Enlightenment Rationalism and Romantic Subjectivism Essay

Enlightenment Rationalism and Romantic Subjectivism

In the eighteenth century social ahad a huge impact on individuals within a society. Two social theories in particular came to be during radical times. The enlightenment rationalism theory was based on human reason and rational thought. The romantic subjectivism theory was based on the importance of individual freedom with an emphasis on the subjective mind and culture. These two social theories were both highly influential during their time period, but have many differentiating ideologies. Enlightenment rationalism was developed first primarily by Rene Descartes and was later opposed by the Romantics after the French Revolution.

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The Enlightenment focused on the human mind and then later the absolute mind which showed where reality came from, while the Romantics focused on the extreme individualism (p. 34 & 75). The Romantics contradicted the idea brought on by the Enlightenment that “individuals were not primarily rational, but were motivated by emotions and feelings and understood things intuitively…” (p. 83). This idea was the main contradiction between the enlightenment rationalism and romantic subjectivism.

Rene Descartes expressed his thoughts with a famous line ‘I think therefore I am’ to explain his ideas for human reason (p. 35). He wanted to create a theory that all people holding reason would accept in order to use for their knowledge (p. 35). This idea sought to make it that all people would think the same way, with reason. However, Rousseau helps to contradict this idea and says that although people were born free, they were living in chains because they could not think for themselves (p. 81). The Romantics used this to contradict the idea of human thought that the Enlightenment started. The subject of human thought was explained to come from different parts of the human body. As just mentioned, the Romantics believed thought came from intuition and emotion and was more important than the brain however, reason said that thought was a function of chemistry and physics coming from the brain (p. 35). These enlightenment rationalism thoughts primarily came from Rene Descartes; however other theorists explained this theory.

Immanuel Kant defined the Enlightenment theory as “…man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another” (p. 36). He explained that human thought happens with the implication of reason from society. Oscar Wilde explains that the romantic subjectivism was based on the denial of reason and brought literary, artistic and theoretical movements to society (p. 81). The Enlightenment seemed to have brought a more orderly society that wanted everyone to think the same way, whereas the Romantics wished for individualism.

Another difference was the idea of women changed from the Enlightenment to the time of the romantics. The Enlightenment argued that while “reason was a human attribute, the philosophes argued that did not mean that all humanity possessed it in equal amounts” (p. 37). They explained that women did not have reason to the extent that men did and this idea caused a huge inequality for women. While the Romantics did not hold women as equal to men they did see that they held importance when it came to nature, unlike the Enlightenment. It is explained that women were thought to be closer to reason and that the Romantics “…helped keep women- at least women assumed to be pure and virtuous- ‘on a pedestal’, a condition of exaggerated admiration…” (p. 79). There was some sort of improvement in the equality of the sexes from the time of the enlightenment to romanticism. The Romantics held women to a higher standard when it came to nature. They did share the thought of women not having any reason, even if reason was important, with the Enlightenment theorists. (p. 79). The Romantics did hold women on a pedestal, however the standards they held them to would be hard to achieve and thus women would only end up being disrespected in the end. The Romantics did see that women had somewhat of a purpose.

Many theorists and philosophers had their own ideas of what the Enlightenment meant but for one particular philosopher reason was held to the highest importance. Locke explained that when reason and discourse would come together with some exercise of the mind and then applied to morals, would be when humans would find the absolute truth (p. 37). This was explained as hopeful for the Enlightenment but ultimately not realistic. The
ideal Enlightenment thinkers were explained as “empirical scientists and the model method was the inductive and rationalist scientific method” (p. 37). While the Enlightenment used science as their most important explanation for human society, Romantics were rebellious and searching for exotic ways to explain society.

One Romantic that used a very different method was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He used opium to expand his thoughts on social theory (p. 78). Other Romantics used artistic ways to explain their thoughts through paintings, poems and music. Wordsworth was a poet and theorist that was in love with the social transformation that the French Revolution brought and used his artistic skills to show his emotions and sometimes thoughts (p. 76). However, the revolution did not end up bringing the social change many of these Romantics had been hoping for because of the early transformation into conservatism (p. 76). The basis of implementing their thoughts was through art, while the Enlightenment theorists and philosophes used science.

The Enlightenment theorists did not partake in art the same way the romantics did but, they did have their own way called neo-classicism. This type of art was used in dramatic plays to show the principles of the Enlightenment theorists, and typically the play would be a tragedy or a comedy (p. 37). Their attempt at art was a way to try to add rationality to an artistic piece. Similarly to their theories, their poems were orderly, balanced and avoided all undisciplined imagination (p. 38). This was what neo-classical art was during the time of the Enlightenment. There was little emotion and one hundred percent rationality and structure. The Romantics rejected this kind of art. For the Romantics, this is not what art meant at all and Rousseau would help to inspire the Romanticism theories after the French Revolution. He did not share the Enlightenment emphasis on reason that showed in their art, and their theories (p. 38). In fact, he believed that society caused corruption and he did not agree with the growth of civilization (p. 38). The Romantics would build off of this theory and produce their own extreme art that rebelled against the Enlightenment theorists and paralleled their ideologies.

The theories of enlightenment rationalism and romantic subjectivism were both radical theories that highly impacted society during their separate times in history. Both of these theories shared thoughts on art, thought, reason, women and society in different ways and paralleled one another. The Enlightenment started out by going against the traditional social theories of society and the Romantics would later rebel against the Enlightenment theories after the French Revolution. While their theories are both very different from one another they had and still have an impact on social theories.

Work Cited

Thomson, Anthony. 2010. The Making of Social Theory Order, Reason, and Desire. Ontario,Canada. Oxford University Press.

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