Sunday, September 10, 2017

Tonsor: Intellectual History: First Class: The Joy of the Intellectual Historian


Thursday, September 10th, couldn't come fast enough. It was the first day of the semester. I had been living in Ann Arbor since August 4th and was eager to start academic work.

Throughout the morning, fog and thunderclouds moved through the Huron River Valley. Although the Diag looked gloomy under a dark canopy of trees, the outermost branches of the honey locusts showed hints of the yellows soon to come under crisp autumn skies.

I arrived in East Engineering early to find a good seat for my first class at U of M: History 416, Tonsor’s Nineteenth-Century European Intellectual History. I still could not believe my good fortune to attend such a storied class. I took my place three rows back from the lectern. For the next few months, this was the space in which I would learn the most about the public Tonsor, both as a teacher and intellectual historian.

The vibe at Michigan
An affable fellow a few years my junior sat down to my left. He sported a tee shirt with a familiar slogan on campus: “Harvard, the Michigan of the East.” “Have you ever taken Tonsor before?” he asked.

“No, this is my first semester at Michigan. I get the impression we are going to learn a lot.”

“He may look like the Paddington Bear but he’s got a reputation,” the student said with a shake of his head. “He’s been known to kick trash cans at faculty meetings that don’t go his way. And when a feminist challenged him in one of his classes, he said to her face that her soul was as filthy as the floor she walked on.” My eyes inadvertently dropped to the floor. I had put myself through Colorado State University as a janitor, so I knew filth on floors.

With those two episodes in my head, I saw the barrel-chested Tonsor walk into the classroom looking vaguely harried. His head was thrust forward, and his mouth was open from walking fast and ascending the stairs to the second floor. His eyes appeared to recede behind thick lenses. He carried a brown satchel, well worn and scarred, out of which he took several books and a handwritten lecture on lined, yellow paper. I would learn that it was Tonsor’s habit to lecture from scripted notes, each topic contained in its own manila folder.[1] His final warm-up routine was to write the authors and titles of important books on the chalkboard. On this first day he wrote the following:

Roland N. Stromberg, European Intellectual History since 1789 (third ed.)
Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment
M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism
Hegel, Philosophy of History
J. S. Mill, On Liberty
Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto
Jacques Barzun, Darwin, Marx, and Wagner

These were the seven books the class would read during the semester. I took note of the balance of materials: three original sources, three secondary works, and one textbook for good measure.

At 9:30 a.m. sharp, Tonsor began his lecture in the most inadvertently humorous circumstances I’d ever seen in a classroom: “Do not think,” he said importantly, just when a jackhammer started to pound away outside the window…. “Do not think,” he repeated more loudly to the jackhammer's rat-a-tat-tat…. Then, drawing himself up, he bellowed, “Do not think that it is I who am speaking to you. No, it is the Voice of History.”

East Engineering
No, actually it was the Voice of the Jackhammer. At least that’s what most of the 40 students in the class must have been thinking.

Tonsor glared at the window, fixated on the construction work on East Engineering. “You really should go to the university administration, protest this intolerable racket, and demand the refund of your tuition!”

Some of the students shifted uneasily in their chairs; others tried to laugh. His burst of temper reminded me of my father.

Composing himself, Tonsor thrust his head forward over his yellow pages of handwritten notes and resumed: “I quote Ernest Renan, one of the most interesting apostates of the nineteenth century. He abandoned the priest’s cassock for the historian’s gown. But more on the apostate Renan later.

“This course in modern European intellectual history will challenge you in fundamental ways. First, the content is more abstract than the material you've encountered in other history courses. By focusing on beliefs and knowledge, values and symbols, ideas and ideologies, we shall explore what is unique about human beings -- our capacity to imagine, to reason, to deliberate, to develop ideas -- capacities that sharply differentiate us, in kind, from the rest of the animal kingdom.

“The noisome squirrel that invades my garden has a social order; he has a sense of territory; he communicates with other squirrels; he builds nests; he mates; he eats and is eaten -- by me when I've had enough of his mischief. But there is no evidence that he thinks abstractly about his relationship to himself, to other squirrels, to the world, or to his creator. He exists in the realm of necessity, not of freedom. No matter how refined his instincts, he is incapable of creating, modifying, rejecting, or transmitting abstract ideas. He has no notion of authoring 'A History of Squirrels.'

“The second way this course will challenge you is to see that ideas change; they develop. They are not static but have a rich arc within the larger human adventure. If you were to write the history of squirrels, the story of their lives 10,000 years ago would be the same, in all the essentials, as the story of their lives today.

“Not the human story. From the drawing of cave paintings to the Neolithic Revolution and the invention of civilization forward, our way of life, our language, our society, our military technology, our economics, our politics -- all have changed, profoundly, many times over. All things human change because we think about them, criticize them, grow bored with them, and imagine something different that might make life better. The history of ideas, especially since the transition to modern times, is also one of dramatic change. It is sometimes hard for students to grasp, but what you think of liberty in 1987 is not what French revolutionaries thought of liberty in 1793. What you think of equality today is not what coffeehouse Marxists thought of equality in 1848. What you think of the Constitution on its two hundredth anniversary is not what citizens thought of the Constitution two centuries ago.

"The third challenge is related to the second. Because you are going to become more aware of changes in human thinking, I hope this course encourages you to break out of your familiar, limited way of seeing things. History is a core discipline of a liberal arts education precisely because it frees you from the fallacy of presentism, the belief that you should judge the people of the past by the standards of the present. In this history course, you will be urged to develop the habit of sympathetic identification with those who lived in the past; to try to put yourselves in their shoes; to understand them on their terms, not yours; to comprehend their way of thinking, not yours. Otherwise, once you fall back into your conceptions of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, you cease to think historically. You lack perspective, and without perspective, your worldview is impoverished."

Tonsor then turned to the board and wrote in large letters, “Einfühlung.” “Einfühlung,” he said slowly, “is German for 'sympathetic understanding' -- one of the most important concepts in the study of history, and we shall recur to it often.”

He resumed reading from his notes. “The fourth way this course will challenge you is to see that it's the changes in the way we think that make other changes possible. We shall discover that changes in the mind often precede changes in society, the economy, politics, military strategy, and so forth. Changing the way people think is one of the most revolutionary things you can do. If a people think Copernicus describes reality better than Ptolemy does, and change their mind about astronomy; if a people think Newton describes reality better than Aristotle does, and change their mind about physics; if a people think Darwin describes reality better than Genesis does, and change their mind about life on earth; if a people think Lister describes reality better than Galen does, and change their mind about medicine; if a people think Madison describes reality better than Plato does, and change their mind about politics; then that people will create a different world than would have existed otherwise.

"I also hope that you will learn to see the intended and unintended consequences of ideas. The Enlightenment went far to dethrone divine revelation and, in its place, enthrone experimental science. The philosophes did so thinking that reason was a better guide to reality than the faith and obedience called for in Genesis. But Pascal observed that the heart has its reasons that reason cannot comprehend. Sometimes man is moved to think and act in a way that is contrary to the dictates of reason or conventional wisdom. When John Dalton formulated atomic theory, he saw its useful applications but never dreamed of 'the bomb.'

“We can see how ideas have consequences in a contentious matter before the American people today. Our Constitution does not interpret itself. Whether your senator votes to confirm Judge Robert Bork, President Reagan's nomination for the Supreme Court, depends in part on whether he believes in a strict or loose interpretation of our fundamental law. Each of these interpretations has consequences.

"I quote John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory [1935-1936], final paragraph:
"The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the general encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil."
“Fifth and finally, I hope this lecture course in modern European intellectual history challenges you to follow the Delphic inscription, 'know thyself.' Know thyself, not in the self-indulgent way of the therapy culture, but in a deeply humanistic way.

"In readings and lectures we will encounter a series of revolutions. More specifically, we will account for dramatic changes in European thought from the Enlightenment to the advent of Romanticism around 1750. From Romanticism we shall turn to positivism and then to the anti-positivist revolt in the 1870s. We shall consider the content of the determinative ideas in culture and society. And we shall also attempt to provide an explanation for the many ideological changes that occurred before, during, and after the French Revolution. There is heavy emphasis on the transition from the Enlightenment to Romanticism as well as on the emergence of Realism and Naturalism. As you grapple with each of these -isms over the next fifteen weeks, you will recognize yourselves and understand better where your own ideas, values, and beliefs come from.

"I hasten to add a caveat. It is well to remind ourselves that it is given to historians the possibility of seeing only a portion of the truth of the age they are studying. For all their great insights and achievements, our great historians remain children of their age. In our day they are typically bourgeois, liberal, and some denomination of Protestant. That their vision is partial and incomplete should not surprise us. That they are occasionally able to rise above some of the obscuring mists of their time is surprising enough.[2]

"There will be regular class discussions of the texts -- you can see that I've written them on the board. Your participation will constitute one-quarter of the grade. Your mastery of the material will also be evaluated by a midterm examination and by a final examination. Be sure to bring blue books on exam days.”[3]

The Paddington Bear: Stephen J. Tonsor (1923-2014)

In these first few minutes I noted that Tonsor pronounced certain words the way Catholics from south Saint Louis do. His “or” sounded like “are”; his “for” like “far”; his “order” like “ardor.”

“During our time together, we will challenge an idea that arose in the Enlightenment and attracted many apostles in the nineteenth century. It's the idea that history is the story of unending progress. Students today may think that it is, but it is not. Civilized men forever contend with barbarism. As a professor of mine used to say, quoting Virgil to the ordinary Illinois farm-boy and farm-girl types whom he taught, ‘sunt lacrimae rerum – things have tears in them.’”[4]

Once Tonsor settled into his lecture, he commanded the room. I thrilled at his rhetorical strategy, which was a study in definition. He laid before us the key terms of the course, elucidating on “nineteenth century,” “modern,” “European,” and “intellectual history.” The most memorable image in this first half hour of the lecture was borrowed, he explained, from his most influential professor at Illinois, Joseph Ward Swain. “The study of history is like driving a car, in reverse, at night. Looking through the rearview mirror, you can only see a narrow section of a dimly lit road already traveled. What is more, the farther back you go, the dimmer the light. Holding that analogy in mind, you will understand why even the most rigorous research must be wedded to the imagination. Remember, ladies and gentlemen, there is no good history without imagination.”


I was writing furiously, using the shorthand system that I had taught myself as an undergraduate and capturing every syllable I could. Relief came in the form of a fascinating digression when a woman raised her hand.

"Yes," Tonsor said with a note of impatience that would have done Professor Kingsfield proud. 

"I'm having trouble with the notion of intellectual history as a discipline. Isn't it hard to prove anything that you can't see and touch? I mean, you mention the importance of imagination, but how can a historian document another person's imagination?"

"Through the symbolic record the other person leaves behind," said Tonsor, "through music, art, architecture, sculpture, poems, novels, essays, and letters. Tell me: Have you ever written a letter to a friend that expresses your feelings? Neither you nor your friend nor anyone else could see the emotions, per se, but they burned inside you and you found a way to express them symbolically, in the words you composed. Don't you think your friend understood the non-material thoughts and feelings you expressed symbolically? 

"I want the class to take note of the important question this young lady raises. History is not like the physical sciences that apply reason to the sensate physical and chemical world, a world of necessity. Nor is history like the social sciences that apply statistics to human characteristics and behavior as though we were only a herd animal. Are you not more than a herd of cows?"

The class laughed.

"No," said Tonsor, "history does not preoccupy itself with the realm of necessity nor with the ethology of herds. It is neither a natural science nor a social science. Rather, history is a humanistic inquiry. It seeks to understand man as he exists in the realm of freedom: the way he sees the world, the choices he makes, the efforts to satisfy his will. What is more, h
istory seeks to decipher the symbolic ways we have created meaning and imparted wisdom over time -- through music, art, architecture, reading, conversation, study, research, and writing. It follows that history is an exploration of the temporal depths of culture. It seeks to comprehend the way tradition, order, and continuity are in tension with disruption, disorder, and change. Yet another way history is a humanistic inquiry is that it respects the individual human person and the difference one person can make. When the historian is writing biography, he tries to get inside his subject's thoughts, feelings, and imagination."

"But," the woman persisted, "tell me more about how the historian studies thoughts, feelings, and imagination? They are not visible to the senses."

"Listen," said Tonsor, showing more energy now that he was challenged, "what we cannot see is often more powerful than what we can see. Do your parents love each other?"

"Yes," the woman said, wondering how the conversation would turn.

"While you can see both of your parents, you cannot see the love between them, per se. Right? But you infer their love by observing the way they have committed to one another, speak to one another, care for one another, help one another, write little love notes to one another, and enjoy each other's company. It is love, yes? You know it is love, right, even though you cannot see the thing directly?" 

"I suppose so."

"Love -- like beauty, truth, goodness, friendship -- exists in our consciousness; it is relational; the Platonists and theologians would say it first inhabits the very mind of God. It is not something to be measured on a physical scale but rather is apprehended by our feelings, our mind, our soul, our illative sense.[5] That is what makes it transcendent -- it is above and beyond the sensate world and yet can be inferred by its effects in the sensate world.

"Alfred, Lord Tennyson famously put the matter this way: 
Nothing worthy proving can be proven,
Nor yet disproven...."[6]
I was reminded of the words of a hymn:
Eye has not seen, ear has not heard
What God has ready for those who love Him.[7]

Our introduction to intellectual history.
After this exchange, Tonsor tried to whet his students’ appetite for the first text we'd cover -- a doozy of a read -- Ernst Cassirer’s The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. I don't know how persuasive he was with most of the undergraduates -- they were not exactly kittens discovering the bowl of cream. I'd wager he spoke over their heads. But he was clear and direct.

“If you are like the thousand or so students who have preceded you in this class, then you will find this first reading difficult. This is a good thing -- you would not learn if it were not difficult.” Tonsor added, sotto voce, “Herr Doktor Professor Cassirer will no doubt cull the less serious scholars from the class.” The sarcasm in the word “scholars” seemed to reverberate as much as the jackhammer had.

It’s true. Cassirer's Enlightenment was even more intimidating than our professor. At home that night I would discover that it was the most difficult book I had yet encountered in my academic career.[8] On second thought that's not true -- it couldn't hold a candle to college calculus. Cassirer was, more precisely, the most difficult author I had yet encountered in the humanities. Importantly, in this first lecture Tonsor used Cassirer to demonstrate one of the things intellectual historians do: They clothe naked ideas in their biographical, historical, social, cultural, and philosophical finery.

Among the highlights from Tonsor's heavy-hitting first lecture:

“In the book you will learn about the original Enlightenment project in the eighteenth century. In the author you will learn about a reconstituted enlightenment project in the twentieth century. The link between book and author will help you understand the continuity and change of Enlightenment ideals over three centuries.” I thought: This is brilliant pedagogy. Tonsor is assigning a book that is unsurpassed in the secondary literature of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, by an author who was himself a primary source in an attempted twentieth-century enlightenment.

Nazi Germany (1933-1945)
"Hear the gravamen of Cassirer's brief. Like many of his contemporaries, he felt the sense of doom, the fracturing of civilization in the modern age. It was evident in two world wars; in the incompatible -isms that proliferated; and in the antihuman philosophies that propagated. British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey captured the spirit of the age: 'The lamps are going out all over Europe, and we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.' It was in this dark age -- yes, this dark age -- that Cassirer pondered whether the Enlightenment project, chastened and renewed, might not help civilization come through the crisis. The fact that the project did not entirely succeed tells us something important."

Then Tonsor tried to convey the romance of intellectual history -- an important undertaking because, by the 1980s, intellectual history was passé and took a back seat to social history“It may surprise you to learn that bookish scholars can be heroes. But I tell you that Cassirer was a hero. In an atmosphere of decline and fall – first of Weimar Germany then of the Third Reich – he sought to preserve the best of German civilization: the liberal, humanistic Germany built up by Kant, Goethe, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and other leaders of the Aufklärung. After the catastrophes of World War I and the twenties, he watched the Weimar Republic weaken and become susceptible to the Nazi takeover. Yet he was not passive in the face of the rising irrationality and violence. Writing The Philosophy of the Enlightenment with urgency in the early 1930s, he sought to fortify Weimar’s cultural immune system to resist Nazi ideas and symbols. He and other intellectual leaders did not succeed in stopping Hitler, of course, and Cassirer even took the fall of the Weimar Republic as a personal defeat.[8] Yet his work would assist Germany in its odyssey back to civilization following the world wars. That’s one reason why The Philosophy of the Enlightenment remains an exemplar to this day. You don’t know whether you, too, may someday be called to serve your fellow man in this profoundly important way. In Cassirer you might find a heroic model of intellectual and moral courage.”

“Cassirer wrote about the Enlightenment at the University of Hamburg, an unlikely place for a renascence of anything resembling enlightened thought. The poet Heinrich Heine said that Hamburg, a city of merchants, is where poets go to die."

“Although he was a contradiction to his age, Cassirer was an important cultural thinker prior to his death in 1945, and he remains so now. Cassirer came of age when modern philosophers had dug a Grand Canyon between the sciences and humanities. Peering into the vast rift between these two ways of knowing, he conceived the improbable task of building a bridge that would once again link the two rims of this philosophical canyon. We must give Cassirer credit for his audacious attempts to reconcile physical nature with the human spirit, the exact sciences with the arts, the objective with the subjective, reason with passion, analytic philosophy and Continental philosophy. In the fractured modern age, he was a reconciler. To integrate all knowledge was one of the great Enlightenment projects; the goal of all the great humanists. Cassirer, arguably the greatest German humanist of his generation, was uniquely qualified to revive the Enlightenment project. Even if the project ultimately failed, his ambitious effort to unify the sciences and the humanities – to reunite the knowledge and truth on both sides of the epistemological canyon – was a heroic effort to restore the cultural unity of the West.”

Auguste Comte (1798-1857)
Tonsor next said he hoped we'd find ourselves “arguing” with Cassirer during the entire course, from the first class to the last. “Ernst Cassirer was part of the revolt against Auguste Comte and the array of positivist ideas that were so influential in nineteenth-century Europe.[10] Positivism confines itself to the data of the senses and of experience. If you are an atheist, you are probably a positivist. Cassirer argued that the stakes of the anti-positivist revolt to Western civilization were high: If positivism went unchecked, if there were no anti-positivist revolt, then man would eventually regard himself merely as a material being. His free will, his moral agency, his spiritual life – all would suffer. This is an internal argument that each of you must also settle. And you thought that intellectual history would be dry!”

The lecture took a personal turn when Tonsor told the class he read Goethe every day. Indeed, it was his regular reading of Goethe that helped him understand Cassirer. For Cassirer was also devoted to Goethe and read him religiously.

"Each morning, as I dress," Tonsor seemed moved to reveal, "I read a passage from Goethe. It is from the book, Mit Goethe durch das Jahr, and I am much struck by his writing and his wisdom. It is odd, this relationship with a man so long dead. Yet he has become very familiar to me."[11]

Permit me to use this thought to push the fast forward button three decades, to 2016, as I write these reflections on my years in Ann Arbor. It has been a delight to discover a resurgence of interest in Ernst Cassirer. Young scholars have recently written several excellent books that argue for his centrality to twentieth-century intellectual history. Stephen Tonsor was one of only a handful of intellectual historians who stressed Cassirer's importance back in the 1980s.

Among these young scholars is Edward Skidelsky whose important 2008 book on Ernst Cassirer reminded me of Tonsor's first lecture in History 416. Like Tonsor, Skidelsky discusses how Goethe was resurrected at the end of World War II as the lost hero of a former Germany, an enlightened, liberal, humanistic Germany. It was no accident that Weimar was chosen to be the home of the first German Republic following World War I – it was Goethe’s home as well and thus highly symbolic of the promise of German humanism. Also after World War II, the historian Friedrich Meinecke proposed public readings of Goethe as a form of national reeducation after the Nazi years. German intellectual leaders like Cassirer looked to Goethe to recall Germany to the ideals of the Enlightenment and to its humanistic promise.[12]

A passage Skidelsky quotes by Cassirer’s wife, Toni Cassirer, is particularly apt:
The Greatest
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

“His interpretation of history; his feeling for nature; his ongoing endeavor to broaden his outlook, to extend his knowledge to almost all fields so as to strengthen his judgment and guard it against all one-sidedness, to free it from the influence of parochial experience, to distance it from the events of the day – all this derived from Goethe. His firm faith in the value of human personality, his longing for form and harmony, his abhorrence of violent destruction – both of his own ego and of the surrounding world – his loathing of ideological, political, and religious slogans – in short, everything that constituted the essence of his being, came from Goethe. I learned to understand Goethe through Ernst and Ernst through Goethe.”[13]

Could this quotation about a scholar's immersion in Goethe get at something in the core of the professor standing before us?

Exactly one minute before class was to end, Tonsor wrapped up. Cassirer, he intoned in his peroration, was one of the giants of twentieth-century intellectual history. Of Jewish parentage, his early grounding in the liberal arts prepared him for graduate study in history, literature, and philosophy, which he would skillfully integrate throughout his career. Many of his best works, including The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932), were written in Weimar Germany, at the University of Hamburg, where he also supervised young Leo Strauss’s doctoral dissertation – another seminal thinker in the intellectual community I was learning about. Cassirer's warning against dismissing Enlightenment thought, on the eve of the Nazi takeover, made the book as poignant as it was significant. Because he was Jewish, he was part of the diaspora out of Germany after the Nazis came to power in 1933. “Central and eastern Europe,” concluded Tonsor, “never recovered from the diaspora and attendant loss to culture.”

Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945)


[1] In this classroom habit Tonsor followed his mentor. See his essay, “Joseph Ward Swain,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), ed. Gregory L. Schneider, p. 311.

[2] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Albert Schweitzer and the Crisis of Protestant Liberalism," unpublished lecture, no date, p. 13. Tonsor was always denigrating his work. In the March 21, 1989, prefatory note to his colleague David Hollinger, he wrote about the lecture: "I am certain it will be a disappointment to you -- as it was for me." I am grateful to David Hollinger for mailing me his copy of this lecture of Tonsor's in early November 2016.

[4] Tonsor, “Joseph Ward Swain,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, p. 312.

[5] John Henry Newman, Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Ascent (London: Burns, Oates, 1874), Chapter 9, pp. 266ff.

[6] Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "The Ancient Sage," ll. 36-37.

[7] Marty Haugen's hymn is drawn from Paul, 1 Corinthians 2:9.

[8] To provide context to Tonsor's lecture on Cassirer in History 416, I am most indebted to and grateful for the background information and insights provided by Edward Skidelsky, Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[9] Skidelsky, Cassirer, pp. 212-13.

[10] Skidelsky, Cassirer, p. 1.

[11] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, February 15, 1986, p. 3; in GW's possession courtesy of Alfred Regnery.

[12] Skidelsky, Cassirer, p. 76.

[13] Toni Cassirer, Mein Leben mit Ernst Cassirer (Hildesheim, Germany: Gerstenberg, 1981), p. 87; trans. and quoted by Skidelsky, Cassirer, p. 240.

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