(in Dutch) Paging Foregoing (in Dutch) Publications:
A short history
of reason Contact Overzichtsbladzijde
Niels Helsloot Niels Helsloot


Niels Helsloot, Een korte geschiedenis van de rede, Stichting Neerlandistiek VU, Amsterdam en Nodus, Münster, 1998, pp. 73-76.
Abstract [1]
© 1998, 2003
Full text (in Dutch)


A short history of reason

Accessible introductions to philology and its (pre-)history are hard to find. This booklet stops this gap. It treats the history of reason, and of scientific thought in particular, as a product of an age-old 'love of the logos'.

In classical antiquity 'logos' stood for reasonable conversation (think of Plato's dia-logues). It connoted the unity felt when in such a conversation opposite positions could be joined. Reasonable conversations – during meals or on the marketplace – contributed to shared understanding, which created a growing impression of inevitable general truth. Myth, opinion and observation fell outside the scope of the logos because of their personal nature, but apart from that it included any form of knowledge.
   A restriction of knowledge-oriented conversation came about when the truth discovered in it began to be conceived as a destiny thinking beings were better not to evade. The stoics saw the logos – translated as 'ratio' – as the bedrock of all wisdom. Modelling oneself on it became a personal drive. Little by little it was experienced as divine; compliance with it got a christian sense. This was experienced by medieval mystics in their unification with the divine (Bildung). The conversation with God became personal, more sensitive than reasonable, and difficult to share. This development was opposed by the church, which during all of the Middle Ages made great efforts to maintain the feeling of unity the logos could rouse between people. It tried to exclude the all too individual.
   The decline of the Holy Roman Empire, which symbolized this unity, showed that this policy finally failed. As a revaluation of antiquity the Renaissance involved a quest for the original logos. Particularly humanists tried to get back to 'the sources'. This allowed for a certain release from ecclesiastic interpretations of antiquity – a development with repercussions within the church, and notably within protestantism, where biblical source texts were read more independently. Such individualizing movements indicate an increasing discord within the empire.
   Secular rulers and thinkers could partially restore the lost unity by taking recourse to rationality. As a modernized logos, rationality was seen as purely human. Along this line enlightened rationalism attempted to close the antique conversation – in which opposite positions did not [p. 74:] coexist peacefully for a long time anymore. Wars made manifest that contradictions in human thought were not reasonable. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Holy Roman Empire broke down. The rising enlightened nation of Prussia had even less power to debar the influence of strongly diverging points of view: idealistic philosophy accepted a superhuman logos once more, romanticism stressed the sensibility of the modern individual, and humanism aimed at personal formation after the example of the classics (Bildung). For a short time the enlightenment could not circumvent a conversation with such various schools of thought.
   In the beginning of the nineteenth century this interplay brought forth the modern university as an institute for Bildung. A medieval organization revived which from time immemorial had cleared the way for independent thought. It fitted the rising ideal of a free individual, which would be capable of open research combining divergent truths into a higher unity. The prestige the sciences (i.e. theology and Roman law) acquired in the Middle Ages, however, had crumbled away in the meantime. Instead a lot of place was devoted to the arts. Philology was part of them; for decades this 'logos-loving' science of text and culture became the most prominent modern science. Through renaissance source-studies it traced a line to the great examples of antiquity. Initially, therefore, philology was defined as the science of antiquity (Altertumswissenschaft). But as such it had to contribute first and foremost to the formation of the personal character of modern people thinking (and feeling) independently.
   Philology's highly modern orientation towards classical antiquity made contradictory demands. As a condition for one's own knowledge a systematization was pursued of what others had known before. Thus, modern classical philology included a conversation with radically different people. It struggled with the logos to reach some understanding. This struggle of another age affects all modern scientific analysis and interpretation (or in philological terms: all criticism and hermeneutics) up to now. It has produced a constant tension between the requirement to think independently and the requirement to pursue general truth. Difficulties in combining both requirements came to the fore, for example, in the discordant blend of a formally oriented 'philology of language' (Sprachphilologie) and a reality-oriented 'philology of objects' (Sachphilologie). Under pressure of the enlightened pursuit of progress, such internal struggle discredited scientific practice. Scientists could only free themselves from exasperating ambivalences by mitigating the two-sided, and therefore 'irrational', historical mainsprings which gave them [p. 75:] their motivation: being a scientist became a job.

Philology had to break with various self-evidences in order to become a modern science. The central one was the pursuit of an all-embracing conversation.
   In the first place, philology had to determine its relationship to a tradition in which the concept of 'philology' developed from Plato's 'love for conversations' towards the nineteenth-century study of antiquity. The topicality of several traditional controversies was unabated. Interpretations of philology as a desire to get absorbed in a Unity joining together the manifold, or as polymathic erudition, were at odds with human measure, self-control, institutional organization and regulated knowledge. The tension between the orientation toward the formal (language) and toward the real (objects) had a respectable history as well. Moreover, the classical exemplariness of the Greeks and Romans was confronted with a growing awareness of the unattainability of the infancy of mankind; in addition to attempts to reunification and reconstruction an independent 'adult' sensibility came into being. All of these drives flew together into one scientific discipline.
   The development of philology was affected, in the second place, by the development of science in general, and especially by the fact that since the Middle Ages research had fallen more and more into the hands of universities. From a relatively autonomous community directed to collecting and passing on knowledge the university had turned into an institution tied to social ambitions of governments (and industries); apart from preserving existing knowledge it had to produce new knowledge. Thus it had become part of the problem that independent thought would have to be the key to general truth (and use). In spite of an increasing inclination to ask fundamental questions, the growing influence of the university required social loyalty, over which governments exercised ever stricter supervision.
   In the third place, as a university science, philology implied an ideal of education and culture that culminated in the ideal of Bildung: a mixture of mystical, idealist and humanist values. Its internal tensions were even exceeded by tensions with the ideals of enlightenment coming into vogue, but in times of increasing modernization it was inextricably bound up with them at the same time. Although the ideal of Bildung plays an important part as an ideology of science to this day, in university practice it was quickly disposed of.
   Philology, university and Bildung, in the forth place, took part in states and societies having their direct influence. In particular the forma- [p. 76:] tion and expansion of power of the enlightened and militaristic state of Prussia created the political conditions for the prestige of Prussian science.
   Fifthly, the development of philology as a modern science was carried by a Bildung-oriented section of higher bourgeoisie, which as a 'spiritual aristocracy' could join in with the declining nobility. The protestant religion belonging to middle-class culture could thus contribute strongly to the development of science. Although it secularized, it didn't loose much of its influence. Science (especially idealistic philosophy) became a secularized religion. Literature and music secularized as well, and as a focus of modern 'worship' they marked higher culture. Furthermore, a reorientation took place to history: initially to Greek culture, and subsequently to (Indo-)German culture as well. Such points of reference contributed to the formation of an own identity, which did not yet exist self-evidently because of, among other things, the changing political conditions and the shift from a feudal society to an industrial society. It was precisely the cultural orientation of philology which brought about a sharp distinction between the educated and the masses.

Today, the ambiguous historical motivations for science have not been totally reasoned away yet. Time and again recognizable tensions recur. This shows that the historical conversation linking up divergent motivations is still open. Different points of view all have their good reasons (their 'rationale'), and as such are of importance for a better understanding of the complex coherence of Western thought.
   Moreover, they still support an up-to-date version of the logos. In my opinion, it is worth a lot to cherish the multiplicity of possible angles of incidence – in all of their historical equivocalness. In the enlightenment climate still predominant in scientific practice it may even seem right to plea for more room for developments restoring idealism, romanticism and humanism. But these movements are not homogeneously opposed to enlightenment, and I don't intend to idolize them or to repudiate modern rationalization. The compulsive self-confidence with which the resort to reason all too often excludes other views evidently has its limitations, but that holds for any last word.
   Only if we succeed in accepting each point of view as it is to itself, the reasonable conversation which once started during the meal or on the marketplace may present an opening to us as well. Such conversations don't need conclusions as long as one can hope they are to be continued the next day. Likewise, the history of the logos may not be to its end yet.

Top of the page

p. 73   1.   Slightly modified translation of the last chapter.

Top of the page