The double edged sword: the cult of Bildung, its downfall and reconstitution in fin-de-siècle Germany (Thomas Mann, Rudolf Steiner, and Max Weber)
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Around 1800, education or self-formation -- Bildung -- evolved into a primary status marker for the Bildungsbürgertum. Germany’s nineteenth-century socioeconomic landscape was dominated by these new social values, redefining traditional class structures and identity through Besitz and Bildung. By century’s end, the newly-cultivated began to take their status as fiats for self-assertion rather than for serving the community. The Double-Edged Sword traces in three cases studies how Bildungsbürger around 1900 confronted this breakdown in identity structure (or Lacanian Imaginary), trying to retain agency in shaping the nation. Thomas Mann (1875-1955), from a family affirming Besitz und Bildung, used Buddenbrooks (1901), Tonio Kröger (1903) and his play, Fiorenza (1905) to critique the bourgeoisie as aesthetic education confronts capitalism and mass democracy. I conclude that Mann criticized their behavior and modernity, without offering much hope for a rejuvenation of the Bildungsideal. Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), founder of anthroposophy and the modern-day Waldorf schools, reflected modernity's socioeconomic dynamics in Die Philosophie der Freiheit (1894), defining empirical science as degrading to human mind and spirit, which his "occult science" was designed to reconstitute. He underscored that lost social coherence in Grundlinien einer Erkenntnistheorie der Goetheschen Weltanschauung (1886), thus redefining the German Bildungsideal as a Lebenspraxis, as a quasi-religious community. The sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) uses Bildung to define cultural agency and political progress. In the Wissenschaftslehre and his pedagogical texts, the pursuit of academic knowledge emerges as an honorable task enhancing the gebildete Bürger’s distinction and status. In “Der Sinn der ‘Wertfreiheit’ der soziologischen und ökonomischen Wissenschaften” (1913/1918), Weber redefined that “academic calling” in the service of value-neutral science as a political force. In “Parlament und Regierung in neugeordneten Deutschland” (1918), Weber argues that expert politicians with specialized knowledge must create an effective parliamentary model and overcome bureaucratic dominance to solve the state's problems. The Gelehrter, as a modern Bildungsbürger, regains community distinction by providing ethical knowledge. Taken together, these case studies document the German bourgeoisie’s failure to modernize as an "imagined community." Preserving German culture would ultimately come to mean something else than engaging the community and the state.