Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) and his "science of literature"

"Reading means satisfying the philological appetite, affecting oneself literarily. You possibly cannot read out of sheer philosophy or poetry without philology." (Friedrich Schlegel, 391. Athenäumsfragment, 1798)

1. Comparative Approach. Friedrich Schlegel’s studies on literature cover works from ancient Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, English, German, and Indian literature, interconnecting the different kinds of expertise he had developed in each of these fields. As an intellectual cosmopolitan and homme de lettres with a philological training, Schlegel is the ideal representative of cultural awareness that transcends national borders.

2. Comprehensive Temporal Scope. Schlegel’s works cover a vast range of literary periods: from ancient Greece, the Medieval and the Early Modern Period to the 18th and early 19th century. Schlegel thus is a prime example for historical curiosity. Furthermore, his work serves as an example of philological research at its best. Schlegel did not limit his analysis on isolated historical phenomena, but rather treated literary periods, styles, and texts as configurations in flux.

3. Foundation in Theory. Schlegel’s critical, academic, and essayistic oeuvre was closely connected with contemporary philosophy (e.g. Kant and Fichte). In this work, theories of the self and of self-awareness were transformed while key questions of aesthetic theory (i.e. from Baumgarten to Kant) into a “scholarly” treatment of the aesthetic “object” were addressed. Up until this point, doing either had been viewed as impossible (especially in Kant's Critique of Judgment). Schlegel’s philosophical thinking integrates aspects of theoretical and systematic reflexivity, altering concepts, constructions and programs in the process of reading.

4. "Close Reading". Schlegel established the modern concept of the "[literary] work", based on the ideal of immanent interpretation. Thanks to his influence, the practice of interpreting the subtle nuances of individual works became one of the core activities of literary studies. Schlegel’s readings of literary works demonstrate that texts can be understood as an entire world, but also that historic and social worlds can form texts, (i.e. by creating networks of the imaginary, fantastic, symbolic, comical or grotesque.) Schlegel’s practice of reading literary texts is a scholarly art of immersion, with particular emphasis on hermeneutics and "explication de texte", scholarly annotations in editorial studies and structural analysis, thus providing the foundation for all methods of advanced literary studies committed to close reading.

5. A Theory of Genre. Schlegel's new theory of genre acts as an intermediary between the broader comparative perspective and the interpretation of individual literary texts. Schlegel is particularly well known for inaugurating a modern theory of the novel; but he also made important contributions to the definition of drama (e.g. choral tragedy) and poetry (e.g. romancero, sonnet). Schlegel applied Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling's (1775-1854) idea of a "philosophy of art” to the system of literature, understanding the respective "spirit" of the genre as the center of its formal organization. His theory of genre is, however, not a system of poetics in the traditional sense. It is rather an open system of écritures and intellectual attitudes.

6. Models of Literary History. In Schlegel’s view, literary history is a research area that displays the history of "all educated peoples" by paying attention to the correlations of national characteristics. His notion of literary history is guided by the idea that this has to be conceived as a cultural history, that considers aspects of mediality (speech and writing), concepts of education (in the context of institutions), the specificities of literary communication (courtly/public on the one hand, intimate/private on the other), the structure of the canon (aesthetic judgment, forms of memory) and knowledge (rhetoric, philosophy, natural science). Schlegel’s concepts are both useful and inspiring for the sort of modern literary studies that reject static concepts of literary periods, restrictions based on national mythologies, and teleological constructions.

7. Editorial Practice and Editorial Studies. Together with Ludwig Tieck and the brothers Grimm, Schlegel rediscovered the literature of the European Middle Ages. Thus, it is partly thanks to him that the age of romanticism brought about the first scholarly editions of medieval texts which made this literature accessible in the modern period. Since Schlegel's methods of text comparison, the documentation of different versions and scholarly annotation have become generally acknowledged principles of editorial practice. A direct line leads from Schlegel to editorial projects today, remaining committed to his principles, even if using electronic data processing.

8. The Objectives of Literary Criticism. Schlegel’s notion of literary studies comes with his unrelenting critical self-reflexivity. Schlegel considered criticism more than an act of passing judgment on linguistic works of art; but an implication of self-determination of the aesthetic object through its inherent ability to organize its own form. The practice of literary criticism is thus based on programmatic claims that place the literary critic in the position of an "accoucheur" without whom the text cannot fully come to life. This theory of literary criticism initiated by Schlegel continued to have an effect all over Europe throughout the 19th century, and retains its worth today.

9. Rethinking the Theory of Language. Schlegel took the linguistic constitution of literature more seriously than any other author before him. For him, literary studies were closely connected with the findings of traditional philosophy and the history of language as well as the beginnings of modern linguistics. Inspired by Herder, whose metaphysical world view he left behind though, Schlegel developed a philosophy of language that sought to combine diachronic and synchronic, philological and psychological, descriptive and speculative elements. Language and rhetoric are understood as open systems whose elements may vary according to their function - an insight which has become a paradigm of modern linguistics.

10. The Theory and the Practice of Translation. Friedrich Schlegel, his brother August Wilhelm, and Ludwig Tieck set new standards in literary translation and made valuable contributions to translation theory. As with the notions of criticism and genre, it can be said that Schlegel saw translation not just as a practice that would apply valid standards and norms, but rather as a dynamic operation which would test new varieties of meaning in the medium of language. The task of the translator, according to Schlegel, is the transfer of meaning on the basis of an awareness of difference. This is achieved by respect for cultural alterity and the constant attempt to bring about a dialogue between different civilizations.

11. Intermediality and the Transcending of the Borders of Genre. Schlegel further developed Lessing’s reflections on the limits and the range of individual arts and media. In his descriptions of literary texts, Schlegel applied concepts originally used to analyze painting and music as well as concepts derived from literary poetics and philosophy. Literature hence becomes a multimedia-based structure in which various arts and notions of art interact. Schlegel's extended notion of 'text' rests on a profound knowledge of the history of European art, sculpture, architecture, music and theater. Furthermore, his mastery of fields serves to remind the modern scholar that his research often requires expertise in several areas.

12. Combining Aesthetics and Politics. Schlegel was a highly political thinker. His journal "Athenaeum” (1798-1800) is full of commentary on his experience of the French Revolution and reflections on contemporary political circumstances in Germany. Schlegel was a keen observer of the tensions and disruptions in European politics and worked these observations into his texts: first as a sympathizer with the revolutionary cause, and then later from a more conservative viewpoint. What one finds as a driving force throughout Schlegel’s work, regardless of any ideological volte-face, is a kind of aesthetic republicanism in the original sense of the word.

13. Opening towards the Natural Sciences. Schlegel managed to bring together literature and other discursive types of knowledge on a large scale. In his texts the natural sciences do not merely serve the purpose of providing metaphors, they also underpin literary reflections and provide the impulse for rethinking how literary texts produce knowledge and structures. In Schlegel's thinking the connection of the sciences leads to a fundamental change in the concept of literature and teaches that epistemic elements can appear in poetic fiction and that fictional elements can be embedded in scholarly writing. In both cases, disciplinary limits and perspectives are transcended, and this process has a direct bearing on current debates in literary studies.

14. The Transformation of Religion. In his intellectual biography, Schlegel overcame the tension between aesthetic Modernism and religious fundamentalism. His conversion to Catholicism in 1808 was by no means the end of his intellectual development, but rather the beginning of a quest for new forms of religious experience beyond a dogmatic notion of religious belief. This hiatus between experimental Modernism on the one hand and a longing for binding rules in systems of meaning such as mythology, religion or political theology on the other has, in varying configurations, been dominant in European literature through the 21st century.

15. A Focus on the Present. Despite the breadth and intricacy of his scholarly interests, Schlegel’s most important goal was to identify and acknowledge the main tendencies and accomplishments of contemporary literature. His aesthetic practice always took Modernism as its guiding light, even in cases where he was dealing with works that dated from earlier historic periods. With this desire to see and make connections, as well as his self-reflexive awareness of modernity, Schlegel set intellectual standards for literary studies in the 21st century.

Peter-André Alt, Winfried Menninghaus