Jacob Burckhardt- Transcending History

  • Published on

  • View

  • Download

Embed Size (px)


<ul><li><p>International Phenomenological Society</p><p>Jacob Burckhardt: Transcending HistoryAuthor(s): Albert SalomonReviewed work(s):Source: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Dec., 1945), pp. 225-269Published by: International Phenomenological SocietyStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2102884 .Accessed: 08/01/2012 07:59</p><p>Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms &amp; Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p><p>JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.</p><p>International Phenomenological Society is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access toPhilosophy and Phenomenological Research.</p><p>http://www.jstor.org</p></li><li><p>JACOB BURCKHARDT: TRANSCENDING HISTORY' </p><p>Das schbnste Glilck des denkenden Menschen ist das Erforschliche erforscht zu haben unrd das Unerforschliche ruhig zu verehren. [Goethe] </p><p>I. THE TYRANNY OF HISTORY </p><p>It is almost an axiom in sociology that radical trends in human thought tend to provoke equally radical opposite attitudes. A most striking example is presented by the development of psychology. The radical insistence on a mechanistic and deterministic psychology brought forth the violent reaction of William James and Henri Bergson, who sought to vindicate the image of the spontaneous human personality. In sociology, we have witnessed time and again the renascence of voluntaristic theories in reaction to naturalistic and absolutely deterministic systems. Even more illuminating is the case of historiography. For centuries the uni- versities and the academies have been engaged in the study and interpreta- tion of history, accumulating vast funds of data, a veritable encyclopedia of the past, valuable in many respects. However, very early in history, rulers and ruled began to use or rather abuse these recollections of the past as a means of justifying their own claims for the future. For centuries individuals and groups had referred their needs and hopes to the perennial law of nature which is supposed to reflect the divine order in the world of man. The revolutionary peasants of the sixteenth century, the revolting feudal lords of the French Fronde, the armored revolutionists in Cromwell's army, all based their claims on the intelligible and unquestioned verities of a divine and natural law. With the rise of secular societies and the development of independent political institutions these ideas began to lose their old potency, making room for the feeling that the life of reason develops in the process of time and has no perennial being of its own. Since the seventeenth century, scientists and philosophers have been fervently proclaiming that truth is the daughter of time and that the moderns are superior to the ancients because of the tremendous progress of -the experi- mental sciences. The idea of progress became the substitute for the tradi- tion of the law of nature. It was first hailed by the scientists and humanists as the characteristic challenge of the intellectual to the pre-scientific obscurantism of the "dark ages." These intellectuals were the first to assume that the material content of historical time was the steady progress </p><p>1 The author wishes to acknowledge his indebtedness to Dr. Leo Strauss for some illuminating conversations related to the topic of this essay and his gratitude to Dr. W. Gurian, editor of the Review of Politics, for his gracious permission to quote some paragraphs from the author's article: "Crisis, History, and the Image of Man" (Review of Politics, October, 1940). </p><p>225 </p></li><li><p>226 PHILOSOPHY AND PHENOMENOLOGICAL RESEARCH </p><p>of knowledge and civilization. They praised the process of history as the most effective element in the growth of intellectual and moral en- lightenment and regarded their own efforts as decisive contributions towards the progress of "Reason." These ideas were eagerly grasped by the political and liberal intellectuals, particularly the American and the French, who applied them to the pressing social problems of their time. They postulated that progress of reason is the true content of the process of time that we call history. They insisted that only when we shall have applied the yardsticks of "reason" to all social problems and institutions shall we succeed in establishing the rule of happiness on earth. History ceased to mean the totality of the past, its deeds and achievements; its sphere was restricted to the development of pragmatic and scientific reason and to their realization within social and political institutions. History had become the knowledge of those trends which prepare situ- ations favorable to the aims of revolutionary groups in modern soci- eties. This new philosophy of history is the articulate expression of the secular and progressive societies of the modern world, a substitute for those past philosophies in which the human world was a part of the meaningful and intelligible whole of the universe. </p><p>History as the philosophy of progress is an expression of the existential attitude of the rising liberal, progressive, and socialist movements of the nineteenth century. Whatever may be the shades of difference between Turgot-Condorcet's rationalistic eschatology, Hegel's dialectical agnosticism, Marx's dialectical economism, Comte's positivism and Spencer's evolutionism-they all have four features in common. First, all these systems assume to know the rational meaning of history. Second, they all are positive about the direction and the end toward which history is moving; they are sure that meaning and social action coincide in the immanence of the social process. Third, they all follow the same pro- cedure-they isolate particular tendencies within the universal whole which serve them as the foundation upon which to construct the unity of their historical system. They attain order and unity by referring human action and thought to an abstract principle which lends history the char- acter of a purposeful and moving spectacle. Philosophies and religions, states and mores, economic systems and moral systems appear as mani- festations of the same principle in the various stages of history. They all seem to emanate from the universal principle; history thus becomes a sort of philosophical totalitarianism which forces all the actions and thoughts of man into a predestined pattern. Finally, all these systems agree on the merely instrumental role of the individual in this process of history. They all postulate this anonymous and blind destiny; it does not matter much whether they call it absolute mind, forces of pro- duction, or spirit of positivism. In all these systems man is an instrument </p></li><li><p>JACOB BURCKHARDT: TRANSCENDING HISTORY 227 </p><p>and a blind tool of those enigmatic meanings that rule the historical process. Man exists only in his functional relationship to those abstract principles. He remains the puppet in a show the director of which is unknown; we know only the title of the play. These systems testify to the rise of new societies and of new types of behavior in the mobile world of technical efficiency. Some of those thinkers who were witnesses of the emergence of this new world were aware of its implications. Reflecting on the modernity of Beethoven's "overcrowded" music, Goethe regards it as a characteristic manifestation of the "new century." </p><p>Today everything is "ultra." Everything is radical in thought and action. Nobody knows himself any more, nobody cares for the elements that constitute his sphere of life, nobody thinks of the materials of his work. We have lost the spontaneity of our way of life; irrational ways of conduct are abundant. Young men are stirred much too early in life and are then carried away by the maelstrom of the times. The world admires wealth and mobility. People are eager to compete for these goals. The different civili- zations strain to surpass each other in the building of railroads, docks, and other facilities of communication. This must eventually lead to a state of universal mediocrity. Indeed, this is the century of the quick mind, of the alert, smart and practical man. These men are equipped with a certain cleverness and deem themselves superior to the crowd though they them- selves are incapable of the highest and most sublime achievements. Let us persevere as much as possible in the spirit in which we have been brought up. We and a few others shall be the last of a period that will not return very soon.2 </p><p>A. De Tocqueville describes his times in almost the same terms. "We belong to a moral and intellectual family that is disappearing."3 </p><p>However, not all contemporaries of the "new times" accepted it in the spirit of elegiac resignation. Kierkegaard4 was the first to open the attack on the systems of Hegel and Marx. To him these pseudo-theologies were death traps threatening the very existence of the spontaneous human being. Socrates and Christ are the true images of the real and complete person as against the outward man whose existence assumes meaning only in terms of his institutions, churches, states, and societies. Kierkegaard raised his voice to protest against the degradation and dehumanization of man to which these modern philosophies of blind and arbitrary fatalism had subjected him. He ardently desired to save and restore the spiritual </p><p>2 Goethe to Zelter: June 7, 1835. Correspondence with Zelter, et. Hecker, Leipzig, 1915, Vol. II, p. 339. </p><p>3To A. M. Lanjuinais, March 10, 1859. Oeuvres and Correspondence, inedites d'Alexis de Tocqueville par G. de Baurmont, Paris, 1861, Vol. II, p. 484. </p><p>4Karl L6with: "On the Historical Understanding of Kierkegaard, The Review of Religion, March, 1943, pp. 227-241. </p><p>D. F. Swenson: Something about Kierkegaard, Minneapolis, 1941. Jean Wahl: Etudes Kierkegaardiennes, Paris. </p></li><li><p>228 PHILOSOPHY AND PHENOMENOLOGICAL RESEARCH </p><p>person, the human being that comes into its own as living in the actual Christ, not the Christ of the churches. Nietzsche had taken up this attack on historicism. He was not concerned with the defence of the Christian person; he fought for the survival of the independent and creative personality. He hated the adoration of progress and viewed with disgust the optimism of a mechanistic and rationalistic philosophy that left no place for the powerful and self-responsible individual. He stormed the fortresses of history in order to liberate man from the paralyzing influence of historical complacency and fatalism. </p><p>This situation brought into existence what may be called the specific German contribution to sociology-the interpretative sociology of Max Weber, Simmel, and Troeltsch. These efforts, different in scope and power, have one common purpose. They refute the absolute determinism and the abstract necessity of Marx's dialectical philosophy of history. Working as empirical scientists, these men investigated a variety of historical situations and made it evident that human actions and decisions cannot be imputed to the workings of an anonymous historical law. On the contrary, human choices and final decisions in social action can only be understood as expressing fundamental needs of the human constitution. These sociologists strive to replace the systems of historical dogmatism by a theory of social conduct and social action which unites psychological and sociological elements in order to come as near as possible to a science of the human constitution in the concrete world of history. </p><p>However, all these men failed to conquer the spirit of historicism. The case of the sociologists is most illuminating. They attacked most violently one system, but they took for granted the hypothesis on which all these systems are built. They accepted the positivistic version of the immanent necessity of history, namely, the absolute relativity of all ideas and con- ceptions to their historical situations. These scholars did much to dis- credit the position of Marx but they did not destroy it. They refined and made more relative the absolute historicism of the past. They questioned the modern eschatological visions of the end of history and substituted for it the endless relativity of each situation. Against the optimism and fatalism of the time they summoned their enlightened contemporaries to a sober pessimism. But they did not break the chains of historical im- manentism and fatalism. </p><p>Kierkegaard and Nietzsche succeeded where the sociologists failed. They has broken the chains of modern historicism. However, this positive statement must be qualified. If one may speak of their emancipation it must be added that it was a merely personal freedom. They were undoubt- edly the bitterest critics of their times. This opposition, or rather enmity, is a constitutive and relevant element of their vision. But it was a vision </p></li><li><p>JACOB BURCKHARDT: TRANSCENDING HISTORY 229 </p><p>of despair. They could formulate their positive ends only in the negative terms of revolt and despair. There remained the unresolved tension within the mind which is free only to reflect on a historical situation which is unchangeable and inescapable so that the terms and concepts in which these new ideas were expressed still bear the stigma of the "illness of the times." </p><p>There was one man who succeeded more than all the others in the battle against the tyranny of history. He transcended historicism because he was never in revolt or despair. This man was Jacob Burckhardt. A pro- fessor of history and art in his native Basel."5 He was proud to be a citizen of one of the last poleis in the world, although this pride was somewhat tinged with irony-for it was obvious that new social strata were gradually wresting control from the hands of the patrician 6lite to which the Burck- hardts, ministers, and professors, had belonged for almost two hundred years. Except for a short interruption at the School of Engineering in Zurich, Jacob Burckhardt spent all his professional life as a teacher in his native university and in the adult education courses in that city. He had made up his mind that his native city was the only spot in the world where he could think and teach whatever he liked without being obliged to comply with the political whims of governments or public opinion. He refused all calls to German chairs, including one to Berlin as successor to Ranke. He was free of academic vanities and ambitions and desired no more than to be an independent thinker and a good teacher. He abstained from all political activity, not because he lived in an ivory tower, but because he felt that one had to made a choice between politics and scholarship. He had started as a liberal journalist who believed that the hope of a free society could be realiz...</p></li></ul>