Favourite Readings 2020 – Less Time to Travel – Less Time to Read?

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Klaus Vieweg, Hegel – Der Philosoph der Freiheit (C.H. Beck, 2020)

Edmund Fawcett, Conservatism. The Fight for a Tradition (Princeton University Press, 2020)

Gert Ueding, Wo noch niemand war. Erinnerungen an Ernst Bloch (Klöpfer & Meyer, 2016)

As in previous years, EJIL’s Review section, has invited EJIL board members and (associate) editors to offer short reflections on their favourite books of the year 200. No strict rules apply — the posts are meant to introduce books that left an impression, irrespective of their genre. Today we have selections from Johann Justus VaselYou can read all the posts in this series here.

Vieweg – Hegel: Der Philosoph der Freiheit

Germans are obsessed with anniversaries. This year we celebrate the 250th birthday of Hegel – it is the ‘Hegel-year’. Well, it is also the ‘Beethoven-year’, of course. But somehow, I decided that I would rather listen to Beethoven than to Hegel. And instead of reading Hegel, I decided to rather read on and about Hegel. Hegel has always been a myth to me. I bought his legal philosophy in my first semester at law school and shortly afterwards – in great disappointment – put it back to the shelf. Obscure writing. It did not speak to me. I found his obsession with ‘Staat’ and ‘Sittlichkeit’ off-putting. I never understood him although I certainly respected him (and often visited his tomb in Berlin at the Dorotheenstadt Cemetery, one of the most beautiful, tiny cemeteries located right in the center of Berlin – worth visiting! – where he is buried next to Fichte and other famous people). Vieweg’s substantial work on Hegel is among my best reads since it – at least gave me the impression – to understand this thinker and changed my view of him and his philosophy fundamentally. As the subtitle suggests Vieweg portrays him as an uncompromised philosopher of freedom. Five years of research went into this book by the profound Hegel-pundit Vieweg and they paid off. The book is opulent, but concise, focusing on the work as much as on the epoque. It provides the context for the text, which in Hegel’s case is often hard to grasp. It may contribute to ending a seemingly never-ending history of misunderstandings and stereotypes regarding Hegel and his work. Particularly so with respect to his legal philosophy, which is arguably the most modern, the most controversial and most misunderstood pieces of his works. At times Vieweg’s opus magnum might be slightly worshipping and defensive, but this is just an impression and certainly neither based on expertise nor a reason not to read this eminent work. If you wish to start reading and understanding Hegel (correctly), maybe start with reading Vieweg’s learned book.

Fawcett – Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition

Similarly, to my struggles with Hegel, I have struggled with the dazzling, ambiguous term and concept of conservatism, which is generally used in a pejorative manner. Fawcett’s history of conservatism divided into four periods and focusing on France, Great Britain, Germany and the United States is a truly rich account. Despite its richness and analytical poignancy, it is very amenable – an ‘easy read’ in a good sense. Maybe this is due to the fact that Fawcett has been working inter alia as a correspondent for The Economist for more than three decades. Thus, the many vivid portrays of politicians, philosophers, and writers as well as the birds-eye but nevertheless nuanced comparisons and contrasts sketching the developments of conservatism are presented in the inimitable tone and style of The Economist. Wit and lightness alternate with analytical rigor. Seriousness is combined with humor and even a sense of irony. Profound insights are mingled with punch lines. It is fact based and fact driven (many dates) without ever being dull. In short: a shrewd, diverting and vivacious history of conservatism – written by a liberal. It might well be, that ‘Volume I’ of this intellectual tour d’horizont – Fawcett’s work on Liberalism, which was also published by Princeton Press – is among my best readings of next year… 

Ueding – Wo noch niemand war: Erinnerungen an Ernst Bloch

While until recently I have not properly understood Hegel, and still don’t like his writing (style), I have adored the writing and philosophy of Ernst Bloch ever since I was first introduced to it. Gert Ueding, by now professor emeritus for rhetoric, had the peerless fortune of moving into the house as a young student where Ernst Bloch lived. This stellar coincidence marked the beginning of a unique relationship. For years Bloch would visit Ueding late at night to smoke a pipe (or many) together and indulge into long dialogs. Ueding’s book is a unique portrait, a homage to Bloch, and while this is front and center it is surely not limited to this. At the same time, it affords some insights in German history of the 1960s and 70s and informs of Bloch’s coevals and companions. What a book! Beautifully written, deep and intimate, but never kitschy, rather cautious and refined. Simply touching. I actually re-read it this year and having finished the last page I would not mind reading it again.  

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