DALIA NASSAR | The Romantic Absolute: Being and Knowing in Early German Romantic Philosophy, 1795-1804 | University of Chicago Press 2014


By Reed Winegar

In her monograph The Romantic Absolute: Being and Knowing in Early German Romantic Philosophy, 1795-1804, Dalia Nassar paints a fascinating and erudite portrait of Frühromantik. Nassar’s interpretation of early German Romanticism aims to reconcile epistemological and metaphysical interpretations of early German Romanticism by arguing that the early German Romantics regarded the Absolute as both a cognitive ideal and an existential reality.[1] As Nassar writes, “[f]or the romantics […] the absolute was both an epistemological and a metaphysical idea: a cognitive ideal and an existential reality” (p. 2). Nassar defends her thesis with detailed discussions of Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel, and Schelling. Nassar treats these three thinkers in separate, self-contained sections; consequently, the book reads like a collection of three independent treatises.

Nassar’s focus in the book is relatively narrow. Given her focus on the early German Romantics’ epistemology and metaphysics, Nassar pays less attention to the early German Romantics’ aesthetics, literary criticism, and artistic works than one might expect. She also says relatively little about the early German Romantics’ philosophy of language or theory of the symbol. And surprisingly for a book on the Absolute, Nassar does not discuss in detail their views on religion and God. Finally, Nassar chooses to ignore some very well-known topics in early German Romanticism, such as Novalis’s theory of magical idealism and Schlegel’s theory of irony. Instead, Nassar’s interpretation of the early German Romantics’ Absolute highlights the early German Romantics’ organicism and their interest in empirical nature, and Nassar argues throughout the book for the influence of Goethe’s scientific writings on the early German Romantics.

Nassar’s historical method is contextualist, and her book teems with rich detail. Nassar’s focus is primarily on debates internal to scholarship on early German Romanticism, and the book will primarily interest scholars of Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel, and Schelling. However, the book does establish points of contact with other thinkers, such as Kant, Fichte, Spinoza, and (especially) Goethe. Nassar’s book clearly represents an important contribution to the study of early German Romanticism in English. I anticipate that the book will be influential for many future studies of Romanticism, and anyone interested in Classical German Philosophy should definitely read it. Obviously, I cannot hope to address all of the points raised in Nassar’s intricate and detailed interpretation of early German Romanticism. Instead, I will merely outline what I take to be some (but not all) of the book’s major claims and attempt to raise some questions for Nassar’s interpretation. I will begin by addressing Nassar’s general framework and, then, will turn to her detailed discussions of Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel, and Schelling. I hope that my questions in this review will serve as a springboard for furthering the discussion of Nassar’s wonderful book.

General Points

To begin, Nassar frames her book in terms of a contrast between epistemological and ontological interpretations of early German Romanticism. According to the so-called epistemological interpretation, the early German Romantics regarded the Absolute as merely a cognitive ideal, similar to a Kantian regulative idea. According to the ontological interpretation, the early Romantics regarded the Absolute as an existential reality. Nassar aims to reconcile these competing interpretations by arguing that the early German Romantics regarded the Absolute as both a cognitive ideal and an existential reality. Here Nassar presents a general thesis about early German Romanticism as a whole. Nassar defends this interpretation by examining Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel, and Schelling. I am not entirely sure why Nassar focuses specifically on these three thinkers. Many other thinkers (such as Hölderlin, August Wilhelm Schlegel, Tieck, Schleiermacher, et al.) also belonged to early German Romanticism. Moreover, Nassar recognizes that Schelling’s relationship to Romanticism “is not straightforward”, and some commentators even deny that Schelling should be classified as a Romantic (p. 157). Thus, one might worry about Nassar’s attempt to draw a general conclusion about early German Romanticism on the basis of Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel, and Schelling.[2]

Of course, to show that Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel, and Schelling embraced the Absolute as both a cognitive ideal and an existential reality would still be a significant interpretative achievement. Unfortunately, I had trouble identifying Nassar’s main arguments for this claim amidst her detailed interpretations of these three figures. Nassar certainly makes a strong case that these three thinkers had a metaphysical conception of the Absolute. And Nassar also makes a strong case that these three thinkers were interested in various epistemological questions, such as whether knowledge involves a creative aspect. But to show that these three thinkers were interested in both epistemology and metaphysics does not, by itself, entail either that they regarded the Absolute as both a cognitive ideal and an existential reality or that these two components of the Absolute are necessarily related to one another. For example, in a recent interview regarding her book, Nassar presents her thesis by observing that the Romantics’ question of the mind’s relationship to nature “clearly concerns the nature of reality, but it also concerns the way in which the mind grasps and portrays the natural world” (Nassar 2014). This claim notes that the Romantics were interested in general epistemological questions about how the mind represents the world, but this point seems distinct from the specific claim that the Romantics regarded the Absolute as both a regulative, cognitive ideal and an existential reality. Thus, I wonder if I might ask Nassar to clarify precisely how Novalis, Schlegel, and Schelling each regard the Absolute as both a regulative, cognitive ideal and an existential reality or, if I have misunderstood her aim, to clarify her book’s overall thesis. With these general points in view, let me turn now to Nassar’s individual interpretations of her three Romantics.


As Nassar notes, Novalis has often been regarded as an otherworldly poet. But Nassar intends to correct this popular view of Novalis by highlighting the importance of nature and empirical observation to Novalis’s conception of the Absolute.[3] Nassar believes that recent commentators’ obsession with Novalis’s discussion of the self in the Fichte-Studien has obscured the importance of nature and empirical observation in Novalis’s philosophy. Nassar argues that Novalis’s interest in nature is already evident in the Fichte-Studien and that it becomes even more prominent in Novalis’s later writings. Nassar also argues that Goethe’s scientific writings significantly influenced Novalis’s views regarding our knowledge of nature.

In regard to the Fichte-Studien, Nassar suggests that Novalis’s notes employ a distinction between Mere Being (nur Sein) and Determinate Being (Sein). According to Nassar, Novalis identifies the Absolute with Determinate Being. Thus, Nassar stresses that Novalis’s Absolute is immanent to nature. To illustrate her interpretation of Novalis’s Absolute, Nassar points to note #445, where Novalis compares the whole to a circle of people sitting on each other’s knees. Nassar says:

[I]nsofar as it [i.e., Determinate Being] is the circle formed through the individuals sitting on one another’s knees, it is realized in the activity of the individual parts […] Being should therefore be understood not in isolation from the parts (beyond or outside of reality) nor as an outcome or result of the parts, being is only in its appearance in the parts. (Nassar 2014)

This immanent interpretation of the Absolute in Novalis’s Fichte-Studien prompts Nassar to describe Novalis’s Absolute as a mediation of the whole and parts, infinite and finite, etc.

Nassar recognizes that her interpretation of Novalis’s Fichte-Studien is controversial. According to most recent interpretations of the Fichte-Studien, Novalis’s treatment of the Absolute hinges on Novalis’s views regarding identity.[4] According to this interpretation, Novalis focuses on the proposition A=A, which begins Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre, and argues that this proposition fails to represent simple identity. Instead, in this proposition A is separated from A. Similarly, in self-consciousness the self is both the subject and object. But the proposition I=I separates the self as subject from the self as object and, thus, fails to properly represent the self’s identity. Novalis stresses this point by referring to A=A as an “illusory proposition” (Novalis 2003:3). According to Novalis, our only access to identity is through feeling, rather than through reflection or judgment. And this leads Novalis to prioritize feeling and art over reflection. But Nassar attempts to make room for her own interpretation by reinterpreting Novalis’s concept of an illusory proposition. According to Nassar, the traditional interpretation of an illusory proposition regards Mere Being as the Absolute. However, Nassar claims that Mere Being is not the Absolute. Instead, Mere Being is only an abstraction from Determinate Being. Consequently, Mere Being does not actually exist. For Nassar, simple identity is equivalent to Mere Being. Thus, A=A is an illusory proposition because there is no Mere Being or simple identity.

Nassar’s interpretation of the Absolute in terms of Determinate Being is interesting, and Nassar’s attempt to make room for her interpretation by reconfiguring Novalis’s concept of an illusory proposition is intriguing. But, at the risk of seeming old-fashioned, I admit that I do not yet see how Nassar’s novel suggestion fits Novalis’s text. In note #1 Novalis bluntly writes: “The essence of identity can only be represented in an illusory proposition [Scheinsatz]. We abandon the identical in order to present it” (Novalis 2003:3). Novalis’s concern here is with representing identity in a way that abandons identity. This correlates well with the traditional interpretation of Novalis, according to which Novalis claims that A=A separates A and A in order to present them as identical to one another. But I do not see how Novalis’s concern with representing identity in a way that abandons identity fits with Nassar’s interpretation. Of course, this need not spell trouble for Nassar’s overall interpretation of the Fichte-Studien. For the notes that Nassar takes to describe Determinate Being come much later in the notebooks, and it is reasonable to suppose that Novalis might entertain various views of the Absolute throughout his notes. Perhaps Nassar could try to make room for her interpretation simply by arguing that Novalis entertains a new position later in the notes that focuses on Determinate Being and nature without needing to reinterpret note #1.

Putting the Fichte-Studien to the side, Nassar makes a strong case for the importance of nature and empirical observation to Novalis’s later writings. According to Nassar, Goethe’s scientific writings heavily influenced Novalis’s epistemology of nature. Nassar notes that Novalis heaps enormous praise on Goethe’s scientific writings. For example, Novalis writes: “One would also be justified in maintaining in a certain sense that Goethe is the first physicist of his age—indeed that his work is epoch-making in the history of physics” (Novalis 1997:111). Nassar repeatedly suggests that Goethe’s scientific writings prompted Novalis to claim that humans have a non-sensible intuition of nature’s productivity. Nassar’s emphasis on Novalis’s interest in nature and empirical observation is welcome and refreshing. However, I find myself wondering whether Nassar overstates Goethe’s influence on Novalis. Although Novalis refers with praise to Goethe’s scientific writings, he does not discuss Goethe’s scientific views in much detail. The most extensive comments are found in “On Goethe”, where Novalis seems to present two main claims.

First, Novalis applauds Goethe for choosing topics in natural science, such as the metamorphosis of plants, that permitted Goethe to publish complete, polished treatments of his topics—much as an artist presents complete, polished artworks, rather than works in progress. Novalis writes: “In his [i.e., Goethe’s] scientific studies it becomes very clear that his inclination is rather to finish completely something insignificant—to give it the greatest polish and ease of expression […]” (Novalis 1997:111).[5]

Second, Novalis maintains that Goethe’s scientific method is similar to artistic creation because both the scientist and the artist actively create an idea of the object. Novalis writes:

Nature and insight into nature come into being at the same time, like antiquity and the knowledge of antiquity; for one is greatly in error if one believes that antiquities exist. Antiquity is only now coming into being. It grows under the eyes and soul of the artist. (Novalis 1997:111f.)

Novalis’s point here seems to be, for example, that a visual artist provides insight into antiquity by painting an idealized interpretation of antiquity. Similarly, Goethe’s scientific writings provide insight into natural phenomena by presenting an idealized interpretation of nature (as in Goethe’s presentation of the ideal Urpflanze).

Regardless of the details of Goethe’s own epistemological views, Novalis’s own emphasis seems to be on the notion of an active interpretation that idealizes what is merely given to the senses. But to claim that artists and scientists present idealized interpretations does not automatically entail that artists and scientists possess a non-sensible intuition of nature’s productivity. Of course, Novalis was interested in the topic of intellectual intuition in various contexts, such as in the case of the self. But “On Goethe” does not seem sufficient to support Nassar’s claim that Goethe persuaded Novalis to accept a non-sensible intuition of nature’s productivity, rather than merely that Novalis took Goethe’s scientific writings to stress the role of active, creative, idealized interpretation in science. Thus, I wonder if there are further texts that might better support Nassar’s interpretation of Goethe’s specific influence on Novalis. Finally, I might note that Nassar claims that Goethe convinced Novalis that Kant and Fichte lacked a thoroughly critical epistemology, because they lacked a full appreciation of the mind’s creation of its object. But if Goethe simply highlighted to Novalis the importance of active interpretation, then I fail to see why Kant could not simply agree with Novalis. Indeed, in the third Critique, Kant stresses that we must actively seek out concepts of particular laws and thus, in a sense, actively interpret nature.

Friedrich Schlegel

The next part of Nassar’s book focuses on Friedrich Schlegel. My review will treat this section of the book in less detail than the sections on Novalis and Schelling. Like other recent commentators, Nassar rejects Hegel’s interpretation of Schlegel as a poetic exaggeration of Fichte. Instead, Nassar notes that Schlegel rejects Fichte’s foundationalism on the grounds that there cannot be any unconditioned first principle. However, Nassar does not take Schlegel to reject the Absolute’s existence. Rather, Nassar claims that Schlegel embraces an ontological notion of the Absolute. But in place of an unconditioned first principle, Schlegel proposes that the Absolute consists of multiple, mutually conditioning grounds. Nassar notes that Schlegel replaces Fichte’s single unconditioned principle with the concept of a Wechselerweis (reciprocal proof), and she identifies Schlegel’s Wechselerweis with his claim in the lectures on transcendental philosophy that the infinite and the finite depend on one another and reciprocally condition one another in a process of Becoming. Finally, this theory of Becoming lays behind Schlegel’s emphasis on the history of philosophy and on his paradoxical notion of a system of fragments.

Nassar’s emphasis on Schlegel’s lectures on transcendental philosophy is extremely interesting. But I would like to note that Nassar’s interpretation seems to push Schlegel in a proto-Hegelian direction.[6] Obviously, Nassar emphasizes Schlegel’s interest in the history of philosophy and his notion of immanent critique. But even Nassar’s interpretation of Schlegel’s Wechselerweis seems proto-Hegelian. Namely, Nassar claims that the infinite is present in the finite, that the infinite manifests itself in a historical process of becoming, and even (at one point in the book) that the infinite is identical to the finite. Given Hegel’s well-known animosity towards Schlegel, a proto-Hegelian interpretation of Schlegel would be both surprising and innovative. However, I am not sure how closely related Nassar ultimately would take Schlegel and Hegel to be. (Indeed, I am not exactly sure how Nassar intends to balance between the claim that the infinite and the finite are two different but mutually conditioning principles and her claim that the infinite and the finite are identical.) Thus, rather than raising any particular criticisms of Nassar’s interpretation of Schlegel, I would simply like to ask her to elaborate on her view of Schlegel’s relationship to Hegel.


Finally, Nassar examines Schelling’s conception, or rather conceptions, of the Absolute. Nassar focuses on Schelling’s philosophical development during the 1790s and early 1800s. Throughout her discussion, Nassar argues that Schelling’s thought is more continuous over the years than other commentators recognize. Nassar contends that the origins of Schelling’s famous break with Fichte are already evident in Schelling’s early writings, such as “Of the I”, and she argues that Schelling’s early writings are more influenced by Spinoza than by Fichte. Moreover, Nassar argues that Schelling’s shift from the System of Transcendental Idealism to the Identity Philosophy does not constitute a sharp rupture in Schelling’s thought. Instead, the System of Transcendental Idealism paves the way for the Identity Philosophy, and the Identity Philosophy can even be interpreted as a return to Schelling’s earliest discussions of the Absolute in writings like “Of the I”. Of course, Nassar does not implausibly claim that Schelling’s philosophy is entirely static over time. Rather, she recognizes that Schelling modified various aspects of his philosophy. Indeed, she argues that Goethe significantly influenced the development of Schelling’s Philosophy of Nature in the late 1790s.

Overall, Nassar provides a compelling account of Schelling’s philosophy during the 1790s and early 1800s. Unfortunately, it is difficult to evaluate Nassar’s argument in favour of the continuity of Schelling’s thought, because Nassar provides no clear criterion for distinguishing between ruptures and mere modifications in Schelling’s thought. For example, Nassar suggests that there is not a sharp rupture between Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism and Schelling’s Identity Philosophy because the System of Transcendental Idealism proves an original identity of subject and object and, thus, paves the way for Schelling’s transition to the Identity Philosophy. But Nassar also argues that the Identity Philosophy grew out of Schelling’s dissatisfaction with the System of Transcendental Idealism’s treatment of the Absolute in regard to art. Moreover, she notes that the Identity Philosophy, unlike the System of Transcendental Idealism, relies on a rational intellectual intuition and prioritizes philosophy over art. Indeed, the Identity Philosophy even introduces a geometric method that is absent from the System of Transcendental idealism. These all seem like major changes in Schelling’s thought—more like ruptures than continuities. At times, Nassar seems to suggest that these changes count as continuous with Schelling’s earlier thought because they represent rational responses to problems that Schelling identified in his earlier position. But I do not think that people who describe Schelling’s thought as protean are committed to the claim that Schelling’s changes of mind are entirely irrational or random.

Of course, Nassar could grant that the Identity Philosophy marks a rupture with the System of Transcendental Idealism but maintain that the Identity Philosophy, nevertheless, marks a return to Schelling’s conception of the Absolute in his early writings, such as “Of the I”. Nassar’s interpretation of the relationship between “Of the I” and the Identity Philosophy relies on Nassar’s claim that Schelling’s early thought is more Spinozistic than Fichtean. I confess that I am hesitant to follow Nassar here. Obviously, both Fichte and Spinoza influenced “Of the I”, and this work largely attempts to combine Fichtean freedom with a Spinozistic monism. To defend her interpretation, Nassar claims that Schelling’s early position differs from that of Fichte because (1) Schelling has an ontological notion of the Absolute, while Fichte’s notion of the Absolute is regulative, and (2) Schelling is interested in an ontological unconditioned, while Fichte is interested in epistemic certainty. Given Nassar’s overall thesis that the early German Romantics possess both an ontological and a regulative, epistemic conception of the Absolute, I was surprised that Nassar contrasts Schelling and Fichte in this way.

But even if Nassar is right that Schelling differs from Fichte in these two respects, I am not sure why that justifies Nassar’s claim that Schelling’s position is more Spinozistic than Fichtean. After all, Schelling still seeks to accommodate Fichtean freedom and argues that Fichtean freedom, rather than Spinoza’s not-self, is the Absolute. As Schelling writes, the “beginning and the end of all philosophy is freedom” (Schelling 1980:82). Again, it seems to me that “Of the I” aims to combine Spinoza’s monism with Fichte’s free self; thus, the work is simply Spinozistic and Fichtean in different ways. Finally, I am still not entirely sure why Nassar suggests that Schelling is less interested in epistemic certainty than Fichte is. After all, Schelling maintains that the I is the unconditioned ground of knowledge, and Schelling argues that there is an intellectual intuition of the I.

Of course, Nassar is aware of Schelling’s theory of intellectual intuition. In fact, Nassar argues that Schelling’s theory of intellectual intuition is heavily indebted to Spinoza’s theory of intuitive knowledge. However, I am not yet sure that Nassar sufficiently justifies her interpretation of Spinoza’s influence on Schelling’s theory of intellectual intuition. Nassar emphasizes Schelling’s claim that Spinoza’s intuitive knowledge of things proceeds from knowledge of God’s attributes. But the identification of intellectual intuition with an intuition of God’s attributes or, alternately, with God’s ideas is common in the medieval and early modern periods. Thus, I see no strong reason to claim that Spinoza, rather than say the Christian Platonic tradition or the mystic tradition, was the primary influence on Schelling’s theory of intellectual intuition. Indeed, I worry that Nassar overlooks Schelling’s main reason for referring in “Of the I” to Spinoza’s theory of intuitive knowledge. Namely, Schelling maintains that philosophy begins from an intellectual intuition of the unconditioned, rather than from general concepts. Schelling takes Spinoza’s theory of intuitive knowledge to suggest that Spinoza agreed that philosophy should begin from the unconditioned, rather than from general concepts. Thus, Schelling’s reference to Spinoza’s theory of intuitive knowledge simply comprises part of Schelling’s extended argument throughout “Of the I” that Spinoza’s Ethics represents the best possible version of dogmatism. It does not signal a particularly strong Spinozistic influence on Schelling’s theory of intellectual intuition.


In conclusion, Dalia Nassar’s The Romantic Absolute presents a fascinating and detailed portrait of early German Romanticism. I am confident that Nassar’s book will become an important point of reference for many years to come, and I strongly encourage anyone interested in Classical German Philosophy to read it. Here, I have merely attempted to outline and raise some questions for the major elements of Nassar’s interpretation. Unfortunately, there are many further details of Nassar’s interpretation that I have had to omit (including Nassar’s periodic discussions of moral philosophy). Also, although I have attempted to raise some questions for Nassar’s interpretation, I believe that I agree with Nassar more than I disagree with her. Allow me to close by repeating that this book represents a powerful interpretation of early German Romanticism that is worth careful study.


[1] Nassar frames the opposition between epistemological and ontological interpretations of the Absolute by contrasting the works of Manfred Frank and Frederick Beiser respectively. See, e.g., Beiser (2002) and (2003) and Frank (1997).

[2] In a similar vein, Norman (2014) worries that Romanticism was not a unified movement and does not easily permit a general interpretation like that of Nassar.

[3] Stoljar (1997) also draws attention to Novalis’s scientific interests.

[4] E.g., Frank (1997).

[5] Of course, one might wonder why Novalis praises Goethe in this manner, given Novalis’s own interest in fragments. But I set this question aside.

[6] Norman (2014) also suggests that Nassar’s interpretation of Schlegel is reminiscent of Hegel, and Nassar (2014) explicitly claims that Schlegel’s view of history anticipates Hegel.



Beiser, F. (2002) German Idealism: The Struggle against Subjectivism, 1781-1801, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

—— (2003) The Romantic Imperative: The Concept of Early German Romanticism, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Frank, M. (1997) ‘Unendliche Annäherung’: Die Anfänge der philosophischen Frühromantik, Frankfurt a/M: Suhrkamp.

Kneller, J. (2003) Introduction to Fichte Studies by Novalis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nassar, D. (2014) “On the Romantic Absolute”, 3:AM Magazine, November 21, 2014.

Norman, J. (2014) Review of The Romantic Absolute: Being and Knowing in Early German Romantic Philosophy, 1795-1804 by Dalia Nassar, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews: An Electronic Journal (June 29, 2014).

Novalis (2003) Fichte Studies, edited by J. Kneller, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

—— (1997) Philosophical Writings, edited by M. Stoljar, Albany: SUNY Press.

Schelling, F.W.J. (1980) The Unconditioned in Human Knowledge: Four Early Essays (1794–1796), translated by F. Marti, Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press.

Stoljar, M. (1997) Introduction to Philosophical Writings by Novalis, Albany: SUNY Press.

© Reed Winegar, 2015.

Reed Winegar obtained his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania in 2012 and is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University, NY. His areas of specialization are Kant, German Idealism and early modern philosophy. Among his publications are ‘To Suspend Finitude Itself: Hegel’s Reaction to Kant’s First Antinomy’, forthcoming in the Hegel Bulletin, ‘An Unfamiliar and Positive Law: On Kant and Schiller‘, Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie (2013), and ‘Good Sense, Art, and Morality in Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste”‘, The Journal of Scottish Philosophy (2011).