Wednesday, 31 July 2013


Whoever has lived through these times and paid attention feels in the inmost way that an hour of reckoning has now come for the German spirit. In sleepless nights of listening and waiting one senses, very close by, the hot breath of this spirit. Now that false dreams of power have been dreamed out, now that need and suffering have burst the hard shells that threatened to suffocate it, this spirit, with a monstrous display of power, struggles toward its realization. […] Nearly all of the innumerable movements that now tremble throughout Germany and shake it to its foundations testify, despite their apparently contradictory directions, to the desire and nature of this spirit. Youth groups that carry forward generalized human ideals or the ideas of the Germanic fraternities; communards whose values are linked to the communism of primitive Christianity; associations of the like-minded that have as their goal a renewal from within; interfaith religious groups; democratic-pacifist unions; and several efforts at popular education: all these seek the same thing, to emerge from abstract ideas anchored in the ego and arrive at concrete communal forms.

                                     -Siegfried Kracauer, ‘German Spirit and German Reality’ (1922)

Kracauer’s insightful definition of the stirring of collective, existential spirit-life during the early years of the Weimar Republic, is quoted by Michael Jennings in the course of his essay on Walter Benjamin for the 2012 collection edited by Leonard V. Kaplan and Rudy Koshar, The Weimar Moment: Liberalism, Political Theology, and Law. This summary of the early existentialist Zeitgeist, as involving a struggling forth of Geist out of the conceptualizing ‘ego’ and into ‘concrete communal forms’, can be read as a programme statement of The Weimar Moment itself. In his ‘Introduction’ to the volume, Koshar stresses its ambition to attend to the theological dimension of the intellectual life of the Weimar era:

‘Although scholars such as Mark Lilla have celebrated liberalism’s separation of the political and theological spheres, the cumulative effect of these essays is to show that even in its most secular and “humanist” variations, the debate for or against liberalism constantly allowed “theological” themes and gestures entry.’

On this blog [here] I have referred to Chris Thornhill’s emphasis on the way in which Jaspers’ early existentialism evolved out of his critical reaction to neo-Kantianism, in particular the variety propounded by Heinrich Rickert. The Weimar Moment shows what Jennings calls the ‘the religious revival that swept Germany in the early 1920s’, to be instinct with the emergence of meta-Kantian – for instance existentialist – thinking at this time. In his contribution, John P. McCormick notes how Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss also were both ‘deeply affected by the early-20th-century crisis of neo-Kantian thought in Germany’. In statements that bring to mind the debilitating crisis of contemporary academic rationality too, McCormick writes:

‘This crisis is perhaps best characterized as a widespread perception that Enlightenment rationality could not ground itself: that the most sophisticated system of reason required either a leap of faith to get itself off the ground or some external motivation outside the system itself.’ 

In the early 1920s Benjamin as well was becoming aware of the limitations of Kantian rationality, as Jennings stresses when he discusses Benjamin’s positive reception of Erich Unger, whose Politik und Metaphysik of 1921 Benjamin classed as the ‘most significant writing on politics of our time’. (Interestingly, Unger’s title foreshadows the sub-title of Thornhill’s 2002 book Karl Jaspers). As Jennings underlines, ‘each man’ – Unger and Benjamin – believed that philosophical thought ‘must move beyond a Kantian model that for them was based upon an inadequate understanding of human experience and knowledge’. Quoting Unger’s book, Jennings continues by noting that Politics and Metaphysics ‘thus conceives politics as an activity whose primary goal is the provision of an arena for psychophysical experience that may “correspond to a disclosure of divine reality”’. 

‘As Margarete Kohlenbach has put it, Benjamin and Unger shared the conviction that “philosophical thought is to seek to identify the conditions in which man could objectively experience, and thus know, that which in modern religiosity is at best believed, or somehow sensed, to be true.”’      

Rodrigo Chacón, in his contribution to The Weimar Moment titled ‘Hannah Arendt in Weimar: Beyond the Theological-Political Predicament?’, notes the shift in Arendt’s terminology in the course of her life, so that later ‘she would attempt to provide existential concepts for the religious notions that she had used in her dissertation’. For example, ‘human “createdness” would become human “conditionedness” (Bedingtheit)’. Yet Chacón thus suggests that Arendt’s existentialism was inseparable from the initial accent on religious experience in her thinking. In the 1920s, he writes, Arendt was ‘deeply marked by the attempts of Heidegger and [Rudolf] Bultmann to provide a philosophical account of certain Christian possibilities of existence’. Opposing Arendt’s later emphasis on existential Bedingtheit to Hermann Cohen’s neo-Kantian ‘hyper-normativism’, Chacón points to the way in which Heidegger’s and Bultmann’s attention to existential experience of the spiritual quality of our life – of Christian possibilities – modulated in Arendt’s mature thought into her existentialist attention to ‘existential sources in Christian religious experience’:

‘Like Bultmann, Barth and others, Arendt was not a moral – let alone a “normative” – thinker, […] because (human) morality – especially in the form of an ethics of the “pure will” – is essentially a rebellion against what conditions us or what is given to us. Thus [for example], again like Bultmann, Arendt problematized a fundamental ethical and religious precept – neighbourly love – from the standpoint of a more authentic understanding of its existential sources in Christian religious experience.’

The essay from Samuel Moyn and Azzan Yadin-Israel, ‘The Creaturely Limits of Knowledge: Martin Heidegger’s Theological Critique of Immanuel Kant’, focusses on Heidegger’s 1928 work Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics. Here again Bedingtheit and an awareness of human limitations seems to offer the key. Moyn and Yadin-Israel argue that ‘unlike Kant’s, Heidegger’s philosophical argument is intended to win assent for an anthropology of human abasement, neediness, and dependence’. It is in temporality, Moyn and Yadin-Israel assert, that Heidegger finds ‘the damning proof of man’s dependence and indigence – an insuperable limit to his autonomy and perfectibility’. Or alternatively they maintain that, in Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, Heidegger transfers autonomy to time. They cite the following extract, commenting that it ‘touches on precisely those capacities that for Kant mark the human subject as a citizen of the noumenal world but transposes them so that they are now attributes of time: self-activation, independence of experience, and a kind of autonomy’.

(Marketa Luskacova)
‘Time is only pure intuition to the extent that it prepares the look of succession from out of itself. […] This pure intuition activates itself with the intuited which was formed in it, i.e., which was formed without the aid of experience. According to its essence, time is pure affection of itself. [….] As pure self-affection, time […] forms the essence of something like self-activating.’        

Indeed for Heidegger, as Moyn and Yadin-Israel continue, ‘Time must be self-affecting for human being to remain consigned to a state of receptivity’, of dependence and finitude. This reference to receptivity leads into Moyn and Yadin-Israel’s discussion of Heidegger’s ideas of attunement, summoning and service. Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics : ‘In order to allow the being to be what and as it is, however, the existing being [Dasein] must already have projected that it is a being on the strength of what has been encountered. Existence means dependency upon the being’. As Moyn and Yadin-Israel put it, ‘Knowledge, Heidegger concludes, lies not in the individual’s ability to gain mastery over nature but in an ability to properly orient oneself toward receiving the revelation of the world.’ As Chacón notes too, for Heidegger ‘revelation was to be understood in terms of Dasein’s openness for meaning or sense (Sinnoffenheit)’. Moyn and Yadin-Israel see Heidegger’s location ‘squarely in the aftermath of Barth’s insistence that man’s indigent need for external revelation be recovered as the lost core of Christianity (with Heidegger obviously displacing the source of this necessary revelation)’, as determining his emphasis on ‘Readiness to be summoned to receive the external gift of revelation, presented as an offering and made available through the agency of the “wholly other”’. The Weimar Moment repeatedly returns to the link made by Weimar dialectical theology between conditionedness and revelation. Chacón quotes from Bultmann’s ‘The Eschatology of the Gospel of John’ of 1928: ‘To know him [sic; God] is to see him as really made manifest, and that means to recognize him as Creator, to submit one’s self to be determined by him.’ Ulrich Rosenhagen, in his article treating the Weimar era Jewish-Protestant encounter, summarizes Friedrich Gogarten’s Die religiöse Entscheidung (1921; The Religious Decision) as both an attempt ‘to define a new language of God and revelation beyond history’, and a rejection of religion qua ‘an arrogant human enterprise to overcome the absolute contradiction between creator and creature’.   

McCormick’s account of Schmitt’s and Strauss’ response to the crisis of neo-Kantianism is suggestive in relation to contemporary intellectual crises such as postmodern, nihilist relativism and the conversion of mass socialist politics (in the UK) into the debt-building profligacy of consumerist New Labour. But perhaps the progressivism of Blair’s ‘Things can only get better’ is morphing now into a wary stoicism, of ‘Things had better stay the same’. Recent academic phenomena such as the online journal Thinking Verse or Simon Jarvis’ ultra-formalist epic poem Night Office – which holds to an abababcc  rhyme scheme throughout all its 218 pages can be read as rebellions against today’s version of the modern rejection of limits, or as restatements of the Weimar era theorists’ insistence on the need to evolve conceptions of conditioning form:  

‘Schmitt and Strauss each insisted that Enlightenment rationality was unravelling into a way of thinking that violently rejected “form” of any kind, fixated myopically on human capabilities rather than natural limits, and lacked any conception of the structural constraints that condition the possibility of philosophy, morality, and politics. Consequently, for both authors, Enlightenment reason obfuscates “genuine” expressions of rationality and obscures the necessity of political order as such.’    

McCormick analyzes Strauss’ schema of varying atheisms, in order to underline his conception of  the religious ‘fear that is necessary for stable human interactions’ (McCormick’s words) and founds political order:

‘Strauss observed that traditional atheisms associated with Epicureanism and Averoism [sic] were fundamentally soft; they rejected the harsh rigours of religious observance and diminished the necessity of fear of the divine. On the contrary, Strauss suggests that modern atheism, as expressed by a Hobbes or a Heidegger, confronts and embraces the harshness of human existence, accentuates the necessarily and fundamentally fearful state within which human beings exist, and accentuates the inescapable fact that human beings are in need, as such, of dominion, of being ruled.’

Whether manifesting now as submission to the principle of capital accumulation à la Weber, or else to an infantilizing consumer culture à la  the Wyndham Lewis of The Art of Being Ruled (1926), such religious awe remains the human norm. Surely religious fear and the need to submit underpinned what Kracauer called the imperialistic-militaristic ‘false dreams of power’ which afflicted Germany in the years preceding the First World War. When we need to be ruled we too in turn begin to dream those dreams; but arguably in ‘German Spirit and German Reality’, Kracauer, with his association of the growing thinking of existential spirit-life with its own ‘monstrous display of power’, begins to suggest a new form of power and an alternative way of being ruled. For what was the 1920s push towards the emergence of existential spirit-life but a more progressive manifestation of ‘The Hunger for Wholeness’ which Peter Gay, in his Weimar Culture, saw to characterize the Weimar era ‘fear of modernity’?

‘Not all who, in the twenties, hungered for connection and unity were victims of regression; a few, outnumbered and not destined to succeed, sought to satisfy their needs not through escape from but mastery of the world, not through denunciation but employment of the machine, not through irrationalism but reason, not through nihilism but construction – and this quite literally, for this modern and democratic philosophy was formulated in their writings and carried out in their buildings by architects.’

Jaspers is positioned on the same axis of civility as Gay's mentor, Ernst Cassirer. Jaspers’ early existentialism was not anti-Kantian, but meta-Kantian. If it sought to supersede Kantian formalism, it remained structured by the antinomies (such as reason/experience) which it sought to overcome by, in Thornhill’s words [here], ‘incorporating all aspects (cognitive, practical and sensory) of human life in an encompassing account of rational and experiential existence’. To submit to (the project of) such an encompassing account, or to seek to absorb oneself within psycho-physical wholeness, was the early existentialist variant of the more populist 1920s trend defined by Kracauer: ‘to emerge from abstract ideas anchored in the ego and arrive at concrete communal forms’. But of course the existentialists, like the new urban constructors, were either ‘outnumbered’ or (in Heidegger's case) seduced by Nazism: Germany drifted on into submission to authoritarian leadership, and remained fatally trapped within the old forms of power.          


  1. Got here through your Sinclair work and discovered this east and west wards drifting. I was involved in the late 80' with a Cassirer's master's follower (Hans Kelsen, a neo-Kantian law theorist) and was naturally attracted to the Weimarer Republik - for a while. Will read your posts.

  2. Good. I wasn't aware of the Cassirer-Kelsen link; to do with neo-Kantianism of course. I should revisit the Thornhills on this.