Schillers Geschichtsdenken: Die Unbegreiflichkeit der Weltgeschichte by Alexander Jakovljević (review)

Abstract

Publication
Goethe Yearbook, Volume 25, 2018, pp. 324-325
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Reviewed by

Asko Nivala

Alexander Jakovljević. Schillers Geschichtsdenken: Die Unbegreiflichkeit der Weltgeschichte. Berlin: Ripperger & Kremers Verlag, 2015. 381 pp.

Among the many contributions of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790) was to question the dogmatic belief in providence: Kant argued that the human mind represents both organic nature and human history as if (als ob) both were teleological, although we can never verify this claim. Despite the fact that Kant limited teleology to regulative use, Karl Löwith claimed in his influential study Meaning in History (1949) that the nineteenth-century philosophy of history is nothing but secularized eschatology. Although Löwith’s argument is a simplification, his criticism of master narratives had enormous influence on the development of postmodernism. Since Hayden White’s Metahistory (1973), historians have debated to what extent historical events themselves have order and to what extent it is only the historian’s narration that gives them meaning.

Alexander Jakovljević’s Schillers Geschichtsdenken: Die Unbegreiflichkeit der Weltgeschichte (2015) shows how complex Friedrich Schiller’s historical thought was, and provides some new insights into how he theorized the relationship between teleology and contingency in history. Schiller’s place is very interesting among the post-Kantian philosophers, because he published his major works before the rise of German idealism: his position seems to be somewhere between Kant’s regulative approach to teleology and Hegel’s belief that the telos of history is the accumulation of freedom.

Jakovljević convincingly shows that Schiller’s position is based on the tension between two almost opposite views of history. In 1789, Schiller was appointed professor of history at the university of Jena on Goethe’s recommendation. His famous inaugural lecture Was heißt und zu welchem Ende studiert man Universalgeschichte? (1789) appears to be firmly anchored in the belief that human history is a teleological process. It was published one year before Kant’s criticism of teleological judgments in the third critique. In contrast, Ueber das Erhabene (1801) provides a very different understanding of history. Schiller argued there that history is incomprehensible and seems to be ruled more by coincidence (Zufall) than teleology. The previous scholarship has often assumed that Schiller moved from earlier providentialism to a more pessimist understanding of history because of his disappointment with the horrors of the French Revolution. According to Jakovljević, Schiller’s hovering between providentialism and coincidentalism should not be seen as a linear development from the former to the latter. Rather Jakovljević proposes that Schiller’s position becomes more understandable in a context of genre-specific readings that take into account all three fields in which Schiller was active: philosophy of history, historiography, and historical drama. In addition to the introduction (Chapter 1) and conclusions (Chapter 5), the book is divided into three chapters that follow this classification.

The introduction is carefully written, and defines the key concepts of the study, namely telos, contingency (Kontingenz), and coincidence (Zufall), and explains the theoretical framework provided by Reinhart Koselleck and Hayden White. Chapter 2 starts with Schiller’s inaugural lecture, which again supported the idea that historical development is teleological. In a teleological framework every historical event must be necessary, but Schiller’s own work as a historian was in tension with this theoretical assumption of universal history. This problem became evident for Schiller especially when he was working with medieval sources and the age of Crusades: it was difficult to explain why the Middle Ages were necessary for the universal development of mankind. Highlighting Schiller’s aesthetic approach to history, Jakovljević focuses on the metaphors Schiller used. For instance, describing medieval history as “unknown ocean” (ungewisses Meer) implies that historical events are coincidental. This difficulty was related to the premises of the Enlightenment, for the Middle Ages was still mostly seen as an era of religious fanaticism, political despotism, and a multitude of chaotic events resulting from them.

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