Vico Herder Mannhardt

This Thursday I held my seminar in front of the smallest possible audience – yes, you guessed it: One person. A young man in his first semester. Two ladies excused themselves in e-mails the day before with illness, and three simply did not show up.
I had a little chat with the head of the institute just before the session, and she told me that the institute faces a strange situation: The newly introduced fees swept a lot of money into the university cassa and – as the others too – she was enabled to hire some people for additional seminars, lectures etc.
One had to be skipped already because of lack of interest from the students. Another one should lead to a small exhibition and possibly a small publication, but it is highly doubtful whether these goals can be reached because too few take part: It is about dancing halls in villages (“Tanzsäle” auf dem Lande), their functions, and the remains. The colleague simply has not enough students to collect the necessary data by traveling over land.
Fact is, there are currently simply too much possible offers in stock for this small institute. I wish she could scrap the money together and finance me an employment.

It was the third session. In the first we had to talk about technical things. In the second I spoke about the brothers Grimm. I realized that the connection to the scientific situation at the end of the 18th century was missing: Wilhelm and Jacob G. did not fall from the sky, they stood in some tradition. To understand what their big achievement was, the basical foundation of a new science called “Germanistik”, it is necessary to see what was before. One of their teachers was the great Herder, who took over some ideas from Giambattista Vico. One of Wilhelm Grimm‘s disciples was a man called Wilhelm Mannhardt, who is important for his mythological thinking and his than new methods of data-collecting. So from Vico’s first writings (1699/1700), via Herder, Grimm to Mannhardt (died 1880) one can show the development of mythological thinking and ideas over a period of roughly 180 years.

Vico started to publish his first ideas after he was appointed professor of rhetoric in Naples 1699; his magnum opus is called scienza nuova and was published 1744 in the last version, third edition. At his lifetime literally nobody was interested in this book. Vico wrote a universal history, from the beginning to the 16th century. He is the first that formulates the basics for all that comes later and today is called “cultural science”, “Kulturwissenschaft”. Based on his thoughts in the 19th century the methodological principles of “Geisteswissenschaft” (“humanities”) will be formulated, especially by Dilthey.
Herder is un-avoidable when you deal with philosophy or the humanities in the second half of the 18th century in the empire. He knew Vico’s writing, developed it further and passed these ideas to his disciples – together with an incredible amount of his own, deep, humanistic philosophy. The Grimms, universal as they were, built on Herder’s ideas and helped to found the new science called “Germanistik”. Mannhardt, as saied above is one of their most striking disciples.
It is all about the idea of “Mythologie”: What is left? Can we go back to the origin? Is there something to be found in the oral traditions, in song, in “Sage”, fairy tales? This “mythological school” was based on the idea of continuity. All very romantic. And already Wilhelm Grimm had quarrels with Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, hard core romantics, about the tone, the kind of language that should be used in the “Kinder- und Hausmärchen“, the large collection of fairy-tales: WIlhelm did not like them to “work over” it, he wanted to keep the original tellings he and his brother collected from the people; the romantics wanted the “Volkston”, so the language would become even more “folkish” – does this word exist? Wilhelm published the “Deutsche Mythologie” (German Mythology) in three volumes and it was a tremendous success. Had a heavy impact and sparked a lot of similar collections, boosted the science.
Mannhardt was an avid reader and started to study in Berlin and Tuebingen. He came to the conclusion that the data-base was too small and that comparison should be used to find out the possibly oldest versions of a folk-tale. It was a one-man-enterprise. He was of poor health with a crippled spine, asthma and a heart-condition. He was without the backing of an institute – he could not get a full duty professorship, collapsed some times – and earned his living as librarian in Danzig.
He kept on working and published his “Wald- und Feldkulte der Germanen” (cults of the Germans in forests and fields). In the preface he gives a critic of the mythological school up to his time and outlines what he did and what should be done. The two volumes were printed in Berlin in the 1870s. He died from a heart-attack 1880 on 25th of December, 49 years old.

That is it in a nutshell. For further reading as far as the philosophical and methodological content is concerned I recommend you to have a look in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for Vico and Herder. Sources about Mannhardt are only in German (BBKL, ADB) avilable. Next week I’ll talk about Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl and billiards.