Ernst Troeltsch

Ernst Troeltsch (17 February 1865–01 February 1923)

Today is the 157th anniversary of the birth of Ernst Troeltsch (17 February 1865–01 February 1923), who was born on this date in 1865.

Better known as a theologian than as a philosopher of history, Troeltsch nevertheless wrote extensively on historicism and the philosophy of history. In his Der Historismus und seine Überwindung (“Overcoming Historical Relativism”) — a more revealing title than that of the English translation (Christian Thought: Its History and Application) — the whole of Part II is titled “Ethics and the Philosophy of History” (adapted from three lectures that Troeltsch delivered in March 1923). Much of Troeltsch’s work on the philosophy of history has not been translated into English.

In the following passage, after having briefly reviewed the impact of modernity upon religious standards of judging history, and the dramatic expansion of historical research and knowledge, Troeltsch notes:

“Behind all this lie the problems of the Philosophy of History — the problems of controlling and dominating the immense stream of historical life, a stream which grows continually more rapid and more extended, and not merely of constructing theoretically its successive stages and its laws of movement. But this means, in other words, that History requires us to come to grips with the idea of an abiding system of values which shall give us our standards, even though every such system seems always to be undermined and washed away by this stream. But such a system of values is nothing else than what we call, in other words, the system of Ethics. Hence the great question is: what is the role and the significance of the system of Ethics for the great task of controlling and damming the historical movement, which, in itself, is simply boundless? And this is the question on which I should like to speak in these three lectures.” (pp. 69–70)

Thus, for Troeltsch, the central problem for the philosophy of history is a practical problem, the problem of shaping human history according to ethical principles. Troeltsch implies that the mere task of, “…constructing theoretically [history’s] successive stages and its laws of movement,” which we might be tempted to identify as the authentic remit of philosophy of history, is merely a preparatory exercise to that of actually shaping history with this knowledge.

In Historicism and Its Problems, Book I: The Logical Problem of the Philosophy of History (Der Historismus und seine Probleme, I. Buch: Das logische Problem der Geschichtsphilosophie), Troeltsch revisits the above themes:

“The philosophy of history is by no means a latecomer to science, a problem that was discovered only slowly, and which at least should have been present in the outline of science itself. Rather, it only came at the precise moment when it was needed, when the needs of the worldview demanded it. It is more a matter of worldview than of historical research, and the two only came together at the moment when the consideration of the essential spiritual goals required historical knowledge and when history demanded a fundamental classification in philosophical thinking. The need arose from both sides at the same moment and for the same reason. Cultural awareness demanded a confrontation with the changing of the great periods of culture, which became more and more known and obvious, and history demanded an answer to the question of unity, goal and meaning as soon as it had spread over sufficiently diverse areas. But both resulted from the break with the remnants of the Middle Ages and the Church, with the activity of a thinking bourgeoisie that saw a new era ahead and had to come to terms with the old times.”

Here, again, philosophy of history appears as a kind of tool for mankind, a technology of history, into which possession we come when the historical moment is ripe — and the moment is ripe when we have experienced the convulsions of modernity and the expansion of historical knowledge that requires that we make a place for ourselves in this changed era of history in which we find ourselves today.

Troeltsche is especially well known for his three principles of historico-critical inquiry, here summarized by C. Stephen Evans in his paper “Critical Historical Judgement and Biblical Faith”:

“According to Troeltsch, there are three principles of critical historical investigation that cause problems for the traditional Christian. There is first the principle of criticism. Essentially, this is a claim that historical judgments are always provisional, corrigible and approximative. Such judgments are always more or less probable, based on the evidence available for them. Secondly, there is the principle of analogy. This principle is a kind of assumption of uniformity, in that it is assumed that our present experience is not radically different from the experiences of humans in the past. The same kinds of causal laws and natural processes operative today were operative in the past. Thirdly, there is the principle of correlation. This is essentially an assumption about causality, that holds that one must always understand an historical event in the context of its natural antecedents and consequences. Historical events must be understood in terms of their natural historical contexts.”

While formulated in the context of theology, and bearing the traces of the struggle for modern thinkers to find a satisfying way to approach the historicity of the Incarnation, Troeltsch’s three principles are, again, eminently practical, and a guide for bringing theological and philosophical ideas into dialogue with the reality of human history, or, at least, attempting to do this.

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