Thursday, July 26, 2007

The centaur at the forest's edge

As I work on making my first pot roast and in the lull before my daily workout (summers off are a nice perk for the teacher) I'm reading a bit of Jacob Burckhardt's Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen (translated inexplicably as 'Force and Freedom' and later republished by the Liberty Fund as 'Reflections on History'). Burckhardt is perhaps most famous today for the Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. He was a friend of Friedrich Nietzsche and an accomplished art historian who was lampooned by the likes of Wilamowitz for his views on the Greeks, but whom modern historians have followed and vindicated (cf. Oswyn Murray's edition of Burckhardt's The Greeks and Greek Civilization published by St. Martin's).

Early in the introduction to WB he uses the following image in rejecting Hegel's philosophy of history:

Diese ist ein Kentaur, eine contradictio in adjecto; denn Geschichte, d.h. das Koordinieren, ist nicht Philosophie und Philosophie, d.h. Subordinieren, ist Nichtgeschichte.
For the Deutchless (and perhaps the unLatined) among us:
This ('philosophy of history') is a centaur, a contradiction in terms; for history, i.e., that which coordinates, is not philosophy, and philosophy, i.e., that which subordinates, is unhistorical.
Burckhardt objects to the attempt of imposing a system onto something non-linear and unsystematic, and considers the first principals of the philosophy of history to lead necessarily to contradictions, and sees the obsession with origins as futile and necessitating predictions of the so-called progress of history.

The centaur soon reemerges, though, and we find that he isn't all bad:
Immerhin ist man dem Kentauren den höchsten Dank schuldig und begrüßt ihn gerne hie und da an einem Waldesrand der geschichtlichen Studien. Welches auch sein Prinzip gewesen, er hat einzelne mächtige Ausblicke durch den Wald gehauen und Salz in die Geschichte gebracht. Denken wir dabei nur an Herder.
And again a translation:
Still, we are very grateful to the centaur and gladly welcome him now and again at the edge of forest of historical studies. Whatever his principles have been, he has hewn several powerful vistas through the forest and added salt to history. We need only think of Herder.
Herder is best remembered today for his devotion to the notion of die Völker, or peoples, which may have helped pave the way to German nationalism. It's interesting though that Herder was reacting against the nationalism of his own day and was interested in elevating all 'peoples' of the world equally. He did shake things up to say the least.

Bruce Lincoln's Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship, which is concerned with what scholars have done with myth throughout history, contains a lot of useful and insightful information on Herder. Not that I endorse Lincoln's conclusions, his own theoretical framework, or especially his shoddy treatment of historical linguistics in the epilogue, but it is definitely worth reading and generally fair (if sometimes bordering on sensational).

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