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Cultural History

Material And Spiritual Culture

In the nineteenth century as today, the most important interdisciplinary connection of cultural history was the new field of anthropology. In the famous formula of Edward Tylor, father of modern anthropology, in his Primitive Culture (1881): "Culture or Civilization taken in its wide ethnographic sense is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." Tylor referred in particular to Klemm's conception of "Culture–History," which he preferred to the more conventional terminology of "civilization." And the influence was mutual, reflecting back on German scholarship: "What is Culture?" asked the cultural historian J. J. Honegger in 1882 and, by way of answer, gave a paraphrase of the very definition given by Tylor in 1865.

Victorian scholars were poised, or torn, between two conceptions of culture. One was the material culture rooted in primitive life and the other the spiritual culture reflected in such human creations as art, literature, philosophy, and religion. "Culture and anarchy" was the famous formula of Matthew Arnold, who sought, in an idealized and progressivist culture, "the study of perfection" and perhaps "a great help out of our present difficulties." Opposed to the focus of scholars such as Klemm were the cultivated students of spiritual culture (geistige Kultur), of whom Jacob Burckhardt was the most notable representative. While the first took the low road, the latter took the high road to the study of culture, although Burckhardt did not ignore popular culture, as shown by in the pages of his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (Kulturgeschichte was his term) devoted to costume, etiquette, domestic life, festivals, and other topics rediscovered recently by the "new cultural history." Like Klemm, Burckhardt was a collector, drawn especially to art and literature, and he defined culture "as the sum total of those mental developments which take place spontaneously and lay no claim to universal of compulsive authority." Suspicious of modern power politics, he was also critical of the material progress of his age, which he regarded as a principal threat to his cultivated world. "We may all perish," he wrote, "but at least I want to discover the interest for which I am to perish, namely, the culture of old Europe" (Letters, p. 197).

By the end of the century, cultural history had achieved high public visibility and a significant academic base, with a large bibliography, several journals, and historiography of its own; and it became a subject of contention among historians. The battle of methods (Methodenstreit) began in 1888 when Dietrich Schäfer gave a lecture denouncing the trivialities of cultural history and reasserting the primacy of politics. This manifesto was answered the next year by Eberhard Gothein, who defended cultural history against the charges of materialism and urged the value of other cultural forms—religion, art, law, and economics—in the effort to understand historical change. This was the view also taken by Karl Lamprecht, who for a generation occupied the storm center of the historical Methodenstreit heralded by this exchange and who became the leading figure in the theory and practice of cultural history before World War I.

In 1886 Lamprecht turned to his lifework, Deutsche Geschichte, which was a survey of the whole cultural history of Germany; he established at the University of Leipzig a "historical seminar" and then a more ambitious Institute for Cultural and Universal History. In his late years Lamprecht's public life was torn by controversy about the status, role, and value of cultural history in scholarship and teaching. Lamprecht's "new history," as it was pejoratively called, was based on advances in linguistics, archeology, art history, economics, and especially recent psychology (i.e., Völkerpsychologie, social psychology). Although few of his professional colleagues, aside from students, accepted his eccentric and aggressively argued views, and he died in some disrepute, the popularity of his work testified to the appeal of his arguments.

Lamprecht's "new history" had counterparts elsewhere in the West, especially France and the United States, which also emphasized the central role of culture. Henri Berr was already working out the agenda expressed in his concept of "synthetic history," which underlay the efforts of his younger colleagues leading to the formation of the Annales school of history. It was in the wake of such discussions that James Harvey Robinson of Columbia University, in 1912, proclaimed his own version of the "new history," which was likewise opposed to conventional political history. These views were echoed by other scholars, including Johann Huizinga, who delivered his manifesto on "the task of cultural history" in 1926. After World War I a kind of cultural history was continued in Germany in a debased form in the racialist Volksgeschichte, which reinforced the ideology and imperialist policies of the Third Reich.

In the French and Anglophone world the semantic rival of "culture" was "civilization" (replacing "civility"), which was also a neologism of the eighteenth century, associated with Voltaire and what Carl Becker called the "new history" of the Enlightenment and which was also contrasted with "barbarism" and intended to designate the highest stage of human development. The classic history of the rise of "civilization" in the West was that of François Guizot, for whom "civilization is a fact like any other," and indeed "the fact par excellence," which in his famous lectures, given before the Revolution of 1830 drew him into politics, he traced from classical antiquity down to the French monarchy, which was the highest expression of this fact. Guizot set the line of argument for several generations of cultural history in France. In England Henry Thomas Buckle's History of Civilization in England was hardly less influential, although its doctrinaire scientism and materialism eventually rendered it unfashionable and indeed obsolete.

Additional topics

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