Dates: 1759-1805

Nationality: German

Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller was a German poet, playwright and philosopher. He originally studied for a medical career but abandoned it after the striking success of his first play, Die Räuber (1781). Although his fame as an author chiefly rests upon his contributions to poetry and drama, there was an important interlude (1789–95) during which he was drawn instead towards discussing philosophical issues that concerned the nature and significance of art. During this period, which coincided with his appointment to an academic post at the university in Jena, he developed a growing friendship with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose very different temperament and aptitudes stimulated Schiller to reappraise his own vocation as a creative artist. Essays Schiller produced in consequence—notably Über Anmut und Würde (1793) and Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung (1795–6)—reflect his changing attitudes to his complex relationship with the older writer.

Another formative influence at this time was the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Two themes arising from Kant’s philosophy—one connected with his approach to morality and the other with his aesthetic theory—played a prominent role in Schiller’s most widely acclaimed critical work, the Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen—in einer Reihe von Briefen (1795). However, he was not disposed to regard Kant’s treatment of either of these themes as being finally satisfactory, the distinctive account Schiller offered of the place of art in human life taking shape partly in the light of the reservations he expressed. At the ethical level Kant had advanced a basically dualistic theory of choice and action, moral worth being exhibited in an agent’s capacity to overcome the sensuous components of his nature under the direction of principles dictated by his rational will. Schiller was impressed by the conception of freedom implicit in Kant’s doctrine, and in his writings on drama he underlined its importance for the understanding of tragedy. Nevertheless, he denied that the suppression of the sensuous by the rational self represented an acceptable human ideal, drawing attention to the psychological distortions it inevitably entailed and opposing the Kantian picture in favour of one that emphasized harmony, not division, within the personality. Thus he began by identifying two original mental impulses or drives—the first sensory and receptive, the second rational and legislative—in a fashion that broadly corresponded to the Kantian dichotomy. In his view, however, it was essential that these should be preserved in a state of equilibrium rather than of mutual antagonism, and to that end he invoked the notion of a third impulse whose function was to mediate between the other two, thereby reconciling the ‘interests of the senses’ with the ‘ideas of reason’. This was the ‘play-drive’ (Spieltrieb), and Schiller connected it specifically with artistic creativity and aesthetic appreciation.

Schiller’s association of art and play was clearly reminiscent of another strand in Kant’s philosophy, this time deriving from the analysis of the aesthetic consciousness Kant provided in the Kritik der Urteilskraft. In aesthetic experience, Kant claimed, we are aware of a unique pleasure that originates in an unconstrained accord between our faculties of thought and imagination; moreover, the satisfaction in question is wholly disinterested and independent of all practical or utilitarian concerns. These features were echoed in Schiller’s account, where beauty was referred to as the true ‘object of the play-drive’, and where the liberation it afforded from everyday preoccupations permitted our various mental powers to unfold in a harmonious manner, free from ‘the fetters of ends and purposes’. But here again there were signal differences in the conclusions Schiller drew. Whereas Kant distinguished sharply between the respective domains of moral and aesthetic judgment, for Schiller the capacity for aesthetic play was central to the notion of a fully realized humanity, overcoming conflicts within the spheres of personal life and social existence alike. And so far as art itself was concerned, he took exception to the excessively formalistic strain that he detected in parts of Kant’s writing on the subject. The artist certainly resisted routine responses to his subject-matter, asserting his ‘own kind of dominion over it’ and absorbing it within forms of order that exercised the perceptual and imaginative capacities of the beholder in revealing ways; in this sense he could be said to re-create the world of experience according to laws of his own making, thereby transmuting its objective content. It did not follow, however, that the aesthetic value of a work of art was confined to its formal properties alone; to transmute was not to disregard or eliminate. Such a conception of art as achieving an expressive ‘union and equilibrium of reality and form’ was integral to Schiller’s overall account of the aesthetic consciousness and its crucial role in human development.

Gardiner, Patrick. “Schiller, Friedrich.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 12 Mar. 2010 <;

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