Impossible Individuality: Romanticism, Revolution, and the Origins of Modern Selfhood, 1787-1802

Princeton University Press

Studying major writers and philosophers--Schlegel and Schleiermacher in Germany, Wordsworth in England, and Chateaubriand in France--Gerald Izenberg shows how a combination of political, social, and psychological developments resulted in the modern concept of selfhood. More than a study of one national culture influencing another, this work goes to the heart of kindred intellectual processes in three European countries. Izenberg makes two persuasive and related arguments. The first is that the Romantics developed a new idea of the self as characterized by fundamentally opposing impulses: a drive to assert the authority of the self and expand that authority to absorb the universe, and the contradictory impulse to surrender to a greater idealized entity as the condition of the self's infinity. The second argument seeks to explain these paradoxes historically, showing how romantic individuality emerged as a compromise. Izenberg demonstrates how the Romantics retreated, in part, from a preliminary, radically activist ideal of autonomy they had worked out under the impact of the French Revolution. They had begun by seeing the individual self as the sole source of meaning and authority, but the convergence of crises in their personal lives with the crises of the revolution revealed this ideal as dangerously aggressive and self-aggrandizing. In reaction, the Romantics shifted their absolute claims for the self to the realm of creativity and imagination, and made such claims less dangerous by attributing totality to nature, art, lover, or state, which in return gave that totality back to the self.
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Publisher
Princeton University Press
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Published on
Jun 3, 1992
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Pages
372
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ISBN
9781400820665
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Features
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Language
English
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Genres
Literary Criticism / European / English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh
Literary Criticism / General
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This content is DRM protected.
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Studying major writers and philosophers--Schlegel and Schleiermacher in Germany, Wordsworth in England, and Chateaubriand in France--Gerald Izenberg shows how a combination of political, social, and psychological developments resulted in the modern concept of selfhood. More than a study of one national culture influencing another, this work goes to the heart of kindred intellectual processes in three European countries. Izenberg makes two persuasive and related arguments. The first is that the Romantics developed a new idea of the self as characterized by fundamentally opposing impulses: a drive to assert the authority of the self and expand that authority to absorb the universe, and the contradictory impulse to surrender to a greater idealized entity as the condition of the self's infinity. The second argument seeks to explain these paradoxes historically, showing how romantic individuality emerged as a compromise. Izenberg demonstrates how the Romantics retreated, in part, from a preliminary, radically activist ideal of autonomy they had worked out under the impact of the French Revolution. They had begun by seeing the individual self as the sole source of meaning and authority, but the convergence of crises in their personal lives with the crises of the revolution revealed this ideal as dangerously aggressive and self-aggrandizing. In reaction, the Romantics shifted their absolute claims for the self to the realm of creativity and imagination, and made such claims less dangerous by attributing totality to nature, art, lover, or state, which in return gave that totality back to the self.
Although largely sympathetic to Freud's clinical achievement, the existentialists criticized Freudian metapsychology as inappropriate to a truly humanistic psychology. Gerald Izenberg evaluates the critique of Freud in the work of two existential philosophers, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, and two existential psychiatrists, Ludwig Binswanger and Medard Boss.

His book interprets the relationship of psychoanalysis and existentialism and traces the history of a crisis in the European rationalist tradition. The author unveils the positivist foundations of Freud's theory of meaning and discusses the reactions it provoked in the work of Binswanger, Boss, and Sartre. Probing beneath the methodological dispute, he shows that the argument involved a challenge to the conception of the self that had dominated European thought since the Enlightenment. Existentialism, reflecting the turmoil of the inter-war and post-war years, furnished a theory of motivation better able to account for Freud's clinical data than his own rationalist metapsychology. This theory made problematic the existentialist idea of authenticity and freedom, however, and so the attempt to provide a substitute ethic and concept of mental health ended in failure, although in the process the basic questions were posed that must be answered in any modern social theory.

Originally published in 1976.

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