Hegel’s Ghost: Europe, the Reformation, and the Middle Ages

Hegel’s Ghost: Europe, the Reformation, and the Middle Ages

By Constantin Fasolt

Viator, Vol. 39 (2008)

Extract: An essay of this kind is bound to provoke disagreements. It will do so for two very different reasons. One is that no single person can hope to master the entire range of knowledge available on subjects as broad as medieval and early modern European history. That may be sad, and it will irritate the specialists, but it is unavoidable. It is also entirely familiar and relatively easy to correct by readers who have the special knowledge that the author lacks. Its worst effects can be forestalled by apologies for the limits of their expertise and solicitations of criticism of the sort with which scholarly authors are properly accustomed to introduce their writings. I offer such apologies and solicitations here and now.

The other reason for disagreements is that this essay raises questions about the meaning of terms like “medieval,” “modern,” “Europe,” and “Reformation.” The answers to those questions depend to some degree on decisions that historians make about the proper way to use such terms. Such decisions are never unanimous and they change over time. They can be justified and they can be explained, but they cannot be based entirely on empirical investigation or justified by offering a missing piece of information. Disagreements over questions of meaning are therefore more intractable than disagreements that arise from ignorance. They are especially intractable in history because historians are trained to base themselves as far as possible on something other than their own opinion, namely the evidence, and even more so because the meaning of any terms they use can itself be viewed as a subject of historical investigation. Historians accordingly find it particularly difficult to treat questions of meaning in distinction from questions of fact. That leads to misunderstanding and confusion.

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