Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought, 1790-1800

By Frederick C. Beiser | Go to book overview

1
GERMAN LIBERALISM IN THE 1790S

1.1. Methodological Scruples

If we are to understand German philosophy in the 1790s, it is of primary importance that we have some general perspective on the decade as a whole. Should we concentrate on single thinkers alone, there is the clear danger that we miss the forest for the trees. We must have, therefore, some classification of the various strands of thought of the 1790s, some account of how they are alike and differ from one another.

It is no simple matter, however, to classify these strands. The historian of philosophy faces several severe difficulties in trying to generalize about this extremely complex, eventful, and fateful decade. First, it is very misleading to classify the thinkers of the 1790s into "schools of thought," given that they were rarely conscious of themselves as belonging to a distinct party. Here again it is necessary to remind ourselves that German political life in the 1790s was not divided into political parties and interest groups in the modern sense. In forming any generalizations, then, we must be careful not to confuse a mere logical similarity with an organized historical association. Second, anachronism, that notorious yet endemic pitfall of all history, is an especially acute danger in the case of the 1790s. The thinkers of this decade are so often the "fathers" of later doctrines and movements that it is very tempting to pin later labels upon them--a misleading enterprise if the differences between them and their progeny are ignored. Third, the thinkers of the 1790s, because of the lack of party affiliation and organization, are often likely to be exceptions to the generalizations we make about them. Here, especially, historians must remind themselves that their generalizations are only "ideal types" to which all cases in empirical reality are mere approximations. Fourth and finally, the sheer mass of material from this decade, much of it rare, makes it very easy to make false generalizations based on a few "major" thinkers. What does our study say about the period as a whole if its generalizations ignore or glide over the legions of "minor"

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