A romantic philosophy of technology

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Caspar David Friedrich. Man and woman in the moonlight (1819)

Kapp’s Grundlinien appeared in the aftermath of the German Romantic movement. This movement started at the end of the 18th century as a strong reaction against rationalism and universal humanism of the Enlightenment and as philosophical speculations around new scientific findings in biology, magnetism and galvanism. It started as a proud endeavour to unite the personal with the cosmic, the magic with the scientific discoveries and common sense with an unknown world. Romantic philosophers like Schelling (1775 – 1854) and Schleiermacher (1768 – 1834) searched for the Grundkräfte (basic forces) of reality and sketched a dynamic, multidimensional picture of the world. In the second phase of the Romantic movement there was a change towards a more empirical orientation. Scientists like Steffens (chemistry, 1773 – 1845) and Oken (zoology,1779 – 1851) tried to unite their empirical findings with an esoteric Romantic interpretation of reality. Together with the fairytales of the brothers Grimm (Jacob 1785 – 1863; Wilhelm 1786 – 1859) and the paintings of Friedrich (1774 – 1840) the movement had its finest hour at the first quarter of the century. In its third phase the movement lost it radicalism and pathos, to be bargained against more systematic specifications of reality. The physician and physiognomist Carus was an example of that growing realism, e.g. in his work the unconscious lost its demonic character and became object of close empirical descriptions. Moreover Carus came to close descriptions of the human body in his Symbolik der menschlichen Gestalt (1858 – Symbolic interpretation of the human gestalt), in which the many elements of the human body were seen as symbols for an underlying psychological reality (e.g. the character of someone) and in the end for a Godly universe. Because Carus closed the gap between the body and the psyche, he can be seen as a forerunner of Fechner (1801 - 1887), one of the founding fathers of an empirical psychology.

The Romantic movement postulated a living, organic and ever changing reality. Fundamental was the notion that the universe was a unity in which everything was interdependent. Processes on a universal level were identical with processes on a micro-level and the world could be read as a book in which all the secrets lay hidden. The visible world was only a symbolic one. Unconscious forces – to be faced in dreams, instinct, passion and imagination – came in its highest form to selfconsciousness in humanity. Human culture, science and philosophy therefore were to be seen as indications for the true nature of reality.

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Carl Gustav Carus

As may be concluded - in contrast to the dominant interpretation of Kapp as a Hegelian - Kapp’s Grundlinien  represented in many ways the ideas of the Romantic movement. For him – especially in line with the work of Carus – the human body was a symbol for the unconscious. Although Carus (1858) had suggested that there were some analogies between organs and artefacts, it was Kapp who drew the ultimate and original conclusion that humanity was attached with the unconscious through its techniques. For this he also relied on a more specific interpretation of the unconscious by Von Hartmann, who was inclined to see the unconscious as a productive force, which responded to needs through inventions. To attach nerves to cables, bones to bridges and cranes, teeth to saws, the circulation of the blood to the railway and bodily movements to kinematics was a daring bringing together of different Romantic concepts and the real world. At the end of the 19th century Kapp conceptualised in his Grundlinien a kind of technogenetic physiognomy, which was accurate in the importance it attached to techniques, but out of date in its Romantic background.


Ernst Kapp - Introduction / Biographical and bibliographical notes on Ernst Kapp / An analysis of the Grundlinien / A philosopher of the Industrial Society / Some literature on Ernst Kapp / About the author