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Bottom-Up vs Top-Down Reality

We are persuaded to imagine top-down models of cosmic reality by the awesome vista of the starry night sky as experienced from our position as embodied individuals, effectively rooted or tethered to the ground, emphatically located, local, limited, and small compared with the world around us which is apparently endless; and also by our childhood conditioning to having and depending on parental seniority presenting us gifts from the accumulated aids to orientation of a mysterious ambient culture. Our immediate survival depends on our eating, drinking, and breathing local parts of the vast environment, and on our bodily contact with its solid structures. Those are important but contingent and incidental circumstances of intelligence, and individuals are quite capable of maturing beyond their influence as complete models of reality. Conceiving the cosmos as the Great Chain of Being (which is always a top-down chain of command) is not a feature of human nature nor necessitated by human nature. It is circumstantial and cultural. What is far more important for a mature orientation within elemental reality is that human life is played out by individuals in an encounter between the non-actualities of our individual subjectivity and the brute actualities of objective nature. As long as we are caught in impressions of the Great Chain of Command, we are vulnerable to a certain sort of macro-parasitic fraud. Factions which assert their seniority, divine inspiration, natural, or even merely cultural superiority can take control of vast numbers of subordinated people by claiming to represent the great cosmic chain of command.

The Keystone of Romanticism

The nub of philosophical Romanticism is a clash between ancient and perennial top-down visions of cosmic reality (such as the Christian doctrine of an omnipotent God, or Plato’s ideal forms) and the local experience of individual creative freedom, as evident especially in artists and art. By the time of the early work of Johann Fichte (1762-1814) the line of philosophical thinking about individual freedom that went from ancient humanists (Epicurean, Stoic, Skeptic) to Luther and then to Kant should have been profound enough, finally, to support and enlarge the egalitarian forces launched previously in the radial Enlightenment. The recognition of individual freedom should have been ready to subvert and overturn the age-old top-down conceptions which always alienate creative freedom from individuals. Instead, Romanticism actually subverted that line of progress and just revived Medieval fables of exceptionalism, hierarchy, and The Great Chain of Being. The position of Romanticism in the history of ideas reveals that the top-down orientation of all codified and institutional systems of reality has been the crucial barrier to progress, the tragedy of ideas.

From Novalis

Romanticism always includes a conviction that there are forces, or a reality, that is higher than (and very different from) the ordinary everyday work-a-day world, and that the higher ‘something’ is difficult to recognize or to perceive, if not invisible (occult). It includes a declaration of the active presence of a force of spirit (disembodied intelligence). (It can do this either seriously or ironically.) In romanticism lower is fragmented and higher is progressively more unified, all the way up to a total-oneness at the cosmic level. The higher reality is one spirit, free of causation (the magic idealism of Novalis), but not merely random. Events are the caprice of a discretionary intelligence. Dreams, after all, are free of internal causal chains but not free of personal relevance associations.

Can Rationalists Dream?

Romanticism was a reaction against a misrepresentation of Enlightenment rationalism. Romantics comment on rationalism as if it were a campaign for a total focus on humdrum practicality, utility, and efficiency in all human affairs. In fact, the radical Enlightenment rationalists were campaigning for rationality as a way to improve dramatically the claim to autonomy and dignity of every individual. Rationality was their shield for every individual against the established and oppressive ideology of a universal taint in human nature itself, original sin, which benefits from authoritarian control. Efficiency and utility are top-down administrative and economic ideas which were quite foreign to radical Enlightenment philosophers, who were riding the coat-tails of the new cultural wave of scientific ideas with the hope of achieving their own social, political, and cultural improvements. Spinoza and his interpreters were rationalists and not romantics, and yet conceived the Enlightenment. Rationalists dreamed of an equal society in which all people would have rights and freedoms in a bottom-up political system operating to improve the lives of all. That is their radicalism. They embraced the scientific metaphysics of materialism as a potentially bottom-up vision of reality in opposition to Christian spiritualism, which was profoundly influenced by Plato’s idealism and which justified authoritarian control as divine command.

Failing to recognize that Enlightenment rationalism’s main intent and effect was to empower and enhance the dignity of individuals universally, romantics saw in rationalism only disenchantment, formalism, the tyranny of brute material actuality and determinism, including “laws of thought”. Searching for reasons to reject such things, romantic philosophers were inspired by the early work of Johann Fichte which places emphasis on the creativity of individual subjectivity, the personal “I”. Fichte created his innovation out of an insistence on making Kant’s Critical Philosophy (Fichte’s entry point into philosophy) consistent by eliminating the idea of an ultimate external reality, an objective “thing-in-itself”. To Fichte’s way of thinking there was no reason, on Kant’s own basic principles, for supposing that there was a thing-in-itself, although the thing-in-itself was apparently crucial for Kant’s overall vision. In the absence of acquaintance with a thing-in-itself the individual subjective “I” must perform a creative act in which it “posits” (conjectures, pretends, considers, day-dreams) its entire world, including itself.

Note on Idealism

Romanticism is an idealism, since the most fundamental character of the cosmos, on this view, is intelligence. Idealism comes from recognition of the interiority of intelligence (discretionary non-actualities), in contrast to materialism, which rejects such interiority, and restricts existence (ontology) exclusively to what is exterior to intelligence, the strict actualities of physics, pre-determined, measurable, nature. So any philosophical idealism is some model of the interiority of intelligence, and a recognition of interiority of intelligences as elemental or non-reducible. Recognizing the interiority of intelligence gives any position an aspect of idealism.

Kant vs Fichte: A Bottom-Up Re-Conceptualization

Kant’s idea of the “thing-in-itself” (noumena) retained the old top-down orientation, in spite of his recognition of individual freedom. His main emphasis was on scientific knowledge, on the importance of, and difficulty of, achieving acquaintance with what was external to and vastly more elemental than individual intelligence. However, Fichte’s early work, in which he first rejects Kant’s idea of “thing-in-itself” and develops the idea of the individual subjective “I” which must posit its entire world, is the clearest alternative to top-down visions of the cosmos in the whole history of philosophy. (The atomic materialism of Democritus is another contender, as suggested above, and so is Ockham’s nominalism. Ockham was, of course, Christian, which is an assertion of a top-down supernatural model of reality. More on this later.) The main importance of Fichte’s vision is his unprecedented re-orientation or re-conceptualization of reality as a whole, situating individual intelligence at the creative source. Such a re-orientation was implicit in Luther’s “leap of faith”, but was not fully articulated before Fichte.

Fichte and Luther: The Personal Power to Posit a Reality

Fichte’s concept of subjective interiority, the personal “I”, in its creative act of “positing” itself and the cosmos, is doing something comparable to Luther’s more Stoic and more strictly personal “leap of faith”. Both are subjective and deliberate acts of creativity going beyond acts which can be guided completely by previously acquired knowledge, direct acquaintance, or rational calculations. Both Fichte’s and Luther’s creative acts are assertions of a particular intelligence, acts of self-declaration, self-definition, or self-creation, with both the intent and effect of projecting the peculiar power and freedom of that intelligence. Both acts are projections outward into nature and culture of inwardness, of the freedom of an intelligence. However, Fichte’s idea of a subjectivity “positing” dreams leaps well beyond the sort of creativity required by Luther’s leap of faith. There is still a leap, an assertion and a projection of the freedom of an intelligence, but in Fichte’s conception the projection has far more shape, content, and self-sufficiency. It is not just Luther’s act of embracing or assenting to reports of a divine plan supposedly revealed to some distant source and passed along. Fichte’s subjectivity is its own transcendent source. The freedom of Fichte’s subjectivity is richer by far than Luther’s at the same time as being rooted solidly in Luther’s vision. That is the basis for claiming that, in spite of problems, early Romanticism represents a philosophical advance in conceiving subjectivity and its creative freedom.

For the “I” to posit a world, as it does according to Fichte, is not to create an actual world (which would be a thing-in-itself) but rather to create a subjective non-actuality, interior to a particular intelligence (with the unbounded malleability or mutability of such interiority). Romantic philosophers recognized the difference between objective actuality (thing-in-itself) and subjective non-actuality, and they recognized that culture is mainly a construct of non-actuality, that is, orientations which are internal to individual subjectivities. However, they could not accept that individual subjective non-actuality is the matrix of real creative freedom. What prevented them from recognizing that truth of freedom was their (romantic) inability to get past the age-old top-down conception of reality. Anything profoundly original had to come from “on-high” somehow. So the problem for romantics was how to reconcile their top-down conception of reality with their subjective idealism. The easiest way out is to universalize and unify subjectivity and posit a single top-down omnipotent subjectivity, thus to conceive everything as a play of ideas in that divine subjectivity, and that is pretty much what romantic philosophers did. Considering this from another perspective, the problem with dismissing the thing-in-itself is that it seems to license dismissal of other-intelligences-in-themselves also. That would leave a single absolute subjectivity as the entirety of existence, and, in fact, that seems to be the way Fichte’s thinking developed. Such an absolute subjectivity or intelligence is a variant of the concept of God.

Romanticism began with an assertion of individual freedom by Fichte, who picked up and developed the radical Enlightenment thread of empowering and enhancing individuals in his early work on the all-positing I. The Fichtean “I” is the reality of freedom. That in itself is congruent with Enlightenment rationalism up to a point, but of course it cannot accept materialism and determinism as conceived by Spinoza and his fans. So, even though the Romantics were reacting against (a misrepresentation of) Enlightenment rationalism, they were also building on the main feature of that rationalism, up to a point.

Novalis, Philosophical Writings, translated and edited by Margaret Mahony Stoljar, published by State University of New York Press (1997), ISBN 0-7914-3272-6.

Romanticism, A German Affair, written by Rudiger Safranski, translated from German by Robert E. Goodwin, published by Northwestern University Press (2014), ISBN 978-0-8101-2653-4.

Fichte: The Self and the Calling of Philosophy, 1762-1799, written by Anthony J. La Vopa, Published by Cambridge University Press (2001), ISBN-10: 0521791456, ISBN-13: 978-0521791458.

The Roots of Romanticism, written by Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy, Published by Princeton University Press (2001), ISBN-10: 0691086621, ISBN-13: 978-0691086620.

Radical Enlightenment : Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750, written by Jonathan I. Israel, Published by Oxford University Press (July 2002), ISBN: 0-19-925456-7.

Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670-1752, written by Jonathan I. Israel, published by Oxford University Press (2006), ISBN 978-0-19-954152-2.

Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790, written by Jonathan I. Israel, published by Oxford University Press (2011), ISBN 978-0-19-954820-0.

Copyright © 2015 Sandy MacDonald.