Lithograph of Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel at the lecture desk with three people standing in front of it.

German as the Language for the Humanities around 1800

This project investigated the language used in the academic disciplines that were established in the late 19th century as Geisteswissenschaften (‘humanities’) in Germany. The linguistic and stylistic qualities, as well as the representational techniques and media specificities of these disciplines, were shaped by the debates over the philosophy of language, theories of knowledge, and university politics being fought out around 1800. A central focus of the project was the interconnectedness of the actual use of language and critical reflections on language. To this day, the academic structure as well as the social and political self-perception of the German humanities still hinges upon this interconnectedness. These complex relations can still be perceived in current discussions about the translatability of German as a language of knowledge production and dissemination in the sciences and humanities.

Around 1800 numerous authors in Germany became convinced that language was not only a tool or vehicle but also a “constitutive organ of thought” (Wilhelm v. Humboldt). This engendered a concern for adequate representational forms of academic writing in the sciences and humanities. Within the German tradition, this intimate relationship between form and content almost ineluctably led to the widespread identification of scholarly writing as literature. As a result, numerous texts manifest an interesting paradox regarding the issue of addressing their respective audiences. On the one hand, the specific language used in scholarly texts is meant to attest to the authority of a particular academic project as well as to legitimize its specific type of discourse. On the other hand, the addressee of such academic texts was thought to ideally exceed the limits of any specific discourse. Taking its cue from these apparent contradictions, this project, therefore, systematically investigated attempts in the German humanities to permanently overburden and simultaneously undermine the expectations and deployment of language. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, for example, countered the accusation that his “Wissenschaftslehre” (his system of transcendental philosophy) was incomprehensible, by blaming the reader for what he termed an implicit desire for “shallowness” and “amateurism.” At the same time, however, Fichte assigned academics the task of contributing to the “progress of mankind.”

The research project investigated how the political implications and social models that underlined German academic language in the emerging humanities were linked to certain normative socio-political impulses. As such, the leading question was whether the humanities with their critical work and discourse, fulfilled the role of compensating for or indeed substituting the emancipatory political and social undercurrents, which the French Revolution had already realized elsewhere. Particular attention was paid to the potential longue durée of this constellation, because the political and social substrates of German academic language in its formative period continued to be operative well into the 20th century.


Fig. above: Friedrich Hegel with Students, lithograph, from “Das Wissen des 20. Jahrhunderts” (Knowledge of the 20th century), Bildungslexikon, Rheda 1931, Source: Wikimedia

Program funding through the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) 2014–2016
Head researcher(s): Daniel Weidner
Associate Researcher(s): Claude Haas


Claude Haas, Daniel Weidner (ed./eds.)

Über Wissenschaft reden
Studien zu Sprachgebrauch, Darstellung und Adressierung in der deutschsprachigen Wissenschaftsprosa um 1800

Lingua Academica vol. 4
de Gruyter, Berlin 2020, 263 pages
ISBN 978-3-11-067662-4 (Print), 978-3-11-067663-1 (E-Book PDF, Open Access), 978-3-11-067665-5 (E-Book EPUB, Open Access)
Claude Haas, Johannes Steizinger, Daniel Weidner (ed./eds.)

Goethe um 1900

LiteraturForschung vol. 32
Kulturverlag Kadmos, Berlin 2017, 291 pages
ISBN 978-3-86599-349-6
Stephan Braese, Daniel Weidner (ed./eds.)

Meine Sprache ist Deutsch
Deutsche Sprachkultur von Juden und die Geisteswissenschaften 1870–1970

LiteraturForschung vol. 25
Kulturverlag Kadmos, Berlin 2015, 290 pages
ISBN 978-3-86599-286-4

Claude Haas

Daniel Weidner

  • Das große Problem bleibt hier die Sprache. Jüdische Autoren und deutsche Sprachkultur in der Bibelwissenschaft und Religionsgeschichte, in: Arndt Engelhardt, Susanne Zepp (eds.): Sprache, Erkenntnis und Bedeutung. Deutsch in der jüdischen Wissenskultur (Leipziger Beitrage zur jüdischen Geschichte und Kultur 11). Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag 2015, 37–53
  • Doppelstaat, Unstaat, Massenwahntheorie. Wissenschaftssprache und politisches Denken im Exil, in: Jahrbuch Exilforschung 32 (2014), 100–117

Sigrid Weigel

  • Erkenntnispotenzial und ideologische Erbschaften – zur deutschen Wissenschaftssprache in den Geisteswissenschaften und ihrer Geschichte, in: Goethe Institut, DAAD, Institut für Deutsche Sprache (eds.): Deutsch in den Wissenschaften. Beiträge zu Status und Perspektiven der Wissenschaftssprache Deutsch. München: Klett-Langenscheidt 2013, 57–67


30 Jun 2016 – 02 Jul 2016

Über Wissenschaft reden. Sprachgebrauch, Darstellungsform und Adressierungsstruktur der deutschen Wissenschaftsprosa um 1800

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. Et.

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11 Dec 2014 – 12 Dec 2014

Goethe um 1900

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. Et.

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Public evening event under the initiative GERMAN 3.0
28 May 2014 · 7.00 pm

Deutsch als Sprache der Geisteswissenschaften II: Historische Perspektiven auf ein aktuelles Problem

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. Et., Trajekte-Tagungsraum 308

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Workshop under the initiative GERMAN 3.0
28 May 2014 · 10.00 am

Deutsch als Sprache der Geisteswissenschaften I: Ursprünge um 1800

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. Et., Trajekte-Tagungsraum 308

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International Conference
17 Jan 2013 – 19 Jan 2013

»Meine Sprache ist Deutsch«. Deutsche Sprachkultur von Juden und die Geisteswissenschaften 1870-1970

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. Et., Trajekte-Tagungsraum

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International annual conference of the ZfL
01 Dec 2011 – 03 Dec 2011 · 3.00 pm

nachDenken. Internationale Wirkungsgeschichte der deutschsprachigen Geisteswissenschaften und ihrer Sprache

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. Et., Trajekte-Tagungsraum 308

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