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7 JUL/14
“Kierkegaard, Marx, and Nietzsche are for us like guideposts to a past which has lost its significance.”
--Hannah Arendt, “Tradition and the Modern Age”
The general outlines of the Google Books project are simple in principle and stunning in size. Collaborating with major libraries around the globe, Google has undertaken to scan all known existing books and to make them accessible to the electronically connected public. Started a decade ago in 2004, Google has already digitized roughly a quarter of the estimated 130 million books available worldwide. The completion of the collection is scheduled for 2020.
I know that a lot of fellow historians and cultural and literary critics are utterly excited about the ease that Google Books lends to their research. I myself have used Google’s digital archive repeatedly. Thanks to Google Books, the research for a footnote on the European administrative literature regarding the remuneration of tower guards around the time of the French Revolution, for instance, took me no longer than 45 minutes. In even less time, I could have shown that the usage of the German word for “tower guard” (Türmer) spikes around the threshold of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—or so Google’s ‘Ngram Viewer,’ which indicates the frequency of any given word in books from any given span of time, tells me.

(Google’s Ngram Viewer: Here showing the frequency of the word “Türmer” (tower guard) in German books between 1750 and 1850.)
But such facile historical work, which can draw on a hitherto unexplored breadth of past knowledge, remains essentially idle unless we have a good notion of the status of the past for our present reality. Ironically, the current lack of such a notion is in large part due to the very company that created the online library. Google helps us to bring the analog past closer to us than any past has ever been to any previous generation, but the very technology that makes this preservation possible sets us forever apart from our past. Ever since the arrival of Google and the digital revolution that it helped shape, we no longer read, think, or remember the same way we did before. If we want to make good use of Google’s digital library—and why not profit from such a gigantic archive?—we have to confront the question of how to relate to a tradition of past knowledge that is out of touch with our present reality.
If there is a text from before the days of the Internet that can contribute something to this question, it is Hannah Arendt’s farsighted 1961 essay “Tradition and the Modern Age.” Instead of trying to safeguard any single concept or thought from our philosophical tradition between Plato and Marx, Arendt encourages us in her essay to look at the founding and dissolving moments of this tradition as models of thinking—of the willingness to turn around the existing conceptual hierarchies and to break with previous intellectual authorities. What Arendt aims to make us see in the tradition are its repeated moments of inner revolution. It is this testified lineage of radical thinking that is still relevant to a world that has forever turned away from all and any concrete content of the tradition.

In her recapitulation of the historical process in which the philosophical tradition since Plato has lost its hold on the present, Arendt focuses first on a series of nineteenth century thinkers—Kierkegaard, Marx, and Nietzsche. These thinkers recognized that the modern world, which had been shaped by the industrial, political, and scientific revolutions, needed a new philosophy. They were frustrated to see a meaningless philosophical tradition survive as the fetish of an educated bourgeoisie that valued philosophical education purely as a marker of social distinction and not because it had anything to say about the contemporary world.
Arendt goes on to show how in the twentieth century both the bourgeoisie’s philistinism and the avant-garde’s upheaval against tradition ceased to exist. The totalitarian regimes that Arendt saw rise in her lifetime made the break between history and the inadequateness of the traditional theoretical language so strikingly clear that neither the philistines’ preservation of tradition nor the direct reversal of the tradition that was the project of the nineteenth century avant-garde seemed possible any longer. To most of her contemporaries, Arendt claims, traditional culture simply appeared “like a field of ruins which, far from being able to claim any authority, [could] hardly command their interest.”
What may have seemed a prophetic exaggeration in the still fairly conservative climate of the late 1950s and early 1960s has by now certainly become a reality. It is indicative of this final loss of tradition, for instance, that no national literature department at any European or American university would even attempt to justify its existence with appeal to the conservation of the cultural heritage. Such appeal to our tradition survives today only in the domain of commercial beer brewers and whiskey distillers. What the historical rupture of the totalitarian regimes hasn’t accomplished, the globalization and digitization of our existence has. Globalization has made evident the inadequacy of our nationally biased canons of learnedness without yet supplying us with a new global canon. The digital revolution with its introduction of search engines, hyperlinks, and social networking has changed our habits of reading and communicating so drastically that already the mere form of most of our traditional education—novels, plays, and philosophical treatises—has become fundamentally foreign to us.
Instead of mourning this loss of relevance of the past, however, Arendt invites us to see in it “the great chance to look upon the past with eyes undistracted by any tradition, with a directness which has disappeared from Occidental reading and hearing ever since Roman civilization submitted to the authority of Greek thought.” After two thousand years of submission to the dictate of tradition, tradition has finally lost its last significance, and we are free to look at the past with great equanimity and intellectual freedom.
The question that remains, however, is why we should look at our past at all? Why should we care to engage in a past whose primary concepts seem to convey no meaning to contemporary reality and whose knowledge is no longer considered a value or accomplishment? We may now have the ability to look at the past untinged by any false belief in its authority, but this untinged gaze resembles very much the blank stare of the uninitiated museumgoer in front of some abstract piece of modern art. We just don’t know what it means and why we should care.
To show why and how it might still be worthwhile to look at an eminently obsolete tradition, Arendt turns once more to the upheaval against the tradition by the nineteenth century avant-garde. I cannot do justice here to the details of Arendt’s learned analysis of the ways in which Marx overturned the classical philosophical prevalence of theory over action, Nietzsche questioned the Platonic authority of the mental over the sensual, and Kierkegaard reversed the established relationship between reason and faith. But what’s important to understand in Arendt’s argument is that Kierkegaard’s, Marx’s, and Nietzsche’s upheavals against the tradition remained essentially bound to the very tradition they sought to overthrow. Not only did their negation of the tradition still rely on the old philosophical vocabulary, but, more importantly, the very gesture of upheaval was itself inherited from the tradition. What Kierkegaard, Marx, and Nietzsche undertook would have been impossible without Plato’s original “turning-about” that founded philosophy: the turning-about of those men of the cave who dared to abandon the shadow play projected on the walls and to look instead at the real things. This gesture of upheaval and turning-about, Arendt claims, founded our tradition, but it was subsequently forgotten in the centuries that mindlessly deferred to the authority of Plato and Co. Only at the point when this tradition saw its end in the nineteenth century was it possible to disclose the tradition’s revolutionary beginnings once more.

Kierkegaard, Marx, and Nietzsche stimulate our appreciation of the tradition, not because they attest to the relevance of any traditional concept or thought, but because they orient us towards the tradition’s original chutzpa. Without falling prey to the temptation to assign any false meaningfulness to an obsolete past, Arendt invites us in her essay “Tradition and the Modern Age” to appreciate with Kierkegaard, Marx, and Nietzsche the audacity of traditional thinking.
It is a sentiment as trivial as it is accurate that the world is changing at a fast pace and that most traditional theories are annoyingly out of touch with our contemporary concerns. To claim anything else would be philistinism. The unfiltered masses of past learning that Google Books is now making widely accessible can only help to increase our felt distance from the past. What still remains relevant from this past for us today, however, and what makes the digitization of our cultural heritage worthwhile are the upheavals and new beginnings that mark the best moments of our tradition. What we should look out for when we are browsing the archive of Google Books is no single thought, but, instead, the willingness to think.
--Martin Wagner

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