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Think Piece

Scepticism from the Pyrrhonian Crisis to Hume

By Elena Yi-Jia Zeng

Richard Tuck argues in Philosophy and Government that “a truly modern and ‘scientific’” approach to ethics and politics was inaugurated in the seventeenth century as a response to scepticism. We are also told in the concluding remark that the story extended well into the eighteenth century. Yet, the much-anticipated sequel never arrives, which leaves us wondering what, as Tuck called it, “the various transformations” in the period “between Hobbes and the early eighteenth century” could be (xv, 348). A decade after the publication of Philosophy and Government, Richard Popkin finished the third edition of The History of Scepticism, expanding his narrative in the first two editions to cover the late seventeenth century. Coincidentally, both Tuck’s and Popkin’s stories close on the brink of the High Enlightenment, where David Hume began to challenge the foundation of all human knowledge while at the same time advancing the Enlightenment project of constructing the “science of man.” How could Hume carry out these seemingly paradoxical lines of inquiry at the same time? The “transformations” Tuck alluded to were the missing piece of the puzzle.

It was an epistemic question that underlay the transformations, which manifest themselves in the attempts to shift intellectual authorities from the Church to the individuals, and from the Aristotelian worldview to scientific knowledge claims. These challenges marked the return of scepticism after the wars of religion and the rise of the “Pyrrhonian crisis” in the early modern period (xix). While the former challenged the grounds of Christianity in the quarrels between Protestants and Catholics, the latter arose from the revival of ancient scepticism owing to the French translation of Sextus Empiricus’ works. Philosophical scepticism, as a result, was employed in religious debates, given its usefulness for “the criterion problem’ (5–16, 509). The criterion problem for early modern thinkers at the time was the quest to find the standards of legitimising religious truth, while its origin in ancient Greece was the Pyrrhonists” quest for the principles of (mostly philosophical) judgment. It urged many philosophers, including Michel de Montaigne, Pierre Charron, Pierre Gassendi, François de la Mothe le Vayer and Pierre Bayle, to raise doubts on the possibility of justifying religious belief as well as social norms via some solid criterion.

Scepticism at the time encouraged the attempt to subvert Aristotelian metaphysics and the recognition of the human mind’s limits. Descartes adopted methodological doubts to search for a certain ground for his science and thus claimed that scepticism was something to be overcome. The Cartesians, most notably Nicolas Malebranche, identified the weakness of the mind by means of the sceptical mode of thinking. But the purpose of doubt was not to embrace scepticism; instead, scepticism was a means to tackle human fallibilities caused by the imagination and the senses. Learning the correct ways to doubt, in Malebranche’s view, would help us to discover the truths (187–88).

However, Descartes and Malebranche were soon attacked by Pierre-Daniel Huet, whose aim was to use scepticism to resist the rationalist philosophy of his time. For Huet, Cartesian reason was the speculation that could not be the foundation of knowledge since reason itself was a limited and fallible faculty (94–99). He argued for a sceptical position that one could only attain truths by investigating empirical evidence rather than seeking certainty from the cogito—the Latin word for “I think”—which was a subjectivist foundation of philosophising for the Cartesians (xxix). Bayle carried on the subjects of scepticism regarding religion and human understanding (xviii–xli, xxxv, 13), but what distinguished him from his predecessors was his open defence of scepticism. That is, scepticism for him was no longer a position that needs to be overcome or an instrument that should only be employed to seek epistemological certainty. His positive view on scepticism also enabled him to advance several arguments which subsequently became essential for Hume. First, he contended that belief or disbelief in Christianity was irrelevant to morality (399–408). Second, popular opinion could not be the foundation of belief or philosophical controversies (Ch. 10 and 12). Third, superstitious beliefs could easily arise from common life, which gave priests and politicians the chances to manipulate people (§179). As we can see, the French revival of scepticism became a persistent polemic on the role of scepticism in science and philosophy as it went into the early eighteenth century. At the heart of the debates between the sceptics and the anti-sceptics was the concern over the limits of human understanding (18), a topic that continued to preoccupy eighteenth-century British thinkers.

How scepticism progressed in the Enlightenment period remains controversial. The narrative advanced by Popkin is that the Huet–Bayle tradition did not thrive in France but rather in Britain—specifically in the hand of Hume alone. Although the French philosophes generally admired Bayle’s works, their confidence in the progress of reason prevented them from pursuing sceptical philosophy (1–16). Yet, the trajectory of the sceptical tradition was not as straightforward as it was conventionally thought by Popkin. There were a variety of debates over scepticism preceding Hume, which means, as I would argue, that Hume’s connections to the Huet–Bayle tradition were not a linear relationship. In Britain, the most noteworthy development in this period was that scepticism about the limits of human understanding encouraged the progress of scientific knowledge. Members of the Royal Society—such as Robert Boyle, who even published a book entitled The Sceptical Chymist—consciously employed what they considered as Pyrrhonian scepticism to challenge Aristotelian science. For them, scepticism was a technique for detecting errors and examining the validity of their predecessors’ findings. The scientists’ aim was to unveil the hidden causes of natural phenomena, which, in their view, amounted to the proof of God’s authorship to the natural world. Hence natural science and natural theology were closely connected, given the scientists’ belief that the limits of human understanding could be overcome by attributing the unintelligible aspects of causality to God’s omnipotence. This development marked a shift in the strategy of justifying belief as well as the criteria of certainty.

John Locke’s position in relation to this development was rather complicated. His theory of ideas argued that experience was the only ground for knowledge, but he also attempted to prove that religious belief could achieve the same degree of certainty without the support of empirical evidence. In the debates over moral certainty, Locke, on the one hand, considered the beliefs derived from probable judgment as “Faith, or Opinion” rather than knowledge in the strict sense; but, on the other hand, we could not exclude them from scientific research since probable judgment was what we have for the knowledge of the external world (IV. II. 14–15). Locke was sceptical about science’s capacity of discovering the “real essence” of substance, as there is always something we “know not what” behind the appearance of external objects (Ibid., II. XXIII. 2; III. III. 15). Yet, he was at pains to prove that the knowledge of the existence of God was demonstrable—it was intuitively certain even though its nature was unknown to us (Ibid., IV. X). Locke’s differentiation among faith, opinion and knowledge gave reason a crucial role in evaluating epistemic certainty, which was the ground for religious justification. According to him, one would appeal to faith when there was no rational justification for divine revelation (Ibid., IV. XII. 2–3). But reason remains crucial to judge the “certainty or probability” of a revelation (Ibid., IV. XVIII. 2 and 8), otherwise religion would become “extravagant Opinions and Ceremonies” and give rise to enthusiasm (Ibid., IV. XVIII. 11, IV. XIX. 2–4).

Differentiating faith and opinion from knowledge was Locke’s attempt to explain the possibility of the latter, which served as his response to the sceptical challenge regarding human understanding. His ultimate goal was to accommodate religious belief with his theory of ideas. Ironically, Hume, largely inspired by Locke’s theory, was able to develop a set of arguments that put philosophy against superstitious belief. Religion, among other forms of superstition, was not justifiable since its explanation appealed to an incomprehensible cause that exceeded the limits of human understanding. It was a groundless system of belief that could hardly establish any degree of certainty.

Hume’s antithesis between philosophical and superstitious belief signifies that his scepticism operates in the confrontation between philosophy and theology (12.1–2). Not only does it show Locke’s aim of reconciling the two has failed in Hume’s eyes, but it also exposes the fact that many of our beliefs are not rationally justifiable (1.4.2.56). Specifically, Hume’s scepticism about the senses indicates further that unjustifiable belief originates in the fallibility of our faculties where they misattribute the same identity to a discontinuous object. Misattribution produces the fiction that constitutes false belief. For Hume, superstitious beliefs often arise from “abstract reasoning”, that is, the inference produced by non-empirical judgment. It can be speculations from “false philosophy” or convictions in religion (1.3.14.27, cf. 1.4.3.9). But religious superstition is particularly dangerous for the wellbeing of mankind as it has led to warfare and monkish virtues (1.4.7.13). Locke’s theory of ideas was a useful ground for Hume to identify these problematic beliefs. Like Locke, he found many ideas, such as substance or God, have no corresponding impressions and hence cannot be meaningfully understood. Yet, what made Hume a sceptic was his reluctance to admit the possibility of knowledge. That is, he took the unintelligibility of the nature of things as the primary obstacle for us to obtain truths. Our knowledge claims to the external world are contingent beliefs whose certainty is subject to the probability of evidence.

No one in the Age of Enlightenment would come forward to claim that his or her philosophy “is very sceptical” as Hume did (413). Yet, judging from the theological controversies and the debates related to scientific progress, there was a central theme—almost an anxiety—on epistemic certainty. Hume poked right on the sore point of this doubt. His predecessors prepared for him the intellectual climate that enabled him to re-orient the trajectory of the sceptical tradition. Pyrrhonian doubts, in Hume’s hands, no longer led to the crisis that annihilated all convictions, but a sophisticated mode of disagreement that gave rise to refined knowledge.


Elena Yi-Jia Zeng is a PhD Candidate in Political Thought and Intellectual History at King’s College, University of Cambridge. Her doctoral thesis “The Politics of Belief in Hume and Enlightenment Scepticism” looks into the nature and status of belief in Hume’s religion, morality and politics and his place in the sceptical tradition. She is also interested in modern British and Irish history.

Featured Image: John Brown, Gentleman on the Grand Tour (1773), image credit: National Trust. National Trust.

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Think Piece

Was There a “Catholic Enlightenment?”: Rethinking Religion and the Age of Lights

By Shaun Blanchard

When “the Enlightenment” is conceived of as a unitary phenomenon – as the harbinger of a modern secularism publicly committed to reason, democracy, rights, and tolerance – the Roman Catholic Church is often portrayed as its early modern antithesis. A “secular master narrative” (Sorkin, 3) of the Enlightenment, usually with its sun located in Paris and its rays wherever the influence of the philosophes shone, is the story of the dispelling of superstitious and bigoted darkness. This once-commonplace “triumphalist linear teleology” (Sorkin, 1) has been challenged for many decades and is now, for all intents and purposes, overturned. As Franz Fillafer and many other historians have convincingly demonstrated “the Enlightenment was many before it became one” (112). The rediscovery of a Catholic Enlightenment, according to Gabriel Glickman, “has become central to the larger redefinition of ‘Enlightenment’, as a phenomenon shaped just as strongly by reformist confessional [i.e. “religious”] cultures as by a rising tide of radical secularism” (290). As S. J. Barnett correctly argued, the “broad politico-religious struggle – rather than the actions of the philosophes – provided the most significant challenge to the status quo of Enlightenment Europe” (168). This was certainly true in the many lands ruled by enlightened Catholic sovereigns, especially the vast domains of the Habsburgs (including Austria, Tuscany, Lombardy, and the Austrian Netherlands) and the Bourbons of Spain, Naples, and Parma. Such historical facts force a reevaluation not only of the relationship between Catholicism and Enlightenment, but between Catholicism and modernity as a whole, the emergence of which was, to use Jeffrey Burson’s language in his recent monograph The Culture of Enlightening, a deeply “entangled” process, the product of interlocking and plural secular and religious-confessional phenomena.

Among the many “religious” enlightenments that have recently been recovered, a “Catholic Enlightenment” actually has one of the oldest historiographical pedigrees. Although some eighteenth-century Catholic intellectuals self-identified as “enlightened” (aufgeklärt, illuminato, etc.) or were called that by others, the concept of a “Catholic Enlightenment” is a twentieth-century one, introduced by the German scholar Sebastian Merkle in a landmark 1908 lecture in Berlin. Merkle’s historiographical account met with great controversy, including from myriad successors of the anti-Enlightenment – or, better put, counter-Enlightenment – tradition so strong in the Catholic Church. It had become commonplace within the Church to narrate the Enlightenment as a monolithic movement of organized skepticism, and the crucial link in the chain of destructive errors connecting the Protestant Reformation’s rejection of the Church’s authority to the French Revolution’s guillotines and cults of Reason. Indeed, as Ulrich Lehner has noted, it was often Catholics themselves who advanced narratives of the irreconcilability between Catholicism and Enlightenment just as strongly as did Protestants and freethinkers.

Definitions of Catholic Enlightenment, like definitions of Enlightenment itself, are varied, referring as they do to pluriform, transnational phenomena. A broadly acceptable use of the term Catholic Enlightenment describes varieties of positive Catholic engagement with the values and methodologies of the Enlightenment in the realms of philosophy, science, politics, and theology. Catholic Enlightenment thinkers shared aims and goals with other religious enlighteners and sometimes with anticlerical, secular, or anti-Christian philosophes, while attempting the harmonization of Catholic culture, society, and faith with the new learning. Intellectual orientations and values shared by enlightened Catholics included an openness to the new science and philosophy (Locke, Descartes, and Newton, to name a few), a vision for the holistic reform of society (by means of anything from enlightened despotism to republicanism and democracy), and a concern with “reasonable” theology or “rational” devotion which often took shape in efforts to rid the Catholic faith of bigotry and “superstition.”

Work in recent decades has advanced the conversation on Catholic Enlightenment. Mirroring wider Enlightenment studies, one fruitful approach has been to study Catholic Enlightenment from a national or regional perspective. The initial interest in Catholic Enlightenment in Germany and then France and Italy has been supplemented with scholarship from Latin America, Spain, Portugal, Malta, and Poland. The concept is also now firmly established in the Anglophone scholarly community, aided by studies of Catholic Enlightenment in England, Scotland, Ireland, and North America. Another fruitful approach is found in the study of emblematic intellectuals. To consider only Italy: the remarkable mathematicianMaria Gaetana Agnesi (1718–99), the groundbreaking historian Lodovico Muratori and the cultured prelate Prospero Lambertini (Pope Benedict XIV from 1740­–58). Focus on central Catholic institutions, like Christopher Johns’ study of the papacy’s patronage of an enlightened intellectual and artistic culture (especially from 1724–58), sheds light on the achievements but also limits of Catholic Enlightenment. The same can be said for examinations of innovative scholarly religious orders like the Benedictines, the subject of a fundamental study by Ulrich Lehner and an incisive recent contribution from Thomas Wallnig. Exciting work is underway on the global dimension of Catholic Enlightenment and the participation of women in enlightened scholarship, art, and religious reform. A dearth of primary sources in English translation – an obstacle for educators – is also beginning to be addressed, for example in an anthology edited by Lehner and myself.

Just as Kant’s archetypal question “Was ist Aufklärung?” still compels reflection, though, historians continue to debate the usefulness of the term Catholic Enlightenment – from its relationship to the long and diffuse legacy of Renaissance, early modern Humanism, and Tridentine reform (i.e. the reformist impulses linked to the Counter-Reformation Council of Trent, held 1545–63), to its identification or overlap with “Reform Catholicism,” to whether it is preferable to speak of “Enlightenment Catholicism” or “Enlightenment in Catholic lands.” Most scholars see the utility of the term Catholic Enlightenment despite tensions and ambiguities, though a few question the legitimacy of the term entirely.

Much of the definitional and terminological confusion that still hampers the scholarly conversation might be solved by distinguishing between three “streams” of the Catholic Enlightenment. The first and most diffuse stream corresponds to what I call the “scholarly Catholic Enlightenment”; that is, widespread phenomena of Catholic advancement of “enlightened” scholarly endeavors (e.g. critical historical and scientific research, Wolffian metaphysics, Newtonianism and Copernicanism). The second stream of the Catholic Enlightenment describes an essentially “Muratorian” project, so-called as a nod to the profound influence of the aforementioned Muratori. The Muratorian Catholic Enlightenment was a quest for a “reasonable” Catholicism shorn of “superstition” and “bigotry” (all rather loaded and contested words, then and now!). The limits and agenda of this Muratorian second stream are more definable than those of the first, and virtually all the actors in the second stream would be participants in or sympathetic to the scholarly activities of the first, not least because the second stream depended on a critical approach to history, especially church history and the lives of the saints.

Though there were certainly loose networks of collaborating individuals in streams one and two (for example, so-called “Muratori circles” in the Habsburg lands), the third stream is the only one to which the word “movement” could be applied, at least in the sense of a movement internally conscious of itself and externally identifiable as such. This third stream, the “Ecclesio-Political” Catholic Enlightenment, however, is best understood not as a single movement but as a series of ideologically overlapping and mutually reinforcing movements that enjoyed a zenith of influence in the final quarter of the eighteenth-century: “Josephinism” and Reformkatholizismus in the Habsburg domains and German-speaking lands, “late Jansenism” in Italy (especially Tuscany and Lombardy), “Cisalpinism” in the British Isles, etc. These enlightened, anti-papalist, Erastian (i.e. state churches), and rationalizing Catholics agreed with the aims of the first and second streams of Catholic Enlightenment but came to conclusions in the political and ecclesiastical realms that were unacceptably radical even to many otherwise “enlightened” Catholics. The decline and eventual defeat of this third stream is linked to the turbulent events set in motion by the French Revolution, a fact not without irony due to the support of many enlightened Catholics, like Henri Grégoire (1750–1831), for the National Assembly and for the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790) that blew up ancien régime Catholicism in France.

This threefold schema certainly does not solve all the problems connected to the use of the term Catholic Enlightenment, and might even reveal some new tensions. Nevertheless, it is helpful, I hope, in preventing some of the most common misunderstandings that arise when scholars use the term Catholic Enlightenment to refer to different – sometimes conflicting – phenomena in the world of early modernity. For example, this schema avoids the pitfall of a use of the term Catholic Enlightenment that is so broad, it seems to include any erudite or scholarly activity by Catholics in the “long” eighteenth-century (ca. 1660–1815). On the other hand, some definitions are too narrow: they make choices about who “counts” as an enlightened Catholic that shed more light on internal tensions within Catholicism (past or present) than on the process of Enlightenment writ large. For example, any definition that excludes Jesuits or papalist Catholics privileges the theological, devotional, and ecclesio-political over scientific and scholarly endeavors. Likewise, an understanding that sees a putatively unified Catholic Enlightenment disintegrating or breaking up around the time of the death of Pope Benedict XIV in the late 1750s gives the impression of too much unity in the first half of the eighteenth century while also denying some of the very real ideological cohesion that existed in the second half of the century. When this threefold schema is deployed, the appropriate distinctions can be drawn such that a Jesuit scientist and a philo-Jansenist government minister in, say, Spain, can both be recognized as participating in Catholic Enlightenment and yet also be appropriately distinguished.

As I developed this schema for several forthcoming works, colleagues challenged me to think more about the many driving forces of these streams that pre-date the Enlightenment: about the great rivers, if you will, from which these three tributaries receive much of their water. A good deal of the “enlightened” phenomena I group into the second and third streams are at least partly explicable without the category of Enlightenment. For example, Muratori’s Della regolata devozione dei Cristiani(1747), which is widely regarded as a Catholic Enlightenment text par excellence, justifies religious reform primarily by appealing to a certain reading of the Council of Trent, St. Charles Borromeo, the Bible, and the Church Fathers. While an enlightened milieu and enlightened scholarly networks were no doubt central to Muratori, differentiating between what I call the second stream of the Catholic Enlightenment and the late implementation of a “Borromean” (in the sense of St. Charles Borromeo) and Tridentine reform agenda can be difficult. Likewise, in the third, Ecclesio-Political Stream, the legacy of late medieval conciliarism looms large, as does Gallicanism, Erastianism, and Jansenism – all of which interacted with the Enlightenment and yet predated it and are explicable apart from it.

Even regarding what I call the first stream (the scholarly Catholic Enlightenment), Thomas Wallnig shows in his excellent new monograph Critical Monks that one can argue that the culture of late humanism is the best category to apply to these scholarly endeavors and achievements. However, Wallnig, along with Franz Fillafer in his recent book Aufklärung habsburgisch, still sees the category of Catholic Enlightenment as useful, albeit with certain cautions. One of these, helpfully pointed out in Wallnig’s Critical Monks, is that the German origins of the term Catholic Enlightenment must be considered, and for reasons that are probably not intuitive for those in the English-speaking context. The foil that an account of “Catholic Enlightenment” was pushing back against in the early twentieth century, when the term originated, was not skeptical or secular but “Protestant” Enlightenment.

What is of vital importance is that any schematization delineates something much more specific than just erudition or intellectual life among Catholics in the eighteenth century, but does not, on the other hand, produce a monolithic and self-conscious conception of Catholic Enlightenment. This would raise essentially the same set of problems that are raised by such conceptions of Enlightenment writ large.These three streams are only heuristic devices, with very porous boundaries. Additionally, the complex fissures and disagreements within these Catholic communities, the roots of which were often centuries in the past, must also be acknowledged. Nevertheless, the conceptual mapping of a threefold schema of Catholic Enlightenment provides space for necessary distinctions while also successfully illuminating networks of affinity and delineating shared endeavors, methods, and goals.


Shaun Blanchard is Senior Research Fellow at the National Institute for Newman Studies. His first book, The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II, considers radical Catholic reform in the late eighteenth century. His next monograph project will explore the ecclesio-politics of English-speaking enlightened Catholics.

Featured Image: Girolamo Batoni, Pope Benedict XIV Presenting the Enyclical “Ex Omnibus” to the Comte de Stainville, 1757.

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Announcement

JHI Issue 82.3 Now Available

The new issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (July 2021, 82.3) is now live on Project MUSE.

Over the coming weeks, we will publish short interviews with some of the authors featured in this issue about the historical and historiographical context of their respective essays. Look out for these conversations under the new rubric Broadly Speaking.

***

Joseph Streeter, Conceptions of Tolerance in Antiquity and Late Antiquity, pp. 357 – 376.

Tamara Morsel-Eisenberg, Anxieties of Transmission: Rabbinic Responsa and Early Modern “Print Culture”, pp. 377 – 404.

Ami-Jacques Rapin, The First Conceptualization of Terrorism: Tallien, Roederer, and the “System of Terror” (August 1794), pp. 405 – 426.

Nicholas Heron, The Superhuman Origins of Human Dignity: Kantorowicz’s Dante, pp. 427 – 452.

Lisa Hellman and Birgit Tremml-Werner, Translation in Action: Global Intellectual History and Early Modern Diplomacy, pp. 453 – 467.

Sophie Holm, Multilingual Foreign Affairs: Translation and Diplomatic Agency in Eighteenth-Century Stockholm, pp. 469 – 483.

Lisa Hellman, Drawing the Lines: Translation and Diplomacy in the Central Asian Borderlands, pp. 485 – 501.

Birgit Tremml-Werner, A Question of Political Correctness: Translating Friendship across Time and Space, pp. 503 – 520.

Michael Facius, Terms of Government: Early Modern Japanese Concepts of Rulership and Political Geography in Translation, pp. 521 – 537.

Books Received, pp. 539 – 540.

Notices, pp. 541 – 543.

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Dispatches from the Archives

Hydnora Africana: The ‘Hieroglyphic Key’ to Plant Parasitism

By Katherine Arnold

At the 1836 meeting of the Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte (The Society of German Naturalists and Physicians) in Jena, Gustav Kunze of Leipzig University presented a dried specimen of Hydnora africana, “a remarkable Asarine which grows parasitic on the large Euphorbias in the Carro [sic]” in the Western Cape region of South Africa. Kunze’s identification of Hydnora as belonging to the Asarina family reveals the lack of knowledge European botanists had of the plant, whose curious appearance and morphology had proven a sort of botanical puzzle since its European debut in the late eighteenth century. Although it was common to misinterpret botanical material arriving from overseas, Hydnora posed a particular challenge to the developing taxonomies of nineteenth-century European botany, primarily because of its most unusual attribute: parasitism.

Parasitic plants are characterized by the ability to feed directly on other plants, invading the host’s roots or shoots through parasitic structures called haustoria. Hydnora, found in the semi-arid regions of the northwestern Cape and southern Namibia, is a root holoparasite that grows almost completely subterranean. After leaching enough energy from its spurge host, a fleshy orange-pink flower emerges, releasing a fetid odor to attract its carrion and dung beetle pollinators. The Africans and Boer farmers who lived in the area called it jakkalskos, or jackal food, and it is thought to have a sweet and starchy taste. In ethnobotanical practice, the rhizomes of Hydnora, called uMayumbuka in isiZulu and isiXhosa, are used and traded to treat diarrhea, piles, acne, menstrual problems, stomach cramps, and to stop bleeding.

Colonial specimens like Hydnora were vital to the blossoming of botany as an academic discipline. Not only were they essential to the collectors engaged in its commercial trade and to naturalists attempting to classify and order the natural world, but they were also at the heart of transnational and trans-imperial networks of communication and exchange. With the advent of the material turn, historians have increasingly looked to objects as primary sources to trace the global production and movement of knowledge. In a similar way, the history of science has shown that, by refocusing narratives through the existence and agency of the nonhuman (or other-than-human), objects and organisms were implicated within histories of violence and expansion. Object-oriented enquiries offer an avenue for new understandings of the relationships between materiality, place, and mobility. In following the life of things, it is possible to move beyond traditional approaches to natural history and practices of specimen collection that privilege anthropocentrism, a possibility which places greater onus on how the behavior of plants co-produced Western scientific knowledge.

Fig. 1: Rudolf Marloth, The Flora of South Africa, vol. 1 (Cape Town: Darter Bros. & Co., 1913).

The cryptic nature and seasonal appearance of Hydnora had made European encounters with the plant, let alone the collection and preservation of any parts of its fleshy vegetative flower, extremely rare. Swedish naturalist Carl Peter Thunberg first extracted it in 1774, so Hydnora was not new when it was displayed in Jena. He did, however, struggle to grasp its singular peculiarity. He remarked, “so strange is its composition that many would certainly doubt the existence of such a plant on the face of the earth.” In an initial description published with the Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Thunberg erroneously grouped it as a fungus related to the genus Hydnum. Later botanists took some time to disprove this assertion, as it was only distinguishable from fungi when the flower had opened. This was a common problem when collecting plants out of season; the Linnaean taxonomic system was fundamentally based on the flower, making identification tricky with species that flowered infrequently. To view the type specimen in Thunberg’s herbarium, many European naturalists would have had to go to some length to travel to Uppsala, making the (relatively) freshly dried Hydnora something of a spectacle.

Fig 2: Ernst Meyer, ‘De Hydnora’, Nova Acta Physicomedica Academiae Caesareae Leopoldino Carolinae Naturae Curiosorum, 16 (1833), 770-788.

Already by 1833, Cape collectors had brought new Hydnora specimens to Europe, perhaps for the first time since Thunberg. The collectors, Christian Ecklon, Karl Zeyher, and Johann Franz Drège, all came from humble backgrounds in the German-speaking lands. Ecklon had trained as an apothecary, working for five years at the popular Pallas & Polemann pharmacy in Cape Town with Drège’s brother, Carl Friedrich, who collected zoological and entomological specimens in a partnership with his brother. Zeyher and Drège, on the other hand, were trained horticulturists. While Zeyher apprenticed with his uncle in the ducal gardens of Schwetzingen in Württemberg, Drège held positions in the gardens of Munich, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and Riga before arriving in the Cape. In this period, it was common for apothecaries and horticulturists to transition into full-scale botanical or zoological collecting, especially since both professions coupled elements of commercialism into the practice of natural history.

Ecklon, Zeyher, and Drège were part of a new generation of botanical collectors in the region, representing a shift toward ‘entrepreneurial’ collecting: men who financed their expeditions and supported themselves through the commodification of nature. As quickly as they had become companions in the field, suspicion of one another returned in consideration of the impending sale of their specimens in Europe. An 1832 letter from Drège’s brother in Cape Town warned,

‘you probably know already that Ecklon has arrived here with a collection of plants in order to take these to Germany early 1833. Zeyher will meanwhile make a trip beyond the borders in order to collect. You will probably see therefore that it would be better not to delay any further but sail over with the whole large collection.’ (from Drège Family Collection, National Library of South Africa, MSC 61.2.266, 18 October 1832).

When they arrived in Europe, both attempted to capitalize on their rare finds in German scientific journals. In the journal of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, Drège’s patron Ernst Meyer, Professor of Botany at the University of Königsberg, published a treatise describing the Hydnora africana in relation to Thunberg’s initial assessments. He also used this as an opportunity to discuss the “discovery” of a new species, the Hydnora triceps. The Berlin-based scientific journal Linnaea published a small synopsis of the treatise alongside an announcement of Ecklon and Zeyher’s sale of dried specimens, which publicized Hydnora as one of the more ‘remarkable plants’ collected on their travels. Drège and Meyer had a different approach. Because Drège did not advertise the sale of his dried collection until 1835, the choice to publish singularly on Hydnora with the Leopoldina suggests that their aim was intellectual prestige in the “discovery” of rare, new species. They were relatively successful in this regard: Drège’s name was left indelibly on the triceps’ only known host, the Euphorbia dregeana, and both Drège and Meyer’s names appeared as the taxonomic marker. They aimed for the journal of the oldest and most well-respected scientific society in the German-speaking world, and they chose Latin, not German, as their lingua franca, to reach the widest possible audience within the global scientific community.

Fig. 3: Ernst Meyer, ‘De Hydnora’, Nova Acta Physicomedica Academiae Caesareae Leopoldino Carolinae Naturae Curiosorum, 16 (1833), 770-788.

In contrast, Ecklon sought his success through the sale and distribution of his specimens. His commercialism is evident in his straightforward elaboration of collecting localities, placing such a complex find as Hydnora merely among an array of other popular Cape plants. While he does mention the publication of his and Zeyher’s forthcoming Enumeratio, the title gives away its superficial contents. Because Ecklon-Zeyher’s collection was simply a list with basic descriptions, the Enumeratio suggested that the sale of specimens was more important than any “philosophical” work on the material. Not before long, European demands for Hydnora reached South Africa. After the departure of Ecklon and Drège in 1833, Zeyher remained in the Colony as one of two experienced botanical collectors. The other was Hamburg-born physician Ludwig Pappe, who began collecting to branch out from medicine into a botanical vocation. The two Cape scientific patrons of this period, Baron von Ludwig and William Henry Harvey, implored Pappe and employed Zeyher to fulfill European desiderata. In fact, Pappe obtained the only dried specimen of Hydnora available in the Cape. Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow, William Jackson Hooker, had requested the specimen from the Baron in 1833, presumably after news had spread that Ecklon-Zeyher and Drège had collected Hydnora. Despite their scarcity, which would not have been unknown to Hooker, the Baron seemed confident that Pappe could extract more specimens, not only dried but also in spirits. It took two years to deliver on this promise; Pappe collected specimens from Worcester in the vicinity of the Hex River, promptly dried them, and placed one in wood vinegar, a preserving agent.

Fig 4: Ernst Meyer, ‘De Hydnora’, Nova Acta Physicomedica Academiae Caesareae Leopoldino Carolinae Naturae Curiosorum, 16 (1833), 770-788.

While the Sixth Frontier War (1834-36) rendered plant collection in the eastern districts nearly impossible, the material nature of Hydnora made procuring a sample a difficult task for collectors. Because its structure changed so drastically in the drying process, it was poorly represented in European herbaria and led to challenges in taxonomic determination. This sparked enormous controversy and debate: how could botanists classify plants without seeing them in situ and what characteristics should be considered in classifying and determining flowers that “appeared decidedly afloral?” In revising his classification of the corpse flower (Rafflesia arnoldii) in 1834, British botanist Robert Brown used the newly arrived Hydnora specimens from Ecklon-Zeyher, Drège, and Pappe to discuss possible affinities of the two parasites and whether they should be classed together. He believed there were points in Hydnora’s structure which threw “some light on one of the most difficult questions respecting Rafflesia,” allegedly bringing him to more fully realized conclusions about the nature of parasitism.

Fig 5: Rafflesia arnoldii in Robert Brown, ‘Account of a New Genus of Plants, Named Rafflesia’, Transactions of the Linnean Society of London, 13 (1821).

However, Brown’s student, British botanist William Griffith, fundamentally disagreed. His contentions were both taxonomic and material, and the latter wholly informed the former. Based on his fieldwork in situ, he concluded that Rafflesia and Hydnora were not similar in their parasitism, nor should parasitism be used as the singular point of comparison. But Griffith, and before him Austrian botanist Franz Unger, held that such a complicated process should only be conducted in the field using live plants. Although Griffith found the herbarium specimens Brown used to be useless evidence in supporting his hypothesis, he had, in fact, never seen Hydnora in its natural habitat to make any comparisons. Acting somewhat hypocritically in his derision of Brown, the specimens Griffith examined were “both in the dry state and in … pyroligneous acid,” clearly the examples that Pappe had collected years earlier. Amongst themselves, botanists could not agree where to study traits like parasitism, and Hydnora africana was a central point in the debate.

For Brown and Griffith, the impenetrability of Rafflesia was essentially tied to their understanding of its tropical home in the Sumatran rainforest. The corpse flower, like many unusual and exotic plants, did not fit into their taxonomic assumptions of the natural environment. Yet, botanists dwelled very little on the landscape which gave life to Hydnora, omitting it from grandiose portrayals and popular imaginings. In their mind, they separated the desert plant from its desert environment. The moment these collectors detached Hydnora from its Euphorbia root, an indigenous African plant was both materially and intellectually abstracted to fit it into Western notions of scientific knowledge. In attempts to understand the essence of parasitism, Hydnora both resisted and facilitated human understanding. While we have a better grasp of its place amongst other parasitic plants in the floral kingdom, Hydnora has only been successfully cultivated once outside of southern Africa, illustrating that even today the plantposes difficulties for botanists. Hydnora’senigmatic character, though, was not lost on those who studied it. This abstraction is best embodied by German botanist C.G. Nees von Esenbeck: “Aphyteja Hydnora thus stands as a hieroglyphic key between two worlds, which like dream and waking, are laid out in an endless interrelationship and flee before us.”


Katherine Arnold is a fourth-year PhD student at LSE studying German ‘entrepreneurial’ natural history collectors in southern Africa (1815-1867). Her research interests include Anglo-German relations, imperial history (British, Dutch, and German), and the history of science.

Featured Image: William Griffith, ‘On the Root-Parasites Referred by Authors to Rhizantheae: and on Various Plants Related to Them’, Transactions of the Linnean Society, 19 (1845).

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Announcement

Announcing the JHI’s new Executive Editors

As it embarks on its ninth decade, the Journal of the History of Ideas finds itself the flagship journal of an inter-disciplinary space in profound and exciting transformation. The JHI, and its Executive Editors in particular, would like to thank Anthony Grafton for fifteen years of luminous, generous, and truly consequential service as an Executive Editor. If there were a model editor anywhere, this would be Tony. 

Following a comprehensive, international search, we are delighted to announce the appointment of Manan Ahmed (Columbia University, History), Sophie Smith (University of Oxford, Politics), and Don J. Wyatt (Middlebury College, History) to join Martin J. Burke (CUNY Grad Center, History), Stefanos Geroulanos (NYU, History), and Ann Moyer (Univ. of Pennsylvania, History) as Executive Editors. 

With its newly expanded geographical, disciplinary, and temporal scope, the new editorial group looks forward to your submissions, whether in its areas of traditional strength or in new and emerging fields!

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Interview

German as a Jewish Problem: An Interview with Marc Volovici

By Matthew Johnson

Marc Volovici’s German as a Jewish Problem: The Language Politics of Jewish Nationalism, was published by Stanford University Press in 2020. Volovici is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of History, Classics & Archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London, where he is also affiliated with the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism. His impressive first book, German as a Jewish Problem, offers a new perspective on the history of Jewish nationalism by delineating the varied and often contradictory meanings of the German language in the formation of modern Jewish identity and politics. As Volovici demonstrates, in a study that spans the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, “German has held a momentous and multifaceted place in the history of European Jews, serving as a catalyst of secularization, emancipation, and assimilation in various Jewish communities within and without German-speaking areas” (2). In his use of language as an analytic lens, Volovici opens up rich spaces of investigation and reflection at the intersection of politics, religion, science, and literature. In addition to scholars of modern Jewish history and nationalism, his book should be of interest to anyone concerned with the knotted relationship between language and identity. Matthew Johnson interviewed Marc Volovici about his new book.

Matthew Johnson: You write that your “book tells the Jewish history of the German language, focusing on German’s paradoxical place in Jewish nationalism” (3). Can you tell us about how you came to write about this topic? What does it mean to tell the history of a language and, more specifically, to tell its Jewish history? Why is German so important to the history of Jewish nationalism, even if, as you note, it “was not at the center of Jewish nationalism’s ideological debates” (3)?

Marc Volovici: My interest in the Jewish history of the German language emerged out of my fascination with its status in the postwar period—as a tainted language that carries the memories of the Nazi period and the Holocaust. This idea was integral to how the Holocaust was remembered and represented in Israel and the Jewish world in the immediate postwar period, and was frequently employed by numerous individuals and institutions who carried out a boycott of the German language. But whether German could be reduced to its role in the persecution of European Jewry was a matter of controversy and of political and intellectual debates. The more I delved into these debates, the more I reckoned how rooted they were in much longer and older trajectories of Jewish engagement with the German language, its allure and danger.

These trajectories go back to the late eighteenth century, when German served as a symbol and a catalyst of processes of social transformation in Jewish communities. The acquisition of High German was actively encouraged by state reforms in German principalities and the Habsburg Empire, and was also key to the early ideology of the Jewish Enlightenment. This tightened German’s association with enlightenment ideas, as well as with secular, progressive, and liberal currents in Central and Eastern Europe. German thus carried a symbolic value that exceeded its mere practical merit. Whether deemed a positive or a threatening presence in Jewish life, German was part and parcel of Jewish multilingualism. The history of German as an integral and contested part of the Jewish social landscape has been largely overshadowed by German’s “Nazification.”

In the book I argue that the emergence of Jewish nationalist ideas in the late nineteenth century brought the profound ambivalence toward German in Jewish life to the fore. At a time when national movements championed their language as a bedrock of national consciousness and self-determination, Jewish nationalists faced a more complex linguistic predicament. Hebrew was revered as the language of Jewish ritual, but was only beginning to be used for modern domains and as a vernacular, and was entirely inaccessible to most Jews in Western countries. Yiddish was the language spoken by the vast majority of eastern European Jews, but until the late nineteenth century it was not considered a respectable language, or even a language at all. More commonly it was described (even by Yiddish speakers) as a German dialect, or distorted German. It is against this backdrop that German’s role in early Jewish nationalism can be characterized as paradoxical. German was adopted by political activists due to its presumed ability to advance the Jewish national cause, but in so doing it also embodied the chronic condition of Jews as a nation lacking a common language.

This paradox was enhanced by the fact that, on the one hand, German played an indispensable role in the formulation and dissemination of Jewish national ideologies. On the other hand, it was associated with historical currents of assimilation that undermined the postulate of Jewish national unity.

Even though German was not a Jewish national language, I argue that it is impossible to understand the language politics of Jewish nationalism without considering its critical place in the movement. As Jewish nationalists navigated between the ideological significance and the functional merit of German, key questions of the modern Jewish diasporic condition came to the surface.

MJ: One of your book’s methodological innovations is to turn our attention to “German-reading Jews,” not just to “German-speaking Jews” (7). Can you say more about why this latter category is important and about how it allows us to ask new questions? Who exactly were these “German-reading Jews”? And to what degree is your book, in fact, a history of reading?

MV: When we think about Jews and the German language, the first group that comes to mind is Jews in German-speaking lands who saw German as an essential aspect of their self-understanding and culture. But German is not only the language of the Germans, and we miss a great deal of the historical picture when we focus exclusively on “German-speaking Jews.”

The category of “German-reading Jews” introduced itself to me soon after I began looking for traces of Jewish thought about German. German-reading Jews were a broad, transnational collective of Jews spanning from Palestine, Europe, and the Americas that exercised various degrees of fluency in German, read German literature and science, engaged with it critically, and recognized the value of German for the advancement of Jewish society. They learned German at school, with a tutor, at the university, or on their own. Their motivations to learn German were manifold. It was a global language of science, culture, and politics, serving for many as a pathway to universal knowledge. A common motif in memoirs of young Jews in nineteenth-century Russia is a moment of realization that they wish to break away from the confines of Jewish traditional life. Learning to read German was often the first step that followed this realization. And it was indeed this scattered collective of German-reading Jews in Eastern Europe that imbued the German language with many of its layers of significance in Jewish historical memory. The very fact then that German had a distinctive status in Jewish diasporic culture cannot be understood by looking exclusively at German native speakers. The history of how German acquired a captivating and often haunting image—from the enlightenment to the Holocaust—becomes more comprehensible only by following Jews’ ambivalent attachment to German, an ambivalence that was cultivated more often through written rather than spoken German.

Beyond the case of German, studying communities of readers can help us challenge the common assumption that language is the spiritual possession of those who speak it—and speak it fluently. This assumption excludes those masses who approach, use, and mobilize a language in various ways, often leaving a profound imprint on how that language evolves. Sharpening our intellectual sensitivity to communities of readers holds particular relevance for Jews, a diasporic minority living at the crossroads of different languages.

MJ: While you focus on the German language, your book is also concerned with questions of multilingualism and of competing language ideologies, e.g., Hebraism and Yiddishism. You argue that “[w]hile Yiddishism was Hebraists’ main political rival, it was German that encapsulated the virtues and dangers of Jewish multilingualism” (102). Can you say more about these “virtues and dangers” and about the larger claims you are making about the role of German in “Jewish multilingualism”? 

MV: Both Hebrew and Yiddish were, in their own ways, a staple of Jewish nationhood. Yet in the formative decades of Jewish nationalism both lacked certain aspects cardinal to the idea of a “national language” at the turn of the twentieth century, such as the proven ability to form the basis of a modern literary and scientific corpus and to mediate between different Jewish communities in the diaspora. Questions of linguistic prestige and practicality were interwoven, and it was in this sense that German was more ‘dangerous’ than Yiddish to proponents of Hebrew—precisely because it was already serving as an international language of Jewish social, cultural, and political affairs. That Zionism emerged under Theodor Herzl’s leadership as a Germanophone movement was not merely a reflection of the cultural proclivities of the Zionist leadership, but was grounded in a longer tradition that deemed German a respectable European language that is well suited to advance political and diplomatic action in the Jewish social sphere. German’s omnipresence in Jewish political life was its main virtue and danger.

The book therefore considers the role of German in Jewish nationalism as one chapter within a longer history of a fraught reliance on German in modern Jewish culture. German appears from this point of view as a language that is both an insider and an outsider to Jewish life—and for this reason it defied the nationalist monolingual imperative.

MJ: Building off the previous question, you note that your “book examines […] Jewish secularization—in the sense of the neutralization of religious sensitivities, terms, and categories—in its multilingual and not merely Hebrew contexts” (11). In this regard, you also discuss the “theological meanings attached to German in Jewish culture.” How does German allow us to rethink the history of Jewish secularization? And how is this linked to your larger focus on nationalism?

MV: First, the acquisition of German by Jews in German-speaking lands since the late eighteenth century eroded Hebrew’s status as the primary language of Jewish religious ritual. Beginning in the 1820s and 1830s a number of reformist communities introduced German sermons and even prayers into the synagogues. Abraham Geiger, the prominent German scholar and reformist rabbi, admitted in 1845 that, to him, a Jewish prayer in German “strikes a deeper chord than a Hebrew prayer.” But one did not have to be a staunch reformist in order to hold a close attachment to German in the religious domain. German orthodox Jews also read the Bible in German translation. No other language was so deeply associated with processes of departure from Hebrew as German—precisely because it coalesced the profane and the holy. Not for nothing did the Czech Jewish philosopher Hugo Bergmann call it a “half-holy language.”

Second, German had an active role in the creation of Jewish secular politics. German was relatively accessible to Eastern European Jews who turned to German when seeking to equip themselves with the contemporary scientific and political knowledge of the time—in particular around socialist and nationalist theories. In this sense, German had an auxiliary but important role in withdrawal from Jewish traditional political frameworks and in the formation of new ones.

And third, German facilitated the development of Jewish national thought. A key example of this is the 1882 text Autoemancipation!, which was written in German by Leon Pinsker, a Russian Jewish doctor who had not written political texts in German beforehand. He made extensive use of German political and scientific terms, attempting to align the Jewish national cause with the self-justification of national movements in Europe. In this sense, the “Germanness” of the text was a vital characteristic of it, and it is no coincidence that Autoemancipation! would later be considered a founding text of Jewish nationalism. The first translations of the text into Hebrew and Yiddish were characterized by their effort to “Judaize” the text, to set it within the religious, traditional conceptual apparatus of Jewish writing. For the translators, none of these languages and their readerships were equipped to handle Pinsker’s ideas in their German form. Speaking of a Jewish collectivity in secular terms was far more feasible in German than in Jewish languages.

MJ: In a memorable passage that seems to bring your work into conversation with the history of emotions and affect theory, you argue that “[t]he ideological excess of a language is transmitted not only in its representations and in discussions about it but also in the language itself. Words, sounds, accents, and concepts inform the image of languages. Though elusive in nature, it is often the sensory responses to language or to certain words within it that acquire added meaning as beautiful, lucid, irritating, or violent” (39). How did you access and analyze these “sensory responses to language,” which, as you note, are often “elusive in nature”? And how did such sensory responses become operative in the development of Jewish nationalism?

MV: It is difficult, if not impossible, for historians to capture the sensory responses to languages. What is possible, however, is to try and make sense of how individuals describe their relation to a certain language—the feeling of admiration, irritation, disgust or fear that a given language or certain words instill in them. And these emotions cannot be separated from the political context surrounding them, making certain views about the sound of a language meaningful and socially acceptable. That German was a “pure,” elegant language, was a household assumption worldwide. It is against this common perception of German that it made sense to designate Yiddish as an “ugly” language. German was a marker of high culture, refined poetical expression, rationality, and scientific precision. The self-understanding of many German Jews as equal and full Germans was predicated to a considerable degree on their rootedness in the German language. Gabriel Riesser, the foremost advocate of Jewish emancipation, wrote in 1830, “The thundering sounds of the German language, the songs of the German poets, are those that inflamed and fed us with the holy fire of freedom.” The sound of German was a liberating one. And yet at the same time German nationalists and antisemites rejected Jews’ relation to the German language as “inauthentic” and as dangerous to Germany.

After Hitler’s rise to power, the association between the German language and antisemitic hatred became a steady feature in Jewish nationalists’ debates of language matters, especially in Palestine. Hebraist activists repeatedly agitated against German, “the language of Hitler,” or “the language of our enemy.” Some commentators bound together Yiddish and German, calling to “cure us from the big Hitler in Berlin, and the little Hitler in the mouths of my brethren in Tel Aviv,” as one writer put it in 1939. During the war years, this argument became ever more common and was used to question the moral legitimacy of having German heard or even read in public venues in Palestine. Such a view did not go uncontested, but it persisted well into the 1950s and onwards. It is against this political background that the sound of German came to be associated first and foremost with Hitler and the Nazi movement. Yet as I argue in the book, the emotional association between German and antisemitic brutality is not merely an emotive response to the shocking violence of Nazi antisemitism; rather, it builds on recent as well as old trajectories of signifying German as a dangerous language to Jewish life.

MJ: Your book assembles a fascinating cast of characters and focuses both on well-known figures, like Martin Buber, and lesser-known figures, such as Simon Bernfeld. You analyze and compare the work of writers, translators, academics, cultural activists, philosophers, and politicians. Can you talk about how you chose the particular sources and protagonists for your book? How is your corpus linked to what you describe as the “diffused presence” of German in Jewish societies and to your stated effort to “de-Germanize the place of German in modern Jewish society” (12)?

MV: There is a vast and brilliant body of literature by literary scholars who have investigated the approaches of prominent Jewish writers—Kafka, Benjamin, Scholem, Freud, and Heine come to mind—to the German language, emphasizing the different contexts that shaped their relation to German. Yet these figures were masters of German style who were highly self-reflexive of language matters. Their writings are ridden with references to what language in general and the German language in particular meant to them—as Jews, as intellectuals, as human beings. This is a crucial aspect of the Jewish history of the German language, but it is not the whole story. My aim was to broaden the scope of the historical study of Jews’ relation to the German language.

One way of doing this is by paying closer attention to figures who were not accomplished writers in the Germanophone literary sphere. I tried to trace the meanings of German in its more immediate, mundane presence—through the engagement of political activists, popular journalists, lay people, soldiers, and low-brow writers whose main concern was not with matters of representation and self-understanding, but with practical questions such as the usefulness of German as a language of political action and of knowledge. What mattered to them was not (only) how language can reach the depths of one’s soul, but rather whether it can get things done.

Another way of broadening the conversation is indeed by de-Germanizing the place of German in modern Jewish society,” that is, to consider German’s transnational quality in Jewish diasporic life. And it is through this angle that the book tries to study those figures who did not necessarily identify themselves as German writers, and to assess closely questions regarding the practical acquisition of German, its place in the multilingual fabric of empires and nation-states in Central-Eastern Europe, the role of German as a universal language of knowledge, and the affinity between Yiddish and German.

MJ: Near the end of the book, after an analysis of the transformed meaning of German in the wake of the Holocaust, you make (with reference to Hugo Bergmann) a powerful and provocative observation: “German, a language that until recently had been fundamental to Jewish life, had turned into a foreign language” (228). Can you say more about what you mean by “foreign” here? How is this linked to the ways in which your book puts pressure on categories like “internal” and “external” bilingualism and “Jewish” and “non-Jewish” languages?  

MV: One of the arguments I make in the book is that German did much to blur the very distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish languages. Precisely because it permeated the modern Jewish experience in crucial domains—as a language of Jewish enlightenment, of Jewish religious reform, of Jewish scholarly knowledge, and of Jewish nationalism—it came to occupy a profound place in Jewish political and cultural existence since the late eighteenth century.

Seen from this angle, Jewish nationalists, above all Zionists, gradually strove to emancipate Jews from the grip of the German language, namely from Jews’ practical and often emotional dependence on it. In other words, German had to be made a normal language—a language free of the historical baggage accumulated over centuries. The historical irony consisted in the fact that German was expelled from the Jewish public sphere not as a result of the efforts to build a Jewish national polity, but following an event unrelated to it—German’s turning into a Nazi language. While Jewish nationalists sought to confine German to the realm of ordinary, practical languages, German became tied even more powerfully with Jewish historical memory. But this was not due to its role in the social transformation of European Jewry, but because of German’s role in its near destruction.


Matthew Johnson is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago writing a dissertation on twentieth-century German-Yiddish literature.

Featured Image: Theodor Herzl and other delegates at the First Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland (1897). Wikipedia.