AHA Presidential Addresses
The History of Ideas
By Hajo Holborn
This presidential address was delivered at the Royal York Hotel, Toronto, Canada, December 29, 1967. American Historical Review 73:3 (February 1968): 683-95.
Books by Hajo Holborn
Probably almost everyone attending the Annual Meetings of the American Historical Association, and even more this year's combined North American meeting, will derive encouragement from seeing historical scholarship actively represented by such a strong professional corps. As a group it seems to possess the capacity of knowing most of the events in six thousand years of human history, while it is devoted to filling the pages of history that for one reason or another have so far remained blank. But at the same time many of us will feel apprehensive about the course of development that our historical studies have been taking. The programs of our meetings clearly demonstrate the continuous growth of specialization and, with it, the danger of the fragmentation of historical scholarship.
In spite of the eminent position that history holds in general education, historical thought probably does not exercise the same strong influence on the formation of the philosophy of life among our intellectual leaders as was true fifty years ago. The specialization of historiographical interests is at least partly responsible for this decline. There are some fundamental questions that historians are unable to answer satisfactorily at present. Among the most important problems I would count the construction of universal history. Ultimately all historical study will have to be related to the understanding of universal history from which it will receive its sense of final direction. The practical value of a clear conception of universal history for a generation witnessing the meeting of all cultures in global interaction is obvious. The general demand for a model of universal history has led the public again and again to give stormy applause to such theories as Oswald Spengler or Arnold Toynbee presented. But they have kindled only straw fires.
The problem of universal history is, however, only the extreme task whose solution is impeded by the specialization of historical scholarship. Twentieth-century historians deal, actually, in their own work only with small slices of universal history, only, as a matter of fact, with small sections of units of history, mostly circumscribed by nations and epochs. To this division according to subject matter, methodological differences may be added as they have come into existence, as, for example, those between political, economic, and intellectual history. But, although few would deny that division of historical studies often assumes excessive forms, its inevitability cannot be seriously questioned. Once historians accepted the principle that true history could only be written from the original contemporary sources, the needed research rose to gigantic proportions, and the division of labor became ineluctable.
The demand for the writing of history from contemporary sources was an expression of the belief that this was the only way to perceive the real past in all its uniqueness and individuality. Many historians and philosophers feel that the historian's characteristic task is exclusively the study of the individual facts of history.1 If taken literally, this would lead, and has led, to the assumption that history consists of a huge mass of mutually unrelated facts to be established by independent research. Hand in hand with such an assumption goes the opinion that facts exist outside the mind of the observer and consequently can be simply perceived. They do not call for the judgment of the historian, but, on the contrary, they have to be cleansed of all "subjectivity" that he might bring to them.
These theories, which if strictly applied would produce only the dry bones of history, have often been refuted. Here it may be briefly stated that historical facts, which are dead facts, come to life again only in the mind of the historian and are part of a universal development in which we ourselves partake. A historian who writes and lectures, which means he is using words, cannot help placing the individual event into a larger scheme because language renders the particular in generalizing terms. What we admire in great historians, moreover, is their capacity for relating the individual to the universal, whereby they reveal to us its full historical meaning. Yet it remains true that without the knowledge of the huge variety of individual phenomena history cannot be reproduced and evaluated. But while even the small units reflect something of the totality of human history, through the compartmentalization of historical studies, the historian's vision stays considerably narrowed.
We ought to inquire whether there are approaches to history that can extend our view. The history of ideas or intellectual history, which came into existence relatively late and has gained a place in the American academic curriculum only during the last thirty years, has aroused great expectations, and some of its practitioners even today impress me as being convinced they possess a special key to the inner workings of the historical process. Yet the history of ideas has not achieved a clear and generally accepted definition.
Voltaire was the first, in his Essai sur les moeurs, to declare the history of the human mind to be the historian's real subject. Political history is only the tale of external change, whereas in religion, philosophy, science, and art the human mind passes through various stages toward its present state. Voltaire did not deny that politics had an important part in the rise of human culture; international pacification and the establishment of a firm legal order within a country were for him the foundations of flourishing civilizations. But the rise of the individual to higher self-realization according to his rational nature constituted the true contents of history. Voltaire was not able to make his conception of history prevail for long. He believed that man had remained essentially the same throughout history and that only custom, prejudice, and outward circumstances had hidden and obstructed the power of reason. This belief created a paradox. As Ernst Cassirer expressed it, if the substance of the human mind is immutable, it has no real history.2
Hegel followed to some extent in Voltaire's footsteps, while at the same time going far beyond and away from him. The idea of progress was also to Hegel a natural concept in looking at history, and spirit was its real life. But spirit in Hegel's philosophy of history was something quite different from Voltaire's esprit. To Hegel history is the unfolding of the universal mind in this world. It occurs when man has risen beyond the state of nature and has begun to use his human potential--thought and reason--which gives him the power to change reality. The rational character of man realizes itself only in the community of men. The state, Hegel says, is the embodiment of morality and links the individual with the great historical development of history. In the state the "objective mind" comes to life. The forms of the state reflect the stage of awareness that man has achieved of the power of reason or of his own freedom. For the "essence of mind is freedom," the freedom that derives from knowing the world as its property.3
Hegel strongly emphasizes--perhaps more so than many modern historians--that man is also part of nature and that human passions and appetites are the great incentives of action. But behind the cravings and the struggles of the individuals whose consciousness is impaired by their personal passions, the universal mind moves forward to higher levels. Even the "world-historic" persons, such as Alexander, Caesar, or Napoleon, were driven in their actions by personal interests, but they lived at a moment of history when the existing system of values, laws, and rights was ready to yield to the realization of as yet unfulfilled potentialities; by overthrowing the existing order these great men helped to create a new age. They were not the real initiators of progress but only the agents of the world mind. Hegel speaks of this condition as the "cunning of reason."
Thus history is dominated by the world mind. Though building the world of the objective mind, man is only a laboring puppet. Yet he gains greater freedom as he becomes conscious of the freedom toward which the course of history is directed. Religion, art, and science--for Hegel this meant philosophy--surpass the state. They are forms not of the "objective" but of the "absolute mind," and they enable the individual to know his connection with the universal mind. The dynamic power behind the phenomenal world, however, is still reason, which determines the development of history in accordance with its own laws, the laws of logic. Here, then, Hegel introduces dialectics, the famous sequence of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
Only a few of Hegel's key ideas have been sketched here in order to demonstrate that in his view history is a universal process in which each stage has to be judged as an integral part of the whole. But since the really historic is only what is rational, the panlogism of Hegel's philosophy makes ideas the chief objects of historical study. They are the essential achievements of mankind, while at the same time they demarcate the consecutive epochs of history. Hegelian philosophy was for this reason stimulating to the writing of the history of ideas on a large scale. The Tübingen school of Ferdinand Christian Baur applied Hegelian principles to the study of Christian religion, and one of the members of the school, Eduard Zeller, with his book on The History of Greek Philosophy--that was considered important and useful enough to justify in recent years a new American edition--carried Hegelian concepts into the history of philosophy.4 Hegelian influence can still be traced in the modern history of ideas or, for that matter, in general historiography, perhaps most clearly shown in the circumscription of the epochs of history.
But the appeal of Hegel's system faded quickly after his death. In Germany the so-called "Historical School" and Ranke constructed a history in which, to Ranke, "every epoch was equally close to God." This did not allow one to impose on history an a priori pattern or to see in history the foreordained course of reason. In contrast to Hegel's monism, Ranke believed in a transcendental God, although he thought that occasionally the historian might discover God's hand in historical events. At the same time, Ranke embraced the totality of human life, including much of what Hegel called "fortuitous existence" (faule Existenz), as the true subject of history. And he was anxious by inductive method not only to reconstruct the mere events but to elucidate their meaning in a universal development. The often quoted remark from the foreword to his first work, that he "only wanted to know what actually happened," is bound to be misunderstood if taken out of context. The statement was merely a denial of the intention to present lessons from the past for the present. Although it is true that Ranke in the fifty-odd volumes of his writings concentrated largely on political history, much is found in them on social history as well, particularly in his English History, and the author of the Roman Popes and of the German History in the Age of the Reformation always had an eye on religion.5
In Western Europe Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, and others elaborated the "positivistic" philosophy, which was an even more direct continuation of the thought of the Enlightenment than the Hegelian philosophy had been. What Positivism eventually amounted to was the assumption that facts could be immediately ascertained by sense impression and that historical laws could be formulated inductively analogous to the laws of the natural sciences, of which progress remained the most important one. Positivism appeared in many different forms. It did not, in general, emphasize ideas as strongly as Hegel or even Ranke had done; it attempted to counterbalance the study of the individual by the examination of the group and society. After the middle of the nineteenth century, Positivism also exercised great influence in Germany, although the German historians, at least in theory, rejected the idea of progress as well as sociology. Hegel and any metaphysical philosophy of history were, on the other hand, declared to be unscientific, and Ranke's students quickly forgot the universalistic ideas of their teacher.
It was in the 1860's that Wilhelm Dilthey began his work as a philosopher and historian. More than any other scholar he was the father of the modern history of ideas. It was a philosophical interest that led Dilthey to history. He objected to the subordination of the humane studies or cultural sciences to the natural sciences, as was common among the Positivists. Even Immanuel Kant had based his theory of knowledge on physics and had not given history and the humanities any recognition as sciences. Dilthey intended to set beside Kant's Critique of Pure Reason a Critique of Historical Reason, designed to establish the cultural sciences on a secure, scientific basis.
But in contrast to the contemporary German academic philosophers, many of whom attempted to revive Kant, Dilthey felt that philosophy had to part with "logism," the belief that, above the reality, eternal regulating principles exist. In "the spirit of the great Enlightenment," he always intended to retain "the empirical reality as the one world of our knowledge";6 in this respect he also never denied a kinship with the Positivists. Dilthey maintained that philosophy could not go back beyond life. "Life is prior to knowledge."7 But there is a world of the spirit, which man creates in time through his feeling, willing, and thinking. Man tends to organize his general understanding of what appears to him as his world in a Weltbild, that is, world picture, and his own reaction to what the world ought to be or to become in a Weltanschauung, or world view. World pictures and world views are the chief sources of our knowledge of the human mind. They are the product of the "living experience" (Erlebnis), which we are able to re-experience by an act of empatbetic intuition.
For Dilthey the study of the history of ideas was the way to achieve a valid philosophy. It is important that his concept of mind is much more comprehensive than that of Hegel. While Dilthey, too, sees in philosophy the highest capacity of the human spirit, he assigns to the poet probably an even greater creative role, and beside the poetic vision stands the practical will power that finds expression in the laws of the state and society. Philosophy rests largely on the utterances of human imagination and volition and, by abstraction, lifts them to a higher rational level.
Dilthey was the greatest historian of ideas, and although the modern practitioner of the history of ideas often may not be aware of the fact, his influence in this field has been extraordinary. Dilthey's admirable studies, which fill many volumes of his writings, were, however, written with a philosophical intent. They were to him only building stones with which he planned to erect a new system of philosophy. But, if he wanted to extract a philosophy from life or history, he had to solve a major philosophical problem. He himself defined it once in the following words: "Life is given to us not immediately, but elucidated through the objectivation of thought. If the objective conception of life is not to become dubious by the fact that it passes through the operations of thought, the objective validity of thinking will have to be demonstrated."8 This goal he never reached in his long life.
Dilthey was a philosopher of stature. Although Ortega y Gasset's statement that he was the "most important philosopher in the second half of the nineteenth century"9 goes too far, Dilthey's philosophy is not only significant as a parallel to William James's pragmatism and to Henri Bergson but also as adumbrating ideas that affected phenomenology, psychoanalysis, and existentialism. Yet Dilthey did not succeed in completing his philosophical system. His studies of the history of Western thought confronted him with a great variety of mutually incompatible world views. Originally he thought that they could be reduced and unified by psychology, and, when physical psychology failed him, he developed a psychology as a branch of the cultural sciences, the so-called descriptive psychology in contrast to the causalistic psychology. But this did not lead him philosophically much further; nor did his last attempts to formulate a typology of philosophical world views establish a common foundation. Dilthey in his last years occasionally tried to comfort himself by pointing out that the universality of the historical consciousness frees man from the limitations of his station and makes him understand the varieties of world views as expressions of human potentialities, thereby challenging his creativity by raising "the activity of man beyond the limitations of the moment and place."10
But obviously philosophy would do better if it provided man with a definite world view and a clear set of values in order to enable him to act in the confidence that in his time and place he was representing universal principles. Dilthey, however, admitted with sorrow that the history of ideas leads to relativism, to the "anarchy of world views."11
Yet we are more concerned with Dilthey's history of ideas than with his philosophy,12 although for a moment we shall eventually have to return to the latter. Dilthey's history of ideas has added a new dimension to historiography by expanding it to include, apart from the rational thoughts, the imaginative visions and the conative efforts of man. Not only conflicting systems of philosophy of a period could now be shown to represent various expressions of a common living experience, but the visions of artists and the motivating ideas of statesmen could also be related to the same experience. The spirit of an age, which Hegel and Western Positivism characterized only with naked ideas, could be described in its many-faceted and dynamic life.
At the same time, the historical characterization gained in precision. Jakob Burckhardt, in his classic work on The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), had described the outlook of the "first-born modern man," the Italian of that age, in terms such as "individualism" and "realism." Dilthey, a great admirer of the Swiss historian and sage, took exception to these general categories, which were applicable to other centuries as well. In his own "Conception and Analysis of Man in the 15th and 16th Centuries" Dilthey gave a more exact and objective delineation of the Renaissance mind.13
It is true that Dilthey's studies on the history of the human mind centered very largely around philosophy, literature, poetry, and music and that he himself did not deal with the visual arts any more than he touched upon political and social ideas. But these were personal rather than philosophical limitations, and others have rounded out the fields to which Dilthey did not directly contribute. Thus Max Dvoák and many historians of art, such as Erwin Panofsky, applied the methods of the history of ideas to the visual arts, and Friedrich Meinecke did the same for political history.
Historians have become willing to accept the analytical findings of the art historians with regard to the artistic styles of various historical periods as adequate descriptions of periods of general history. The term "The Gothic Age" or the "Age of the Baroque" has frequently been used. This makes sense only if one assumes that the artistic style of an age is the projection of an ideal disposition of historical man that determines his actions and reactions equally in all other departments of life. Does not such a view also presuppose that mind or spirit is the ultimate force behind the whole development of history? I suspect that many historians of ideas assume this to be the case and that they are attracted to the study of ideas because it seems to promise the revelation of the innermost causes of historical development. In this form the expectation is not justified. The history of ideas cannot be isolated to the extent that this was done by Dilthey.
Dilthey, as has been said before, wanted to purge the philosophy of history of the "logism" or intellectualism of the Hegelian type. This meant two things: on the one hand, the removal of metaphysics and the demand not to go beyond life itself; on the other, the inclusion of art and religion in a system of world views that superseded the exclusive emphasis on philosophy and science as in Hegel and Comte. But actually Dilthey did not go the whole way. Life in Dilthey's philosophy was identified exclusively with the living experience of the individuals and individual groups that have formulated religions and philosophic ideas or paradigmatic aesthetic forms. This narrowing down to what appears in the consciousness of creative men is far from a consideration of the totality of life. He himself knew that a great reality exists beyond the inward experience of the individual, but he maintains that it is given to us only in symbols, signs, and so forth.14
Dilthey was aware that man is a man among men and that as a social being he is conditioned by the society of which he is a member. In one of his articles in which he describes the historical origins of modern science from ancient Greece and Israel to René Descartes and G. W. von Leibniz, he wrote:
The long Middle Ages ... beginning with the fourteenth century turned toward their end; in the labor of thinking the individual had won his freedom. At the same time a decisive change of the economic life and the social orders of Europe took place, and this resulted in a total shift of intellectual interests. The work of the bourgeois classes in industry and commerce appeared as an independent force in the midst of the feudal and ecclesiastical orders of life. It directed the mind toward this world. Thinking probed into nature and man. The significance of reality and the autonomous value of family, work, and state were felt and recognized.15
Yet, although these sentences clearly state a causal connection between and social and economic facts, Dilthey and most of his successors attempted to establish specific relations between social developments and particular ideas. Thus the sketchy description of the changing social conditions of an age remained more of a painted backdrop of the stage instead of being used to explain the drama itself. Only indirectly does the social structure of a civilization, for Dilthey, affect the progress of the mind that is realized through the life experience of individuals. As an example we may quote the words with which Dilthey in his brilliant study of "The Eighteenth Century and the Historical World" introduces Voltaire. After outlining the political reasons that gave rise to the great culture of England in that age he says: "Voltaire absorbed this ideal of a powerful but free order of society when he came to England. Yet since he was with every fiber a Frenchman, he clung firmly to the independent value of the culture of his joyful fatherland."16
No doubt color, and for that matter historical color, is added to the picture of the evolution of ideas by such methods, but no immediate links are created between the social reality and a system of ideas. Actually, however, world views are always created as answers to practical human needs and not only as abstract syntheses. To be sure, the philosopher--and something similar may be said of the poet or artist--may be interested in a study of past philosophical systems without reference to their concrete origins. He wants to study them as paradigmatic thought models with a view to getting inspiration from them. Behind this is the belief in the existence of what Leibniz called the philosophia perennis. To the historian, however, this approach is not adequate.
The historian ought to be cognizant of the nature of ideas. The individual forms a life picture in which his position vis-à-vis his fellow men and society is an integral part. He uses ideas to construct a world view that serves not only his self-understanding but also, the determination of his attitude to society, which may be reactionary, conservative, reformist, or revolutionary, and this attitude may change within a changing society or the shift of the social status of the individual. Seldom are these fully conscious choices, and the ideas are rarely original, but usually follow a group pattern. Even the man with novel ideas and visions is hardly above the group because he addresses a public that he tries to persuade or possibly spur into action. We must therefore conclude that social history is the necessary complement to the history of ideas. As Ernst Troeltsch stated, without living up to his own advice:
The rise and development of such theories cannot be detached from the concrete needs and interests of their contemporary environment....They are intellectual structures that cannot be torn from the practical needs and circumstances that create them. They are therefore justified not only from the point of pure theory but mainly from that of their practical contributions and effects.17
It seems doubtful to me whether the philosopher Troeltsch did not go too far in this statement by placing the emphasis exclusively on the effects of ideas. Crane Brinton, too, has perhaps unduly narrowed the scope of the history of ideas by saying that it is interested in "the relations between the ideas of the philosophers, the intellectuals, the thinkers, and the actual way of living of the millions who carry the tasks of civilization."18 I would still believe that even the study of ideas that had no significant influence can be justified if it illustrates the horizons of thinking in the period of their appearance. There are, moreover, ideas that begin to have an impact very late. Arthur Schopenhauer's chief work, The World as Will and Idea, appeared in 1819 and received practically no attention. But after 1850 it began to be eagerly read and had a tremendous effect for the rest of the century.
The history of Schopenhauer's influence cannot be explained in terms of the logical unfolding of ideas. It can be understood only through social history. The German intellectuals of 1820 saw in German idealism, and particularly in Hegel's philosophy, the most satisfactory world view in accordance with their living experiences,19 whereas the generation that had lost the Revolution of 1848-1849 and lived in the dawn of the Industrial Revolution turned to Schopenhauer. On an international level the reception of Sören Kierkegaard is comparable. The philosophy of the Danish thinker, who died in 1855, was revived in Germany after World War I, in England in the 1930's, and in America after World War II.
For the explanation of the continued actuality of truncated systems of thought we have again to take recourse in social history. Leaving Marxism alone, little remained alive of Hegel's system after 1840 except the glorification of the state. Hegel's teaching that there is no secular judge of the conflicts of states and that the decision on which state represents the higher historic principle can ultimately be found only in war appealed strongly to the supporters of the new imperialism. Yet a Heinrich von Treitschke had not forgotten that in Hegel's words the state is the embodiment of morality and that religion, art, and science are forms of the absolute spirit. As a consequence, government by law was to Treitschke as much a natural ideal as the toleration and furtherance of free religion, art, and science. Since Hegelianism has been so often called by German Nazi and anti-Nazi professors as well as by non-German writers a forerunner of National Socialism, it should be pointed out that there is no ideological bridge between the two.20 National Socialism was absolutely opposed to any universal principle, to free religion, art, and science, and also to government by law. As a matter of fact, to the Nazis the state was not the highest community but rather the Volk, and, of course, theirs was not a philosophy of mind but a biological materialism. Hegel's destruction of the philosophical basis of international law may be named a contributing factor not to National Socialism but to its acceptance and support by members of the traditional academic intelligentsia, and this again cannot be judged to be an event exclusively in the history of ideas.
In insisting on the need for social history in conjunction with the history of ideas I do not suggest that the development of ideas ought to be interpreted economically, least of all in the Marxian sense which requires that ideas be made the mere superstructures of the economically conditioned class conflict. Marxism is not improved as a theory of history if it is deprived of its dialectics and its revolutionary prophecy, as is being done by many American scholars who seem to be satisfied to prove that a man just veils his bourgeois sentiment behind ideas labeled objective notions. This ideological debunking seems to me rather dull sport for a historian.
The fundamental difficulty of Marxism is its inadequate picture of the structure of Western society in the various ages. The three classes--feudal, bourgeois, and proletarian--with which Marx operates, although in his strictly historical writings he uses more refined definitions, barely suffice to explain the social movements of an industrializing or industrial society. They are quite inappropriate to the preindustrial society in which social status is affected by many factors other than property, whether landed or financial. The burgher of the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, for example, is hardly comparable to the bourgeois of the industrial society.
It is true, however, that the work for a livelihood and the desire for a secure life are conscious experiences everyone has, and they are bound to affect every world view. There are, undoubtedly, world views that are nothing but structures for the defense or advancement of particular social interests. But not all world views are that narrow. In using ideas the validity of thought has to be defended, and this requires the proof of its universality and autonomy. Over many centuries we observe in Western civilization the growth, by no means even growth, of rationality. The High Middle Ages exhibited such development. In contrast to the East, the West saw no caesaropapism, and the spiritual principle received protection against the political powers from the Roman Church. The Church also nourished a theology in alliance with philosophy. In the development of the medieval cities, groups of merchants and artisans went outside the feudal system, bent upon organizing and administering their business along more rational lines. About the progress toward greater rationality in modern times, it is not necessary to speak here. With it the capacity for the rational control of human affairs has been growing. This control, however, is precarious and constantly imperiled by passions and interests to which the human mind remains forever tied.
There is a continuous interaction between mind, on the one hand, and interest and passions, on the other. The latter two, desiring power, want to make the spirit their servant in order to objectify themselves in ideas. The mind on its part, in order to realize itself, tries to tame interests and passions and force them to allow for the realization of the potentialities of man. The assertion of abstract notions is of no avail in this struggle. The human mind has to take sides without, however, giving up its freedom, which is its true essence if never fully achieved. As a matter of fact, some of the worst dangers that beset the life of the mind stem from the nature of ideas. They tend to become rigid and strongly resistant to replacement by new ideas more fit to reflect novel conditions. But the human mind, in spite of temporary stagnation and grave reverses, has shown itself a decisive force in building civilizations and thereby has not only survived but also gained in strength.
It is the task of history to recognize man in time. Only through history are we able to transcend the limitations of our own station in time and space and become aware of our full potentialities. But this requires placing man in the midst of his total social environment, from which we shall learn about his civilizing strength and weakness. Aiming at the highest historical truth we shall fortify our courage to be free.
12. I have dealt at greater length with Dilthey's philosophy in my article "Dilthey's Critique of Historical Reason," Journal of the History of Ideas, XI (Jan. 1950), 93 ff. For a full bibliography, the following should be added: Gerhard Masur, "Dilthey and the History of Ideas," ibid., XIII (Jan. 1952), 94 ff., and the section on Dilthey in Prophets of Yesterday (New York, 1961); in addition, Carlo Antoni, From History to Sociology (Detroit, 1959), and Wilhelm Dilthey, Pattern and Meaning in History, ed. H. P. Rickman (New York, 1962). [back to text]
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