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Title: Edmund Burke's German readers at the end of Enlightenment, 1790-1815
Author: Green, Jonathan
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2018
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Amidst the upheaval of the French Revolution, the British parliamentarian and political theorist Edmund Burke received a vibrant reception in German-speaking Europe. Anxious to uncover the ideological roots of the anarchy that enveloped France – and worried that their own society might be vulnerable to a similar fate – a series of important German thinkers began studying his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). This dissertation brings into focus the diverse interpretations of Burke that were assembled in this turbulent era, and explains them vis-à-vis contemporary debates among German idealists (Kant and his heirs) about the philosophical nature of freedom. This dissertation centers on Burke’s three most perceptive and influential students: the civil servant and philosopher August Wilhelm Rehberg; the journalist, translator, and diplomat Friedrich Gentz; and the political economist and cultural critic Adam Müller. For many decades, both German- and English-speaking intellectual historians have shoehorned these thinkers into a rigid ideological box labeled ‘conservatism’. Inspired by Burke, they are said to have turned away from the ideals of Enlightenment, theorizing an illiberal form of politics that was traditionalistic, authoritarian, and reactionary. A careful, contextualized reconstruction of their engagements with Burke, however, renders this thesis untenable. Far from triggering a monolithic backlash against Enlightenment, Burke in fact inspired a series of divergent, and often incompatible, analyses of the Revolution’s origins, grounded in different readings of his Reflections. Rehberg, for instance, saw Burke as a principled skeptic: he admired the Reflections as an incisive critique of the revolutionaries’ philosophical dogmatism. Gentz, an erstwhile student of Kant, disagreed completely, arguing that Burke’s politics were entirely compatible with Kantian metaphysics. In his view, the Reflections’ central insight was that it takes political prudence to realize the rights of man in practice. Müller, finally, read the Reflections as a lament for the fall of Christendom, and as a diagnosis of the social alienation and moral confusion that had followed its demise. In other words, whereas Rehberg was a Humean skeptic and Gentz was a Kantian liberal, Müller was a Trinitarian Christian. Each of these men, moreover, claimed Burke as an ally. What this means is that Rehberg, Gentz, and Müller cannot have jointly invented a single thing called ‘conservatism’, and Burke cannot have inspired it. This becomes clear only after we recognize that at the turn of the nineteenth century, neither the meaning of Enlightenment nor the crux of Burke’s Reflections was clear: these were not fixed variables, but points of contemporary debate. By recapturing the diversity of Burke’s German reception, this thesis invites scholars to consider the ways that his students shepherded their differing visions of Enlightenment through the fires of the Revolution, down into the nineteenth century.
Supervisor: Meckstroth, Christopher Sponsor: Cambridge Overseas Trust
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Burke ; Gentz ; Mu¨ller ; Rehberg ; Kant ; Meinecke ; Schmitt ; Braune ; Mannheim ; Enlightenment ; Aufkla¨rung ; counter-Enlightenment ; Romanticism ; conservatism ; German idealism ; German nationalism ; Hume ; Pantheismusstreit