Surrealism and Philosophy

With the Tate Galleries showcasing a pair of exhibitions dedicated to two of its most cherished exponents this summer, Surrealism is back. The truth is, it never went anywhere. Ever since it was unleashed by the influential French poet Guillaume Apollinaire – perhaps from somewhere deep in our collective unconscious – the term Surreal has paradoxically become a common part of our everyday language.

The wild geometries and rural Catalonian landscapes of the painter Joan Miró hang currently on the walls at the Tate Modern in London, and Tate Liverpool are expecting an abundance of bowler hats, blue skies and pipes imminently for their René Magritte exhibition in June. Ahead of these events, however, one blogger reminds us that far from originating with figures like Miró and Magritte, or even André Breton, author of the Surrealist Manifesto and self-styled leader of the Surrealist group, the ethos of the surreal had been in the air of the art world from as early as 1860. The French Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau is highlighted as a particularly strong precursory example. (In fact, something of the surreal aesthetic occurs as far back as the mid-1500s, in the unique work of the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo). It is true that, like any art movement, Surrealism was forged in the fires of those that preceded it, like Moreau’s Symbolism among others, but especially its immediate ancestor Dadaism. But some of the central ideas that were poured into all of these movements originate in a lineage of German thought, which after ticking away quietly behind the scenes eventually culminated in the theories of the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, beloved by the Surrealists to whom he was an endless source of inspiration.

The story begins with Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the philosopher credited with having the final say on the Enlightenment. What the Enlightenment signified for many, with its strong commitment to scientific inquiry, was a turn away from the sensuous beauty of nature in favour of quantitative investigation and reduction to mere mechanistic laws and principles. In the arts this antipathy became manifest as Romanticism, which valued the subjective, emotional, and sensual side of human experience. Rivaled only perhaps by Britain, Germany produced much of the influential Romantic literature of the time, from writers such as Goethe, Novalis, Hölderlin and the Schlegel brothers. Simultaneously, the post-Kantian philosophers Fichte, Hegel and Schelling began to emphasise dynamic historical progressions driven by developments of the human spirit.

The next significant philosopher in the story is Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), a personal acquaintance to some of the Romantic writers, particularly Goethe, and a life-long antagonist to the other post-Kantian philosophers. One of the criticisms Schopenhauer had of Kant’s philosophy, which in many other respects he deeply admired, was how the two sides of the Kantian distinction between things-as-they-appear, or ‘phenomena’, and the things-as-they-are-in-themselves, or ‘noumena’, interacted. The former was dependent on the latter, but this could not be a causal dependence because Kant had specified causality as a concept applicable only to phenomena, as a category of human cognition and not relevant to the the unknowable thing-in-itself. Schopenhauer’s emendation to the Kantian philosophy was to characterise phenomena and the thing-in-itself not as two separate spheres of reality, but two aspects of the same reality, like the two sides of a coin. One side is that of perception and representation. The other is more mysterious, being by definition beyond perception. Schopenhauer’s great insight, clearly influenced by the Romantic trend, was to point to human inner experience, the  awareness of our will, desires, wishes, pains and emotions, as the key indicator to understanding the inner nature of reality beyond sensory perception as mediated by representation. The whole of reality is, at bottom, Schopenhauer claimed, an arational and appetitive force of will, much as the Dharmic religions of the Classical East had taught for millennia.

What Schopenhauer had finally delivered, after a long period of gestation in German thought, was the concept of the unconscious: a drive below the level of the conscious mind that is fundamental to human nature in thought and action, in opposition to the Enlightenment platitude that human nature was in essence rational and consciously self-aware. The next great figure in German philosophy, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), inherited these ideas from Schopenhauer and, between the two of them, from this tumultuous picture some of the key ideas that would become familiar to the wider world through the psychodynamics of Sigmund Freud (1856-1989) were derived. Schopenhauer’s work gave an early expression to the now well-known concept of repression, saying of the victims of madness that ‘[t]he mind, tormented so greatly, destroys, as it were, the thread of memory, fills up the gaps with fictions, and thus seeks refuge in madness from the mental suffering that exceeds its strength’. Similarly to Freud, Schopenhauer stressed the close proximity of the genius to the madman. (It is has also been documented that Schopenhauer was a significant influence on the Symbolists who the above-mentioned art blogger pinpoints as the most immediately obvious precursor to Surrealism). Freud denied all direct influence of Schopenhauer, claiming to have been guided to Schopenhauer’s work by his fellow psychoanalyst Otto Rank only after he had already laid down the fundaments of his own theory. Nietzsche, on the other hand, was avowedly an inspiration to Freud. He reportedly said of Nietzsche that ‘[he] had more penetrating knowledge of himself than any man who ever lived or was likely to live’. Nietzsche, like Schopenhauer before him, anticipated many of Freud’s central concepts, perhaps most significantly that of sublimation, according to which deep desires which cannot be countenanced by the proud but conceited conscious mind are redirected and manifested in more appropriate and acceptable activities.

Finally we reach the end, where Surrealism begins. Freud’s ideas, particularly the mysterious and engaging concept of the unconscious, were welcomed eagerly into the world of the Surrealists. In their only face to face encounter, in London 1938, Salvador Dalí, undoubtedly the most widely known of the Surrealists, presented personally to Freud his work the Metamorphosis of Narcissus with the intention of demonstrating his loyalty to Freud’s ideas, and to nominate himself as their rightful heir.

Related Articles:

After Freud: Phantasy and Imagination in the Philosophy of Religion


Volume 3, Issue 1, January 2008, Pages: 203–221, Beverley Clack

Who’s Who from Kant to Hegel I: In the Kantian Wake


Volume 5, Issue 5, May 2010, Pages: 385–397, Peter Graham Thielke

Who’s Who from Kant to Hegel II: Art and the Absolute


Volume 5, Issue 5, May 2010, Pages: 398–411, Peter Graham Thielke


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