Meaning in History

I’ve finally returned to and finished Karl Löwith’s book, Meaning in History. I’ve already talked about this book twice so I won’t say much more. I do, however, want to provide a quote (or two) from each chapter to give people a feel of what Löwith was trying to do with this book. It might seem boring but I promise that the quotes are worth a read :)


…nations can be hypnotized into the belief that God or some world-process intends them to achieve this or that… but there is always something pathetic, if not ludicrous, in beliefs of this kind.

…religious faith is so little at variance with skepticism that both are rather united by their common opposition to the presumptions of a settled knowledge.


…the term “philosophy of history” is used to mean a systematic interpretation of universal history in accordance with a principle by which historical events and successions are unified and directed toward an ultimate meaning.



The Communist Manifesto is, first of all, a prophetic document… It is not by chance that the last antagonism between the bourgeoisie and proletariat correspond to the Jewish-Christian belief in a final fight between Christ and Antichrist. …that the task of the proletariat corresponds to the world-historical mission of the chosen people.


The occidental conception of history, implying an irreversible direction toward a future goal, is not merely occidental. It is essentially a Hebrew and Christian assumption that history is directed toward an ultimate purpose and governed by the providence of a supreme insight and will – in Hegel’s terms, by spirit or reason as “the absolutely powerful essence.”

Progress versus Providence:

…man has to replace God, and the belief in human progress has to supplant the faith in providence.

The Christian Hope in the Kingdom of God is bound up with the fear of the Lord, while the secular hope for a “better world” looks forward without fear and trembling.


…the modern religion of progress [is] an irreligion; for it is a belief in man’s perfectibility… And yet the irreligion of progress is still a sort of religion, derived from the Christian faith in a future goal, though substituting an indefinite and immanent eschaton for a definite and transcendent one.


For man, perfect demonstrable knowledge is attainable only within the realm of mathematical fictions, where we, like God, are creating our objects. […] We can know something about history, even the most obscure beginnings of history, because… this world of civil society has certainly been made by men, and that its principles can and must therefore be found within the modifications of our own human mind.


His expectation of a last providential progress toward the fulfillment of the history of salvation within the framework of the history of the world is radically new in comparison to the pattern of Augustine. Augustine never indulged in prophetic predictions of detailed and radical changes within the temporal order.


Only by this reference to an absolute beginning and end has history as a whole meaning.

…the whole scheme of Augustine’s work serves the purpose of vindicating God in history. Yet history remains definitely distinct from God, who is not a Hegelian god in history but the Lord of history.

The Biblical View of History:

…the biblical view of history is delineated as a history of salvation, progressing from promise to fulfillment and focused in Jesus Christ.

Even the articulation of all historical time into past, present and future reflects the temporal structure of the history of salvation.


…faith in history was to [Burckhardt], as to Dilthey, Troeltsch and Croce a “last religion.”

History, instead of being governed by reason and providence, seems to be governed by chance and fate.


The attempt at elucidation of the dependence of the philosophy of history on the eschatological history of fulfillment and salvation does not solve the problem of our historical thinking.

…the question arises of whether man’s living by expectation agrees with a sober view of the world and of man’s condition in it.


There would be no American, French and no Russian revolutions and constitutions without the idea of secular progress towards fulfillment without the original faith in a Kingdom of God…


Who Karl Löwith is, part 2

Part 2 of my informing the internet who Karl Löwith is.

His Life: (January 9th, 1897 – May 26th, 1973) Löwith is a Munich born German anLöwithd had the unfortunate fate of experiencing both world wars.

Following Nietzsche’s command to live dangerously Löwith volunteered to head out to the front lines in WWI. He was sent to the Austrian-Italian border and on one night volunteered to go on an expedition into enemy camp. His invading troop was seen as their fog cover unexpectedly dissipated and everyone was shot but only our mighty philosopher survived. He spent the rest of the war in an Italian hospital, recovering from his bullet wound. During his hospitalization in Italy he gained a love for the Italian people and the country itself. He was sent back to Germany when the war ended.

After his return he started his University studies at the University of Munich, transferring to the University of Freiburg two years later. At this is time in Friburg, Edmund Husserl was the commanding philosopher and had an unknown assistant, Martin Heidegger. Löwith attended Husserl’s seminars regularly. After writing his dissertation on Nietzsche (back in Munich and under the guidance of Moritz Geiger) he followed Heidegger to Marburg to write under his direction a work of phenomenological significance.

Löwith was an assimilated Jew who no longer recognized his Jewish heritage as having a defining role in his life. He didn’t think of himself Jewish until he was forced to by the Nazis. His treatment by the Nazis was tempered by the fact that he volunteered in WWI and was subsequently injured. Many of his colleagues who were sympathetic to the Nazis told him that there should be exceptions to the racial laws for war heroes (how kind of them).

Do to pressure from the University he left for Rome under the Rockefeller-Foundation where he was to complete his Nietzsche book. Before having to once again pack his bags and relocate (the racial laws took longer to reach Italy) he was allowed a trip back to Marburg, Germany. On this trip he met a Japanese student who had moved to Germany intent on studying under him. Löwith did not know it but his books were becoming popular in Japanese Universities. The student coerced Löwith to move from Italy to Japan (Sendai) – which he did.

Tōhoku Daigaku

(the University in Japan were Löwith was a Professor – Tohoku Gakuin)

Löwith does not keep secret that he was politically naive before and while the national socialists came to power. He continues to show his naiveté every time he relocates – moving from one fascist country to another and then to their soon to be allies in Japan. This knack for making bad choices forced him to move once again – now to the US. The move came two weeks before Japan bombed the US in Pearl Harbor. While in the US he was Professor of Theology in Hartford then later moved on to The New School in New York until 1952.

Löwith produced his two most famous works while in the US (From Hegel to Nietzsche and Meaning in History) but was more than happy to receive an invitation from his friend Hans-Georg Gadamer to return to Germany and begin teaching at the University of Heidelberg. He was a part of the philosophy faculty until his death in 1973.

That is about the briefest sketch of his life I could throw together. Most information I got from reading his book Mein Leben in Deutschland vor und nach 1933 (My Life in Germany before and after 1933). Part3 will start talking philosophy.

Who Karl Löwith is, part 1

I’ve mentioned the name Karl Löwith a couple times on this blog already and will most likely keep using his name and his books as references in the future. So why not say a little about who this man is? Internet resources on his life/philosophy Karlare scarce. I think the best one can do is read the short paragraph someone uploaded to Wikipedia but if you can read German, there is more information at the German version of his Wikipedia site. Otherwise you will just have to visit this blog and read an on-going dialogue I’m having with the man’s books. This blog isn’t about Mr. Löwith, however, so don’t worry if you don’t want to be drowned with (regrettably) obscure philosophies.

This is part 1 in my attempt at telling the internet just who Karl Löwith is. Because if the internet doesn’t know, how are those kids who don’t know how to use a library going to find out? Enough introduction.

Löwith’s reception in America and why you might have heard his name before: I don’t mean that as a putdown, Löwith isn’t a rockstar philosopher and it is more than likely that many philosophy students have no idea who he is. He was a Professor in the United States between from 1941 to 1952 (he also happened to teach in Germany, Italy and Japan); first in Hartford as a theology Professor then in New York (New School) as a philosophy Professor. During this time he wrote his two most well known works, one in German the other in English: Von Hegel zu Nietzsche (from Hegel to Nietzsche) and Meaning in History. Here are the opening sentences Richard Wolin has in his chapter dedicated to Löwith in Heidegger’s Children, a book, however, I do not recommend.

K. Löwith is one of the most significant figures of twentieth-century German philosophy. In the English-speaking world, he is perhaps best known for his landmark studies of modern historical consciousness. Two of his works have attained the status of minor classics: From Hegel to Nietzsche, an erudite account of the decline and fragmentation of German classical philosophy, and Meaning in History, a controversial reading of the relationship between modern philosophies of history and their theological predecessors.

Like Wolin, many other philosophers involved in an argument over Heidegger’s national socialism use Löwith’s observations of Heidegger as evidence that the later was in fact a full blown Nazi. Löwith’s philosophy is, in the English speaking world, overshadowed by his relationship with Heidegger. The other most common use of Löwith is much more positive (for making him an interesting guy to read). His book From Hegel to Nietzsche is sited as a source for many many texts that wish to make statements about any German philosopher that happens to fall between Hegel and Nietzsche. It is one of the most important secondary works on 19th century German philosophy. It is a long, taxing book but worth the overview of developing Hegelianism and early Existentialism.

That about summarizes Löwith’s interaction with the English-speaking philosophical world – Löwith as a source for learning about Heidegger’s “true” nature and as a source for learning about 19th century German philosophy. It leaves out, however, other significant contributions this man made to philosophy of history, phenomenology and Nietzsche studies (among others). The continuation of this series will go more into depth about the areas of this man’s life and philosophy that have not received popular attention (outside what the English speaking reader might have already seen).

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.

was ist Philosophie überhaupt?

In introductory courses in Philosophy Professors struggle to define “philosophy” for the students during the first week of instruction. The explanation I received was the standard explanation – one that breaks down the word “philosophy” into its original Greek parts… philia and sophia. Philia is translated as “love” while sophia is translated as “knowledge”, slap them together and you have “love of knowledge” – the perfect cereal box definition of philosophy. Being so vague in describing philosophy is useful for many reasons, the biggest of which is that philosophy is an incredibly difficult subject area to define. It is hard to define the goals of philosophy when these goals themselves are being repeatedly undermined by philosophers.

During my reading today I came across a quote from The Will to Power that Löwith uses in one of his numerous essays on Nietzsche. I didn’t start thinking about it until I was on the bus going home.

“What is the first and last thing a philosopher demands of himself? To overcome his age in himself, to become ‘timeless.'”F.N.

What is philosophy? The attempt to overcome the knowledge of the age? Sounds very lofty. Very few philosophers became “untimely” and revolutionized thought but that does not stop thousands of philosophers around the world from trying. Working with students of archeology I sometimes get jealous of the systematic nature of their subject. Clear defined goals and clear defined ways of getting there. Where should I dig for my knowledge?

monk by the sea

Philosophers try and change the way people think. I suppose that is the secret desire. Saying that, however, is too embarrassing – so I guess sticking with the cereal box definition is enough for now, lest we be laughed at by students in introductory courses.


hamburgerThe most useful critique I have ever received on paper was only three letters long (although as an abbreviation). This critique also happened to be a favorite of the professor to hand out to her students. sfw? I received my paper without a grade, only “sfw?” written on the top – the professor announced in class that if we received an “sfw” we were to re-write our paper and hand it in again, this time answering the question at the top of the page; sfw? or, so fucking what? My first reaction to this was, “what do you mean so fucking what? You are the person who made me write this damn paper – you tell me why it was a useful exercise!” I went to office hours for further clarification. Her point was that she didn’t just want us to make observations about a written piece but to say why these observations were important, why they were interesting. If you can’t say why the observations are interesting, they aren’t worth saying in the first place. Now that I’ve already said that this was the most useful critique I’ve ever received, I’ll add that it has hurt my writing in many ways.

The class I took with this professor was a bridging of works from Homer, Virgil, Augustine, Dante (to just name a few). We were reading these stories in chronological order and reading them “through” each other by noting shared motifs. I digested “sfw?” and always made sure to answer this question in all of my papers thereafter. In fact, the answer to “sfw?” is now the most important part of my papers, to my detriment.

I’ve reached over my head in a Wittgenstein paper to say that a metaphysic of modality was only ‘language on vacation’ – an interesting answer to sfw? but getting there was fuzzy. I’ve reached over my head in many Nietzsche papers to draw out many (in my opinion) interesting answers to sfw? but the paper itself – fuzzy. This is a problem. My mind refuses to exert energy on a topic unless I can tell myself that the answer to the “so fucking what” question is one that is entirely and wholly interesting.

I’ve been getting bored in my reading of late. Dear Löwith, I’m waiting for you to tell me why your observations are important. I’m currently reading Löwith’s critique of Heidegger – a critique that was ultimately to be the focus of my lowith2dissertation. I get frustrated at the book. Löwith, so fucking what? This man is making tired observations and nothing more. I keep waiting for the hook in Löwith’s thinking that made Heidegger say in a letter: “I have always seen you primarily and authentically as my ‘doctoral candidate’,” even though Löwith was not. I’m given a picture of Heidegger as a priest who divines the nature of Being – it sure makes Heidegger seem silly but that surely isn’t enough to be considered interesting.

I have currently lost my answer to sfw in my project. Right after Zizek inspires us with his story of Hegel, after he tells us that the answer to this particular sfw is an exciting one – I lose my own. Maybe Zizek took it with him, maybe my idea of “interesting” in terms of “philosophy” was slightly altered by this man. For now I can’t speak with Löwith, I’ve desecrated his work with sfw questions at each of his observations.