Burckhardt on history

BurckhardtAs promised this is a very brief summary of the chapter on Burckhardt in Karl Löwith’s Meaning in History. I chose this chapter to summarize for a couple of reasons. 1, Burckhardt’s attitude towards history is the one that Löwith choses as the most modern attitude (although Burckhardt wrote in the 19th Century and Löwith published this work in 1949). 2, it appears to be an attitude that Löwith is sympathetic towards and that I also find interesting because it doesn’t treat history like the ancient Greeks nor like Theologians (are those two reasons?). 3, I haven’t yet finished the whole book, so there are only so many chapters that I could possibly write about!

First off Burckhardt was against the study or investigation into a philosophy of history. Like the ancient Greeks (but for very different reasons) he thought that “philosophy of history” was a contradiction of terms – history coordinates observations and philosophy subordinates observations to a principle. Last post I mentioned Marx’s class struggle as an example of a philosopher subordinating history to a principle – two others are: Augustine’s God and Hegel’s Absolute Spirit. Burckhardt refused to deal with “ultimate ends” (i.e.; the Christian historical view) and also, therefore, refused to deal with ultimate meaning with respect to history. The value Burckhardt saw in the study of history was the finding of a ‘continuity’, which Löwith describes as “a conscious effort in remembering and renewing our heritage.” This ‘continuity’ has no beginning, no progress and no end. It is more like a thread that connects one historical event to another, building a tradition (heritage). In being conscious of this thread and this tradition we free ourselves in relation to it – we become aware of it as a foundation of our own historical existence.

But that is exactly where I find the philosophical utility and space for, if not a philosophy of history, a philosophical attitude of history. If in philosophy it is important to live an informed life/make informed decisions than it is important to free ourselves in relation to the tradition/foundations that raised us. For Burckhard, freeing ourself from our heritage is giving ourselves the freedom to choose the facts we find remarkable in the past and renewing them. An existential reworking of this view of Burckhardt’s could sound like this: freeing ourselves from our heritage is giving ourselves the freedom to choose values we find remarkable in past people and reliving them.

No goal, no purpose, no meaning – why then renew the past or follow a historical continuity? Burckhardt and most likely Löwith with him would say – simply because you find it remarkable.


how should we think of history?

rosettastoneAccording to Karl Löwith in Meaning in History there are two main ways to view history; either through a Judeo-Christian or ancient Greek understanding, all other attempts to interpret history “are nothing else but variations of these two principles or a mixture of the both of them.”

The Greeks: Had a cyclical notion of history – everything moves in recurrences (sunrise/sunset, summer/winter, generation/corruption). A philosophy of history would have been a contradiction of terms because philosophy deals with the immutable (think Plato) and history deals with the crude, ever-changing. For Thucydides history was nothing more than a history of struggles and these struggles were caused by the nature of humanity – human nature will never change and therefore these struggles will continue again in the same or similar way in the future.

The Judeo-Christian tradition: Treats history as being universal and in accordance with a principle under which particular events are unified and directed toward an ultimate meaning (think history of fulfillment and salvation). History is given meaning by giving it a transcendental purpose (beyond the “facts”) and inasmuch as history moves through time, this purpose is a goal.

We of today, concerned with the unity of universal history and with its progress toward an ultimate goal or at least toward a “better world,” are still in the line of prophetic and messianic monotheism; we are still Jews and Christians, however, little we may think of ourselves in those terms.

guy.jpgThe remaining question for us readers after we’re done is: what should we think? Especially as philosophers, philosophers who don’t want to admit or (even worse) have someone say that their thinking is based on Judeo-Christian foundations. Löwith leaves us a problem without an answer (something he often does). He does, however, respond to this criticism in the preface to the German edition – (my free and loose translation) if we value truth I will not subordinate these observations under a principle. In other words, he’s telling us that our question is too Christian and that giving an answer would be forcing him to become a prophet (i.e.; pulling a principle out of thin air and displaying how history plays along this principle – such was done by many philosophers, the easiest to think of is Marx who said that history is nothing but class struggles).

Löwith does not pretend (like he accuses Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence of doing) that we can return to an ancient Greek understanding of history nor does he come across as very fond of the eschatological approach.

The chapter on Burckhardt, however, describes a resignation concerning ultimate meaning that Löwith is sympathetic towards. I’ll sum up this chapter tomorrow.