Terry Pinkard
German Philosophy 1760-1860

For completely contingent reasons, the Germans of this period thus squarely faced what we can now call 'modern' problems. The force of tradition, of scripture, even of nature and religion in general, had been shaken for them, and whatever orientation such things had offered them in the past seemed either non-existent or at least up for grabs. They were, of course, by no means willing simply to abandon appeals to scripture or tradition; instead, they found that holding on to those things required some other evidence than those things themselves, that the authority of tradition and established religion was no longer self-evident or self-certifying. This was not simply a matter of the world becoming more complex for new generations so that they were being called to be more discriminating than their parents; it was that their social world itself had changed, and that they had changed, such that appeals to matters that in the past had settled things for the ancestors-the very old 'German' particularistic, 'hometown' notion of 'a place for everyone and everyone in their place'-were no longer viable. What had seemed fixed had come to seem either a matter of changeable convention or at best something that humans had 'placed' in the world, not part of the eternal structure of things. What they were left with was their 'own lives,' and what they found themselves 'called' to do was lead their own lives. This, however, only raised the further issue for them: what kind of life counted as 'one's own'?

Trying to interpret their world, they found that the institutions and practices surrounding them gave them little help, since they could not 'find' themselves or 'see' themselves reflected in those practices. They became thereby metaphorically 'homeless'; the consolations of locality, which had structured life for so many of their ancestors, were not immediately there for them. Yet they also did not find themselves without direction or guidance; they still lived in an orderly, determined society that had carved out specific roles for them to play. They thus took on a kind of duality in their own lives, an awareness (sometimes suffocating) of what they were supposed to do, a sense that their life's path had already been laid out for them, and an equally compelling awareness that they were not 'determined' by these pre-determined social paths, that it was 'their own' lives they had to lead, all of which presented them with what can be properly called a pressing moral as well as a political question: how to live, how to keep faith with their families, their friends, their social context, sometimes even their religion, while maintaining this alienated, 'dual' stance toward their own selves.

'Germany' thus found itself in a revolutionary situation, even though virtually nobody was calling for revolution. There was a palpable sense that things had to change, but nobody was sure what form the change should take or where the change should lead. Feeling that the past was no longer an independently adequate guide, they had to make up the answers to their unprecedented questions as they went along.

It is small wonder that Rousseau was so attractive for those generations. His notions resonated with everything they were experiencing: first, that we are 'corrupted' by civilization (with its courtly culture and its fawning courtiers, each keeping his eye on what the others were doing to decide whom to imitate, each looking to the metaphorical social rule-book to guide his action); and, second, that we should instead seek a kind of independence from such social entanglements, be 'natural,' find some kind of authenticity in our lives, be self-directing, and attend to our emotions as more 'natural' guides to life. In Germany, the cult of feeling and sensibility in particular took root with a vehemence. The one avenue of expression for people with that kind of dual and divided consciousness of themselves and their social world-what the German idealists would later call a 'splitting in two,' an Entzweiung-was the cultivation of an authentic sensibility, an attending to what was their 'own' that was independent of the conformist, artificial world of the courts and the bureaucracy that either already surrounded them or inevitably awaited them.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.