The contingent cathedral: notes on Lewis White Beck’s Early German Philosophy

Lewis White Beck‘s 1969 Early German Philosophy is a long, rich and rambling chronicle of philosophical thinkers and philosophical ideas originating from what we now call Germany, roughly from the birth of St. Ambrose in 340 to the death of Kant in 1804.

Beck opens the book with the question “Can there be, should there be, a history of German philosophy?” (p. 1). He proceeds to argue against many of the superficial justifications for embarking on a “national history of philosophy”:

Within the history of European culture we see thoughts expressed in various languages by men from different parts of the Continent. But these components are hardly well-formed unities with sharp edges. None of them is comprehensible by itself. In every one of them, important men and ideas from another must be included. No history of English or German philosophy can be understood without Descartes; no history of French or German philosophy can be understood without Locke; no history of French thought can be understood without Leibniz. If we add to this caution the recollection that few countries are now geographically what they were five centuries ago and that up to three centuries ago most philosophical works were written in a single language and passed, more freely than they do now, from one part of Europe to another, a national history of philosophy may appear at best episodic, at worst arbitrary. Why not write a history of philosophy mentioning only men whose names begin with the letter “p”? (p. 2)

He continues:

After reading a vast amount of writings purporting to list the distinctive and peculiar traits of German philosophy, I must report that I have found no generalization to which many important exceptions cannot be found in a moment’s reflection. Perhaps the notion of an ideal type or family resemblences may help us find the nongeographical meaning of “German philosophy”. But my experience of attempts to do this is little more encouraging. (p. 3)

Instead Beck argues that a “national history of philosophy” can be “parasitic” upon the study of “interests and conflicts in politics, society, religion, literature and art” during a particular historical period.

Throughout the book he alludes to circumstances and “complexes of powers and problems” that are relevant to the development of philosophical thought in Germany. A major theme is the way in which the development of the university system shaped philosophy. Beck argues that we should not underestimate the impact of the fact that many important philosophers were attached to universities. Philosophical movements sprang up around particular institutions (“Marburg neo-Kantianism”, “Jena Romanticism”, “Berlin idealism”). Universities were state institutions, which meant that political criticism was either absent or highly disguised. He contends that the nature of the university system meant that doctrines would often quickly become dogmas which gave rise to antithetical reactions – “pantheisms, humanisms, vitalisms, mysticisms”.

Beck takes up Hegel’s metaphor of a cathedral for “the mind of the people”, whose “vaults, passages, pillars and vestibules” have “proceeded out of one whole and are directed to one end”. But while Hegel’s cathedral presumably possesses a unity and coherence which reflects and derives from the unity of a ‘people’, Beck’s cathedral is full of contingencies and its unity and coherence is only in appearance:

The “German spirit” is not something brooding over a thousand years of philosophy; it is a name for immensely rich and varied responses to the mysteries of existence […] Unless this variety is kept in mind, conceptions of German philosophy will be so simple that they will seem to explain it, but will be in fact so simple that they explain nothing. (p. 5)

He goes on to describe the difference between an ‘ordinary’ history of philosophy and a ‘national’ history of philosophy as follows:

Ordinarily the history of philosophy is a history of philosophical problems and ideas embodied in the work of the two or three dozen most important philosophers, far apart from each other both spatially and temporally. In a national history of philosophy, on the other hand, one must deal with many more philosophers, few of whom can be considered world figures. The continuities of a national history, therefore, are spatial and temporal as well as intellectual. (p. 14)

Thus begins his project, which is epic in scope. The following is an indicative (but certainly not exhaustive) list of figures whom we encounter throughout the course of the book: Albertus Magnus, Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, Johannes Althusius, Paracelsus, Philipp Melanchthon, Jakob Böhme, Johann Jakob Spener, Joachim Jungius, Joseph Clauberg, Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, Erhard Weigel, Christian Thomasius, Samuel von Pufendorf, Christian Wolff, Johann Christoph Gottsched, Johann Jakob Bodmer, Johann Jakob Breitinger, Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, Georg Friedrich Meier, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Moses Mendelssohn, Johann Georg Hamann, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Johann Gottfried Herder, Christian August Crusius, Johann Heinrich Lambert, and Johann Nicholas Tetens.

Each chapter gives an overview of thinkers, ideas and schools of thought from a given period in German philosophy or clustered around a certain theme, with the exception of full chapters on Nicholas of Cusa, Leibniz, Lessing and Kant, whom receive more extensive treatment.

The book gives a wonderfully opulent picture of the transmission, reception and influence of different ideas, texts and thinkers. For example, the reader is given a sense of how Aristotle was received: which bits became known at different points, how he was read, what his reputation was like, and the effect of various religious and political decrees on his theological and philosophical interpretation. We learn of things like how Neoplatonism came into philosophy via mystical theology and Nicholas of Cusa, how Lutheran and Calvinist doctrine were transliterated into metaphysical speculation, the reputation and influence of Cartesian, Lockean, Spinozistic, Leibnizian and Wolffian ideas at different points, and how bits of Lambert, Crusius and Tetens were taken up by Kant. But Beck also gives us a welcome caution against taking the ‘influence game’ too seriously:

Looking for sources is a pleasant game … but it it is a dangerous game if played with too serious a purpose – played as if a philosopher can write only what he has read in another book. (p. 457)

Beck’s book plots the trajectory of philosophy from being predominantly an ancilla Ecclesiae (handmaiden to the church) or an ancilla theologiae (handmaiden to theology), to being an important and independent secular discipline. It shows how

[…] the Church had to develop talents and skills that history showed would not long remain humble servants of her own purposes. (p. 31)

Beck highlights the theological roots of many disputes, debates, and dogmas. Proponents of the Aufklärer were on the whole significantly less secular or anticlerical than their French or English counterparts. Romantic and proto-Romantic critics of the Enlightenment were deeply influenced by various forms of Pietism and mysticism. From metaphors and assumptions to moves and arguments, German philosophy is saturated in god talk.

As well as tracing the contours of tendencies and tributaries in the German philosophical tradition, there are some fantastic morsels of (mostly completely unnecessary) detail about its figures and episodes. Albertus Magnus had a vision in which “the devil (uncharacteristically, to be sure) is said to have … tried unsuccessfully to frighten him from the study of Aristotle” (p. 31). Thomasius was the “first professor to wear a sword while lecturing” (p. 249). While defending “Wolff’s restricted version of the theory of pre-established harmony” Gottsched “was so thoroughly defeated in the subsequent disputation that he burst into tears” (p. 279). Frederick the Great liked to forget he was king, but “wanted his companions who were poets and philosophes to remember it always” (p. 309). Frederick’s father Friedrich Wilhelm asked the Berlin Academy to “make the path of the sun around the earth a circle and not a square” and to “make sure there were as many good days and as few bad days as possible in the calendar” (p. 314).

To mention just a few of the possibly less familiar ideas that the book is brimming with: the metaphysics of light and emanation-theory of the Neoplatonists (pp. 39, 47), Nicholas of Cusa’s microcosmic conception of humankind and geometrical explorations of the infinite (pp. 57, 65), Paracelsus’s doctrine of ‘signatures’ and the idea that creation emerges from matter like a sculpture from a block (pp. 143-144), Sebastian Franck’s notion that the bird is sung and flown by God (p. 149), Valentin Weigel’s conception of the mind as a pool of water (p. 150), Joachim Jungius’s belief that nature writes with an atomic alphabet rather than in pictures (p. 177), Erhard Weigel’s mechanical representation of moral concepts (p.194), Leibniz’s suggestion that there is a world of creatures in every drop of water (p. 244), and Thomasius’s contention that “light and air are a spiritual being” (p. 252).

Beck often has an air of affectionate impatience when he is presenting the ideas of the many characters in his story. He apologises for the “distressing length” (p. 139) and “regrettable diversity” (p. 160) of his exposition. “Philosophers” he says “seem unable to remain silent about the unnameable, the indescribable, the ineffable” (p. 50). And he certainly isn’t an uncritical or unphilosophical interpreter. He has an eye for “philosophical talent” and does his best to reconstruct the arguments and theses of thinkers he believes are in possession of it. But he also isn’t afraid to note the absence of such talent. One of Kant’s arguments “is so lame that I shall not reproduce it” (p. 451). Of one of Erhard Weigel’s books that he was unable to locate, he writes:

[…] from what I have seen, one may perhaps be permitted to entertain a doubt as to whether I or my reader will suffer unduly from lack of first-hand knowledge of Weigel’s other writings (p. 195)

A passage which highlights Beck’s dedication to his project occurs in relation to his suggestion that the intellectual career of Leibniz “resembles a fugue”, whereby “at any moment, a cross section of all his thoughts shows a marvelous harmony, with the same or analgous concepts undergoing like development in each of the staves”. In a footnote to support the analogy, he writes:

This image is no doubt fanciful, but it is not fantastic. For in studying Leibniz I found it useful to use a kind of fugal schema. I took large sheets which I dated, one for each year of Leibniz’ career. I divided the sheets into sections, marked off by principal concepts, and then pasted slips of paper with key sentences in these slots. It was dramatic to see an idea in one slot on one page reappear in other slots a few pages later, to see how consistent Leibniz was on any one or two pages, to see how much change there was between distant pages, and to notice how little there was in any one slot that did not have a harmonic counterpart in the other “staves”. (p. 203)

Early German Philosophy is a work of scholarship the likes of which are now lamentably rare. While it can be slow going and the terrain is often tough, its philosophical acumen and historical erudition conspire to leave its readers with an dizzying panoptic impression of the contingent historical development of the vast cathedral that is the subject of the book.

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