The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
January 13, 2006

Jacob Burckhardt's Social and Political Thought - Richard Sigurdson

Posted by Jeremy Black

Jacob Burckhardt's Social and Political Thought
by Richard Sigurdson
Pp. xii+279. Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press, 2004
Hardback, 32

Burckhardt emerges in this thoughtful and well-written study as a major figure in intellectual history. This is because Sigurdson, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Professor of Political Studies at the University of Manitoba, places culture at a central position in intellectual history, and links Burckhardt's writings on art and architecture to his historiographical and other reflections.

As Sigurdson shows, Burckhardt identified unfettered individualism, mass democracy, and cultural debasement as key elements in European modernity. Burckhardt proposed an organic theory of the state in which culture played a major role. Sigurdson defines Burckhardt's central political idea as being that the foundation for a sense of political community or collective identity lies not in our association as members of an artificial nation-state supported by sheer power but rather in our sharing of a common culture. Burckhardt, Sigurdson argues, affords a new basis for social and political thought that is outside positivism, Hegelianism, or other forms of optimistic rationalism. It might be added that Burckhardt was far from alone in his wish for an alternative. Furthermore, the cultural dimension of religious identity already offered an important basis for a sense of community and values.

Burckhardt's thought and work are ably located by Sigurdson in the context of the German historiography of the period, and more specifically with reference to Herder and Ranke. Burckhardt rejected the dominant historicist approach established by Ranke, and his stress on myth, memory, and imagination further separated him from this tradition. Instead, Burckhardt's cultural history tapped into an alternative stream of German historicist thinking, one that stretched from the early humanists through Herder to the later Romantics.

As Sigurdson points out, principal among the themes associated with this tradition were anti-rationalism, a suspicion of the idea of progress, an interest in myth and poetry as indicators of a civilization's true nature, a pronounced cultural relativism, and a general tendency to emphasize socio-cultural rather than political-institutional forces. Sigurdson argues that these ways of thinking shared with Burckhardt a commitment to cultural holism and to the idea that various phases of the historical-cultural process are directly related to the organic whole.

Sigurdson, however, argues that Burckhardt's political motives were different from those of Herder or the Romantics, particularly the Romantic writers who originally supported the French Revolution. Like Herder, Sigurdson notes, Burckhardt also objected to contemporary historiography based on a nave and complacent optimism which reflexively endorsed the status quo, but, in late-nineteenth-century Europe, the status quo was liberal, capitalist, increasingly democratic, and materialistic. According to Burckhardt, advocates of a progressive historical consciousness wrongly regarded this contemporary era as particularly civilized. Burckhardt's ideas were linked to his distrust of the state and his rejection of the optimistic goals of German political history.

At the same time, as Sigurdson points out, Burckhardt, like Nietzsche, who was greatly influenced by him, was fascinated by superhuman figures in history, and he rejected the suggestion that the modern age had become emancipated from the need for great men. Sigurdson's is an impressive work, that is a major contribution to the understanding of nineteenth-century intellectual life.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, forthcoming).

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement