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Thinking with History: Explorations in the Passage to Modernism

Thinking with History: Explorations in the Passage to Modernism

by Carl E. Schorske

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In this book, the distinguished historian Carl Schorske--author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fin-de-Siecle Vienna--draws together a series of essays that reveal the changing place of history in nineteenth-and twentieth-century cultures. In most intellectual and artistic fields, Schorske argues, twentieth-century Europeans and Americans have come to do their


In this book, the distinguished historian Carl Schorske--author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fin-de-Siecle Vienna--draws together a series of essays that reveal the changing place of history in nineteenth-and twentieth-century cultures. In most intellectual and artistic fields, Schorske argues, twentieth-century Europeans and Americans have come to do their thinking without history. Modern art, modern architecture, modern music, modern science--all have defined themselves not as emerging from or even reacting against the past, but as detached from it in a new, autonomous cultural space. This is in stark contrast to the historicism of the nineteenth century, he argues, when ideas about the past pervaded most fields of thought from philosophy and politics to art, music, and literature. However, Schorske also shows that the nineteenth century's attachment to thinking with history and the modernist way of thinking without history are more than just antitheses. They are different ways of trying to address the problems of modernity, to give shape and meaning to European civilization in the era of industrial capitalism and mass politics.

Schorske begins by reflecting on his own vocation as it was shaped by the historical changes he has seen sweep across political and academic culture. Then he offers a European sampler of ways in which nineteenth-century European intellectuals used conceptions of the past to address the problems of their day: the city as community and artifact; the function of art; social dislocation. Narrowing his focus to Fin-de-Siecle Vienna in a second group of essays, he analyzes the emergence of ahistorical modernism in that city. Against the background of Austria's persistent, conflicting Baroque and Enlightenment traditions, Schorske examines three Viennese pioneers of modernism--Adolf Loos, Gustav Mahler, and Sigmund Freud--as they sought new orientation in their fields.

In a concluding essay, Schorske turns his attention to thinking about history. In the context of a postmodern culture, when other disciplines that had once abandoned history are discovering new uses for it, he reflects on the nature and limits of history for the study of culture.

Editorial Reviews

Douglas A. Sylva
...[E]xamines why he thinks we have abandoned history; why, in this modern world, we think without history.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Thirteen pieces by a first-rate scholar on diverse aspects of the intellectual and cultural history of western and central Europe, mainly from 1848 to 1914. Schorske, author of Fin-de-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture, for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, and other works, has three foci: his own evolution as a historian and his impressively open response to the "new history" that has emerged during the past three decades; perceptions of, and design battles over, the modern city; and the early, formative years of modernist culture. Two of his most interesting pieces focus on the architectural shaping of the Ringstrasse, the grand boulevard that encircled the heart of post-1848 Vienna. Its magisterial buildings, Schorske says, largely reflected the values of both those loyal to Kaiser Franz Josef and those committed to a more liberal, though hardly fully democratic, state; both tendencies would be sharply criticized beginning around 1890 by such modernist intellectuals as the architect Adolf Loos and the journalist and playwright Karl Kraus. Only three of Schorske's essays focus on one or more individuals—the English writer and Utopian visionary William Morris, Wagner, Mahler, and Freud—but these are among the book's best. Concerning the latter, Schorske traces Freud's deep interest in the culture of ancient Egypt, as evidenced in his last major work, Moses and Monotheism, by first looking at the influence and mystique that three great western European cities (London, Paris, and Rome) played in Freud's thought. Schorske is a very gifted writer and scholar, usually clearly and succinctly distilling his study of a great deal of material from manydisciplines, avoiding historical and intellectual minutiae, and incorporating colorful anecdotes and quotes (for example, Baudelaire on the pleasure of "bathing himself in the [urban] crowd"). A pleasurable and stimulating read.

From the Publisher
"Schorske knows a great deal about Vienna, and the essays ... are original and penetrating, particularly those on Mahler and Freud."—Gordon Craig, New York Review of Books

"Clever analysis.... [A] subtle, important book."—Douglas A. Sylva, The New York Times Book Review

"Carl Schorske is ... a master; anyone acquainted with his classic Fin-de-Siècle Vienna will know that fact, and accordingly will relish the prospect of these ... essays. Together they are a brilliant feat of learning, gracefully served."—A. C. Grayling, Financial Times

"This new collection shows why Schorske, the eminent intellectual historian . . . is a master craftsman. . . . [W]e are fortunate to have Schorske as a guide. . . . By his amazingly erudite and finely chiseled portraits of the potentialities of nineteenth-century culture, he has prepared the way for us to assess how we think with history in our own day."—Jonathan Elukin, The American Scholar

"Schorske is a very gifted writer and scholar, usually clearly and succinctly distilling his study of a great deal of material from many disciplines, avoiding historical and intellectual minutiae, and incorporating colorful anecdotes and quotes. . . . A pleasurable and stimulating read."Kirkus Reviews

"What has interested Schorske and will fascinate readers is the interaction between history and the supposedly rootless modernism. . . . These [essays]. . . show the astonishing breadth of Schorske's knowledge."Publisher's Weekly

"[A] reflective and provocative book."—Alethea Hayter, The Spectator

Product Details

Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Princeton Legacy Library Series
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Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Thinking with History

Explorations in the Passage to Modernism

By Carl E. Schorske


Copyright © 1998 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05977-8


The Book: Theme and Content

"Thinking with History": it is not the same as thinking about history as a general form of meaning-making. That is what philosophers or theorists of history do. Thinking with history implies the employment of the materials of the past and the configurations in which we organize and comprehend them to orient ourselves in the living present. In one mode, we think with the substantive yield of historical inquiry, with the images we form of the past, in order to define ourselves by difference or by resemblance to it. Here history is an object for us, and appears as static, a picture or tableau vivant of a bygone culture. We can also "think with history" in another mode, when we conceive of history as a process. Then history is dynamic, linking or dissolving static elements in a narrative pattern of change. We can still treat this process an an object, but it is difficult to divorce it from our existence as thinking subjects. If we locate ourselves in history's stream, we can begin to look at ourselves and our mental life, whether personal or collective, as conditioned by the historical present as it defines itself out of—or against—the past. "Thinking with history" in the first sense, then, implies the utilization of elements of the past in the cultural construction of the present and future. "Thinking with history" in the second sense relativizes the subject, whether personal or collective, self-reflexively to the flow of social time.

The essays in this volume were not conceived with the purpose of explaining systematically what it means to think with history. Rather than explicating it as theory, they show it as cultural practice—a practice by no means confined to those who call themselves historians. In nineteenth-century Europe, history became a privileged mode of meaning-making for the educated classes. Some examples of that cultural practice and the turn away from it in favor of an ahistorical modernism as the century ended provide the theme of this book.

In most fields of intellectual and artistic culture, twentieth-century Europe and America learned to think without history. The very word "modernism" has come to distinguish our lives and times from what had gone before, from history as a whole, as such. Modern architecture, modern music, modern science—all these have defined themselves not so much out of the past, indeed scarcely against the past, but detached from it in a new, autonomous cultural space. The modern mind grew indifferent to history, for history, conceived as a continuous nourishing tradition, became useless to its projects. Postmodernism, to be sure, has found uses for elements of the past in its own constructions and deconstructions. But even as it consigns modernism to the past, it reaffirms as its own modernism's rupture from history as continuous process, as the platform of its own intellectual identity.

If we turn our gaze from the high culture of the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, we realize how drastic has been the break from the historical consciousness. The backdrop of our modernism was historicism rampant, pervasive. Never in the history of European culture had Clio enjoyed such preeminence—not to say hegemony—as in the mid-nineteenth century. If in the eighteenth century philosophy had been queen in the realm of intellect, with history as her modest handmaiden in "teaching philosophy by example," in the nineteenth, history inherited philosophy's dominion. History's mode of thought and its temporal perspective penetrated most fields of learning, while the models of the past inspired the nineteenth century's arts. Even as science developed its own autonomy from natural philosophy, natural history claimed a large portion of the legacy. Historical painting and the historical novel acquired new salience in artistic practice, while the study and criticism of the arts were reconceived as the history of art, of literature, etc. The very process of modernization in the economy and society of the nineteenth century, with the unprecedented effects of industrial technology on land and people, paradoxically evoked this quickened quest for ties to the past. In an era of growing nationalism, collective identities were redefined as a summa of the convergent cultures of the past. The architecture of cities appropriated the styles of bygone times to lend symbolic weight and pedigree to modern building types from railway stations and banks to houses of parliament and city halls. The cultures of the past provided the decent drapery to clothe the nakedness of modern utility. Historicism in culture arose as a way of coming to grips with modernization by marshaling the resources of the past. Conversely, at a later stage, modernism in culture arose in reaction to this effort as intellectuals attempted to confront modernity in its own terms, free from the manacles of mind that history and historicism were now thought to impose.

To master modernity by thinking with history, to master modernity by thinking without history: these then are not simply antitheses, but rather successive phases in the same effort to give shape and meaning to European civilization in the era of industrial capitalism and the rise of democratic politics. The essays in this collection, whatever the particular issues they embody, should help us think with history about the passage from the nineteenth century's culture to that of our own time.

"Encountering History," the second essay of this Introduction, is a professional self-portrait. The American Council of Learned Societies originally commissioned it as part of its Haskins lecture series, "The Life of Learning," in which scholars of various disciplines are invited "to reflect and to reminisce on a lifetime of work...." It suits well, however, the purpose of this collection.

All autobiography is personal history, a narrative construction that involves both remembering and forgetting, evoking some parts of one's past and repressing others. Yet most autobiographers define their past on a narrow band of personal experience, with little reference to the wider world. In writing of my own life, I became aware that I could hardly think of it except as it had been implicated in larger historical developments. To account for my self, my values, and professional commitments, I had to think with history: the confrontation of German and American cultures in World War I in my childhood; the power of American progressivist culture in my home and in my college education; its displacement by a new, formalist academic culture formed in the political freeze of the 1950s that stimulated a rethinking of my scholarly mission; the political and university crises of the sixties that compelled a redefinition of my teaching role. These are but a few of the changing historical contexts in which my personal and vocational identity were, for good or for ill, formed, redirected, transformed. I had always found challenging Nietzsche's exhortation, "Become what you are." As I worked on this essay, however, I came to feel the need to attend to its inverse: "You are what you become." Through ever-renewed encounters with the shifting elements in the stream of history one can come to know oneself in the present, and also acquire an altered understanding of what one has been in the past. In autobiography, to think with history helps to establish a certain distance from one's self by seeing it as both shaped by the structures and conflicts of society and as responding creatively to their pressures. Thus if I reflect in my life story the larger development of the society, I also reflect (as knowing subject) on that particular historical consciousness, its formation and changes, that my personal encounters with my time elicited as modes of coming to terms with it, whether by resistance or adaptation.

The essays in Part One, grouped under the title, "Clio Ascendant," are probes into some ways in which intellectuals in different parts of nineteenth-century Europe confronted the promises and perils of modernity. The tremendous awareness that continuous transformation had become endemic to the world they lived in stimulated historical reflection. Spurred by the need to account for change, Clio's ascendancy drew power from the variety of national and local responses to modernization as it spread across Europe from west to east. The city, the social entity most visibly affected by the processes of change, became a favored focus of critical reflection on the condition and prospects of modern man. Three of the essays are directly concerned with it. I wrote them to illuminate in comparative perspective the importance of the city as a symbolic condenser of socio-cultural values in different parts of Europe. Yet as I read them now, a second theme surfaces: that of the variety of forms of historical discourse in which the ideas about the city were constructed. I ask the reader to read them with both themes in mind.

"The Idea of the City in European Thought" (Essay Three) offers a broad sampler of evaluations of the city made by intellectuals from the Enlightenment to Nazism. The passage of cultural criticism from historical to ahistorical discourse can be seen behind the succession of social and moral ideas. Different forms of historical outlook are evident even among the thinkers who saw in the city an agency of human progress. Voltaire and Adam Smith shared a progressivist view of history as a dynamic process in which economic activity fueled the amelioration of the human condition. Despite some differences in their goals, both saw the city as the scene of society's productive transformation. The past for them was a condition to be overcome, but contained within itself forces which, once released by human desire and reason, propelled mankind, via the city, into a gratifying future. On a more complex level, Marx and Engels similarly stressed the processual and dialectical aspect of historical thinking with their orientation toward a pre-visioned future.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who valued the city's contribution to civilization no less than Smith and Voltaire, thought with history in a different way. He focused not on temporal development but on the synchronic coherence of the city in an exemplary moment of the past. Troubled by the chaos of his unfree and divided nation, Fichte found in the late medieval and early modern city-state a German paradise lost that could serve as a moral-political model for constructing a modern national community. The concern with process, through which one synchronic complex is transformed into another, so important to progressivist thinkers such as Smith, Voltaire, and Marx, had little centrality for Fichte. In his stress on a past to be recuperated, Fichte engaged in an archaistic form of historical thinking that would find even stronger articulation in England's medieval revival, considered in Essay Four.

Beyond the processual thinkers such as Voltaire and Smith who placed the city and modernity in a future-oriented trajectory and the archaists such as Fichte who recovered from the past historical forms to renew modern society, there emerged in the mid-century another class of intellectuals who had neither the need nor the inclination to think with history about the condition of man. Confronting the modern city as their existential reality, whatever their different senses of its pleasures and pains, its virtues and vices, they were presentists, pioneers of an ahistorical modernism. French artists such as Baudelaire and the Impressionists were decisive in developing this new mode of thought and feeling. They changed the city's relation to the ordinance of time. For them the modern city had no temporal locus, but rather a temporal quality. The city offered only its present—an eternal here and now, whose content was transcience, but whose transcience was permanent. Past and future lost their orienting function here; history lost its usefulness.

A specific city provides the setting for "History as Vocation in Burckhardt's Basel" (Essay Five). There Jacob Burckhardt and Johann Jakob Bachofen harnesed historical understanding to preserve their threatened city-state culture against the forces of modern change. Their native Basel had adroitly preserved into modern times many of the social and institutional forms of Fichte's German idealized free city-state. Now threatened by democracy and industrial capitalism from within and without, the patriciate to which our two historians belonged constructed their defenses against modernity with a revitalization of their inherited humanistic culture. Conservative Basel thus generated a new kind of historical thinking, lacking either archaistic sentimentality or futuristic illusion. As academic professional and as civic educator, Burckhardt sought to cultivate in Basel's citizens a traditionalist sensibility of a kind that would yet prepare them to live in a world of the unexpectedly emergent and to adapt with cosmopolitan cultural flexibility to the forces of change. The essay sketches Burckhardt's particular contribution to twentieth-century historical consciousness: a richly associative synchronicity in structure that is at the same time processual and undeterministdc in its recognition of a diachronic trajectory. Bachofen's special kind of archaism celebrated the civilizing power of women in preclassical culture without attempting to restore the vanished past. His work complemented Burckhardt's humanistic realism in combatting their contemporaries' use of ancient history to glorify the modern state.

In "Medieval Revival and Its Modern Content" (Essay Five), the scene shifts to England and a different form of conservative historical thinking. Three intellectuals, Coleridge, Pugin, and Disraeli—none historians by vocation—are examined as they seek in a specific past culture the conceptions and practices to criticize and hopefully to remedy England's problems. All three shared a conviction that the abuse of power, particularly that of property, had brought moral ruin and social division to modern England. All extolled the religion-centered Middle Ages as representing a social and cultural wholeness that had been sacrificed to greed and excessive individualism. In so doing they shared a widespread Tory outlook to which each thinker gave the color of his individual concerns. For all three the Tudor and Whig destruction of the autonomy of the Church as a moral force through the confiscation of its property became an historical turning point for the destruction of England's ideal past. Despite their shared conservatism, all three were in some degree futurists in their archaism. They reached backward to move forward. Each incorporated in his particular exploitation of the presumed medieval legacy an element utterly foreign to it in which we can recognize modern traits. Coleridge aspired to create a base of economic independence for a modern moral intelligentsia. Pugin advanced the idea of volumetric functionalism in architecture against the Victorian preoccupation with a symbolic fagade. Disraeli projected a new Christian social ideology of paternalistic industrialism for his era of labor conflict and mass politics.

Essay Six, "The Quest for the Grail: Wagner and Morris," examines two thinkers whose discourse lies in the borderland between history and myth, nurtured by materials from a common cultural heritage. Both found themselves in constant critical engagement with the problems of their respective countries. While Germany was still struggling through much of the century to work out the political problem of liberalism and the construction of a unified national state, England in the time of Morris faced the social dislocations of advanced industrialization. In view of the differences in the problems they confronted, it is all the more remarkable that the two artists drew so extensively on the same repertory of mythic materials. To the extent that they can be said to exemplify thinking with history, this is manifested not only in their idealization of Nordic and medieval cultures, but in the way they drew on nineteenth-century historicism's enlargement of the mythological inheritance beyond the traditional focus on classical culture. Their use of this heritage of myth increasingly undermined the historical components in their thinking as the modern problems they confronted drove them in different directions. While Morris passed from the religious and aesthetic medieval revivalism of his youth to active engagement with the political world that led him to socialism, Wagner early embraced political and social radicalism and moved—in the disappointment of his political hopes—into a reactionary communitarian nationalism. Wagner ended with a pseudo-religious aestheticism not unlike the starting point of Morris. The interweaving of these inverse trajectories and their historical meaning are the focus of the essay.


Excerpted from Thinking with History by Carl E. Schorske. Copyright © 1998 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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