Thursday, November 29, 2012

Philosophy in the 19th century, why it came from certain countries and not others

It's been observed that in the early 19th century much of the intellectual ferment came from Germany. The Romantics, the Idealists, the Kantians, all originated there....and this intellectual climate later went on to produce Marx and Engels. But why this should be the case is a little obscure, although not totally. The lands that are now known as Germany industrialized much later than the rest of Europe, and in point of fact while there was an intellectual culture there, it wasn't as developed as in France or Great Britain, where both England and Scotland made major contributions to the Enlightenment. Instead, the German lands of the Holy Roman Empire were late developers, and so when the early 19th century hit, and history caught up to them, intellectuals took it as their cue to try to make their contribution, and in this the backwardness which existed actually proved a virtue.

It was a virtue not because ignorance is ever a virtue, but because although these places didn't contribute much to the Enlightenment, they contributed very heavily to the Renaissance, and Renaissance thought was preserved in these areas in ways that it hadn't been elsewhere. Elsewhere, you had had the "Battle of the Books" talked about by Jonathan Swift, in these lands you didn't. Which meant that after the French Revolution, and even during it, you suddenly have German scholars able to give a counter-point to everything based on this thought that had come before, which changed the game considerably. Renaissance flexibility was pitted against reductive materialism from the Enlightenment, and interesting things happened as a result.  One of the interesting things that happened, in the end, was Historical Materialism, the Materialism of Marx, which, in its original and non-vulgar forms was quite different than the mechanical materialism that came before, with Marx himself declaiming that his materialism was not an extension of that...not only once, but in many places.

In proper Hegelian fashion, the tension between the backwards looking Enlightenment, which looked back on classical sources, and the forward looking Enlightenment, that resembled more what we would consider today to be pure philosophy, was cut by something completely different. This something different would, towards the end of the 19th century, mutate into something virulently bad, but most people who look into these things would no doubt agree that the original thought of the early Romantics, and the Idealists, had little to do with the vulgarizations that took place later on.

Later, the Russians would try to do the same trick---looking at the unique position of Russian society, culture, and intellectual tradition and trying to criticize the west as a whole, including Germany and the Idealists, based on this position, not on the understanding that they were necessarily superior but on the understanding that Russia's position in the world enabled it to give an interesting and potentially valuable commentary on what was happening in Western Europe.

Many of these approaches, particularly in the late 19th, early 20th century, such as those of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, combined a Russo-centric ideology with Marxism and socialism in general, both in an industrial and in an agrarian-populist form, populism in this sense taken to refer to the pre-capitalist traditions of the Russian countryside that were thought to still exist.

*on edit: one of the reasons for the intellectual backwardness of the German speaking lands was the Thirty Years War, a series of revolts started by the Protestant Reformation that essentially ended the Renaissance tradition there. Although France had its Wars of Religion, and England had its English Civil War, neither of them appear to have left the destruction that the Thirty Years War did.

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