An intellectual history

In the twenty-first century, intense debates concerning the university have flared up in Germany. An underlying factor is the general feeling that the country's once so excellent universities have been irredeemably left behind. This book anchors the current debate about the university in the past by exploring the history and varying meanings of the tradition of Wilhelm von Humboldt. It first provides a history of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and the history and content of the Humboldtian tradition. Humboldt was involved in Greek antiquity, theory of education, Prussian educational system, and comparative linguistics. If, in spite of this versatility, a comprehensive idea, his Lebensthema, is to be found, it would have to be human beings and their Education. The book discusses the contributions of Adolf von Harnack and Eduard Spranger who emphasised Humboldt as a prominent figure in German university history. It focuses on three of the most influential figures in the post-war debate on the university: philosopher Karl Jaspers, historian Gerhard Ritter, and Germanic philologist Werner Richter. The 150th anniversary celebrations of the university in 1960 saw the eastern Berlin academia claiming to be the bearers of the true Humboldtian spirit and the west demonstrating itself as taking over Humboldt's original idea. The years following 2000 saw most European countries realising university reforms without any notable opposition, but in Germany the Bologna process gave rise to heated discussions in the public sphere.

nation had a future, it was not as a political great power but as an intellectual one. In their present situation, the Germans were – with an echo 1  Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Vor dem Vorhang: Das geistige Berlin 1945–1948 (Munich, 1995); Jörg Echternkamp, Nach dem Krieg: Alltagsnot, Neuorientierung und die Last der Vergangenheit 1945–1949 (Zürich, 2003). Parts of this chapter build upon earlier texts of mine: Johan Östling, ‘The Regeneration of the University: Karl Jaspers and the Humboldtian Tradition in the Wake of the Second World War’, in The Humboldtian Tradition

in Humboldt and the modern German university

early nineteenth century than, for instance, Friedrich Althoff’s bureaucratically authoritarian system. During the second half of the 1920s, it was clear that Becker would not be successful in changing the German university. His support among the professorial community for carrying out democratic reforms had been very limited even at the outset. When darkness fell in the years surrounding 1930, it became even more difficult to gain a hearing for idealistic and humanistic visions.48 Nor can the philosopher Karl Jaspers be assigned to either camp – for or against

in Humboldt and the modern German university
Jürgen Habermas and the European left

each other, were all informed by the common sense that human beings need protection from the violence of which the modern state has shown itself capable. These were very important innovations in International Criminal Law. They represented, as Karl Jaspers put it, the hint of a cosmopolitanism to come – ‘a feeble, ambiguous harbinger of a world order the need of which mankind is beginning to feel’. 9 However, they were considerably marginalised with the onset

in Antisemitism and the left
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Leiden der Hochschulreform’ (approx. ‘The chronic disease of university reform’). He argued that it was wrong to try – as had Karl Jaspers and others during the early post-war era – to re-establish the old university. Instead, he insisted that critical reflection on the roles of science and scholarship and the university in society must form the point of departure for all reforms. This was a fundamental idea that was discussed in Hochschule in der Demokratie.98 The purpose of this text was to intervene in the current universitypolitical debate from a Socialist point of

in Humboldt and the modern German university
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Uses and critiques of ‘civilisation’

principal unit of research and the main form of human sociality. There is nonetheless also a significant vein of scholarship on civilisations as collectives coursing through the early phases of modern archaeology, anthropology, history, philosophy and sociology. Beginning with Emile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, Max Weber, Oswald Spengler, Pitirim Sorokin, Karl Jaspers, Eric Voegelin and Arnold Toynbee, comparative sociologists, philosophers and world historians have produced theories and inquiries taking civilisations as the main unit of analysis. The advantage of focusing on

in Debating civilisations

‘revolution from above’. Quite clearly the famous existentialistic philosopher Karl Jaspers was not right when he formulated the idea that ‘once introduced, a dictatorship cannot be removed from within’ (Jaspers 1991: 218). Drawing on the experience of the political history of the first half of the twentieth century, he maintained that ‘everything that we know of the terroristic state with its characteristic total planning and bureaucracy bears witness to the fundamental impossibility of stopping this almost automatically self-preserving machine, which grinds up all internal

in Potentials of disorder

 here. Chronologically, Axial civilisations came into view first. Picking up on insights into the significance of human evolution in this era from Karl Jaspers, Benjamin Schwartz and Eric Voegelin, Eisenstadt extended the problematic of the Axial Age beyond the first millennium BCE (Eisenstadt, 1986). Following Martin Buber’s proclivity for multidisciplinary investigations into creativity, he coupled philosophical notions of axiality with Weber’s comparative sociology of worldly orientations and came up with ‘Axial Age civilisations’, in which a creative tension between transcendental

in Debating civilisations
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. When the university in Heidelberg celebrated its 600-year anniversary in 1986, a few of post-war Germany’s most prominent academics were asked to deliver an address under the heading ‘Die Idee der Universität’, a tribute to Heidelberg Professor Karl Jaspers. Several of the contributors – Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jürgen Habermas, Wolf Lepenies, Manfred Eigen – started out from the German university tradition.3 It was Gadamer who adopted Humboldt’s model most unconditionally. He described how the Prussian state had existed in darkness at the beginning of the nineteenth

in Humboldt and the modern German university