Friedrich Schleiermacher: Between Enlightenment and Romanticism. By Richard Crouter. Cambridge University Press, 2005. 277 pages. $36.99.

Review by Gregory Stackpole (2011) | Review by Roy L. Smith (2009)

Richard Crouter’s Friedrich Schleiermacher consists of a series of eleven essays, most of which were published in journals from 1980 to 2003, plus an Introduction. The unity of the collection is found, Crouter argues, in the theme of the book’s title: “Schleiermacher’s cultural location between Enlightenment and Romanticism, the appellations we give to the intellectual movements that name his cultural worlds.” (1) This does not mean that Crouter thinks one can find the essential features of Schleiermacher’s thought by generalizing about either of these movements. (7) Crouter will rather use them as backdrop, for in Schleiermacher, the lines between these two movements are “blurred”. (8) Crouter states that his approach is both to historically situate the religious debates in which Schleiermacher was enmeshed (9), and to draw out the revisions between the various editions of his major works, to show what the edits reveal, and thereby put these editorial judgments in historical profile. (10) Approaching Schleiermacher in vivo, Crouter argues, will help us both in understanding him as he was, and in understanding him as he is for us. (2) To that end, Crouter has organized his essays under three main categories, roughly: Schleiermacher’s work vis--vis the works of three notable figures that chronologically frame him, Schleiermacher as socially- and politically-engaged citizen, and Schleiermacher as midwife of a Modern form of Christianity.  

In the first essay, Crouter examines one of the claims suggested in Wilhelm Dilthey’s biography of Schleiermacher, namely that “study of works alone will not yield full significance or worldview in the case of Schleiermacher”. (21) Crouter asks, “How does biography as knowledge of a life contribute to our understanding of a writer’s carefully nuanced arguments?” (29-30) Schleiermacher himself wrote that “we live deeper than we think”. (31) So Crouter: “[Schleiermacher’s] formal teachings arise from personal situations, which in turn inform these teachings” (34), so that one cannot understand the teachings apart from a biography. Crouter recognizes that “truth claims about God exceed the capacity of the historian”, but then notes how frequently such claims are argued by “draw[ing] from historical judgments.” (37)

In the second essay, Schleiermacher’s On Religion is compared with Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem, and their reception noted. Crouter directs our attention to many similarities in the works: how each author drew from elements of his native tradition (46), was interested in reconciling that tradition with modernity (39), attempted to reconcile claims of universal religiosity with commitments to particular traditions (41), strove to show that religion is not merely a set of ideas but concerns the life of communities (69), and shared an attention to historical consciousness (66). In addition to these, Crouter reminds us how both advocated for the freedom for religion from the coercive power of the State (47-48, 51-53), and thus how the theoretical projects of both selected books were quite culturally-engaged and politically-sensitive. Neither author fits snugly into Enlightenment or Romantic categories.

This political dimension of On Religion becomes more pronounced in G.W.F. Hegel’s reaction to that work, and the subsequent friction that occurred in the relationship he had with Schleiermacher after his appointment to the University of Berlin. Crouter wishes to give us both personal and philosophical differences, arguing that “each figure served tacitly as the intellectual foil for the work of the other.” (72) His narrative runs from before Hegel’s appointment to the University of Berlin where Schleiermacher was, to their subsequently rocky relationship and ideological differences. This third essay climaxes in a summary overview of their basic disagreements. (92-95) A Postscript argues that Marx and Kierkegaard’s reactions to Hegel on existential & political grounds are anticipated by Schleiermacher’s reactions. (97)

Quite naturally, then, Kierkegaard’s debt to Schleiermacher is the subject of the fourth essay. How are they related, and to what degree? (100) There are “significant agreements” and “sharp disagreements” (100), yet Crouter wishes to argue that, despite this ambiguous reception, “a set of formal as well as substantive concerns unites far more than it divides the two thinkers”. (103) This “diffuse” debt can be described as a mutual debt to the “legacy of Romanticism”. (103) Crouter concludes by focusing on Kierkegaard’s use of the literary strategy Schleiermacher employed in his review of Schlegel’s Lucinde, allowing multiple viewpoints of multiple reviewers to “come to unfettered expression.” (112) Kierkegaard writes that “it is possible to get a glance into the individuality of the single individual and through numerous yet merely relatively true judgments to draw up our own final judgment.” (111) “Thus”, Crouter summarizes, “the integrity of the act of personal appropriation is preserved in the art of an engaged reading and criticism.” (117) Crouter provisionally holds that this shared model for indirect communication doesn’t merely show a common aim, but indicates something that runs deep.

The second section (chapters 5-7) considers the politically- and civically-engaged dimension of Schleiermacher’s life and work. Chapter five treats Schleiermacher’s reply, almost immediately after writing On Religion, to an exchange of letters between a Protestant clergyman and a Haskalah (Enlightenment) Jew suggesting possible paths toward Jewish citizenship. Both grant that some kind of public profession and conversion to the State Church are involved. Although not taken with Judaism as a religion, Schleiermacher objects to this on a number of grounds: “Reason demands that all should be citizens, but it does not require that all must be Christians, and thus it must be possible in many ways to be a citizen and a non-Christian.” (129) He is concerned both for the welfare of the State and for the integrity of the Church, which would be diluted by mercenary conversions, (132) and writes to prompt political action. (130)

Chapter six covers Schleiermacher’s first formal activity on behalf of the State in helping to found and organize the University of Berlin. After having the University of Halle expropriated in Napoleon’s wake, King Friedrich Wilhelm III sought to establish a new University. Schleiermacher was eventually brought into this process. Paving a via media between the forces vying to reinforce the status quo and the monastic academicism of Fichte, Schleiermacher sought to plan out a University as an organic whole, united in the pursuit of truth, with the Philosophy faculty at its heart – a University that would be civically useful without being determined by a rubric of State-utility, yet largely autonomous. Many of his suggestions for the ordering and administration of a University and the art of teaching often sound quite contemporary.

Chapter seven inquires into the veracity of the accusation made by Barth and later authors (representing Liberation theology) that Schleiermacher is a cultural accomodationist. Crouter argues that this is false: Schleiermacher’s choices reflected a commitment to progressive (not radical) social change. (171) He also contends that it is inappropriate to lump Schleiermacher together with the Bourgeois, for he advocated causes that challenged the status quo. Pressing harder, Crouter states that the “desire of recent critics to use a “class analysis” approach in their theoretical work overrides careful treatment of historical evidence.” (177) Schleiermacher remained committed to insisting “upon individual liberty at all costs.” (183) His complaints about State censorship brought suspicions of treason upon him. (188) Schleiermacher held that any healthy government defies neat scientific classifications, and was natural and organic in character. (184) Though not an anti-monarchist, and though Schleiermacher ideally advocated for the separation of powers (executive, judicial, legislative), he thus avowed fidelity to the king – critically, though: only so long as the king could be said to be among “the most enlightened men of the nation.” (190)

The third section (chapters 8-11) consists of three essays that look closely at the content of three of Schleiermacher’s written works, and one essay (chapter eleven) that concerns the reception and significance of On Religion. The three textual studies concern the role of language in On Religion, the shape of theological studies suggested in Brief Outline on the Study of Theology, and the differences between the various editions of The Christian Faith. The final essay ties back into the hermeneutical questions of the first chapter regarding the role that historical investigations should play in the interpretation of an author and his or her works, especially concerning the relationship between the meta-historical normative claims of a work and the historical circumstances of the author who writes it.

Crouter’s work is delightful. By collecting several focused essays along these three topics, he demonstrates a fascinating approach to the study of Schleiermacher, and likely to any other figure. A biography, as necessary and complementary as it might be, could not accomplish what these essays do, partially because a biography is constrained by its narrative form, and partially because it cannot focus on single themes and features and texts the way that an essay can. In the end, that these essays are not a biography also seems to reflect the very answer Crouter gives to the question of whether and to what degree an author and his or her work reduces to, or transcends, his or her history.  Highly recommended.

Gregory Stackpole
Boston University

Richard Crouter, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Carleton College, has written an engaging and insightful book on the cultural context in which Schleiermacher’s highly influential thought and work was forged. Friedrich Schleiermacher: Between Enlightenment And Romanticism, is a must read for any student of philosophy, theology, history, or religious studies. In three Parts Crouter discusses Schleiermacher’s interaction with and influence on and beyond contemporary intellectual giants of his era (e.g. Mendelssohn, Schlegel, Hegel, Kierkegaard, etc.), his influence as a “public theologian”, and the circumstances in which his most famous books were written. The most important point and primary thesis of this book, is that one cannot understand Schleiermacher’s thought unless one understands the milieu in which his thought developed; coupled with an inquiry that traces the development of his thought within the texts he produced. A summary of and reflection on the colorful themes of this book will now be given.

Crouter’s excellent introduction offers a terse summary of what this important book will offer. In an intimate manner Crouter discusses his motivations for studying and writing on the great Schleiermacher: “People frequently ask why I am fascinated by the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), German philosopher and Protestant theologian. When the question arises, I typically respond that my interest rests on the brilliance and versatility of his achievement in shaping a distinctively modern Protestant Christian thought. But that answer scarcely does justice to the details of his illustrious career or the relevance of his work for today” (1). The reader is then ushered in to a realization of just how powerful an impact this genius has had. One of the founders and professors of the University of Berlin, Schleiermacher had a hand in its rise to “the intellectual center of the German Enlightenment in Prussia” (ibid). Importantly, this setting enabled him to synthesize the ideals of the previous era with the new era soon to come. The bridge between Enlightenment and Romanticism was built, in part, by Schleiermacher’s ability to address the romantic poets questioning the ideology of the former. Thus Crouter hopes that by carefully researching the cultural setting of the father of modern Protestant liberalism, we can better understand his works.

Schleiermacher was no armchair theologian. Rather, he was actively involved in the German salon scene, heated political issues, and church ministry. He was dedicated to both the academy and the pulpit, and his sermons are said to have been gently moving and highly inspiring. Further, he was a humble yet powerful force in debates on several fronts: “Though he was irenic by nature, Schleiermacher stood near the storm center of sharp theological disputes regarding the status of doctrine, church authority and rituals, church-state relations, relations between Christians and Jews, and the place of theology among the academic disciplines” (3). Schleiermacher brought a measure of unity to the Calvinists and Lutherans, while also indefatigably active in church and the University (involved in Greek philosophy, political theory, ethics, aesthetics, and translation of Plato into German, among other achievements). But Crouter is more interested in investigating the life issues motivating the multi-faceted work of Schleiermacher than to assume the man simply proceeded to address all of these disciplines without provocation.

Part I, Taking the Measure of Schleiermacher, begins by discussing Wilhelm Dilthey’s assertion that an understanding of Schleiermacher is contingent on a historical-biographical investigation of his life and times. Next, influences of contemporaries on Schleiermacher (such as Mendelssohn) are discussed. Hegel, a contemporary in direct relationship to Schleiermacher, complained of the latter’s reaction to German Idealism, lamenting that he pushed pluralism. Indeed, Hegel and Schleiermacher were colleges, but differed quite dramatically on certain points such as the former’s emphasis on reason and the latter’s emphasis on feeling. Crouter argues that Schleiermacher did not nullify reason as Hegel complained by overemphasizing feeling. Rather, he simply wanted to point out the limitations of reason missed by the hyper-emphasis on reason heralded by his forerunners. Thus Crouter understands this tension between the two greats to have influenced the work of Schleiermacher more than most scholarship recognizes. Friedrich Schlegel, also a contemporary to and friend of Schleiermacher, is discussed as a complicated relationship as well. The two were college roommates and close friends. Parting ways regarding biblical and traditional Christian tenets, Schlegel opted to discard these, whereas Schleiermacher sought to rearticulate them through the poetic sensibilities of Romanticism. This leads to a discussion of the impact Schleiermacher had on Kierkegaard. Revamping Christian thought in a Platonic dialogue way, is believed to have inspired the young Dane.

Part II, Signposts of a Public Theologian, unveils the social and political involvement in which our theologian was engaged. Schleiermacher had a close relationship with the Jewish community of the Berlin salons, and he fought for equality against those who sought to propagate oppression on Berlin Jews by forcing conversion to Christianity. Next, the key part played by Schleiermacher in founding the University of Berlin is argued to have extended far beyond this single university. In contrast to Fichte’s approach to academia, Schleiermacher constructed a more inclusive, less elitist, and more aesthetic approach to education: “The aims of the university Schleiermacher envisions are best realized by acknowledging that the selection and admission of students is more art than science … For him lecturing must incorporate a dialogical (Socratic) style of reflecting on the origins and methods of a field of study, not just dispense factual content” (158-59). The accusation against Schleiermacher leveled by Barth et al (which accuses his theology of falling prey to selling out, so to speak) is refuted as a misreading and caricatured labeling. Crouter does not understand Schleiermacher to have watered down Christianity so as to placate secularists, but to offer a creative and effective apologetic palpable for a Romantic sensibility. Last, Schleiermacher’s often misconstrued patriotic stance is analyzed. Though fighting for the underprivileged Schleiermacher also had friend’s of the privileged class. Further, he had a hand in the political network, evidenced in the enormous turnout for his funeral; which was attended by “some 20,000 people, including the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III” (15). Along with the contemporary greats he was surrounded by, Schleiermacher left an unprecedented impact on the world:

Friedrich the Great may have brought the Enlightenment to Berlin, but it was the scholars at the newly founded university (Barthold Georg Niebuhr in history, August Boeckh in classical philology, Johann Gottlieb Fichte [succeeded by Hegel] in philosophy, Karl Friedrich Savigny in law, Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland in medicine, Schleiermacher in theology) who fostered the bold sorts of inquiry that put the university on the map and established the ground for its prominence within German educational history” (15).

Part III, Textual Readings and Milestones, closes Crouter’s exciting book by giving account of the assimilation, influence, and interpretive challenges of Schleiermacher’s. Schleiermacher sought to communicate the beauty of religion to those which resisted religion. By cloaking his apologetic message in poetic prose, he is argued to have been seeking to defend Christianity for a new application to his day and age. Balancing himself between the pitfalls of rationalism and supernaturalism, enabled him to combine the best of Enlightenment and Romantic thought. Further, including scientific and ethical claims in his later works, Schleiermacher satisfied the demand to rise to challenges previously unaddressed by theology. Crouter argues that now taken for granted attitude that religion is a natural human tendency involving symbols, mystery and irrationality, owes itself to the pioneering of these elements by the late great Schleiermacher. That religion is every bit as complex as is the universe was not understood by most prior to his influence. In addition, Schleiermacher’s influence on theological education is mostly unrecognized today. Crouter closes by further discussing the enormous influence of Schleiermacher on the world. With respect to the primary texts, Crouter augments his historical position by admitting that, though historical and contextual study is necessary for understanding Schleiermacher, one must also simply open one of his texts. These transcend time.

This book, as stated above, is a highly engaging must read for the serious scholar. Crouter is primarily a historian, which obviously means that his writing is nuanced towards writing in the style of that particular genre. This is not necessarily problematic. However, one’s methodological approach may influence the spin one puts on the content one writes about. In other words, on occasion the presuppositions of a historian emerge from the text. For instance, claims such as “Schleiermacher could never have anticipated the permutations of his teachings that arose over the last two centuries”, are for this reader a bit tenuous. I could just as well argue that he did anticipate such effects in this way. Schleiermacher was clearly aware of the many misunderstandings following his writings On Religion and The Christian Faith (among others), as is well documented by himself (c.f. On the Glaubenslehre: Two Letters to Dr. Lucke), where he laments the ubiquitous misinterpretations of his work. Further, he was no doubt aware of the innumerable misunderstandings of the greats (e.g. Plato, Spinoza) preceding himself (and no, I do not merely presuppose that the man knew he was one of the greats). But then I am not a historian and this is a minor hair-splitting point of critique; which supports my claim as to the high quality of Crouter’s work. There simply are no glaring problems with this book. Indeed, Crouter is much more than a historian. He is an exegete of sorts, and he has a vivid imagination for recreating past events. Thus Crouter’s historical approach is the locus of both my critique and my praise of this fine work.

Roy L. Smith
Boston University

The information on this page is copyright 1994 onwards, Wesley Wildman (basic information here), unless otherwise noted. If you want to use text or ideas that you find here, please be careful to acknowledge this site as your source, and remember also to credit the original author of what you use, where that is applicable. If you have corrections or want to make comments, please contact me at the feedback address for permission.