Introduction to Philosophy and Romanticism

Plato (427 B.C.-347 B.C.) in his dialogues argues that the world of objects is only a shadow of ideal forms, which exist eternally. To see things in their ideal form would be like having someone who had been tied up in a cave all his life seeing nothing but shadows on a wall suddenly released to see the sun and our world of objects. (For this reason, Plato wanted to have poets expelled from his utopic Academy since fictional representation is at a yet further remove from ideal forms.) At birth, we forget our knowledge of ideal forms, which we knew before being shackled to our bodily senses. Philosophers and mathematicians are best able to approach once again the world of ideal forms because they deal only with the precepts of reason. As Plato writes in the Phaedrus, "For a man must have intelligence of universals, and be able to proceed from the many particulars of sense to one conception of reason;--this is the recollection of those things which our soul once saw while following God--when regardless of that which we now call being she raised her head up towards the true being. And therefore the mind of the philosopher alone has wings; and this is just, for he is always, according to the measure of his abilities, clinging in recollection to those things in which God abides, and in beholding which He is what He is. And he who employs aright these memories is ever being initiated into perfect mysteries and alone becomes truly perfect. But, as he forgets earthly interests and is rapt in the divine, the vulgar deem him mad, and rebuke him; they do not see that he is inspired."
Two traditions stemming from John Locke (1632-1704) could be said to drive philosophy in opposite directions over the course of the eighteenth century. According to Locke, the human mind at birth is akin to a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which impressions are lain. By consequence, Locke argues that the mind has no innate ideas, that all we know comes from experience, although he does allow that the mind can become self-conscious because of certain innate faculties that allow the mind to recombine experiences in order to create new ideas. No ideas are innate; however, simple perceptions of the exterior world of objects require the combining and abstracting power of the mind to be turned into complex ideas.
Locke's theories directly influence two competing eighteenth-century philosophical accounts of the subject, which we can term for ease's sake Materialism or Objectivism and Idealism or Subjectivism. In the materialist camp, are the philosophers, David Hume (1711-1776; pictured here) and David Hartley (1705-1757). Taking Locke one step further, they argue that, if all our ideas come originally from perceptions of the material world, then we are nothing but what we perceive. Complex ideas are only the result of associations made among ideas intially impressed upon the tabula rasa of our brains. Hartley attempted to discover the rules of causality determining our brain's associations (and could thus be said to apply Newton's theories to the realm of psychology). In short, according to this logic, we are what we are thanks solely to perception and, then, habit of association. The objects of the world and of our experiences determine who we will be. The object is all.
A competing theory—the "immaterial hypothesis"—is raised by Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753), who takes Locke's emphasis on perception in an opposite direction. Perhaps it is not that we are determined by our perceptions but, rather, that, as Berkeley writes, "No object exists apart from the mind; mind is therefore the deepest reality." In other words, rather than state that we are nothing but what we perceive, Berkeley argues that the world is nothing unless we perceive. Later in his writing, Berkeley dissociates the subject even further from the material world by arguing that it is not perception but our original conceptions that determine the being of things. As he states in this later work, the mind is, in fact, "depressed by the heaviness of the animal nature to which it is chained"; "we are "oppressed and overwhelmed by the senses," which present to us a "region of darkness and dreams." In such a formulation, one must always seek to escape the objects of the material world. The subject is all.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who is arguably the most influential philosopher of Romanticism, reconciles these two tendencies, which he terms an Antinomy between, on the one hand, the intellectual, rational world (the SUBJECT) and, on the other, the spatiotemporal world (the OBJECT). According the Kant, the mind has no content until it interacts with the world; however, the mind does have innate formal structures or templates that order the world that is perceived. It is only because of the receptive capacity (what Kant terms Sensibility) that the world appears to us as orderered through, for example, the formal constructs of time and space. (Because of this ordering capacity of the mind, however, we are also kept separated from a knowledge of things in themselves—the ding-an-sich—since we can only perceive things as they appear to our sensibility). The mind also has the power to synthesize its perceptions through the capacity of Imagination. It is through the Imagination that we are able, for example, to see what is common in external objects. Finally, the mind includes a yet higher capacity, which Kant calls Understanding. This Understanding, which is intimately connected with our power of judgment, seeks to draw conclusions about what lies beyond the boundaries of sensibility (beyond, for example, time and space). We may not be able to know God, Freedom, or Immortality directly but we can recognize (through the power of the Understanding) that these things are necessary preconditions for the employment of reason in the realm where we can have knowledge (the world of appearances). The Understanding's desire to go beyond constraints like time and space is also what allows us to determine things like duty, ethics, and laws.