Resisting History: Historicism and Its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought

Peter E. Gordon reviews this 2003 book by UCLA professor David N. Myers: * Historicism, as Meinecke and Troeltsch meant it, was born as a specifically German romantic reaction against the Enlightenment’s idea of a single, universal human nature. The historicists faulted this notion for neglecting important differences of culture and tradition, as if truth were something atomistic and dissociable from its surroundings. The historicists championed instead a version of contextualist holism: the meaning of an idea was determined entirely by the historical horizon which it was the duty of the historian to reconstruct. At times, the contextualist emphasis verged on relativism, as when the great German historian Leopold von Ranke declared that “all epochs are equally close to God.” At other times, however, historicists saw the various moments of history as strung together according to an evolutionist principle, as when Dilthey traced the development of Hegel’s “mystical pantheism,” or Meinecke tried to show how German nationalism emerged from (and rejected) cosmopolitanism. Whether these two tendencies, relativist and evolutionist, could cohere into one doctrine is not obvious. Isaiah Berlin tried to show that Herder, who is often seen as an early historicist thinker, was generously pluralist in cultural out look, but to do so he minimized Herder’s idea that some cultures were superior to others. Historicism, then, meant different things, and critics dissenting from part of the doctrine did not necessarily reject it all.

Myers uses “historicism” in the more capacious sense, and this permits him to cast all four, Cohen, Rosenzweig, Strauss, and Breuer, as “anti historicists,” even while he clearly discerns the many differences among them.

* Franz Rosenzweig argued that the Jews exist “beyond” profane history, and that Jewish life exemplifies “eternity in the midst of time.” Myers sees in this idea Rosenzweig’s continued allegiance to his teacher Cohen, since both thinkers cleave to an ideal outside empirical history.

* Myers is also the author o? Re-Inventing the Jewish Past, an indispensable study of the so-called Jerusalem School, which was surely the most consequential institution of Jewish historical scholarship in the twentieth century. It is a fitting irony, then, that Myers himself has now turned a historical eye upon those modernist philosophers and theologians who “resisted” rather than “re-invented” Jewish history. It turns out, however, that these movements are two sides of a single coin. Myers readily acknowledges the irony that he is writing a “history” of thinkers who sought to escape history. But, more importantly, he grants that all of these ostensibly “anti-historicist” thinkers in fact occupied a rather more
complex “middle ground.” While their objections to historicism often resemble or even reiterate the traditionalist view that the “Jews, uniquely, inhabited the realm of sacred history,” Myers also notes that all four of the book’s major figures were trained in the modern university and they “found it impossible to avoid the methods and logic of historicism.” For “[t]hey invariably constructed historical narratives in order to chart their own theological or philosophical course.” And so, Myers concludes, “their best anti-historicist intentions were tempered by deeply ingrained and ultimately inescapable historicist impulses.”

* Myers’s true thesis is that there is no real escape, since “historicism permeates our very mode of cognition, our way of ordering and explaining the past.” The title of the book? resisting history is thus quite revealing. The thinkers that Myers has picked out for sustained attention are by no means ahistorical or anti-historical, and although they were deeply troubled by historicism, they could hardly forswear its logic. This, then, was protesting too much. It is, indeed, “resistance” in the psychoanalyst’s sense, an inner cathexis that shows up as outward hostility.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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