The limits of Nation and State: Between Rosenzweig and Hegel

Sandra Lehmann

Abstract: The article in a critical manner deals with the New Thinking that the German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig develops in his opus magnum The Star of Redemption. Rosenzweig attempts to give philosophical thought a new fundament that primarily is not rational, but informed by the ways in which man is related to being (i.e. as a corporeal “creature” and via language). The main critical claim of this article is that in so doing Rosenzweig establishes a risky proximity to German neo-romantic, even “volkish” thought whenever he reflects on the political respectively on the possibilities of human praxis in general. The article exemplifies this in drawing on Rosenzweig’s dealing with Hegel’s philosophy of state that Rosenzweig understood as the culmination of the traditional rational type of philosophy.


It seems quite in accordance with Franz Rosenzweig’s notion that post-idealist philosophy could not be separated from the living circumstances of its author when in the following I regard Rosenzweig’s main theoretical work, The Star of Redemption, as a sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious reflection of the historical setup in which Rosenzweig found himself situated. A conscious reflection the Star presents in its basic intentions, namely where it tries to answer what Rosenzweig regarded as crucial questions of his time in general and of his own personal being as an assimilated middle-class German Jew during the years around World War I in particular. As not uncommon for the German-Jewish intelligentsia of his generation Rosenzweig sees both questions intertwined. For Rosenzweig the general identity crisis of the German bourgeois culture recognized by him has an implicit affect on the assimilated German-Jewish bourgeois culture for which the mainstream of German bourgeois culture since the times of enlightenment and enlightened universalistic approach forms the common denominator. Thus and still speaking with Rosenzweig, while German bourgeois culture breaks apart and forms a mere conglomerate of particular world views the assimilated German-Jewish bourgeois culture loses its historical right. Retrospectively it discloses itself to have always been build upon a delusive ground, namely on the presupposition that the Jew could fully participate on German culture, because this culture had a deeper than national, i.e. a cosmopolitan fundament. Rosenzweig’s “New Thinking” strives to replace the delusive ground of the shattered bourgeois past by a new foundation. This new foundation is meant to establish what out of Rosenzweig’s perspective the whole philosophical, as “idealist” identified tradition supposedly tried to blank out. The new foundation is to give an account of the existential and god-related character of the human being in the world. Philosophical thought thus becomes imbedded in a theological horizon by which’s formation Rosenzweig reverts to main contents of Jewish and Christian teachings. In so doing Rosenzweig believes to contribute to the rise of a new and truly human law of life.

            It comes with no surprise that also in Rosenzweig’s case what remains unconscious affects the consciously projected and in so doing deranges, even disorients it. Thus the fact that the Star of Redemption reflects upon Rosenzweig’s historical situation in an unconscious manner makes its whole enterprise highly problematic. Unconscious the reflection is whenever Rosenzweig adopts certain images and thought-patterns of his time without surveying them in a critical manner. This is the case in two respects. On the one hand Rosenzweig obviously shares certain moments of the world view of his own social background, i.e. of the assimilated German-Jewish bourgeoisie whose cultural fundament the “New Thinking” is actually supposed to disintegrate. Signs for Rosenzweig’s German educated middle-class attitude reach from the somewhat floral, at the same time ponderous style in which the Star is written, to the fact that his philosophical discussions are clearly set in the context of German thought, and eventually to his high estimation of Goethe whose literature and person play a prominent role in the Star.

            On the other hand and in contrast to his middle-class tastes Rosenzweig unconsidered tends to the anti-liberal mindset typical for the spirit of his time whenever his thought touches the realm of the political. It is therefore not by chance that – as mentioned above – he assigns the failure of the living together of Jews and Germans in bourgeois German society to the fundament of enlightened rational spirit shared by them and not to a much more plausible fact, namely to the German national sentiment that in the decades after the Napoleonic Wars noticeably gained ground in German society. In the following I will try to elaborate the assumption that Rosenzweig could not see the disrupting function of German Romantic nationalism, because at least where he had to deal with questions concerning political respectively meta-political entities he himself remained in the stream of German Romantic thought. The concept of the "national people" or to be more precise, of "Volk" had therefore to remain dear to him.[1] This fact also seems but only to well to correspond to the neo-Romantic, anti-enlightenment stand Rosenzweig takes in formulating an existential, pre-rational fundament of experience. There is something to this point. On the other hand it has to be noted that the liaison between such existential type of thought and a political philosophy that operates with naturalistic, organic terms is not at all necessary. In fact, agreeing to this liaison with blind eyes Rosenzweig gives away what the intended radicalism of his approach may allow, namely – and I can only make this point here without being able to further elaborate on it – a political philosophy that works less authoritative, i.e. that is less oriented towards the great political and historical entities and subordinates the collective to the particular human beings by which it is formed and sometimes even transcended.

            Rosenzweig's reflections on the political sphere have a central adversary who can be easily identified, and that is the later Hegel, author of the Philosophy of Right and theLectures on the Philosophy of History. The reason why Rosenzweig sets himself into opposition to Hegel is already given in Rosenzweig's voluminous study on Hegel and the State that he had virtually finished just before the breakout of World War I. Already there Hegel had been presented as a leading intellectual figure whose political philosophy continued to resound in the first unified German national state, i.e. in the German Empire. However, in Hegel and the State Rosenzweig, then being a German cultural liberal, had still hoped that a reflection on the emancipatory elements in Hegel's political thought could bring a new cosmopolitanism to a German society experienced as somewhat narrow. In contrast, the later Rosenzweig distances himself from Hegelian thought regarding it now to be as bankrupt as the German post-war society with which he had desisted to identify. Nevertheless, at least on the level of political philosophy this taking-distance from Hegelian thought is not as radical as one might expect from a thinker who claims to totally break with idealist philosophy. Instead of directly confronting Hegelian political thought Rosenzweig encapsulates it in his own system. Main categories of Hegel's political philosophy are not questioned as such. They are imbedded in a whole where they indeed have validity, if but only of a limited kind. Such Rosenzweig recognizes the historical “notion of election (that) occurred to the individual peoples"[2] (SoR 330), he acknowledges that right plays a constitutive role in the organization of nations (s. SoR 332/333), and not unlike Hegel he states: “Thus there is no universal history without the state" (SoR 334). To understand the background of these statements one has to take a short look on the philosophical conception Rosenzweig tries to establish in the Star of Redemption.

            The concern of Rosenzweig’s Star is still in accordance with the great idealist systems. Like them Rosenzweig strives to give a concise account of the entire being. In regard of his theoretical presuppositions, however, he significantly distinguishes himself from idealist systematic philosophy. While the latter follows a concept of truth that assumes the primate of conceptual thought, Rosenzweig applies an existential concept of truth. According to this existential concept, truth takes place in the equal relation of man (or self), world (or objective being), and God (or perfect being). Truth is therefore no longer to be reduced to a logic matrix, be it anthropologically, cosmologically or theologically interpreted, but is the event of the ongoing meaningful process in which man and world are connected and at the same time directed towards the possible perfection of their very beings. In fact, given that process the whole of being has to be structured according to the three ways in which man, world, and God may correlate with each other. These three ways address the three aspects of the truth of being, namely that being has a creaturely character in the relation between God and world, a revelatory character in the relation between God and man, and a redemptive character in the relation of man and world. To translate these notions applied by Rosenzweig: The creaturely character of being adverts to the world as the always already present sphere of endlessly arising and decaying entities. The revelatory character alludes to man’s ability of language allowing him to give an account of the world and himself. Last the redemptive character bears on a teleological moment inherent in all beings, a strife for total individual perfection that yet can not be fulfilled in finite temporality, but only in a state of being beyond finite time that is upon God. The redemptive character of being is reflected in the ethical character of man who is to act according to still coming perfection.

            Dealing with the question of Rosenzweig’s political philosophy it is most important to see that Rosenzweig assigns the whole political sphere, including the political entities mentioned above (nations, right, state), to the realm of creation. To give a longer quote from the Star: “The kingdom of the world, articulated within itself, which grows in itself according to a law of its own; the course of history which pushes on within itself; the life of nations which is encased in a tough armor of law and public order – all this is creative basis" (SoR 241). Defined in this manner the political gets a nature-like character. Like all other natural appearances the political entities are to be understood as certain temporal appearances that in evolving try to withstand their own decay, such being qualified by what Rosenzweig terms “life”. The notion of election of the nations or more precisely, of the modern national-states, a thought by which they ascribe to themselves eternal meaning, reflects on the death withstanding life-character of the political entities. It rests on a natural fact which in addition is informed by the Christian revelation that man has become God, i.e. that all human may have an active redemptive character. However, since according to Rosenzweig redemption takes place beyond time, i.e. is time-transcendent, while the political as creaturely is bound to finite world-time, no worldly nation or state can be the true messianic agent of redemption. Instead, charged with Christian teleological meaning each national-state can only set a caesura in time that directs to the end of time, but is always again overcome by time. In setting the caesura the national-state indeed is constitutive for world-history as quoted above. Yet world-history is not identical with the whole of history that in fact has an eternal dimension, i.e. is fulfilled not until the state of perfection beyond time is reached. Following Rosenzweig it is the deficiency of Hegelian political thought that out of its idealist presuppositions it is unable to have a notion of transcendent reconciliation. Therefore certain Hegelian analyses of the political sphere may be coherent and as such can be incorporated into Rosenzweig’s own system. Still, because Hegel assumes the indeed dynamic, but transcendence-less identity of being and absolute spirit he can not but claim the absolute status of world-history whereby all entities recognized to be essential world-historical elements are also charged with absolute meaning. As Rosenzweig wants to show the Hegelian making-absolute of the political at least in regard of the human life-order is misguiding. In highlighting what actually is only part of man’s natural condition it misses that very moment of man’s being that really has absolute content, i.e. man’s ethical character that admittedly lies beyond the political sphere.

            At this point it is necessary to reflect on the so far reached constellation between the political that is supposedly constitutive for world-history, and the ethical. Said constellation may be developed into two directions, in the direction of a dichotomy between politicized history and ethics on the one hand, and in the direction of a cautious re-combination of both on the other hand. Following the first direction one can stress the picture Rosenzweig has drawn of creaturely politicized history to the limit and give it a quite dark notion that Rosenzweig might not have intended, but at least had allowed for. According to this notion all politics we know so far and all history formed by politics appears to be nothing but a hopelessly violent process of never overcome aggression and destruction that is lead by egoist interests. Conditioned such, politicized history reveals itself to be only the intelligent variation of a nature that is conditioned not less violent and merciless, a permanent struggle of self-affertive, still in the end perishing forms. From this brutal realm of never overcome nature the ethical stands apart and forms an own realm. This realm has no common ground with the historical-political world whatsoever. Still, it takes place in it, enabling man to at least withstand his own violent tendencies and in so doing to emancipate himself from his own being.

            The second direction mentioned is not least a reaction to the dark dichotomic notion just designated. A thinking engaged in the second direction would have to state that the dichotomic notion tends unknowingly to relativize the ethical. Also the ethical can only be if it is acted out. Since action has to take place in the political-historical world it would have inevitably to be distorted by the dark world’s violent nature. However, the ethical with its unconditional imperative that “the Good has to be” is not to be relativized. To preserve the ethical in its full meaning it is therefore necessary to assume that the political-historical world is not as dark as pictured above, but allows the possibility of the ethical in an unrelativized sense, even if the political-historical process seems far apart from the Good. There have to be manifestations of the Good in the world, not out of nothing, but out of the world itself.

            In the given frame it is not possible to discuss the just mentioned two-directed constellation between the political-historical and the ethical in detail though in my opinion such discussion would be doubtlessly helpful to evaluate certain claims of current political thought. Here it just remains to be seen how Rosenzweig reacts on said constellation that in fact plays a decisive role in his philosophical approach. Rosenzweig opts for the second direction, and in my judgment he is right in so doing, keeping thereby the possibility for the ethical alive. However, the way in which Rosenzweig attempts to conceptualize the second direction seems quite insufficient to say the least. As mentioned at the beginning with such conceptualization he falls below his own claims and to the irrational neo-Romantic spirit of his time that he unconsciously reflects.

            Rosenzweig looks for a manifestation of the ethical that has its ground in the world and finds it in the Jewish people. It has to be noted here that out of Rosenzweig’s basic out-line of the ethical there exists no need to do so. The decision to identify the Jewish people as the true ethical agent is out of a stringent philosophical perspective a result of mere prejudices, namely first of the religious prejudice that there has been a historical revelation by which God raised the Jewish people beyond history so that their way of life would already reflect the redemptive being in God; and second, the conceptual prejudice that in fact gives space to the religious prejudice, i.e. the notion that the historical process, be it world-historical or meta-historical, has to rest on a national entity. In so doing Rosenzweig shares the national prejudice of the mainstream of German 19th century-thought, including Hegel. However, while Hegel connects the national function to the basic freedom of spirit that supposedly manifests itself in national organizations, Rosenzweig, denying the identity of spirit and being, has to apply another fundament, namely the natural ground of creation that according to his system is directed to transcendent fulfillment, but can not assemble it by its own means. What springs forth from these self-imposed systematic constraints is a mythology of the Jewish blood that for today’s ears sounds indeed eerie. Like all creaturely beings the Jewish people, i.e. the Jewish Volk, is rooted in the "community of blood" ("Blutsgemeinschaft") (SoR 241). Yet the Jewish community of blood is special. It is that very community of blood that "feels the warrant of eternity warm in its veins even now" (SoR 299). This special quality of the Jewish blood allows for the special messianic stand of the Jewish Volk. The Jewish Volk is not a nation like other nations, mainly it is not a historical nation for in the historical world it lacks – as Rosenzweig recounts following the categories of political Romanticism – an own territory, an own language and own custom and laws (s. SoR III, 1). Still, it is a nation, a nation by only natural means, namely a nation only by blood.[3] Precisely in so doing it reflects its transcendent meta-historical call.

            In his study Germans and Jews – The Right, the Left, and the Search for a “Third Force” in Pre-Nazi Germany George L. Mosse discusses in how far certain thought-patterns of certain German-Jewish intellectuals show parallels to German neo-Romantic Volkish thought. Mosse’s study mainly focuses on Buber and Landauer, but as seen he could have added Rosenzweig as well.[4] To be sure, it is not the place here to make moral judgments that are informed by catastrophic historical events these thinkers could not have foreseen. On the level of intellectual judgment, however, one might state that the replacement of the rational cosmopolitan fundament of enlightenment by a system that allows vitalist interpretations and evaluations of political and historical entities is no option. It is no option though the question that called such type of thought as the one of Rosenzweig into life, the question of an anthropology that places man beyond a world of anonym objective processes he can not control, seems still relevant. The more said type of thought needs a critical reconsideration.





Avineri, Shlomo: Rosenzweig's Hegel Interpretation: Its Relationship to the Development of his Jewish Reawakening, in: Wolfdietrich Schmied-Kowarzik (ed.), Der Philosoph Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), Vol. II, Das neue Denken und seine Dimensionen, Alber Verlag, Freiburg-München 1988, p. 831-838.


Battegay, Caspar: Kritik des reinen Lebens – Erkundungen zum „Blut“ in Franz Rosenzweigs „Stern der Erlösung“ , in: Yehoyada Amir, Yossi Schwartz (ed.),Proceedings of the International Conference on the Philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig Jerusalem 2006, forthcoming 2008-2009.     


Mosse, George L.: Germans and Jews – The Right, the Left, and the Search for a "Third Force" in Pre-Nazi Germany, Howard Fertig Publisher, New York 1970.


Moses, Stephane: Politik und Religion. Zur Aktualität Franz Rosenzweigs, in: Wolfdietrich Schmied-Kowarzik (ed.), Der Philosoph Franz Rosenzweig, - " -, p. 855-876.


Pöggeler, Otto: Rosenzweig und Hegel, in: Wolfdietrich Schmied-Kowarzik (ed.), Der Philosoph Franz Rosenzweig, - " -, p. 839-854.


Rosenzweig, Franz: The Star of Redemption, transl. by William W. Hallo, Publisher Holt, Reinhart, Winston, New York-Chicago-San Francisco 1970.


- " -: Hegel und der Staat, Oldenbourg Verlag, Berlin/München 1920 (1st edition), Scientia Verlag, Aalen 1982 (2nd edition, reprint).


[1] In German the term "Volk" oscillates between a political and an ethnic meaning, and might be translated either as "people" or as "nation". In German Romantic thought the ethnic meaning of "Volk" becomes the fundament of political considerations which goes together with a metaphysical charging of the term. The (German) Volk is regarded as the mediator of a new authentic relation to the entire cosmos. In what follows I choose to translate "Volk" sometimes as "people", sometimes as "nation", depending on whether I wanted to keep the term more neutral ("people") or to underline its Romantic use by Rosenzweig ("nation").


[2] Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, transl. by William W. Hallo, New York-Chicago-San Francisco 1970. I refer to each passage quoted from the Star in the running text, using thereby the abbreviation SoR.


[3] In his essay Kritik des reinen Lebens – Erkundungen zum „Blut“ in Franz Rosenzweigs „Stern der Erlösung“ Caspar Battegay shows with Giorgio Agamben that Rosenzweig’s separation of the Jewish nation from the political sphere via the special character of its blood tragically responds to the later Nazi-ideology that declared Jewish life to be totally de-politisized „bare life“ and therefore an object of annihilation beyond any moral constraints. S. Caspar Battegay, Kritik des reinen Lebens – Erkundungen zum „Blut“ in Franz Rosenzweigs „Stern der Erlösung“ , in: Yehoyada Amir, Yossi Schwartz (ed.),Proceedings of the International Conference on the Philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig Jerusalem 2006, forthcoming 2008-2009.


[4] I thank Lutz Fiedler (Jerusalem/Leipzig) for further insights in the field of German-Jewish neo-Romantic thought and beyond it.

About the Author :
Sandra Lehmann, Ph. D., was born 1974 in Germany. She studied Philosophy and Religious Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin (1994-96) and at the Vienna University (1996-2002). Currently, she is a holder of the APART-Scholarship of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and works on the problem of reality in modern philosophical discourse.

Germania, September 2009