Jacob Taubes in Context. Philosophy of Religion in Germany after 1945

Starting points for our study into the intellectual history of the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany after 1945 were the appointment of the philosopher and ordained rabbi Jacob Taubes as founding chair of Jewish Studies at Freie Universität Berlin as well as the establishment of interdisciplinary hermeneutics, which he imported from the USA as a philosophy of religion. Taubes, in this context, was not understood as a unique figure acting on his own, but served as paradigm within the context of the philosophy of religion after 1945. His literary legacy provided an important foundation for this research. The most comprehensive holdings thereof are kept at ZfL and are being extended with additional documents from other posthumous archives since more than a decade. They have contributed to achieving a more complex and varied image of intellectual networks from the 1960s to the early 1980s.

Philosophy of religion—which, in our context, is not to be understood as a subdiscipline of philosophy or theology—makes evident a twofold void in Germany after 1945. On the one hand, the void was the deep scar left by the exclusion of Jewish thinkers due to the Gleichschaltung of academia and exile after 1933. On the other it was a blind spot in the humanities, which have ever avoided the question of the foundations of culture in cult and the afterlife of religion in modern times as potent forces underneath the surface. Under these circumstances, debates in theory and cultural criticism again picked up the threads of key discussions in the past because of the slowly growing interest in Jewish philosophy and religious culture—and the fact that philosophy of religion was re-established as an independent interdisciplinary constellation. Fresh impetus from the US and France enhanced this state of affairs. In this situation, which was experienced as existential, the interest increased in ways of looking at religion and at the interfaces it shared with theology and philosophy. Hans Blumenberg’s essays and papers highlight this process exemplarily. However, Blumenberg wanted to prove that theological speculation possessed a philosophical content that could be unearthed by reconstructing the history of theories. Jacob Taubes’s critical interventions pursued a contrary direction. His interests were devoted to the perpetual real presence of religious content, above all in Judaism, Early Christianity, and Gnosticism, both in their potentiality and in their return to intellectual as well as political history. Significant dates relevant for the time and developments are the re-establishment of critical theory by Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno at Frankfurt University in 1949, Eric Voegelin being appointed Max Weber’s former chair at Munich University in 1958, and Hans Joachim Schoeps becoming professor and director of the Seminar for the History of Religion and Ideas at Erlangen University in 1950. At the same time these intellectuals span a broad political spectrum from left wing through conservative to the far right. Even events that at first glance appeared to be just passing occurrences contributed to the formation of a philosophy of religion in the widest (Szondi) or the narrowest sense (Taubes)—as we see in the examples of Peter Szondi inviting Gershom Scholem to the Institute of Comparative Literature, which was founded at Freie Universität Berlin in 1965, and Jacob Taubes being appointed professor in Berlin in 1962. Both Taubes and Szondi were forcefully engaged in reintroducing theories from exile. Taubes sought to go even further by introducing a philosophy that primarily focused on underlying religious strata. Encompassing irreducible remnants, these religious “undercurrents”—as these strata were aptly called by a contemporary—withstood being translated into ‘pure’ philosophy. From the angle of the intellectual history of religio-philosophical thought, we analyzed the attempts to pick up the threads of the debates and traditions of Weimar Germany and to retrieve the state of intellectual exchange at the time across multiple front lines after the break caused by the Nazis and the end of the war. Berlin, the divided and destroyed capital, was pivotal for these efforts, and Freie Universität—founded with the active participation of also its students—was a key player. This university was the place that institutionalized philosophy of religion with a secular program for the academic study of religion (Religionswissenschaft) separate from its Divinity School. Philosophy of religion has been taught there since 1948, which is unique within the German Federal Republic even now. Like Jewish Studies, which were established at Freie Universität in 1963, both Protestant and Catholic theology and programs for academic study of religion operated as “academic disciplines that sought to come to terms with National Socialism” (Klaus Heinrich). The relevant decisions on the choice of faculty members were made in three phases—in 1961, after 1968, and again around 1980: Jacob Taubes was appointed professor for Jewish studies and sociology of religion (until 1979), was the chair of the Institute for Hermeneutics (until 1987), professorships for Carsten Colpe (History of Religion at the Institute for Protestant Theology) and Klaus Heinrich (Religious Study Program based on philosophy of religion) as well as for Michael Theunissen and Karlfried Gründer at the Department of Philosophy.

The research project also contributed to the ongoing discussion on the intellectual foundations of the German Federal Republic, here in the field of religio-philosophical thought. It centered less on the major works in this field and instead focussed on preliminary drafts, essays, and projects, examining not only interventions in public debates, but also correspondence among the relevant intellectuals. Besides gaining insights into the thought workshops, it wanted to explore with unfinished projects, which have sometimes been more influential than a magnum opus. In this way, the research project launched an attempt to give the study of ‘minor forms’ of theory-making more weight besides its usual subject area and approach.
Program funding through the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) 2014–2018
Head researcher(s): Martin Treml
Associate Researcher(s): Herbert Kopp-Oberstebrink


See also:
ZfL project Correspondence of Jacob Taubes (2008–2013)


Herbert Kopp-Oberstebrink, Hartmut von Sass (ed./eds.)

Depeche Mode
Jacob Taubes between Politics, Philosophy, and Religion

Supplements to The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy vol. 23
Brill, Leiden 2022, 218 pages
ISBN 978-90- 04-50509-4 (Print); 978-90- 04-50510-0 (PDF)
Herbert Kopp-Oberstebrink, Martin Treml (ed./eds.)
with the assistance of Theresia Heuer and Anja Schipke

Jacob Taubes: Apokalypse und Politik
Aufsätze, Kritiken und kleinere Schriften

Wilhelm Fink Verlag, Paderborn 2017, 446 pages
ISBN 978-3-7705-6056-1

Herbert Kopp-Oberstebrink

Martin Treml


Book presentation and discussion
05 Mar 2018 · 7.00 pm

Apokalypse und Politik. Jacob Taubes und die Folgen

Katholische Akademie in Berlin e.V., Hannoversche Str. 5, 10115 Berlin

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Workshop am IFK Wien
06 Apr 2017 · 2.00 pm

Apokalypse und Politik. Zur Aktualität von Jacob Taubes

IFK Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften/Kunstuniversität Linz in Wien, Reichsratsstr. 17, 1010 Wien (Österreich)

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Media Response

12 May 2010
De Maistre und andere Reaktionäre

Article on the contribution of Herbert Kopp-Oberstebrink and Martin Treml, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 12 May 2010