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Cultural History

Culture And Language

In 1781, the year when Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason marked a revolution in philosophy, Johann Adelung, in his Versuch einer Geschichte der Cultur des menschlichen Geschlechts, identified "the first beginnings of culture" with the origins of language, adding that thereafter, through the development of agriculture and private property, "language follows culture," and furthermore, "Since the language of every nation has the closest relationship with its culture, its history can never be understood without continual reference to the conditions and progress of culture." For Adelung "culture is the transition from a more instinctive and animal–like condition to the more complex relations of social life" so that "When culture ceases, so does true history." Deliberately or not, Adelung set a terminological and conceptual fashion that has figured prominently in modern historiography and the human sciences for two centuries.

The best–known convert to the new terminology was Johann Gottfried von Herder, whose Another Philosophy of History (1784) told the story of the development of the "human spirit" from its appearance in the state of nature to the emergence of the Volksgeist; but a decade later, in his Ideas for the Philosophy of History of Mankind, he referred to the process or "chain of culture" in the sense of the cultivation of intellectual and linguistic attributes. To Kant's "critique of pure reason" he opposed a "metacritique," arguing that the object of criticism must be not pure but human reason, not transcendent and ahistorical spirit but concrete, temporal manifestations, beginning with language, without which "reason" could not express itself. For Herder, cultural history aspired not only to criticize but even to replace philosophy as the foundational discipline of human understanding. And other scholars followed Herder in associating cultural history with critical philosophy, including Christoph Meiners, Karl Franz von Irwing, K. H. L. Pölitz, Dietrich Hermann Hegewisch, and Johann Gottfried Eichhorn.

"Cultural history" had an extraordinary fortuna in the generations after Adelung and Herder. The quantity of published works was striking, and their topics were global and local, ancient and modern, general and special (including cultural histories of literature, medicine, commerce, etc.), and they were often designed for a general rather than merely a learned readership. The heyday of cultural history in this tradition was reached in the Victorian period with the voluminous publications of Wilhelm Wachsmuth, Gustav Klemm, Georg Friedrich Kolb, Gustav Freitag, Wilhelm Riehl, Friedrich Anton Heller von Hellwald, Otto Henne am Rhyn, Karl Grün, J. J. Honegger, and Julius Lippert. Klemm, who was the founder of an extraordinary ethnographic museum in Dresden, an early model for the Smithsonian Institution, asked such questions as "What were the oldest tools of the human race? and How did early man eat, drink, shelter and cloth himself?" His Allgemeine Cultur–Geschichte der Menschheit (1843), while paying homage to the old Herderian tradition, presented its subject from an entirely "new standpoint," according to which human thought and action were seen not primarily in a Biblical framework but in a prehistorical, evolutionary continuum that denied supernatural privilege to humanity and emphasized what, long before Fernand Braudel, was called "material culture" (materielle Kultur).

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cosine to Cyano groupCultural History - Culture And Language, Material And Spiritual Culture, Twentieth–century Developments, Bibliography