- Lektüren der Erinnerung: Lessing, Kant, Hegel by Peter Gilgen
Lektüren der Erinnerung is a rich and nuanced study of the reciprocal relationship between conceptions of memory and reading at the end of the eighteenth century, a time when both underwent epochal transformations. Gilgen argues that models of memory as reading were basic conditions of possibility for the emergence of the philosophy of history in its modern, idealist form, as the likes of Lessing, Kant, Hegel, and Hölderlin came to construe memory as a hermeneutic disposition modeled on the recursive structure of a variety of acts of reading. Gilgen thereby foregrounds the performative dimension of philosophical texts, examining how they stage their own acts of reading and rereading, of remembering and recollecting. He thus suggests that these texts address in fundamental ways the imbrication of the observer’s own historicity in the process of historical interpretation.
The book opens with an elegant introduction to a set of interrelated issues: concepts of memory and their historical dependence upon writing across ancient and medieval mnemonic techniques; the late eighteenth-century collapse of rhetoric and the concomitant rise of hermeneutics, and the temporalization of natural and cultural knowledge in this same period; and intersections of the philosophy of history with certain literary genres such as autobiography and bildungsroman. The book then proceeds in three longer sections ranging from fifty to seventy-five pages, which consist of extended studies of the figures named in the book’s title: Lessing reading Augustine; Kant reading the French Revolution and engaging his own thought anew; and Hegel reworking Schiller and Hölderlin.
Gilgen does not simply document shifts in models of memory in a positivistic manner, but instead works immanently to show how these texts’ very use of language probes the limits of the philosophy of history. This results in a series of in-depth studies that combine a deep familiarity with philosophical issues with a keen attention to textual detail. In a helpful methodological distinction, Gilgen notes certain similarities between Literaturwissenschaft and cultural studies, social history, and/or media history, for each is concerned with historical questions of [End Page 551] shifting medial practices. He stages a defense of literary studies, however, when insisting on the specific hermeneutic achievements of close reading. Gilgen’s study is thus complementary to but also distinct from recent cultural-historical work, such as that of Aleida Assmann and Douwe Draaisma, on shifting concepts of memory and the role of metaphor and media therein. Gilgen likewise inflects his readings with deconstructive, media-theoretical, and system-theoretical conceptual moves, though his main task is to give primacy to the texts in question, in effect producing a reading/rereading of the rereadings undertaken by these authors. Indeed, one of the central merits of Lektüren der Erinnerung is that it shows how the self-observation of the historical subject comes to be incorporated into philosophical reflection, and that this is something best exhibited on an immanent level, as Gilgen himself demonstrates.
Despite moving from Lessing through Kant to Hegel, Gilgen wants his argument to avoid any proto-Hegelian teleological drift. Instead, he describes the three main parts of this book as “synchronic steps” that expose different aspects of late eighteenth-century thought. The first part discusses Lessing’s revitalization of the technique of reading developed in St. Augustine’s narrative of his religious conversion. As Gilgen shows, Lessing’s Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts adapts Augustine’s autobiographical model of self-(re-)reading in developing a poetology of philosophical-historical transformations and transitions. It is a virtue of Gilgen’s synchronic, typological method that he can bring Lessing and Augustine into dialogue, describing structures of subjectivity and modes of writing that are not reducible to any simple schema of ancient/modern.
Section 2 sustained engagement with Kant plays a central role in the book as a whole. There Gilgen explores the implications of Kant’s view that the philosophy of history is a necessary part of the idealist system. Like Lyotard and others, Gilgen locates the key turning point in Kant’s thought...