Kleist and Hoffmann in Dialogue with Enlightenment

  • William Hall

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis considers how Kleist and Hoffmann’s fiction might be considered as responding to the perceived shortcomings of enlightenment. The two writers, despite the barriers of literary categorisations, have a striking affinity in their sense that notions of truth and knowledge are intertwined with social and political agendas, rather than forming part of some natural teleology. The thesis breaks new ground in viewing the texts within a more expansive discourse context as literary interventions within a broad, cross-society engagement with enlightenment, in its various streams and factions. The texts studied, I argue, represent thought experiments, not merely reflecting and re-articulating the influences of literary peers and historically significant events, but instead testing the real-world application of key enlightenment ideas. The driving force for this thesis is the need to locate their work more rigorously in relation to enlightenment thought of their time than has previously been attempted. This is not so much a question of retrieving past influences, as one of viewing their work as being in dialogue with contemporary thought. Moving away from attempts using Kleist’s letters to theorise the relation between Kleist and Kant, this investigation instead turns to aspects of Kant’s philosophy to illuminate the texts. Hoffmann’s relationship to enlightenment, too, is explored beyond the prism of Romanticism. Taking a more comparative approach than previous work on the two writers, I identify not only thematic commonalities, but also a parallel aesthetic, in which multiple narratives coexist and where ‘truth’ is manufactured by the dominance of one particular narrative. The notion of 'Mündigkeit', central to Kant’s famous definition of 'Aufklärung' offers a useful guiding concept for the investigation and captures the emancipatory promise of self-realisation and the positive trajectory of human progress at the heart of the miscellany of moral and political theories and philosophies collectively known as ‘enlightenment’. The latter refers not to the historical period, but rather to a process of intellectual emancipation and an assemblage of ideals and values. As an intellectual movement, enlightenment was not, as is often assumed, monolithic, but encompasses conflicting notions of reason, freedom, and how its goals were to be achieved. Not only are the certainty and consequences of this intellectual emancipation evaluated in the texts, but I have also identified a radical questioning of the paradigms of thought which condition our understanding of narratives. Both Kleist and Hoffmann’s texts are narratively complex, often with shifts in focalisation, jumps in time, occasionally, figures whose identity changes leave the reader uncertain whether they are dealing with more than one character, and depictions of events which resist clarification through conventional understandings of time, space and causality. This project seeks to reconcile these ‘blind spots’ with a broader critique of enlightenment, in which absolute knowledge is shown to be illusory and truth simply reflective of constellations of power. The spatiotemporal and causal frameworks foundational to rational understanding and used to make sense of the world are revealed to be inadequate.
Date of Award1 Aug 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorStephen Parker (Supervisor) & Christina Littler (Supervisor)


  • Philosophy
  • Ontology
  • Epistemology
  • Thought experiment
  • Literature
  • Enlightenment
  • Kleist
  • Kant
  • Hoffmann
  • E.T.A. Hoffmann
  • Heinrich von Kleist
  • Mündigkeit
  • Aufklärung

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