HENRY CRABB ROBINSON, ESSAYS ON KANT, SCHELLING, AND GERMAN AESTHETICS by James Vigus, ed., Reviewed by Eugene Stelzig
 

HENRY CRABB ROBINSON, ESSAYS ON KANT, SCHELLING, AND GERMAN AESTHETICS
Ed. James Vigus
(MHRA Critical Texts Vol. 18, 2010)
Reviewed by Eugene Stelzig on 2011-07-01.

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Quick question: out of all early nineteenth-century Englishmen, who knew most about the new German literature and philosophy? The obvious answer would seem to be Coleridge. But think again: this new edition of Henry Crabb Robinson's philosophical writings on the revolution of thought in Germany offers striking evidence that the true answer is Robinson, who, as a young intellectual and aspiring man of letters, lived in Germany from 1800 to 1805 and studied for several semesters at Jena. Unlike Coleridge, Robinson was no poet or original thinker, but his enthusiastic yet clear-eyed grasp of the intellectual landscape of Germany and of its language (in which he rapidly developed an amazing proficiency) is unmatched by any other Englishman of his time.

Vigus' "critical edition of Robinson's published and unpublished work on German philosophy and aesthetics" bears impressive witness to Robinson's expertise and fills a void, because although "scholars have sporadically acknowledged the outstanding quality of Robinson's philosophical essays...until now no edition has appeared" (vii). The appearance of this volume is also timely, given recent scholarly interest in Robinson, including the research and publications of Vigus and my own study of Robinson's extended stay in Germany. Vigus is also assistant editor of the Crabb Robinson Project (headed up by Timothy Whelan), whose long-range goal is a scholarly edition of Robinson's Diary and Reminiscences in Dr. Williams's Library totaling (according to the Dr. Williams's website) "more than four million words."

Eight decades ago, René Wellek (Kant in England, 1931) drew attention to several articles on Kant that Robinson contributed to a new and short-lived journal, The Monthly Register. More recently, Ernst and Diana Behler have explored Robinson's role as a cultural mediator of German philosophy and literature. But as Vigus notes, this new edition of Robinson's essays features "texts [that] have until now remained unedited and hence overlooked in critical debates about the English Romantic reception of German thought" (1). These include the manuscripts of several lectures he presented to Madame de Staël on her visit to Germany in 1804, when she recruited Robinson as her first informant for her subsequent book De L'Allemagne (1810/1813). While this famous book nowhere mentions Robinson's role as her philosophical and literary informant, and while the extent of his influence on her presentation is still open to question, Vigus persuasively claims that "Robinson's manuscripts...provide evidence both of a philosophical journey and a complex process of cultural transfer by which the metaphysics and aesthetics topical in Jena and Weimar around 1800 spread to Europe" (1).

As a young Dissenter and aspiring man of letters, Robinson went to Germany more or less by serendipity--"from a vague wish to be where I was not" (Edith J. Morley, The Life and Times of Henry Crabb Robinson [1935] 8). Yet by one of the quirks of literary history he ended up as an important channel of communication between English and German literary and intellectual culture in the early nineteenth century. And he was also the first source on the new philosophy and literature for the French aristocrat and writer who achieved a pan-European renown for publishing the book on the subject. Freed by a modest inheritance from a legal clerkship in London, Robinson set off for Germany in April 1800 without a settled plan but ended up becoming "more intimately acquainted with its language, customs, and points of view than any other Englishman of his generation" (Morley, Life and Times 11). His immersion in the new literature, especially that of Goethe and Schiller, and in the Critical Philosophy of Kant and the post-Kantian idealism of Schelling, proved to be decisive intellectual events in his life. Kant's three Critiques, which he tackled with some tutorial assistance, proved to be quite a trial. But after spells of despairing bewilderment--"Kant has made me unhappy...I cannot understand him," he complained in November 1801--he considered himself something of an expert and even disciple by the time he worked his way through the third Critique (on Judgment), convinced that "the Kantian Philosophy...will and must be the great ruling system" (qtd. Vigus 5). With Vigus' critical edition we can now better appreciate how well Robinson mastered the Kantian and post-Kantian currents of thought in the opening years of the nineteenth century, and how well he explained the substance of this philosophy to an English audience.

In his lucid Introduction, Vigus argues that Robinson turned to Kant because he had grown increasingly dissatisfied with late-Enlightenment empiricism (including Hartleyan associationism and Priestleyan necessitarianism). According to Vigus, Kant's philosophy solved the central question of Robinson's German studies, namely "the question of human freedom and its implications for religion" (1). By 1802, Robinson wrote, "I am converted from the dogmatic assertion of philosophical necessity," and epitomized his new-found allegiance with the striking formula, "to comprehend & to be a convert to Kant were the same" (qtd. Vigus 6). In the wake of his philosophical conversion, Robinson wrote four articles on Kant, three of which were published. But unfortunately, Vigus notes, the "fourth and most original paper on Kant...was rejected, presumably as too abstruse for the readership" of the Monthly Register, and "Robinson's articles duly sank into obscurity" until they "found sympathetic expositors in Wellek and Ernst Behler" (Vigus 5-6). Based on a careful reading of Kant's three Critiques, these four "Letters on the Philosophy of Kant, from an Under-Graduate in the University of Jena" are a vade mecum to his Critical Philosophy for those who know little or nothing about the philosopher. As Vigus' illuminating and detailed footnotes make clear, "Robinson was working directly from Kant's texts" (7). By consistently identifying the sections of the Critiques that Robinson refers or alludes to, Vigus shows exactly what he did with them. Furthermore, in his lucid overview of the "Letters," Vigus explains why the young Englishman would have found Kant's philosophy an attractive (re)solution to the skeptical doubts occasioned by the materialist and atheist implications of late-Enlightenment empiricism.

Vigus points out that Robinson's "thorough intellectual background in Anglophone thought and his discontent with its conclusions" had prepared him "for the Kantian transcendental turn" (11). An early admirer of William Godwin's philosophy, Robinson found Kant's thought surprisingly similar: "Godwin's Political Justice, in the first edition," writes Robinson, "has much, very much, of the exalted morality of the German school" (qtd. Vigus 11). Although "Robinson has relatively little to say about the Categorical Imperative and Kant's concept of duty," Kant's philosophy helped to bridge the huge gulf between British empiricism and German transcendentalism, "building a new form of semi-religious certainty that arguably repaired what remained unsatisfactory in both Godwinianism and Priestleyan Unitarianism" (11-12). But Robinson's conversion to Kant was not uncritical. To Robinson, the free will that Kant presents "as the keystone of the whole edifice of a system of reason" seemed to be made of sand: "Kant's assertion of liberty," Robinson wrote, "stands but on a suspicious ground and there is no part of his work so feeble as this" (qtd. Vigus 13).

Robinson's command of German philosophy, however, reached well beyond Kant. When he "refers to the 'new school' of German philosophy," writes Vigus, he knows "that this is an umbrella term for a wealth of post-Kantian speculation" and "he made his acquaintance with much of this material at the same time as his Kantian studies" (12). Thus, "even as he declared himself 'a convert' to Kantianism, he was participating in enthusiastic discussions that would now be labeled 'post-Kantian' or 'early Romantic'" (15). The most eminent and influential of the post-Kantian philosophers was Schelling, whose Jena lectures on Naturphilosophie and the Philosophy of Art Robinson attended (after matriculating at the university at the end of October 1802). According to Vigus, "two related points emerge particularly strongly in [Robinson's] presentation of Schelling: first, that Schelling 'reverses' the system of Kant; and second, that he is a reviver of Platonism" (16). As an inquiring spirit and religious seeker, Robinson must have been impressed by Schelling's reversal of the Kantian assumption that we can never have direct knowledge of the Ding an sich and his idealist insistence that through "'intellectual intuition'...we are immediately conscious of the Absolute" (qtd. Vigus 16). Yet, just as Robinson was put off by the dry, dense, abstract prose of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, he also brought a dose of skeptical British common sense to the soaring but obscure formulations of Schelling's philosophical idealism, which he refused to swallow whole. "Schelling," he reported, "considered me as a disciple which I am not" (qtd. Vigus 18). Indeed, in his correspondence Robinson satirically describes "a Philosophy in its pretensions more glorious than any publicly maint[aine]d since the days of Plato" delivered to an audience of "more than 130 enquiring Young Men" who "because it is the fashion listen so patiently" to what "not one in 20 comprehends And which fills their heads only with dry formularies and mystical rhapsodical phraseology" (Morley, ed., Crabb Robinson in Germany [1935] 118 ).

It was Robinson's knowledge of the "new" German philosophy, including his lecture notes on Schelling's philosophy of art that made him so useful to Madame de Staël. During her two-month stay in Weimar (accompanied by Benjamin Constant) in 1804, Karl August Böttiger, "the ubiquitous Weimar headmaster" and journalist, asked Robinson to serve as her informant because although her "interest in Kant had already been stirred...her grasp of German philosophy was as yet only elementary" (Vigus 18-19). This new edition sheds fresh light on what Robinson gave her. While Ernst Behler used Böttiger's copies of two of the "4 Dissertations on the new Philosophy" that the French writer had requested of Robinson (19), Vigus for the first time provides the texts of three of the surviving manuscripts at her estate at Coppet as well as her marginal notes on these. In his lectures, Vigus observes, Robinson stressed "the notion of the disinterestedness of aesthetic judgment." Especially in the lecture called "On the German Aesthetick or Philosophy of Taste," which Vigus finds "the richest and most successful of all" (18), Robinson introduced her--according to Böttiger--"to the main points of Kantian aesthetics" (qtd. Vigus 20). In Vigus' evaluation, "Robinson's achievement was to show his audience how the notion of aesthetic autonomy largely stemmed from Kant, yet without reading it too strongly back into the Critique of the Power of Judgment." Constant's response to this two-part lecture, recorded in his journal, suggests a link between Kantian aesthetics and (the later) French Romanticism: "diner avec Robinson, ecolier de Schelling. Son travail sur l'Esthéthique de Kant. Idées trés ingénieuses. l'art pour l'art et sans but."[Dinner with Robinson, student of Schelling. His work on the Aesthetics of Kant. Very ingenious ideas. Art for art's sake and without any other end.] Following Frederick Burwick (in Mimesis and its Romantic Reflections, 2001), Vigus suggests that "since the group spoke French together, it is even possible that Robinson himself was the first to invent the phrase ["l'art pour l'art"] (Vigus 22).

Robinson's writings themselves serve multiple ends. Whatever the impact of his letters on Kant in early nineteenth-century England (probably negligible), and of his four lectures on Kantian and post-Kantian aesthetics on the author of De L'Allemagne (probably substantial), the corpus of published and manuscript material edited by Vigus remains a fascinating guide to the dynamic intellectual and literary culture of Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century. As Vigus points out, his "essays still offer an accurate, pleasurable and witty introduction to Kant and the post-Kantian ferment of German philosophy" (vii). In the first "Letter," for instance, Robinson explains, "Kant calls his the critical philosophy, because, instead of considering the human mind merely as the receptacle and instrument of truth, he makes the objective truth subordinate to the mind. My procedure says he,--is analogous to that of Copernicus" (32). According to Robinson, the Copernican revolution in thought is the fundamental program of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, whose gist (in Robinson's words) is, "Let all metaphysical enquiries, theological, cosmological, or moral, be preceded by a critical inquiry into the faculty itself" (32). I wish the professor in the Modern Philosophy course I took a lifetime ago had explained Kant's purpose as clearly as did Crabb Robinson more than two centuries ago.

If Robinson's initial formulation of Kant's agenda is somewhat simplistic, his concise account of Kantian "Metaphysics" in the second "Letter" is more sophisticated: "'the Criticism of Pure Reason' is an enquiry into the faculty of reason, whether pure knowledge, a priori, can spring out of it; how this is possible; what the extent of this knowledge is, whether it leads us to the knowledge of mere objects of experience, or whether we can know by help of it, objects that are supersensible.--These are the sublime problems of the Kantian philosophy, which, in as much as it contains the system of a priori conceptions, is the transcendental philosophy" (39). In a brief and hitherto unpublished essay on the Third Critique, Robinson identifies the "great author" as foundational for "the present state of literary criticism here," and epitomizes "the most profound of Kant's 'Criticisms'" as "the Key-stone of his general philosophy" that "fills up the critical arch, binding & uniting the distinct systems of theoretical & practical philosophy unfolded in his former works" (50). In The Critique of the Power of Judgment, as Vigus explains, "Kant announces that this critique will combine the theoretical (first Critique) and practical (second Critique) parts of philosophy into one whole" (fn. 105, 50).

Robinson's admiration for Kant did not keep him from pushing beyond the limits he set to human understanding. In the fourth "Letter," Robinson offers his post-Kantian or Schellingian-idealist speculations. After discussing the philosopher's "Transcendental Idealisms of Space & Time" he playfully uses the Platonic tradition as a launching pad for fanciful flights toward ultimate reality. In thus stretching "the great tendencies of this [Kantian] system as it appears to me," he knows that he is not offering "Kant's inferences; on the contrary they involve views which Kant seems purposely to have avoided" (46). But speculate boldly he does: "And thus I have fulfilled my promise and shown how a disquisition concerning Space & Time involves in it the highest speculation, by suggesting the Idea of an absolute Being" (49).

As it was being formulated by the "modern Plato" at Jena, Schelling's ambitious philosophy clearly stimulated the religious and intellectual aspirations of a young Englishman dissatisfied with the reductive certainties of the empirical tradition of his native land. Summarizing the basic difference between Kant and Schelling in his second lecture on "The Philosophy of Schelling," Robinson explains how Schelling "reverses" Kant's "System": "The Thing as it is in itself (in se)," he writes, "which K. placed before him as the unattainable End of our Enquiries, Schelling puts behind him as the starting post from which he sets out." Schelling "calls it the absolute and assumes it, not as an abstract or general thought, but as a substance whose reality is immediately felt by the Mind" (125). Also illuminating are lectures on "Schelling's Aesthetics" transcribed by Robinson (printed both in German and in Vigus' English translation), especially the philosopher's insistence on the primacy of art as the ultimate revelation of the divine ("The complete, real image of the absolute in the ideal world is art," 75). Strikingly enough, some of Schelling's formulations ("The work of art is in the midst of time yet independent of time, i.e., utterly eternal" and "Beauty and truth are in themselves one" [75]) are later echoed in Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn." But to my mind some of the soaring abstractions of Schelling can come across as platitudinous ("The originator or the formal cause of all art is God himself" [77]), and his bias toward idealism blinds him to the brilliance of Hogarth's graphic satire. "The deepest abyss of painting," Schelling wrote, "is the historical caricature-painting of Hogarth," who "had a completely mean nature...and was a complete bungler in all forms of painting" (107).

Some of Robinson's comments on German philosophy and criticism can be perfunctory. In briefly concluding his lecture "On the German Aesthetick or Philosophy of Taste," he characterizes the Schlegel brothers as "unquestionably the most piquans in the whole compass of German Criticism" [137]). Nevertheless, Vigus' authoritative, scholarly edition of Robinson's Essays is an essential text for anyone interested in late Enlightenment and early Romantic thought in Germany and in what Robinson's did to disseminate that thought beyond the borders of the German-speaking world.

Eugene Stelzig is Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at SUNY Geneseo. His recent publications include the edited volume Romantic Autobiography in England (2009) and Henry Crabb Robinson in Germany: A Study in Nineteenth Century Life Writing (2010), which won the 2010 Jean-Pierre Barricelli Book Prize for the year's best book in Romanticism studies.


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