Shengren – Chapter – Karl W. F. v. Schlegel

Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel was the pupil of Herder. The romantic Herder and his compatriots had just given the Germans a new pride in their own language and folktales at a time when philosophers like Schelling and Hegel already celebrated the German language as the key to the most profound and philosophical thought. Consequently, any thought, any concept, idea, tale or history captured in German language was there to stay with the nation forever. German culture was about to expand. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were a case in point. They did the greatest service to German language and folklore by collecting German folk tales. The aim of the philosophers was strikingly similar: German thinkers like Herder had to collect (or consume) thought and produce new ideas from it, which eventually would help to create a German empire (or shall we say economy) of thought.[1]

Karl Schlegel became an expert on Oriental culture, in particular the Indian tradition. Needless to say, in line with the philosophical tradition, Schlegel never studied far abroad. He went to Paris and Cologne instead. As a philosopher, Schlegel needed no experience of Indian culture; all he needed as a philosopher was a logical argument and sound judgment. Yet, as an orientalist, Schlegel also had to deliver at least some scholarly content – he had to be particular and exact in his Oriental studies. So he studied basic Sanskrit and Persian (via the medium of transliterations) in France in order to read primary sources, a must in professional scholarship. After that, he felt able to write his epoch-making Orientalism: Űber die Sprache und Weisheit der Inder (1808). Orientalism is a history book sparkled with enthusiasm not so much about India but more about the study of India. This is an important distinction to make, as most European scholars during Schlegel’s time spent but a tiny fraction of their lives in India at all.

Schlegel wrote with a sense of urgency: the British Indologists William Jones and Charles Wilkins (translator of the Bhagavad-Gita in 1785) had written their own epoch-making books several decades before him already; German orientalism was far lagging behind. When people are in a hurry, especially when national pride is at stake, they tend to overlook things. Schlegel was predestined to become the greatest India expert Germany had yet produced: writing about a country he never saw, about people he never met, about a tradition he never experienced. Like a fiction. And that was no surprise. Schlegel was greatly influenced by the romanticists August von Schlegel (his brother), Georg F. P. Freiherr von Hardenberg (also knows as Novalis), and his mentor Herder. They all had issues with reality.

Schlegel knew a lot more about German romanticism and idealism, folk tales, and Classical philology than he knew about India, thus Schlegel’s India looked like ten percent Indian raw material and ninety percent German theory, all written, of course, a hundred percent in German language. Such a strange composition was still a worthwhile business: If one unit of Indian raw material amounted to ten units of German intellectual output, then German orientalism looked like a profitable enterprise: an economy of thought. The historian John N. McDaniel once mentioned the close correlation between the German romanticism and German orientalism. Both were idealist movements in which a culture was spiritualized. Only that in Orientalism the target culture was explicitly a foreign one. Germany was not the only power very good at this. Every imperialist people mystified itself and explained itself and others in terms of its own language and theories: “it is all but a perpetual progress”.[2] That’s why the restless Schlegel and his likes were good news for German culture.


[1] Barnard, 1965

[2] McDaniels, 1952, p. 197