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Q&A with Stanford Humanities Center fellow Brent Sockness


Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923)

Brent Sockness is an associate professor of religious studies at Stanford. As a current fellow at the Humanities Center, he is completing a book about the ethical thought of the German Protestant theologian Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923).  His teaching and research focus on the philosophy of religion and intellectual history of Christianity in the modern period. 

Troeltsch was a pioneering historian of religion, theorist of modernity, sociologist of religion, and philosopher of history. Sockness’ book Ethics in History: Ernst Troeltsch's Moral Theory  will be the first full-scale critical study of Troeltsch's outlines for a system of ethics.

Sockness is also the author of Against False Apologetics: Wilhelm Herrmann and Ernst Troeltsch in Conflict and co-editor with Wilhelm Gräb of Schleiermacher, the Study of Religion, and the Future of Theology.

He recently answered some questions about his work.

Q. What is the focus of your current research?

My research at the Humanities Center is focused on the ethical theory of Ernst Troeltsch, a leading Protestant theologian active in Heidelberg and Berlin exactly one hundred years ago. Troeltsch is widely regarded as a classic figure both in the history of modern Christian theology and in the nascent “scientific” or academic study of religion that, in English-speaking countries, now bears the misleading name of “Religious Studies.” I say misleading because the adjective suggests that scholars in the field are somehow in possession of special tools or methods—or perhaps certain “spiritual” qualifications—deemed necessary for understanding the phenomena we associate with religion. 

Troeltsch was, to be sure, a religious person in his own quasi-mystical and latitudinarian way, and he defended a manner of being Christian in the modern world that drew its energy and symbolism from the tradition. Yet he didn’t think being religious committed one to magical thinking, or that theology as critical and normative reflection on the Christian religion could exempt itself from the methods and standards of the natural, historical, and social sciences that trace their origins to the European Enlightenment. Germany was an academic powerhouse in Troeltsch’s day, and theology had for centuries been ensconced in the German university as one of its three “higher faculties.”

Internationally recognized for his learned diagnoses of the fate of religion in the modern world, Troeltsch embraced the modern sciences, developed a sophisticated grasp of their logical principles, and regarded the only Christian theology worth pursuing to be a “profane” and complex field of inquiry drawing upon the history of religions, the intellectual and cultural history of Western civilization, the psychology and epistemology of religious experience, sociology, metaphysics, the philosophy of history, and—the specific focus of my project—ethics. So he was something of a polymath. His favorite colleagues tended to be sociologists and political economists; his family shared a house with Max and Marianne Weber near the Alte Brücke in Heidelberg.

Q. What drew you to Troeltsch's ethics?

Puzzlement mostly. I teach courses in European religious thought from the 18th through the 20th century, and I know a fair amount about Immanuel Kant’s and Friedrich Schleiermacher’s ethics. These two pivotal thinkers turn out to be the twin lodestars of Troeltsch’s own effort to construct a system of ethics that could serve as a framework for his work in the philosophy of religion and Christian theology. Kant (1724-1804) is of course well known, and his ethics still defines one of the major alternatives in moral philosophy today. Schleiermacher (1768-1834) is mainly remembered for his hermeneutics (theory of interpretation), but, in the history of modern European religious thought, he enjoys a stature equal to Kant’s. Dubbed the “father of modern theology,” he exercised an exceptional influence on European conceptions of religion in the 19th century.

Troeltsch sought in his ethics to combine central features of both of these thinkers’ moral philosophies. The problem is—and herein resides my puzzlement—their two accounts of the moral life are not easy to reconcile. Schleiermacher’s philosophy as a whole resembles Schelling’s and Hegel’s speculative systems more than Kant’s critical idealism, and his “doctrine of goods” was developed in conscious opposition to Kant’s (and Fichte’s) ethics of duty. Troeltsch knew this, but nonetheless developed what I’m inclined to call a Neo-idealist and Personalist ethical theory that strove to do justice both to Kant’s insight into the a priori nature of moral obligation and to Schleiermacher’s emphasis on basic social goods created by embodied reason—human being—in history.

Troeltsch attempted this synthesis in large part, I think, because his intellectual situation required a moral theory that could at once make sense of our uniquely human experience of normativity and acknowledge the particularity and plurality of human goods and values as they emerge in different cultures and change over time. By his intellectual situation, I mean the encroachment of various forms of philosophical naturalism, on the one hand, and the so-called crisis of historicism then plaguing German culture, on the other.  By normativity, I mean the idea that there really are things that humans (animals uniquely endowed with Vernunft, nous, Geist) ought to do or forego, and the reasons for this are not reducible to natural satisfactions or eudaemonic considerations. Troeltsch was a deeply historical thinker who insisted that history is no place for absolutes. Yet he also argued that a “conceptually secured and clarified ethics” could “dam and shape” the turbulent “stream of history.”

Q. Why is it valuable to study Troeltsch?

It’s valuable in the world of Troeltsch scholarship because there is but one thin and tendentious German monograph from 1932 that concentrates on Troeltsch’s ethical thought. This is somewhat surprising because, as I’ve indicated, Troeltsch regarded ethics (and its close neighbor, the philosophy of history) as the foundational science for the academic study of religion generally. It is also surprising because his reputation outside of Germany is based on his magisterial cultural history of Christian ethical and social thought entitled The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches and Groups (1912). This thousand-page classic was translated into English in 1931 and for decades employed as a textbook at mainline seminaries and divinity schools in the U.S. Oddly, no one in the Anglophone world has really dug into Troeltsch’s constructive thought about ethics, viz., the various outlines of a system of ethics on which Troeltsch periodically lectured and wrote throughout his career.

I think the topic is valuable more generally because, however one judges the success of Troeltsch’s solution to the problem of Ethics in History (the working title of my book), the shrewdness and unflinching honesty with which he pursued the question are instructive, even inspiring. Presentism is alive and well on the Farm: a nearly messianic zeal for technocratic solutions to human problems comingles with the widespread and naive assumption that someone working a century ago must have had moral or political clay feet. Here in the Silicon Valley, even “death . . . the last enemy” is an engineering problem, and the past is often regarded as a bundle of benighted “isms.” We owe our students the opportunity to engage thinkers like Troeltsch at a high level—which means teaching them how to think with figures from the past carefully enough for their criticisms to actually hit their mark. Troeltsch would be the first to remind us that there is an unexamined philosophy of history lying behind the notion that our age is morally, intellectually, and politically superior to previous eras simply by virtue of its coming last. Creating opportunities for students to wrestle with seminal ideas—regardless of what continent or century they come from—is not all that the humanities are about, but it certainly belongs to their core. This was once “selbstverständlich.”

Q. How do you conduct your research?

The old-fashioned way. I pore over books, articles, student lecture notes, book reviews, speeches, letters, etc. in order to reconstruct just a) what Troeltsch took morality to be (no simple question!), b) why he believed his ethical theory could do justice to the complexity of what he called “ethical consciousness,” and c) what he took religion’s—especially Christianity’s—distinctive contribution to the moral life to be. I’m particularly interested in the quality of the reasons he gave for his theoretical choices, which is to say I’m actually interested in the substance of his position and the justifications he gave for it. Does the theory have any legs? What can we learn from it? Contextualizing his thought is, of course, indispensable for understanding it, and I spend a lot of time reading and learning about his interlocutors. My source base is quite large; there is plenty to do.

On this score, I’ve been helped tremendously by the fact that German colleagues in Munich and elsewhere have been working for roughly two decades on a 25-volume Critical Edition of Troeltsch’s oeuvre sponsored by the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The project, led by the world’s leading authority on Troeltsch, Friedrich Wilhelm Graf, is nearing completion. In addition to this meticulously edited comprehensive edition, an extensive secondary literature has grown up around Troeltsch since roughly the 1970s. There is even a series, Troeltsch-Studien, and a scholarly society, the Ernst-Troeltsch-Gesellschaft, devoted to specialized research. To be sure, Troeltsch is not a household name, but my interests in him are hardly unique or esoteric.

Q. What would people be surprised to learn about the topic you are working on?

That it almost surely influenced President Obama’s foreign policy. For a decade, much has been made in the press of Obama’s admiration for the American pastor and public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. If you listen carefully to Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, it has Niebuhr written all over it. I’ve become convinced that Niebuhr’s so-called Christian Realism was in many ways a creative translation of Troeltsch’s ethics out of its “wissenschaftlich” (and deeply German Idealistic) idiom and into a more Biblical and homiletic register congenial to a mid-20th-century American audience. Niebuhr was born into a German-speaking immigrant household in Missouri and educated at Yale at the height of Troeltsch’s fame. The young Niebuhr surely would have encountered Troeltsch in the original German, for at that time only one of Troeltsch’s books had been translated into English. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to myself, “Damn, Niebuhr got that from Troeltsch, too!”