In the Spirit of “clever inventions and constellations”: the Mechanics of Romantic Systems

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This essay offers a new perspective to German Romanticism's thinking about systems by exposing its indebtedness to a mechanical idea that pervades the organic model of systems and operates in the blind spot of organic discourse. Against the common point of view that to think “organically” is to think “non-mechanically,” this essay argues that these two perspectives can in fact co-exist, and it is precisely the particular dynamics of this co-existence that will put the Romantic concept of system in a new light.

In the Spirit of “clever inventions and constellations”: the Mechanics of Romantic Systems

Jocelyn Holland
University of California, Santa Barbara


The study of machines makes the mechanic—and accustoms the spirit to clever inventions and constellations.
Das Studium von Maschinen bildet den Mechaniker—und gewöhnt den Geist an geschickte Erfindungen und Zusammensetzungen.

- Novalis, Schriften 3:50

Introduction

1.        Where the question of “system” in the context of German Romanticism is concerned, and more specifically, in the aphorisms of Novalis and Friedrich Schlegel, it is all too tempting to dismiss the concept out of hand: not because it has no role to play in Romantic thinking (it does), but because the system-concept in this historical context is a quagmire of competing definitions and contradictions. Certainly, there is a marked difference between the Romantic champions of the fragmentary, with their ironic oscillations, and the attempted rigor of Kant’s, Fichte’s or Hegel’s philosophical systems. Even Schelling’s nature-philosophical system, with its sympathies to the Romantic understanding of science, does not or cannot approximate the playfulness of the Romantic approach to thinking about systems. But think about them they do: without professing the desire to build and dwell in one of their own, Schlegel and Novalis return time and again to the notion of what a system can and cannot be, what it does and does not do, and what an individual’s relationship to a system should and should not be. The rhetorical emphasis here on drawing distinctions is not accidental and points to a further challenge: after Niklas Luhmann, it is no longer possible to speak of “system” in the same breath as German Romanticism without considering the theoretical position that says that those same systems to which the Romantics return time and again bear features of autopoietic systems as defined by Luhmann. To be sure, Luhmann’s understanding of “system” is nothing like Kant’s or Hegel’s. To simplify a concept that is arguably much more complex for Luhmann, we could say that for him, systems are neither perfectly defined nor perfectly stable entities, but instead undergo a process of continuous development as they differentiate themselves from their environments. Taking the Romantic art system as an example, Luhmann describes it as “self-referential,” “operationally closed,” and in a state of change (507). These dynamics “cannot be grasped according to the schema—still predominant at the time of Romanticism—of part and whole” (507). The schema of “part and whole” to which Luhmann refers is, of course, a mainstay of Romantic thinking about systems and other key concepts defined by agile intellectual leaps across scale: in addition to the concept of system this would include the fragment, the organism, and the work of art. It appears that Schlegel and Novalis are caught in the crossfire between different understandings of what a system can be. A proper understanding of systems in the context of German Romanticism therefore needs to bring together both an examination of the historical concepts that surround their understanding of a system and our contemporary sensibilities about systems, or we run the risk of their blind-spots becoming our own. [1] 

2.        To approach Romantic thinking about systems, Johann Christoph Adelung’s definition provides a solid point of departure. In the Grammatisch-kritisches Wörterbuch der Hochdeutschen Mundart (Grammatic-critical Dictionary of High German), he defines a system as a “connection of things of the same kind and disposition and the order according to which they are joined amongst themselves” (“der Zusammenhang von Dingen einerley Art und Einrichtung und die Ordnung, nach welcher sie unter einander verbunden sind”) (“System” 510-511). Adelung’s definition leaves open both the contents of what a system may contain and any mention of the specific kind of order that governs them—this is left to the discretion of the systematician. For their part, Novalis and Schlegel divide their attention between each of these issues: on the one hand, they test out a range of possible candidates for systematic connecting (including words, fragments, and concepts from the wide array of disciplines which attracted their interest), and on the other hand, they think about how these parts relate and the behavior of systems as a whole. This entails a study of other systems as well as considering alternatives to systems altogether. Novalis, who refers to the systems of Copernicus, Helvetius, Locke, Brown, and Fichte (among others), writes that “one studies foreign systems in order to find one’s own” (Schriften 2:278) and that the “actual philosophical system” must be “systemlessness” integrated into a system (2:289). For all their apparent differences, these two aphorisms undertake the same strategy of differentiation, and they do so in a way compatible with Luhmann’s understanding of systems. They bring a foreign element into the familiar in order to observe the difference and allow it to become integrated into further thinking about the system.

3.        Also in line with Luhmann and current understanding of Romantic thought is Schlegel’s and Novalis’ tendency to decry any notion of systematic rigidity and permanence in favor of a highly mutable environment: the system, according to Novalis, has itself the ability to effect new connections (3:56). Along these lines, the metaphors associated with the behavior of systems are frequently drawn from the realm of the organic. “Only that deserves to be called system,” writes Schlegel, “which has unity and an organic build (Gliederbau)” (Philosophical Lectures 55). [2]  He even goes so far as to complain about those fumbling intellectual “banausoi” who “desecrate an organic system through mechanical handling” (“Kritische” 18:2:15). The Romantic emphasis on organic language for systems and other complex, emergent environments underscores the notion that they are essentially incomplete and in perpetual states of becoming, yet this same language is so pervasive that it can be difficult to find the necessary vantage-point from which to consider possible alternatives. At the risk of bearing the brunt of Schlegel’s criticism, this essay is an attempt to do exactly what he warns against: to give the Romantic thinking about systems a kind of “mechanical handling” by exposing its indebtedness to a mechanical idea that pervades the organic model of systems and operates, as it were, in the blind spot of organic discourse.

4.        I will begin by situating the Romantic interest in a simple machine—the lever—in historical context before explaining the kind of conceptual “work” Schlegel and Novalis have it perform. The next part of the paper will focus on a particular aspect of the lever, the fulcrum, which is an object of interest in its own right. I will then use the fulcrum to return to the question of system. It is a common point of view that to think “organically” is to think “non-mechanically,” but the examples discussed in this essay will show that this is not always the case. Rather, the two can co-exist, and it is precisely the dynamics of this co-existence that will put the Romantic concept of system in a different perspective.

Romantic interest in a simple machine

5.        There is pleasure to be found in the appreciation of simple things: those objects or ideas that are so commonplace as to escape our attention, but that, if we happen to observe them more carefully, reveal their intrinsic value in ways we would not have expected. The mechanical lever belongs in this category. It numbers first among the “simple machines” described in handbooks on mechanics since the time of Archimedes, where it is considered alongside other devices such as the scale, the wedge, and the pulley. Levers and lever effects are so intrinsic to our worldview that, once we begin to pay attention to them, they are everywhere: they serve as the basis of more complicated machinery and organisms (including the musculature of the human body), as figures for the augmentation of human agency, and they are implicated in any causal connection based on an advantageous relationship of input to output. Against the backdrop of a subject philosophy, the Romantic interest in the lever therefore makes sense, but as we will see, how Schlegel and Novalis integrate the lever into their thinking defy conventional notions of instrumentality as embodied by the spirit of Archimedes.

6.        Although the lever is the most fundamental of the six or seven simple machines of classical mechanics—all of which rely in some way on the laws of the lever—it has proven over time to be remarkably versatile as an instrument of philosophical as well as scientific thought. As the historian of science Domenico Meli shows in Thinking With Objects (2006), a number of intellectuals in the modern period, including Kepler, Descartes, and Leibniz, to name just a few, relied on the lever’s theory and used it to model problems relating to theories of motion, oscillation, and impact for scales both great and small. He writes that “several scholars…used the lever in their accounts of circular and orbital motion,” such as Borelli, who “imagined the planets to be pushed by the sun’s light acting like a lever,” and Jakob Bernoulli, who “used the lever to investigate the problem of the center of oscillation” (312). Meli attributes the phenomenon of thinking in terms of levers to what he calls the “crucial role played by the geometrical diagram,” a role he describes as “heuristic and at the same time didactic or mnemonic” (312). In that regard, our Romantic-era mechanists are in good company. They too deploy the theory of lever as a heuristic tool to model relationships between concepts, to describe processes of generation of both the individual and the universe, and, more generally, as a way of addressing potential contradictions of philosophical thinking.

7.        Thanks to a number of publications in the last two decades, “science” and “Romanticism” are no longer a contradiction in terms, even if the precise nature of that relationship remains open to debate. Recent scholarship has exposed in great detail the Romantic reception of scientific theory, especially in regard to the emerging life sciences. [3]  This heightened interest in one aspect of Romantic thinking has, however unintentionally, suppressed another aspect that also deserves consideration. The problem is that the well-documented Romantic interest in chemistry, galvanism, and early biological thinking as they relate to models of organic life would not necessarily seem to accommodate an equally avid interest in mechanical law or anything hinting at a “mechanical philosophy.” Yet this is precisely the kind of philosophy that any intellectual engagement with the mechanical lever would entail, simply because it “endeavours to explicate the Phaenomena of Nature from Mechanical Principles,” as one finds in John Harris’s Lexicon Technicum (1704) (col. MEC). First associated with texts such as Robert Boyle’s The Origin of Forms and Qualities according to the Corpuscular Philosophy (1666) and Descartes’ posthumously published Treatise on Man (1664), mechanical philosophy rejects the Aristotelian viewpoint that there are particular forms and qualities which dictate the tendencies of objects in the natural world, and the mechanical philosopher holds that “everything, be it terrestrial or celestial, natural motion or constrained, must be explained in terms of the size, shape and motion of the parts that make it up, just as the behavior of a machine is explained” (Garber 44). [4]  As for Schlegel and Novalis, Marshall Brown speaks for many when he voices the conventional wisdom that the German Romantics have advanced beyond the mechanistic worldview (33). My position is that such an envisioned rejection of “mechanical philosophy” often misrepresents the facts by disregarding mechanical metaphors still integral to Romantic thinking and that one should speak less of a wholesale abandonment of a mechanistic world view than a reconfiguration of its useful aspects in proximity to organic models. This point of view is substantiated by those aphorisms of Schlegel and Novalis where one finds an avid interest in the lever as a mechanical device and as an instrument of thought whose use can be tested out in contexts reaching far beyond “material” application, [5]  yet there has been relatively little work done on basic mechanical principles in the Romantic context. [6]  Novalis’ claim that the study of machines “accustoms the spirit to clever inventions and constellations” (Schrfiten 3:50) is an incentive to do just that.

8.        We can begin the discussion of the Romantic lever with a simple definition of this simple machine, taken from the most established German scientific dictionary of the late eighteenth century to which Schlegel and Novalis both refer—Johann Gehler’s Physikalisches Wörterbuch (Physical Dictionary). In an entry compiled verbatim from the mathematical writings of Johann Erxleben and Abraham Kästner, [7]  Gehler’s dictionary refers to the lever as “a fixed and inflexible connection of three bodies—or three points—two of which turn around the third, the fulcrum” (“Hebel”). This definition can be taken as representative for the theory of static mechanics as it stands at the end of the eighteenth century, but if we recall the passage from Adelung’s dictionary cited earlier, it also meets the minimum requirements for a system in that it creates a connection between things which, for all their differences, are like enough in “kind” or “disposition” to allow for them to be connected in the first place. This analogy between lever and system has the potential to be productive because the conditions according to which the Romantics deploy the former will have implications for the latter.

9.        While there is evidence enough that both Schlegel and Novalis were well-versed in mechanical theory, in the case of Novalis his most detailed notes on the working of the lever come not from classical mechanics but rather from the physics of Carl Eschenmayer’s nature-philosophy and in particular the Säze [sic] aus der Natur-Metaphysik auf chemische und medicinische Gegenstände angewandt (Propositions from Nature-Metaphysics applied to Chemical and Medicinal Objects). Eschenmayer’s stated purpose in the preface to the Säze bears directly on the question of system and can, in turn, be taken as programmatic for Novalis’ approach. Eschenmayer envisioned his text as a guidepost for future thinking about how to apply nature-philosophical ideas to the fields of chemistry and medicine. Because the text of the Säze does not itself accomplish the task but merely points the way, Eschenmayer acknowledges its status as fragment (Bruchstük [sic]), adding, “One can take propositions from a system and apply them completely unsystematically to objects of experience, without their most meritorious aspect falling by the wayside” (iv). When Novalis read Eschenmayer’s text, he excerpted interesting passages and added his own commentary:

[E:] The longer the arm of the lever, the greater the velocity of the force moving the end.
[N:] greater room to move (Spielraum) of the force absolute in itself—greater armature of the force—
[E:] Consequently for the attainment of equilibrium a stronger mass must hang on the shorter arm, or press down on it—in order to compensate
[N:] More intensity versus greater extensity
(Eschenmayer, Säze xiv-xv; qtd. in Novalis, Schriften 2:281)
Novalis’ excerpts and commentary replicate Eschenmayer’s approach. Mechanical facts about the lever—for example that a weight hanging from a lever will move more quickly through a given angle of displacement in a given time, in proportion to the arm’s length—inspire in Novalis a more general reflection about force (Eschenmayer makes no mention of either “absolute force” or an “armature of force”). The same holds true for Novalis’ reformulation of the law of equilibrium through the concepts of “intensity” and “extensity.” Here, Novalis makes a peculiar move, in that his reformulation of the physical law does away with external objects (like weights hanging on the arms of the lever). This amounts to an internalization of perspective and an identification with the lever itself—an idea to which I will return below.

10.        A broader look at the appropriation of the lever in Novalis’ aphorisms reveals the same willingness to rethink the lever beyond the context of mechanical law or even nature-philosophy. Thus, alongside statements about the lever in accordance with Newtonian physics (for example, when Novalis writes that the lever must be explained according to the laws of celestial mechanics [3:77]), one finds it used to model other kinds of environments that neither Newton nor Eschenmayer had in mind, such as the syntactical relation of nouns and verbs (3:691). The degree to which Novalis’ philosophical thinking is connected to his thinking about the lever becomes even more apparent when, with reference to his physicist friend Johann Wilhelm Ritter, Novalis constructs an analogy between “Ritter’s way of handling physics” and “my idea about the principle of personality in every substance,” something he equates with the force of the lever’s fulcrum (3:135). In other words, Novalis’ thinking about the lever seems to be more in line with a philosophical approach (or “way” of doing something) than an isolated interest. A laconic note, “About the Lever,” found just a few pages later than the aphorism cited above, raises similar questions, namely, to what degree the lever was merely an object of conceptual interest for Novalis, and to what degree its very instrumentality may lie in how it facilitates a more general approach to thinking about certain problems of philosophical interest. These are questions which ultimately have to do with the individual, as the notion of a “personality in every substance” and the formulation of equilibrium in terms of “intensity and extensity” might suggest.

11.        Whereas Novalis thinks “about the lever” in such a way as to generalize from contemporary physical theory, Schlegel’s approach can best be described as the exploratory creation of levers themselves, which in turn aligns well with Meli’s discussion of the heuristic value of levers for the mechanical theory of the eighteenth century. It is the functional property of the lever, which is after all a machine for our use, that allows Schlegel to use it as an instrument of thought, as in the following two aphorisms that appear contiguously:

(1) Activity and receptivity completely relative. Substance absolute, only the fulcrum in the [philosophical] lever (18:419).
(my diagram, J.H.)
(2) Only through a continuous ever repeated disruption is life possible (18:419)
Together, these two aphorisms offer a mechanical model of a lever in a state of constant motion, in the service of an organic principle. The fulcrum is a locus of alternation, a point which embodies the interplay of forces on either side. Much like the points of indifference between magnetic poles—which are also privileged points in Romantic thinking [8] —the fulcrum serves as a model for negotiating a relationship between opposing concepts, as a figure of dynamic opposition. The suggestion that life or living is a process of repeated disruption is not unique to Schlegel. Schelling’s 1798 treatise, Von der Weltseele (On the World Soul), for example, also speaks of an equilibrium to life that must constantly be disturbed and re-established. In fact, in the same passage where Schelling makes this claim, he also uses the lever as a metaphor when he names oxygen and hydrogen the two “negative principles of life in the animal body,” comparing them to “weights on the lever of life” whose local disequilibrium allows for the large-scale maintenance of life itself (198). [9]  Schlegel’s designation of the lever as “philosophical” emphasizes a theoretical relationship that complies with mechanical law. Though the units of his lever are relatively more abstract than Schelling’s hydrogen and oxygen, the building blocks of life itself, there is a shared emphasis on movement and process (as opposed to the figure of the lever in static equilibrium).

12.        The examples cited above are not unique in Schlegel’s work. One can find the blueprints of other levers whose terms are drawn from the key concepts that haunt his literary and philosophical notebooks around 1800:

“Act and hypothesis form a lever, belief is the hypomochlion” (18:404)
“Philology is perhaps constructed from the negative arm of philosophy or logic and from the positive arm of poesy” (18:391)
“Religion is the X of the encyclopedia—philology the hypomochlion. Art; mythology, poesy the positive arm, philosophy, history the negative” (18:391)
“Mythology is only the hypomochlion of poesy” (16:293)
It comes as no surprise that Schlegel also states that the lever is of “utmost importance” for the theory of construction (18:170). Such a claim would be unoriginal in a mechanics handbook, but what about in the Romantic context? Much in the same way as the formulas in Schlegel’s notebooks draw upon the language and symbolism of differential calculus, we see that in the examples quoted above the logic of the lever allows for abstract concepts to be treated as discrete quantities and positioned into relationships, without, however, losing their dynamic potential or status as constructions-in-progress. These levers accomplish a kind of philosophical work. They construct by bringing concepts together and positioning them in proximity to each other and also by establishing connections to allow for mobility, given that one fundamental aspect of the lever is its movement around the fulcrum—its ability to accommodate a shifting relationship of forces. Within the context of Romantic writing, one can also speak of local and global lever effects: once the relationships are constructed (for example, between mythology and poesy in the last of Schlegel’s aphorisms cited above), they will continue to bear upon our broader understanding (i.e., the relationship will continue to affect our understanding of them in the context of the Romantic encyclopedia project and beyond). Schlegel’s lever effects continue to operate beneath the surface of the encyclopedia project, even when the lever or its component parts are not directly mentioned.

13.        Once again, Adelung’s definition of system comes to mind, along with the thought that there is a homogenizing effect—at least of form, if not of content—when different concepts are treated as units with which to build. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the emphasis on the lever does not imply a reduction of Romantic thinking to something like a mechanical, clockwork cosmos. How Schlegel and Novalis position both the concept of the lever and their conceptual levers suggests a potential way of navigating between (and avoiding) oversimplified tropes of both the organic and the mechanical, even if their respective approaches are not precisely the same. In fact, they seem to be homing in on common ground from two different angles: Novalis, through a connection of the lever with the individual, and Schlegel, through a connection between the lever and the conceptual landscape of the intellect. As we will see, the meeting point of these two perspectives will be the fulcrum, which will also provide the most ambitious testing ground for the Romantic concept of system.

The fulcrum

14.        Conspicuously absent from Schlegel’s notes is any mention of a hand or agency external to the functioning of these simple machines. Schlegel is no Archimedes: there is no fantasy of an ideal point from which to displace the world. Any “mechanical advantage” gained by the conceptual levers of his notes would seem to be re-absorbed into their operational dynamics rather than allocated to an external individual. [10]  What can be observed, however, is a special emphasis placed on the concept of the fulcrum, which Schlegel and Novalis refer to using the Greek term, “hypomochlion.” Meaning “beneath the lever,” the hypomochlion is literally where the lever is placed to do its work—the planetary reality that grounds any fantasy of the Archimedean point. [11]  From a mathematical perspective, the hypomochlion is a point of mediation on the lever itself and embodies the dynamic cancellation and maintenance of opposing forces; to think again with Luhmann, one could say that the hypomochlion encompasses a distinction and neutralizes it at the same time. In terms of thinking about systems, the hypomochlion acquires a priveleged status: it is the smallest conceivable model in which distinctions continue to be produced and, accordingly, is the smallest possible representation of the system itself. These aspects of the Romantic incorporation of the hypomochlion into their thinking about systems can be brought into even sharper relief against the backdrop of Eschenmayer’s and Schelling’s nature philosophy.

15.        Eschenmayer’s initial definition of the lever and the hypomochlion, to which Novalis refers in his notes, is simple enough as stated in the Säze: “We can imagine the arms of a lever as two moments and regard the hypomochlion as the point in which both moments work against each other” (Wir können uns die Aerme eines Hebels mit ihren Kräften als zwei Bewegungsgrössen vorstellen, und das Hypomochlion als den Punkt ansehen, in welchem beide Grössen gegeneinander wirken) (xiv). This is essentially the same as the definition in Gehler’s Physikalisches Wörterbuch cited at the beginning of the paper; like Gehler’s, Eschenmayer’s definition refers to a mathematical lever with no regard to material constraints. In the course of his nature-philosophical investigations over the next two decades, however, Eschenmayer will eventually consider ideas that would not be found in Gehler’s dictionary because they involve a speculative use of the lever (and the hypomochlion) as a model for activities of the mind: “1) The opposition between knowledge and being is expressed in the objective opposition between force and weight. 2) Mediation in the self is expressed in the hypomochlion of the lever. 3) The equation of knowledge and being is expressed through the relative equilibrium of weight and force” (Psychologie 448). These ideas, published in an 1817 volume devoted to empirical, pure, and applied psychology, may seem far removed from the current thinking about the lever around 1800, but we can see an analogous trajectory already developing in Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism (1800).

16.        Schelling’s reference to the lever occurs in the context of a discussion that resists an easy summary but which can be characterized as an attempt to describe the ego (das Ich) as a product of opposed operations within the framework of self-consciousness. Schelling describes such a product as both real and inactive (als ein reelles Unthätiges, oder als ein unthätiges Reelles) ( System 101). It is both “mere matter” and a “product of the imagination” which is only important as a medium (Mittelglied) (101). Schelling claims that “All matter is mere expression of an equilibrium of opposed operations which reduce each other reciprocally to a mere substrate of operation” (101). In other words, the stability of the material world relies upon a relative equilibrium of forces whose differences, once sublated, cease to be immediately apparent. At this point he introduces the comparison to the mechanical lever: “One should consider the lever, both weights operate only on the hypomochlion which is also the common substrate of their operation” (101). The hypomochlion therefore embodies both the conflict and the potential resolution of differences. Schelling goes one step further, however, to link what could be described as a purely material model, applicable to any physical context, more directly to a model of consciousness: “What is more, that substrate does not emerge accidentally through free production but rather completely automatically by virtue of a third operation that is as necessary as the identity of the self-consciousness” (101). Schelling contextualizes this idea with reference to the chapter heading, which states that opposed operations of self-consciousness, insofar as they inform a third operation, create something common between them. After his reference to the lever, Schelling directly equates this “common” element with a “construction of the ego itself, not as mere object but rather as subject and object at the same time” (102).

17.        What the above examples from Eschenmayer and Schelling show is that, in nature-philosophical thinking around 1800, the lever is removed from purely mechanical contexts and is deployed as a model for both the self in general and the emergence of self-consciousness. This model will eventually receive its most radical formulation in the psychological theory of Johann Herbart, who attempts with great mathematical rigor to use the lever and its law of equilibrium to model the recollection and suppression of thoughts in the brain (a topic for another day). Returning to the state of affairs around 1800, we can see that both Schlegel and Novalis have something more to contribute to the analogy between the lever and the individual. With an emphasis on a balance of forces, Novalis also considers the lever as a model for consciousness when he refers to “the temper of consciousness” as “maintained rest,” a “static force,” and “a constant quantity in continuous change (fulcrum on the lever)” (3:836). In keeping with the lever’s function as mediator between opposing forces, it is interesting to see how this figure of balance and reciprocity informs Novalis’ thinking in a more general sense: not only does Novalis “apply” the lever heuristically in new contexts, he also uses these same contexts for further reflection about the lever’s mechanical law. In another aphorism that begins with a reference to Plotinus’ idea of memory as the “lowest force of the soul—the basis of the others,” Novalis shows that, in addition to using the lever as an analogy for the operations of the mind, he can also use this model for further thinking about scientific theory:

(Opposition of Basis, a concept that relates to weight, and lever (from lifting) which relates to counter-weight) (New deduction of the lever from the lifting point etc. through centrifugal force) (Schriften 3:907).
If we read these aphorisms in conjunction with the one where Novalis refers to his idea of “the principle of personality in every substance—or the force of the hypomochlion” (Schriften 3:574), i.e., as a way of approaching physics, then at the very least there is mounting evidence for a model of the individual where the physics of the lever plays an important role (without, however, being reduced to a “mechanistic” philosophy in the older sense of the term). Other aphorisms, particularly those by Schlegel, go even further. In the same one where Schlegel attests that “the lever is extremely important for the theory of construction,” he writes that every universe has its own hypomochlion (18:170). And with reference to the hypomochlion as a figure of unified heterogeneity, he states that “the center of every universe [is] perhaps doubled [and] actually heterogeneous. One from two, two at the same time from different orders” (18:171). What is true for the macrocosm holds true for the microcosm as well: the “active, free human is his own hypomochlion” (18:171). Here, more clearly than ever, Schlegel rewrites the Archimedean fantasy of the mighty lever by replacing it with a model that seems, at first glance, to be counterintuitive. For Schlegel, freedom is—among other things—the freedom from being indebted to any instrumental augmentation of power. The distinction between human agency and tool has been completely internalized to the point that human agency has been conceived in terms of a mechanical function. Far from being a philosophically reactionary maneuver, however, the identification of the individual with the hypomochlion does not present, in its sheer punctuality, any impediment to organic models of growth and generation. If anything, removing instrumental agency eases the way for autopoietic growth.

18.        One of the most significant aspects of the hypomochlion as it is incorporated into Romantic thinking—apart from the ease with which it can be moved across scale, from the universe to the individual—is its ability to embody “duplicity” in a literal sense without losing its integral “simplicity” as a point. In the hypomochlion, differences are sublated (aufgehoben) in that they are removed, maintained, and held up. [12]  If, as Novalis suggests, the true individual is also a true “dividual” (Dividuum) (3:451), then the hypomochlion (and the lever) provide a model to illustrate how this idea need not be self-contradictory, because both identity and difference can be preserved. We have come a long way from Gehler’s definition of the lever as a “fixed and inflexible connection,” but Novalis is willing to go even further in his thinking about the lever when he suggests removing both the “fixed lines” and “point of support” such that the lever is now simply to be explained by the theory of force alone (3:470). As a physical idea it is not entirely clear what Novalis has in mind without a corresponding proof; as a philosophical model, however, Novalis’ proposal raises intriguing possibilities. If Novalis is referring to the point of support in the context of the physical lever, then perhaps he has decided to appropriate it indefinitely for the mathematical model where the fulcrum is, for all intents and purposes, part and parcel of the lever, bringing Novalis’ model of the lever that much closer to a model of a system that is self-sustaining.

Conclusion: the mechanics of Romantic systems

19.        The equation of the hypomochlion with the individual—and with the system—has ramifications for our understanding of German Romanticism. In the wake of the mechanistic philosophy of the eighteenth century, and the perception that Romanticism distances itself both from this philosophy and from related figures of thought, the incorporation of perhaps the most important central concept from classical mechanics into a model of the subject should not be underestimated. At the same time, it seems clear that the presence of the hypomochlion is no real threat to the organic models that inform Schlegel’s and Novalis’ thinking. Instead, Romantic system-organs, when examined in terms of their smallest components, begin to resemble a mechanical assemblage where the fulcrum of the lever is the figure that defines the smallest possible—and paradoxically also the largest possible—unit.

20.        This suggests that a more nuanced view is required to understand precisely how a “mechanical” component can be embedded in Romantic nature-philosophical systems. Perhaps it is the elementary quality of the hypomochlion as a figure of individual duality that has allowed it to exist under the radar. Whereas an overt system of multiple levers would invariably recall older, contested models of the clockwork universe, a single lever—or even less than that, a single hypomochlion (and if Novalis has his way, perhaps even less than that: a mere tension of forces)—allows for mechanical theory to function uncontested in a less restrictive environment.

21.        Although figures of part and whole are central to Romantic thought, the hypomochlion possesses a unique mobility. It bridges conceptual work of the encyclopedia project and Romantic subject philosophy, equally at home as a model of consciousness, as a description of the individual, as a conceptual link between concepts drawn from different disciplines, and as a figure of cosmological reach. As the embodiment of agency without instrumentality, the hypomochlion is indebted to a model of the lever built upon pure relationality. Without a hand to direct it, it becomes organic and self-guiding, even as it remains figure of unified “dividuality.” In other words, the hypomochlion’s defining feature is the preservation of a distinction which allows it, with absolute succinctness, the potential of becoming a system unto itself.

Works Cited

Brown, Marshall. The Shape of German Romanticism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1979. Print.

Campe, Johann Heinrich. "Hypomochlion." Wörterbuch zur Erklärung und Verdeutchung der unserer Sprache aufgedrungenen fremden Ausdrücke. Vol. 2. Braunschweig: Schulbuchhandlung, 1801. Web.

Drachmann, A. G. The Mechanical Technology of Greek and Roman Antiquity. Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1983. Print.

Eschenmayer, Carl August. Psychologie in drei Theilen: als empirische, reine und angewandte. Stuttgart and Tübingen: Johann Georg Cotta, 1817. Web.

---. Säze aus der Natur-Metaphysik auf chemische und medicinische Gegenstände angewandt. Tübingen: Jakob Friedrich Heerbrandt, 1797. Web.

Garber, Daniel. "Physics and Foundations." Early Modern Science. Ed. Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. Web. The Cambridge History of Science, Volume 3: Early Modern Science.

Gehler, Johann Samuel Traugott. "Hebel." Physikalisches Wörterbuch. 2 ed. Vol. 2. Leipzig: Schwickert, 1798. Web.

Kant, Immanuel. "Begriff, die Negativen Grössen in die Weltweisheit einzuführen." Immanuel Kant’s sämmtliche Werke. Ed. J. H. von Kirchmann. Berlin: L. Heimann, 1872. Web.

Luhmann, Niklas. "A Redescription of 'Romantic Art.'" MLN 111.3 (1996): 506-522.

"Mechanical Philosophy." Lexicon Technicum: Or, An Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Vol. 1. Ed. John Harris. London: Browne, etc., 1725. Web.

Meli, Domenico Bertoloni. Thinking with Objects. The Transformation of Mechanics in the Seventeenth Century. Baltimore: JHU Press, 2006. Print.

Novalis. Novalis Schriften: Die Werke Friedrich von Hardenbergs. Eds. Paul Kluckhohn and Richard Samuel. 6 vols. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1960. Print.

Schelling, Friedrich. Erster Entwurf eines Systems der Naturphilosophie. Eds. Wilhelm G. Jacobs and Paul Ziche. Stuttgart: Frommann-Holzboog, 2001. Historisch-Kritische Ausgabe 7. Print.

---. Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur. Eds. Manfred Durner and Walter Schieche. Stuttgart: Frommann-Holzboog, 2001. Historisch-Kritische Ausgabe 7. Print.

---. Von der Weltseele. Eds. Jörg Jantzen and Thomas Kisser. Stuttgart: Frommann-Holzboog, 2000. Historisch-Kritische Ausgabe 6. Print.

Schlegel, Friedrich. Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe. Ed. Ernst Behler. Vol. 2. Munich: Schöningh, 1979. Print.

---. Philosophische Vorlesungen aus den Jahren 1804 bis 1806. Vol. 3. Ed. Karl Josef Hieronymus Windischmann. Bonn: Eduard Weber, 1846. Web.

“System.” Grammatisch-kritisches Wörterbuch der hochdeutschen Mundart. Vol. 2. Johann Christoph Adelung. Wien: Bauer, 1811. Web.

Notes

[1] I would like to thank Edgar Landgraf for his comments on this paper, particularly regarding Luhmann’s systems theory. BACK

[2] Translations from the German are mine throughout. Unless otherwise specified, all quotes from Novalis are from the Schriften, and all quotes from Schlegel are from the Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe. BACK

[3] As a starting point, one could refer to Helmut Müller-Sievers’ Self-Generation: Biology, Philosophy and Literature around 1800 (Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 1997), Michel Chaouli’s The Laboratory of Poetry: Chemistry and Poetics in the Work of Friedrich Schlegel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), my German Romanticism and Science: Poetic Procreation in Goethe, Novalis, and Ritter (Routledge, 2010), as well as a review essay that surveys several books in the field, "Natural Science and the Romanticisms" by Jennifer J. Baker, ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 53.2 (2007), 387-412. BACK

[4] Garber’s essay in the Cambridge History of Science devoted to Early Modern science emphasizes the importance of the Cartesian idea, as expressed in the Principia philosophiae, that such an understanding of the machine-like functioning of the universe allows the understanding of one part to be extrapolated to the whole: “In this way, the image of the macrocosm and the microcosm, central to chymical philosophies and Renaissance naturalism, found its way into mechanism after a fashion. For the mechanical philosopher, as for the chymist and the Renaissance naturalist, what happens at one level reflects and is reflected by what happens at every other level” (Garber 44), a perspective which also plays a role in the Romantic appropriation of the lever. BACK

[5] I am paraphrasing an idea voiced by Immanuel Kant in his 1763 essay, “Versuch den Begriff der negativen Größen in die Weltweisheit einzuführen,” where he writes, with reference to the lever’s law of equilibrium, that it is a concept one can extend “weit über die Grenzen der materialen Welt” (55). BACK

[6] For a more general discussion of Romantic tools and technology, see my "The Poet as Artisan: Novalis’ Werkzeug and the Making of Romanticism" MLN 121.3 (April 2006), 617-630 and "From Romantic Tools to Technics: Heideggerian Questions in Novalis’ Anthropology" Configurations 18.3 (2010), 291-307. BACK

[7] Abraham Gotthelf Kästner, Anfangsgründe der angewandten Mathematik Göttingen: Verlag der Wittwe Vandenhoek, 1780 and Johann Christian Polycarp Erxleben, Anfangsgründe der Naturlehre Göttingen: Johann Christian Dieterich, 1787. BACK

[8] Around 1800, the concept of “indifference” took root in the sciences. It is commonly associated with Schelling’s discussion of magnetism in his nature-philosophy, having based his understanding of the term in part on the work of Dutch scientist Anton Brugmans, who describes a plane of indifference between the two poles of the magnet. In his Erster Entwurf eines Systems der Naturphilosophie (1799), Schelling describes a state of indifference as one where natural phenomena exist with the forces acting upon them in balance, which can be considered as an analogous phenomenon to a lever in a state of equilibrium. See esp. Bernhard Rang, Identität und Indifferenz. Eine Untersuchung zu Schellings Identitätsphilosophie Frankfurt: Klostermann, 2000, for a more detailed discussion of Schelling’s use of indifference. This antiquated concept of the magnet was replaced by magnetic fields after Ritter’s death (and later by quantum theory). BACK

[9] One can contrast this point of view with the Hippocratic tradition that associates disease and disequilibrium. BACK

[10] This is also referred to in the Luhmann essay as a situation when the “output of a system is immediately reintroduced into the system” (509). BACK

[11] In The Mechanical Technology of Greek and Roman Antiquity, A. G. Drachmann quotes the explanation provided in Pappus on the etymology of the hypomochlion:

when people wanted to move a very heavy body, since the first thing they needed in moving it was to lift it from the ground, and there was no handle by which to handle it, because all parts of its bottom were on the ground, they had to find some way for this, and so they dug a small hole in the ground under the heavy body and took a long pole and put its end into the hole and pressed down the other end, and the burden came up (or ‘became small’). Then they placed under this pole a stone which is called ibumahliun [hypomochlion] and that means that which is placed under the lever, and they pressed down again and the burden became much lighter (or ‘was lifted higher up’). And as the power became known, it was understood that it was possible to move in this way great burdens. (52)
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[12] It is interesting, if one refers back to Hegel’s introduction of this term in Science of Logic and the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, to observe the way in which Hegel integrates the mechanical law of the lever into his discussion of Aufhebung. BACK

Published @ RC

March 2016