History, Schelling says, can be written about something that has a beginning, a middle and an end. This already indicates the problem of writing history that deals with the present. The more a historical object extends into our time, the less historical it is in the strict sense. Neither the history of the automobile is complete nor that of the CDU or stem cell research. “I thought there would be nothing more,” said little Hanno Buddenbrook, explaining how he drew a line in his family’s Time.news. So if something else comes, the Time.news cannot be closed, the story can only be written as a provisional one.
In the history of ideas, this circumstance is associated with further complications. For as easy as it is to say when Maria Theresa’s life came to an end, it would be just as difficult to determine the end of Plato’s or Rousseau’s ideas. “Reception” is a name for the fact that they continue to work. As the history of an idea, the philosopher Hans Blumenberg wrote an entire tome about how Plato’s allegory of the cave has continued to gain new variants well into our time.
On the other hand, there are works that analyze a time that has not yet passed. They could only be declared to be history under the opposite premise, that they belong in the museum because one no longer has to worry about what they say, but can concentrate entirely on the question of the circumstances under which they said something. When we have largely lost objective interest in a theory, the history of ideas can come along and historicize it. The author of such a theory can then be given the grave of a “classic” decorated with anecdotes.
Forced humorous approach
An example of the difficulties is provided by the latest issue of the “Magazine for the History of Ideas” published by CH Beck. Under the silly title “Sankt Niklas” – probably not even Feuerzangenbowle was used for this name joke, which is included in the editorial in the senseless formula that the magazine is about a “holy enlightener” – it collects articles on the sociologist Niklas Luhmann. He lived from 1927 to 1998 and wrote around sixty books on the theory of modern society and hundreds of essays. Most of the historians of ideas who are now dealing with it have probably only read a fraction of it, let alone studied it, which is hardly desirable, but could give a little reason to reserve, in Luhmann’s case, to close the files of argumentation. If one were to take the meticulousness that the greatest living historians of ideas, John GA Pocock and Quentin Skinner, exercise as a model in their dealings with the political world of thought in the early modern period, the nonchalant and forced humorous approach to Luhmann in this issue would not be the only possibility . The history of ideas should not be written without knowledge of the ideas.
Here it stays within narrow limits. Mostly anecdotes are told. These include interesting stories about Luhmann’s use of his legendary Zettelkasten, which sometimes served as an excuse for him to accept a scholarship somewhere because of his alleged fear of loss. According to the research of Johannes Schmidt, the estate administrator, the claim that the box was actually lost was made out of thin air.
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