Pragmatist Aesthetics and Romanticism

  • David A. Granger


“The essential idea of romanticism,” writes critic Robert Langbaum, is “the doctrine of experience. … Like the scientist’s hypothesis, the romanticist’s [worldview] is evolved out of experience and is continually tested against experience.”1 These brief lines from Langbaum’s classic The Poetry of Experience identify in a concise manner an elementary bond between post-Enlightenment romanticism and empiricism—the modestly named “doctrine of experience.” The bond is significant for a variety of reasons, as we will see shortly. Yet this appellation is also somewhat equivocal in this regard. For the sort of empiricism favored by the romantics is finally incompatible with the atomistic sense data of the conventional empiricist, which the former invariably find, as Emerson brusquely puts it, “paltry.” This is because romanticism takes as its original “data”—its basic poetic means—our perception of things as they exist within and compose our everyday lifeworlds. In this way it seeks to reintegrate fact and value, and, correspondingly, champions “the imaginative apprehension gained through immediate experience.”2


Aesthetic Experience Organic Unity Expressive Meaning Romantic Theory Romantic Poetry 


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  1. 1.
    Robert Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 35, 22.Google Scholar
  2. also quoted in Russell B. Goodman, American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 19.Google Scholar
  3. 11.
    Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 5. This book will be referred to as Biographia with page numbers in the text for all subsequent citations.Google Scholar
  4. 12.
    M.H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: WW Norton & Company, 1971), 185.Google Scholar
  5. 27.
    “Home at Grasmere,” Romantic Poetry and Prose, Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling, eds., 144. Wordsworth went so far as to pray for the “blissful hour” of the “end of art,” the time when the “discerning intellect of Man” can transfigure the world on its own. George Leonard, in Into the Light of Things: The Art of the Commonplace from Wordsworth to John Cage (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), 55–57, suggests that we take seriously Wordsworth’s desire for the end of art. For a Deweyan alternative to Leonard’s “end of art” thesis, see Philip W. Jackson’s John Dewey and the Lessons of Art.Google Scholar
  6. 28.
    Stanley Cavell, “In Quest of the Ordinary: Texts of Recovery,” in Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism, Morris Eaves and Michael Fischer, eds. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), 186.Google Scholar
  7. 43.
    David Bromwich, A Choice of Inheritance (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 229.Google Scholar
  8. 44.
    See, for example, Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983).Google Scholar
  9. Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (London: Methuen, 1982).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982). All three writers work to deconstruct the idea of organic unity by drawing on Jacques Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence. This critique maintains that no objects or concepts in the world, insofar as they are linguistically mediated, can ever be fully present, but are partly constituted by their differential relations with other elements in the larger linguistic system. In chapter 5, we will see a more pragmatic critique of the metaphysics of presence in Dewey and Emerson.Google Scholar

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© David A. Granger 2006

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  • David A. Granger

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