Rosenstock-Huessy served as an officer in the German army during World War I. His experience caused him to reexamine the foundations of liberal Western culture. He then pursued an academic career in Germany as a specialist in medieval law, which was disrupted by the rise of Nazism. In 1933, after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, he emigrated to the United States where he began a new academic career, initially at Harvard University and then at Dartmouth College, where he taught from 1935 to 1957.
Although never part of the mainstream of intellectual discussion during his lifetime, his work drew the attention of W. H. Auden, Harold Berman, Martin Marty, Lewis Mumford, Page Smith, and others. Rosenstock-Huessy may be best known as the close friend of and correspondent with Franz Rosenzweig. Their exchange of letters is considered by scholars of religion and theology to be indispensable in the study of the modern encounter of Jews with Christianity. In his work, Rosenstock-Huessy discussed speech and language as the dominant shaper of human character and abilities in every social context. He is viewed as belonging to a group thinkers who revived post-Nietzschean religious thought.
Despite his parents’ Jewish heritage, his family “celebrated some Christian holidays, in keeping with other German families at the time.” He joined the Lutheran Protestant Church at age 17 and was christened at age 18. He remained a devout proponent of Christianity throughout the rest of his life.
After graduating from a secondary school (gymnasium) with very high academic standards and an emphasis on classical languages and literature, Rosenstock-Huessy pursued law studies at the universities of Zurich, Heidelberg, and Berlin. In 1909 the University of Heidelberg granted him a doctorate in law. In 1912 he became a Privatdozent, a preliminary qualification to becoming a professor, at the University of Leipzig, where he taught constitutional law and the history of law until 1914.
In 1914 Rosenstock-Huessy visited Florence, Italy to conduct historical research. There he met Margrit Hüssy, a Swiss art history major. They married later that year. World War I broke out shortly thereafter.
In 1921, Rosenstock founded Die Akademie der Arbeit (the Academy of Labor) in Frankfurt/Main. “This institution offered courses and seminars for blue-collar workers, but he resigned in 1923 over differences with the trade union representatives. Nevertheless, he did not give up his involvement with adult education and his efforts to give industrial workers a voice of their own in society.” He co-founded the Patmos Verlag publishing house, which published works on “new religious, philosophical, and social perspectives.”
During this period, Rosenstock-Huessy became active in many other ways at the University of Breslau. He helped organize voluntary work service camps— Löwenberger Arbeitslager (Löwenberg Work Camp) —for students, young farmers, and young workers to address the living and labor conditions at coal mines in Waldenburg, Lower Silesia.
In 1926, Joseph Wittig, a reform-minded Roman Catholic priest, was excommunicated and thus lost his right to teach church history at the University of Breslau. Rosenstock-Huessy stood by his friend, Wittig, in this affair. In 1927-1928, they co-authored Das Alter der Kirche (The Age of the Church), which contained two volumes of essays on the history of the Church and a third volume devoted to documents leading up to Wittig’s excommunication.
In 1925, he co-founded a journal, Die Kreatur (The Creature), which was edited by Wittig, a Roman Catholic; Martin Buber, a Jew; and Viktor von Weizsäcker, a Protestant, and lasted until 1930. “Among the contributors were Nicholas Berdyaev, Lev Shestov, Franz Rosenzweig, Ernst Simon, Hugo Bergmann, Rudolf Hallo, and Florens Christian Rang. Each of these men had, between 1910 and 1932, in one way or another, offered an alternative to the idealism, positivism, and historicism that dominated German universities.”
Soon after January 30, 1933, when the National Socialists (Nazis) assumed power in Germany, Rosenstock-Huessy resigned from the University of Breslau and departed Germany that year. By the end of 1933, he received an appointment as Lecturer in German Art and Culture at Harvard University with the help of a professor of government there.
“While he was still teaching at Breslau, Rosenstock wrote and published the first of his major works: Die Europäischen Revolutionen: Volkscharaktere und Staatenbildung (The European Revolutions and the Character of Nations; 1931). This book showed how 1,000 years of European history had been created from five different European national revolutions that collectively came to an end in World War I.”
At Harvard, he had made friends there who helped him in his publishing efforts. His first major writing task was to develop an English-language revision of his earlier book on revolutions, and he soon published Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man in 1938. George Allen Morgan, a former Harvard student under Alfred North Whitehead and himself the author of the classic What Nietzsche Means, subsequently assisted Rosenstock-Huessy in the preparation of The Christian Future or the Modern Mind Outrun in 1946. Further, Whitehead had strongly supported Rosenstock-Huessy in his disagreements with members of the Harvard faculty.
The present time is bound (...) to attempt an organization of future society by which the dynamite of revolution may be manipulated as persistently and consciously as contractors use real dynamite in building tunnels or roads.During 1956 through 1958, Rosenstock-Huessy developed the principle of metanomics in his two-volume Soziologie (Sociology)—Volume I: On the Forces of Common Life (When Space Governs) and Volume II: On the Forces of History (When the Times Are Obeyed). During 1963 through 1964, he further developed this principle in Volumes I & II of, Die Sprache des Menschengeschlechts: Eine Leibhaftige Grammatik in Vier Teilen (The Speech of Mankind: A Personal Grammar in Four Parts). Whereas Soziologie is unavailable in English, Rosenstock-Huessy's Speech and Reality is an English-language introduction to that work. A collection of his writings, I Am an Impure Thinker offers a good overview of Rosenstock-Huessy's thought processes.
After World War II and continuing through his retirement from Dartmouth, Rosenstock-Huessy was a frequent guest professor at many universities in Germany and the United States. He remained active in lecturing and writing until his final years. His output comprises more than 500 essays, articles, and monographs, as well as 40 books. He was awarded an honorary doctoral degree in 1958 at the University of Münster. Rosenstock-Huessy died on February 24, 1973.
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