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Thomas Albert Howard

The Burden of History

How old is historicism?

It seems to me that the historical study of human beliefs," the British philosopher Henry Sidgwick wrote in 1886,

does tend to be connected with a general skepticism as to the validity of the doctrines studied. … [Skepticism] partly tends to result from the historical study, because of the vast and bewildering variety of conflicting beliefs … which this study marshals before us. The student's own most fundamental and cherished convictions seemed forced, as it were, to step down from their secure pedestals, and take their places in the endless line that is marching past. … Thus to the historian … the whole defiling train of beliefs tends to become something from which he sits apart, every portion of which has lost power to hold his own reason in the grip of true conviction.

Sidgwick summed up a sentiment felt by many in the late 19th and early 20th century: the realization that historical study had a corrosive effect on the plausibility of religious belief, that history or, more properly, modern "historicism" introduced a vertiginous relativism into human affairs, toppling with gale-like force religious verities, natural laws, moral absolutesanything that sought to don the mantle of universalism and rise above the caprice of time, place, and social location. The theologian Ernst Troeltsch would famously define this as "the crisis of historicism."1

The 19th century, particularly in Germany, was the age of historicism par excellence. From the historical writings of Leopold von Ranke, to Hegel's philosophy of history, to the historical biblical criticism of Ferdinand Christian Baur and David Friedrich Strauss, modern thought appeared to make a fundamental break from the Christian insistence on timeless creedal truths and from the Enlightenment belief in transhistorical human reason. The effects of this break live on todayin aspects of Western jurisprudence, in postmodern theories of interpretation, and in historical study itself. One will find it in the pages of Thomas Kuhn and his disciples, from the lips of Richard Rorty, and from countless, obeisant graduate students in the humanities who have learned that exposing something to be a "historical construct" often pleases instructors and opens career paths. Historicism and its problemsalthough themselves products of distinct historical circumstancesappear as durable fixtures in the contemporary intellectual landscape.

But powerful countervailing and reactionary tendencies are also afoot. The Enlightenment tradition of universal human rights seems alive and well; today it's arguably the only viable global currency of moral discourse. In the academy, in fact, one often finds that the most thoroughgoing historicists can also be the most zealous defenders of universal human rights. (Emerson's lesson on hobgoblins has apparently been well heeded.2)

In modern Christian thought, several strategies of resistance to historicism have proven salient. One strategy might be dubbed that of subtle co-option. The archetypal case here is John Henry Newman, especially in his famous book, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), in which Newman sought to tame the historicizing forces of the 19th century by conceptualizing Christian doctrine as always in a state of providential "development." This line of thinking, many have argued, eventually paved the way for rapprochement between Catholicism and modernity at the Second Vatican Council. Another tactic against historicism comes closer to root-and-branch rejection: the position that the sacred truths of revelation can be known by faith alone, immune from profane historical knowledge. One sees this most prominently in the thought of Søren Kierkegaard and, later, in Karl Barth and many of his "neo-orthodox" associates. One recent scholar has even suggested that 20th-century neo-orthodoxy and its extensive influence in modern Christian theology are best understood as an "anti-historical revolution," an attempt to rescue dogma and creedal commitment from the excesses of 19th-century historical criticism and historical theology.3

If the Christian confrontation with historicism is well documented, much less is known about that of Judaism. For this reason alone, David Myers' recent book represents an important contribution to contemporary understanding; his work should elicit interest from students of Jewish, Christian, German, and modern thought alike.

While the lion's share of his time is devoted to exploring the anti-historicist thought of four major late 19th- and early 20th-century Jewish intellectualsHermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, Leo Strauss, and Isaac BreuerMyers does a commendable job of providing relevant background material. The reader thus gains valuable general knowledge of European-Jewish intellectual history, the emergence of historicism in the 19th century, the social and political contexts of fin-de-siècle German Jewry, and the relationship of Jewish intellectual life to German university culture. In the book's last chapter, Myers offers an insightful critique of the "influence-based model" of doing Jewish history, preferring instead a model that explores "the dynamic process of negotiation, mediation, and translation that defines interaction between two groups"German Jewish and Christian thinkers in his case. As is invariably true of good historians, Myers renders the complexity of this material intelligible, neither oversimplifying nor belaboring tangentially relevant detail.

Two things are particularly noteworthy about his four principals. The first is the degree to which, though critics of historicism, they all found themselves embedded in historical ways of thinking. To extricate themselves from, or at least to criticize, modern historicism, each to varying degrees had to rely on historicist patterns of thought. In Myers' words, "their best anti-historicist intentions were tempered by deeply ingrainedand ultimately inescapablehistorical impulses." Second, each developed a different solution to the "crisis of historicism," even if they were motivated by a similar understanding of the problem. Accordingly, the reader gains insight into the rich breadth of early 20th-century Jewish thought in its loud and contentious confrontation with various forces of modernity, historicism foremost.

Hermann Cohen is often numbered among a group of fin-de-siècle intellectuals who, against the trends of the time, sought to return to the universalist ethical rationalism associated with Immanuel Kantthe "back to Kant" movement as it has sometimes been dubbed. For Cohen, Judaism was not a matter of statutes and rituals but rather a "historically developing concept" that transmitted a "universal ethos," relevant to all peoples and ultimately consonant with many other thinkers throughout history who had championed reason, enlightenment, and freedom. Cohen traced the lineage of his ideas from the Hebrew Prophets and Plato, through Maimonides and (surprisingly perhaps) Martin Luther, to Immanuel Kant, the quintessential champion of modern universalist ethics. Aloof from the Orthodox Judaism of his day and a critic of the particularist and nationalist implications of Zionism, Cohen sought to define Judaism as "ethical monotheism" or "the ideal of ethical universalism," rescuing it "from the ever-advancing reach of historicism that sought to consume it." His major work expressing these sentiments, The Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism (1919), has exerted considerable influence.

Franz Rosenzweig and Isaac Breuer staked out different intellectual grounddifferent from Cohen and from one another. Having grown up in a thoroughly assimilated household and having almost converted to Christianity, Rosenzweig believed that historicism and Kantian rationalism were both manifestations of a modern cultural malaise; each stood in the way of authentic human existence and genuine religious expression. Eventually, Rosenzweig came to the conclusion that "a vibrant new Judaism" offered the way forward, a conviction he elaborated in his major work, The Star of Redemption (1921), and sought, often unsuccessfully, to realize in a number of educational initiatives. His was no conventional Orthodoxy, however, but a complex amalgam of traditional Jewish thought, neo-orthodox Christian theological motifs, and an incipient philosophical existentialism that exhibited considerable common ground with the early writings of Martin Heidegger.

Isaac Breuer grew up in a separatist Orthodox community in Frankfurt am Main, founded by his grandfather, Samson Raphael Hirsch. An unwavering observer of Halakhah, or Jewish Law, until his death, Breuer was much more of a traditionalist than either Cohen or Rosenzweig, even if he valued engagement with secular intellectual culture. He encountered historicist thinking during his university studies between 1902 and 1913 and perceived it as a threat to Judaism or to any religious interpretation of the world. The only possible deliverance was to locate Israel beyond the plane of mundane history.

Jews were "the people of history"; their existence took place in what Breuer called Metageschichte (meta-history), a realm of time and being known by religious insight but undetectable by the methods and techniques of the modern historian. A critic of Zionism, Breuer believe that the metahistorical destiny of the Jews was best realized in exile, which in fact was God's special gift to the Jewish people: "What a special history! No state or military history, nor cultural or economic history in the usual sense. It is messianic history," he wrote.

For many American readers, the most interesting figure in Myers' foursome will be Leo Strauss, the celebrated author of Natural Right and History (1953), a major inspiration behind Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987), and the intellectual godfather of neo-conservatism, which has elicited so much public attention in recent years. Because Strauss' writings and influence after his emigration to the United States in 1938 are fairly well known, Myers' treatment of Strauss in the context of Weimar Germany is particularly valuable and informative. Not unlike Rosenzweig, Strauss came to believe that Enlightenment rationalism and 19th-century historicism were two sides of the same coin. Both betokened the failure of modernity; both facilitated a shallow, atomistic individualism easily susceptible to relativism and nihilism.

Given Strauss' well-known predilection for Plato and Aristotle, it is interesting to note that the greatest of modern anti-Platonists, Friedrich Nietzsche, exercised tremendous influence over Strauss' early intellectual imagination. "Nietzsche so dominated and charmed me between my twenty-second and thirtieth year," Strauss once wrote to Karl Löwith, "that I literally believed everything I understood of him"a piece of self-revelation that becomes more understandable in light of Nietzsche's famous essay, "The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life," perhaps the most compelling criticism of historicism ever written.4

Another surprise, given his own guarded atheism and sympathy for ancient pagan philosophy, was the degree to which Strauss followed theological discussions in the 1920s. Some 40 years after the collapse of the Weimar Republic, he mused,

The reawakening of theology, which for me is marked by the names of Karl Barth and Franz Rosenzweig, appeared to make it necessary to investigate how far the critique of orthodox theologyJewish and Christiandeserved to be victorious. Since then the theological-political problem has remained the theme of my investigation.

In light of the "Straussian tenet" that criticism of religion threatens to leave the masses (judged incapable of true philosophy) bereft of noble aspirations and appetitive restraint, one wishes that Myers had lingered on this point. Indeed, while Myers admirably contextualizes Strauss within Weimar Germany, one wishes that he made a few more connections between Strauss' distinctive brand of anti-historicism in the 1920s and 1930s and the political philosophy developed in his later years in the United States. To what extent can the universalist assumptions behind much present-day Strauss-inspired neoconservative thought still be interpreted as a reaction to 19th-century historicism?

The book's conclusion also merits a brief, critical word. Although Myers engages sympathetically and learnedly with each figure, he often suggests that their reactions to historicism are overdrawn, even naïve, for "modern historicism," he insists, will remain with us "unless or until a vast epistemological paradigm shift occurs." If the chandeliers began shaking, indicating such a shift is upon us, my point here might be thrown into question. But it warrants asking whether in fact historicism, at least in its faith-threatening guise, is in fact a wholly modern phenomenon. Myers (like many others) seems to associate historicism with relativism. But the problem of relativism is at least as old as Socrates' debates with the Sophists. If one concedes this point, one might further wonder whether the tension between universalist and relativist approaches to knowledge and ethics is itself indicative of something fairly consistent about the human condition: our simultaneous finitude and freedom, our lowly particularism and our angelic ability to transcend it. In this scenario, the "crisis of historicism" might be construed as a species of a much older human dilemma. But wouldn't this at least suggest that there are some permanent realities worth talking aboutrealities immanent in our experience of time and not merely conditioned by it; realities that impinge upon our imagination and not simply constructs of it; realities that, though through a glass darkly, point to the heart of things, and the heart of man?

Thomas Albert Howard is the founding director of the Jerusalem and Athens Forum at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts and the author, most recently, of Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University (Oxford Univ. Press, forthcoming).

1. Troeltsch, "Die Krisis des Historismus," Die neue Rundschau, Vol. 33 (1922), pp. 572-90.

2. Cf. Thomas Haskell, "The Curious Persistence of Rights Talk in an Age of Interpretation," in Haskell, Objectivity is not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes in History (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1998).

3. F.W. Graf, "Die 'antihistorische Revolution' in der protestantischen Theologie der zwanziger Jahre," in Jan Rohls and Gunther Wenz, eds., Vernunft des Glaubens: wissenschaftliche Theologie und kirchliche Lehre (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1988), pp. 357-76.

4. Cf. Laurence Lampert, Leo Strauss and Nietzsche (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996).

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