Volume 12, 2007
Philosophical Trends in the XXth Century
Irrationalism in Eighteenth Century Aesthetics
A Challenge for Kant
This essay deals with a particularly recalcitrant problem in the history of ideas, that of irrationalism. It emerged to full consciousness in mid-eighteenth century thought. Irrationalism was a logical consequence of individualism which in turn was a direct outcome of the Cartesian self-reflective subject. In time these tendencies produced the "critical" Zeitgeist and the "epoch of taste" during which Kant began thinking about such matters. Like Alfred Bäumler, I argue that irrationalism could not have arisen in ancient or medieval philosophical discourse, as they both lacked a certain type of rationalism required as its conceptual antipode. Only after the Lisbon earthquake (1755), and the ensuing reason vs. passion debate acknowledging for the first time both human powers as equal contenders, did the specter of irrationalism arise and become a focus. Kant's revolution in thought produced "transcendental psychology" reconciling "pure" sensibility and "pure" reason and provided, I argue, the conceptual wherewithal to grant aesthetic feeling and irrationalism a philosophical niche.