Franz Rosenzweig’s text presents a challenging critique of a traditional rationality that has dominated Western thought systems, and therefore political and social life, from its Greek inception with the Ionian pre-Socratics to its culmination in the pervasive European versions of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s philosophical system. Rosenzweig sees this system of rationality breaking up under the spur of revised Kantian versions of the philosophical-ethical standpoints exemplified by Arthur Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard, and especially Friedrich Nietzsche. His inclusion of such philosophers signifies that Rosenzweig intends to pursue an ethical line throughout the text. This intention is emphasized by his choice to end his first introduction with references to Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling’s Die Weltalter (1861; Ages of the World, 1942), which provides for a temporally significant revelation; the neo-Kantian Hermann Cohen’s Logik der reinen Erkenntnis (1914; logic of pure cognition), whose mathematics Rosenzweig uses; and an approving utilization of Immanuel Kant’s rational-ethical metaphysics.
Rosenzweig’s emphasis on the ethical was instrumental in his attack on the educational thought structures that led to totalitarian political and social systems dominating European, but especially German, universities at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. From Rosenzweig’s perspective, these educational structures validate a universal and dialectical historical process that could only result in the kind of oppositional violence and human destruction of World War I, which Rosenzweig witnessed and in which he fought. Besides attacking conservative political tendencies, Rosenzweig criticizes the Marxist alternative of a dialectical-material progressive political system. None of this, however, is clearly evident in the opening pages of the first section of his text. Rather, in the beginning, Rosenzweig takes his reader on what initially appears to be a Faustian journey to know and experience all, via a descent into the depths of the struggle for knowledge. This descent requires profound encounters with our presuppositions that we know something about the world, the human, and God.