Göttingen Early Historicism

In his The German Historicist Tradition (2011), Frederick C. Beiser specifically references a cluster of ‘great Göttingen historians’ as examples of ‘those eighteenth- and nineteenth-century figures whose works were fundamental in making history a science’. But Johann Christian Gatterer (1727-99), Johann Stephan Pütter (1725-1807) and August Ludwig Schlözer (1735-1809) were also ‘historians who were not philosophers’, and for Beiser historicism is ‘an essentially philosophical tradition’: ‘the historicist programme is, by its very nature, more philosophical than historical’. Whilst the techniques of the Göttingen historians were ‘fundamental in making history a science’, as genealogist of historicism Beiser is concerned ‘not to trace the rise in the scientific status of history but only to reconstruct the attempts to justify that status’. Because Beiser defines a historicist as ‘anyone who contributed substantially to the programme of justifying the scientific status of history’, the (in his view) insufficiently philosophical – i.e. insufficiently preoccupied with epistemology – Schlözer, Gatterer et al. cannot be treated at length in The German Historicist Tradition.[i]

This exclusion of the Göttingen historians from historicism seems to me to be unfortunate. The detailed account of their work in Peter Hanns Reill’s The German Enlightenment and the Rise of Historicism (1975) – a study mentioned by Beiser – indisputably shows how these historians pioneered the historicist agenda of legitimating history as a science, evincing a characteristically historicist concern with the methods and standards of writing history, with the nature of historical knowledge, which could perhaps even bring one to wish to question Beiser’s assertion that it was only ‘in the late eighteenth century when historians began to reflect philosophically’.[ii] Reill’s book, after all, attempts ‘to survey the broad landscape of eighteenth-century German intellectual history from the perspective of its developing historical consciousness’. As he notes, in the course of the eighteenth-century ‘the Enlightenment had moved away from the shelter of normative thought’, and ‘staked its faith’ on ‘the philosophical spirit’ rather than ‘ultimate principles’. This meant that ‘it became increasingly clear to the Aufklärers that each science – be it history, philology, or aesthetics – required its own logic to take cognizance of the point of view from which the science approached its object’: Aufklärer perspectivalism itself required the science of history to be intrinsically logical or philosophical. Reill makes it clear that though he treats ‘Aufklärung and Aufklärer as English words’, de-italicizing them, he uses them to refer to ‘the German phase of the Enlightenment’ – a later phase than the Franco-British (‘western’) phase. ‘The most important single centre of the Aufklärung was the newly founded University of Göttingen.’[iii]

In actuality, The German Historicist Tradition is an account modelled on Friedrich Meinecke’s Entstehung des Historismus (1936), and follows what could ‘be regarded even as the central thesis of’ Meinecke’s narrative, that ‘historicism has its roots in the historiography of the Enlightenment’. Beiser recognizes that ‘historicism was indebted to the Enlightenment’.[iv] But it is Reill’s book which foregrounds the nature of the Enlightenment’s ‘historical consciousness’ and ‘the role the Enlightenment played in the formation of the modern paradigm of historical understanding’. Reill emphasizes that ‘the Aufklärers’ were ‘concerned in fathering what is usually referred to as historicism’, as well as – as we have already seen – the philosophical essence of the Aufklärers’ work as pioneers of historicism. ‘They were concerned with asserting the possibility of and with establishing the methods for a new approach to historical understanding [emph. mine].’[v]

In the light of Reill’s work, Beiser’s presentation of the Aufklärer position regarding natural law is rather confusing. Beiser outlines what he calls ‘the Enlightenment’s attempt to provide rational or universal principles of morality, politics and religion’ as an instance of ‘the perennial search in Western philosophy to find transcendent justifications for social, political and moral values’. Natural law is just one secular hangover of such transcendent justification, still present in the era of the Enlightenment. ‘Although the Enlightenment removed the religious trappings of such a transcendent sanction, it continued to seek it in more worldly terms, whether that was natural law, the social contract, a universal human reason, or a constant human nature.’ But it was the rôle of the emerging historicism precisely to undermine transcendent justifications of our beliefs and practices: ‘historicism questioned their validity’, Beiser writes. When Beiser explicitly includes the Aufklärer amongst the other Enlightenment thinkers, arguing that ‘all the thinkers of the Enlightenment – the French philosophes, the German Aufklärer or the English free-thinkers – wanted to find some eternal and universal Archimedean standpoint by which they could judge all specific societies, states and cultures’, and then stresses that ‘one of the most profound implications of historicism is that there can be no such standpoint’, he implicitly makes out that the position of the Aufklärer in relation to natural law remained pre- or anti-historicist.[vi]

Reill’s book contests this implication of Beiser’s: though Reill recognizes that the Aufklärer ‘only reluctantly abandoned recourse to the Christian and natural law models’, he shows too how the Aufklärer position became characteristically historicist in its critique of the modern conception of natural law. As Beiser maintains, historicist thinkers have characteristically held ‘that the doctrine of natural law had illegitimately universalized the values of eighteenth-century Europe as if they held for all epochs and cultures’: the historicist believes that to understand its values genuinely, a culture should be read immanently or immersively, ‘to examine how these values have evolved from its history and circumstances’.[vii] For Reill, it was Johann Jacob Schmauß, teacher of history and natural law at both Göttingen and Halle, who argued that in history ‘man can nowhere be found as described by modern natural law’ (Reill). Schmauß was one of those who questioned the application of the mathematical method to natural law, challenging Christian Wolff and Samuel Pufendorf so as to evolve a concept of natural law which was ‘an alternative to the Systemengeist [systematic spirit] of the “new scholasticism”’ (Reill). In relation to Schmauß’s historicism (or proto-historicism: he was at work in the 1730s and 1740s), it is worth emphasizing how ‘the important feature of Schmauß’s theory of natural law for the development of an idea of dynamic change was his belief that man’s nature cannot be defined in any other way than as an energy, a potential for perfection’. In contrast, as Reill explains, both orthodox Christianity and modern natural law supplied the historian with types of universal truth – ‘revelation or coherent truth’, respectively – which ‘both proclaimed a finitely definable idea of human nature’ and which were both ‘in essence opposed to the idea of future qualitative change’.[viii] Historicism’s upholding of the omnipresence of change is underlined by Beiser: if, as he states it, ‘the fundamental principle of historicism is that all human actions and ideas have to be explained historically according to their specific historical causes and context’, then for the historicist ‘nothing has an eternal form, permanent essence or constant identity which transcends historical change’.[ix]

Thus a crucial element of Reill’s presentation of the work of the Aufklärer in developing historicism is his emphasis on the way in which ‘the influence of Leibniz’s general philosophical assumptions induced them to investigate the problem of change in a manner differing from that of the western philosophes [sic]’. Reill writes that whilst the Aufklärer avoided ‘the geometric base of the Leibniz-Wolffian heritage, with its emphasis upon clear and distinct ideas’, they took up instead with ‘the assumption that perfection was not a static quality already present in the nature of things’, but instead ‘seen as a possibility to be achieved by the active power of the spirit’. In keeping with this insight, whereas ‘the sensationalist formulations of western thinkers’ proposed ‘the mind as a passive reflector of sensations and impressions’, the Aufklärer ‘accorded it an inherent creative energy’, and so moved towards what Reill describes as ‘a quasi-idealist conception of historical change’. Similarly, the generation of religious thinkers following on from Johann Lorenz von Mosheim took from his writings an idea of ‘spiritual causation’ which they evolved into ‘a paradigm of historical explanation that could later be applied to secular history’.[x]

You could argue that the Leibnizian conception of spiritual activity was developed into idealist historiography by being melded with a Christian notion of spiritual freedom, which proposed that ‘the spiritual nature that fashions man’s experience in the world cannot be totally explained by the material world in which man subsists’ (Reill). This resulted in an idealist conception of historical freedom, so that ‘Pütter, like his contemporaries, defended the freedom of the spirit over the fatalism of rationalism’. Here ‘he propounded an idea that lay at core of idealist historiography: freedom is a product of the spirit acting in and against history’.[xi]

Yet if it is true that for the Aufklärer gestators of historicist thinking, as Reill puts it, ‘historical change became explicable in terms of the creative spirit acting on and from the existing societal environment’, it is worth emphasizing the ‘and from’ in Reill’s formulation. For the Aufklärer view of historical change was intrinsically conservative, in that it imagined ‘a polity harmoniously combining change and continuity’. Reill also wrote of ‘modern historical thought’ that ‘by emphasizing the tension between change and continuity, it asserts the possibility of change and also recognizes the difficulty of implementing that change’. The historicism being evolved by the Aufklärer reflected a deeply Central European insecurity, being a product of German thinkers who were ‘more pessimistic than some of their French contemporaries’, and ‘continually worried lest they fall back into the abyss of barbarism that was as historically close to them as the Thirty Years War’. Hence they thought of their era’s incipient Enlightenment as ‘a hard-won product, not as an inevitable result of historical development’. Reill stresses that they ‘did not say they were living in an enlightened age, but rather that the dawn of enlightenment was visible; hence their frequent use of the metaphors Morgenröte [dawn] or Morgenstunden [morning hours]’.[xii]

Their view of historical change as a gradual process – ‘progress occurs, but ever so slowly’ (Reill) – relates to these early historicists’ conception of the writing of history itself as what Reill calls ‘a preparatory act to change, one that diagrammed the manner in which social change occurs and the degree to which it is possible’. In fact the very turn to historical methods undertaken by the Aufklärer  was motivated by their interest in the conditions of social change. This interest emerged out of their growing realization that ‘the reality (or spirit) of political life could contradict the form of political organization’. As Reill notes, ‘the training the Aufklärers had received as youths reflected the traditional juridical emphasis upon constitutional form as the key to political analysis.’ This ensured that still in the 1740s and early 1750s, they ‘made the question of constitutional form paramount to the understanding of politics’. Significantly, the view that ‘the form of a government had a tremendous effect in forming a nation’s character’ – as expressed here by the historian Gottfried Achenwall – underwrote a conception of social life as inherently stable. Reill touches on this when he observes that ‘the methods evolved by the theorists of natural law, especially by Pufendorf, added even more weight to the concern with form in sovereignty and the stability of life’; we could also suggest that the influence of Montesquieu’s ascription of ‘a single energizing principle to each major constitutional form’ (Reill), in his The Spirit of the Laws (1748), contributed to an assumption of socio-political stability.[xiii]

But crucially ‘by the end of the 1750s’, as Reill underlines, ‘the question of constitutional form had lost its primary position’, being ‘replaced by a new and critical attitude toward traditional political analysis’. The shift in attitude had involved a developing attention to the historical reality of political life; as Reill puts it, ‘the Aufklärers slowly reached the conclusion that history took precedence over theoretical politics’. They were beginning to need ‘to concentrate upon the specifics of the historical community and to consider the possibilities of development within the context of that community’s character’. Newly aware of the possibility of historical change and its conditioning by cultural particularity, the historicists began to historicize political order and think about the implications of an absence of change. ‘Whereas Pufendorf, for example, had placed his trust in pure forms powerful enough to ensure order, the Aufklärers were concerned about the misuse of power and the stifling effects of a form impervious to the forces of progressive change.’ Thus Schlözer, following his stay in St Petersburg during the period 1761 to 1767, began a ‘lifelong attack on all forms of despotism’.[xiv]    

Reill showed how the emerging historicist response to absolutist political order was grounded in a religious response to ‘the fatalism of rationalism’. This was in keeping with ‘an idea of history that envisioned historical change as the result of a continual interaction between transmitted social values and intellectual forces and a spiritual drive that sought to transform them’. The awareness on the part of the Aufklärer of the ‘contending claims of Pietism and rationalism’ led them to think that, as Reill writes, ‘the moment reason acquires a repressive or tutelary quality – as it must at each stage of its development – spirit conspires to break reason’s hold.’ Thus an ‘ubiquitous religious impulse’ brought these early historicists ‘to question the absolute dictates of autonomous reason’, and reason was identified as itself a necessary autocracy. But if in Pietism ‘grace or spirit dissolved reason’, so too spirit’s destabilizing energy can finally offer no substitute for reason’s autocratic forms: ‘no final religious answer is possible, for spirit or grace is active, not static’.[xv] The Aufklärer found a similar situation in contemporary German political life, wherein a nexus of ‘conflicting positions’, Reill notes, would either have ‘sacrificed individuality to abstract formulations or abandoned the application of reason in favour of irrational individualism’. For the Göttingen early historicists faced a historical moment poised between a revolutionary creation of a French-style absolute state (endorsed by concepts of modern natural law), and a retention of the chaotic status quo of ‘German liberties’. The middle path they proposed involved a reformation of tradition based on historical awareness, or ‘a solution designed to realize the possibilities of freedom inherent in the Ständestaat [the traditional state model consisting of corporate orders and ‘constituted bodies’] through a programme of concrete reform, that is, through the application of Lokalvernunft’ – a term signifying, in Reill’s definition, ‘a concrete, historically conditioned, understanding of a particular situation’.[xvi]        




[i] The German Historicist Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015; first publ. 2011), pp. 8, 9, 8, 8-9, 9.

[ii] Reill’s book is referenced in Beiser, p. 11 n. 21; Beiser, p. 8.

[iii] The German Enlightenment and the Rise of Historicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), pp. ix, 41, ix, 8.

[iv] The English translation of Meinecke’s book is Historism: The Rise of a New Historical Outlook, trans. by J. E. Anderson (London: Routledge & Paul, 1972); Beiser, pp. vii-viii (on Meinecke as precedent), 12 n. 22, 12.

[v] Reill, pp. 2, 47.

[vi] Beiser, pp. 11, 10, 11, 10, 11.

[vii] Reill, p. 76; Beiser, p. 13.

[viii] Reill, pp. 57, 58, 76.

[ix] Beiser, pp. 19, 2.

[x] Reill, pp. 55, 165.

[xi] Reill, pp. 217, 189.

[xii] Reill, pp. 56, 4, 53, 122, 249 n. 72.

[xiii] Reill, pp. 54, 138, 137.

[xiv] Reill, pp. 137, 138, 139.

[xv] Reill, pp. 219, 215, 216, 215, 216.

[xvi] Reill, pp. 216, 221 n. 6, 216, 214. 


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