New Perspectives on the Austrian Enlightenment

Heather Morrison - 15 November 2011

Originally appeared in Habsburg A H-Net Discussion Network. 19 October 2011.

Years ago, Franz Szabo and David Luft first discussed holding a new conference on the Austrian Enlightenment. As Szabo stepped down from his thirteen-year tenure as head of the Wirth Institute at the
University of Alberta, he felt organizing the conference would be a fitting final act. The Institute, now led by Joseph Patrouch, and the University of Alberta, were gracious hosts for an intellectually stimulating two days as the sessions on "New Perspectives on the Austrian Enlightenment" assessed the state of knowledge in that field. Several themes connected the fifteen papers and point to new areas for scholarly exploration. One regarded the value of eighteenth-century Habsburg intellectual and cultural contributions. The keynote address by Ernst Wangermann (University of Salzburg) considered the Austrian Enlightenment through the lens of language. Wangermann showed the discussions about language initiated by Sonnenfels and pursued through the pamphlet debates on popular devotion in the wake of the pope's visit reveal a unique contribution to Enlightenment. The original forms and local focus of these works ensured their quality would not be recognized by international contemporaries or even by later writers in Austria. The keynote sought recognition for Habsburg intellectual history on its own terms, and thus set the tone for the ensuing discussions of the varieties of cultural and intellectual production there. One panel focused on music and literature to explain how culture produced enlightenment ideas or how ideas motivated and informed cultural production. John Rice (University of Pittsburgh) traced enlightenment ideas from writings and explicit musical constructions into more abstract compositions. Through this method he illustrated Austrian composers' engagement with enlightenment and how their works responded to contemporary cosmopolitan developments. Heather Morrison (SUNY New Paltz) looked at a poetry journal to reconstruct a literary circle which used the press to evoke a cosmopolitan, sophisticated community of respected authors. Their intention in doing so was to publicize Vienna as a contributing city in the international Republic of Letters. These papers and others showed the rich culture of late-eighteenth century Austria responded to broader enlightenment ideas but developed substantial, unique, and even profound enlightenment contributions. The conference papers showed that there were more grand projects, more lasting contributions, and more varied means of dissemination of ideas than scholarship has recorded. Olga Khavanova's paper gave life to political ideas, tracing their dissemination through people. She uncovered the students of Joseph von Sonnenfels through records on scholarships and mapped the transfer of his ideas on statecraft into the next generation and beyond. This illustrated intentionally crafted links between his courses and bureaucracy formation, and between Vienna and more distant regions of the monarchy. Khavanova (Russian Academy of Sciences) argued the bureaucracy itself reinforced enlightenment and learning, but another speaker illustrated how bureaucracy could fail at enlightenment.

Stephan Wagner's paper on the fruitless attempt to catalogue all criminal and civil laws in the monarchy revealed an innovative and impressive compilation project pursued by the state for purposes of knowledge and increasing efficiency. Wagner (University of Regensburg) indicated the failure of the political codex project testifies to the rapidity of changes to laws under Joseph II's decade in power. But, not all enlightenment projects failed. Bruce Brown (University of Southern California) studied publications on musical theater to reveal Austrian assessments of French and Italian culture and their studied response in the creation of a new national theater that answered the problems they identified in those other national traditions. Cross-fertilization of ideas and practices combined with regional responses to reforms contributed to a worthy, 'imperial' Austrian stage. Theater and music in Vienna built on French and Italian musical theater forms to create a unique and more sophisticated national culture. Another widely recognized focus of the Austrian Enlightenment was religion, and here, too, presenters revealed complex and lasting developments from the Habsburg lands in the 1700s.

The panel on Enlightenment and Catholicism traced the international origins and effects of the Habsburg Enlightenment. Both William Bowman (Gettysburg College) and Katherine Arens (University of Texas) also illustrated the long history of precursors to Austria's Enlightenment within Catholicism and the ways in which the methods and ideals of this religious enlightenment had effects lasting through the whole of the nineteenth century and beyond. Bowman described how the ideals and practical application of Reform Catholicism allowed for a bridge to modernity without abandonment of Catholicism. Arens too looked at the practices of enlightenment to solve the persistent problem of explaining modernization in a Catholic enlightenment. Her focus on Jansenist educational establishments uncovered a system of learning that created Catholic critics capable of logic and good judgment. By tracing the long inheritance of this intellectual history, Arens and Bowman further battled accepted notions of the insignificance of an Austrian Enlightenment.

Evoking an embattled field, conference participants agreed we must do more to respect our sources and subjects. Bowman reiterated this in the concluding discussions, advocating for a more forceful defense of our field and ending its neglect in mainstream European history. Luft (Oregon State University) also suggested Austrian specialists should do more to situate their work in the key debates of Enlightenment historiography. Whereas political and religious historians have done more to connect the Austrian narrative to the mainstream, in fields like intellectual and cultural history the research has not engaged with the broader European field. Szabo, however, argued historians should assess the Austrian Enlightenment on its own terms and not use the measuring sticks provided by other enlightenment movements. Another important concern evoked through the discussions was the need to be more aware of the paradigms influencing scholars today that simply did not exist in the 1700s. The papers that looked at traditionally underrepresented areas of the monarchy contributed substantially to this discussion. David Luft pointed out Austrians and people in Czech lands had radically different understandings of place while Ivo Cerman (University of Southern Bohemia) and Akos Kovacs (Eötvös Loránd University) showed Hungarian and Bohemian elites had different understandings of disciplines and methods than our modern categories for knowledge production. Illlustrating how the Habsburg enlightenment must be freed from nationalist narratives, Luft's paper argues that the creation of a modern Czech by a non-native speaker was entirely representative of the Austrian enlightenment. Adding to the attempts to create complexity in historical reconstructions of the Austrian Enlightenment, Franz Szabo's central argument, that the need for fiscal reform generated divergent political philosophies and ideas about their application, allowed him to connect Protestant German forms of cameralism, cosmopolitan enlightenment, and reform Catholicism. The varying policies of Joseph, leading ministers like Kaunitz, Jansenists, and others are thus unique responses to central problems of the eighteenth century. As a result, each set of ideas changed over the decades, at times intersecting, at others diverging as those advocating the ideas respond to contemporary problems and to one another. In the concluding roundtable, Katherine Arens suggested one way around the prohibitive complexities of working in eighteenth-century Habsburg studies was to form teams of scholars who could pool language skills, disciplinary backgrounds, and access to a variety of sources. A related theme sustained across the two day conference was the transmission of ideas and people across regions both within and beyond the monarchy. By extending into regions, social groups, and forms not traditionally identified with enlightenment, two papers in a panel on the nobility displayed an intellectual world that actively exchanged ideas across Europe through various routes of translation or education and in a variety of forms from language to sociability. Ivo Cerman described the literary and intellectual development of Bohemian nobility by going beyond a narrow scope of publication to consider other means of production-private writings on daily affairs, salon conversations, manuscripts for private circulation, and endeavors in personal improvement. When looking at those who did publish, he ably illustrated the variety of languages, forms, and subjects in this Bohemian enlightenment and proved that while isolated and not academic, the intellectual world of the aristocrat was international in scope and influence. Looking at translations and arguing they constituted autonomous intellectual contributions, Akos Kovacs showed
the sophisticated political language the Hungarian aristocracy developed through reaction to the French Revolution and defenses of their social and political order. Leaving open the question of whether this 'conservative' enlightenment is Enlightenment, Kovacs nevertheless asserted its long effects on Hungarian territories. Similarly, Anton Szántay's (Hungarian Academy of Sciences) diagrams of the movement of ideas in Hungary effectively showed that all ideas did not come to the Hungarian elite through Austria. French and British influence on the Bohemian and Hungarian enlightenments was also
illustrated. Despite this internationalism, several papers showed the importance of Vienna in the dispersal of ideas through publications and education. Marija Petrovic's work on the Cyrillic press and Khavanova's work on tracing the dissemination of Joseph von Sonnenfels' teaching through records on his scholarship students showed with impressive precision what ideas spread where, why, and how. By looking at the books produced for the Serb population by the Kürzböck printing shop in Vienna, Petrovic (University of Alberta) explored what ideas were transmitted from above and what contributions Serbs in turn generated once able to publish in Cyrillic.

The conference concluded with two book presentations, one edited volume of Cerman's on the Bohemian Enlightenment and another recent book by Michael Yonan (University of Missouri), who was in town to give a talk at the Wirth Institute in connection with the conference. His work on Maria Theresa's imperial representations in art appeared with Penn State this year. After concluding discussions, a concert of Austrian popular songs from the 1920s capped off the weekend. Franz Szabo and David Luft will be working on an edited volume bringing together more developed versions of the conference papers discussed here. As it has been a couple of decades since the last accumulated 'new perspectives' on the Austrian enlightenment, this will surely be a welcome addition to the field.