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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: August 2018

11 - Romanticism and Existentialism

from Part I - Psychology's Historical Foundations


Philosophical and scientific progress, presented as national trends in France, Britain, and Germany, was very much in the spirit of the post-Renaissance enlightenment. That is, all of the contributors bolstered the argument for a formal declaration of psychology. From the exploding body of knowledge within the natural sciences, the model of careful observation and experimentation was affirmed again and again through continuing successes. To a great extent the philosophical writings covered under the three national trends supported that success. Moreover, the collective trajectory of these movements seemed to confirm that psychology, if it were to emerge as an independent discipline, would be best modeled after the success of the natural sciences.

However, there were other impulses in psychology that were not easily accommodated by the rationalism of these scientists and philosophers of the Enlightenment. The very complexity of human experience, expressed through varieties of subjective feelings not necessarily rational in character, suggested to some scholars that the model of the natural sciences may not be complete or adequate. The power of emotions themselves, such as the passions of love and hate, the contents of dreams, and the feelings or “hunches” we often have about people and events, are all difficult to account for by rational processes.

This chapter explores some of these alternative views. Most of these views initially had few adherents and were not well organized in their expressions. However, these alternatives were repeatedly introduced to psychology, before and after its formal identification as a science. First, we will set the context, and then introduce some of these ideas.

Background: Science and Philosophical Rationalism

We again look to Germany and the intellectual ferment that excited the scientific and literary climate in the German states of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, which federated to form the German Empire, proclaimed in 1871. Kant set the stage for nineteenth-century German philosophy with his emphasis on the formation of ideas as the key to any understanding of psychology. Three of his successors took this foundation and fully explored the implications – to the point of creating the necessity of a reaction.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814)

After his initial education in theology at the university in Jena as part of his preparation for a career as a Lutheran pastor, Fichte concluded that he was not intended as a religious scholar or minister.