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Philosophy in From Enlightenment to Romanticism (A207)

Most of the philosophy in A207 is contained in the two segments outlined below. But philosophical themes pop up throughout this interdisciplinary Arts course. Conversely, the units described below discuss topics often associated with other disciplines. For more information about other aspects of this course, see A207's information website.

(Block 1, Units 4-5) Faith and Death in the Late Enlightenment: David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the Marquis de Sade

The late Enlightenment was dominated by an intellectual stand off between established-church orthodoxy and strict adherence to the methods of science and reason. These units approach several related questions about death and religion through the work of three writers of this period:

Is there an afterlife? Who is ultimately responsible for human suffering, God or us? Does God exist? Is it ever morally permissible to take one’s own life?


David Hume, the great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, argued that all religious belief was grounded in either superstition or flawed reasoning. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, widely regarded as the first Romantic thinker, broke with both the mainstream of the Enlightenment and the Church by choosing to 'listen to his own heart'. The Marquis de Sade, better known for his non-philosophical writings, claimed that the material sciences licensed his alternative religion of sensual indulgence.

Texts discussed:

  • David Hume: Two short essays, 'Of Immortality' and 'Of Suicide' (c.1755)
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Extracts from Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Priest (1762)
  • The Marquis de Sade: The short Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man (1785)

A more extensive, less interdisciplinary discussion of the philosophy of religion can be found in 'Destiny, Purpose and Faith', Block 6 of A211, Philosophy and the Human Situation.

(Block 6, Units 24-25) Two Conceptions of Art

The period covered by this course saw one of the most profound changes in the way in which art is conceived in the history of Western culture to date, and the primary function of these units is to set out the essentials of this change, via a close reading of selected primary sources.

The view of art predominant in Europe during the period of the Enlightenment is called the imitation theory. It was held that works of art are imitations of nature. However, this is not to be confused with the doctrine of realism: the imitation was to be selective of nature at its best, and artists were expected to enhance and expurgate their subject-matter accordingly. The reason for this is that art was assumed to have a moral purpose, and should uplift us rather than disgust us. This theory was believed at the time to have been derived from the writings of Aristotle and other major figures from the ancient world, and this is one aspect of the extraordinary influence of the thought and practice of the ancient world on eighteenth-century art.

A particular conception of the artist went with this imitation theory, couched in the terms of the empiricist philosophy, and the predominant rationalism, of the time. It was held that the imagination could invent nothing new, but only recombine aspects of remembered experience in an aesthetically pleasing way. Artists were, in varying degrees, regarded as professional purveyors of beautiful things, and these works, however uplifting, tell us nothing we could not have discovered by other means.

All this changed dramatically with the coming of Romanticism, which displaced the rationalism of the Enlightenment. It was held by the Romantics that the faculty which leads us to the most important truths about the human condition is the imagination, held to mirror the activity of the divine principle of the universe. Works of art came to be regarded the only way human beings have of grasping the truths concerned, which were held to be inaccessible to reason. They came to be regarded as no less than a means to salvation and artists as akin to priests. The idea that the artistic genius is a figure apart among human beings enters European thought at this time.

These two sets of ideas are studied via guided reading of selected primary source texts, with the main emphasis on the Romantic period. The Romantic theory of art was elaborated most completely in Germany by a group of writers and critics working in the last decade of the eighteenth century: the poet Novalis, the critics August Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel, and the theorist Wackenroder, selections from whose works are studied in detail.

These two units on aesthetics are complemented by the following:

(Block 4, Units 16 and 17): The Lakes

These units are an interdisciplinary study of an aspect of the history of taste in this period. The Lake District became an extremely popular destination for tourists seeking certain sorts of aesthetic pleasure, notably what was called at the time delight in the picturesque. These units set out the meaning of this concept, and those from which it was distinguished, the beautiful and the sublime, and explore their practical application in both painting and poetry. There are selected readings from important philosophical treatises on the beautiful, sublime, and picturesque, together with many poems and paintings, indicating how taste changed as Romanticism became more dominant in the period.

Sample study materials

Extracts of A207 study materials are available online. There is an OpenLearn study unit on David Hume and an iTunes U album on Re-assessing the Marquis de Sade (this is also available from OU podcasts).

A207 Block 1





A207 Block 6






A207 Block 4