I Am an Impure Thinker by Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy
(Argo Books, 2001, 243 pages)
Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s social, linguistic, and religious theories makes for a fascinating and original take on the development of Western civilization. I’ve seen him cited and praised by several of my favorite contemporary theologians. I finally decided to read this collection of essays as an introduction to the basic themes of his work. W. H. Auden provided the Foreword to the original 1970 edition, and he included this warning/commendation:
I should warn anyone reading him for the first time that, to begin with, he may find as I did, certain aspects of Rosenstock-Huessy’s writings a bit hard to take. At times he seems to claim to be the only man who has ever seen the light about History and Language. But let the reader persevere, and he will find, as I did that he is richly rewarded. He will be forced to admit that, very often, the author’s claim is just: he has uncovered many truths hidden from his predecessors. (i)
Both the caution and the praise are justified. Rosenstock-Huessy’s prose is often difficult to make sense of, and some of his claims are grandiose. However, his core ideas shine through in brilliantly succinct sentences like this one: “The very essence of learning is to anticipate experience; all education is life in advance” (97).
The “impurity” of Rosenstock-Huessy’s thought refers to his rejection of the supposed scientific objectivity of modern scholarship. His educational, linguistic, and religious reflections are compromised by his passionate commitments. In an essay on William James, Rosenstock-Huessy boldly states that “Any philosophy which glosses over your duty or mine to die for a cause is eyewash” (30). This sense that intellectual reflection needs to be guided and sustained by devotion to a cause led him to found Camp William James, a volunteer labor service that formed as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. For Rosenstock-Huessy, scholarship is not about neutral observation, but about impassioned engagement.
The essays in I Am an Impure Thinker deal with the aridity of Cartesian rationalism, the stages of development in societies, and the formative influence of Christianity on Western culture. However, I found the most interesting aspect of the volume to be its focus on the education process. The essay “Teaching Too Late, Learning Too Early,” is a brilliant discussion of that process and the way that teacher’s must employ their own experience and wisdom to create a sense of expectancy in their students. It is in his more concrete comments about education that Rosenstock-Huessy’s impenetrable ideas come into clearest focus. In this respect, this book could be of real practical value to educators at all levels.