Robert E. Norton's writing has always been informed by critical reflection on the conventions governing historiography, both in terms of what is transmitted as settled historical knowledge and of what is ignored or left out because it does not conform to accepted or familiar narratives.
This sustained questioning of scholarly consensus concerning some of the enduring problems within modern cultural, intellectual, and political history has allowed him to show that numerous long-held convictions about certain major ideas and figures do not stand up to analytic scrutiny. At the same time, he has been able to demonstrate that for similar reasons some extraordinarily significant subjects had previously escaped attention or had unjustly disappeared from view. These new insights have led to reevaluations of our understanding not just of the specific subjects of Norton's own works, but also of the broader historical and intellectual contexts in which they arose.
Norton was among the first, for instance, to argue forcefully that, contrary to what had previously been a nearly universal view, Johann Gottfried Herder was not an "anti-Enlightenment" or "irrational" thinker opposed to the methods and goals of the European Enlightenment, but on the contrary that Herder was one of its most representative and effective German exponents. Norton has also shown how various philosophical discourses about the Enlightenment that developed in Germany during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries contributed to that distorted perception.
But it is in bringing back to light neglected ideas and historical figures that Norton has made his most important contributions. In his book on the "beautiful soul" in the eighteenth century, which was the first extended study of that phenomenon, he revealed that the notion of inner beauty was one of the central, if unappreciated, concepts in Enlightenment moral philosophy.
Similarly, Norton's book on Stefan George (1868-1933) and his Circle of disciples was the first scholarly biography about the most important German poet of the twentieth century, who by its end had been forgotten by all but a few devotees. Secret Germany demonstrated that George was not just a powerful and original poet, but that he had also exerted a profound, if problematic, influence on the larger cultural and political fortunes of his country.
Norton's newest book, The Crucible of German Democracy, which appeared in early 2021 with Mohr Siebeck (Tübingen), is devoted to Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) and the rise of democratic thought in Germany during the First World War. It is the first extended treatment in any language of Troeltsch's decisive role in that momentous development. It offers a comprehensive account of the German experience of the war that fundamentally differs from many other depictions of the period, calling into question common assumptions about Germany during the conflict and its political evolution in the years leading up to 1918.
The Crucible of German Democracy also seeks to restore Troeltsch, once one of the most admired and celebrated public figures in Germany, to his rightful place within cultural memory. For Troeltsch, too, has long suffered from undue neglect. During his lifetime, he had been an acclaimed philosopher, historian, theologian, and sociologist at Heidelberg and Berlin, then arguably the two most important universities in Germany. But he was also active in practical politics, having served in various offices before, during, and after the war. In the last decade of his life, Ernst Troeltsch also became one of the most committed and outspoken defenders of the democratic idea in his country.
Norton also believes that it is important for scholars to translate significant works of scholarship into English. At a time when knowledge of foreign languages is on the decline in the United States, translation provides the only means for many readers to gain access to works that have played a role in shaping their fields and contributed to the on-going exchange of opinion within them. Translations of such works rarely bring financial rewards, making it all the more imperative that scholars employ the knowledge and resources available to them to make such works more widely available.
Currently, Norton is working on a new book project devoted to the philosopher Hermann von Keyserling, tentatively titled The School of Wisdom. Hermann von Keyserling and the Philosophy of Life. Although Keyserling, who lived from 1880 to 1946, was one of the most famous writers and thinkers of his day in Europe — he made his name with the Travel Diary of a Philosopher, published in 1919, but he was otherwise enormously prolific — Keyserling quickly fell into obscurity after his death, and to date there exists almost no scholarship on him in English.