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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
2 occurrences of Ancients and Moderns in the Eighteenth Century
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2 occurrences of Ancients and Moderns in the Eighteenth Century
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V. SCHILLER

The most important theory in the entire history of
this topic is found in the aesthetic writings of Friedrich
Schiller. It is odd but worthy of note that the signifi-
cance of his contribution has been seriously underes-
timated both by students of Schiller and of play theory.
His originality in the matter, despite the obvious debts
to Kant and to Rousseau's educational theories, to say
nothing of those of Lessing and Herder, lies in the
breadth of the metaphysical claims he makes on behalf
of the aesthetic, and in his modifications of the Kantian
position.

The most important of these are: (1) in the absence
of access to the “thing-in-itself,” metaphysical pre-
suppositions are in principle unverifiable—hence man
is free to construct explanatory schemes of various
kinds to render his experience comprehensible to him-
self; (2) such schemes in the first place reflect typologi-
cal differences of temperament (Naive and Sentimental
Poetry
—hereafter NS—176) in which particular
“modes of perception” (Empfindungsweisen) result in
diverse accounts of reality, each compatible with facts
and logic though incompatible with each other—two
such types are the “realist” and the “idealist,” each
of whom is persuaded by his idiosyncratic perspective
that the other is wrong, but in view of (1) above, both
are wrong; (3) thus, instead of the uniform human
nature presupposed by Kant as the foundation of “ob-
jective” knowledge, Schiller's postulation of two
human natures accounts for the insolubility of meta-
physical, ethical, and political questions and for the
dogmatic assertion by each type of the truth of its own
position at the expense of the other; (4) a crucial aspect
of Schiller's account of human nature follows from the
importance of form and content in Kant. These are
seen by Schiller as distinctive features of human modes
of experience in terms of impulses (Triebe). The form
impulse is seen as the tendency of the human mind
to structure experience in particular ways and is con-
nected with predominantly rationalist explanations of
the world (the idealist position), while the material
impulse (Stofftrieb) supposes its explanations to be
given along with concrete facts (the realist position).
A third principle, the play impulse (Spieltrieb) is ad-
vanced as mediating between these two. (Two paren-
thetical observations: (a) these Triebe are not to be
confused with the impulses or drives of more recent
psychologies, though many commentators have mis-
takenly praised Schiller for anticipating Freud, while
others have denounced him for not being enough of
a Freudian; the impulses are rather “dispositions,”
tendencies to think and act in characteristic ways; (b)
it is typical of Schiller's dialectical method to find a
third principle to mediate between and reconcile the
differences between polar opposites); (5) the divergen-
cies of perspective do not arise at the level of fact
or logic, but in disputed interpretations of facts them-
selves not in dispute.

From these divergencies from Kant, Schiller adum-
brates, but does not fully develop, a remarkable theory.
Schiller has often been called the poet of freedom; in
his Aesthetic Letters this is manifested by his search
for a means to liberate man from the coercion of
industrialized society, and in NS from the compulsion
of genetic endowment, environment, and tempera-
ment. On the Sublime seeks to overcome the ultimate
compulsion, that of a fixed unalterable reality (whether
conceived of as Nature, Fate, or the laws of physics).
The concepts of reality produced by the theologian,
the historian, the scientist, or the metaphysician are
all simply an illusion or appearance (Schein); they are
inventions, not discoveries about the world. Nonethe-
less they are all too frequently mistaken for ultimate
truths, and this in turn leads to the dogmatism and
even fanaticism that appear justified by premature
ontological commitment to their truth.

Only the artist is free of illusions about his illusions;
in his creations no claim to reality is made. Rather
he plays with the appearances he constructs; what he
proposes is without ontological commitment, it is a
game operating within self-imposed rules, as well as
within the limiting conditions of fact and logic. It is
contemplative and detached as befits aesthetic crea-
tion; but it is also carried out for its own sake as befits
a game. (Schiller also makes use of the role of play
as preparation for “serious” activity, and of re-creation
following the tensions of labor, but neither of these
is central.) The Kantian notions of heuristic devices
are thus brought a stage further. The aesthetic attitude
becomes the paradigm of all human perspectives on
the world. Schiller sharply attacks the philosopher who
dogmatically insists on all the details of an elaborate
system erected on metaphysical assumptions whose
origin and validity have never been investigated: “The
philosopher is a caricature compared with the poet.”

Schiller is well aware of the dangers of such a posi-
tion and is at pains to forestall criticisms of solipsism
and aestheticism, to say nothing of self-indulgent
daydreaming and triviality. By his insistence on the
Kantian foundations of objective knowledge, the facts
are, as it were, stipulated by all parties, so that the
Kantian notion of “objective,” or at least “universally
subjective” knowledge is preserved—nothing is the
case simply because someone says so. Nor is a retreat
into fantasy permissible, for this too belies the facts.
Instead, much the way the hero in tragedy preserves


106

his dignity intact amid physical defeat, so the aesthetic
attitude permits moral superiority to the facts, not
empirical subordination to them. Nor will the charge
of triviality stand, for, as Schiller puts it, “Man is never
so serious as when he plays.” A quite extraordinary
demand is being made here: at the metaphysical level
it is that we somehow resolve the problem how to
maintain our deepest and most serious beliefs strongly
enough to be able to act on them, while at the same
time recognizing that those beliefs have no final justifi-
cation. The latter part of this proposition is closest to
play, and such a prospect will seem melancholy to
some, but Schiller chooses to be exhilarated by it; we
are free to build tragedy or comedy indifferently on
the same data. There will be poignant exceptions, but
under ideal conditions man “is wholly man only when
he plays” (15th of the Aesthetic Letters). Then man
possesses the childlike quality of grace, aesthetic edu-
cation is complete, and in spontaneity and harmony
one plays the game of life.

Of those directly influenced by Schiller the most
notable are Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Schopen-
hauer, in particular, after condemning metaphysical
explanations of the world as illusory, finds almost the
only redemption in art, because we are aware that we
are playing a game, and also because we are contem-
plating Platonic ideas, and the illusion is harmless. But
perhaps the most consummate realization of Schiller's
ideas is found in Hermann Hesse's Glasperlenspiel
(Magister Ludi): the account of the Music Master is
closest of all.