Life and work of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy

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Hans van der Heiden:

"Succinctly we want to give an indication of the place this book occupies in the biography of Rosenstock-Huessy. He was born July 6, 1888, in Berlin into an assimilated Jewish family. His childhood and youth played out in Germany at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. He himself says that he understood himself as a Christian from the beginning of his spiritual awakening. There was no sudden conversion. More than once, in that respect, he cited a passage of St. Augustine claiming that the soul is Christian by nature, naturaliter christiana. That thought fits nicely into Rosenstock-Huessy’s conception of language, in which he argues that we only come to ourselves by an appeal that reaches out to us. This is a Johannine understanding of Christianity, as we have already noted. The “Word” that is from the beginning and that is with God, is of divine origin and calls us into existence. The divine word that calls us to life precedes the independence of the “I”. Not paganism, but the love of God is at the origin of humankind. Recent research has shown that in all probability Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy had decided to be baptized as early as 1906, but according to his recently discovered baptismal certificate hedid not take this step until 1909 at age twenty-one, and in a very lonely setting. Apparently, even the minister who baptized him did not understand the meaning of the text that Rosenstock-Huessy used for baptism, Luke 6:4, as transcribed uniquely in the Codex Bezae: “On that same day he saw somebody working land on the Sabbath, and he said to him: Sir, if you know what you are doing, you are blessed, but if you do not know, you are cursed and an offender of the law”. More than once Rosenstock-Huessy referred to that text to emphasize that it is not the act itself but the spirit in which an act is done that is decisive. In that way he understood his belongingness to the Christian tradition. Even more, in that sense he interpreted the core of the Christian tradition! After his time in a traditional classical gymnasium in Berlin, Rosenstock-Huessy studied history of law at Heidelberg. He graduated there in 1909 at the age of twenty-one and completed his habilitation in 1912 at the faculty of Law in Leipzig. He soon got a position there as a Privatdozent in the history of medieval law. A Privatdozent had the right to lecture at a university, but he was dependent for his income on fees paid by the students attending the lectures. Franz Rosenzweig, although a little older than Rosenstock-Huessy, was among those students, and thus began an intense friendship, cut short by Rosenzweig’s early death in 1929.From his early youth. Rosenstock-Huessy had a passionate love for everything related to language. In his book Ja und Nein, autobiographische Fragmente (1968) he recounts the large number of projects he was involved in as a teenager and as a schoolboy in relation to language, such as systematically going through etymological dictionaries and translating classical works, among which were Homer and Shakespeare. Besides the compulsory study of language in school, he undertook to learn Egyptian and was able as a fourteen-year-old to translate the Proverbs of Ptah Hotep. From a very young age, Rosenstock-Huessy saw himself reflected in the words of Johann Georg Hamann “Sprache ist der Knochen an dem ich ewig nagen werde“ (Language isthe bone I shall gnaw on for all eternity).Rosenstock-Huessy realized that language, speech “das eigentliche Wunder der Wirklichkeit ist” (is the true miracle of reality). Speech binds and changes people. Speech creates exchange and dialogue. By speaking, appealing, and responding a new future emerges. History is created. Language, time, and history in their reciprocal relationships and unity are the great themes that kept Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy occupied all of his life. During the Great War of 1914-1918, on May 29, 1916, when Rosenzweig was located at the Eastern front in the Balkans as a sergeant, and Rosenstock-Huessy was an officer at the Western front in Belgium and France, the correspondence began of which the design of the grammatical method is a part. Following the intensive discussions in 1913, the two men had lost sight of each other for a while. However, in one of the late-night conversations of that earlier time, Rosenstock-Huessy had criticized Rosenzweig for his free-floating Hegelian style of thinking that enabled him to avoid taking a stance on anything. That conversation deeply shocked Rosenzweig, the more so because his fellow intellectual, Rosenstock-Huessy, admitted that forhis orientation in the world he relied on prayer in a church. On the verge of converting to Christianity as a remedy for his relativism, Rozenzweig visited a synagogue on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and was deeply impressed by the liturgy of this observance, to which the description in the Stern still testifies. Here finally he found the truth for which he could take a stand, and conversion was no more necessary! When Rosenstock-Huessy got the news of Rosenzweig’s commitment to Judaism, it prompted the 1916 correspondence, which many yearslater was published in English as Judaism Despite Christianity (1969), edited by Rosenstock-Huessy. In the very last letter of this exchange, Rosenzweig asked Rosenstock-Huessy to write to him “about ‘The Languages.’” In response, Rosenstock-Huessy sent him a thirty-page letter that forms the core of Angewandte Seelenkunde. After the First World War, as Rosenstock-Huessy saw it, Germany could not just go on with business as usual. He himself chose not to return to his pre-war existence, and he refused attractive job offers from academe, from government, and from the church. The trial of the war and the collapse of the German Empire reinforced his perception that little was to be expected from the existing institutions, including the universities, to help towards the renewal of man and society. In order to further develop his grammatical method, he was in need of concrete experience that would move in this direction. He offered his services to the auto manufacturer Daimler-Benz and began there the publication of a Werkzeitung, the first factory newspaper in Germany, with the intention to starting a dialogue between laborers (18,000 were on strike) and management. He also had a leadership role in the founding in 1921 of the Akademie der Arbeit in Frankfurt, with the same intention of bringing different groups––students, teachers, Communists, socialists, Protestants, Catholics, laborers, jobless people––into dialogue with each other. Some of the Akademie staff members, however, had difficulty accepting Rosenstock-Huessy’s dialogical concept of “reciprocal learning.” The project failed, in particular because his colleagues could not accept that the education of adults is more than just the transfer of knowledge. However, there was a long-term positive resonance from this effort. In early 1923, with a wife and child to support, Rosenstock-Huessy reluctantly returned to the academy, becoming a professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Breslau. He looked upon this decision as a defeat and failure of all his initiatives. Nevertheless, from his position at Breslau he later actively participated in the founding of the Löwenberger Arbeitslager für Arbeiter, Bauern und Studenten in Silesia. These were work camps for farmers, laborers, and students from all walks of life and different political backgrounds: Communists, (national-)socialists, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, liberals, conservatives, etc. These work camps may be seen as an example of effective adult education. Within this framework should be mentioned also the meetings some years later at the Von Moltke estate at Kreisau, where during the Second World War representatives of different social groups from Germany secretly discussed the future of a post-Hitler new democratic Germany within the framework of a new democratic Europe. A number of participants in this Kreisau Circle, among them Helmuth James von Moltke, had first become acquainted at the work camps mentioned earlier. By their participation in this Circle they played an important role in the resistance against Hitler and his henchmen, for which Helmuth James paid with his life on Hitler’s orders in January 1945. One might say that the Kreisau Circle was the fruit of the labor camps organized with the cooperation of Rosenstock-Huessy in Silesia. For that reason EugenRosenstock-Huessy is sometimes called the founding father of the Circle.In 1933, when the Nazis come to power, Rosenstock-Huessy immediately condemned the new regime as a regression to pre-Christian barbarism. He then and there resigned his professorship at Breslau and arranged to emigrate to the United States. Although as a Jew by birth he would have soon been viciously attacked in Germany, he saw his immediate departure from his home country not only as an escape from the immediate threat of persecution but also asa decisive, principled protest against an evil regime. Through the good offices of a friend at Harvard, Prof. Carl Friedrich, Rosenstock-Huessy had a teaching position waiting for him there, where he remained for a year-and-a-half, subsequently moving to Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire. His teaching at Dartmouth from 1935 to 1957 inspired a whole generation of students. As a permanent resident in the United States and a citizen after 1944, Rosenstock-Huessy completed the work on his Soziologie (Volume I, 1956; Volume II, 1958) and later also his final great work Die Sprache des Menschengeschlechts (1963) to which he added at the end of the first volume Angewandte Seelenkunde as a compact overview and summary of what he in essence had to say about language. He died at his home in Norwich, Vermont, on February 24,1973 .

Source: Introduction to Practical Knowledge of the Soul, by Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, translated by Marc Huessy and Freya von Moltke, Wipf & Stock ix-xxxvi.