By the end of the 18th century itself the Enlightenment faced a challenge from a group of intellectuals who were identified as Romantics.
They questioned almost every aspect of the enlightenment thinking – from its conception of truth, science and reason to its belief in the idea of progress.
The Enlightenment had represented the present as an advance upon the past, the Romantics, by contrast, saw in it the deterioration of the human condition.
Jean Jacques Rousseau argued that the development of arts and sciences had resulted in the social and moral degeneration of man. Division of labour, differentiation of functions and applications of technology had, in his view, corrupted men and destroyed their idyllic existence. Indeed it had created a hiatus between nature and man.
While man in his natural state was guided by the principle of pity-that is, “a natural aversion to seeing any other sentient being perish or suffer, especially if it is one of our kind” the progress of civilization had made him egoistic and self-centered.
Above all, it had resulted in the loss of freedom for the self. Men led an alienated existence now, subordinated to the order of time and work that is imposed by industrializing capital.
Romanticists like Rousseau sought salvation in the “natural order”. For them, it was only in the natural order that man’s truest and deepest needs could be satisfied. Further, in contrast to that ideal world the present appeared as a disappointment, if not a complete failure.
The Romantic rebellion was, in many ways, the ‘other’, that is, the negation, of Enlightenment. It affirmed values that opposed everything that Enlightenment stood for.
The Enlightenment had elevated reason to the position of sovereign authority. It believed that reason had the ability to discover the absolute truth, both about the meaning of history as well as the working of the universe.
At the most immediate level, the Romantics pitted passions against reason. Against the carefully controlled and mathematically precise observations of the scientist, they placed the reason of the heart and extolled its virtues.
In Enlightenment every reason was closely linked to scientific rationality its applications were expected to yield truth – i.e., knowledge of universals as well as knowledge that is universally applicable.
By referring to reason of the heart, the Romanticists questioned this basic conception of universality and truth. Against the notion of objectivity of taste and permanence of the truly beautiful, Romanticism affirmed the value of the contingent.
They stressed inward conviction and juxtaposed it to judgments oriented to externalized standards. Not only did they resist conformity to impersonal laws, they maintained that the “single narrow door to truth lay within us. By looking within ourselves, into our inner consciousness we come to understand and know the truth”.
By concentrating on the singular and the unique, on the one hand, and the mystical and the unknown, on the other, Romanticism drew attention to the failure of human reason.
If the Enlightenment expressed optimism that the world could be known fully by the human mind, Romanticism pointed to that which resisted explanation by human reason and scientific knowledge.
Romanticism did not simply reverse the antinomies that defined the Enlightenment; they challenged the philosophy of Realism that informed the latter. Scientific rationality was anchored in the belief that truth can be arrived at through an accurate description of the external world. Romanticism challenged this notion of realism in three ways.
First, it questioned the possibility of apprehending truth through the methods employed by science; second, it retrieved categories that had no place in a world that is experienced as fact; and third, it redefined notion of truth emphasizing the capacity of the individual to create new meaning and values.
The idea that truth entails an accurate description of an external reality that is known through sensory perception and systematic observation was the constant object of doubt and criticism within Romanticism.
While some Romanticists questioned the loss of truth through the analytic-synthetic method of the sciences, others, like Rousseau, gave a privileged place to emotions and feelings.
The Enlightenment had dismissed these categories as subjective, and unable to grasp objective truth, but Rousseau held them to be crucial to the understanding of the self and society.
Further, he emphasized the role of the individual and maintained that the creative originality of the artist is better able to capture the truth of the external world.
The Enlightenment Philosophers attempted to discover the world, i.e., to unveil the truth that was already there.
In contrast to this, the Romantics stressed the capacity of the individual to create new meanings and values. The idea that truth is an object of construction and creation rather than discovery was subsequently developed by Nietzsche to provide a critique of the Enlightenment and even its Romantic critics.