Matter, Life and Signification

Daniel Whistler (Royal Holloway University)

Concepts of the symbol in romanticism and idealism were often developed out of nature-philosophical concerns; indeed, many of the Jena Romantics and those on the fringes of the movement (from Novalis and A.W. Schlegel to Schelling and Jean Paul) can be considered aesthetic naturalists, i.e. they attempted to understand artistic products naturephilosophically. In this paper, I want to focus on the complementary attempt to make sense of the text and of the linguistic sign in terms of a vital materialism in both German romanticism and beyond. I survey several ‘scenes’ in which this materialist conception of signification is thematised: Malabou’s reading of Kant’s third Critique, Novalis’ “Monologue”, Goethean morphology, Schelling’s and Coleridge’s concept of tautegory and later Lebensphilologie. My aim is to build up a cumulative case for the importance of a nineteenth-century tradition that understood linguistic signs as chunks of nature. I will further suggest, in particular, that this tradition became interested in those ‘crisis’ moments in a naturalist linguistics where the natural object fails to signify and nature appears as uninterpretable, resistant to all hermeneutic understandings.

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