Raymond Klibansky and the Warburg Library Network: Intellectual Peregrinations from Hamburg to London and Montreal

eds. Philippe Despoix and Jillian Tomm, with collaboration of Eric Mechoulan and Georges Leroux, McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal, 2018, (IBSN 978-0-7735-5463-4).

This excellent book draws extensively on published and archival unpublished sources (found in repositories such as the Warburg Institute Archive in London, The Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach , and McGill University) including correspondence, memories, and diaries concerning the Warburg library known as the Kulturwissenshaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (KBW) founded by Aby Warburg in Hamburg Germany in the 1920s. It shows how the KBW fostered intellectual exchange, transmission, and transformation in the fields of art, myth, religion, medicine, philosophy, intellectual history, and the classics. It takes the reader on a journey into almost half a century of intellectual life at one of the most important cultural research organizations. The essays explore the history of the KBW as a vital cultural institution and the personal relationships of the researchers associated with this institution. The book includes the intellectual peregrinations and dynamics of the network of scholars associated with this institution, particularly the intellectual Raymond Klibansky (1905-2005) who embodied pre-war standards of European learning. Klibansky’s magnetic character (99) also charmed those with whom came into his orbit such as scholars at Oxford (84).

As an institution the KBW allowed collaboration amongst academics and hommes des lettres such as Fritz Saxl, Gertrud Bing, Ernst Cassirer, Erwin Panofsky, Edgar Wind, Raymond Klibansky, and others. The book describes how the library relocated to London as a result of Nazi persecutions after the rise to power in 1933 of the Nazi party, causing many of these fleeing “outsider” German Jewish emigres to take refuge from Nazi persecution to places such as England (London), The United States (Princeton and Bowden), Sweden, and Canada (McGill University of Montreal). Across geographical space these intellectual kindred spirits continued to engage in collective research projects established from their intellectual friendships born in the KBW. Such intellectual collaborations resulted in scholarly contributions by this academic network in the transmission of cultural history on topics such as the Saturn and Melancholy multiple editions, which blends art history with philosophical and cultural history; the Latin and Arabic Corpus Platonicum Medii Aevi (1940-1962), which contributed to research on the continuity and vibrant influence on the continuity of Platonic thought by gathering medieval and Renaissance commentaries on Plato as a part of Quellengeschichte; and the Journal of Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies (1941-68).

The focus in this book revolves around the perhaps most remarkable member of the KBW network—the genius and classically trained Raymond Klibansky whose scope and breadth of intellectual interests is truly admirable and quite rare today in the culture of narrow specialization. Klibansky, however, did not skimp on depth, and was a true researcher who consulted multitudes of rare book collections throughout the world, examining manuscripts for his scholarly work. Klibansky knew a lot about a lot, rather than a lot about a little.

Like Jewish German emigres philosophers Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt, (although Klibansky was born in France), all three studied in Germany, and like the young Nietzsche at a young age were awarded elite Professorships. Klibansky, like Strauss and Arendt, was deeply pained and effected by the persecution he suffered as a result of the Nazi movement that banned him from his University post. Klibansky’s sincere and deep scholarship in the work of Christian theologians such as Nicholas of Cusa and Meister Eckhart was spurned by the Nazis who dictated that a Jew has nothing to share on such foreign subjects to the Jews’ soul,  and Klibansky was forced to give up his work on editions of Nicholas of Cusa and Meister Eckhart, although he continued to visit libraries and examine related manuscripts. Klibansky scholarship was also plagiarized by Nazi scholars of the Stuttgart team who produced a full edition of the works of Meister Eckhart (130). The logic was even more hateful than that faced by Hermann Cohen, who some Germans felt was “not able to understand Kant, for a as a Jew he was a foreigner” (145). Kilbansky had previously faced anti-semitism in the anti-semitic review by Martin Rasch of the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliographie zum Nachleben der Antike.  Klibansky was a proud Jew who was not ashamed to name one of his ancestors as the Vilna Gaon. Because Klibansky was the victim of Nazi Germany’s extreme nationalism, racism, and anti-Semitism, he learned the importance of tolerance as a virtue. One of Klibansky’s ethical actions was turning his attention towards making more widely available texts on toleration as found in works such as John Locke’s Letter on Toleration, Spinoza on liberty, Lessing’s Nathan der Weise (1779), and earlier texts such as a declaration by Asoka, an Indian Emperor in the 3rd century BCE, in a monograph series “Philosophy and World Community.” Klibansky battled against dogmatic fanaticism that he saw in the intolerance of the Nazi ideology, and cultivated an intellectual openness to divergent positions. Because Klibansky was the victim of Nazi Germany’s extreme nationalism, racism, and anti-Semitism, he learned the importance of tolerance which derived from his status as a Jew.

The afterword of the book calls for more research to be done on the KBW focusing on the involvement of collective projects by other members such as Fritz Saxl, Gertrud Bing, and Edgar Wind and the role of immigration to the UK, US, and Canada, to uncovering further intellectual networks. The editors call for further studies on the transmission of ancient knowledge to the present, offering the big picture over millennia. Thirdly they call for applying the originality of the KBW network to conceive of new and constructive scholarly uses of electronic and digital media (302).


David B Levy, Lander College for Women, NYC