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  • The Concept of Antisemitism in the Historical Scholarship of Amos Funkenstein
  • David Engel (bio)

It was Amos Funkenstein who taught me to appreciate Johan Huizinga—not only as the author of The Waning of the Middle Ages but even more as a sophisticated observer of the process of writing history. Indeed, Huizinga’s comments on the discursive and rhetorical practices of the historical genre, on the subjectivity of the historian, and on culture as the object of historical study appear to prefigure much of the current debate over these issues. So perhaps it is meet that I have borrowed from this great early-twentieth-century Dutch historian a framework for analyzing Funkenstein’s conception of the elusive notion of antisemitism.

That framework was explicated concisely in a 1934 essay entitled “De Historische Idee.” 1 In it Huizinga inquired about the nature of the basic units that historians employ in order to grasp the past and set it in order. He began his inquiry by noting what he took to be a fundamental epistemological fact, applicable to all humans: “We must conceive of [the] eternal variety [of our world] in terms of self-contained wholes (Ganzheiten); from the welter of perceptible things we must mark off certain composite units to which we give names and assign forms—in short, . . . we are forced to make abstractions” (290). If such is universally the case, he reasoned, then it must be the case for historians; as he put it, “the historian . . . recognizes in the phenomena of the past certain ideal forms that he tries to describe” (292). From this inference he argued that what distinguishes historical thinking from thinking of all other types is not the sort of thought units historians employ but the [End Page 111] operations they perform (or refrain from performing) upon those units.

Huizinga characterized certain such operations as essential to the historical enterprise. For example, he contended that historians examine their “ideal forms” to determine how their specific content changes over time. Another way of expressing this purportedly essential characteristic of historical investigation is that historians always ask of events whither they are leading. Hence, in Huizinga’s words, “historical thinking is always teleological . . . ; history must be granted to be the teleologically oriented discipline par excellence” (293). Other operations, in contrast, represented for Huizinga merely habitual, not essential, historical practices. Some, in fact, he regarded as bad habits, as “dangers obstructing the acquisition of sound historical knowledge” (293). One such danger he labeled “inflation of terms.” He did not define what he meant by this ideal form; instead he offered a historical example:

In the first half of the nineteenth century the term “Renaissance” took its place in historical thought as a reference to a clearly circumscribed intellectual movement, marking a definite period. Later it was discovered, first, that the nature, range and time of this movement could by no means be precisely marked off; second, that similar movements had occurred at other times and in other places. The use of the word Renaissance was broadened in an unprecedented way. One allowed the Renaissance to begin as early as the thirteenth century and to last until the seventeenth; one began to hear of a Carolingian Renaissance and of renaissances in general. . . . The concept of the Renaissance had become inflated.


Inflation of terms was closely related in Huizinga’s mind with another regrettable practice, which he called “stereotype”:

History [as a discipline] . . . is forced to work with general terms by which it can encompass a great deal. At the same time, history is prevented from actually testing the strict validity of those general terms by the very heterogeneity, selective nature, incomparableness and limitlessness of all its particular ideas. There is a great temptation to apply as a stereotype a concept once found useful to data that really require a rethinking and a new specific quantification. I am thinking now of the all-too ready application of almost all the general terms produced by the study of social and political phenomena and institutions: terms like capitalism, feudalism, reaction, bourgeoisie, democracy, and countless others. History can do without none of them, but the historian who is serious about presenting a...

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