Universität Erfurt

"Jüdisches Sprachdenken". The German-Jewish contribution to modern linguistic and cultural theory. A German-Israeli-Foundation Project

The research project addresses the history of "Sprachdenken" in Germany and will be carried out as a cooperation between research groups at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Principle Investigator Prof. Dr. Gabriel Motzkin and Dr. Ashraf Noor, Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Centre) and at the University of Erfurt (Principle Investigator PD Dr. Gerald Hartung and Dr. Sabine Sander, Max-Weber-Kolleg). In this project, the aim is to investigate the contribution of Jewish thinkers and of Jewish traditions in the history of the theory of language since the 18th century in German-speaking countries. It is based on the hypothesis that the development of a theory of culture in modernity issues forth from the tension-ridden relations between Jewish, Christian, and secular streams of thought. The project studies these relations in so far as they become manifest in the field of the reflection on the theory of language and enter into manifold intellectual debates. Cultural, economic, and social questions are considered as the horizon of this field.

The history of "Sprachdenken" is part of German-Jewish intellectual and cultural history, which flourished between 1780 and 1933, the ramifications of which are, however, still vital today. While intellectual history and social history have been the objects of many studies in recent decades, the theme of "language" as a medium of culturality has not been thematised centrally in itssignificance for German-Jewish history. This is a major lacuna in research hitherto for it is evident that language and the reflection on language constituted the privileged medium for the German-Jewish "agreement" (Cohen) since the 18th century. It is Hermann Cohen who points this out decisively in his text "Von Deutschtum und Judentum" (1915), when he lauds the important role of Moses Mendelssohn in the following words: "Language was seen as being the medium redeeming them from the ghetto. And he elected the German language as this remedy for Judaism." It is clear for Cohen that the German-Jewish "agreement" is based on the conceptions of humanity postulated by Kant and Herder and that it is primarily to be realised in the medium of the German language. Furthermore, it should be noted that these two strands were interwoven with a third one that goes beyond the reference to the German language. This is comprised by the reflection, initiated by Mendelssohn, on "language" as a basic universal structure of human culturality.

The relationship of Jews to the German language and the reflection of Jewish thinkers on language in the German context is to be analysed as a case study in which central issues of modernity become manifest. These issues involve conceptual figures of caesura and the problematic of continuity, relations of inclusion and exclusion, and shifting constellations of personal and group identity. Discerning these figures and describing them in the context in question entails the investigation of the forms in which a community becomes severed from a religious tradition and searches for criteria of coherence and authority in other domains, of the tension between divergent life-worlds, and of the intricate ways in which a minority group relates to a dominant culture in a period in which language becomes intimately and often ideologically linked to the nation state.

From Moses Mendelssohn and Salomon Maimon to Ludwig Wittgenstein and Walter Benjamin, German- Jewish thinkers express their consciousness of this tension and reflect, at certain junctures, on the specific character that their language and their writing has in the context of their Jewish affiliations. The form this reflection takes, and the terms of its reference, differs in each thinker. Whatever the position that Jewish thinkers may take with regard to their own or other Jews' relation to the German language, the consciousness of their situation as being particular is an important feature of their reflection.


  • Gabriel Motzkin, Van Leer Institute and Franz Rosenzweig Research Centre
  • Gerald Hartung, Forschungssttte der Evangelischen Studiengemeinschaft e.V. and Max Weber Center
  • Ashraf Noor, Franz Rosenzweig Research Centre
  • Sabine Sander, Max Weber Center

The themes that the project addresses concern:

  1. the conception of language in relation to psychology and cultural theory that developed in the nineteenth century in response to the thought of Wilhelm von Humboldt and a body of philosophical thought in the twentieth century that, in a different mode, pursues the questions raised by the thinkers who were responsible for that earlier development in the philosophy of language.
  2. the conception of language in relation to cultural theory. The thesis is that for example Cassirer's understanding of language as the determining factor in human culture is of great relevance to the philosophical thought and liberal cultural theory of the twentieth century. We find the influence of his conception of "language" as a basic universal structure of human culturality in the symbolic theories of Bourdieu and Goodman, in the anthropological conception of Geertz, in Berger-Luckmann's sociological theory of a symbolic construction of reality, and in Ricoeur's conception of social and cultural imagination.


Conference I: November, 5-7 2008 Van Leer Institut Jerusalem, in cooperation with Forschungsstätte der Evangelischen Studiengemeinschaft e. V. Heidelberg (FEST), The cultural and scientific context of "Jüdisches Sprachdenken" in 18th and 19th centuries. From Moses Mendelssohn to Hermann Cohen (Programm )

Conference II: March 2010 in Erfurt
The impact of "Jüdisches Sprachdenken" on the emergence of cultural philosophical theories of Modernity


Werner Hamacher, Gerald Hartung, Ashraf Noor: Judentum und Sprachdenken. 18. bis 20. Jahrhundert. Fink-Verlag. München (forthcoming 2008)



Nutzermenü und Sprachwahl