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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Public writers of the German Enlightenment: studies in Lessing, Abbt and Herder Redekop, Benjamin Wall


European Enlightenment culture was a fundamental locus for the emergence and conceptualization of what has come to be called the "modern public sphere." In this study I analyse the figure of "the public" during roughly the third quarter of the eighteenth-century, primarily as refracted in the writings of three prominent German Aufklarer, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Thomas Abbt, and Johann Gottfried Herder. Scholarly discussion about the emergence of a German public sphere and "public opinion" has tended to focus on the latter decades of the eighteenth- century, with little awareness of the fact that earlier on, the notion of a "public" itself was being constituted and contested by "public writers" like Lessing, Abbt and Herder. This occurred within the context of what I am calling "the problem of Publikum," the particular German problem of social and political fragmentation. The writings of Lessing, Abbt arid Herder can be profitably understood as mediating between the wider European Republic of Letters and a more circumscribed, problematical German Publikum. By reading their works in light of Enlightenment discourses of science, sociability, aesthetics and politics-discourses that in one way or another touched upon the issue of a modern "public"--as well as in view of the "problem of Publikum" and the German social and intellectual scene generally, I am able to connect their intellectual content both with wider European currents and local German socio-political concerns. I argue that Lessing's dramatic and literary-critical work sought to constitute a German public that was both sympathetically responsive yet critically distanced from itself. Abbt, painfully aware of the "problem of Publikum," strove to inscribe a public sphere in the idiom of patriotism and morals. And Herder's intervention in an emerging German public sphere can be understood as building on the work of Abbt and Lessing to theorize the relationship between language, literature and the Publikum in a complex vision of "organic enlightenment." The dissertation employs a variety of primary and secondary sources, including works by an array of European thinkers who played a role in Lessing, Abbt and Herder's intellectual development. And it theorizes the developments profiled in light of contemporary theories of the public sphere and the social-psychology of George H. Mead, engaging questions of personal and social identity, inclusion/exclusion, and gender.

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