Edward Conze was born Eberhart Julius Dietrich Conze (1904–1979). The British-born, German national was known as a scholar of Marxism and Buddhism. He emigrated to Britain in 1935 and lived there for most of the rest of his life.
Conze's parents, Dr Ernst Conze (1872–1935) and Adele Louise Charlotte Köttgen (1882–1962), were both from families were involved in the textile industry in the region of Langenberg, Germany. However, Ernst Conze had a doctorate in Law and served in the Foreign Office and later as a judge. Conze was born in London while his father was Vice Consul and thus entitled to British citizenship.
Conze was awarded a doctorate in philosophy from Cologne University in 1928 and did post-graduate work at several German universities. In 1932 he published Der Satz vom Widerspruch (The Principle of Contradiction) which he considered his master work. Because it was a work on the theory of dialectical materialism it attracted hostile attention from the Nazis. Conze associated with and helped to organize activities for Communists. The book was publicly burned and Conze forced to leave Germany for Britain.
In England, Conze taught German, philosophy, and psychology at evening classes, and later lectured on Buddhism and Prajñāpāramitā at various universities. However, the only permanent academic post he was offered had to be turned down because US immigration officials declined him a work permit on the basis of his past as a Communist.
A midlife crisis in 1941 saw him adopt Buddhism as his religion, having previously been influenced by Theosophy and astrology. He spent a brief period in the New Forest pursuing meditation and an ascetic lifestyle (during which he developed scurvy). At the end of this period he moved to Oxford where he began to work on Sanskrit texts from the Prajñāpāramitā tradition. He continued to work on these texts for the rest of his life.
Conze was married twice: to Dorothea Finkelstein and to Muriel Green. He had one daughter with Dorothea.
In 1979 Conze self-published two volumes of memoirs entitled Memoires of a Modern Gnostic. Conze produced a third volume which contained material considered by his lawyer to be too inflammatory or libelous to publish while the subjects were alive. No copy of the third volume is known to exist. The Memoires are the principle sources for Conze's biography and reveal much about his personal life and attitudes.
Conze was educated in several German Universities and showed a propensity for languages. He claimed that by twenty-four, he knew fourteen languages.
Following a mid-life crisis Conze turned to Buddhism and was particularly influenced by D. T. Suzuki. He made his name for his editions and translations of Sanskrit texts of the Buddhist Prajñāpāramitā literature. He published translations of all the principle texts of the genre, including the Aṣṭasāhasrikā (8000 Line), Ratnaguṇasamcayagāthā, Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā (25,000 Line), Vajracchedikā, and Prajñāpāramitāhrdaya. All of these show the explicit influence of Suzuki's Theosophy infused Zen Buddhism.
A glance at a complete bibliography of Conze's oeuvre confirms that he was a man of industry and focus. His contribution to the field of Buddhist Studies, particularly of the Prajñāpāramitā literature, has had a major influence on subsequent generations.
During his life time Conze was celebrated as a pioneering scholar of Buddhism and his books were widely read. However, over the years a more critical view has emerged.
Conze's translations have been identified as egregious examples of Buddhist Hybrid English by Paul Griffiths. Referring to a passage taken at random from Conze's translation of the Large Sutra, Griffiths says:
"This translation was originally published without notes or explanatory apparatus of any kind, and one cannot help but wonder if Dr. Conze ever thought about his audience. Non-Buddhologists, those who have no Sanskrit and no training in the intricacies of the prajñāpāramitā, cannot possibly make any sense of it whatever. Dr. Conze's translation bears only the most tenuous relationship to the English language in terms of syntax, and is full of unexplained technical terminology;"
For a complete bibliography of Conze's works see the website, Conze Memorial