Book Review – Louis Dumont. German Ideology: From France Germany and Back (Bruin Christensen)

Book Review – Louis Dumont. German Ideology: From France Germany and Back

Bruin Christensen


Louis Dumont. German Ideology: From France Germany and Back, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994, 250pp., bibliog., index. US $37.50 (Hc.), ISBN 0-226-16952-9; US $25.95 (Pb.), ISBN 0-226-16953-7.

This book forms part of an ongoing project of articulating `… the set of ideas and values characteristic of modernity …’ (p.vii)–what Dumont calls, in an avowedly non-Marxist sense, modern ideology. For Dumont, the keystone of modern ideology is individualism: the conviction that the highest value lies in the autonomy of the individual, whether religious, sociopolitical, moral or economic. All social institutions and collectivities derive their legitimacy from their ability to promote such autonomy. In no sense do they serve a purpose beyond this, a purpose to which the autonomy of the individual is subordinate. Dumont says that the set of values and ideas structured and determined by this modern notion of individualism `… is exceptional in the history of mankind’ (p.7). In all non- and pre-modern societies, e.g., India, a holist ideology prevails: the conviction that one’s very identity is essentially tied to that of a larger whole, so that being a human individual entails being part of some larger whole which is instrumental in shaping how one’s humanity is specifically realised. This holist conviction thus leaves conceptual room for the notion that the legitimacy of social institutions, norms and values derive not from the ideal of individual autonomy, but from some other goal which ranks higher than such autonomy.

But not merely does individualism distinguish modern civilisation from holistic non-modern and pre-modern ones. According to Dumont, the `… opposition between individualism and holism’ (p.viii) is a living tension within modernity. In previous studies, Dumont had thrown the distinctive individualistic ideology of modernity into relief by contrasting it with the holistic, non-modern ideology of India. In this work, he seeks to deepen the understanding thereby gained by comparing distinct variants of modern culture and ideology. In a manner vaguely reminiscent of Dilthey and Winch, Dumont stresses the importance of the anthropologist’s own pre-theoretical, engaged familiarity with the phenomena under investigation: `The best, most rigorous kind of comparison is that between the observer and the observed…. Therefore the study here will consist of singling out one country at a time and comparing it with one’s own’ (p.viii). Thus, one of the national variants of modern ideology to be compared in this book is the ideology of Dumont’s own France. The other term of comparison is the ideology of Germany, in particular Germany from 1770 to 1939. Proceeding from his own pre-theoretical understanding of, and participation in, the French variant, Dumont will seek to single out what is distinctive about the German variant. The result will be a modified understanding of his own French variant: `… if a view of Germany emerges here, this figure will appear against the background of a modified image of France, which can in its turn be more precisely delineated’ (p.x). (In fact, what is supposed to emerge would be more accurately described as a more articulated image of France.) The book is thus a journey from France to Germany and back.

As in previous work, the schema governing his interpretation is the opposition between individualism and holism. Dumont regards the French variant of modern ideology as originally (in the 18th century) more representative of the distinctively modern ideology. But, as he hopes to show in the course of his book, the German variant, while it involves an appropriation of modern ideas and values (for otherwise it would not be a variant), also involves a persistent attempt to reconcile modern ideas of the primacy of the individual with pre-modern holism. This attempt to reconcile individualism and holism is at least in part the reason why Dumont chooses Germany as the other of his own France: he sees in it a pattern not restricted to Germany alone: `For all the cultures that later came under the impact of modern civilization were, like the German, essentially holistic, and therefore either had to operate similar responses to individualism, or found the German recipes ready at hand to help them’ (p.26). As he hopes to show in detail, the effort to reconcile these opposites manifests itself in two distinctively German topoi: the first is the insistence at the socio-political level that the individual is only what he or she is as part of an identity-defining larger totality, a totality whose demands override those of the individual for autonomy. Thus, the German says, `I am essentially a German, and I am a man through my being a German’ whereas the Frenchman says, `I am a man by nature, and a Frenchman by accident’ (p.3). (This is said of the German of yesterday, i.e., until 1939; Dumont professes (p.3) to `… know nothing about the Germans of the present day’.) The second topos is the German fascination with inwardness and self-development. Thus, Dumont quotes Thomas Mann’s characterisation of inwardness as the finest characteristic of the typical German and concurs with Mann that the Germans’ invention of the Bildungsroman, `the novel of personal cultivation and development’, is no accident (p.53).

Dumont attributes the German retention of holistic proclivities to the way in which the Reformation, while introducing a kind of individualism to German culture, at the same time restricted it to the inner, religious sphere. In France and England, the countries most representative of modernity, such religious individualism transformed itself into ultimately revolutionary socio-political doctrine. But in Germany, religious individualism was not similarly transformed. From 1770 to 1830, in the effort to come to terms with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, German culture generated some of the most extraordinary products of the literary and philosophical imagination. This process did ultimately secularise the religious individualism of the Reformation which, in the shape of late 18th century Pietism, had become particularly extreme. But it did not give it the sociopolitical thrust such individualism had acquired elsewhere. Instead, this process merely humanised religious individualism in the typically German notion of Bildung: the individual’s true autonomy and freedom lay in cultivating talent and character to the point where the individual came to understand just who he or she was, just what his or her limits were, and thus just what his or her place in the scheme of things was. Thus, the true freedom and autonomy of the individual remains in Germany inner and fundamentally apolitical–so much so that Ernst Troeltsch, writing in 1916, could locate German freedom externally in `… service by the individual at his place in the function allotted him’ and internally in self-cultivation, self-realisation and self-limitation through appropriation of the rich cultural life which society and tradition made available. Thus both Troeltsch and Mann see the political as profane, to be thrust aside in the name of true cultivation and self-realisation because, as Luther says, `an dieser auBerlichen Ordnung nichts gelegen ist’, i.e., because nothing of consequence hangs on this external order of things (p.54). At the same time, because this order has given one the means of Bildung and true freedom, one has an obligation to this order. Externally, one fulfils one’s role in, and obligation towards, the larger whole; internally, one looks away from day-to-day external affairs in pursuit of what really matters, one’s own Bildung. As Dumont points out, this German idea of freedom is, for all its pre-modern residues, nonetheless modern, being quite foreign to genuinely pre-modern holistic conceptions (p.43).

Having shown the presence of the distinctively German amalgam of `Community holism + self-cultivating individualism’ (p.20) in the work of Ernst Troeltsch (ch.3) and Thomas Mann (ch.4), Dumont sets out to substantiate the account given of its nature and origin by showing how its linchpin, the concept of Bildung, emerges as an aestheticised and secularised transformation of religious individualism. He thus examines in chapter five how religious inwardness is aesthetised in the writings Karl Philipp Moritz, in chapter six how it is transformed in the life of Wilhelm von Humboldt into the secular ideal of Bildung, cultured self-refinement which turns its back on external political reality; and in chapter seven how Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre is a Bildungsroman whose lesson is the need to limit oneself within a larger whole, a lesson one only learns in hard experience of one’s own limitations.

This completed, Dumont returns in chapter eight to France in order to elaborate the 19th century trials and tribulations of the universalistic notions of humanity which the enlightened French ideology of unconstrained individualism saw as prior to all particular collectivities and local identities. Here, one general lesson appears to be that the astonishing political instability of France since the Revolution (p.201) is due to the unfettered character of its individualistic ideology; this has led to a preoccupation with abstract principles and thus `the neglect of the difficulties of their factual application’ (p.205). Only the stunning defeat of 1871, at Prussian hands, tempered the obsession with principles with enough nationalistically oriented Realpolitik to usher in a comparatively long-lived period of political stability–the Third Republic, which lasted from 1878 to 1940. Even so, the general French belief in a universal humanity (of which French society and culture is the most advanced expression) persisted and indeed reasserted itself in the French response to World War One: the French who, to quote Barbusse, had fought not just as Frenchman but above all as men (p.230), experienced this `war to end all wars’ as demonstrating forever war’s futility. This allowed the universalist proclivity to reassert itself, this time in the shape of a pacifism which effectively anaesthetised France to the dangers of Nazi Germany (p.234). Interestingly, Dumont finds that in Germany, too, the experience of war led to a resurgence of the local ideological proclivity: many Germans experienced their defeat as a `stab in the back’ perpetrated by representatives of an un-German form of socio-political organisation. The Weimar Republic was off to a bad start from the outset. Anti-modern holist sentiments arose with new vigour to resist the shift to modern liberal democratic social structures. At the same time, these sentiments shifted the grounds of their resistance from the uniqueness and superiority of German culture, science and education to that of the German race (p.234). Thus, after 1918 Dumont finds both France and Germany–pathetically, he says–attempting to salvage their respective ideologies by neutralising those experiences which had called these ideologies into question: the French defeat of 1871 and the German defeat of 1918 (p.235).

This is an erudite and for the most part interesting book. In a time of post-modernist particularism it is refreshing to read someone with the gall to be global. Moreover, Dumont’s global perspective, notwithstanding the vagueness and unclarity of its key notion of ideology, is founded in `falsifiable’ interpretation of historical and cultural phenomena. Last but not least, those not familiar with the broad sweep of German culture in the late 18th and 19th centuries can learn a lot from his book. Nonetheless, a number of things irritate. Dumont is unnecessarily prolix; this book could have been shorter and more clearly structured. More importantly, most of Dumont’s central claims are hardly original. What he says, for example, about the significance of the Reformation, German inwardness, French universalism and Enlightenment pre-occupation with the abstract individual, etc., will be familiar to those acquainted with Hegel and the subsequent German philosophical tradition of Kulturkritik. Dumont freely acknowledges this, claiming indeed that he has merely systematised existing insights (p.21). He does propose one genuinely original and interesting thesis: in the formative phase of German ideology, when it was reacting against the dominant French political (and Anglo-Saxon economic?) individualism, a pre-modern notion of sovereignty still held sway, that, namely, of universal as opposed to the modern notion of territorial sovereignty (p.21). Rather than seeing individuals as subject to a given sovereign in virtue of their residing within a given territory, the Germans still saw individuals as subject to claims of sovereignty in virtue of a particular kind of identity, in particular, their purely cultural and linguistic identity as Germans. This, thinks Dumont, is a residue of the medieval idea that all members of the Roman Catholic Church were subjects of the Holy Roman Emperor; it clearly has to do with the fact that until very recently Germans could only see themselves as a cultural rather than a territorially and politically defined unity. According to Dumont, the retention of this pre-modern notion of sovereignty explains the `pan-Germanism’ of 19th and early 20th century German ideology, i.e., the belief that `Germany was called to dominate the world by reason of the excellence of its culture or its organizational powers’ (p.200). Certainly, the notion of universal sovereignty potentially legitimises expansion if one assumes that the particular identity which binds an individual to the sovereign, e.g., belonging to the German cultural community, has a normative status such that all individuals ought to aspire to it.

Most importantly, however, Dumont’s account of German ideology and its origins is in one respect deeply unsatisfying. Dumont is generous in his description of German ideology, sparse in its explanation. We are told, for example, that in the late 1 8th century German culture was responding to the `dominant’ French culture and ideology. But why, in what sense, was French culture and the individualistic ideology of modernity `dominant’? Why and in what sense did German culture perceive it as thus `dominant’, as something it would have to grapple with? This dearth of explanation is not coincidental. For Dumont, Germany’s attempt in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to reconcile the modern and pre-modern, thereby asserting its own identity against a dominant French culture, is but a particular case in which he seeks to identify a general pattern of interaction, or `acculturation’ (p.6), between ideological structures and configurations constitutive of different societies and cultures (p.14). He claims, for example, that the same pattern of interaction can be found between Europe and India, and between Western Europe and Russia (p.14). Indeed, Dumont appears to regard his investigation as anthropological precisely because its point is to identify a general pattern within the particular case. Arguably, however, the reasons and causes of the German effort to come to terms with modernity are quite different in kind from those underlying the Russian response to Western Europe, and certainly the Indian response to modern European civilisation. So in looking to the common pattern, Dumont cannot but filter out the very different causal links between the elements of this pattern.

Unfortunately, this sparsity of the particular causal story affects the depth of Dumont’s characterisation of the late 18th century German response to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Certainly, Dumont’s interpretative schema of individualism versus holism does not yield great depth. His notion of individualism is little more than a generic term for any belief or doctrine which gives primacy to the individual in some respect, e.g., Protestant religious individualism of Protestantism, Enlightenment socio-political individualism and presumably also the economic individualism of laissez-faire `Manchester liberalism’. And his notion of holism is similarly generic and abstract. What one would have to refer to in order to give a deeper, more penetrating description remains unmentioned in Dumont. For he is not overly concerned to explain precisely why Germans responded as they did, i.e., to describe in its specific causal efficacy the phenomena which German intellectuals themselves took to be the underlying problem of modernity and which thus took effect by providing reasons for the German response. Here the real point about the need to tell the particular causal story emerges: what induced the rise of German ideology is not Dumont’s individualism since this is so abstract that it is not at all clear in what way it could be a problem and thus a cause. The late 18th century German response to modern ideology did not arise out of an arational, merely psychological hankering for pre-modern holism. Rather, it arose out of a sensitivity for real difficulties in Enlightenment socio-political individualism, both in its capacity as a descriptive account of social order and in its capacity as a prescriptive account of how society should be organised. This led thinkers like Herder, Goethe, Jacobi, Schelling and Hegel to identify as the underlying source of these difficulties the early modern metaphysical picture of the subject and its world which Galileo, Descartes and other 17th century thinkers took to be implicit in the new science. Telling the causal story thus reveals the rise of German ideology as the reasoned response of thinking individuals to things we even today can recognise as existential problems. This character of the causal efficacy of `ideology’ as a truth-claim and argument to which thinkers respond rationally, and not merely out of arational, brutely factual psychological dispositions such as nostalgia, is never really evident in Dumont’s account.

Surprisingly, Dumont never once mentions the crucial ambivalence displayed by late 1 8th century Germans to the 1 7th century philosophical interpretation of science. Indeed, he never mentions the rise of science itself. Yet it was this 17th century picture which enabled the transition from the merely proto-modern religious individualism of the 16th century to the genuinely modern political individualism of the 18th century. In early modernity the fundamental methodological assumption of the new science, namely, that the behaviour and structure of complex wholes is a function of the behaviours and properties of simpler parts, turned into a constitutive metaphysical claim true of all things. Thus, Hobbes explicitly construes social wholes and the human individuals which form their parts through analogy to atomistically conceived physical reality. This metaphysical picture is thus the true source of 18th century socio-political individualism, just as it directly contradicts holistic conceptions of social order, rightly described by Dumont as pre-modern. Indeed, it is the ultimate explanation for the ubiquitous methodological individualism of early modern social and political theory, which is still with us today.

I suspect that Dumont’s neglect of the character of the German reaction to the Enlightenment as a reasoned response to the early modern metaphysics of nature stems from his conception of his study as a social-scientific, anthropological one concerned with identifying general structural and dynamic patterns. For this concern directs attention away from the specific story of (at least partly) rational causality and (at least partly) efficacious rationality which one would have to tell in order to take this metaphysical picture into account. Here, perhaps, lie the limits of Dumont’s merely comparative deskriptive Anthropologie. The study of modern and other ideologies may well require a more ideengeschichtliche and even philosophical approach, one more sensitive to the character of ideology as a truth-claim whose efficacy in history cannot be deeply described without explaining the various reasons which moved people to accept it as true or regard it as problematic. And investigators can only access these reasons by themselves confronting this truth-claim.


Share on FacebookShare on RedditTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn