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H. Steinthal: A Psychologist of the Jewish People

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Abstract This paper deals with the concept of Judaism by H. Steinthal (1823–1899), a renowned linguist in nineteenth-century Germany and a lecturer at the Hochschule für Wissenschaft des Judentums. The first part (sections 1–3) outlines his early education and scholarly development with regard to Völkerpsychologie, which strives to clarify the mental characteristics of peoples in the richness and pletitude of their diversity. Through his intensive study of the works by Wilhelm von Humboldt, Steinthal constructed his own theory of linguistics, which would play a crucial role in that socio-psychological study of the culture represented by the discipline of Völkerpsychologie. The second part (sections 4–6) discusses in the main Steinthal’s commitment to Judaism in regard to personal, public and cultural aspects. Throughout this part of the paper, the role of emotional elements within his concept of Judaism is emphasized. As Dieter Adelman has pointed out, the notion of devotion (Andacht) constitutes the crux of his view on religious practice, even if Steinthal offered a quite rational (and almost atheistic) concept of religion, inclusive of Judaism. Section 6 explores Steinthal’s treatise on Deuteronomy (Das fünfte Buch Mose/Die erzählende Stücke im fünften Buch Mose) as a work of Völkerpsychologie. In this treatise, Steinthal sought to find a coherency of Deuteronomy, which originally consists of various sources, as Bible studies had revealed already in the mid-nineteenth century. Steinthal found it in the prosaic style of Deuteronomy, which he characterized as ‘charming’ and ‘endearing’, and it marked for him the birth of Jewish national literature and Jewish national spirit or national mind (Volksgeist). In conclusion, his treatise is reconsidered in its historical context. It was a challenge to reconstruct a synthetic view of Jewish literature, after Bible studies and the Wissenschaft des Judentums had pointed up the great variety and diversity within the history of Jews. Hermann Cohen succeeded in this task, building on Steinthal, in his major work, Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism.


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