Franz Rosenzweig Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Rosenzweig, a German-Jewish philosopher, is best known for his work on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s political philosophy and on his own philosophy of religion, which developed as he examined his identity as a Jew. The chief characteristics of Rosenzweig’s works are the questions that he provokes and the originality and wealth of his insights.

Early Life

Though raised in a Jewish community, Franz Rosenzweig was educated in the classical German school system. The ongoing significance of these factors for students of his life is that they provide possibilities for ways to think about and live through the realities of religious and ethnic differences. As a German Jew, he was unavoidably confronted with fierce pressures, social and economic, to assimilate to the dominant Christian and secular community. His assimilated father was a successful businessperson, and his more devout mother maintained a more or less typical bourgeois household, with the exception that the Rosenzweigs continued to observe Jewish festivals and maintain social links to the Jewish community. Despite pressures to assimilate, Rosenzweig did learn a great deal from his uncle Adam Rosenzweig about classical Jewish sources, such as the Torah, Commentaries, Talmud, Kabbala, the Hebrew language, and Jewish ritual life. As a German citizen and an engaged member of the greater German community, he was exposed to and trained in classical German literature, art (including painting and architecture), philosophy, music (violin), and Greek and Latin literature.

As a young man, Rosenzweig actively pursued the study of medicine, history, art, and philosophy. In 1905, he began studying medicine at the Universities of Göttingen, Munich, and Freiburg, to the point of sitting for his preliminary medical examinations. However, Rosenzweig became disillusioned with the technical aspects of medicine and turned ever more frequently to reading works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Nietzsche and to cultivating his interest in German culture, history, literature, and philosophy. In passionate exchanges with fellow students; his cousins, Hans and Rudolf Ehrenberg; and especially his friend Eugen Rosenstock, all of whom had converted to Christianity, he changed course in 1907 and began studying history and philosophy at the Universities of Berlin and Freiburg. In a diary notation, Rosenzweig wrote:

Why does one philosophize? For the same reason that one makes music, literature or art. Here too, in the last analysis, all that matters is the discovery of one’s own personality.

Under the tutelage of the noted historian Friedrich Meinecke, he studied Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel\’s political philosophy and received his Ph.D. in 1912 for work that became a section of Hegel und der Staat (Hegel and the state).

Life’s Work

Rosenzweig’s first exposure to academic philosophy was a close reading of Immanuel Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; Critique of Pure Reason, 1838) under Jonas Cohn at Freiburg University. On his own, he continued to read Goethe, Plato, Moses Mendelssohn, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and Nietzsche, as well as Christian, Roman, and Zionist authors such as Jacob Klatzkin and Ahad Ha-Am (pseudonym of Asher Ginsberg). As he matured intellectually, he became ever more occupied with questions about the dynamic relations of Judaism, Christianity, and secularity in contemporary Germany.

In 1908, he began studying history with Meinecke at Freiburg University, who with Wilhelm Dilthey and Ernst Troeltsch is counted as one of the founders of a new kind of historicizing built on the history of spirit and ideas. Rosenzweig applied this fusion of balancing the elements of intellectual personality and historical research, which he learned with Meinecke, when he began his study of Hegel’s philosophy with Heinrich Rickert in the winter semester of 1910. As a philosophy student, he spent considerable time going through original manuscripts in order to form his biographical sketch of Hegel’s formulation of a globalizing, political-spiritual philosophy. Together with other impassioned students, Rosenzweig formed the Freiburger Circle. Within this group, he developed his philosophy of history. It was influenced by the anti-Semitism directed at him by other students in the circle. His principal antagonists were the history student Siegfried A. Kaeler and Viktor von Weizsacker, who was to later become Rosenzweig’s doctor. The developments within this circle fed Rosenzweig’s skepticism about the German academic environment and most likely influenced his decision to direct the Lehrhaus instead of pursuing a traditional university career. Both Rosenzweig, the critical political liberal, and Kaehler, the faithful political conservative, were promoted to the Ph.D. by Meinecke. Rosenzweig left the circle, but Kaehler later dedicated the publication of his dissertation work in 1927 to that same circle, leaving out Rosenzweig’s name.

In 1913, Rosenzweig moved to study jurisprudence at the University of Leipzig and to be close to his cousin Rosenstock, with whom he struggled through a mutual dissatisfaction with contemporary academic philosophy and its political conservatism. After an intellectual and spiritual crisis, Rosenzweig decided to become a Christian but only “qua Jew.” However, on October 11, 1913, after a Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) service at an Orthodox synagogue in Berlin, he came to the realization that he must “remain a Jew.”

In 1914, two important events took place: a creation and a discovery. First, Rosenzweig wrote the essay “Atheistische Theologie” (atheistic theology), which he described as a “programmatic affirmation of the idea of revelation.” Second, in going through some Hegel manuscripts, he discovered an essay on ethics in...

(The entire section is 2418 words.)