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Journal of the History of Ideas 62.3 (2001) 543-564

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Eduard Gans and the Crisis of Hegelianism

Warren Breckman

In a 1834 report on the development of economic associationism in France, Johannes Schön detected an echo in Germany, the stirrings of a debate over the "modern Associationswesen." This discussion, he believed, would be crucial to the future of the "national economy." 1 Schön was an astute observer, for the German discussion of associationism in the early 1830s was indeed but a faint echo of the French; and insofar as the idea of association was addressed by prominent social writers in those years, it was generally greeted with suspicion. This was the case, for instance, with the liberal thinker Robert von Mohl, whose influential 1835 tract on the social question criticized the notion of proletarian associationism. Conversely, by the early 1840s, association was on many tongues as a panacea for the social ills of the age. By 1840 Mohl himself had embraced the "Assoziationsprinzip" as an antidote to the atomized condition of modern social life. 2

Among the relatively small number of German writers who did champion association in the 1830s, the claims for its significance were already grandiose. Moses Hess's Die heilige Geschichte der Menschheit (1837) and August von Cieszkowski's Prolegomena zur Historiosophie (1838) both linked social solidarity to millenarian expectations of a new age of humanity. Even before Hess or Cieszkowski, the first German book on Charles Fourier, by one S. R. Schneider, bore the title Das Problem der Zeit und dessen Lösung durch die Assoziation (1834), while another, by Fr. Hr. Tappehorn, was headed Die vollkommene Association, als Vermittlerin der Einheit des Vernunftstaates und der Lehre Jesu (1834). Yet the enormous importance assigned to associationism [End Page 543] in these titles exposes the ambiguity of the idea itself. For if, as one historian has claimed, "free association can be regarded in principle as the central organizational form of modern or industrial society," 3 there was no agreement on its nature. Should the right of association be understood as liberal or socialist, individualistic or collectivist? Is free association the core idea and mode of interaction of a pluralistic and competitive civil society, or is it the principle of unification that will overcome pluralism and competition? These fundamental questions were to preoccupy nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century debates in areas as diverse as revolutionary theory, labor union activism, and the regulation of business cartels. However, in the 1830s, under the pressure of the newly perceived social question, the stirrings of industrialization in Germany, and the revival of democratic politics in the July Revolution, these issues first appeared with a force that drew the attention of intellectuals.

Perhaps no German intellectual of the 1830s so perfectly embodies the implicit tensions of the idea of associationism as the Hegelian philosopher of law, Eduard Gans (1797-1839). A student of the Heidelberg legal scholar A. J. Thibaut, Gans later came to be considered by Hegel as one of his most brilliant followers. Once Gans became a professor in the Juristic Faculty at the University of Berlin in the mid-1820s, it was he, not Hegel, who taught a generation of students the intricacies of Hegelian political philosophy. Gans died in 1839 at the age of 42, felled at a luncheon by a stroke while in mid-sentence, a victim, according to the Hallische Jahrbücher, of his own passion for discussion. This volubility is more than evident in his oeuvre, which includes a multi-volume study of inheritance law in world history, dozens of essays on legal philosophy and political and legal issues in his native Prussia and Europe, a popular memoir, and an edition of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. He was instrumental, moreover, in creating the Society for Scientific Critique in 1826, the Hegelian "counter-academy" established in response to the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences' decision to exclude Hegel, and he was a founder of Die Jahrbücher für wissenschaftliche Kritik, the organization's journal and the main organ of Hegelianism. At...


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