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12 - After Historicism: The Politics of Time and History in Twentieth-Century Germany

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 June 2023

John Robertson
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
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Summary

Waseem Yaqoob examines how four prominent German political philosophers responded to the ‘crisis of historicism’ by re-thinking the relation between ethics, politics and history. The trigger for the crisis was Germany’s defeat in World War I, when the presumed convergence of the monarchical nation state with ethical fulfilment and historical destiny dissolved in defeat and political upheaval. Among the first to respond was Friedrich Meinecke, whose earlier confidence in that convergence was replaced by an awareness of historical contingency, and of the difficulty of aligning ethics with reason of state. Notoriously harder line was Carl Schmitt, for whom an appreciation of contingency in a ‘world of enemies’ entailed the assertion of sovereignty at the expense of ethics. With the collapse of Nazism and advent of the Cold War, Reinhart Koselleck renewed Schmitt’s critique of moralising historical philosophy (identified with the Enlightenment), before turning to ‘conceptual history’ to suggest that the state would best adapt to the accelerating temporality of modernity by avoiding all normative choices. By contrast, Hannah Arendt would seek in the contingency of history the space to make such choices, and the opportunity to revive the ancient ideal of active citizenship. In conclusion, Yaqoob sets German post-Historicist thinking off against the anti-historical tendency of Anglo-American political philosophy associated with John Rawls, suggesting that the former may offer a more sophisticated historical ‘realism’ than that current among Rawls’ critics.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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