Thursday, February 18, 2016

Speech As Our Matrix (Parts 1 - 2)

Reprinted to this blog with the permission of Mr. Gardner. There may be some slight editing for space considerations.



Discovering the Cross of Reality


Clinton C. Gardner



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.

Martin Marty, the prominent US historian of religion, has long hailed Rosenstock-Huessy’s work. In a Christian Century book review, Marty described Rosenstock-Huessy as a thinker “ahead of his time,” one who managed to write about Christianity “without old-line appeal to transcendence.”

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.

   A likely reason for Rosenstock-Huessy’s long-delayed recognition by academe is that his work bridged so many different disciplines. He was a social philosopher and sociologist, a historian and a religious thinker, yet a scholar whose longest book, Die Sprache des Menschengeschlechts (The Speech of Humankind) was on the origins and meaning of language. As if that were not enough, he described Academe as the enemy—and urged that it get out of its ivory tower. To do that, he suggested that higher education should incorporate a year of service within its four-year term. Finally, a likely reason for his obscurity is that his “new version of Christianity,” a Christianity that was this-worldly, even secular, kept intruding into his historical and sociological works.

In this essay I will attempt to explicate and applaud those intrusions—because they serve Rosenstock-Huessy’s  goal of presenting our reality “whole” again, before it was divided into the several realms of the hard sciences, the social sciences,  the humanities, and religion. In other words, I will show how he pursued his aim of “realigning” all our fields of knowledge—so that natural science would no longer seem their base, as it has seemed since Descartes (1596-1650).

 Specifically, I will describe what Rosenstock-Huessy called “the Cross of Reality,” an image which shows us how all our knowledge—from the most material of physics to the most spiritual of religion—can be seen as related and forming a whole. Thus, I will be challenging the current trend in intellectual life, in which knowledge has seemed to become increasingly fragmented. I will be arguing that our experience of speech is the glue which holds us together—and that this experience can be seen as the action of spirit in us, in both the secular and religious senses. In sum, speech is our matrix, and the Cross of Reality depicts that matrix.

As if that were not enough for a shortish essay I will endeavor to show how the Cross of Reality points us to a new method for the social sciences, a more universal method than the one disclosed, for the natural sciences, by Descartes and Galileo (1564-1642).  

Before I begin that task, I should introduce myself. I was one of those Dartmouth students who have worked to preserve Rosenstock-Huessy’s legacy. In fact, I have written introductions to two of his books, as well as three books about his work. With his blessing. I founded a little company, Argo Books, which published many of his unpublished manuscripts—and kept all his English works in print. From the outset, I operated Argo Books with the support of Rosenstock-Huessy’s distinguished friend Freya von Moltke.

The text which follows first saw the light of day at a June 2014 conference held at Renison University College, Waterloo, Ontario. Canada. Most of it was drawn from my several books on Rosenstock-Huessy’s work. As of October 2014, it still needs an appended section of notes.


Ever since he introduced the Cross of Reality, in his 1925 Soziologie, Rosenstock-Huessy has kept that image central to his varied works on history, society, and religion. It is important to note that this cross is not a religious image; it is not the Cross of Christ. Rosenstock-Huessy’s Dartmouth classes made clear that the Cross of Reality was grounded in our everyday experience of secular life. This is evident in my classroom note, from the spring of 1941, which follows:

Rosenstock-Huessy says we are all crucified in a Cross of Reality on which we have to face backward to the past, forward to the future, inward toward our selves, and outward toward the world. He brings this cross image to life, not as an abstract idea, not as his idea, but as a new model of the human reality, a model which he invites us to discover with him. When he diagrams the cross on a blackboard, he makes a horizontal line for its time axis, then a vertical line to represent the space axis. This visual depiction becomes an icon for all his students, an icon of our human predicament—and our potential.

Since each of us lives at the center of this cross, our lives are crucial, not only for ourselves but for all humankind. We are constantly torn between the need to be true to the achievements of past time and the need to respond to the new callings of the future. Similarly, on the space axis of our lives, we are constantly trying to relate our personal, subjective inner space to the objective demands of the outer world, the space around us.

     This model applies not only to each person but to any group, even to a nation.

   The Cross of Reality, showing that times are as important as spaces, corrects the scientific subject-object model of reality, the Cartesian model (cogito ergo sum), which is merely spatial, and enlarges on its limited method. All these relationships become clear when Rosenstock-Huessy diagrams the cross on the blackboard:  



      When the social sciences were born, through Auguste Comte (1798-1857), to make themselves respectable, they adopted the objective methodology of the natural sciences. Measurements and statistics became their tools, just as they had been for the natural sciences.  Rosenstock-Huessy does not suggest that the social sciences abandon measurements and statistics; rather that objectivity should become only one of the four ways we investigate any question that involves the human being in society. In other words, the Cross of Reality is a model that can be turned into a method for sociology—and all the human sciences     

      A few months after I wrote that note, in June of 1941 I found myself in Tunbridge, Vermont as a member of Camp William James, a project which had begun through the efforts of Rosenstock-Huessy students. With the endorsement of President Roosevelt, the camp had started as an experimental camp within the Civilian Conservation Corps, with about 15 members from the regular CCC and about 10 recent graduates of Dartmouth and Harvard. In my diary, I wrote the following note which explained the camp in terms of the four fronts shown on the Cross of Reality—future time, the inner space of the self, past time, and the outer world:     

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:

Universal History

During some 40,000 years before Christ, tribal speech, with its totems and taboos, had oriented us to our ancestors, to the narrative of our past.

Then, in the great empires, such as China and Egypt, already flourishing by 3000 BC, the speech of the temple oriented us to the stars, the rivers, and the fields, the universe of nature, the world outside us.

By 600 BC Greek speech had begun to orient us to our inner selves, through poetry and philosophy.

During that same millennium before Christ, the speech of Israel emerged, orienting us to our future by way of prayer and prophecy.

With the coming of the Christian era, those four ancient modes of speech were fused. After Christ we no longer felt bound by a single orientation. We were no longer simply Greek or Jew, Egyptian or tribesman. For 2,000 years now, we have been moving steadily toward spiritual unity, as we have become increasingly able to articulate all four forms of speech.

Four great types of civilization had reached dead ends at Year Zero of our common era. Christ and his apostles came at the right time. They translated those dead ends into new beginnings, becoming in effect the narrow part of the tube in the hourglass of history. Since that center-time, human history has become one story.

            Another course of Rosenstock-Huessy’s was based on his magnum opus Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man. Here he was not explicit about the Cross of Reality orientations, but it seemed clear to me that they undergirded his message. Thus, my summary of the book was as follows:

      Western History         

Just as he tells pre-Christian history in terms of four kinds of speech, so Rosenstock-Huessy sees these four kinds of speech given different emphases in each of the great Western revolutions. The imperatives established in the first millennium of the Christian era made all those revolutions necessary, from what he calls the “Papal Revolution” of the high Middle Ages to the Russian Communist revolution of our own time. Each of these six great revolutions had different orientations and impulses, but they all sought to remake the whole world:


1. The Papal Revolution, begun by Pope Gregory in 1076, had a messianic orientation toward the future. It was the first global revolution—and that planetary purpose was repeated in all its successors. Its new speech, the language of theology, with Anselm’s credo ut intelligam (I believe so that I may understand) was first heard in the new institution of universities.


2. The German Reformation, begun by Luther in 1517, emphasized our inner conscience, and its greatest new institution was public education. It saw the Bible translated into local languages and introduced the priesthood of all believers, thereby ending the central power of the church. In fact, it began the process of secularization (particularly visible in the emergence of secular art).


3. The British Parliamentary or Puritan Revolution (1649-1688) celebrated the laws and traditions of the past. Its new institutions were parliaments and the rule of law. Power was no longer in the hands of the nobility but turned over to the gentry—the Christian gentlemen.


4. The French Revolution (1789) focused on the outer front, where reason and objectivity hold sway. For the first time, the lowly bourgeoisie, the common man, was fully      empowered. National literatures and arts, as well as newspapers, appeared. Freed from religion, all the sciences began to flourish. So did capitalism!  


          5. The American Revolution (1776) was a happy combination of impulses from both the

    French and the British. It gave them an additional impetus, as they spread over the new



   6. Finally, the Russian Revolution (1917) turned into a rather unhappy combination of

  future messianism with the new language of objectivity. Still, it was a needed corrective to

  unbridled capitalism’s exploitation of labor. Indeed, its new imperative was freedom from

  economic exploitation. Rosenstock-Huessy wrote that the New Deal, with Social Security,

 the WPA, etc., would have been unthinkable without the preceding communist revolution.


            In The Christian Future, Rosenstock-Huessy saw all these six revolutions, and the two World Wars contributing to what he called today’s “Great Society,” the global society that he described as “heiress of state and church.”  This explains why he said that “Christianity is not a religion.” In light of the history told in Out Of Revolution, Christianity was more important in changing secular society than it was as a religion.  



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