Anerkennung vor Umverteilung. Zur sozialen Frage bei Jeremias Gotthelf

Künzler, Lukas
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Rezensiert für infoclio.ch und H-Soz-Kult von:
Peter Meilaender, Department of History, Politics, and Philosophy, Houghton College

In this study of Jeremias Gotthelf and the problem of poverty, Lukas Künzler makes an important contribution to our understanding of Gotthelf as a social and political thinker. Künzler provides a detailed study of Die Armennot, Gotthelf’s one major non-fiction attempt to address political issues (and arguably a book that has received too little attention), situating it carefully within the political and educational debates of its time and demonstrating that Gotthelf deserves to be taken seriously not only as a political philosopher but also as what we might call a policy analyst. Künzler then links his discussion of poverty in Die Armennot to Gotthelf’s novel Käthi die Großmutter, showing how the latter displays in fictional form many of the ideas articulated in the earlier book. Along the way he also draws frequent connections to an impressively wide range of Gotthelf’s works.

Künzler’s study is ambitious, ranging widely across multiple discplines: not only literary studies, but also history, political theory, education, economics, theology, sociology, and the psychology of religion. Künzler recognizes the challenges of such an undertaking (pp. 119–121) but persuasively argues that an adequate understanding of Gotthelf requires contributions from multiple disciplinary perspectives. For guidance he turns to a range of sources, drawing upon thinkers such as Charles Taylor, Hartmut Rosa, and William James. Though I cannot assess his forays into all these fields, his discussions in those where I am competent to judge – his treatment of Taylor, for example, or his creative use of Elinor Ostrom’s work on the commons – are well-informed and generate confidence that he is drawing with integrity upon fields outside literature.

Because Künzler’s study is so wide-ranging, it is difficult in a brief space to indicate the many ways in which it illuminates aspects of Gotthelf’s thought or prompts further questions. Let me highlight two of its important accomplishments. Gotthelf’s discussion of poverty in Die Armennot focuses upon creating homes for orphaned or abandoned children, where under the guidance of a married couple filling the role of parents, they could receive a semblance of family life, education, and moral and practical training, ideally enabling them to become independent and contributing members of society. In sketching out this ideal, Gotthelf drew heavily upon the experience of the Armenerziehungsanstalt in Trachselwald, a home for boys that he helped found and administer. Readers of the Armennot might reasonably wonder whether the founding of such homes could possibly be a practical solution for the growing problem of poverty, which Gotthelf himself described as the great danger confronting his age, similar to the plague or the threat from the Turks in earlier eras. Künzler draws upon a pair of recently discovered historical sources: answers to a pair of questionnaires sent by the government in Bern to localities inquiring about their anti-poverty policies (reprinted on pp. 652–779 of the volume), and minutes from the Verein für christliche Volksbildung, which Gotthelf formed with colleagues for the purpose of overseeing the home in Trachselwald. On the basis of these, Künzler is able to demonstrate persuasively that Gotthelf was indeed well-informed about prevailing policy options with respect to poverty, and that in starting the Trachselwald Anstalt, he and his colleagues were attentive to this context, seeking, for example, to ensure that the cost of placing a child in their home was competitive with other options a locality might pursue in order to provide for poor children. Gotthelf’s proposals were thus not only inspired by his theological and philosophical ideals but were also shaped by real engagement with the practical challenges that communities faced in addressing poverty.

The book’s other significant contribution is to underline Gotthelf’s importance as a thinker by drawing connections between his distinctive concerns and current debates about the nature of political liberalism. Drawing upon debates between liberals and communitarians, or between liberal democrats and classical republicans, Künzler characterizes Gotthelf as a communitarian or a defender of “Christian republicanism” (christlicher Republikanismus). In doing so, he builds upon the work of previous interpreters such as Hanns Peter Holl, Hellmut Thomke, and especially Albert Tanner. In particular, Künzler effectively compares Gotthelf to the Canadian political philosopher Charles Taylor. Taylor, a Catholic who has often been labeled a communitarian, is known for his efforts to defend the ongoing importance of religious belief within liberal democracy, even in the “disenchanted” world (in Max Weber’s phrase) of late modernity. Drawing upon Hegel, Taylor emphasizes the necessity of integration into a community of shared moral norms for the development of free individual personality. The comparison to Taylor enables Künzler to describe Gotthelf as authentically modern and forward-looking – not simply, as sometimes claimed, conservative or nostalgic – and as working in a democratic tradition that emphasizes not unrestrained individualism but rather people’s need for recognition as full members of their community who contribute to its welfare and are valued in light of its shared understanding of moral goodness.

While this discussion of Gotthelf in relation to ongoing debates in moral and political philosophy is quite valuable, I have certain reservations about its framing. Debates between “liberals” and “communitarians” raged hotly in the 1980s and into the 1990s before dying out to a considerable extent. Similarly, arguments between “liberal democrats” and “classical republicans,” which went on at about the same time and were closely linked to debates about the nature of the American Founding, have also largely petered out. In my view, this is because the parties to these debates eventually discovered that they did not really disagree about fundamentals; rather, theirs was a family quarrel among liberal democrats who emphasized slightly different aspects of a broad tradition. (The “republican” label in particular has been used to characterize everyone from Aristotle to Machiavelli to Locke, raising real doubts about its usefulness.) Gotthelf is squarely in that tradition. He was engaged in a fundamental debate about the legacy of the French Revolution for liberal democracy and whether the latter must invariably be at odds with shared moral values, religious faith, and communal norms. In this debate, Burke and Tocqueville are the figures who stand closest to Gotthelf (and who, like him, elude our desire to place thinkers squarely in the “conservative” or “liberal” camp). It is true, however, that Künzler’s choice of Taylor as interlocutor may be better suited to persuading those skeptical of Gotthelf’s ongoing relevance to the current moment. Whatever my quibbles about the best way to characterize these debates, Künzler has made a major contribution to our understanding of Gotthelf as a political thinker who was grappling with issues that still concern us today.

I have more mixed reactions to his discussion of Käthi die Großmutter, which falls into two rather distinct parts. In the first, Künzler, by drawing connections between Käthi, Die Armennot, and the struggles of the Trachsenwald Anstalt, convincingly demonstrates that Käthi is a deeply political novel, speaking directly to debates among Gotthelf’s contemporaries about how communities should care for their poor inhabitants. Having always thought of Käthi as perhaps the least political of Gotthelf’s novels, I found this a tremendously helpful corrective. In the second part of his discussion, Künzler turns to the thought of William James in order to characterize Gotthelf as a mystic in Jamesian terms. I have reservations about the value of using James as a lens through which to understand Gotthelf’s religiosity. As Künzler briefly concedes (p. 576), James, unlike Gotthelf, views religion from an “externalistisch” perspective. It is not entirely clear to me, therefore, what is gained by the use of James in this context. At most, it would seem to show that Gotthelf’s positions or beliefs can be characterized as “religious” in terms of an influential classification drawn from modern social science. What one wants to know, however, is not whether Gotthelf’s views fit a certain mold of religious experience as described by external observers, but rather whether they are true, as he certainly thought they were. This is precisely the question that a pragmatist disavowal of foundations makes it impossible to ask.

All in all, Künzler’s book is an impressive contribution to Gotthelf studies, one that significantly deepens our appreciation of his continuing relevance. One regrets the book’s massive length, which may scare off readers and prompts sympathy for the poor young scholar compelled to produce such a tome in order to satisfy the demands of German-speaking academia. But those interested in the significance of Gotthelf’s philosophical and theological views for social and political life will be grateful for Künzler’s far-ranging efforts in what is one of the most important books to have been written about Gotthelf as a specifically political thinker.

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