Romanticism and the Re-Invention of Modern Religion

The Reconciliation of German Idealism and Platonic Realism

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Alexander J.B. Hampton
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , January
     350 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Romanticism and the Re-Invention of Modern Religion jumps into a conversation about the philosophical significance of early German Romanticism that has been extremely lively over the past three decades, and manages to offer an impressive overarching account of this inherently fragmentary movement of thinkers in a field where impressive accounts are already available from scholars like Dalia Nassar, Manfred Frank, Andrew Bowie, and others. Here, Alexander J.B. Hampton is interested in Romanticism’s creative proposals for a modern understanding of religion, but by this he simply means their understanding of transcendence and the absolute. Religion, then, actually situates the study squarely within the scope of philosophical accounts of German Romanticism focusing on metaphysics, epistemology, and aesthetics.

Hampton argues that the late 18th century was perceived to be an “age of immanence” by the Romantics, where religious language no longer conveyed a connection with ideals, the transcendentals, and ultimately God as existing beyond the conditions of human subjectivity or the immanent plane that is conditioned by interaction with it. While this story is usually told with Immanuel Kant playing a lead role as the disenchanter of religion, Hampton helpfully demonstrates how even where Kant is present, he is usually mediated by Johann Gottlieb Fichte in the concerns of Romantics.

Hampton’s study discusses Friedrich Schlegel, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Novalis (though notably not Friedrich Schleiermacher, and he explains this omission on pages 51-4), but the chapters on these thinkers in part 3 are more of a capstone, offering readings that focus on the Platonic and Neo-Platonic interests of the Frühromantik. The heart of this history, though, is in part 2, where Hampton frames German Romanticism as a critical response to two poles: Spinozistic substance monism, on the one hand, and Fichtean subjective idealism, on the other. Both Baruch Spinoza and Johann Gottlieb Fichte offered a theory of the absolute as non-transcendent—the former in asserting that God is the immanent cause of things (natura naturans), and the latter in asserting that the self-positing I is the absolute ground of all external reality.

The controversy surrounding Spinoza’s reintroduction into German philosophical discourse, and Fichte’s development of the newer Kantian philosophy toward its subjectivist end, sets the backdrop of a general threat to a transcendent absolute that humans come to know by participation. A number of responses to these threats offer a second layer of background that situates the early Romantics, and Hampton describes these responses in part 2. Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi responds to the threat of Spinozism, which he perceives as the logical result of all rationalization in philosophy that seeks a full apprehension of the Absolute. Jacobi instead appeals to the immediacy of faith as the epistemological correlate to the transcendence he seeks to preserve.

According to Hampton, Jacobi’s reintroduction of Spinoza to public discourse as the basic threat to religion is, however, turned around by Johann Gottfried Herder, who finds some aspects of Spinoza’s monism helpful in articulating how God is present within immanent reality, without being collapsed into nature. The third influential thinker for the return to realism in religious thought is Karl Philipp Moritz, whose aesthetics emphasized the central role of mythology in establishing a space for the free representation of the Absolute. Moritz is less widely known but was important for August Wilhelm Schlegel, Friedrich W.J. Schelling, and early work on comparative mythography, so his consideration by Hampton is welcome.

The main thesis of Hampton’s book is compelling: early German Romanticism sought to revive a Platonic realism in post-Enlightenment religious thought that would properly situate the transcendent Absolute as something in which reality participates. Without needing to dismiss the “fragment” or the “relative” as central concepts for Romantic thought, this basic orientation serves to explain what about the immanent and incomplete was so captivating for the Romantics. It was in these encounters, rather than a world-whole or a transcendental subject, where the transcendent Absolute could be preserved in itself and yet present. The Spinoza-Fichte polarity is what motivates specific paths of discourse in German philosophy around 1800 that considered these new possibilities for the Absolute. Hampton does a great service to the history of this period by explaining exactly how disputes over Spinoza and Fichte indelibly shaped a new generation of philosophers, artists, and poets in their mission to rearticulate the terms of a viable modern religiosity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Evan Kuehn  is the Interlibrary Loan Coordinator at North Park University and Metadata Specialist at Atla.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alexander J. B. Hampton is Assistant Professor in Christianity at the University of Toronto. He specialises in the philosophy of religion and religious aesthetics, with his research considering the role of poetics and Platonism in the shaping of the Christian tradition.


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