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An enlightenment without grounds, a historical Enlightenment without documents, is no enlightenment at all. -Friedrich Nicolai
The Old Historicism
The Enlightenment was an age of history as well as philosophy. This fact has not always been clear from classic studies of the eighteenth century. Paul Hazard began the first of his two volumes on the "crisis of European consciousness" with an analysis of historical pyrrhonism but then launched into a grand narrative featuring heterodoxy, deism, the "war against tradition," natural law, the achievements of science, and Enlightened "philosophy" in its peculiar French sense. Carl Becker celebrated the "new history" of the Enlightenment but identified it mainly with the old story of "philosophy teaching by example" and the new (or, for Becker, not so new) agenda of the philosophes, which (like that of their scholastic prototypes) had to do more with the future than with the past. Peter Gay, while rejecting Becker's thesis concerning the religious archetype of the program of the philosophes, took the ancient "pagan" heritage, scholarly tradition, and the "useful and beloved past" as ancillary to the primary goal of Enlightenment, which he identified with the "science of freedom" and "pursuit of modernity"; and for him (as for Voltaire and the philosophes), history was basically a solvent of old errors and a source of useful examples, while "criticism" was basically philosophical rather than historical in nature.
Recent debates about the so-called Enlightenment project - whether "unfinished" or "failed" - also tend to evade or play down the presence of history in the eighteenth century in favor of the relentless and stereotypical rationality which Habermas, following Max Weber as well as Horkheimer and Adorno (and ultimately Kant), associates with the Aufklarung. Nor have current discussions of a proto-Romantic "counter-Enlightenment" been of much help in this connection, creating as they do a different sort of dialectic in which the "philosophy of the Enlightenment" reconstructed by Cassirer is bifurcated, cast into two opposing traditions, again from the standpoint, presumably, of "our" cultural predicament. J. G. A. Pocock's recent study of the background to Gibbon emphasizes the plurality of Enlightenments but, like Gibbon himself, avoids German aspects. The eighteenth-century "mind" indeed seems divided against itself, especially in a post-revolutionary perspective; but from a philosophical, cultural, and especially historical point of view it resists this sort of analysis. The central issue of eighteenth-century thought was not reason against unreason, but rather the question: "What is reason?" - or, more famously phrased, "What is enlightenment?" or even "What is humanity?" One purpose of this study is to restore some balance to the understanding of the way these questions were asked and answered beyond the canon of formal philosophy and within the tradition of historical scholarship.
The historical character of the Enlightenment was made plain many years ago by Ernst Cassirer, whose Philosophie der Aufklarung (1932) located in that period "The Conquest of the Historical World." More than thirty years earlier this thesis had already received classic expression in an article that Wilhelm Dilthey, like Cassirer a neo-Kantian, published in the Deutsche Rundschau. In his survey of the "historical world" on which the eighteenth century drew, Dilthey noted the ancient and medieval roots, especially Polybius and Augustine; the "dynamic" views of Machiavelli and Guicciardini; the scholarship of Renaissance humanism and German Protestantism, including critical study of sources and biblical hermeneutics; the role of academies and universities in the advancement of historical learning; and, for him most essential, the notion of a unified "culture" or civilization. According to Dilthey, "History begins by taking up of the totality of culture." This totalizing impulse (the root, perhaps, of Dilthey's own idea of a "cultural system") was the starting point of the "new history" of the Enlightenment (neue Geschichtsschreibung), beginning especially with the work of Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Turgot and continued by British and German scholars, including those teaching at the University of Gottingen and culminating in the groundbreaking work of B. G. Niebuhr, his followers, and his critics.
But the historical aspects of the eighteenth century were hardly news even in 1901, since they had been celebrated and chronicled voluminously by scholars for almost two centuries, from the almost two-thousand-page historiographical survey of Ludwig Wachler (1812-16), to the more than one-thousand-page book by Franz X. von Wegele (1885), and followed by many others of this genre. Indeed, champions of the Enlightenment were themselves aware of the role of history, for as the "popular philosopher" - Lessing's friend and Kant's enemy - Friedrich Nicolai wrote more than a century before Dilthey, "An enlightenment without grounds, a historical Enlightenment without documents, is no enlightenment at all." Of course the Aufklarung envisioned by Nicolai (designed for those living in the world and not in a "Tubingen monastery") was not that championed by Kant, not the lumieres celebrated by D'Alembert and Condorcet, not the multiple "enlightenments" of Gibbon, and certainly not the controversial "Enlightenment" that received English recognition only in the nineteenth century. It was a larger, more human phenomenon, a chiaroscuro view of eighteenth-century thought, which embraced many aspects of reason and culture and which looked to history as well as rational thought for wisdom; and this is what locates the perspective of this study of modern historical thought and writing.
Unfortunately, even the perspective and the arguments of Dilthey and Cassirer are inadequate to the purpose of seeing the Enlightenment in the light of its historical enterprises; for their concerns remain in the context of philosophy and, specifically, neo-Kantian philosophy. Their attention was directed to public ideals rather than to the intellectual and scholarly practices of Enlightenment intellectuals, and they were oblivious or hostile to the inclination of many of these intellectuals and to that cast of mind called historicism. Curiously, this is also the case with historians like Friedrich Meinecke, who attempted to locate the roots of "historicism" in the eighteenth century but who deliberately restricted his vision to the "mountain tops" (the works of the great thinkers and narrative historians) rather than the "stones, the dirt, the soil out of which the mountains grew" (the positive achievements of historical erudition and criticism). So, for example, while honoring Moser as "the first pathbreaker of historicism," Meinecke dismissed the prolific Rousseauist historian Johannes von Muller as unoriginal, despite an attempt to associate him with "early historicism" - while, by contrast, Sismondi had called him "the first historian of our century." On his tour of the intellectual heights, Meinecke constructed a curious canon that admits, as the Vorlaufer of Ernst Troeltsch and himself, not only Vico and Ranke but also the arch-naturalist Leibniz, but that quite overlooks the linguistic, literary, and in many ways antiphilosophical orientation of historicism as it emerged in the age of the Gottingen school and proto-Romanticism. While giving due notice to Leibniz's metaphysical "law of continuity," Meinecke ignored the contributions of the nineteenth-century historical schools and the literary tradition as a whole. Goethe does figure prominently in Meinecke's book; but, revealingly, it is Goethe the naturalist, not Goethe the poet and critic. The result was that for Meinecke "historicism" was less an attribute of historical scholarship than a philosophical doctrine, which he reduced to the twin principles of individuality and development. The analysis of Peter Reill, following Hazard and Meinecke, of the "crisis of historical consciousness" has helped to restore the balance between thought and scholarship in the assessment of historicism, but he has not pursued these questions into the nineteenth century.
Meinecke's formula for historicism was the substitution of the principle of individuality for generality and of development for static system, so that it was associated with organicist and evolutionary ideas and in this connection the particularity of the biological model. His conception is a later version both of the old idea that history treated the particular and philosophy the general and of Windelband's analogous conception of the natural sciences as "nomothetic" and the cultural sciences as "idiographic" - all of these echoing, perhaps, the still older problem of universals. In any case in the past two centuries historicism, too, like the Hegelian view of history, has been philosophized - turned into a generalizing doctrine instead of an individualizing form of inquiry - and the result has been misunderstandings both historical and philosophical. From a historical point of view, "historicism" has nothing to do, for example, with the claims of Popper, for whom historicism was a form of "scientific determinism," an approach to the social sciences that assumes that "historical prediction is their principal aim." Nothing could be further from the intentions of historically grounded philosophers like Troeltsch and Croce, not to mention practicing historians like Ranke and, again, Croce. Nor does the imposition of the Kuhnian concept of disciplinary paradigm, employed by Ulrich Muhlack to historicism and by Horst Blanke even more narrowly to professional historical method (Historik), rescue such projects. And the claims of "New Historicism" represent literary strategies rather than historical criticism. In general historical thinking and scholarship, torn as they are between literary and (in a general sense) scientific motives, resist notions of "normal science" and intellectual revolution. Historicizing impulses have always been interdisciplinary and even transdisciplinary, aspiring - like philosophy and science in their most imperialist modes - to a foundational position in the human (and to some extent natural) sciences; and it is these terms that the history of "history" needs to be understood.
In sum, historicism should be construed not as a concept but rather as an attitude, not as a theory but rather as a scholarly practice, not as a system of explanation but rather as a mode of interpretation; and it was part of an effort not to make history into a philosophical doctrine but rather to transform (or to extend) it into a foundational discipline to which philosophy itself would be subject. In this spirit the "philosophy of history" after Herder proposed not to impose principles on but rather to discover them in recorded history. Nor can historicism be divorced from the accumulation of "mere" erudition produced by conventional and (as the philosophes would say) unprejudiced historical research, which promised the revelation of truth in the course of time - veritas filia temporis. These are some of the main features of historical inquiry in the late eighteenth century. This discussion, of course, cannot do justice to all the varieties, conditions, and contexts of history on the threshold of the revolutionary age. Even philosophers, while claiming often to be above the battle, even above the human condition, served the interests of state, church, and others; but historians were more manifestly engaged in political, social, and economic life. As they professed truth and impartiality, they also accommodated these values to another characteristic of history, which was its utility and which often required partisan commitment; and in this connection the relativism implied by historicist and hermeneutical attitudes served to give legitimacy to pragmatic lines of historical inquiry and interpretation. Obviously there are many ways of understanding the art and science of modern history - many traditions of scholarship and literature, many contexts, from the private and the psychological to the social and the public. History has inextricable ties to the character of its practitioners, to psychology, politics, religion, class, profession, and "ideology" (another neologism of this age); but it is the story of history as a discipline, as a form of knowledge, as the center of a larger conceptual field called, ambiguously, historicism, with its distinctive methods and ideals - and not history as something else, as doctrine, ideology, propaganda, or an emanation of the climate of opinion or spirit of the age - that is the subject of this inquiry. "Every thing is what it is, and not another thing," in the words of Joseph Butler quoted by Isaiah Berlin.
The practice, theory, and philosophy of history differed of course in the various national traditions of Europe. In Italy, Vico joined philology, history, and philosophy into a "new science" that explored human experience from its genesis. In France, Voltaire, Goguet, Condillac, Turgot, and Condorcet opened up conventional narrative to the history of civilization, the last two in particular affecting to find material as well as intellectual progress, referring to the "four-stage" theory of human development. In England, history, while celebrated by classical topoi, was also tied to common-law and parliamentary traditions and to the "Gothic bequest," which gave ancient pedigree to modern English society: the past was no doubt spoiled by mistakes, but its investigation was all the more useful for this reason. But it was in the German-speaking territories that history aspired to a position beyond the jurisdiction even of philosophy by claiming to understand the nature of reason in its development and so the phenomenon of "enlightenment" that gave its name to that age. Thus it is the study of history in Germany that marks the starting point for this discussion.
Philosophy and Pedantry
By 1800 the study of history in the West had itself a long - two-and-a-quarter-millennia - history that was complex, colorful, and contradictory. Since Herodotus and Thucydides, who were still canonical figures at this time, history had generated truth and error and, in many languages, a large vocabulary and conceptual apparatus to distinguish one from the other and to disseminate both.
Excerpted from Fortunes of History by DONALD R. KELLEY Copyright © 2003 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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