Reprinted to this blog with the permission of Mr. Gardner. There may be some slight editing for space considerations.
Beloved by many generations of Dartmouth students, who recorded and published his lectures, and also kept his books in print, the social philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888-1973), has yet to be welcomed by the academic establishment. He himself predicted that it would be 30 years or more, after his death, before this might occur. I have often thought of him as a latter-day Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who was “discovered” and celebrated as the father of existentialism in the 1920s, some 70 years after his death.
Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888-1973), has yet to be welcomed by the academic establishment. He himself predicted that it would be 30 years or more, after his death, before this might occur. I have often thought of him as a latter-day Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who was “discovered” and celebrated as the father of existentialism in the 1920s, some 70 years after his death.
This essay will introduce the reader to what I consider the heart of Rosenstock-Huessy’s work: his “discovery” of what he called “the Cross of Reality,” and the related disclosure that “spirit,” which has usually been thought of as ethereal, can now be recognized as our gift of speech.
Born into a Jewish banker’s family in Berlin, Rosenstock-Huessy became a Christian at age 18. Indeed, he became a remarkably-engaged Christian, as we shall see.
The poet W.H. Auden (1907-1973) wrote a foreword for one of Rosenstock-Huessy’s books, saying “I have read everything by him that I could lay my hands on,” and closed by citing Rosenstock-Huessy’s motto, Respondeo etsi mutabor (I respond although I will be changed), then adding, “Speaking for myself, I can only say that, by listening to Rosenstock-Huessy, I have been changed.”
The distinguished Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) wrote: “The historical nature of man is the aspect of reality about which we have been basically and emphatically instructed in the epoch of thought beginning with Hegel....Rosenstock-Huessy has concretized this teaching in so living a way as no other thinker before him has done.”
Other prominent thinkers who have admired Rosenstock-Huessy’s work include the theologians Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and Harvey Cox, as well as the sociologist David Riesman and the social critic Lewis Mumford.
First, we came to Camp William James because we heard a calling toward the future. We wanted to create a new institution, a period of all-out service as part of all young people’s education. It would be the CCC plus Dartmouth and Harvard, an entirely new combination. It’s a breaking-away from the ivory tower of academe into the problems and life of a real community. We heard another calling toward the future when we sent a group to Mexico to help rebuild the town of Colima—recently flattened in an earthquake. This second calling makes clearer that we’re engaged in a “moral equivalent of war,” not just planting trees or helping some farmers. Second, we’re creating our own inner space within the farm building, our headquarters. Of course, it’s also the inner space of our group, the community we have formed here. Third, we have the experience of being connected with past time, with the ongoing life of a rural town whose roots go back for many generations. We go to square dances where the calling is in an Elizabethan style that’s died out in England. Quite a contrast with the rootless suburbs of New York or the slums of New Haven, both places where many of us grew up. Fourth, we are getting national publicity through stories in the Boston Globe and the New York Times. This makes our little inner group known to the outer world, objectively, with both good and bad consequences. It has helped recruiting, but it’s also what led to our losing federal funding. In Congress we were attacked as just another New Deal boondoggle—and had to close our CCC “side-camp” in Sharon. To sum up, the camp has provided each of us with a more intense experience of life, a more crucial experience, than we’d get in any ordinary college year. We have come to see that a period of such service, when integrated into one’s education, would show its participants how we all live historically, drawn toward the past and the future.
I think this note about the camp makes clear that the Cross of Reality is not some elaborate metaphysical concept but simply a commonsense way to interpret any experience. In fact, a person who uses common sense already interprets his or her life and history this way, from the four perspectives that the cross shows us. In other words, the cross simply codifies common sense. Unfortunately, huge numbers of people, probably the great majority—be they ideologues, fascists, or communists (all stuck on the “glorious future” front), fundamentalists (stuck on the past front), sentimentalists and pietists (stuck on the subjective front), or even rationalists (stuck on the objective front)—are not guided by common sense.
In 1942 I’d left Camp William James to serve four years in the army. Returning to Dartmouth in 1946, I majored in Philosophy because I wanted to concentrate on Rosenstock-Huessy’s work. The note below is from a course in which he described how humankind had been formed by four quite different kinds of speech, as portrayed on the Cross of Reality: