ⓘ Geist


ⓘ Geist

Geist is a German noun with a degree of importance in German philosophy. Its semantic field corresponds to English ghost, spirit, mind, intellect. Some English translators resort to using "spirit/mind" or "spirit to help convey the meaning of the term.

Geist is also a central concept in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegels 1807 The Phenomenology of Spirit Phanomenologie des Geistes. Notable compounds, all associated with Hegels view of world history of the late 18th century, include Weltgeist "world-spirit", Volksgeist "national spirit" and Zeitgeist "spirit of the age".


1. Etymology and translation

German Geist masculine gender continues Old High German geist, attested as the translation of Latin spiritus. It is the direct cognate of English ghost, from a West Germanic gaistaz. Its derivation from a PIE root g̑heis- "to be agitated, frightened" suggests that the Germanic word originally referred to frightening c.f. English ghastly apparitions or ghosts, and may also have carried the connotation of "ecstatic agitation, furor related to the cult of Germanic Mercury. As the translation of biblical Latin spiritus Greek πνεῦμα "spirit, breath" the Germanic word acquires a Christian meaning from an early time, notably in reference to the Holy Spirit. The English word is in competition with Latinate spirit from the Middle English period, but its broader meaning is preserved well into the early modern period.

The German noun much like English spirit could refer to spooks or ghostly apparitions of the dead, to the religious concept, as in the Holy Spirit, as well as to the "spirit of wine", i.e. ethanol. However, its special meaning of "mind, intellect" never shared by English ghost is acquired only in the 18th century, under the influence of French esprit. In this sense it became extremely productive in the German language of the 18th century in general as well as in 18th-century German philosophy. Geist could now refer to the quality of intellectual brilliance, to wit, innovation, erudition, etc. It is also in this time that the adjectival distinction of geistlich "spiritual, pertaining to religion" vs. geistig "intellectual, pertaining to the mind" begins to be made. Reference to spooks or ghosts is made by the adjective geisterhaft "ghostly, spectral".

Numerous compounds are formed in the 18th to 19th centuries, some of them loan translations of French expressions, such as Geistesgegenwart = presence desprit "mental presence, acuity", Geistesabwesenheit = absence d’esprit "mental absence, distraction", geisteskrank "mentally ill", geistreich "witty, intellectually brilliant", geistlos "unintelligent, unimaginative, vacuous" etc. It is from these developments that certain German compounds containing -geist have been loaned into English, such as Zeitgeist.

German Geist in this particular sense of "mind, wit, erudition; intangible essence, spirit" has no precise English-language equivalent, for which reason translators sometimes retain Geist as a German loanword.


2. Hegelianism

Geist is a central concept in Hegels The Phenomenology of Spirit Phanomenologie des Geistes. According to Hegel, the Weltgeist "world spirit" is not an actual object or a transcendental, Godlike thing, but a means of philosophizing about history. Weltgeist is effected in history through the mediation of various Volksgeister "national spirits", the great men of history, such as Napoleon, are the "concrete universal".

This has led some to claim that Hegel favored the great man theory, although his philosophy of history, in particular concerning the role of the "universal state" Universalstaat, which means a universal "order" or "statute" rather than "state", and of an "End of History" is much more complex.

For Hegel, the great hero is unwittingly utilized by Geist or absolute spirit, by a "ruse of reason" as he puts it, and is irrelevant to history once his historic mission is accomplished; he is thus subjected to the teleological principle of history, a principle which allows Hegel to reread the history of philosophy as culminating in his philosophy of history.

Weltgeist, the world spirit concept, designates an idealistic principle of world explanation, which can be found from the beginnings of philosophy up to more recent time. The concept of world spirit was already accepted by the idealistic schools of ancient Indian philosophy, whereby one explained objective reality as its product. See metaphysical objectivism In the early philosophy of Greek antiquity, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all paid homage, amongst other things, to the concept of world spirit. Hegel later based his philosophy of history on it.


3. Weltgeist

Weltgeist "world-spirit" is older than the 18th century, at first 16th century in the sense of "secularism, impiety, irreligiosity" spiritus mundi, in the 17th century also personalised in the sense of "man of the world", "mundane or secular person". Also from the 17th century, Weltgeist acquired a philosophical or spiritual sense of "world-spirit" or "world-soul" anima mundi, spiritus universi in the sense of Panentheism, a spiritual essence permeating all of nature, or the active principle animating the universe, including the physical sense, such as the attraction between magnet and iron or between Moon and tide.

This idea of Weltgeist in the sense of anima mundi became very influential in 18th-century German philosophy. In philosophical contexts, der Geist on its own could refer to this concept, as in Christian Thomasius, Versuch vom Wesen des Geistes 1709. Belief in a Weltgeist as animating principle immanent to the universe became dominant in German thought due to the influence of Goethe, in the later part of the 18th century.

Already in the poetical language of Johann Ulrich von Konig d. 1745, the Weltgeist appears as the active, masculine principle opposite the feminine principle of Nature. Weltgeist in the sense of Goethe comes close to being a synonym of God and can be attributed agency and will. Herder, who tended to prefer the form Weltengeist as it were "spirit of worlds", pushes this to the point of composing prayers addressed to this world-spirit:

O Weltengeist, Bist du so gutig, wie du machtig bist, Enthulle mir, den du mitfuhlend zwar, Und doch so grausam schufst, erklare mir Das Loos der Fuhlenden, die durch mich leiden. "O World-spirit, be as benevolent as you are powerful and reveal to me, whom you have created with compassion and yet cruelly, explain to me the lot of the sentient, who suffer through me"

The term was notably embraced by Hegel and his followers in the early 19th century. For the 19th century, the term as used by Hegel 1807 became prevalent, less in the sense of an animating principle of nature or the universe but as the invisible force advancing world history:

Im Gange der Geschichte ist das eine wesentliche Moment die Erhaltung eines Volkes, proceeds."

Hegels description of Napoleon as "the world-soul on horseback" die Weltseele zu Pferde became proverbial. The phrase is a shortened paraphrase of Hegels words in a letter written on 13 October 1806, the day before the Battle of Jena, to his friend Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer:

I saw the Emperor – this world-soul – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.

The letter was not published in Hegels time, but the expression was attributed to Hegel anecdotally, appearing in print from 1859. It is used without attribution by Meyer Kayserling in his Sephardim 1859:103, and is apparently not recognized as a reference to Hegel by the reviewer in Gottingische gelehrte Anzeigen, who notes it disapprovingly, as one of Kayserlings "bad jokes" schlechte Witze. The phrase become widely associated with Hegel later in the 19th century.


4. Volksgeist

Volksgeist or Nationalgeist refers to a "spirit" of an individual people Volk, its "national spirit" or "national character". The term Nationalgeist is used in the 1760s by Justus Moser and by Johann Gottfried Herder. The term Nation at this time is used in the sense of natio "nation, ethnic group, race", mostly replaced by the term Volk after 1800. In the early 19th century, the term Volksgeist was used by Friedrich Carl von Savigny in order to express the "popular" sense of justice. Savigniy explicitly referred to the concept of an esprit des nations used by Voltaire. and of the esprit general invoked by Montesquieu.

Hegel uses the term in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History. Based on the Hegelian use of the term, Wilhelm Wundt, Moritz Lazarus and Heymann Steinthal in the mid-19th-century established the field of Volkerpsychologie "psychology of nations".

In Germany the concept of Volksgeist has developed and changed its meaning through eras and fields. The most important examples are: In the literary field, Schlegel and the Brothers Grimm. In the history of cultures, Herder. In the history of the State or political history, Hegel. In the field of law, Savigny and in the field of psychology Wundt. This means that the concept is ambiguous. Furthermore it is not limited to Romanticism as it is commonly known.

The concept of was also influential in American cultural anthropology. According to the historian of anthropology George W. Stocking, Jr., "… one may trace the later American anthropological idea of culture back through Bastians Volkergedanken and the folk psychologists Volksgeister to Wilhelm von Humboldts Nationalcharakter -- and behind that, although not without a paradoxical and portentous residue of conceptual and ideological ambiguity, to the Herderian ideal of Volksgeist."


5. Zeitgeist

The compound Zeitgeist ;, "spirit of the age" or "spirit of the times" similarly to Weltgeist describes an invisible agent or force dominating the characteristics of a given epoch in world history. The term is now mostly associated with Hegel, contrasting with Hegels use of Volksgeist "national spirit" and Weltgeist "world-spirit", but its coinage and popularization precedes Hegel, and is mostly due to Herder and Goethe.

The term as used contemporarily may more pragmatically refer to a fashion or fad which prescribes what is acceptable or tasteful, e.g. in the field of architecture.

Hegel in Phenomenology of the Spirit 1807 uses both Weltgeist and Volksgeist but prefers the phrase Geist der Zeiten "spirit of the times" over the compound Zeitgeist.

Hegel believed that culture and art reflected its time. Thus, he argued that it would be impossible to produce classical art in the modern world, as modernity is essentially a "free and ethical culture".

The term has also been used more widely in the sense of an intellectual or aesthetic fashion or fad. For example, Charles Darwins 1859 proposition that evolution occurs by natural selection has been cited as a case of the zeitgeist of the epoch, an idea "whose time had come", seeing that his contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace, was outlining similar models during the same period. Similarly, intellectual fashions such as the emergence of logical positivism in the 1920s, leading to a focus on behaviorism and blank-slatism over the following decades, and later, during the 1950s to 1960s, the shift from behaviorism to post-modernism and critical theory can be argued to be an expression of the intellectual or academic "zeitgeist". Zeitgeist in more recent usage has been used by Forsyth 2009 in reference to his "theory of leadership" and in other publications describing models of business or industry. Malcolm Gladwell argued in his book Outliers that entrepreneurs who succeeded in the early stages of a nascent industry often share similar characteristics.

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