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Romantic Theory

, 304 pages
May 2006



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Romantic Theory

Forms of Reflexivity in the Revolutionary Era

Winner of the Jean-Pierre Barricelli Prize given by the International Conference on Romanticism

This original study explores the new idea of theory that emerged in the wake of the French Revolution. Leon Chai sees in the Romantic age a significant movement across several broad fields of intellectual endeavor, from theoretical concepts to an attempt to understand how they arise. He contends that this movement led to a spatial treatment of concepts, the primacy of development over concepts, and the creation of metatheory, or the formal analysis of theory.

Chai begins with P. B. Shelley on the need for conceptual framework, or theory. He then considers how Friedrich Wolf and Friedrich Schlegel shift from a preoccupation with antiquity to a heightened self-awareness of Romantic nostalgia for that lost past. He finds a similar reflexivity in Napoleon's battle plan at Jena and, subsequently, in Hegel's move from substance to subject. Chai then turns to the sciences: Xavier Bichat's rejection of the idea of a unitary vital principle for life as process; the chemical theory of matter developed by Humphry Davy; and the work of Évariste Galois, whose proof of the solvability of equations using radicals ushered in the age of metatheory.

Chai concludes with reactions to theory: Coleridge's proposal of the conflict between reason and understanding as a model of theory, Mary Shelley's effort to replace theory with a different kind of relationship to external others, and Hölderlin's reflection on the limits of representation and the possibility of fulfillment beyond it.

Leon Chai is a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.

"I certainly do not know of another book comparable to this one in its range. Chai is able to show how Romanticism can be generated out of supposedly unpromising discourses and corners of the period in defining moments of self-knowledge that all contribute to an overall picture. Romantic Theory is experimental and takes risks, but is all the more exciting for that reason. It rescues Romanticism's speculative character from the historicist reductions dominating Romantic criticism in recent years. "

"I would unhesitatingly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in how the history of thought impinges on current theoretical concerns."

"An excellent monograph, which should be required reading for those interested in the theoretical underpinnings of the Romantic period as well as Romantic scholars in general."

"Fine new study... Chai's book makes a valuable contribution to the study of Romanticism."

"Chai's book will quickly occupy a place among those prominent recent works that have shaped the understanding of both Romanticism and our relationship to it."

"This is a difficult but rewarding book. It will make its mark even on those readers least prepared to assent to Chai’s arguments, and it is likely to instigate an intriguing debate."

"Quite refined, and from such scholarship readers will surely benefit."

"Highly thought provoking study."

"Leon Chai has produced an impressive study of European Romantic theory and theorizing that helps to place the current state of critical throy in historical perspective."