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Moritz Lazarus: A Marginal Man in the Centre of German Society

In: Journal of Cultural Analysis and Social Change 8, Nr. 2: 13


Mathias Berek


German-Jewish philosopher Moritz Lazarus and his work are an example of how someone could live at the centre of society and still be marginalised, how living at the margins can shape the theoretic reflection on society, and at the same time how this theory can then become a part of political and social struggles to overcome marginality. He envisioned a social theory that included the idea of ‘objective spirit’, which was meant as the whole world of objective, human-made and historically emerged ideas, traditions, institutions and things – what we today would describe as culture. His ideas about group membership and society were pluralistic at best, if not constructionist: he rejected the idea that belonging to a collective would be determined by language, descent, ‘race’ or place. For him, it was the subjective act of taking part, not external traits that determined belonging. Lazarus’s ideas were accepted, absorbed selectively or contested, but, in the end, the ambivalence of their perception stems from the modernity of his questions and conclusions. Like many German Jews of this time, and according to his own ideas of belonging to a collective, Lazarus did not consider himself a stranger in Germany at all. Jews like Lazarus were actively co-constructing the national project – and in many cases without being questioned. He was a prominent representative of this era of national, liberal and idealist optimism that ended around 1879, when the pluralist liberal tradition was in less demand and modern antisemitism spread throughout academia and the educated public. Lazarus’s theory of culture based on and developed through plurality was rediscovered in the 1980s, and in many respects it is still useful as a descriptive as well as a normative tool to engage with the modern situation, owing to his own position at the centre and the margins.


Berek, Mathias. 2023. Moritz Lazarus: A Marginal Man in the Centre of German Society. In: Journal of Cultural Analysis and Social Change 8, Nr. 2: 13. doi: 10.20897/jcasc/14066.

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