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The Untimely Scholar: Radicalism and Tradition

Constanze Güthenke

Untimeliness, especially as a gloss on Nietzsche's plea for the scholarly voice that dares to be unzeitgemäss, has in recent decades been read as a proud call to arms for a self-aware, critical and radical discipline. Through emphasizing the subversive potential of the untimely, though it is still grounded in traditional practices, it is easy to champion an image of the untimely scholar as a role model. This paper suggests that such a stance of untimeliness exists itself in time, interacting with its given historical contexts, and is hence itself changeable. As a result, the line that separates the progressive from the reactionary, the open-minded scholar from the closed one can be thin and can change course. To put it pointedly, what happens to our intellectual embrace of untimeliness when it appears to lead to ideologically and politically controversial conclusions, rather than to a reinvigorated discipline? How much can we as scholars of ancient materials, and as readers of other scholars, be in control of the meaning of our untimeliness and of its perception by others?

To explore the ambiguity in reading untimely scholars and their politics, I will use Jacob Bernays and Leo Strauss as case studies, two scholars of antiquity who stood at an angle to their time and to the expected course of an academic curriculum vitae: one, Bernays, as an orthodox Jew who was both part and not part of the German academic establishment, the other, Strauss, as an émigré scholar in America. Bernays's Phokion and his Recent Evaluators (1881), his last published work, ultimately makes a case for the non-democratic polis as the suitable environment for the philosopher. Strauss' writings, from the 1950s onward, focused on the disguised meanings of philosophical texts, intended for a select few, equally make a case for the philosopher and thinker as an out-of-joint, untimely figure. Strauss' work, of course, has its own complex reception history that is deeply entangled in the conservative politics of late twentieth century America.

Both Strauss and Bernays are scholars who are untimely both in their scholarship (breaking with orthodoxies, sometimes radically) and their self-perception; who explicitly remind their peers that their scholarly work is political or has political consequences; who identify and subvert orthodoxies in a highly critical fashion; and whose ambivalent status has served and can serve as a prompt to re-evaluate both their institutional frameworks and our own. At the same time, their writings could suggest positions at odds with the assumptions about the progressive and inclusive work envisaged by modern critics keen to explore the positive potential of untimeliness.

Rather than simply matching the content of scholarly work with biographical, historical background, this paper ultimately seeks to raise the question of the untimeliness of scholars and of their works, separately and together, as an instrument of writing the history of scholarship.

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Untimeliness and Classical Knowing

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