1988 Reecrire la modernite. In: Lyotard J-F (ed.) L’Inhumain: causeries sur le temps. Galilee, Paris, pp. 33–44
  10. Rorty R 1989 Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  11. Said E W 1979 Orientalism 1st Vintage Book ed., Vintage, New York
  12. Schlegel F 1800 1988 Uber die Unverstandlichkeit. In: Behler E, Eichner H (eds.) Kritische Schriften und Fragmente 1794–1828. Ferdinand Schoningh, Paderborn Munchen, Germany, Vol. II, pp. 235–42
  13. Schleiermacher F 1984 Asthethik (1819/25). In: Lehnerer Th (eds.) Uber den Begriff der Kunst (1831 32). Meiner, Hamburg, Germany


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