If you think about the Universe as a vast unknown then you can think about human knowledge and understanding about the universe as the “human intersection with the universe.” Our knowledge about, and understanding of, the universe is exactly where we as conscious beings intersect with the universe. Many of the fundamental polarities that have confounded humanity for all time revolve directly around how we perceive this human intersection. On the one hand you could see human knowledge about the universe as a tiny intersection, a tiny speck of known in a vast perhaps infinite sea of unknown. On the other hand you might imagine that human knowledge was almost at the point of fully encompassing reality. In this case you would sense that human understanding was perched on the precipice, right on the brink, of understanding everything.
Romantic thinkers (like myself) tend towards the former while more empirical thinkers generally tend, perhaps ever so slightly, in the other direction. Scientists can be either Romantic or Empirical. Catherine, our commentor who is also a respected physicist in France, will tell you that European scientists tend to be of the more Romantic variety, pursuing knowledge for its own sake, while American scientist tend to be driven more by utility and direct application. I suppose this can be argued, but there is probably some truth in the generalization.
If we imagine back to a time before the human capacity for reason was very developed there would have been no way to imagine that there might be more to reality than what you could see, hear and touch. And there would be so many things that you could not understand. If lightening struck the ground next to you, you might assume that someone must have thrown it at you from the clouds. And that someone must be much more powerful than you and so it must have been a god.
With The Enlightenment human reason began to find new ways to understand the workings of the universe. Imagine the shift that must have occurred in human consciousness with the advent of the first scientific instruments that allowed us to perceive more of the universe than ever before. The telescope showed us a universe much vaster than we had ever realized and the microscope introduced new universes of the very tiny, and sailing ships took us to a “new world” that existed right here on this world. The sense of wonder and awe must have been overwhelming. Suddenly it was clear that there was much more to the universe than we had ever been able to imagine. At the same time there was also an awe emerging from the fact that at precisely the moment when humanity was begining to see that there was a great deal more to the universe than it had imagined, it also saw that the universe appeared to be running according to universal laws. There was unity in the universe. There weren’t gods in clouds throwing things down on us. There was electricity that we could observe as the static electricity that pops when we touch metal after scrapping our shoes on a carpet, or as the lightening that falls from the sky. In both cases the laws that govern its activity were the same. In short, the universe might be bigger than we could ever image, but we could, given enough time, figure it all out.
And so human understanding has progressed and I propose that one of the fundamental polarities in the way different people see the world lies in whether their leaning is toward the awe that comes from how huge and unknown the universe is on one hand, or the possibility of understanding all of it on the other.
Romantic thinkers tend to be obsessed with the unknown. Imagine arriving on a completely alien planet and being sent out to explore the area around your spaceship. The twist is that you are wearing blindfolds that only allow you to see through drinking straw, you have cotton stuffed in your ears and you are wearing boxing gloves. You walk around for hours examining the world with your impaired senses and come back to make a full report. How closely would your report reflect the reality that you would perceive if you were to remove the blindfolds, the cotton and the gloves, and then repeat the exploration? We know that our eyes only see a tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum. What if our total ability to perceive was ten times more impaired than the spaceman wearing boxing gloves? 100 times? 1000 times? etc.
Because they are so enamored by the vastness of the unknown, Romantics are less interested in knowing more about what they can already perceive and more interested in expanding the doors of perception further. They don’t experiment on the world; they experiment on themselves – sometimes living dangerously close to the brink of self destruction. They use emotion, intuition, art and altered states of consciousness to take themselves beyond the barrier of the known into the uncharted territories afforded by new perceptions. They gave us the image of the lone scientist sleeplessly pursuing a new discovery and the tortured artist on the unending quest for novelty. They were creative souls extraordinaire.
I would disagree that Romanticism represents some earlier stage of development that we have gone beyond. I think that Romanticism is one end of the polarity between the known and the unknown. That polarity creates a tension that drives human creativity through all stages of development as we explore the universal crossroads of the human intersection.