Erich Auerbach on Words and Concepts

It has often been said that my conceptualization is not unambiguous and that the expressions that I use for organizational categories required a sharper definition. It is true that I do not define these terms, in fact even that I am not consistent throughout in using them. That happened intentionally and methodically. My effort for exactitude relates to the individual and the concrete. In contrast, the general, which compares, compiles, or differentiates phenomena, ought to be elastic and flexible; to the utmost that is possible, it ought to fall into line with what is feasible from case to case, and it is to be understood from case to case only from the context. There is not in intellectual history identity and strict conformity to laws, and abstract, reductive concepts falsify or destroy the phenomena. The arranging must happen in such a way that it allows the individual phenomenon to live and unfold freely. Were it possible, I would not have used any generalizing expressions at all, but instead I would have suggested the thought to the reader purely by presenting a sequence of particulars. That is not possible; accordingly I used some much-used terms, like realism and moralism, and, compelled by my subject, I even introduced two little-used ones: stylistic differentiation and stylistic mingling. That they all, but especially the much-used words, signify all and nothing was perfectly clear to me; they should acquire their meaning only from the context, and in fact from the particular context. That has obviously not always worked out.

“Epilegomena to Mimesis

One would expect that most scholars of literature, history, and philosophy would recognize the truth in what Auerbach says and consequently adopt a stance of humility and hermeneutic contingency, but on the contrary, such recognition seems to be a very rare occurrence. Concepts are thrown around as though they had absolute meaning, and disagreements over or ignorance towards a popular, dominant concept are treated with dismissive disdain. That this should continue decades after the linguistic turn and the supposed relativization of discourse says something, but I won’t bring whatever it is under a concept.

2 thoughts on “Erich Auerbach on Words and Concepts

  1. I love what Auerbach has to say on this subject. Realism, moralism, and even such terms as modernism and Romanticism, seem pure generalities. How can we possibly apply an objective definition to them? They have meaning, obviously, but depending on the context this can become tenebrous, almost opaque. I still have nightmares in which an august professorial type with a white goatee and pipe uses the term realism with his first term freshman class…it gives me chills! I love it!-“humility and hermeneutic contingency.”

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