Metaphysics of Creativity: Nature, Art, and Freedom In German Philosophy After Kant
Paul Ashton and Claire Rafferty
There are numerous investigations into the relationship between Whitehead and Hegel, and for good reason, as there are many parallels in their work. However, Hegel is not an isolated thinker that exists in a cultural vacuum, rather he is perhaps the last and most famous philosopher in the German romantic and idealistic tradition, and not surprisingly we believe these parallels are consistent across this movement as a whole. To be sure, the focus on Hegel in this area has in some ways obscured some of the true insights and the genuinely processual nature of philosophical thought in this revolutionary period as a whole. With this said, the goal of this paper is not a thoroughgoing examination of the similarity of positions of the two fields or the direct links between the two; our goal is the more modest one of merely showing how this unique period of philosophy after and including Kant responded to the modern problematic of dualism. Kant is especially important here as his philosophy is the doorway through which the spirit of the new mode of philosophical thinking has come whilst paradoxically representing the height of dichotomous thought.
Whilst scientific reflection upon the natural world is a fundamental aspect of process thought, it is to philosophical reflections on nature and art that we have turned for our inspiration and as central to the development of a non-dichotomous view of the world. In accord with the ideas to be outlined it is our belief that the field of process philosophy can advance itself by broadening its historical base and its scope of inquiry to include these insights. The fundamental reason for this advance is that whilst there are a manifold of positions that emerge after Kant, there is a common acceptance that the reunification of the whole, albeit a differentiated unity, requires revealing nature as an active power that is characterized as self-determination, purposiveness and creativity.
To begin our exposition we must return to the Enlightenment which begins by breaking down the older forms of knowledge characterized by the age old metaphysical systems. Truth was now to be found not in the word of God but in his work—nature—and for this task words no longer provided the transparency or accuracy required; now ‘the only suitable expression lies in mathematical constructions, figures and numbers… in these symbols nature presents itself in perfect form and clarity.’ Nature was a product of immutable physical laws which, while lying hidden in the darkness of myth and superstition, the human mind could reveal by harnessing the illuminating power of scientific reason. However, once these scientific and mathematical principles had been objectified they could encompass all of reality, and it was against this consequence that Kant aimed his philosophy.
The System of Critical Philosophy
The Critique of Pure Reason (first published 1781, and extensively revised 1787), is an investigation of the principles essential to theoretical knowledge, and through this investigation sets out to discover what makes the disciplines of science and mathematics possible. However, Kant turns to an analysis of human subjectivity, investigating the cognitive capacities of the human subject, as the ground of any possible experience or knowledge. He never treats an object as a thing existing independently of the human mind, he asks: How do we come to know it? What emerges however is that since all our knowledge of the world comes to us in the form of empirical intuitions, or representations of phenomenal reality, which are apprehended and then brought under concepts through the thinking of the understanding, it follows that the only knowledge we can have of objects is that which is based on them as objects of sense, as phenomenon, and not as they exist in themselves. There can be no knowledge beyond the boundaries of possible experience.
The motivation for Kant’s distinction between appearances and ‘things in themselves’, lies in his quest to sustain the possibility of freedom while ensuring its compatibility with the truth of modern science. If all of reality is reduced to the laws of nature then what ground is there for human freedom? Kant’s answer to this was a ‘bifurcation of reason’ in which he seeks to protect freedom from the instrumentalization of all reality that characterized the Enlightenment. So while on the one hand Kant’s move has the effect of limiting scientific knowledge to the realm of empirical experience, at the same time he discredits any ‘metaphysics’ which claims to know the true nature of things in themselves beyond the phenomenal world. If we did not posit things in themselves then there could only be the world of appearances and as such all things in general would fall under the empirical laws of nature—‘the mechanism of nature in determining causality’—and it would not be possible for us to suggest for instance that man is both free in spirit and yet also subject to natural necessity.
Accordingly the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) is concerned not with reason as a capacity to know but as a capacity to determine the will or action. The moral law, which reason alone gives to itself, is the principle that acknowledges the possibility of freedom in the world, the possibility of having practical knowledge of the ‘supersensible’ realm of freedom. For Kant pure reason deals only with man’s scientific and technical utilization of nature, while practical reason deals with the moral actions of a society and culture, with these two realms being governed by the concepts of nature and freedom respectively. However these realms are now completely differentiated; theoretical knowledge is restricted to observable empirical reality and freedom or the supersensible only knowable to us indirectly through moral action. Kant however must address the paradox which here emerges and permeates the entire critical philosophy: By distinguishing between the world as it appears and the world as it may be in itself, Kant effectively secures both science’s theoretical determinations and morality’s free choices, but only at the expense of suspending the human individual eerily on a tightrope of faith between these two realms. The requirement to make oneself a subject of freedom but at the same, with regard to nature, a phenomenon in one’s own empirical consciousness, becomes entirely problematic. Kant’s strategy only seemed to exacerbate the rift which now appears as a chasm. Nature and freedom begin to take on the appearance of a fundamental opposition, a division which appeared to threaten life at its most basic level, not only within the realm of philosophy.
As Hegel observes ‘These are oppositions which have not been invented at all by the subtlety of reflection or the pedantry of philosophy; in numerous forms they have always preoccupied and troubled the human consciousness, even if it is modern culture that has first worked them out most sharply and driven them up to the peak of harshest contradiction.’ They appear concretely in nature, ‘…as the opposition of the abstract law to the abundance of individual phenomena, each explicitly with its own character; in the spirit it appears as the contrast between the sensuous and the spiritual in man,… as the harsh opposition between inner freedom and the necessity of external nature, further as the contradiction between the dead inherently empty concept, and the full concreteness of life, between theory or subjective thinking, and objective existence and experience.’
It is this same division—whether it be articulated as that between essence and existence, being and beings, freedom and necessity—which becomes the central issue of modern philosophy, or perhaps the philosophical problem itself. But this pre-occupation with division coincides with its inverse: the quest for wholeness. The recognition of the divisions that threaten and undermine modern life are a counterpart to the longing for reconciliation and the ambition towards wholeness which permeates philosophy, particularly in Germany. As Schlegel suggests, ‘in the mental domain of thought and poetry, inaccessible to worldly power, the Germans, who are separated in so many ways from each other, still feel their unity’ And it is in the questions posed to philosophy by the realms of art and nature, that it seeks a key to the potential reconciliation of the divide that underlies the continual striving of philosophical knowledge.
The Third Critique
In the introduction to his third critique, the Critique of Judgement (1790) , Kant observes that an ‘immeasurable gulf’ lies between the sensible realm of the concept of nature and the supersensible realm of the concept of freedom (CJ 12). Kant therefore seeks a ‘ground’ that could somehow unite the two realms and make possible the transition from the mode of thought of one to the other (CJ 12). The third Critique attempts to bridge this divide and secure that ‘ground’. In his quest to find a principle capable of mediating between the theoretical order of science and the practical order of freedom as elaborated in his critiques of pure and practical reason respectively, Kant argues that while we cannot explicitly know the purposive accord between ourselves and the world, we think and act as if this were the case when we make reflective judgements. Two kinds of reflection, reflections on the beautiful and reflections on nature are based on this principle. Hence, the third Critique is divided into the critiques of aesthetical and teleological judgement, the explication of aesthetical judgement being essential as it contains the principle placed by judgement at the basis of its reflection upon nature (CJ 30). For Kant the principle that grounds judgements about both nature and beauty is the principle of purposiveness—it forms the ground or the principle of all judgement and the origin of this concept is found solely in the reflective judgement.
Kant combines the original meaning of aesthetic, pertaining to the senses, with the new connotation pertaining to beauty, especially in art, gaining predominance in Germany. The term ‘aesthetics’ was famously introduced into modern usage by the philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, in the context of defining sensuous knowledge as a counterpart to logic as a theory of intellectual knowledge, thus denoting a special domain of cognition, recognized as having a distinct character. The term gradually came to designate the conceptual framework for discussion of the arts. Kant was the first major philosopher to include aesthetics as an integral part of his system, and his Critique of Judgement helps to usher in a new philosophical discipline. The first and largest section of the Critique of Judgement, the ‘Critique of the Aesthetical Judgement’, is dedicated to an investigation of the nature of our judgements about the beautiful.
Beauty for Kant is not, as we might assume, a property of the object. Every judgement of this nature has the feeling of the subject, not a concept or property of the object, as its determining ground, and on the basis of this is called aesthetical (CJ 68). In ordinary cognitive activity the imagination is constrained by the laws of the understanding, however, in the judgement of beauty the productive imagination exerts an activity of its own, freely producing possible forms of intuition, not constrained by the determinate needs of understanding or reason. The idea of beauty reflects forms that correspond to a ‘free play’ of the understanding and the imagination that is irreducible to a determinant concept. The determining ground of the judgement is not a question of whether the object judged falls or fails to fall under a particular cognitive or moral concept. An objects possession of empirical properties can never entail that object being beautiful. Aesthetic judgements are irrevocably singular and their objects unique.
Natural beauty uncovers for us ‘a technology of nature’ which ‘does not actually extend our knowledge of objects of nature, but it nevertheless does extend our concept of nature as a mere mechanism to the concept of it as art.’ Beauty in nature is not nature fashioned for our satisfaction, but a subjective purposiveness which depends ‘upon the play of the imagination in its freedom, where it is we who receive nature with favour, not nature which shows us favour.’ (CJ 196) Kant does not want this principle to contradict the mechanical laws of nature and the principles of the first critique, but rather to show that the mechanical cannot dispense with it: as Kant says reason will never be able to ‘understand the production of even a blade of grass by mere mechanical causes.’ (CJ 258) Instead of being the product of an assemblage of parts or antecedent conditions, the unity of an organism first makes the constitution and reciprocal relations of its parts necessary. A living being is a product of nature in which ‘every part not only exists by means of the other parts, but is thought of existing for the sake of the others and the whole… a natural purpose, and this because it is an organised and self-organising being.’ (CJ 220)
If the realm of the aesthetic is to present a different world to that of mechanical causality or ethical norms, then a new form of judgement must be articulated. In line with their elucidation in the first Critique, Kant categorizes judgements as fulfilling the role of subsuming particulars under concepts as furnished by the understanding. However, in the third Critique Kant expands on this definition, giving judgement a further categorization as either “determinant” or “reflective”: Judgement in general is the faculty of thinking the particular as contained under the universal. If the universal (the rule, the principle, the law) be given, the judgement which subsumes the particular under it (even if, as transcendental judgment, it furnishes, a priori, the conditions in conformity with which subsumption under that universal is alone possible) is determinant. But if only the particular be given for which the universal has to be found, the judgment is merely reflective (CJ 15). The determinant judgement has a law marked out for it: a universal transcendental law supplied by the understanding under which it can subordinate the particular in nature. But nature exists in so many varied forms that there are always those that are left undetermined by given laws, and yet there must be a principal, that structures our approach to these undetermined forms also.
Kant argues that this principle must be based on the concept of purposiveness. In our theoretical endeavours we posit an accord between ourselves and nature by assuming that the manifold of empirical laws are grasped in advance as forming a coherent whole. While the first critique establishes that nature in general is a network of causal mechanisms, actual research on nature presupposes far more—beginning with the collection of data, but then reflecting on the data and trying to locate general principles under which they can be understood. Our approach to nature assumes that there is some underlying unity or purpose, a conception unifying it at every level and in every part of it. In order for nature to be understood we must approach it as if it were a meaningful purposive whole, as if it were more akin to art than a mechanical entity, as Kant writes: the principle of purposiveness, in respect of the use of our judgement in regard to phenomena, [which requires] that these must not be judged as merely belonging to nature in its purposeless mechanism, but also as belonging to something analogous to art. It therefore actually extends, not indeed our cognition of natural objects, but our concept of nature, [which is now not regarded] as mere mechanism but as art. (CJ 85)
Kant illustrates this principle with the example of a watch:
In a watch, one part is the instrument for moving the other parts, but the wheel is not the effective cause of the others, it does not exist by their means. In this case the producing cause of the parts and of their form is not contained in the nature (of the material), but is external to it in a being which can produce effects according to ideas of a whole possible by means of its causality. Hence a watch wheel does not produce other wheels; still less does one watch produce other watches, utilizing (organizing) foreign material for that purpose; hence it does not replace of itself parts of which it has been deprived, nor does it make good what is lacking in a first formation by the addition of the missing parts, nor if it has gone out of order does it repair itself—all of which, on the contrary, we may expect from organized nature. An organized being is then not a mere machine, for that has merely moving power, but it possesses in itself formative power of a self-propagating kind which it communicates to its materials though they have it not of themselves; it organizes them, in fact, and this cannot be explained by the mere mechanical faculty of motion (CJ 221).
The Significance of the Third Critique
Kant’s articulation of the purposive harmony in the forms of art and nature and their relation to the subject attempts to construct a new model for our understanding of nature and aesthetic experience. Many of Kant’s immediate followers saw the third Critique as a crucial philosophical development that created an opening for their subsequent attempts to solve the problems posed by Kant’s own philosophy. They saw in it the ‘shadowy outlines of a philosophy premised upon the sublation of those legislative divisions’, the potential to overcome the categorical divisions of the critical system that corresponded to the divisions of the modern world, and to clear the way for a redefinition of both reason and creativity. And in overcoming Kant’s philosophy they would be attempting to overcome modernity itself.
The Critique of Judgement can be viewed as a turning point that signals an important development in the consciousness of modernity. Kant’s use of aesthetic judgement to locate the underlying unity of reason and to cross the gulf separating the domains of freedom and nature begins to engender the themes that underlie the philosophy that challenges modernity. With the decline of theology, philosophy and art take on the task of articulating a coherent understanding of ourselves and the world. For German philosophy an enormous significance is attached to the value of nature combined with a mistrust of the dominance of rationality as the essential principle of modern life. Through recourse to the phenomena of art and nature, a critique of enlightened reason and rationality begins.
Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man of 1795 inaugurates the interpretation of the third Critique. He was immediately attracted to Kant’s idea that in art we find the mediation between the concepts of nature and freedom, which for Schiller signalled the means for overcoming the antagonistic divisions of modern life which were at the root of man’s alienation. He develops Kant’s account of the play of the imagination and understanding when contemplating beautiful forms: the notion of the ‘play impulse’ forms for Schiller the basis of an aesthetic theory and vision of a harmonious and just society. It was this idea that was enthusiastically taken up by the early German romantics; aesthetics would serve as the main instrument of Bildung (culture or self development) which would pave the way for political and social reform and the rebirth of culture. At the basis of this notion lies a tradition, sometimes referred to as expressivism or counter-Enlightenment, whose central proponents include Goethe, Herder, and Humboldt, which had redefined development as the self-expression or self-formation of an individual or a society drawing on traditions, language, art, culture, and nature. Humboldt had described ‘the ultimate object of all our moral strivings’ as being ‘solely to discover, nourish, and re-create what truly exists in ourselves and others.’
For much of history the ability to create had been primarily reserved for God and it was not until the later eighteenth century that the notion of creativity was reformulated and the term ‘creative’ could be applied to humanity as much as to God and around this concept a whole new mode of understanding develops. The idea of the ‘artist’ itself is redefined and along with new understanding of related notions such as expression, intuition, imagination, originality, and genius. For the early German romantics what was necessary was a reformulation of reason that would incorporate the creative human spirit. It was the role of the imagination to reconstruct what the rationalization of the world had destroyed. While reason should play the critical role, the imagination should play the constructive one. Romanticism concerns itself with a belief in the primacy of imagination, expression and emotion; an awareness and appreciation of nature, the sublime, the mysteries of life, and the creative spirit; a new consciousness of history and the significance of the contemporary; and the belief in the freedom of the artist to seek to penetrate beyond the known objective world.
The co-evolution of art and philosophy, initiates not only a new mode of philosophizing, but a new mode, a new dimension, of the creative process. Theory itself participates in the process of creation and seeks to reproduce it in thought. Aesthetic questions and phenomena are not treated in isolation, it is not enough to simply observe and describe, instead the question of the relationship between creativity and the other spheres of intellectual life is constantly investigated, and a delineation is sought between the specific nature of the aesthetic faculty and the other faculties of the understanding, reason, and will. Poetry, drama, criticism and philosophy are circulated and interact to an unprecedented degree. The goal of intellectual inquiry is often held to be a whole system of knowledge that could account for all of life and culture. A sense of striving for the infinite expresses itself in both art and philosophy, first finding itself in the space of the creative imagination of the poets and early romantic philosophers.
For Kant’s successors the defence of freedom had to be made more forcefully. Although Kant’s principle of purposiveness in the reflective judgement suggests a unity of theoretical and practical reason and thus the possibility of freedom as a principle of causality in the natural realm, this principle remains always only regulative and the dual-natured subjectivity constructed by Kant had to be overcome in an absolute unity. This project was taken up by the German idealists and early romantics. The principle value of German idealism is freedom, but it is a freedom that now takes shape as absolute spirit, a reformulation of reason as Geist. The idealist project reinterprets the modern self and subjectivity in terms of a dialectical striving for reason to arrive at unity with itself. Kant’s system is the starting point for each subsequent philosophical system which seeks a greater unity, concreteness and wholeness.
Hegel critiques Kant’s notion of nature as only contingently receptive to our freedom, and argues that the distinction between concept and intuition upon which the critical philosophy is based and which gives rise to understanding the relationship between nature and freedom, breaks down in Kant’s own philosophical discussions of the imagination, aesthetic ideas, natural and artistic beauty, organisms, and the intuitive intellect. In Hegel’s view however, Kant relinquishes his great victory by still supposing that this reconciliation is only subjective in respect of the judgement and the production of art and not itself actual or true, as Hegel notes ‘he makes this dissolution and reconciliation itself into a purely subjective one again, not one absolutely true and actual…. Only by overcoming Kant’s deficiencies could this comprehension assert itself as the higher grasp of the true unity of necessity and freedom, particular and universal, sense and reason.’ Even though Kant recognised the overcoming of the division, he refused to grant this identity any reality, instead restricting it to a subjective capacity of reflective judgement. As Hegel argues: Since beauty is the idea as experienced or more correctly, as intuited, the form of opposition between intuition and concept falls away. Kant recognizes this vanishing of the antithesis negatively in the concept of a supersensuous realm in general. But he does not recognise that as beauty, it is positive, it is intuited, or to use his own language it is given in experience. Nor does he see the supersensuous, the intelligible substratum of nature without and within us, the thing in itself, as Kant defines the supersensuous, is at least superficially cognized when the principle of beauty is given a [conceptual] exposition as the identity of the concepts of nature and freedom.
With Schelling the creative imagination of the artist takes on a metaphysical significance as it becomes the free activity in which the real is fused with the ideal. Art achieves the impossible: ‘to resolve an infinite opposition in a finite product.’ As part of a younger and artistically inclined circle in Jena, whose members included the Schlegal brothers, Tieck, Novalis and Hölderlin, Schelling exercised a seminal influence upon the birth of romanticism, which at the same time was a great influence on his own thought. He was also a key figure of German Idealism. His philosophy stands between these paths, combining the idealists’ quest for totality with the romantics’ sense of the elusiveness of this totality and a continual questioning of the possibility of achieving a final systematic solution.
Schelling re-interprets the Critique of Judgement in the spirit of objective idealism, with his real point of departure found in Kant’s new approach to questions about teleology, reformulating elements of Kant’s philosophy in a radical application to organic life, nature and art. In the System of Transcendental Idealism (1800) Schelling chooses to follow a path not unlike that outlined by Kant in his introduction to the third Critique. The problem of uniting the theoretical and practical parts of philosophy gives rise to a third division of philosophy which is teleology, with the philosophy of art serving as the ‘organon’ of transcendental philosophy. As they did for Kant, aesthetics and teleology provide the middle term between the practical and the theoretical. However, Schelling takes a crucial step beyond Kant’s philosophy and introduces the notion of the absolute unity.
Amongst Hölderlin and the early romantics there had already been suggestions that aesthetic experience might provide the key to the absolute. In line with this Schelling elevates the philosophy of art into a central position within his overall system. Absolute unity is present in the art object as a finite display of the infinite, the ground of this synthesis being the distinctive character of the activity which produces it. In the productive activity of the artist the identity of the ideal and the real becomes apparent within empirical consciousness and within aesthetic experience we find in objective form the intuition which grounds the transcendental system, as Schelling says; Art is paramount to the philosopher, precisely because it opens to him, as it were, the holy of holies, where [it] burns in eternal and original unity, as if in a single flame, that which in nature and history is rent asunder, and in life and action, no less than in thought, must forever fly apart. Intellectual intuition is the faculty by which we may arrive at a true understanding of nature and reality: the identity of objective reality and human knowledge is revealed through the act of intuition, and the work of art is the medium in which the unity of the theoretical and the practical can be shown.
While natural philosophy argues from the objective pole and transcendental idealism argues from the subjective pole, with neither being privileged, together the two parallel approaches constitute the whole system of knowledge. The possibility for this unity lies, in the postulate of a ‘predetermined harmony’ of the ideal and the real and the possibility for such a predetermined harmony is grounded in a ‘productive activity’ which is at bottom identical in both nature and freedom. ‘When art objectifies infinit[e] activity it discloses more than the self-intuiting of the conscious human self; it reveals nature as an active power within the self.’
Although Schelling soon moves away from the privileged status he ascribes to art in the System of Transcendental Idealism, the aesthetic remains central to his thought. It is fundamental to the development of the idea that truth requires a means of representation that avoids the divisions of cognitive thinking. The effort to construct a complete philosophical system exposes the elusiveness of the unity of being and forces Schelling to move beyond systematic thought. For Schelling philosophy can never achieve its goal of being a complete science because it can never objectify the creative principle that underlies the totality—it cannot determine the indeterminate question of being.
Schelling’s thoughts on art had a great influence upon his contemporaries, falling on fertile ground in romanticism. The aesthetic appeared to present a realm in which the oppositions that plague modern existence are resolved. In the work of the artist content and form, reason and sensuousness, theory and practice, infinite and finite, are no longer differentiated, but exist in an irreducible synthetic relation that provides a paradigm of a non-alienated mode of cognition. Embodying this non-alienated wholeness, the notion of aesthetic reconciliation impresses on German thought a fascination for art and nature and their redemptive powers. However, rather than seeing the turn to aesthetics as a rejection of reason, we can instead define it as the locus in which that which has been repressed by a limited conception of reason can be articulated. The rise of philosophical aesthetics is an inseparable phenomena closely connected to changes in conceptions of truth and reason in modern thought. This shift forms part of a more general critique of the dominant thought of modernity. Through this ‘submerged’ tradition a critique of enlightened reason and rationality is constructed that forms an opposition to the dominant tradition of enquiry, characterised by scientific materialism, and embodied in modern economic, political and social institutions.
From this discussion we can perhaps see that enlightenment has also coincided with disillusionment. It has long since been accompanied by a questioning of the faith in progress and the triumph of reason and it is from this questioning that arises a tradition of modern thought which seeks to both critique and transform the culture of modernity. A growing reaction against the developments of modernization and an awareness of the increasing domination of both humanity and nature, is combined with a sense of the loss of values, traditions and ways of life that were being destroyed. In the process of the rationalisation of the modern world man became divorced from not only nature and community, but from his inner self. In the later eighteenth century a cultural and philosophical movement emerged in Germany for which the meaning of enlightenment became a central question.
Thus, modern philosophy is transformed when enlightenment turns to itself, when it begins to reflect on its own foundations and finds in them also, an object of critique. We have argued that Kant’s philosophy represents both the height of enlightenment thinking and the turning point of its historical transformation. It is with his thought that the critical and self-liberating spirit of enlightenment is grasped and the goal of human knowledge takes the crucial modern step, as Kant proclaimed, ‘reason should take on anew the most difficult of all its tasks, namely that of self-knowledge.’ The emphasis of enlightenment shifts from the external world to the world within, from progress to self-realisation and it is precisely this movement, which we have introduced above, that brings forth what we consider the concepts that could underlie a process inspired view of the world. However, the essence of the processual nature of post Kantian thought is not merely the overcoming of dualism, rather it lies in the key concepts of self-organization, creativity, inner necessity, purposiveness and organism. To be sure, there was unity in past ages, but what is different here is that nature, which includes its cognitive element in humanity, is a self determining creative process which incorporates its own differentiation. To develop a philosophy that embraces both the spiritual and natural world, that apprehends the full concreteness of life from the tiniest cell to the most complex community is the same project that continues to face us today. And while we may fail to bring this task to its completion, we cannot however fail to accept its challenge.
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