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The political possibilities in the long Romantic period.


THE ASSERTION OF A LONG PERIOD OF ANY MOVEMENT OR TRADITION IS an act of interpretative resistance. What does it resist? Dichotomies, of course, such as, say, Romantic and Classical, and the tidy periodizations they generate. This much is obvious. But beyond the obvious, when it comes to Romanticism, the assertion of a longer than standardly periodized span is not merely an act of resistance of this familiar kind--it is, in one sense, an attempt to describe a form of resistance.

If Harold Bloom had his way, the long Romantic period would begin with the Gnostics and it would be found in nothing less than an implicit and loosely defined Gnosticism that is recurrently glimpsed--in both canon and periphery--through the literary ages of the West, down to Melville at least. (1) It is never far from the surface of this sweep of Bloom's visionary readings that they are intended to describe the trajectory of a resistance. How could they fail to do that? That is, how could the syncretic practices and the strange and fascinating metaphysical doctrines that were so pervasive till they were stamped out by an increasingly orthodox Christianity recur so often in the visions of writers and thinkers for twenty hundred years, and fail to be viewed as an abiding, if ineffectual, form of resistance? I don't want to particularly dwell on the Gnostic tradition, nor on Bloom. I begin with him only to mention how a long period can be conceived and also to express a frustration that nothing in this great length, which he presents with such originality and panoramic ambition, is then integrated by him into the metaphysical and political themes that it suggests. So if, for instance, one were to ask for a diagnosis of its sustained and repeated defeat at the hands of orthodoxy and even if one were to make a (too) simple initial stab at answering with the thought that those who are better organized, as orthodoxy always is, are always bound to win and that some outlooks and doctrines--exemplified in this version of the long Romantic tradition--are by the very nature of their metaphysical and political commitments bound to fall short on the relevant forms of organization, we are already on the path to the kind of integration of themes I just mentioned. But whether by will or by temperament, Bloom has withheld himself from integrations of this kind, and we must look elsewhere for the political possibilities of Romanticism than in its most influential theorist.

By contrast, Isaiah Berlin very self-consciously brought a deliberate mix of Romantic metaphysical and political ideas to the attention of English speaking philosophers (2); yet (by a second contrast with Bloom), he has no conception of a periodization that is longer than a starting point roughly in Rousseau and going then to the German Romantic tradition from its Jena origins to the flowering of German Idealism. The reason for this focus is quite simply that the fascination he has for these thinkers is in equal parts accompanied by the anxieties they create in him and his liberal political commitments. This explains not only the lack of interest in a longer period, it explains too his studied indifference to the English counterpart in Romanticism which, we must suppose, did not prompt in him the same anxieties. So, for instance, we must suppose that Shelley's political radicalism no doubt seemed to him to be something that could be domesticated within his own cherished liberal ideals, which were capacious enough to accommodate Shelley's atheism, his egalitarianism, his feminism, his commitment to the early stirrings of what would later come to be called Irish Home rule.... In Berlin's mind this was a politics that was innocent of the underlying metaphysical ideas of History and of Consciousness or of the Dionysian instinct erected into a source of ideals of nationalist unity; it was innocent, that is, of the claims of what he called "positive liberty" that led to vanguardist slogans such as "forcing people to be free." But he never stopped to notice the deep and close and extraordinarily detailed links between German metaphysics and English Romanticism that are so superbly revealed and traversed in M. H. Abrams's Natural Supernaturalism. (3)

Abrams's tour de force is what it is, partly because it almost entirely lacks the political dimension that prompts Berlin's interests in the subject. It has about three pages on Marx on alienation and a section called the "Politics of Vision," a phrase borrowed from Mark Schorer's book on Blake, but the section is mostly on what is meant by vision, hardly at all about politics. Part of what gives the book its fierce and illuminating focus is the conspicuousness of this absence, by which I mean this: Abrams's conviction of the detailed importance of German metaphysics to English romanticism leads him, as I will try and show, to the verge of all the right questions of its broader political significance, but it rests on that verge without drawing any explicit inferences at all.

Though missing in Abrams, Berlin's is not the only major philosophical treatment that is explicitly political. His general form of political nervousness about Romanticism is actually more interestingly present and much better motivated than it is in a cold warrior like Berlin himself, in Horkheimer and Adorno, whose philosophical critiques of modern bourgeois society deployed a whole range of concepts that originated in Romanticism's instinctive as well as considered reactions to the orthodox Enlightenment, concepts such as "disenchantment" and "alienation"--yet without any open, detailed acknowledgment on their part of these origins and affinities. (4) This is understandable for obvious reasons. Romanticism in the tradition they inherited at their intellectual location was tainted as having been an inspirational source for a whole history of German Nationalism that culminated in the events that overtook Europe in the thirties and forties of the last century. That culmination was the context in which they were writing and it induced in them and other German thinkers an entirely excusable neurosis about the original setting of their own critical categories, and so these Romanticist influences were bound to remain unnamed. Thus, whereas the political significance of Romanticism produced in Berlin the jitters that led him to describe it as a "Counter"-Enlightenment, it provided a rich source for Horkheimer and Adorno's thoroughly internal critique of (the more orthodox legacies of) the Enlightenment with .jitters only about naming their source, and thereby refusing to acknowledge that their own critique was in fact evidence for a long period of Romanticism's political significance reaching all the way down to the mid-twentieth century.

We have then an intellectual history of a subject (Romanticism) that has several elements which, though each is in varying degrees acknowledged by the most interesting theorists in the field, all remain, in these theorists' hands, as elements more miscellaneous and less integrated than they might be. The elements are: a distinctive metaphysics summarized in phrases such as "natural supernaturalism"; a moral psychology that borders on and derives from such a metaphysics and which is intended to construct some alternative to the cultural detritus and the psychological desolation that it describes with such terms as "disenchantment" and "alienation"; a conviction in its political significance and its critical powers of resistance to orthodoxy of one form or other; a specific reading given to this significance where the resistance amounts to what is sometimes described, whether rightly or wrongly, as a "Counter-Enlightenment"; and, finally, the scope for a highly elastic periodization. With this assembly of selective themes from a well-known intellectual history in place, I must step away and ask: what might a philosopher (I am declaring my disciplinary location) contribute to the task of integrating these seemingly miscellaneous elements?


It should go without saying that the decisions an intellectual historian makes about periodization depend not just on knowledge but also on interests. Bloom's emancipatory method was to free one from the assumption that the resistances that Romanticism made possible were necessarily to Classical form and constraint. If the underlying interest is to find in the Romantic world-view ideas and attitudes that drive the resistance to orthodox Christianity, a sea of cliches about the nineteenth century's reactions to the Augustan age is made to subside, and we are landed with Bloom's wide swath going back to the Gnostics, the most capacious periodization I know in the study of Romanticism.

Now, I say "going back" and that expression is intended to suggest a point of some methodological import. The idea that interests are necessarily shaping choices may give the impression of complete stipulative freedom in periodization, but the fact is that, even within this acknowledgement of abundant choice, we are, to use Edward Said's term, constrained by the idea of "beginnings." (5) Let me develop this idea along lines entirely different from Said's, though inspired by his insight that beginnings are not merely generative; they are also a constraint on choice and freedom.

It is a familiar point that much of the modern period is characterized by teleological narratives: of progress, of cumulative development, of convergence, and so on. These progressive ideals have come under much criticism in recent decades for reasons that are equally familiar to us. But I don't particularly want to focus on their rightness or wrongness, only on something general about the sequences of periodization that they reveal. Narratives of progress often define their ideal in terms of the end towards which one dialectically moves or aspires: the Prussian state in Hegel (of course he put it in more abstract terms than my rude reduction), communism in another even more familiar story, and nothing less than Troth itself, in Charles Sanders Peirce. The more orthodox Liberal Enlightenment did not define its ideal of progress upon a nameable end, in a way that Hegel, Marx, and Peirce did, but there is no doubt that its progressive commitments are governed by ideals of rationality, which we may achieve in our lives and thought in varying degrees of approximation and in the achievement of which we may improve ourselves or be made to improve by pedagogical projects, large and small ("Liberal Empire" is a large such project and remains so to this day).

My own methodological instinct about these teleological forms of understanding is that, however the narrative is supposed to end, the sequence that leads to that end cannot have its beginnings at the very inception of social time. To assume that we have been converging and progressing towards some ideal end from the beginning of thought and culture itself is to empty the very idea of progress of its substance and denude it of its interest. One assumes rather that there were many false starts, endless false leads followed without fruitful direction, but then at some crucial point we were set on a path, which we think of as the right path, and from then on, there is an accumulation and convergence of history or value or cognitive content towards some recognizable ideal or end. It is this idea of a right starting point that gives the idea of progress substance and bite. This unobvious point puts great weight on the notion of a substantial conception of beginnings, one that it is worth one's while to unearth with a genealogy which may well reveal more about the ideals in question than is revealed by fully articulated conceptions of the idealized end. If that is right, then the intellectual historian's genealogical task of unearthing beginnings is just as important as the philosopher's task of formulating the normative end. (It is well known, of course, that in Nietzsche's conception of philosophy these tasks were not separable.) If you want a slogan for the point and constraint I've just presented via the notion of "beginnings" as constraint, it might be: no teleology without genealogy.


The idea of a natural supernaturalism is at least prima facie intended to seem paradoxical. And presumably like many paradoxes--at any rate, the ones that we can solve or resolve--they are generated by an ambiguity and resolved by disambiguation. How exactly shall we disambiguate the term "natural" in Abrams's eponymous phrase?

What makes the book so philosophically interesting is that though it mostly focuses on a two-fold ambiguity, that is to say, on two different distinctions between the natural and the supernatural, it really all but explicitly articulates a third much more modern distinction on behalf of that meta-physics. I will want to make something of this third possibility.

The first of the two contrasts between natural and supernatural in that book is just the idea of natural as it stands in contrast with religious or sacral conceptions. But just so as to acknowledge the distinctiveness of the frequently pantheistic metaphysics in Romantic literature and thought, a second distinction is assumed by Abrams between the immanent or phenomenal or perceptible and the transcendent as going beyond the perceptible (in Kant's philosophy, this domain that reached beyond the "perceptible" or what gets called, in translations of Kant, the "phenomenal," was specifically described as the "noumenal" realm). The important point is that these two distinctions do not coincide. By that I mean: the two distinctions are not coextensive, they are not denotationally equivalent. It is obvious enough that they are not cointensive or connotationally equivalent. That is, it is obvious by even a glance at a dictionary or even one's more informal intuitions about linguistic meaning that the term "religious" does not mean "transcendent" and that "immanence" or "perceptibility" does not by meaning convey anything non-religious. But it may have turned out, contingently as it were, rather than by definition, that these terms coincide in their denotations and that something that is religious (say God, himself) cannot be an instance of something immanent and perceptible. But that is precisely what pantheism denies since it is the sacral as immanent.

Abrams comes close to formulating a third and much more modern distinction between naturalism and supernaturalism, which is the distinction between the idea of the natural as what the natural sciences study and the supernatural as what falls outside the coverage of the natural sciences. This third distinction does not coincide with either of the other two and because that is so, it opens up a further possibility, just as introducing the second distinction that failed to coincide with the first permitted possibilities of identifying as something distinctive, a sacralized nature. What distinctive thing does this third distinction permit? Abrams's book is thick with poetic examples of what it permits, and it is at the heart of its argument to say that they exemplify the idea, perhaps the most central idea in Romantic metaphysics, that not only the words on our pages and on our lips and not only the images on our canvases, but objects and things in the world, including in nature, are filled with properties of value and meaning. Abrams desists from explicitly formulating the third criterion by which such an idea and its many specific examples are permitted. And I have formulated the criterion in my own terms so as to raise the genealogical questions I want to raise about the revealing beginnings of Romanticism--revealing, that is, of its detectably specific form of political significance.

That nature and the world around us should have properties of value and meaning is by no means a new idea. It is as old as the very idea of nature and of the world we inhabit. But it is religious discourse of one kind or another, including pagan religious discourse, that provided the idiom in which such an idea was understood. However, because this third distinction does not coincide with the first distinction, these properties of value and meaning that fall outside of the coverage of science, can inhere in what is immanent and perceptible without being elaborated in anything but secular terms. And if the terms of their description are not sacral or religious terms at all, but are purely secular, a question is raised about what it is that makes them significantly different from the other non-sacralized properties of nature to which we have become so accustomed for some centuries now since the onset of modern science. It is to capture this differential that the third criterion for a distinction is formulated. What makes these properties distinct, even controversial, is that, for some centuries, certainly ever since the middle or late seventeenth century, they fall afoul of a common notion that there is nothing in nature, nothing natural therefore, that is not countenanced by natural science. Nature contains all sorts of properties that natural science studies. The point is that value and meaning are wholly unlike those properties. Value and meaning as properties are precisely what are not countenanced by natural science. Science has nothing to say about them. If so these properties are supernatural, by this third criterion. But being immanent and perceptible they are perfectly natural by the terms of the second distinction. That is why "natural supernaturalism" is one prima facie startling but perfectly accurate description of them. And once we disambiguate the terms "natural" and "supernatural" by these three distinct criteria, there is nothing startling either.

I have said that values and meanings as inhering in the world, including nature, are made possible by the second criterion of the natural as that which is immanent and perceptible. And I have also said that though in an earlier time value and meaning as properties of the world would have necessarily been elaborated in some form of religious or sacral terms, in much romantic poetry and thought, though not by any means all, that is simply not so and Abrams's readings and expositions display that at length. So, these properties can be natural by the first criterion of the natural as well. If so, why is the third criterion of the natural needed at all? And in a crucial move in my sorting out of these ambiguities, I said, it is needed because since the rise of modern science, which is well before canonical Romantic poetry was produced, we have thought that nature contained properties so radically unlike the properties of value and meaning, it would be a form of insouciance to think that there was nothing controversial whatever about saying that they may sit side by side with these other properties. It is to the extent that we actually do find it controversial that we are motivated to formulate the third criterion of what to count as natural, by the lights of which value and meaning are not properties of nature. And, if many have for some considerable time now found it unacceptably controversial, it is because of this pervasive metaphysical outlook of scientific modernity that even preceded Romanticism in its canonical period. Even so early a figure as Blake's passionate outcry against Newton was an avowedly romantic reaction to that outlook.

What is this outlook's appeal that it should have become as pervasive as it has? One way of seeing its appeal is to ask what it would be like to assume that the outlook is quite simply wrong. If it were quite straightforwardly wrong, we would have to say that there is nothing even prima facie problematic about where exactly value and meaning are found in the world, including nature. In other words, it is quite unproblematic to say, for instance, that at the very place in the Colorado River that there is [H.sub.2]O , there is also value and meaning. At the very place that there are caloric counts with a certain number assigned to them, there is a human need. At the very place there is a meteorological perturbation, there is a threat, and something like threats are--unproblematically, remember, because we are really trying on this view--properties of nature. They are out there in nature, right where the meteorological phenomenon is. At the very place, we are saying. Just there? Not somewhere else. Not in our own minds and in our feelings of vulnerability which we then project onto the world? Well, and if it is at the very place out there, do we see the Colorado river as containing [H.sub.2]O and see it as having meaning and value in the very same act of seeing? Can we possibly see both these things in the same act? Or is there a defection somehow to another act when we see it as one or the other?

These are all questions which seem to many to be so philosophically intractable, that it seems much easier to say the following instead. "No, values and meanings are not perceptible properties of the natural world. They are really products of our mental capacities and dispositions, what philosophers such as Hume and Adam Smith call 'desires' and 'moral sentiments,' which by an act of our own mental projection we then attribute to the perceptible world. So to call something out there in the visible distance on the horizon, a threat is not to describe something out there that no natural science could possibly study. There is nothing out there that is not countenanced by natural science. Thus to call it a 'threat' is only to project something--constructed from our own feelings of vulnerability--onto the world. How can threats exist outside us just like, and on a par with, meteorological phenomena? Meteorological phenomena are there, anyway, whether we apprehend them or not, but threats wouldn't be threats if they were not threats for us--they are not there anyway, so are not really independent of us, they are projections of our own mentalities and psychologies."

And so we are now off and running with the outlook that Blake decried, where there is nothing in nature that is not studied by natural science, no enchantment, however secular and non-sacral, in the world. At best we are enchanted with our mentalities and our imagination; the rest of nature is brute and valueless, only metaphorically spoken of by us as enchanted in a sustained and comprehensive fit of projective vocabulary of threats, and other such evaluatively loaded terms. Hence there is more than one kind of supernaturalism, not just the one about God, whether transcendent or immanent, but one about value too. Apparently, then, we don't just suffer from a "God Delusion," we suffer from a Value Delusion as well. The latter needs exorcism just as much as the former. And Hume is the most formidable proponent of this picture of value, though its beginnings are earlier, and it is to that genealogy that I now turn. (6)

Before I do, let me just say that Kant, though he was deeply opposed to Hume, in a curious way is hobbled by some of Hume's assumptions. He did not accept Hume's positive ideas about value, which viewed value as essentially reducible to our mental dispositions--our desires, or when more geared to (and reared in) the social, our sympathy and moral sentiments. He famously repudiated this psychologistic picture but, as a result, found no place for value within the realm of perceptible phenomena. They were distinguishable only as the deliverances of the exercises of a "pure practical will" that was noumenally distanced in its metaphysical status from both our empirical subjectivity and the phenomenal world that it inhabits.

This, then, sets up a new desideratum, for we now need to answer a question about how the noumenal was given to us. The valiant struggles over the sublime in the third, most ambitious, if not the most profound, of his volumes of Critiques should not be treated as a late deconstruction of his earlier writing as they sometimes are. (7) They are responses to this desideratum set up by the earlier Critiques which, having asserted a noumenal realm, had then to face the question about how elements of the noumenal were even so much as glimpsed by us in our experience, how they were given to us. This would have to be a question that arises, not just about infinity and the great dynamical forces that Kant discusses in his elaboration of "the sublime," but also about our much more everyday freedom or agency and its relations to value.

The sublime may seem a last and excessive resort for something so quotidian and ubiquitous as agency and value, but Kant, having relegated them to the noumenal, left us with nothing less than the sublime and his ideas of a "productive imagination" that generate our grasp on the sublime to meet this desideratum. However, Romantic theory, in Abrams's hands as I read him through my disambiguations of the term "natural," is not required to accept the sublime as the only resort we have for the availability of value in our experience. Unlike Kant, Abrams insists on applying to value what I called the second criterion of the natural as immanent, an option that Kant precisely denies himself by relegating value to the noumenal rather than the phenomenal world. So though Abrams writes well of the Romantic sublime when it comes to subjects such as infinity, he is also able to find in much of Romanticism a far more pervasive natural supernaturalism in the availability of value and meaning in the everyday, perceptible world around us. It is just that now, given that availability of values in nature, we cannot think of the natural sciences as having full coverage of nature; and that is why I explicitly articulated the third criterion of the natural on his behalf.

If contemporary interpretations of Aristotle, such as John McDowell's are right, this excessive reach for the sublime is quite unnecessary to understand the nature of value, which needs no relegation to the noumenal since, as Aristotle (in McDowell's reading) claimed, value is everywhere present in the perceptible world around us, including nature. (8) McDowell may be right about Aristotle, but the interesting question is: if value was conceived as available to our ordinary perceptions of the world around us in so abidingly influential a worldview as Aristotle's, which so dominated centuries of mediaeval Western thought, why in the hands of the Romantics, Blake say, does it come off as an act of resistance to take this view of nature and the world? It is here I think that the genealogy of the modern in a Newtonianism, to use Blake's term, becomes pressing? It is this new beginnings that Blake is protesting and that many of the later Romantics too, as Abrams presents them, are dissenting from. And it is in this genealogy that I want to unearth one aspect of the political possibilities in Romanticism. If I am right about this, it will turn out that the idea of the Long Romantic period will precede even Blake's passionate outcry by some decades and will reach all the way down not only to Horkheimer and Adorno but to even more distant figures like Gandhi. (10)

Here is how I have allowed myself to think of it.


I had promised to make some integrations of seemingly miscellaneous themes that surfaced in the intellectual history of Romanticism. Here are a series of questions towards that task. To understand the nature of Romantic resistance we have to ask: what is the metaphysical doctrine that Romanticism, expounded in such convincing detail by Abrams as committed to a natural supernaturalism, supposed to repudiate? And to see not just the metaphysical but also the political nature of this resistance, we have to ask what worldly forces made it important to undertake this metaphysical resistance? And to find the long periodization for this Romantic resistance, we have to look at the genealogical beginnings of both the resistance and the outlook (and the worldly forces that were mobilizing it) that was being resisted.

The metaphysical outlook that Romantic natural supernaturalism was resisting was just the metaphysical outlook I have been expounding in Humean terms. Let us call it "naturalism simpliciter," naturalism with no supernatural element of any sort, not even one formulated with the most scrupulous secularity as Abrams does by allowing for the application of his first criterion of the natural. This is a naturalism that excludes not merely transcendent and sacral properties, it excludes all properties not countenanced by natural science. What is the genealogy of such an outlook, one which not only overturned a once highly influential Aristotelian world view as McDowell interprets it, but a world view that was widely prevalent outside the scholastic cloisters, in the neo-Platonism of popular cultures all over Europe, including the radical sects in England that Christopher Hill describes with such excitement in that remarkable work The World Turned Upside Down? (11)

Blake was very shrewd to place the name of Newton at the "beginnings" of such a Humean naturalism. This is so despite the fact that Newton came a little later than such figures as Bacon and Hartlib (not to mention Descartes, since I am focusing primarily on England), who had already declared nature to be bereft of any properties that were unconquerable by the methods of science. Both had in fact declared something that had integrated political economy with this metaphysics, claiming that, as a result of stripping nature of such properties, it could now be stripped without qualm for extraction and gain as well, since it lacked any sacral constraints on such extraction. (12) But the reason to make Newtonianism more central is that broad ideological remarks of this kind began to amount to something measurably transformative only when--some decades after Bacon--worldly alliances were very self-consciously forged between scientific organizations, commercia] interests, and the latitudinarian Anglican establishment. Newton and Boyle along with Samuel Clarke, Richard Bentley and others constructed, through fora such as the Boyle lectures at the Royal Society, an explicit agenda that articulated a systematic carte blanche for extractive economies involving deforestation, mining, and the setting up of plantation agriculture, what we today call "agribusiness." All societies had taken from nature and both mining and the enclosures system set out to do so in a way that is well known and well studied, prior to the late seventeenth century. But as intellectual historians such as Margaret Jacob (13) have shown in depth and detail, the systematic adoption of enclosures and these other forms of extraction entrenched itself in this period, when the declaration that one may now take with impunity from nature's bounty was deliberately fortified in these worldly alliances of commercial interests with scientific bodies and the Protestant establishment, first in England and the Netherlands and then spreading elsewhere in Europe where, of course, in some countries it included the Catholic establishment as well.

The alliances forged an elite that was by no means restricted to scientific, economic, and religious interests. A whole conception of political governance and of law emerged out of these alliances. As Blake later pointed out, the world was left bereft of properties of meaning and value because, as the Royal Society's Newtonian ideologues insisted, the universe was set and kept in motion by a push from an external and providential God, a "Deus Absconditus," a God exiled, not a God that was immanent in the world, sacralizing it from within and providing for an inner source of dynamism responsible for motion. This enforced migration of God consolidated in doctrine a very specific notion of political governance, where the rule of a brute populace bereft of civility by a monarch and his courts and the propertied elites emerging out of these alliances, was said to be not merely analogous to but a mundane version of the idea of an external God ruling over a brute universe, bereft of value and meaning except as a source of extraction by this providential God's generous endowment of it with fertility.

I have fastened on Blake as a highly perceptive commentator on the effects of the metaphysical outlook of Newtonianism in order to identify an early but still recognizably Romantic form of resistance to "naturalism simpliciter." But the fact is that Blake was only channeling for his own time the prescient alarm voiced by a remarkable group of scientific dissenters of several decades earlier, about how the Newtonian Laws and concepts such as gravity, which they all accepted without any objection whatever, were being dressed up in a metaphysical outlook of "naturalism simpliciter" that was quite non-compulsory for those laws and concepts. In England, figures such as John Toland (14) and Anthony Collins (15) saw through the commercial and political and religious interests and motives that underlay the adoption of this metaphysics and they openly resisted not just the metaphysics but the new forms of politics and political economy around it, arguing explicitly that if the neo-Platonism of the earlier radical sectaries had its way rather than this Newtonian exile of God, God would be present in all things and all persons, would be available, that is, to the visionary temperaments of the most ordinary of men and women, thus democratizing the values by which one ruled, bringing to political governance a form of local and egalitarian participatory collectivity to match the collective participation in cultivation of the commons that the sectaries had demanded, indeed sometimes even locally implemented, and which the systematic spread of enclosures was undermining.

If Romantic natural supernaturalism represents both a metaphysical and a political resistance, and if the genealogy of the metaphysics and emerging politics and political economy it resisted is rightly identified by Blake in the Newtonianism of the late seventeenth century as I have tried to expound it, then I am claiming that the long Romantic period precedes Blake himself in the person of these earlier scientific dissenters and the even earlier radical sectaries they invoked. It is only by genealogically excavating these beginnings, to invoke my use of the Saidian point I made earlier, that the full power of Abrams's ideas of Romanticism's natural supernaturalism is revealed. We could, of course, say with Bloom that the beginnings should be located much earlier still, since such a resistance would not have been possible without the prevalent neo-platonist metaphysical ideas that themselves emerged from a submerged Gnostic ancestry; but since Bloom never invested his Gnostic sympathies with any explicit political significance, that expansive periodization he offers is idle, from the point of view of my commitment to integrating a set of seemingly diverse themes that emerge in the intellectual history of Romanticism. In that sense, as I admitted, periodization is indeed driven by one's own interests. But I hope I have nevertheless conveyed the genuine constraint on choice in one's periodization within these interests that comes from the notion of "beginnings."


It remains for me now to add to the integrations I have attempted so far between metaphysics, politics, and the idea of a long period of Romanticism, the elements of the moral psychology generated by the Romantic aspiration to finding alternatives to a malaise of culture and mind that are so often characterized, by Romantic thinkers themselves, in terms of "alienation" and "disenchantment." These terms have consistently informed both politics and metaphysics in this long tradition. If that were not so Althusser would not have been so concerned to separate and ghettoize the Early Marx from the late, in one of the most willfully destructive interpretative moves that has targeted radical Romantic thought.

Disenchantment is a misleadingly omnibus term. It has been elaborated in at least two different registers and rhetorics: the rhetoric of the "death of God" and the rhetoric of "the decline of magic." The death of God came later, though not as late as Nietzsche's pronouncement, since Hegel had pronounced exactly that earlier. The decline of magic is more interesting because, as Keith Thomas and others have studied it, it came measurably earlier. (16) But it is more interesting for another reason. The death of God speaks to the first two of the three criteria of natural and supernatural that we have disambiguated in Abrams. The decline of magic speaks as well to the third and it speaks to the third in ambivalent terms. Thomas himself, and since then many others, have displayed just how much science itself emerged out of magic. (17) What motivated and propelled Newton to so many of his remarkable hypotheses in his private study, as opposed to the public face of Newton that was presented by the Royal Society, and in which he acquiesced, has been shown by scholars such as Rattansi to be thoroughly caught up in alchemical preoccupations and neo-Platonist notions. (18) Yet despite these inspiring motivations in magic for many scientific discoveries, it was inevitable and right that science develop a logic of confirmation, a method of assessment of its hypotheses, that would be independent of this wayward illogic of discoveries. When this set in, some effects, associated with the decline of magic, were salutary--in particular the decline in the belief that magic had something to contribute by way of answers to science's questions.

But in the realm of the metaphysics of science, the decline of magic had a quite destructive effect, something much more consequential than the death of God. It completely preempted any possibility of the embrace of secularized versions of enchantment continuous with Aristotle's metaphysics of value, as McDowell reads him, or of value as conceived by the popular forms of neo-Platonism that you find, say, in the writings of Gerrard Winstanley and others. (19) In other words, it had the effect not of the death of God, since God flourished in a providential role outside the universe for some time to come, but of what Carolyn Merchant has called the "death of nature." Merchant's fine work, (20) particularly fine on the subject of mining economies, however, focuses much more on Bacon than the later Newtonian period that Blake rightly saw as more threatening, for reasons I have already given. It is this death of nature that was developed with the most sophistication in Hume's picture of an external world without any evaluative properties--and it dominates metaphysics to this day. Such a metaphysics, as I said earlier, removed all value to the domain of mentality, to desire in particular, and to the somewhat loftier states of mind that Adam Smith and Hume called "moral sentiments."

What has this "disenchantment" of the world to do with notions of alienation and how has Romanticism tended to seek in the conceptual resources of natural supernaturalism the grounds for an unalienated life? The routine answers to this question are disappointing, appealing as they do to the zones of comfort that belief in God and the practices of magic provide in the gratification of basic human spiritual urges. I don't doubt that these cliches carry some truth, but they are open targets for the scorn poured by our tedious up-to-the-minute atheists like Dawkins on our infantile and irrational tendency to humble ourselves to the authority figure of a dead Father and to the superstition of unscientific, magical thinking.

The source of alienation is in fact much deeper because this metaphysical version of disenchantment and the Humean moral psychology it generates preempts much more than what I have mentioned so far. It preempts the very possibility of human agency; and what natural supernaturalism provides is the conceptual resources for secular forms of re-enchantment that are the most basic and necessary conditions of human agency. This may seem like a tall claim. Why can't the Humean picture claim to have within its resources the enabling conditions for human agency? Why should one need a world enchanted, at the minimum with secularized conceptions of value, as a condition for human subjectivity and agency? Why can't one say (with just the resources that Hume's moral psychology offers) that agency consists in our acting so as to satisfy our desires and moral sentiments? Why should one say the further thing, as I am saying on behalf of the Romanticism that Abrams presents in his book, that through nothing short of seeing our desires as responses to the value properties in the world can we find agency in us?

To answer these questions would bring to the political and metaphysical integrations of the long Romantic philosophical tradition, the cement of a humane moral psychology, so that the radical politics of a heterodox Enlightenment tradition that I have located does not degenerate into the narrowing outcome of Althusser's so-called and fanciful late Marx.

In answering them, I want to return to a brief moment in my exposition of my secular version of natural supernaturalism where I raised difficulties for my own view. I had asked, rhetorically: does one perceive a threat in the sky in the same perceptual act as one perceives a meteorological phenomenon? It is not at all obvious that the answer to this is "yes." The fact is that when one studies a phenomenon, as science does, one is no doubt an agent, but one is nevertheless treating the world and nature from a detached point of view, not from the point of view of practical engagement. From such a detached point of view, we may observe meteorological events, chemical compounds such as [H.sub.2]O, caloric counts of a region's populations. But we also perceive in those very places, threats, thirst-quenching value, and human need; and when we do we are not merely viewing them with detachment, we respond or, at the very least, we are poised to respond to the normative demands that those evaluatively described features of the world make on our agency, on our practical engagement rather than detachment.

The very same distinction between two points of view (of detachment and practical engagement) applies to the angles we have on ourselves. We can study our selves as the products of causal and motivational histories and make predictions about ourselves from this detached point of view. This is the third person point of view on ourselves where we treat ourselves as we might treat another. But we can also have a first person point of view on ourselves, not detached at all, where we ask, what shall I do? And we form intentions. This is the point of view of practical agency, not detachment. To the extent that we abdicate this first person point of view on ourselves, to that extent we abdicate our agency. The eponymous character Oblomov in Goncharov's novel might be seen as having done this to a quite impressive extent. (21) I will exploit this point in a moment.

Let me first return to the agent's practically engaged point of view not on ourselves, but on the world. We could not have this practically engaged point of view on the world, I am claiming, without the world containing properties that make normative demands on us and by doing so, activate that point of view. Now, the Humean alternative to this would claim rather to have exhaustively characterized the nature of our practical engagement by saying that we act on our desires and moral sentiments. On that picture, desires and moral sentiments are not responses to demands from desirabilities or values in the world that are perceived by a subject. Rather, desires are self-standing states and acting on them is to exercise our agency.

Is there an argument for rejecting a self-standing view of values and desires and viewing them instead as responses to value properties in the world? Here is a stab at providing something like an argument.

In a brilliant passage in a brilliant book called The Varieties of Reference, (22) the philosopher Gareth Evans made the following insightful claim. It is an odd fact about the human self's relation to its own beliefs that when one is asked, do you believe something, say, that it is raining, you don't turn your eyeball inwards, as it were, upon your mind to see if you have the belief that it is raining. You just look outside to see if it is raining and respond. In other words, we do the same thing when we are asked, "Do you believe it is raining?" as we do when we are asked, "Is it raining?" Now I want to extend Evan's insight to desires. If we are asked, "Do you desire X?" we do not, at least not paradigmatically, scan our interior to see if it possesses the desire for X. We rather consider whether X is desirable.

Why am I so confident that Evans's point about belief can be extended in this way to desires? Because: if we did not experience the objects of our desires as desirable, we would have no choice but to say that we experience them as desired. There are no other options. And if we always experienced the objects of our desires as desired rather than desirable, that would mean we would always have had to step outside of ourselves and see what we desired from a detached or third person point of view. And that, as I said, is precisely to have abdicated our agency--a form of agential suicide, a kicking of the ladder of agency away from under one.

So it is the Very possession of agency that requires us to have states of mind that are not just self-standing but are responses to the demands on agency by properties of the world around us.

The very experience of agency within a subject turns on the presence of normative demands coming on it from without, from desirabilities or values in the world that a subject inhabits. And this ideal of agency is a basic condition of an unalienated life: to live in a world to which one relates in just the way that allows for the experience of one's own agency gives the most general form of substance to the cliche of being "at home in the world." Our agency then is of a piece with a world enchanted with value.

Those who have claimed that values come from a self-standing psychological makeup of subjects sometimes allow that we are enchanted but the world, including nature, is not. That, if my philosophical elaboration of the Romanticist claims in Abrams is right, is a shallow conception of value and enchantment. By the argument I just gave, there is no scope for agency if enchantment is all exclusively subjective or within us, making us some sort of enchanted machines, an idea of precarious coherence, doing nothing to restore us from the fate of agential suicide by the fraudulent label "enchanted subject."

When I say that norms and agency are of a piece, the dependency goes in the other direction too. Subjects who lack agency will see darkness in the world in those places where agents perceive values. This does not imply, as the Humean picture would have it, that values are made up by us. It is a numbing non sequitur to think that just because value properties require a particular kind of subjective sensibility to be perceived (one with the capacities of an agent, one capable not just of detachment, but of practical engagement), that those subjects must have constructed or created those properties and projected them onto the world.

But equally, the insistence that values are typically perceived as being in the world rather than constructed and projected on to it, is not an insistence motivated by the thought that this will block the possibility of differential perception of value or even block the possibility of relativism about value. It is perfectly possible, and in fact, highly likely, that people from different cultures and even different individuals from within a single culture will sometimes perceive in the same place different values making different normative demands on them. This does not amount to a relativism and I am, in fact, not a relativist, and I doubt Abrams is. But I have no illusions that the idea of perceptible values in the world external to us is a way of repudiating relativism. Many of the motivations among philosophers who argue for moral objectivity or moral realism are thus missing in the argument I have just given, which is motivated only to show that there can be no human agency without human response to the demands of value from outside of human subjectivity. That is a quite sufficient ground to believe in natural supernaturalism.

And, I should add that such an idea of values in the world implies no vitalism, nor attribution of any kind of intentionality to features of the world. This may disappoint some--Jane Bennett, for instance, who has written recently on the politics and culture of enchantment. (23) These views, I think, are wrong for a very simple reason. Where there is intentionality, there is scope of normative assessment. I can say of you, if you are an intentional subject, that you are wrong to think something or even to want something. It makes no similar sense to criticize objects or properties in the world. One can, of course, criticize the world in other more innocuous ways, say, with the words, "that is a lousy sunset," but this implies no intentionality in what is being criticized. All that values in the world imply is that we, as subjects capable of perceiving them, are necessarily also agents, that we are not passive subjects like Oblomov.

To live an unalienated life in the world that we inhabit, in the most general sense of that ideal, is to live in sync in this way with the normative demands of its value properties. The idea of such an unalienated life is manifest in the fact that there is no gap, no strain of inference that goes from perceiving value without to experiencing agency within. When one sees a threat in the very place without that one sees a meteorological perturbation, one in doing so, experiences oneself to be an agent by feeling one's own vulnerability. These are not acts of inference to vulnerability and to agency from perception of value; rather to have the perceptions is to feel vulnerable and to experience one's agency. This remarkable and radical unity of what is perceived outside in the world and what is experienced inside in subjectivity is the most abstract and fundamental condition of being unalienated in the world. As Abrams in his very brief discussion of Marx in that book hints, though very obscurely (almost as if he doesn't quite get it himself), Marx's ideas on alienation and its reversal are sophistications of this basic insight made possible by natural supernaturalism. (24) Whatever those other sophisticated things about the unalienated life are that one comes to understand from Marx's profound discussion, if one hasn't grasped this more fundamental connection between agency and enchantment, one hasn't understood the first thing. (25)


The political significance that I have sought via these arguments and via the genealogical efforts of this paper is of a politics of a long Romanticism that is quite at odds with Berlin's. It is evidently and avowedly a radical politics, from its beginnings in the English radical sects, through the English scientific freethinkers and dissenters, and I won't rehearse the entire roll call of intervening figures in the canonical Romantic tradition, through Marx (uncontaminated by the spurious distinction between his "Early" and Late writings) to Horkheimer and Adorno and even, as I've argued elsewhere, to Gandhi. That it should be so different a construction from Berlin's is, of course, just a symptom of the fact that one's periodizations are conceived from the point of view of one's interests. None of this should occasion any surprise or concern. Even so, my own construction, for all its differences from his, is composed pretty much from the same repertory of Romantic ideas and thematic clusters that Berlin presents. By filtering those ideas and themes through the lens of Abrams's ideal of a natural supernaturalism and giving that ideal a very specific semantic as well as genealogical analysis, I have presented something that could not possibly--without bending the terms involved--be described as a Counter-Enlightenment. True, it finesses, sometimes even implicitly opposes, many of the cherished commitments of the more orthodox Liberal strand of the Enlightenment from Locke through Hume and Adam Smith and Kant to Berlin himself, but if that is so, one would have thought that the more apt label is not "Counter-Enlightenment" but the quite different one now in occasional currency, "Radical-Enlightenment." If intellectual history is right to suggest that there was a Radical Enlightenment, the arguments I have given should be viewed as an attempt to provide philosophical support--from within the long Romantic tradition--for that intellectual history.

Columbia University

(1.) This is such a constantly recurring theme in Bloom's work that there is no point in singling out any particular book as a reference. Omens of the Millennium (New York: Riverhead Books, 1997) is only the most explicit.

(2.) See, among other works, The Roots of Romanticism (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001), and Political Ideas in the Romantic Age (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006).

(3.) (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973).

(4.) See Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of the Enlightenment (New York: Continuum, 1976).

(5.) See Edward Said, Beginnings, new edition (New York: Columbia UP, 2006).

(6.) See Hume's discussion of value and practical reason in Book 3, Part 2, A Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000).

(7.) See "The Analytic of the Sublime," Critique of Judgement (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987).

(8.) See in particular McDowell's pioneering essay "Virtue and Reason," in The Monist 62 (1979): 331-50.

(9.) See especially "The Book of Urizen," but also "Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion," The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David Erdman (New York: Anchor, 1997).

(10.) For such an understanding of Gandhi, see my "Occidentalism, The Very Idea: An Essay on the Enlightenment and Enchantment," Critical Inquiry 32.3 (Spring, 2006), and "Gandhi, Newton, and the Enlightenment" in Karawan, McCormack, and Reynolds, eds. Values and Violence (Netherlands: Springer, 2008).

(11.) (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984).

(12.) For a fine essay on the conceptual links between changing conceptions of nature and

political economy in this period in England, see Simon Schaffer's "The Earth's Fertility as a Social Fact in Early Modern England" in Teich, Porter, and Gustafsson, eds. Nature and Society in Historical Context (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997).

(13.) The Newtonians and The English Revolution 1689-1720 (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1976).

(14.) See, among other writings, Pantheisticon (first English translation, 1751) (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2009).

(15.) See especially the Collins-Clarke correspondence of 1706-8 which is published in full in Clarke's Works (New York: Garland, 1994).

(16.) Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1971).

(17.) See, for instance, P. M. Rattansi, "Newton and the Pipes of Pan," Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 21.2 (1966); Christopher Hill, "Science and Magic," a lecture given in 1976 at the J. D. Bernal Peace Library and published in the third volume of his Collected Essays (Brighton: Harvester P, 1986); and Charles Webster's From Paracelsus to Newton: Magic and the Making of Modern Science (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982).

(18.) P. M. Rattansi, "Newton's Alchemical Studies," in Science, Medicine, and Society in the Renaissance (London: Heinemann, 1972) as well as his paper mentioned in the previous footnote.

(19.) See George H. Sabine, ed., The Works of Gerrard Winstanley (Kent, UK: Russell and Russell, 1965). See especially his "Fire in the Bush" and "Mysterie of God."

(20.) The Death of Nature (New York: Harper, 1991).

(21.) For a theoretical deployment of a deliberately exaggerated version of Oblomov in order to explore philosophical questions of agency, see my Self-Knowledge and Resentment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2006). For the original, see Goncharov, Oblomov (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978).

(22.) (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1982).

(23.) Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001).

(24.) As is well known, the most explicit discussion of Marx on the subject of alienation is in The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (New York: Prometheus, 1998). But his commitment to a politics based on the ideal of an unalienated life can be found throughout his work, including the late writings.

(25.) I say much more about the relations between Marx's ideas on alienation and the genealogical analysis given in the present paper, in my "External Reasons and the Ideal of an Unalienated Life: An Essay on the Political Relevance of Practical Reason" (forthcoming in Politics and the Moral Psychology of Identity [Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP]).
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Author:Bilgrami, Akeel
Publication:Studies in Romanticism
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Dec 22, 2010
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