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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Along with the concept of Volkgeist we can trace
in literature the development of the cognate notion
of Zeitgeist (Geist der Zeit, Geist der Zeiten). Just as
the term Volkgeist was conceived as a definition of the
spirit of a nation taken in its totality across generations,
so Zeitgeist came to define the characteristic spirit of
a historical era taken in its totality and bearing the
mark of a preponderant feature which dominated its
intellectual, political, and social trends. Zeit is taken
in the sense of “era,” of the French siècle. Philo-
sophically, the concept is based on the presupposition
that the time has a material meaning and is imbued
with content. It is in this sense that the Latin tempus
appears in such phrases as tempora mutantur. The
expression “it is in the air” is latently related to the
idea of Zeitgeist.

Geist der Zeiten meant originally the sum total of
the spirit of generations through the ages. Gradually
the meaning of this expression was contracted so as
to describe the principle of a certain historical period
as it conceives of itself (Karl Löwith). As such this shift
is representative of the modern idea of historical self-
consciousness and to some extent of severing the ties
of continuity between generations.

In Voltaire and Herder the concept appears in their
attempt to answer the question, “What is the spirit of
the times?” Herder defined it as a powerful genius,
a mighty demon to whom we are all subordinated,
actively or passively.

For Hegel, philosophy is related to the preponderant
spirit of the ages or of a particular age. Philosophy
is its own time apprehended in thoughts, time con-
noting in this context the intellectual trend of the
epoch. Hence Hegel considered the trend of his own
philosophy towards an identification of subject and
object as germane to the tendencies of his time. The
conformity with the spirit of time was meant not only
as a descriptive statement of a factual situation, but
also as a justification, at least a partial one, for the
systematic validity of Hegel's own philosophy and of
every philosophy as related to an era. Hegel took the


Zeitgeist as a spiritual and intellectual reality which
is not totally alien to the intellectual exposition present
in a philosophical system. A philosophical system is
but a conceptual, and as such a self-conscious formula-
tion of the substance present in the Zeitgeist. This view
brings philosophy close to reality and by the same
token makes reality the guiding substance and standard
for philosophy. The assumption that philosophy can
transcend its contemporary world was for Hegel a mere
fancy just as it is a fancy (to Hegel) to suggest that
an individual can overleap his own age. Philosophy
has to be related to a particular reality; it is to this
relatedness that he refers in quoting the famous phrase,
Hic Rhodus, hic salta. The concept of the spirit of the
time has thus both a guiding and a limiting connota-
tion. The latter connotation implies the historicist un-
derstanding of the spirit of the time.

Related to this historicist view is the conception that
the thought and culture of peoples are correlated with
certain historical periods, that is to say, to certain
trends of the spirit of the time. Transcending a spirit
of the time makes a trend not only impossible but
sometimes obsolete, as in the case when an individual
or a group of individuals cling to a trend which has
already been overcome. It might be thus congenial for
one period of history to be imbued with a religious
world outlook, yet this world outlook is superseded by
another spirit of the time which is scientific or philo-
sophic and thus overcomes the limitations and the
validity of the religious world outlook. Along this
scheme, though without employing the term Zeitgeist,
Marx presents the view that a social and economic
system like feudalism or capitalism might be appro-
priate historically at a certain period of time but ceases
to be so and even becomes reactionary at a later period
of history. Continuing this line, Sartre (in his later
stage, in Critique de la raison dialectique) speaks about
Marxism as “the philosophy of our time.” This philoso-
phy cannot be transcended since the circumstances
which caused its emergence have not been surpassed.

Kant considered the temper or import of his critical
philosophy as reflecting the characteristic feature of
his time which was essentially one of critique. One of
Kant's critiques (Bescheid) speaks about “genius (spirit)
of the age” (genius saeculi). Schiller used the term Geist
der Zeit
as pointing to the perversion and brutish-
ness of nature, of superstition, and the absence of
moral belief in his time. Fichte analyzed the major
trends of the age on the assumption that an age can
be characterized by a well-defined principle. In his own
age he noticed a trend towards the undermining of
the power of external authority; and in a polemic vein
Goethe says, through his mouthpiece Faust, that the
spirit of the times is at bottom the spirit of those (die
) in whom the times are mirrored. Thus this
verse questions the reality of a “spirit of an age.”

Heidegger put forward the notion that metaphysics
established an epoch in time (Zeitalter), suggesting a
certain interpretation of truth. “Modern times” in this
sense is a period characterized by science, by technol-
ogy, by positing the work of art as an object of experi-
ence; its feature is the disappearance of God or Gods
(Entgötterung). The general principle of the modern
era is to look at the world as a Bild, not to picture
the world but to take it as a picture. The whole is
there only when human beings refer to it by way of
representing it and establishing it. This description
implied a criticism of the modern era as replacing the
concern for the totality of Being with specialized re-
search of scientific data.

The term or the general meaning of Zeitgeist has
entered various dictionary attempts at historical peri-
odization and has also entered our everyday vocabu-
lary. The very notion that a certain span of time can
be conceived in terms of a defined content, e.g., the
period of constitutional monarchy or of romanticism
as a period and not only as a trend—these descriptions
echo the concept of Zeitgeist. In this sense we speak
of the technological era or the post-industrial period.
In the usage of these features we eventually refer to
a Zeitgeist as connoting a dominating idea or a domi-
nating social force or a combination of both. In a
different context it refers to the prevailing spirit of
a literary period dominated by an outstanding author,
e.g., to Geist der Goethezeit.

In various systems of twentieth-century philosoph-
ical literature we find a direct or indirect reference
to the concept. Karl Jaspers goes out to analyze spe-
cifically the spiritual situation of the time, i.e., the
present, and then in his historical-philosophical at-
tempts to refer to the fifth century B.C. as to an “axis
time.” Whitehead speaks about a “climate of opinion”
as the all-embracing intellectual atmosphere of a cer-
tain period within the development of modern science
and its principal ideas. “Climate of opinion” connotes
in this context a state of mind, conviction in the exist-
ence of an order of things or on an instinctive faith
in an Order of Nature. The term “climate of opinion”
is an investigation of a shift from the view which takes
time as a totality of circumstances to a view which
equates circumstances with “climate.” Mill used the
term “mental climate”—and in this sense we speak
about an atmosphere of freedom, atmosphere of per-
missiveness, etc. We connect the concept of sur-
roundings with mental or moral activity. This meta-
phor appears in German as Zeitklima. For Colling-
wood, metaphysics is a formulation of the presupposi-
tions of science in a certain period of time, and is thus


determined by the Zeitgeist (though the term is not
used by him).


R. G. Collingwood, An Essay on Metaphysics (Oxford,
1940). M. Heidegger, Holzwege (Frankfurt a. M., 1950). K.
Jaspers, Die geistige Situation der Zeit (Berlin, 1932), trans.
Eden and Cedar Paul as Man in the Modern Age (London,
1933); idem, Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (Zurich,
1949), trans. M. Bullock as Origin and Goal of History (New
Haven, 1968). K. Löwith, Von Hegel bis Nietzsche (Zurich,
1941), trans. as From Hegel to Nietzsche; The Revolution
in Nineteenth Century Thought
(New York, 1964). J.-P.
Sartre, Critique de la raison dialectique (Paris, 1960). F.
Schiller, Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen
(1795), trans. R. Snell as The Aesthetic Education of Man
(New York, 1965). A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern
(London and New York, 1925).


[See also Historicism; Marxism; Periodization in History;
Time; Volksgeist.]