Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.31

Glenn W. Most (ed.), Disciplining Classics - Altertumswissenschaft als Beruf.   Göttingen:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2002.  Pp. 280.  ISBN 3-525-25905-0.  EUR 62.00.  

Reviewed by Dirk t. D. Held, Connecticut College (
Word count: 2942 words

The history of classical scholarship over the last two and a half centuries can be understood only in light of the organizational and cultural innovations which marked the emergence of modernity in Europe. In his preface Glenn W. Most, the editor of this informative set of conference papers, rightly makes note of three processes which began in the 18th century and transformed classical studies. They were the disciplinization, institutionalization, and professionalization of scholarship. All of these, it should be said, were conspicuously manifested in the great institutional innovation which is Wilhelm von Humboldt's University of Berlin (not the subject of any of the assembled papers). Allied with F. A. Wolf, Humboldt envisioned the study of Greek culture and the Greek language as the means of inculcating in students the Bildung -- not simply education but the formation of character-- necessary for a new age. Greek antquity was credited with substantive normative power, which Humboldt imagined would be absorbed by students as they went about their scholarly researches in conjunction with university faculty.

The German half of the volume's bilingual title calls to mind Max Weber's 1918 essay "Wissenschaft als Beruf," most commonly rendered in English as "Science as a Vocation." The essay examines the condition of both the natural and human sciences as a "profession" (preferable I think to "vocation").1 Weber makes two significant points that have a bearing on the historical development of classics. The first is that the modern disciplines aim at self-clarification and knowledge of interrelated facts. We should understand this to mean facts internal to the discipline. With this grounding, practitioners move to assert their discipline's autonomy over its subject matter. Weber therefore concludes that the disciplines do not offer "sacred values" or "revelations." We shouldn't look to them for ethical or moral norms, a caveat covering the natural and social sciences along with what we today call the humanities. The second point is related to this, namely Weber's oft repeated claim that the modern world is characterized by "disenchantment" [Entzauberung].2

Weber's account reflects the transformations in the production, transmission, and in particular, organization of knowledge which occured in the eightenth century. These transformations had profound effects on the nature and role of classical studies. Prior to 1800 the disciplines or "sciences" (Wissenschaften) had been regarded as parts of a systematically unified and hierarchical order, comprised of a triad of history, philosophy and mathematics. The original mystique behind the idea of Wissenschaft ironically lay not in value free objective investigation, such as later would be associated with science, but in its subjective dimension.3 The mystique was lost after the disciplines came to be understood simply as a plurality and were differentiated horizontally rather than vertically or hierarchically.4 It is this manner of differentiation which allowed practitioners to establish the autonomy of their disciplines. Disciplines were expected to stand on their own, individuated by their own investigatory principles, procedures and subject matter. F.A. Wolf's inspiration for the comprehensive science of antiquity, which he called Altertumswissenschaft, represented the vanguard in this new era of the organization of knowledge. Classics as a modern discipline was born.

The papers collected here examine the establishment and effect of disciplinarity. They are divided into three sections (five papers are in English and six in German). The first set addresses the initial drive towards disciplinarity in the premodern period. The second and longest section examines the institutionalization of disciplinarity and the subsequent crisis to which this gave rise. It includes a paper on philology and the modernization of China, perhaps a case of Wittgensteinian "family resemblance" but fitting oddly in the collection. The final set of papers offers observations on contemporary classics as a discipline.

Almut-Babara Renger's "Frankreich in wissenschaftsgeschichtlicher Perspektive" opens the section on the premodern period. She examines the standing of Greek and Latin in 17th century France, which had once been in the forefront of humanistic philology through the work of such men as Budé and Étienne. This luster was lost in the 17th century, when philology became increasingly equated with pedantry. She describes an intellectual climate dominated by royal politics and a centralized monarchy which felt little need to support philology. Greek had a meager foothold in humanistic education, while Latin was losing out to a growing pride in the national language. These conditions underlay the vehement dispute between progressivists and traditionalists exemplified by the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. One side offered a program of cultural optimism, the other opposition to monarchy and support for humanistic education, promoting antiquity as a corrective. Neither Greek nor Latin could offer much to the expanding importance of the natural sciences nor to the Cartesian focus on the practical objectives of the sciences. Cartesianism embodied the spirit of modern philosophy and science. A transvaluation had taken place. In fact, Renger applies Weber's "disenchantment" thesis to 17th century France as she refers to the desacralization and demythologization (Desakralisierung und Entmythisierung) with which the natural sciences and Cartesianism were eroding the authority once held by antiquity.

A figure of considerable importance to classical studies prior to Wolf is the subject of Martin Vohler's "Christian Gottlob Heyne und das Studium des Altertums in Deutschland." Heyne played a key role in introducing the work of Winckelmann into the university and pointedly compared the level at which Winckelmann found the study of antiquity in relation to where he eventually left it. Heyne was apparently no pedant. Vohler notes that although Heyne did not attain the levels of technical accomplishment found in Dutch and English philology, he was praised by no less than Friedrich Schlegel for his enthusiasm and comprehensive grasp of antiquity and its spirit (Geist). Heyne institutionalized support for the study of antiquity through periodicals, expansion of library holdings at Göttingen, collections of maps and coins, and the first university collection of ancient sculpture. Unsurprisingly, he exerted a good deal of pedadogical influence as well. Vohler points to Heyne's argument that antiquity had to be presented as a whole. Heyne drew together in his work the previously separated antiquarian studies of art and literature. He took from Winckelmann the need for aesthetic legitimation in the appreciation of antiquity. Winckelmann regarded beauty as objective, claiming that the quality of beauty in works of art was "like an essence extracted from matter by fire."5 From this Heyne drew the hermeneutical principle that ancient works had to be understood in terms of such an essence, specifically the Geist imparted by the artist to his work. Grasping this, the scholar would have access to the originating creative spirit.

The final paper of the first section is Lauriana Sapienza's study "Euripides: Eine disziplinierte Polemik?" She looks at the effect Friedrich Schlegel's developmentalist view of tragedy had on the modern reception of Euripides. In that view Sophocles embodied the standard of aesthetic harmony in contrast to Euripide who represented crisis and decadence because he abandoned idealization. Sapienza makes the point that Euripides' defenders were compelled to use the same critical and analytical methods as his detractors. In this way, they were undermined by their own assumptions.

The second section offers two papers on the topic of Nietzsche's "untimeliness." The first is Thomas Bartscherer's "An Untimely Interlocutor: Plato as a Precedent in Nietzsche's Critique of Education and Classical Studies." He attempts to understand Nietzsche's view of educational institutions through his ambivalent relationship to Plato, in particular to Plato's account of education. Bartscherer maintains that two themes, eros and untimeliness, unite both philosophers. Each regards eros as a mediating force, and Plato and Nietzsche display untimeliness in their wish for education to facilitate the transcendence of time. Some commonalities between Plato and Nietzsche will be accepted with little objection. Plato like Nietzsche was opposed to contemporary norms and beliefs, whose transformation would require resolute attention to the function and goals of education. In this respect it is reasonable to regard them both as instances of untimeliness. But beyond that the argument runs into trouble. Bartscherer adduces a Nietzschean example of transcending time in the form of great men who become exemplarary for succeeding ages. This is nothing like what Plato means by transcendence. For Plato, transcendence is a metaphysical leap into a radically different ontological realm while for Nietzsche it remains a conditional escape from historical contingency. The heroes of one age are not necessarily the heroes of another. This difference becomes more emphatic when eros is considered. Nietzsche regards eros as the motivation for attaining self-knowledge. That process begins with reflection on various objects which inspire a feeling of love and the realization that these objects comprise a ladder by which a person ascends to his real self. The metaphor of the ladder is an image of Plato's scala amoris whose ultimate object is the transcendent Form Beauty, but Bartscherer's equivocation over the meaning of transcendence deflates the comparison. The deep affinities the author claims to find between Plato and Nietzsche cannot do the work demanded of them. Despite this shortcoming, the essay contains some alert observations regarding Nietzsche's arguments against humanistic education and the cultural insitutions of his day.

In their informative and lucid paper "Das Gymnasium in der Knechtschaft des Staates. Zu Entstehung, Situation und Thema von F. Nietzsches 'Wir Philologen,'" Hubert Cancik and Hildegard Cancik-Lindemaier trace Nietzsche's early wrestling with the problem, as he realized it had by then become, of the profession of philology. The authors bring foward several rhetorical questions Nietzsche wrote in 1875. How human was antiquity? what is the basis of its classicism? how can it be the object of humanistic studies? how can the self-understanding of philology and educational ideals (Bildungsidee) relate to the prestige of the natural sciences and the state's need for engineers, physicians, soldiers, and public officials? Even though the humanistic gymnasium retained considerable prestige as the avenue to positions in the state government, tensions not unlike those Almut-Barbara Renger describes in 17th century France broke out as a battle between proponents of an older humanist education and those favoring a newer, more practically oriented form. Nietzsche thought such prestige was a form of slavery, and in addition to education he regarded classical philology, and classical antiquity itself, as problematic. Philology, which Nietzsche feared might die out, was in crisis. One issue was the splintering of philology into an aggregate of discrete parts unified only by its name. Nietzsche also questioned his resources as a professor to accommodate philology to an era of science and nationalism. The authors conclude with a careful examination of several Nietzschean texts that document his comparison of the situation in Germany to Bildung in the Greek polis. Higher culture in Greece had no state support but was created by individual ambition in spite of the polis. Nietzsche thought humanism was an unGreek characteristic and that the Greeks were in reality inhuman. Regrettably genuine, menschliche antiquity had been domesticated and lost by modernity's systemization of learning and education.

Consequences of institutionalizing Altertumswissenschaft are exmined by Manuel Baumbach in his "Lehrer oder Gelehrter? Der Schulmann in der deutschen Altertumswissenschaft des 19. und frühen 20. Jahrhunderts." Humboldt had stressed the need to increase the wissenschaftlich or scholarly dimension of studying antiquity. This Forschungsimperativ trickled down to the school level, and consequently even schoolteachers at the gymnasium level were expected to be researchers. For a while this provided a link between the schools and universities but eventually the increased specialization in the universities had the result that the professors didn't think that schoolmen were capable of making worthwhile contributions to research and should be limited to producing lexica, school commentaries and the like. The study of antiquity was threatened with a split between practitioners in the schools and the universities. In this context Baumbach addresses Wilamowitz's Griechisches Lesebuch (1902) as an attempt indirectly to introduce historicism into the schools. It was an endeavor to revive the comprehensiveness of Wolf's original Altertumswissenschaft with its emphasis on knowledge of all facets of the ancient world. We might say that Wilamowitz created his own adaptation of untimeliness. Baumbach quotes Wilamowitz's belief in --pardon the Germanism-- the world-educative mission of Hellenism. Humboldt's original idea of a national Bildung had been transmogrified into universal Bildung. However, if Altertumswissenschaft was estranged from Life as Nietzsche charged, it was no solution to redress this estrangement by doing more of what had led to estrangement in the first place. The Griechisches Lesebuch was not the way to answer Humboldt's fear expressed a hundred years earlier that the imagination needed for meaningful absorption of antiquity would become the victim of excessive learning.6

The unique institutional realization of Aby Warburg's ideal of cultural history is discussed in Antje Wessels' "Zur Kulturwissenschaftlichen Bibliothek Warburg als institutioneller Realisation von Warburgs Konzept der Kulturwissenschaften." The library is termed a metaphor for Warburg's understanding of the world. Its focus was the social memory and orientation of mankind to the cosmos. A significant organizational theme was the link between mythical and rational symbols. Books were thematically categorized around the knowledge of symbols that ruled all areas of human life. By ignoring the normal disciplinary boundaries Warburg could respond to the loss of disciplinary unity and the constant fracturing into specialized sub-disciplines. It is hardly without significance that in his move to re-establish a unified intellectual perspective Warburg had the luxury of being free from normal academic oligations. His brother provided the financial resources to support an institutional arrangement that would never have appeared otherwise.

The three final papers present diverse perspectives on the discipline of classics today. Ann Hanson's "Papyrology: A Discipline in Flux" surveys a sub-discipline of Altertumswissenschaft as it has evolved from 18th century excavations at Herculaneum to modern quantitative studies of mortality and local finance. Her summary confirms the disciplinary success of the specialization whose origins in the 18th century we have taken note of above. Nothing here would jar with the contents of Wolf's Darstellung der Altertumswissenschaft or Wilamowitz's Griechisches Lesebuch.

S. C. Humphreys' title in contrast reveals we're not in Kansas anymore. She declares that "Classics and Colonialism: towards an erotics of the discipline" is about play, pleasure, and dialogue. Disciplinary formation coincided with other major transformations in Europe, including intensified colonialism. She agrees that disciplines in the modern sense entail specialization and plurality. Additionally she points out that they presuppose estrangement between the modern world of reader-interpreters and the ancient world being recalled. This was prefigured as a paradox in Winckelmann which he was not always conscious of, namely upholding the appeal of antiquity as timeless and proper for imitation while emphasizing the historical contingency of the conditions that gave rise to its creativity. This estrangement is what allows Humphreys to describe classics as a colonization of the past. And like colonialism, there is a marked asymmetry of power between the disciplinary observer who constructs a viewpoint of the past and the past that is shaped by the discipline. Thus Humphreys is right to describe the discourse of modernity as being incessantly involved in negotiating relations between constructed pasts and imagined futures. The modern reader stands outside of the position of the texts (of whatever sort) from the past and must relate to them in a dialogic manner. Moderns have to negotiate with the past in this way since the acceleration of time prohibits them from experiencing history as an archetype.7

But Humphreys claims that scholarship eschews dialogue. The rational reader in her opinion does not interact dialogically with the past's texts. Rational texts she states are instructive while irrational ones are aesthetic. On these grounds Humphreys calls for rethinking the role of the disciplinary expert in order to break out of the heuristic model of humanities scholarship. Humanities classrooms should be places where interpretative practices are opened up and not closed down, places where skills of responsive dialogue are developed, where challenges to the disciplinary frame are accommodated, where the assignment of texts is openly acknowledged as part of the reception process and where readers are made to confront the implications of their heuristic principles. Not everyone will agree with Humphreys' analysis let alone her prescription, but the essay is well worth reading as it provokes and stimulates in a positive way. There is much to learn from it.

The final essay is Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht's "Live Your Experience --And Be Untimely. What 'Classical Philology as a Profession' Could (Have) Become." Gumbrecht opens his guns on a number of eminent German scholars including R. Koselleck, H. Jauss, J. Mittlestrass, and R. Bübner for their platitudes regarding the humanities, which lead him to wonder whether the humanities have reached their historical end. He distinguishes classics as a profession from classics as a field of knowledge while focusing on the second and third decades of the 20th century.8 Gumbrecht invokes Weber's essay and sees 20th century academic institutions as part of Weber's Entzauberung since their value-free scholarship has stifled the imagination (as Humboldt feared would happen). Wilamowitz meanwhile, as we have seen, wished to revive classical learning. He asserted that aesthetic experience had to be subordinated to ethical learning and self-discipline, the very process Nietzsche had once impugned. Werner Jaeger's "Paideia" of the 1930's was an endeavor to reinstate the lost Bildung. Gumbrecht's own solution for bringing about Bildung is to confront our students and ourselves with complexity that defies ready conceptualization and interpretation. In short it is a step against facile (and non-facile) reductivism, surely one thing the humanities should be well equipped to teach.

The papers discussed above range widely, and cannot help but stimulate thoughtful consideration of modern classics as a discipline. At the very least, knowing our discipline's history and the forces that shaped that history, will be important as classics enters the fray of the 21st century.


1.   H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, edd., From Max Weber. Essays in Sociology, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 129-156.
2.   Gerth and Mills, edd. p. 152 and 139.
3.   A. Diemer, "Die Begründung des Wissenschaftscharakters der Wissenschaft im 19. Jahrhundert - Die Wissenschaftstheorie zwischen klassischer und moderner Wissenschaftkonzeption" in A. Diemer (hrg) Beiträge zur Entwicklung der Wissenschaftstheorie im 19. Jahrhundert, Verlag Anton Hain: Meisenheim am Glan, 1968, 3-62.
4.   Rudolf Stichweh, Zur Entstehung des modernen Systems wissenschaftlicher Disziplinen: Physik in Deutschland 1740-1890, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag 1984, p. 17.
5.   Ein aus der Materie durchs Feuer gezogener Geist, J. Winckelmann, Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft 1968, p. 149. This point is examined in Dirk t. D. Held, "Conflict and Repose: Dialectics of the Greek Ideal in Nietzsche and Winckelmann," P. Bishop, ed., Nietzsche and the Classical Tradition, forthcoming.
6.   Humboldt is quoted by Goethe as regretting the uncovering of so many archaeological objects, saying that "at most there will be a gain for scholarship at the cost of the imagination" (es kann höchstens ein Gewinn für die Gelehrsamkeit auf Kosten der Phantasie sein).
7.   See Reinhard Koselleck, "Modernity and the Planes of Historicity," in Futures Past. On the Semantics of Historical Time (Cambridge MA 1984), for his notion of the 'temporalization' (Verzeitlichung) of experience.
8.   Gumbrecht has taken an unusual annalistic approach to the history of the 20th century in his In 1926. Living at the Edge of Time, Cambridge MA: Harvard UP 1997.

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