The Culture of Western Europe: The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: An Introduction

The Culture of Western Europe: The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: An Introduction

The Culture of Western Europe: The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: An Introduction

The Culture of Western Europe: The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: An Introduction

Excerpt

In our day the word "culture" provokes either hostility or embarrassment, for the term has been compromised by its origins. German Romantics made much of the word culture. For them culture was the outward expression of history's hidden qualities. Their concept of culture centered upon an inward feeling rather than upon an emphasis on those social and economic realities which to many are a prerequisite for orderly progress in the world. Culture so defined seems opposed to rationalism and science, favoring instead a blurred kind of emotionalism. Oswald Spengler's distinction between culture and civilization brings this out in stark relief. A culture possesses a soul while civilization is the "most external and artificial state of which . . . humanity . . . is capable."

The hidden qualities of history express themselves through the soul of a civilization. A history of culture written on the basis of this definition would be what the Germans call Kulturduselei, what we might translate as "speculating about civilization"--something a great many historians indulged in around the turn of the century. To try to probe the "soul" of European civilization might be tempting--provided one believed that such a soul did indeed exist. We cannot conduct such a search, a search which has usually resulted in the discovery of a mythical racial or national root. For any sustained historical analysis, this concept of culture is much too imprecise. Yet one of the pioneers in the analysis of cultural history, Jacob Burckhardt, did seem to believe in something of that sort when he described the task of cultural history as that of seeking for the "spiritual essence" of an epoch. When he coined this term he was himself reacting against the growing industrialism, urbanism, and materialism of his time.

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