Early Romantic Nationalism
Essays Society

Early Romantic Nationalism

Eamonn Bellin

On Critical and Dogmatic Epistemologies

After decades of dormancy, the nationalist far right is once more on the march in Germany. Having vowed to “take our country back”⁠—from Brussels, from liberals, from immigrants⁠—the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) holds ninety-two seats in the Bundestag federal parliament and is represented in fourteen Landtag regional parliaments. No far-right party had ever before gained parliamentary representation in post-war Germany. As of the 2017 federal elections, the AfD was the Bundestag’s third-largest faction. The rise of today’s far-right nationalists is so troubling because of the devastation wrought by nationalism in the previous century. The outrages of fascism, its specters of secret police, show trials, death camps, and wars of conquest, all done in the nation’s name, have forged a powerful link between nationalism and authoritarianism. The two, however, are not inseparable.

To defend against nationalism’s authoritarian tendencies, liberal democracies have deployed “civic nationalism” to defend republican institutions and individual rights, as seen in Great Britain and the United States during both World Wars.[1] From John Stuart Mill through Yael Tamir, scholars have located in nationalism an answer to the “mobilization problem” in democratic society. Both nationalism’s diversity of political possibilities and its discursive features that determine such possibilities can be gleaned from one of the most vibrant periods in German intellectual history: early Romanticism.

When the early Romantics, chief among them Novalis, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and the brothers Schlegel, congregated in the university town of Jena between 1798 and 1804, a vigorous debate arose around how to define the nation, how to interpret this definition and how to apply it to political practice. Underlying this interplay of ideas, the period demonstrates how the epistemological basis of nationalistic concepts shape nationalist political practices. The early Romantics show that the scope of political practices does not depend on the content of nationalistic concepts themselves, but is vested in the meanings that make these concepts comprehensible in a historical discourse. Significantly, the meanings attributed to nationalist concepts during early Romanticism were not primarily political, historical, or ethical, but epistemological.

As understood by early Romantics, the epistemologies that undergird authoritarian political practices are dogmatic. Epistemologies that champion freedom are critical, precluding authoritarianism by arguing for the plurality and plasticity of claims to knowledge. The former upholds an epistemology that is essential, exhaustive, and incontrovertible. The latter, one which is syncretic, challengeable, and revisable. These commonalities between dogmatism and authoritarianism, and between criticism and freedom, are not coincidental. Critical positions developed by the early Romantics show that resistance to dogmatic epistemology reinforces resistance to authoritarianism.

In their quest for a new paradigm of truth and value, the Romantics fused the arts and sciences.[2] They viewed modern life as morbidly fractured. Reductive classification in the sciences and rigid emulation of classical ideals in the arts had denuded humanity of its creativity and authenticity. The effects on society were equally deleterious, rendering human existence “philistine” and “barbarous.” The Romantics diagnosed society’s growing malaise as Trennung, or separation—further expressed as alienation, estrangement and division.[3]

Trennung itself had three chief aspects. First, there is disunion within the self, a conflict between abstract reason and sensuous passion as life is reduced to economic specialization. Next, there is division between self and others, arising from the decline of the traditional community and its substitution by social atomism and despotic regimes. Finally, there is human divorce from nature, shown by the technological exploitation of organic life as an expendable resource, denying nature our wonder and respect.[4] Through Trennung, the central human pursuit of Bildung, cultivating a unique perspective and thus achieving harmony within the self, society, and natural world, is stifled.

This critique of modern divisiveness motivates the Romantics’ nationalism. The three major divisions in modern life—within self, community, and nature—demand a unifying ideal to overcome Trennung’s stranglehold on life. To unite the self is the aspiration of the Schöngeist, the “beautiful soul”—harmony of thinking and feeling expressed when rational duty and passionate impulse converge. Separation from nature would be redressed by a paradigm of science that celebrates all life for its capacity to grow and flourish.

Most relevant to their conception of the nation is the Romantics’ solution to social division. They envisioned an “organic state,” in which each person realizes her individuality through a compassionate and free interchange of values with her countrymen.[5] The organic state rises and develops meaning through its own history. As Hegel during his involvement with Jena Romanticism wrote, “unrelenting absolutism” destroying historically grounded bonds and obligations, and “made people forget their medieval heritage.” Corroding intersubjective empathy and cooperation, this loss of heritage “was the ultimate source of all the ferments of the revolutionary age.”[6] The font of social harmony, the organic state is also a vehicle for individual freedom. Inculcating a sense of community couched in mutual heritage, the organic state does not have to resort to coercion to compel the individual obedience.[7] The French Revolution, as understood by the Romantics, degenerated into despotism because it was ignorant of this organic basis of individual freedom. In exclusively appealing to abstract rights, the revolutionaries divided reason from passion, dooming them to the conflictions of Trennung.[8]

Novaliss’ Christianity or Europe distills the ideal of an organic state into a positive program for political practice. The essay centers the organic state’s promises of social concord and individual freedom in a political community that uses heritage to instill individuals with a unique creative agency.[9] Novalis romanticizes the Medieval Holy Roman Empire as an ideal of human harmony. In Novalis’ depiction of the Empire, “faith, love and harmony” pervaded all of society: the state was uncoercive; religion promoted unity and not schism; and personal relationships were based in mutual understanding and trust.

In portraying the past idyllically, Novalis aims to expose present corruption: oppression, extremism, inequality, and indifference to suffering. In his allegorical telling, Medieval Germans obeyed the law without coercion because they considered themselves integral to an organic whole. Moreover, they contributed new, creative modes of societal expression without inciting conflict. Drawing from the same cultural well, albeit differently, they appreciated even disparate perspectives as reflecting themselves and not as foreign.[10] Novalis does not contend that this depiction of the past is historically accurate. This utopic vision is used to spur his contemporaries into recognizing that, despite their fractured present, they share a heritage which could serve as the basis for unity, and thus freedom and flourishing.[11]

The Romantic conception of the organic state is articulated with particular clarity by Johann Gottfried Herder. The dual importance of freedom and community in “Do We Still Have a Fatherland?” flavors Herder’s nationalist thinking. Herder advocates for the nation as a political community because it recognizes and nourishes communal empathy, shared history, and collective purpose. Sociability is enriching. Isolation from others mistakes human life as “the Ptolemaic system, making one’s own lump of clay the center of the whole.”[12] Yet the nation with which one associates is not rigidly predetermined. Herder rejects that “there is no fatherland beyond the land of one’s birth.”[13] Sociability precedes ethnicity. Mutual empathy, not lineage, is central to a community. Likewise, common heritage does not determine individual character. Voluntary identification with an intergenerational tradition, “a great chain” forming bonds of “arts, sciences, culture and language,” forms the nation./[14] Further, the nation enables individuals to “think, to work and to have successful effect for the common cause.”[15] For Herder and the early Romantics alike, this common cause pertains to humanity universally, which can be unified and emancipated when nations become the primary mode of political association.

Although the organic state unites its members, it is not derived from them. The organic state cannot be deduced from rational principles or the bare assent of its members as in social contract thought. Nor can the dictates of the organic state be founded on an unchallengeable authority, like the absolutist monarchies of the eighteenth century. The organic state’s authority, freely acknowledged by its members, stems from its own continuous growth. For the Romantics, then, the political community cannot be attributed to an explicit, sufficient cause. To Friedrich Schlegel, it is “a pretension that one has pure solid empirical facts, Empirie, entirely a posteriori.” Such an assumption “sanctions an extremely one-sided, highly dogmatic and transcendent a priori view” of human society, ineluctably ending in Trennung.[16]

Accordingly, the organic state is irreducible to “pure, solid empirical facts” whether expressed through ethnicity, divine right, a social contract, or a corpus of laws.[17] Such an understanding of the political community highlights the shaping power of epistemology—a critical epistemology—in the Romantics’ conception of the nation. The idea of the organic state originates in the Romantics’ rejection of reductive epistemologies. Deriving all truth from absolute principles, these epistemologies are denounced as “dogmatic” by the Romantics.

The Romantics distinguish between those epistemologies they spurn as “dogmatic” and the “critical” epistemology that they embrace. Dogmatic epistemologies pretend to hold absolute knowledge. Friedrich Schlegel warned that “the rigid abstraction of foundationalism allows only the derivation of general concepts regarding, not the individual facts of, experience.”[18] The dogmatic propensity in epistemology is that of “a seeker after foundations, a Grundsucher.”[19] To yearn for absolute explanatory grounds is not unique to any philosophic system. For the Romantics, much of Enlightenment thought was guided by a pursuit of absolute principles, including both rationalists like Leibniz and empiricists like Locke. In their dogmatism, even ostensibly contradictory philosophies are indistinguishable, such as Fichte’s radically free Ego and Spinoza’s deterministic monism. Thus, it is as equally “futile to think as Fichte does that first principles could be proven because there is never an end to deduction” and to endorse Spinoza’s error in rendering “nature absolute and explaining the self as its product, thus [making] the absolute transcendent and unanswerable to criticism.”[20]

To the Romantics, the common error of both—and the cardinal failure of modern thinking—is absolutism. Whether manifested in Fichte’s absolute insistence on freedom or Spinoza’s absolute claim of determinism, dogmatism is unmistakable. Dogmatic thinking is pernicious because it divides theoretical explanations of reality from reality as experienced. In ascribing all explanatory value to a few, fundamental principles, dogmatic epistemology establishes abstract systems of truth that are divorced from the variety and vibrancy observed in nature. This can only reinforce Trennung. A critical intellectual posture, the Romantics hold, is required to mend these ruptures. As Friedrich Schlegel wryly observed: “Now that philosophy criticizes everything that comes before it, a critique of philosophy would be nothing better than a justified reprisal.”[21]

The Romantics’ critical position recognizes “the irresolvable conflict between the conditioned and the unconditioned”—namely, that abstract thinking can never grasp all of nature. As Novalis noted, “everywhere we seek the unconditioned,” the fundamental essence of our experiences, and “find only the conditioned,” or subjectively partial renderings of them.[22] This critical position recognizes that intellectual creativity can address both our craving for explanation and inability to offer sufficient explanations. A creative intellectual stance acknowledges that human conceptions of the world are incomplete, but is dedicated to their progressive recreation. Hereby “the constant change from self-creation to self-destruction” marks all fruitful intellectual endeavor. In the Romantics’ critical epistemology, reason harmonizes with poetical imagination. A “creative philosophy that originates in freedom” is achieved, showing “how the human spirit impresses its law on all things and how the world is its work of art.”[23] Using Novalis’ analogy: “every acquaintance, every incident would be for the thoroughly spiritual person. . . the beginning of an endless novel.”[24] No division then, is so rigid that it cannot be overcome, for the world is constantly being creatively reinterpreted.

The early Romantics protested the divisiveness of contemporary society in all its facets, including the political. Overcoming Trennung restores cohesion to human life, enabling free and authentic self-realization. Such harmony entails an “organic state.” Invested with mutually shared traditions of heritage and controlled by the equal initiative of its members, the members of the organic state recognize their irreducible unity. Such a state is untouched by the division and unfreedom of either a social contract or despotic regime.

The Romantics consciously base their politics of freedom on their critical epistemology. A critical epistemology that enshrines creative agency motivates a politics of communality and freedom, a politics wherein community and freedom are not balanced against one another but are inseparable and reinforcing. A dogmatic epistemology, on the other hand, which promulgates absolute explanations, ensures a politics of division and repression. The work of the early Romantics does not permanently separate nationalism from authoritarianism. Too many thinkers, including the early Romantics’ Neo-Romantic successors, base authoritarian arguments on nationalist themes for such a separation to be tenable. Yet, by showing nationalism’s epistemological basis, the early Romantics point to the diversity of political practices stemming from nationalism and its potential to undergird a politics of communal harmony and freedom.


1. Michael Ignatieff. Blood and Belonging: Journeys Into the New Nationalism. ^
2. Frederick Beiser, The Romantic Imperative, pg. 24. ^
3. Jane K. Brown "Romanticism and Classicism." In The Cambridge Companion to German Romanticism, edited by Nicholas Saul, pp. 119-32. ^
4. Frederick Beiser, The Romantic Imperative, pp. 31-32. ^
5. Ibid, pp. 37-38. ^
6. George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Verfassungschrift, in Hegel: The Essential Writings edited by Frederick Weiss, pp. 54-55. ^
7. Matala de Mazza, pg. 202. ^
8. George Philip Friedrich von Hardenberg, Novalis: Philosophical Writings, translated and edited by Margaret Mahony Stoliar, pp. 21-24. ^
9. Pauline Kleingeld “Romantic Cosmopolitanism: Novalis’ “Christianity or Europe” in Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 46, no.2 (2008). pp. 269-284. ^
10. Ibid, pp. 6-8. ^
11. Pauline Kleingeld, Romantic Cosmopolitanism, pp. 271-272. ^
12. Johan Gottfried Herder. “Do We Still Have a Fatherland?” in Johann Gottfried von Herder: Philosophical Writings, translated and edited by Michael Forster. ^
13. * Ibid*, pg. 106. ^
14. Johann Gottfried Herder, “Treatise on the Origins of Language.” in Johann Gottfried von Herder: Philosophical Writings, translated and edited by Michael Forster, pg. 160. ^
15. Johann Gottfried Herder. “Letters for the Advancement of Humanity” in Johan Gottfried von Herder: Philosophical Writings. Trans. and Edit. Michael Forster. Cambridge U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002. ^
16. Friedrich Schlegel. The Early Political Writings of the German Romantics. Edit. Frederick Beiser. (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pg. 22. ^
17. Ibid. ^
18. Friedrich Schlegel, quoted in Frederick Beiser, The Romantic Imperative, pg. 129. ^
19. Ibid, pg. 130. ^
20. Andrew Bowie, “Romantic Philosophy and Religion,” in The Cambridge Companion to the German Romantics, pp. 175-190, pg. 183. ^
21. John McCarthy, “Forms and Objectives of Romantic Criticism,” in The Cambridge Companion to the German Romantics, pp. 101-118, pg. 107. ^
22. George Philip Friedrich von Hardenberg, Pollen in The Early Political Writings of the German Romantics, pg. 9. ^
23. Friedrich Schlegel, Dialogue on Poesy in Theory as Practice: A Critical Anthology of Early German Romantic Writing, edited by Jochen Schulte-Sasse, pp. 180-195. ^
24. George Philip Friedrich Hardenberg, quoted in The Romantic Imperative by Frederick Beiser, pg. 87. ^

Feature Image: Weimar's Courtyard of the Muses (1860) by Theobald Freiherr von Oer via Wikimedia Commons.