An epistemological approach to John Keats and the truth-function of his poetry

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

25 Pages



1. Introduction

2. Keats and his Socio- Historical Context
2.1. The Heritage of Enlightenment
2.2. Philosophical Zeitgeist and German Idealism
2.2.1. Empiricism and Rationalism
2.2.2. Reconciliation in German Idealism
2.3. Foundation of Aesthetics as Scientific Discipline

3. Approach to Keats’s Epistemology
3.1. Scepticism and Pursuit of Knowledge
3.2. Keats’s ‘Religion’ of Beauty
3.3. Imagination and Negative Capability as Medium for Synthesis

4. Keats’s Theory of Art and his Poems
4.1. Holistic harmony as Programmatic Concept
4.1.1. Keats and holistic art tradition- excurse to Surrealism
4.2. The Function of Poesy- “Sleep and Poetry”

5. Limitations, Ambiguities and Inconsistencies of Keats’s Concept
5.1. Metaphysically Complemented Empiricism
5.2. The Concept of Beauty as ‘Accidental Truth’

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

“Negative Capability” is a concept coined by the Romantic poet John Keats, as put down in a letter his brothers[1], discussed and interpreted by scholars over and over again. On one hand it provides a desirable quality every poet should be in possession of, on the other hand it is to hold the almost presumptuous ability to solve – alongside imagination- the huge epistemological challenges of subject- object- relation and the constitution of reality. Even though Keats himself didn’t write any explicit work on his literary theory or poetical concept, his approach to poetry and its aesthetic function can be traced back in his poems and letters. There he openly addresses his attitudes as they are also expressed, sometimes between the lines, throughout his poetry. Only it seems that Keats changed his notions and ideas at times, some of his convictions can rather be seen as temporary spots of light in the ongoing process of the pursuit of knowledge than a real enlightenment. This actually mirrors Keats’s statements about the acquisition of knowledge in a very precise way; that this whole task was enveloped in fuzz and uncertainty, where truth appeared in sparks of epiphany but could never be considered full and complete, absolute knowledge. It is thus enclosed in a developing process that leads ever higher and forwards to a state of further and deeper understanding.

In this paper I am going to approach Keats’s ways and convictions in the search for knowledge and will take up the challenge of placing him in regard to his epistemology and closely related aesthetic theory. First of all I am going to work out in how far Keats can be understood as an heir of his time. How was he to understand and write about a world that had just been shaken by hopes and disappointments of the French Revolution that brought about a whole new concept of liberty, rights of the individual and anti- dogmatism? I will also show how his scepticism is a direct reaction to and consequent continuation of Enlightenment that worshipped the idealized intellect and reason. When considering the socio- cultural context in which Keats grew up, I hold it important to touch upon the philosophical theories of his time; mainly German Idealism had a great impact of thought in theses decades, whether Keats had read them (which can be doubted[2] ) and had been conscious of their influence or not. Still they express the way of dealing with the post- revolutionary epistemological crisis and the longing for systematic knowledge that prevailed and certainly influenced Keats, even though ‘indirectly’ through others like Hazlitt and Wordsworth. In regard to Keats’s aesthetic theory and the outstanding importance, imagination and openness to receptivity are attached to, I also can’t leave Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten unmentioned, who, in 1750, in a world supposedly explainable by reason alone, established Aesthetics as scientific theory. Thus he set a counter balance to the monopoly of the intellect in respect to knowledge acquisition and epistemology. Through his scientifically based concept of senses, experience and sensation as comparable and equally valid sources of knowledge, he brought about a new appreciation and value for the complementary “tool” of materialistic, sensual perception.

The main focus of my argumentation then lays on Keats’s epistemology, marked by scepticism, search for knowledge, passion and the awareness of irrevocable suffering, and how it is expressed in his poetic work. It is to show how within an increasingly secularized environment, he establishes a new kind of religion with beauty as its centre that even holds the capacity of providing meaning, purpose and consolation. Then I will try to cover the notion of Negative Capability and human disinterestedness in respect to ontological explanations and how imagination and mind play important roles in creating reality and transcendentally answering epistemological questions.

Before I come to revealing inconsistencies and limitations of Keats’s concept, I am going to dedicate another chapter to Keats’s art theory. I will dwell on the holistic tradition he can be said to be part of and will explicitly draw the connection to French Surrealism. Then I will illustrate in detail with “Sleep & Poetry” what function and importance he attaches to ‘poesy’ according to ‘her’ truth- function and knowledge. Hence, this part shall also be presented as interwoven into the concept of epistemology, as to how it is demonstrated within his poetry.

By the end I will have shown the complexity and diversity of Keats’s knowledge- philosophy, how bulky and ambiguous it proves when tried to be put into an easily comprehensible pattern of explanation. This difficulty actually bears witness that Keats indeed remains dwelling in the realm of half- knowledge[3], as he himself positively calls it.

2. Keats and his Socio- Historical Context

2.1. The Heritage of Enlightenment

The major event that had influenced each and every aspect of life in the turn of the 19th century in Europe was of course the French Revolution. It brought forth far- reaching and lasting transformations and innovations. Not only can this be stated in such radically new achievements and attitudes as in the political and legal sphere, with the abolition of inherited and unquestioned monarchy or the matter of human rights. But it went as far as turning deep and existential areas of individual human life inside out. Even the epistemological, religious, and the very personal realms were strongly affected and altered. The success of the revolutionary moment was followed by an enthusiastic optimism, the faith in total feasibility and perfectibility of all things. “It was believed that not only governments but whole societies as well as individual people could be ‘perfected’ by an act of secular will.”[4] The free human will, to which the revolutionary achievements were ascribed, alongside secular human reasoning, were now authorized to be the reliable truth and force to mould and explain the world accordingly. On this basis, all traditionally accepted absolutes and institutions were no longer taken for granted but either doubted or abolished. Neither a God- given monarchy nor the Church could be blindly accepted any longer. Every dogma was exposed to legitimate doubt as now with the radicalization of reason and Enlightenment thoughts, scepticism reigned. No wonder the individual found himself in a state of uncertainty and an “epistemological and religious crisis”[5].

The complete cultural upheaval of all traditional order and reliability naturally caused great insecurities and doubts. As it is always the ambivalent case with freedom; it opens up new mesmerizing horizons of possibilities of thinking, choosing and acting, but on the other side it hands over the whole weight of responsibility, of decision- making, and dealing with questions to the individual.

The world had now become self- explanatory through the achievements of natural science, in particular the findings of Newton, which promoted the exclusion of a supreme being from the natural realm.[6] The world was ruled by natural laws, thus the whole system could be understood functioning as a closed circle, where a God was merely thought of being the initiator of. But still in accordance with the Christian tradition, God or a divine concept remained deistically preserved, only no longer interfering with the matters of this world. Altogether, a great “shift of consciousness from the theistic to the humanistic plane[7] ”, towards secularization can be stated in all of the spheres described. The free, self- determined individual who had come of age was focussed on. Heaven and the transcendent realm had been taken down to earth and religion was mainly replaced by “reason as the eternal truth”[8]. Life affirmation and hedonist tendencies, focussing on the joy of earthly life replaced the hopes of postponed fulfilment in an after-life paradise. The contemporary Heine spoke of the new and better song now to be heard, the one sung here and now: “Ein neues Lied, ein besseres Lied,/ O Freunde, will ich Euch dichten!/ Wir wollen hier auf Erden schon/ Das Himmelreich errichten.”[9] His statement is thoroughly exemplary for the post-revolutionary time.

Naturally, a rise of individualism took place that was more and more directed towards the inner being, the reflecting, perceiving and experiencing self within a humanized world. Unrestricted efforts in philosophy were made to understand existence and reality under a sky burst open devoid of dogmas. Some of these philosophies like Bacon’s and Locke’s Enlightenment Empiricism or the German Idealism of Kant, Schelling and Hegel mainly coined the zeitgeist of the early 19th century.

2.2. Philosophical Zeitgeist and German Idealism

2.2.1. Empiricism and Rationalism

Enlightenment philosophy was predominantly based on Empiricism.[10] Only that which could be perceived and experienced sensually, which was material, was held to be true. According to Bacon, Locke and others, nothing can lead to knowledge except what can be directly derived from observation and finds its representation in the human mind. They went as far as claiming that no a priori structure whatsoever existed in the human mind and that no realm of transcendence was to be taken for granted (which were to give a validation of human existence and ‘reality’, of a supreme being or a spiritual realm). The human mind was understood as a passive receptor, a tabula rasa on which experience writes and leads the individual to more and more knowledge of the world.

In contrast to this current, rationalism promoted the assumption of the subjectivity of human ‘reason’ and an objective ‘reasonableness’, an a priori non- empirical, transcendent structure within human thinking. According to Leibniz for example, man is intuitively able to perceive of its own existence and the reality of a supreme being. In full awareness that the realm in which these presuppositions are situated is not suited for any empirical verification or experience. The ontological questions thus settled, philosophy centres on the intellect as its main source of knowledge acquisition and epistemology.

With both of these reason- based ideologies one can’t miss that they are again dogmatic in them- selves. The foundation empiricism is laid upon completely neglects the active human mind and intellect as well as the fact –or carefully expressed the very probable assumption- that man is more than passive matter, is endowed with a spiritual and creative capacity, and a ‘soul’.

With rationalism it is clear, and has from the Romantics on until Adorno (and beyond) oftentimes been stated that reason and intellect in them-selves can’t be the origin of truth. Reason can’t be hold for absolute rather than religious ideologies do. Again a dogma is founded on ‘irrationalities’, on some fact presumably taken for granted which again neglects parts of the wholeness of being. The Romantic Philosophers spoke here of the ‘full concreteness’ of an object of which abstraction, the above mentioned reduction fell short of some parts and thus failed to fully conceive of it.[11] ”and criticized the “short- cuts in thinking” (Hazlitt)[12].

2.2.2. Reconciliation in German Idealism

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) as a prominent representative of the transcendental Idealism achieved by his critical realism a reconciliation between empiricism and the transcendental realm.[13] He assumed abstract unknowable concepts, such as notions of God, freedom and eternity to be given a priori so as to make sense of reality. By doing so, he overcame the statics of an empiric, passively receiving mind and laid the foundation of the human capacity of imagination which is to play an active and creative role in knowledge acquisition.[14]

Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling (1775- 1854) can be seen as the Romantic, Idealist philosopher[15] who strongly coined the Romantic worldview or one could say, put into words what was widely sensed and thought. The Kantian epistemology of things being complexes of human imagination and being corresponding to consciousness, he took for granted and moved on from there. Schelling founded reality in the thinking, self- conscious subject. According to his philosophy of identity, the human mind thinks and perceives nature. Thus it contributes to the object of nature and helps to bring about its rise into consciousness. Moreover it results into the reconciliation of subject and object, a union of man and nature, of thinking and being. The oppositions of nature and mind, of real and ideal, evaporate in the sphere of the absolute, which is the very fusion whose agent is the imagination. In the Romantic worldview, imagination with its almost mystical, idealized function plays a very important role. This also applies to Keats, as I will come to show later on. To focus on the importance in connection to Keats, I want to lay emphasis on the following: Schelling (as also Hegel) sees the absolute realized on a higher level, in intellectual contemplation and in the sphere of arts, where the oppositions undergo a synthesis and melt into each other. The imagination functions as the main agent in creating and perceiving of reality and truth.

Another idea of Keats, captured by the Idealist philosophers is that of the idealist concept of progression. Similar to Hegel, Schelling developed a system of levels, a hierarchy according to the real or ideal proportions inherent to an object. The underlying assumption was that of the motion of the ideal, the intrinsic dynamic within the object toward perfection. Thus the spirit sphere is the impetus for (self-) knowledge, and knowledge a progressive dialectic process[16]. As in Hegel’s meaning, the self- disposed spirit is leading to consciousness and knowledge. This epistemological point of view will prove very important when trying to approach Keats and his pursuit of knowledge. Even though he himself might not have been directly in touch with the thoughts and works of the German Idealists, he was influenced by theorists and philosophers who had grasped some of these and similar ideas. As I have already mentioned, these thoughts and concepts were an integral part of the zeitgeist of these days and widely sensed and internalized.

Under the premise of connecting the empirical, sensual approach with the intellectual realm, one can also see efforts in science. Where rational logic dominated the field all through Enlightenment, reproaches concerning its reductionist and one-sided method arose. To achieve a balance and take into consideration the wholeness of being, sensual knowledge - “Aesthetics”- found its establishment as a scientific discipline.


[1] John Keats, To George and Tom Keats, 21 Dec. 1817, Letters of John Keats, ed. Frederick Page. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954, 53.

[2] Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967, 238.

[3] Letter to George and Thomas Keats, 21 Dec. 1817. Page 53.

[4] David Duff, “From Revolution to Romanticism: The Historical Context to 1800”. A Companion to Romanticism, Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998, 25.

[5] Ronald E. Sharp. Keats, Scepticism, and the Religion of Beauty, University of Georgia, 1979, 14.

[6] Cf. Peter J. Kitson “Beyond the Enlightenment:” The Philosophical, Scientific and Religious Inheritance” in Wu 40f.

[7] Franklin L. Baumer, Religion and the Rise of Scepticism. (New York: Harcourt, 1960). qtd. in Sharp 12.

[8] Jerome L. McGann, The Romantic Ideology. A Critical Investigation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983, 41.

[9] Heine, Heinrich. Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen. Caput I. Frankfurt (Main): Insel Verlag, 1986, 14.

[10] Main ideas of the first two paragraphs cf. Kitson in Wu 36ff.

[11] Cf. Bate 239.

[12] Cf. Bate 240

[13] Cf. Kitson 38f.

[14] Cf. Kitson 39.

[15] The main ideas of this paragraph are taken from Georgi Schischikoff, Philosophisches Wörterbuch, Stuttgart: Kröner, 1978. and the lecture by Prof. Dr. Karin Hirdina “Systematische Ästhetik I”, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, SS 2004.

[16] Quote Hirdina.

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An epistemological approach to John Keats and the truth-function of his poetry
University of Augsburg  (Englische Literaturwissenschaft)
John Keats
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Philosophical contextualization and approach to John Keats' concept of art and negative capability
John, Keats, John, Keats
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Andrea Heß (Author), 2005, An epistemological approach to John Keats and the truth-function of his poetry, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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