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Modern Philosophy

Paideia as Bildung in Germany in the Age of Enlightenment

Paola Giacomoni
Universita degli Studi di Trento, Trent, Italia

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ABSTRACT: There have been many interpretations of Bildung in the history of German philosophy, from the Medieval mystics to the secularization of the Enlightenment. Wilhelm von Humboldt's work at the end of the 18th century is a good example. He placed the idea of Bildung at the center of his work because it was rooted in a dynamic, transforming idea of the natural and human worlds while also being oriented toward a model of balance and perfection. Von Humboldt's interpretation of modernity is characterized by a strong emphasis on change as well as the need to find criteria for guiding such a transformation that has no intrinsic or predetermined end. Love of classical antiquity was not merely nostalgia for a lost world, a normative current that placed the idea of perfection and balance foremost in order to achieve the ideal of Humanitas in an attempt to overcome the unilaterally of modernity.

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Now, I can truly say that life today has a value for me only because of this; it does not matter what force has to be put in motion, what results can be obtained. The development of all the germs that are present in the individual conformation of human life, this is what I consider the true goal of man on earth, not precisely happiness. (1)

The idea of Bildung,-one of the possible interpretations of Paideia-stated here with great neatness by Wilhelm von Humboldt, has to be considered the quintessence of his history.

The exemplary laicization of his formulation is first of all a result. Bildung is not an eighteenth century neologism even though it becomes a key word which gives voice to the new intellectual attitude of which the men of the Enlightenment were bearers; Bildung was in fashion at the end of the 18th century yet it has ancient roots.

In the original "pilidon" from which bilden stems, two different elements can be focused on: (2) on the one side the activity of producing, of giving shape to a concrete object and, on the other, the relationship of likeness or imitation between the original image (Bild or Urbild) and its resembling reproduction (Abbild). In this way, to render the semantic extent of the term, the meanings of forma and formatio and imago and imitatio are involved as well; and the following two concepts are implied: firstly the concept of production according to an order that gives rise to a form (to something subsident on the basis of mutually congruent rules) and secondly the conformation of the said act to an image given as assumption, as a model endowed with an absolute value which this image must resemble or aim for.

The original meaning of bilden, as the Deutsches Wörterbuch by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm states, is that of a plastic activity on the sensory level and means giving shape, producing a certain object abiding to the rules which preside over the Art. In this case bilden is a synonym for gestalten and formieren. But the relationship of reproduction, and therefore of resemblance with respect to an image must be added to this , and this addition to an Urbild pushes bilden well beyond the pure and simple formation of an object and gives rise to the complex relationship between model and copy, original and reproduction which implies a very different approach to the question.

Such a double meaning corresponds, first of all, to the two meanings of Bildung which the medieval mystics derive from certain passages of the Bible. The first translates the act of creation as the place where something active and productive gives rise to an organized entity, a form of life (in this instance Bildung translates the dialectic of forma-formatio). The second meaning corresponds to the fact that this creation or production occurs "in the likeness of the Creator"; its physionomy is thus determined on the basis of an original model, of an image which gives meaning and function to new life. Bildung, in this case, expresses the relationship between imago-imitatio.

The extent of the concept's features are therefore not only in relation to the idea of consistence, of giving structure to a whole as a living whole, its organization abiding to rules which are proper to life and to physical life in particular. The idea of a model to reproduce, imitate and identify implies the valorization of a certain type of form, the one which corresponds to the Urbild. It, therefore, involves the possibility of judging and distinguishing on this basis a Bildung provided with value from another Bildung which is deprived of a model. What is certainly excluded is the spontaneous, diversified, free formation which depends on its own model and can, therefore, modify and destroy it without losing value or significance in doing so.

Therefore, it is not only the plastic element which guarantees the dynamic character of the idea of Bildung; by grafting the idea of perfection onto it, the prescriptive element infers the idea of perfectibility as the road which will lead closer to the model, to the Urbild, and, applies a conscious pressure to it which the plastic element as such did not have. Bildung, therefore, presents itself as a concept of eminently teleological features in two ways: first, on the basis of the "end" it is possible to explain and judge the various forms and the degree of adjustment (adaequatio) to it and, second, by analysing the diverse features possesed by the "end", the various interpretations given by the history of Bildung can be defined.

The Urbild is thus of great importance in determining the distance between realization and model, copy and original, finite and infinite.

But the characteristics of such a model will determine in each case, whether the movement towards it will have the form of immediate identification or of an interior perception of the divine, such as, in mystic experiences,or a tragic form when finiteness is seen as a strict and an unsurmountable limit, placing the model in a position which is, in principle, unattainable. Furthermore, if this tension distends itself in a secular fashion by using the model as an "idea of reason" which does not have actual consistence, it is not representable in a definitive image but simply serves as a criterion for comparison and judgment.

The history of the idea of Bildung has many stages and turning points, from the mysticism of Eckhart, in which man as a divine image is reborn by divesting himself of his external shape and reforming through total detachment from the world, through Böhme's reflections on man's choice of divine image in the struggle against evil, to Pietist Empfindsamkeit (sensitivity), in which Bildung meant abandon, even sentimental, to divine will; in these cases the dimension of spirituality, in various ways, always prevailed. In the Age of Enlightenment, from Shaftesbury's "forming form" concept which had great influence in the German world, to Leibniz's entelechy and Lessing's Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts, Bildung was self-education for humanity, which took on a more and more dynamic and progressive dimension which prevailed on the level of politesse and which followed the direction of research into the sphere of spirituality.

However Bildung was to become a fashionable word only at the end of the 18th century. The term had then reached its maximum expansion and had defined a new attitude towards the world and culture as a concept. The possible features of the concept of Bildung converge at this point so as to determine a very thick mesh of itineraries and a multitude of possible interpretations. Illuminism lifted and amplified these themes while, at the same time, making something new out of them, something which definitely would leave the religious ambit in order to become an indication of a new anthropological model and a different outlook on the world. It is at this point, that new literary genres are invented, such as, the Bildungsroman in which the subject of the novel is exactly the individual's complex itinerary in the search for themselves on the basis of an anthropological model endowed with value.

But if the convergence of the specifically German tradition of Bildung with the rebirth of classical studies, allows for the definite exit of the concept from the religious sphere and its repositioning at the centre of secular discussions upon the possibilities and models for the shaping of a new individual, it also brought about the flowering of the question of form and moves it all the way towards an idea of Form as Order, as the necessity of a redirection towards to a fundamental role. The model to which reference is made, at this point, represents the image of universal perfection which is definable on the basis of precise rules, and it is not a question of personal taste. The great influence Winckelmann had, gives the possibility of moving from an unattainable moral perfection and from the godly image, to a secular image of perfection which is in some way calculable, edifiable or at least definable in human terms and therefore broadly speaking, reproduceable. On the other hand, this same characteristic implies taking into consideration that such a model is something which can no longer be defined on the basis of personal inclinations and aspirations towards the realization of one's own specific monadic quality. This model must now be defined in universal terms in which there is a necessary reproduction of an absolute model which presents itself as the ultimate achievement of humanity intended as an objective possibility.

The myth of classic Greece, therefore, impresses upon the formal element, a new force and an enormous suggestion since it gives the possibility of thinking of perfection as a finite. On the other hand, this result can be obtained only because a canon for it is proposed. In other words, an order has been defined in the sense that an array of rules of construction and transformation have been laid down in a very prescriptive and normative fashion.

The encounter of a typically German idea such as that of Bildung, with the rebirth of the Ciceronian idea of cultura animi and of the Greek Paideia gives us the possibility of explaining the richness and novelty of German culture at the end of 18th century. This culture became protagonist in Europe, setting a new style and new models which, were amply imitated. It was the fashion of the Bildungsroman, for instance Anton Reiser by Moritz, Ofterdingen by Novalis, Hyperion by Hölderlin and the Wilhelm Meister by Goethe which would open the discussion surrounding new anthropological models which the epoch and new sensibility had created. These anthropological figures were indicated as motives for reflection and confrontation in a moment in which the consciousness of their secularity was at last mature. But certainly the great season of German culture in which Bildung was a key word did not create everything new: heir of a great religious tradition, it was able to develop innovative and disruptive ideas which, when grafted on the "humanistic" and secular tradition, have produced that peculiar intellectual short circuit which is at the origin of every great cultural period.

The problem of Bildung is central in all Wilhelm von Humboldt's reflections. Central and exemplary because everything revolves around this idea in Humboldt's writings, both in the more famous essays, the political and linguistic ones, and in his unpublished notes.

Those who do not take great care of this interior need, who do not already find in themselves an irresistible desire to measure all mankind against themselves, who suppress the expression of this supreme need even for the best of reasons, shall always be far from truth. (3)

Everything revolves around an image of the human world not as a compact mesh of relations and modifications between qualities but as a living world, an environment in which what exists is recognizable as continual change, continual formation without definitive results and without achievable certainties. Being is Bildung for Humboldt; it is growth, it is transformation, it is never a given thing, a quality.

The point is not to recognize and identify a state, a condition or a situation but rather to understand the continuous substitution of forms, the never ending metamorphosis, the unstoppable flow in which the human world may be adequately illustrated.

Bildung is seen most of all as a dynamic tract, as a living impulse: the universe is seen as animated by a force, by an energy which acts within it and gives it life, movement and rhythm. It is a force which, being the animating center and mould of every reality, is the ultimate explanation and hidden being. What moves the world and history moves man above all, pressing him to act and express himself as a primary need and with no other goal than the reproduction of his own movement and research: man as part of nature is impulse, energy, an irresistible longing to live in a multi-form way. Thus man's principle aim is to realize his own talents, to turn his own spirituality towards the world. The world, rather than the realm of planning and usefulness, appears to be the place for self-manifestation of the individual, the limit for his sphere of action and research, with the essentially free prospect of fully expressing himself leaving aside the concrete goals and values which individuals may propose.

In this sense Humboldt was the heir to a world and its myths, especially Leibniz's dynamism, which break with a rigid, mechanical image of the world. Instead of a machine working on the basis of knowable, determining laws, the world was seen as living, as moving itself with the drive of an internal impulse which tended towards perfection and its own realization. And this meant being able to think of the surplus of movement and action which gave rise to new forms, untraceable to those preceding. Furthermore, the search for the authentic and primitive; for uncontaminated and original naturalness; for the mould of all beings, is brought from the Strurm und Drang generation and is its explicit inheritance. Its interest lies in the identification of the Genie as the original essence, in the cults of "naturality" and "truth" as characteristics of the vitally innovative human type.

Admiration for Goethe and Schiller, reference to the texts of Herder have this sense and these results for Humboldt: the force as a dynamic and transforming dimension is at the same time a metaphysical and anthropological image, and in both cases may be understood as the power which drives the world and renews it by providing an inexhaustible dynamic push.

The abundance of prescriptive language, especially (but not only) in his earlier works , seems to meet a different requirement in any case; to a thinker such as Humboldt it was not enough to construct an ontology because it may not have a form. The dynamism which the idea of force imposes on thought seems blind, it does not have the pre-established destination of Leibniz's determinism.

Bildung for Humboldt is not the pacific result of a cumulative process, it is not a becoming as a progressive and positive end in which order and harmony are both already implied in the process of transformation: the concept of force does not imply optimistically pre-established destinations. Bildung then must act as the result of a choice and must thus pursue a formal idea which should act as an ordering and balancing element of a dynamic thrust, without its own laws. Force as the world's animating principle comes into tension with the formal element which Humboldt made act upon it.

Man's true objective, he says in Ideen, 1792, prescribed not by his changeable inclination but by his unchangeable reason, is the greatest proportional development of his energies aimed at the construction of a complete whole. (4)

The problems which arise at this point are those of an entire generation for whom the myth of the natural, primitive individual is no longer sufficient but which does not wish to mummify by substituting it with empty, dead forms. The problem of form occurs again in the need to find, not ephemeral but universal and lasting value, in the result of the formative journey. The repeated and explicit reference to the consideration of force as an end in itself which we find throughout Humboldt's work is always accompanied by a normative requirement, that is the search for a model to strive for, and against which to measure one's own adequacy.

Thus, from the political essays to the anthropological ones, to the brief notes on Greek culture, to the great linguistic essays of his maturity, the idea of Bildung is the result of combining dynamic drive which characterizes the great tension of modernity and the compensating and balancing requirement which often makes reference to Greek myth as a kind of regulating idea, in the awareness of its historic and unreachable nature. Ancient Greek culture is used as a reference model for a modernity which has no need to stop at the great efficiency created by the division of roles and therefore of unilaterality, but which seeks new and more complex achievement, which was to be discussed by, among others, Schiller in Briefe über die aesthetische Erziehung des Menschen or Hegel in Phänomenologie des Geistes.

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(1) W.v.Humboldt, Briefe an eine Freudin, Leipzig 1861-65, p.495.

(2) F.Rauhut, Die Herkunft der Worte und Begriffe "Kultur", "Zivilisation" und "Bildung", in F.Rauhut-I.Schaarschmidt, Beiträge zur Geschichte des deutschen Bildungsbegriffs, Weinheim 1965; E.Lichtenstein, Von Meister Eckhart bis Hegel. Zur philosophischen Entwicklung des deutschen Bildungsbegriffs, "Pädagogische Forschung", 34, 1966, R.Vierhaus, Bildung, in Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politischen-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, Stuttgart 1972, I, pp.508-551.

(3) Wilhelm und Caroline von Humboldt in ihren Briefen, Berlin 1935, p. 87. On the subject see also my book: Formazione e trasformazione. "Forza" e "Bildung" in W.von Humboldt e la sua epoca, Milano 1988.

(4) W.v.Humboldt. Ideen zu einem Versuch die Grenzen der Wirksamkeit des Staats zu bestimmen, in Gesammelte Werke, Berlin, 1903, I, p. 106

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