The term ‘collapsed house of bourgeois ideas’ was coined by the between-the-wars German writer Siegfried Kracauer and suggests some alarming parallels between the current chaos in the United States — the storming of the Capitol by a violent mob — and Weimar Germany.
In my latest book, Street Life and Morals German Philosophy in the Lifetime of Hitler I’ve been considering what German philosphers made of the crisis they lived through a hundred years ago.
German philosophy, and even more German philosophers, have often been maligned for seemingly keeping themselves aloof from the facts of Hitler’s rise to power.
In fact they were debating for almost all of Hitler’s lifetime the changes in society which made his tyranny possible, and, as commentators now debate how US society has fractured, the same question arose then as now: how do we understand each other.
The neo-Kantians of the last third of the nineteenth century and into the 1900s and 1910s tried to refocus the task of philosophy, in the light of actual human disorientation and despair. Hermann Cohen suggested philosophy had to think about the relationship between ‘I’ and ‘You’, a theme soon to be made famous by fellow German Jewish thinkers Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber.
In Street Life and Morals (Reaktion Books, autumn 2021) I show how, as Hitler neared power, German philosophy kept asking on what grounds – metaphysical, empirical, sociological, anthropological – we can understand each other. This is not to let German philosophers off the hook so much as to wonder why we ever expected them to take direct political action. Their work was to understand – and show us how to discuss — the forces that were tearing Germany apart. I’m sure they can help us think about our own ‘collapsed house of bourgeois ideas’ today.
The neo-Kantians refused to give up the traditional metaphysical idea of one human nature furnishing the conditions of universal understanding. They rejected the Marxist view that all human relations were governed by class solidarity or antagonism. But as they looked for new arguments they realized almost against themselves that philosophy must turn its gaze from the ideal to the real. It had to become more bodied and forgiving, and one way to do that might be to explore its borders with the then newish sciences of sociology and psychology.
Edmund Husserl, born in 1859, was an old man in the last years of his career when this crisis struck. Phenomenology, his very modern inquiry into the subjective perspective on life, explored how we are all obsessed with our perspective. Can we get beyond it? Is there something universal? It was a salient worry in a society where individual identities had become fragmented and mutually unintelligible.
Husserl concentrated on the stream of experience coming the way of each of us, and argued that, taken together, that experience constitutes what is objective and shared. He still believed in transcendental reason to hold humanity together. But it was his intermediate thinking about ‘I’ and ‘You’ that mattered. His subjects of experience tended to show themselves also as ‘bare lives’, as they tried to make sense of the world’s impact on those lives. After the war, ‘bare lives’ and ‘communication’ would become great themes in a transformed German philosophy.
Husserl shifted, in Hitler’s lifetime, away from a demanding theory of knowledge towards ‘a sociological transcendental philosophy’. He said he wanted to focus on the question of ‘intersubjectivity’. Philosophy should describe the Lifeworld (Lebenswelt) that we constitute collectively as ours. Each human being as an ‘ego-subject’ is in a relation of empathy with other human beings.
But what really was this empathy? Husserl claimed, in common with all the neo-Kantians opposed to ‘biologism’, that the natural scientist’s approach to the human being just couldn’t grasp intersubjectivity. Positivism and naturalism only dealt with a plurality of human beings and couldn’t say how meaningful humanity arose. It was up to philosophy to account for how I and Thou, I and It, interact.
Husserl’s writing has always struck me as opaque in its theory, but if I am understanding him aright, I have my subjectivity and you have yours and because of our mutual conviction that there is a world we share, together we make what we can of what we are given, within the horizons of our age. From there it becomes possible to broach a moral philosophy of solidarity based on how we co-manage our search for knowledge and self-knowledge. ‘To engage with meaning is to engage with one’s own possibilities. And yet not ultimately to speak for oneself but to become the subject of a kind of universal reflection, one that shapes a common world horizon.’ 
Husserl initiated a liberal philosophy of shared projects. He spoke in the early 1930s of all ‘the many practical hypotheses and projects which make up the life of human beings in this life-world…all goals, whether they are “practical” in some other, extra-scientific sense or are “practical” under the title of theory, belong eo ipso to the unity of the life-world.’ 
Here was an approach to communality that still has life in it almost a century on. It took a different approach to what, with Wittgenstein and his interpreters Norman Malcolm and Gilbert Ryle, analytical philosophers were beginning to call the problem of other minds. It looked at empathy rather than language as the foundation of social cohesion. In the political emergency that engulfed Husserl’s last years – he died, a Jew banned from using the university library or delivering a public lecture, in 1938 –his late work addressed how philosophy, and a free society, could defend the humanist integrity at their heart.
He found that German high culture, traditionally so tightly focused on the self-reflective moral subject, had nevertheless embraced forms of social solidarity: ‘[Geist] encompasse[d] human cultural achievements, understood as the products of collective human conscious or mental activity (including the regions of art, religion, politics, culture, and everything included within the human sciences or Geisteswissenschaften).’ The crisis of the 1930s filled him with horror. ‘Scepticism about the possibility of metaphysics, the collapse of the belief in a universal philosophy as the guide for the new man, actually represents a collapse of the belief in “reason,” understood as the ancients opposed episteme to doxa… If man loses this faith, it means nothing less that the loss of faith “in himself”, in his own true being.’ These quotations come from The Crisis of European Sciences.
As he wrote and delivered these lectures, between 1933-36, the chaotic German political situation seemed itself to stem from the fact that ‘all questions vaguely termed “ultimate and highest” [have been] dropped.’
Husserl’s was a grand project, if one that would always seem, to politically minded critics later in the century, tied to a humanist establishment. One exasperated reviewer wrote in 1933 that still ‘it was so incurably introverted that it is completely impossible for it to understand the opposite mental attitude…’ Another in 1981 wrote that Husserl only enlarged the Kantian ghetto (of individuality and inwardness) he was trying to escape. Yet my view is Husserl did respond to one of the great problems of the time, in a way which was old-fashioned before 1945 but became progressive for philosophy after it. Phenomenology became one possible theoretical approach to how we construct meaningful, empathetic relations with others.
At some point Husserl became aware of his contemporary Georg Simmel’s theory of Vergesellschaftung. Simmel, a brilliant and unique philosopher who had struggled with this ‘how we become social’, died prematurely in 1918. Husserl sought advice from his disciple Siegfried Kracauer on how to carry the inquiry forward. Henceforth he referred to his own approach to intersubjectivity as Vergemeinschaftung – how we become communal.  The two bases on which we might understand each other better were, as the sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies had suggested, either Gesellschaft, society, as a progressive urban phenomenon, or Gemeinschaft, a more conservative and quasi rural, small-town notion of community. Many of us might feel we remain suspended between those two possibilities a century on. We may even develop different ways of interacting with others, nationally and locally.
Simmel in the essay of 1908 ‘How is Society Possible?’ said that we know each other by making a representation of other persons to ourselves. On the other hand this facet of our understanding isn’t satisfactory, and leads to ‘the profoundest psychological-epistemological pattern and problem of socialization.’ Everyone knows — and this is Simmel stepping on the emphasis pedal here — that there are others besides ourselves. But how do we explain it and act upon it? In fact we realize we are asking the wrong question. Society and/or community come ready-made for us. We don’t make them. In the description Heidegger would make famous, we are just thrown in. For Simmel society was a massy, immovable and problematic otherness – an ‘always already’, a kind of social a priori, to which we may spend our lives adjusting. For Heidegger community was really a throwback to peasant life. It was co-being and an acceptance of hard times.
Sticking with society as the progressive option, Simmel said we had to learn ‘the consciousness of being socialized’. It can be done. We human beings are possessed of an ‘always already’ sociability. But capitalism at its most ruthless makes the task harder. Caught up too deeply in the system, the I becomes an It. Even worse we see others as It. ‘When the person is entirely absorbed into his economic function [the] entirety [of his personality] disappears into sheer thingness.’ Sachlichkeit was Simmel’s term, and if we can’t find a perfect English translation for it, we can at least feel our way to the idea of everything, ourselves included, having become an impersonal Sache, a detached and inanimate thing, as opposed to each us being a person in our own right.
The problem for late Kantians like Simmel was they couldn’t look to Marxism for help on interpersonal issues, because Marxism didn’t care about inner freedom and the subjective constitution of knowledge. Marxism, or the treatment of human relations not as metaphysical puzzles but as class relations, a matter of solidarity or hostility, ignored that ‘profound epistemological’ query as to how we could have potentially equal knowledge of ourselves and others. At the same time, on the path to a solidarity he would never quite arrive at, Simmel did recognize that socialism opened up a genuinely different approach to intersubjectivity. The desire for equality was a call for the like valuation of persons. It was not a problem of knowledge but of moral will, not to configure our neighbour as an ‘it’ or an ‘other’.
The neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer also broached the social question that was wracking his country and his beloved Idealist culture, now fading, crucially harmed by industrialization and war. In his 1916 essay Freedom and Form: Studies in German Intellectual History Cassirer hoped that ‘In the degree of depth of our self-awareness [Selbstgefühl] also lies the degree of our empathy [Mitgefühl] with others: for we can only as it were feel ourselves into [the nature of] others.’ In other words we must become educated people; educated in the humanities as well as the hard sciences. All of us. And hold fast to our humanist vision. Cassirer’s senior colleague Heinrich Rickert as late as 1929 continued to insist on our need ‘to build a bridge between our own real mental life and that of another.’ 
Meanwhile the German catastrophe was gathering mass. In 1922 Kracauer observed that mass movements, collective identities, and ‘sharp’ class conflicts were the mark of ‘an ever-developing process of differentiation’ he didn’t know how to deal with in the present-day. Education could prevent people clashing. But the clashing parties would have to be of the same ‘intensity’ and the communal ambition ‘utopian’.
The degree of violence on German streets suggested an opposite reality. Since Jan 1 1919 three hundred and seventy six political murders had taken place, twenty-two killings carried out by the extreme Left, the rest by the extreme Right. Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau was the most famous victim of right-wing terror in June 1922. For Kracauer, a philosopher turned sociologist and now mainly writing in the Frankfurter Zeitung, it was time to stop refining the insights of the educated German individual and detail the actual fraught life of society. 
His old discipline tried its best. It modified its vocabulary to introduce new notions of co-existence and co-knowledge. Husserl used a different term but also meant empathy (Einfühlung), while Heidegger coined a range of terms prefixed ‘Mit-’ to try to indicate mutual understanding and shared experience arising out of the same ground of existence.
As Hitler raved, philosophy’s frustrating but dignified probing of intersubjectivity was suffused and almost drowned in a wave of mass activity seeking simplistic communal forms and authoritarian leadership. The poet Stefan George sang the populist tune:
Then come to the place where we form a union!
In my grove of consecration you hear the reverberating roar:
Even if there are countless forms of things
There is only One for you – Mine – to proclaim it. 
George sang of what exalted leadership could offer the humble folk who only wanted to belong.
This wasn’t philosophy, and the topic was not inter-personality, but, like so much German literature, it contained a distinct and meaningful echo of what the philosophers of the day were struggling to clarify. Its counterweight was Husserl’s vocal support for the League of Nations, a peaceful Europe’s last hope. In one of those addresses he reminded his listeners that humanity was a We-subject, but not a crowd, and that there was never a moment when that ‘we’ could duck responsibility for its actions.
It’s because of this pre-war tradition, we might think, that Germany was able after 1945 eventually to turn itself into such a different country – a society based on empathy with a world humanity, not just its own people.
How has it happened that in 2021 the United States has fallen under such terrible pressure to move in an opposite direction?
There is more to say.
 Dan Zahavi Husserl’s Phenomenology (Stanford, CA, 2003) p.111.
 Dermot Moran Husserl’s Crisis Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. An Introduction (Cambridge, 2012) pp.26-27, p.34
 Cf David Carr ‘Translator’s Introduction, Edmund Husserl The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology  (1970) p. xxvii
 James Dodd Crisis and Reflection An Essay on Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences (Dordrecht, 2004) 9-10; Sebastian Luft Subjectivity and Lifeworld ( Evanston, IL,2011) Ch. 7.
 The Crisis of European Sciences p.131
 Moran Husserl’s Crisis p.252.’
 Lee Braver Groundless Grounds A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger (Cambridge, MA, 2012). Chapter 4.
 Moran and Cohen The Husserl Dictionary p. 305
 Husserl The Crisis of European Sciences pp. 12-13
 Quoted in Schnädelbach German Philosophy p.205
 Husserl to Kracauer 14 January 1934 cited in Craver, Harry T. Reluctant Skeptic: Siegfried Kracauer and the Crises of Weimar Culture (New York, NY, 2017) p.28 [ref though to Husserl Briefe] Edmund Husserl Briefwechsel. hrsg. von Elisabeth Schuhmann in Verbindung mit Karl Schuhmann, 10 vols., (Dordrecht, 1994), v.
 Moran and Cohen The Husserl Dictionary p.67; p.234
 ‘How is Society Possible?’ pp.375-76.
 Freiheit und Form Studien zur deutschen Geistesgeschichte 2nd ed., (Berlin, 1918) p.195.
 Quoted in Schnädelbach Philosophy in Germany p.131. Translation slightly modified.
 ‘The Group as Bearer of Ideas’ in Mass Ornament and Other Essays p. 226, p.230.
 ‘Georg Simmel’ in Mass Ornament and Other Essays p. 243.
 Robert E. Norton Secret Germany Stefan George and his Circle (Ithaca, NY, 2002) pp.222-238 (224) (234). See also p.744 for the author’s moral indictment of George who ‘paved the way in the minds and hearts of his countrymen on which the Nazis rode to power.’
 Moran Crisis p.42, p.8.