BMCR 2006.01.19

Der “Aufblick zur Idee”. Eine vergleichende Studie zur Platonischen Pädagogik bei Friedrich Schleiermacher, Paul Natorp und Werner Jaeger

, Der "Aufblick zur Idee" : eine vergleichende Studie zur Platonischen Pädagogik bei Friedrich Schleiermacher, Paul Natorp und Werner Jaeger. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2005. 174 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 3525301499 €39.90.

Andrea Follak’s concise study on Platonic pedagogy in the writings of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Paul Natorp and Werner Jaeger is a welcome contribution to the history of classical scholarship. Originating as a doctoral thesis in the field of philosophy and theory of science at the University of Konstanz, the study not only examines the impact of Platonic interpretation on German educational policy and theory between 1800 and the 1930s, but also — albeit indirectly — offers a glimpse of the different routes which the study of the classical tradition, for want of a better term, can take today across countries and across multiple disciplines. It is often acknowledged that the contemporary landscape of academic disciplines in Germany keeps well-tended space for the sociology and history of science ( Wissenssoziologie and Wissenschaftsgeschichte), yet those fields do not usually interact strongly with the disciplines that form a large part of their subject matter: in other words, a scholar working on the cultural and institutional history of Platonic interpretation, such as Follak, would not likely be part of a faculty such as Altphilologie or Ancient Philosophy. Whether the growing specialization of (especially classical) disciplines within the development of the German university after 1800 is partly responsible for that effect is another matter; but what emerges clearly from Follak’s account is the close link between academic scholarship and its larger societal value as it has been forged strongly and from an early period by classical scholarship in Germany. For this reason alone, and given the continuing importance credited to nineteenth century Germany as the central provider of a canon of scholarship, hers is a study that deserves a readership in the fields of classics and philosophy as much as in the narrower area of the history of science.

F. investigates the close connection between Platonic scholarship and the history of the German university from 1810 (when Wilhelm von Humboldt was given a mandate by the Prussian state to found the University of Berlin on the basis of a new, reformed program), through to the early twentieth century, when the need to reform the reform university became obvious, especially with a view to the official curtailing of classical languages in the school system after 1900.1 Her three case studies for discussing education and Bildung through discussions of Plato are Friedrich Schleiermacher, Paul Natorp, and Werner Jaeger. Schleiermacher, theologian, educator and translator of Plato with strong links to the German early Romantics, formulated in contradistinction to Plato a rational pedagogy based on Christian ethics and the bourgeois family, yet with room for ascent to an independent, educated elite. Natorp, a neo-Kantian philosopher, around 1900 reinterpreted Plato as the forerunner of a socialist, radically democratic pedagogy that stresses the community above the individual, calling for an “aristocracy in workmen’s clothes” as the aim of learning. Jaeger, a classical scholar, after the first World War, promoted a “Third Humanism”, combining many earlier ideas about an intellectualism of the few with a wider quasi-religious enthusiasm for culture and education as the quintessential and universal values of Greece. The three chapters are framed by two very brief chapters (the term “chapter” for the first, at three pages, is somewhat of a misnomer) that describe — and in the last chapter or coda repeat in more detail — the opposing poles of Platonic approaches as those of rationalist clarity on the one hand and an enthusiasm ( Schwärmerei) verging on obscurity on the other hand, as Immanuel Kant defined them in a review essay on recent readings of Plato in 1796 (“On an elevated mode recently cultivated in philosophy”). Another brief summary of her argument is followed by a bibliography (not extensive), and a short index.

Kant’s prescient polemics give F. the frame to position her three thinkers on a gliding scale of relative clarity and enthusiasm. This structure, in turn, allows her to conclude that all three, for all their differences, share a trust in the transformative and community-building power of Platonic education, where rationalism pure and simple always assumes a complementary’feeling’: be it Christian ethics, a natural inclination towards community, or quasi-religious awe. In addition, she is right to point out the danger of circular argument that is inherent in all three approaches, even if to varying degrees.

Schleiermacher, the subject of chapter two, for F. marks the transition from a ‘sentimental’ ( empfindsam) reading of Plato based on feeling, to the acknowledgement of Plato as a systematic thinker. The circle of the early (or Jena) Romantics of whom Schleiermacher was part, many of whom were classical scholars in their own right, envisioned a new, creative function for philosophy, and did so by appreciating the open-endedness and aporia of dialogic form and Socratic irony. While this appreciation spills over into Schleiermacher’s theoretical and practical understanding of translation modeled as closely on the source language as possible, an approach that forces the reader to maintain an alienated and reflexive stance, his systematic-philological method also means that Schleiermacher tries to identify an internally coherent, unified and closed system in the Platonic works. In general, F. outlines how Schleiermacher, formulating his own pedagogy through and against readings of Plato, distinguishes between a more ‘closed’ education within the limits of institutions and along Christian values on the one hand, and the independence and hermeneutic challenge of science ( Wissenschaft) on the other hand, where a Platonic elitism and intellectualism of the few is much more acceptable.

In the interest of being selective, given that he translated and introduced the complete dialogues, F. concentrates on Schleiermacher’s internal argument with Plato’s Republic (translated last in 1828). Schleiermacher not only is reluctant to grant the ahistorical validity of a Platonic educational model, but also points out how the smooth (and to him suspicious) overlap of state and education can happen only in such isolation as the Platonic model state allows. Beyond those misgivings, pedagogy is an ethical (rather than a mainly intellectual) pursuit, which makes the Platonic Idea of the Good a useful factor. Schleiermacher then proceeds to square this with the Christian Good, exchanging Plato’s δικαιοσύνη with Christian love in the process. (F. is good at identifying the points where Schleiermacher adopts a surprisingly literal approach, somewhat dissonant with his distancing method of translation and interpretation, to make this link).

Overall, Schleiermacher arrives at a model of education that sees the family and similar associations, rather than a Platonic elite, as the basis of learning for the young individual. At this juncture, as well as in the other two case studies, it would have been desirable if F., who points out prominently that Schleiermacher was officially asked to act as an advisor to the Prussian Minsistry of Education, had included more information not only on Schleiermacher’s measures (if any), but also on the actual conditions of school and university education in the early 1810s and 1820s, even if only in the form of some bibliographical pointers.2

The second long chapter (numerically the third), contrasts Schleiermacher’s ethical pedagogy of relative common sense with Natorp’s more radical revision of Platonic studies in the name of a social pedagogy ( Sozialpädagogik), at the university of Marburg around 1900. On the basis of Kantian idealism (to Natorp, Kant is the “Plato of Königsberg”), Natorp shifts the focus exclusively towards an interpretation of ideas not as things that exist independently on a higher plane, but as intellectual abstractions that have an exclusively methodological and logical, not an ontological function — even if this meant, as for Schleiermacher, that any such strong reading throws up inconsistencies in reading the Platonic texts. In consequence, education for Natorp is founded on epistemology and intellectual training. The result is a more positive evaluation of Plato, especially the Republic, offering the model for a state based on community. Even though Plato, to Natorp, has not followed through his own insights radically enough (leaving in place a rigid class-system, for example), he pre-empts socialism and its theory of the state, based on an organic notion of the interplay of different functions within the state, as much as within the individual. The communism of the upper class in Plato ought therefore to be extended, in favor of creating an “aristocracy in workmen’s clothes”.

And yet, F. argues that Natorp engages in a dialogue with Schleiermacher more than with Plato directly: their pedagogical models are similar, in that Schleiermacher’s religious element is translated into the function of “feeling” ( Gefühl), the subjective impulse, which is an impulse towards community, tempered by the more objective faculties for science, morality and art, and together creating individuality. The highest good, or the Idea of the Good, becomes synonymous with a human unity of experience, and the community it creates. While F. does not go far enough to question how this attitude grates with the Kantian focus on idea as method (it seems that Natorp assumes a radically literal meaning of a Kantian sensus communis, much as Schleiermacher does of the “good” and the “divine”), she is certainly right to conclude that Natorp, too, arrives at a system that is too closed, ignoring — unlike Schleiermacher — historical distance in favor of a strong utopianism based on reading Plato as a systematic philosopher.

The subject of chapter four, Werner Jaeger is, of the three figures, probably the one best known to readers in America, where he was of considerable influence or at least fame (Jaeger accepted a position at the University of Chicago in 1936, from where he eventually moved to Harvard, where he remained until his death in 1961). He was the most outspoken of the three in response to a ‘crisis’ of education, and it may be for that reason that F. contextualizes him more (although still not much more) than any of the others with regard to actual school and university curricula and reforms.3 After World War I, when Germany was no longer treating classical languages as the only entry route to higher education, Jaeger undertook to reclaim classical philology (or, more broadly, Altertumswissenschaft) as a leading discipline (the German Leitdisziplin has a stronger ring of normativity than simply leadership), a title that in his view had come to rest on philosophy and modern, especially German, philology.4 As opposed to Natorp’s vision of infinitely broadened access, Jaeger used the slogan of a “Third Humanism” (after that of the Renaissance and the humanism/Hellenism of the Goethe period) to suggest a counter model for re-valuing of classical antiquity and classical education ( Bildung) that was universal, yet understandable in its full implications only to a small band of devotees.

Feeling uneasy with the prospect of limiting Platonic interpretation to an interpretation of Plato’s logic, Jaeger decried the Marburg school of philosophy (where he studied early on) as one-sided and ahistorical, rallying Schleiermacher to the cause again. Instead, he pleads for the methodology of Geistesgeschichte, i.e., the historical interpretation and identification of a guiding ‘spirit’ or principle structuring a given epoch, and expressed in exemplary personalities of that age — a hermeneutical method based on the writings of Wilhelm Dilthey that was successfully practiced especially in German philology at the time. (F. is absolutely to the point when she remarks that this is itself a Platonic concept: there is an Idea behind each epoch, which has unifying explicatory force for all ‘human’ sciences: history of history, art, law, philosophy, music etc.). This section of the chapter on Jaeger is probably the one of most interest to a non-German audience, because it goes far towards situating both the reputation and the tendencies of German scholarship of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the context of disciplinary history, whether in the area of classical philology or beyond.5

Jaeger argues the case for classical philology, as opposed to modern philology, by calling for an overarching historical, although not blindly historicist, science that transcends specialized scholarship. If historical interpretation is followed through, however, classical antiquity emerges as the provider of the most central value of civilization, namely culture as an ideal and central value itself, which he sees exemplified in the concept of Greek paideia, notably in Plato. Pedagogy, in other words, becomes the subject matter and methodology of classical philology rolled into one. F. gives a detailed, and critical, account of how Jaeger adds to the epoch-specific, historical interpretation a strong universalizing layer, and she rightly refers to Bruno Snell’s critical review of Jaeger’s eventually three-volume study Paideia (1934), which charged him with a historical reductionism of classical Greece.6 What is more, F. traces how Jaeger uses the term “idea” in so many contexts and without discrimination that he deprives it eventually of any semantic value and meaning, moving from a utopian distance of the idea to a prior knowledge of what it already was, making it the aim of historical understanding to identify hidden identities between the past and present, and especially between the Greeks and the Germans. As Jaeger has it, “the ongoing process of tradition from antiquity until the turn of the twentieth century … is a progressive dematerialization and a spiritualization of our Faustian courtship for Helena, the Greek bride” (p.149).

For Jaeger, the ideal of the state arises naturally out of a community that recognizes the Greek ideal of culture throughout history, developing loyalty to that state as the task of culture — a vision not easy to reconcile with the Germany of the 1930s. In Jaeger’s community, the idea of the state, synonymous with the national whole, is born of intellectual insight combined with the pathos of experience ( Erlebnis), which feeds back into an environment of education. True historical insight, however, is given only to few, and in a time of fragmentation the inevitable outcome is an intellectual aristocracy ( Bildungsaristokratie). Jaeger’s philosopher kings, as F. quotes him, know Wissenschaft of classical antiquity as the “priestess and guardian of the heritage of Greece and Rome” (p.149), who has to keep consciousness alive of this experience of culture ( Kulturgefühl): a strange gender twist from the courtship of Helen to a personified female science as one of Plato’s guardians.

Surprisingly, F. gives little detailed space to Jaeger’s own scholarly publications on Plato (and Aristotle in relation to Plato) to prop up her argument, or to argue, as she does in the other two cases, for the telling inconsistencies that continued to arise for her scholars out of their close textual encounter with Plato. She assumes that Jaeger’s programmatic, more public writings on Humanism are to be seen as having a separate focus from his academic writing. Even if that were true, this seems not enough to justify exclusion of his ostensibly more scholarly writing, especially as F. makes clear that Jaeger’s pedagogical vision blurs the boundaries of science and religion, cultural philosophy and philology, pedagogy and scholarship in a technical sense.

Overall, F. presents a very strong and convincing analysis of the changing yet continuous demand manifest in all three case studies for a form of impulse or emotion tempering philosophical rationalism to form a method of pedagogy, ranging from the more enlightened to the more regressive. The interesting corollary for the classical scholar (or the scholar of Plato), which F. does not stress enough (and maybe she does not have to), is that all three (Schleiermacher, Natorp and Jaeger) seem to develop readings of Plato in dialogue with and as a consequence of their notions of pedagogy, as much as the other way around.

A note on presentation, finally. F.’s tautly written study presents a compact, convincingstructure, and while she is often exemplary in her clarity, the flow of her bare argument is sometimes disturbed, if certainly not by Schwärmerei, by an obvious lack of final copy-editing, which makes her terse and already abbreviated style sometimes verge on the disconnected, marring her line with cut-and-paste casualties, doublets (e.g. repetition of the same long quote on p.13 and p.18, n.31; or on p.88 and p.109), double referencing (e.g. p.53), and both unnecessary gaps and repetitions. The convention, still standard at German universities, to make publication of the thesis in book form part of the requirements of a doctoral degree, means that publishers these days, in the interest of cost-efficiency, often forgo extra rounds of copy-editing. But that, surely, would be another chapter in the history of German higher education.


1. For an excellent institutional history of classical scholarship in Germany, see Suzanne Marchand, Down from Olympus. German Philhellenism and Archaeology, 1770-1970. Princeton, 1996.

2. e.g. Marchand, 1996; Anthony La Vopa, Grace, Talent and Merit. Poor Students, Professional Careers, and Professional Ideology in Eighteenth Century Germany. Cambridge, 1988; Lenore O’Boyle, “Klassische Bildung und Soziale Struktur in Deutschland zwischen 1800 und 1848”, Historische Zeitschrift 207/3 (1968), 584-608.

3. A useful addition to the bibliography would have been H. Flashar (ed.), Altertumswissenschaft in den 20er Jahren. Neue Fragen und Impulse. Stuttgart, 1995, especially on the renewed championing of the term Klassik as charged with cultural, normative meaning.

4. For the reduction of taught hours per week in classical languages between 1900 and 1925, see Hubert Cancik’s contribution “Klassische Philologie: Graecistik, Latinistik”, in Christoph König and Eberhard Lämmert (eds.), Konkurrenten in der Fakultät. Kultur, Wissen und Universität um 1900. Frankfurt/M., 1999, 181-190.

5. see, for example, H.-U. Gumbrecht’s recent writings, such as The Production of Presence. Stanford, 2004, on the history of philology and literary studies as we know them, with the possibility of their “lifetime” coming to an end.

6. B. Snell, “Besprechung von Werner Jaeger, Paideia” (1935) in his Gesammelte Schriften. Göttingen, 1966, 32-54. For an “alternative” to Jaeger’s Humanism, see also his essay “Die Entdeckung der Menschlichkeit und unsere Stellung zu den Griechen”, in Snell, Die Entdeckung des Geistes. Studien zur Entstehung des Europäischen Denkens bei den Griechen. Göttingen, [1975] 2000, 231-243.