In 1899, an obscure German American named Augustus Schade wrote what is, hands down, the most absurd book ever written on the philosophy of history. Schade self-published his “The Philosophy of History” in Cleveland, Ohio, of all places. The book claims to be based on the works of a German thinker, Rudolf Rocholl.
Schade’s influences appear to include German philosophers, particularly figures like Hegel and Fichte, along with Protestant Christianity, perhaps also some theosophy, via Rocholl. Schade demonstrates familiarity with an absolutely immense array of nineteenth century science writers. On the surface, one might think that this is an erudite but forgotten tome of learned scholarship.
There is just one problem with the book: none of it makes any sense.
Sentences are not grammatically incorrect, but they are long and convoluted, with plenty of ambiguity and passive voice. Paragraphs seem to have a topic but never a purpose. For Schade, no verbal transition is off limits: he jumps from biology to metaphysics, or from the history of early man to an inquiry about life in the cosmos. Schade drops obscure reference after obscure reference, rarely citing the precise location of his source.
Kant, Schelling, Spinoza, Renouviers, Bossuet, Ritter, Ranke, Humbolt, Leibnitz, Lotze, Zoellner, Droysen all make appearances, but their theories are never explained at any length. He gives names like James and Hamilton (but who, which one?) . No matter how well-known or obscure, all of these figures treated as if they are known authorities.
Schade seems earnest, not like someone who is faking his way to academic credentials, but an amateur who checked out a lot of books from the library, but had no one with whom he could discuss his ideas. He is interested in absolutely everything. In his book, we learn of “Accado-Sumerians”, the law of “polar tension” and “Zeit-raum” all on one page. (58) The Turnano-Mongolo-Malayan nations make an appearance. No geography is off limits to the study. We fly from Cape Comorin to the steppes of the Kirgheeze, from the Isle of Efat near Erromanga in the group of the New Hebrides, and with people like the Tauregs, Basutos and Betshuanes, the Hermundurians and Herulians, Cheruskians and Sigambrians, the Albanese, Etruscans, and of course the Ægyptians, spelled with the ligature æ.
Again, it is unfortunate that so much real academic writing is so dense, that it becomes difficult to discern whether Schade’s writing makes sense or not. Line after line reads like this: “Despite such a negative result, the reason within us would insist upon its claim for an answer to its postulate. The postulate of reason can no point us all into an empty void which is unthinkable = since matters and facts press upon us with incitements to think, and since reason itself continues to challenge reasons.” But what does this mean? Nothing, I submit.
Although self-published, the book is over-produced., the product of an immense effort. It is precisely edited. At the top of every page is not only the page number, but the book number (for this is listed as 3 books in one), the chapter, and the section. In his typical fashion, the books are not labelled books 1, 2, and 3, but book first, book second, and book third. There is even a prolegomena. There is type-set marginalia throughout. The top of each page is also labelled with the topic of the page, and no two pages have the same topic heading.
In the first “book” Schade runs through scientific theories of the era. The science of life, motion, matter, and heat. All of it makes you wonder how he is going to connect this back to the meaning of history, but he never really seems to. The soul, the mind, the body, all of psychology, theology, physics, and metaphysics are brought to bear. Beyond materialism, mechanism, and naturalism, Schade informs, his history aims at the transcendental.
I tried hard to parse some of Schade’s main paragraphs, those which appeared to me to perhaps lead towards his thesis. But, alas, this was to no avail. Here is an example of what I was up against:
“(5). In the fifth division the gradual permeation of humanity with the new power, proceeding from the center, begins to work toward the periphery of the three concentric circles. This gradual expansion corresponds in reverse order to the former narrowing down of the cultural progress. This newly engrafted energy, this life proper, had appeared concentrated and intensified in the One in whom the realm of unity and perpetuity centers. From His immediate surroundings a unique influence now expands over the entire mass mixed together in the Roman basin.”
Ok, first of all, these “divisions” he writes about, might be divisions of the book, or divisions of history, or geographical divisions, I’m not quite sure. The three “concentric circles” Schade explains elsewhere as something like earth, cosmos, and a metaphysical world. He proposes a rough outline of some relationship between these three, the Christian God, history, geography, racial theory, and the progress of science, among other things.
Like others of his time, Schade is fascinated by racial theory and the relationship of geography to human development. Schade is a product of his time in more ways that this. In previous eras, a loon like Schade might never been able to afford publication of such a book. It would not have been copyrighted or added to any collection. Certainly, it wouldn’t have been reviewed. The only reviewer of the book Mattoon M. Curtis (author of a later book on the history of Snuff Boxes and perhaps an occasional snuffer himself), gave up and never actually read the book – a more common event than one might imagine, even in today’s environment. Nevertheless Curtis praised the book and even claimed that this would replace Guizot’s History of Civilization!
For a man who apparently published nothing else in his life, this was a hell of a debut. It is a book that covers morals, ethics, religion, science, history, the mundane and the mysterious. It bears little relation to the later analytic school of philosophy, and while on the surface resembles the old speculative histories of the nineteenth century, it is so disjointed and so absurd that it cannot even be counted in the same category as a Hegel or Spengler.
Now, the real question at hand is whether Schade is a crackpot or a crank. In my book, Creative Historical Thinking, I write that “calling someone a crackpot is referring to the weirdness or eccentricities of a person and their views, while in saying that someone is a crank, you are referring to their stubborn, uncompromising, perhaps pathologically asocial denial or views alternative to their own.” Schade is definitely a crackpot. In the last paragraph of the book, however, he also presents himself as a crank: “This book, at least, despite its defects in diction and arrangement of detail, claims to contain more than that. If there be fallacies, they cannot invalidate the theme or underlying thought; the defects can only be charged against the mode of arguing, perhaps, and the legibility of the the style. Hence, its failing notwithstanding, the book is in essence, THE Philosophy of History.” (437) Schade explained elsewhere that this is not “a’” philosophy of history, but “the” philosophy of history. It cannot be wrong, he cannot be turned from his position.