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Timothy Michael, British Romanticism and the Critique of Political Reason. Reviewed by Chris Washington.

Friday, June 5, 2020 - 19:13

Timothy Michael. British Romanticism and the Critique of Political Reason (Johns Hopkins UP, 2016). 283 pp., (Hdbk., $ 54.95; ISBN 978-1-4214-1803-2).

Chris Washington
Francis Marion University

Seeing print before it could begin to account for the elections of Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, Jair Bolsonaro, and Boris Johnson, to name only a few of the national nightmare figureheads right wing politics have disastrously dropped on the world like so many carelessly released bombs, Timothy Michael’s British Romanticism and the Critique of Political Reason nonetheless offers us something unique and unexpected in terms of thinking about contemporary revolutionary politicsof both the left and the regrettable right—by tracing a Kantian philosophical lineage foundational to such a politics. While I would be remiss to frame explicitly the book in terms of what the V21 Collective calls “presentism”—the “awareness that our interest in the period is motivated by certain features of our own moment”—Michael does gesture in this direction himself. He writes that Romanticism may aid us “as we make sense of our present conditions,” and this book cannot help but speak to what is clearly a post-Enlightenment politics that has left all reason behind—to take at face value, for now, the Enlightenment self-mythologizing of its own adherence to reason—as the right clutches onto the screaming pathos of demagogic racism and authoritarian nationalism (234). Given the very real end-of-the-world dangers right wing authoritarianism confronts us with, that Kant or Kantian Romanticism has purport and purchase now might sound like a hell of an odd proposition. The very notion seems counterintuitive since, surely, Kantian transcendentalism seems as cutely obsolete as Plato’s vision of a best-of-all-possible governments ruled by a philosopher king in the mold of Socrates (who at least would not-know enough to know not to accept the job).


Of course, as a reaction to the American and French Revolutions, Romanticism is steeped in politics both reactionary and radical, and it is easy to trace Western modernity’s conservatism and liberalism to that period—less easy, perhaps, to see how Kant plays into any politics now or then as any kind of centerpiece. Michael’s argument is something really surprising, then, even though it, like all good ideas, begins with a simple insight: “much of the literature at the heart of British Romanticism is a reconsideration, a trial, and a critique of reason in its political capacities and of the kinds of knowledge available to it” (2). This claim might come as a shock to many Romantic scholars or historians of literature who have long read the period as more caught up in dreamy imaginaries and affective soul-reading anguish instead of the hammered coldness of rationality’s impassivity. Michael’s reason, though, is in keeping with the former, canonical reading of Romanticism insofar as this Kantian reason is, like the Romantic imagination, self-reflexive in nature. Romanticism’s critique of reason is “the self-grounding of reason, the determination of its own scope and limits, so that it may more legitimately justify its claims to knowledge” (2). Accordingly, in chapters on Kant, Burke, Wollstonecraft, Godwin, Coleridge, two on William Wordsworth (one on his prose that provides important new readings of The Convention of Cintra and another on his poetry), and Percy Shelley, Michael shows us a Romanticism that seeks an epistemological foundation for a rational politics in the face of the revolutions of citizen unrest, social upheaval, and the uncertainties of terror. It is in fact in response to such ongoing dialectic occurrences—the promise of progressive peace on one hand and the threat of societal dissolution on the other—that, Michael’s study argues, Romanticism provides “the possibility of enlightenment after revolution and terror” (234). 


While I will leave readers to discover the rich and varied pleasures of Michael’s formidable readings of these figures (he is particularly masterful at reading the way these authors mobilize classical rhetoric in these texts), I want to use this space to talk Kant, specifically what is sure to be the most controversial assertion Michael makes concerning Kantian a priori knowledge, that is, “knowledge absolutely independent of all experience” (52). Following on his reading of Kant, he writes that, “the problems of the a priori, in other words, are the problems of Romanticism itself” (57). We can see the clear over-mapping of Kant with both Romantic imaginative praxis and ethical legislation in the way Michael interprets the a priori:

the a priori…presents a promise as well as a danger: independence from experience offers the possibility of freedom as self-realization at the same time that it removes the restraints that only experience can provide. The promise is allied with a rich conception of the human mind (including intrinsic principles), epistemological construction, ethical self-legislation, and aesthetic creation. The danger is allied with unchecked rationalism, metaphysical fabrication, asocial solipsism, artistic self-indulgence, and political terror. (57)

The oscillating Romantic investment in the social and individual emancipation of the French Revolution and the disappointments and catastrophes of the Terror are evident here as well. Moreover, the Romantic subject itself emerges from Kant’s explanation of the synthetic a priori. As Michael puts it, “Kant’s argument was revolutionary” in that it replaced “the passive empiricist subject of the earlier part of the eighteenth century” (think Locke and Hobbes) with “an active transcendental subject, whose mind is structured in such a way as to make experience possible in the first place” (52). These epistemological problems translate to the Romantic political in multiple ways. Godwin, for instance,

provide[s] a rigorous philosophical system designed to demonstrate what would become a fundamental Romantic intuition: political problems are epistemological problems: problems of freedom are problems of knowledge. In other words, if we are to understand the complexities of a post-revolutionary world or to realize the noblest of revolutionary aspirations, it is necessary that we understand basic elements of our mental life—that we account for our knowledge, its conditions, and the means by which it is acquired. (124-125)

By linking epistemology to the issue of freedom, Michael argues for a Romanticism whose politics take the individual as front and center, but it is a specifically Kantian individual and the imperatives of their revolution are specifically Kantian in nature insofar as they derive from a critique of human knowledge formations.


I have tried to provide a comprehensive look at Michael’s main assertions regarding the a priori here because taking the Kantian a priori as foundational to Romanticism is, needless to say, quite revolutionary in and of itself and will make for much vigorous discussion and debate even as, as Michael caveats, the idea that “the a priori…was a political as well as an epistemological problem” would need further elaboration (232). Fair enough perhaps. Hopefully, this serves as but one reason why Romantic scholars need read and ponder the book. Other issues worthy of debate occur to me as well. Although I do not have space to develop this idea here, I am wondering, for instance, about the implications of taking reason at face value, as Michael largely does here, given, say, Derrida’s rigorous deconstruction of the concept, even though, admittedly, Derrida works through Rousseau rather than Kant.            


Michael also notes that, to continue “the book’s argument would locate other relevant figures in the emerging field of political epistemology,” which is true enough. One thinks readily enough of Kate Singer’s more recent Romantic Vacancy (SUNY, 2019), which shows how women poets are often dismissed, wittingly and unwittingly, even by critics now, as beings so controlled by sensibility and runaway emotion that they cannot engage in epistemological and ontological thinking (232). Michael makes no such dismissive gesture, yet such a reminder returns us to the deconstruction of reason and emotion—the classic Enlightenment binary that contributes to the fashionings of gender divisions—and makes one wonder whether, indeed, Michael’s book in some sense echoes exclusions of an Enlightenment that it had rather not. 


While I think it would do well to keep those hesitations in mind, the book represents an exemplary and major contribution to Romantic studies in terms of the field’s place in the history of philosophical thought in literature. Significantly, though, the book deviates from most Romantic scholarship, intentionally choosing to eschew most citations of other Romantic critics because, as Michael writes, he hopes to attract a reading audience beyond the typical Romantic coterie. Although it is unclear why this ambition obviates a deeper engagement with Romantic scholars, this other audience will comprise readers of intellectual history, the history of ideas, the German Enlightenment, and those interested in the history of British, and to a lesser extent European, politics who will find much to admire, cherish, and inspire in these pages. 


Since Michael ends by considering how the book speaks to our present politics, I cannot help but wonder what he might say when confronted by the sprinting authoritarianism I mention above. British Romanticism and the Critique of Political Reason ends on a note hailing the new enlightenment we live in thanks to, among other things, as he writes, global communicative networks that theoretically make the spread of a rational politics more within the reach of our grasp than ever. What can one say, now, about a world remade every day by the utterly mad tweet tantrum stompings of a U.S. president capable of befuddling the stock market on one hand and leaping willfully but blindfolded to nuclear brinkmanship on the other? Or, in a philosophical register, what might Michael make of the wildly self-flagellating critiques of liberalism that Zizek’s post-Kantian Lacanized Hegelian conservatism continues to vomit up if for no other reason than that Zizek remains the most high-profile academic philosopher whose opinion continues to be published in, of all places, The Guardian? Picturing Kant on Twitter is a bit like picturing Kant debating Zizek, something like if patient, studied erudition had to debate a plate of boiled macaroni covered in ice cream, something like sense squaring off with nonsense. For Kant’s part, I think he’d respond to such nonsense by going for his famous daily, precisely timed stroll in the strengthening, sober, freshening air. Such a response as Kant’s would be thoroughly reasonable and what Michael’s book, in its Kantian Romantic sways, seems to be recommending, too.