What is the relationship between romanticism and (the importance of) knowledge, intellectualism?

For instance, the Enlightenment thinkers put great emphasis on the importance of knowledge. Voltaire said "The ignorance is the greastet illness of the human species" (my translation). Condorcet said ferocity is born in part of ignorance. The Enlightenment thinkers also produced the Encyclopédie, which aimed at gathering all the most advanced human knowledge, synthesized by the great contemporary savants.

On the other hand, to a romanticist like Rousseau, too much knowledge and theory, moves away the human being from their nature, and contributes to their decline. I am not aware of any romantist talking about the importance of knowledge. Rather, it seems to me they insist on (different forms of) mysticism and strong negative emotions. I know there was the movement "Naturphilosophie". Its scientific legitimacy is controversial, though.

This tendency of anti-intellectualism in romanticism is captured in this passage from (Esterhammer, 2011):

Despite the different modes of creativity they invoke, Wordsworth’s Prelude, Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” and Blake’s “Introduction” to Songs of Innocence all draw on an image of the poet as natural genius – one who may be untaught or socially marginalized, but to whom, in any case, poetry comes in a spontaneous manner.

NB: My question concerns more "knowledge" in general (therefore including the humanities) than science, by which I mean "natural sciences". A question about romanticism and science was asked here.


Esterhammer, A. (2011). Spontaneity, Immediacy, and Improvisation in Romantic Poetry. A Companion to Romantic Poetry, 321-36.

1 Answer 1


Most thinkers (and educated people) now consider science, philosophy and religion as separate domains; this is one of the accomplishments of the Enlightenment. The Romantics, however, tended to see these three domains as one. This was not because they rejected science but because they advocated a unity between subject and object, feeling and knowledge, and truth and beauty.

Contrary to a widespread view, the Romantics were not hostile to science (or "natural philosophy"). Michael Ferber gives several examples from English Romanticism (from pages 89–92, which discuss the Romantic attitude towards science; emphasis mine):

Coleridge was a close friend of the great chemist Humphry Davy and attended many of his celebrated scientific lectures and inhaled laughing gas with him; (…). Percy Shelley, sometimes taken as the most etherial and otherworldly of poets, carried a microscope and other instruments with him on his extensive travels, (…). His Prometheus Unbound, (…), is filled with references not only to electricity and magnetism, but to infra-red radiation (discovered by Herschel), the hydrogen cycle in decaying plants, volcanism, planetary orbits, and the evolution or improvement of life on earth. (…) Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein (1818), informed by her reading of Humphry Davy and others, accepts the possibility of infusing the vital principle in dead body parts, but of course it has become a byword for two centuries for the dangers of scientific hubris.

Source: Ferber, Michael: Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2010.

The further reading section in Ferber's introduction lists a few books that are relevant to this question:

  • Holmes, Richard: The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (2008).
  • Richards, Robert J.: The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (2002).
  • "natural philosophy" means "Natural philosophy or philosophy of nature (from Latin philosophia naturalis) is the philosophical study of physics, that is, nature and the physical universe. It was dominant before the development of modern science. " (Wikipedia)
    – Starckman
    Feb 25 at 3:08
  • Did you mean "natural sciences"?
    – Starckman
    Feb 25 at 3:09
  • 1
    Science was often often called "natural philosophy" in those days. Hence the quote marks.
    – Tsundoku
    Feb 25 at 3:15
  • 1
    @Starckman 'In the past, science was a synonym for "knowledge" or "study", in keeping with its Latin origin. A person who conducted scientific research was called a "natural philosopher" or "man of science". In 1834, William Whewell introduced the term scientist in a review of Mary Somerville's book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences'. Wikipedia: Science
    – Tsundoku
    Feb 25 at 3:24
  • I think your answer brings important information, but I don't think it goes to the point. The reason is that the fact that they had personal relations with scientist of personal interest for science does not illustrate the fact that their discourse were supporting science, or not diminishing science. It may just be another contradiction on their part, together with the fact the romanticists praised nature and magnified the beauty of symbols, dreams, and nature, but lived in big developed cities of the Industrial Revolution era and were often mondane
    – Starckman
    Feb 25 at 4:30

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