German-speaking Philosophers – Portraits

German, Jew, Philosopher – Karl Löwith

Cover des Buches „Von Hegel zu Nietzsche“, Ausgabe von 1953; © KohlhammerKarl Löwith; © Lorenz ViereckeKarl Löwith was one of the most prolific German philosophers of the twentieth century – and is one of the least known. The bibliography of his works comprises more than 300 titles, including veritable “classics” indispensable for the study of philosophy. Unfortunately, today they are probably read only by specialists.

Karl Löwith was born on January 9, 1897 in Munich. His father was a well-known painter – and a non-religious Jew. For the young Löwith, this last circumstance was initially of no importance: his fatherland was Germany; and it was for this Germany that he went to war in 1914 as a volunteer. Serving above and beyond the call of duty, he was badly wounded in 1915, and finally fell into Italian captivity.

Flight, exile, return

Cover of the book “Meaning in History”; © University of Chicago PressAfter returning to Germany, Löwith began studying biology and philosophy at the University of Munich. The riots brought about by the Munich Soviet Republic drove the “apolitical student”, as Löwith described himself in his readable 1940 autobiography Mein Leben in Deutschland vor und nach 1933(My Life in Germany before and after 1933), to Freiburg and into the circle of the only eight years older Martin Heidegger, by whom he habilitated in 1928.

His political ignorance and middle-class existence as an adjunct professor was violently brought to an end by the Nazi seizure of power: in 1934 Löwith and his wife had to leave Germany. They fled first to Italy, then to Japan, and finally to the United States, where Löwith taught at a theological seminary in Hartford, Connecticut, and after 1949 at the New School for Social Research in New York. In exile, he wrote his two most important works: From Hegel to Nietzsche (Von Hegel zu Nietzsche 1949) and Meaning in History (German edition: Weltgeschichte und Heilsgeschehen,1953).

Eighteen years after his expulsion, Löwith returned to Germany, accepting an appointment at the University of Heidelberg, where he taught as a professor until his retirement. The Nietzsche expert and specialist in nineteenth century European intellectual history died on May 24, 1973.

From Hegel to Nietzsche

Cover of the book “Von Hegel zu Nietzsche”, Edition 1953; © KohlhammerLöwith left no doctrine and founded no school. His own thought takes shape only in the confrontation with a philosophical tradition that had become questionable, and in the productive appropriation, despite all questionableness, of what has stood the test of time. It is shaped by the double experience of the collapse of bourgeois civilization, culminating in two World Wars, and of the disintegration of Hegelian philosophy, culminating in the emergence of modern nihilism.

On the eve of the Second World War, Löwith’s From Hegel to Nietzsche. The Revolution in Nineteenth Century Thought reconstructed the stations of this process of decay, which led from Marx and the Young Hegelians through Kierkegaard to Nietzsche – that is, from the declared “end of philosophy”, and its transformation into a theory of revolutionary social change, through radical existentialism to a not less radical philosophy of the Eternal Recurrence and the Will-to-Power, for which all metaphysical worlds are finally fables.

Löwith’s motivation goes beyond his philosophical interest in these themes: he is concerned not only with the specific forms of the “transformation and inversion of the Hegelian philosophy of absolute spirit into Marxism and Existentialism”, not only with the modalities of the “transformation of European humanism … into German nihilism” (Leo Strauss), but also with the “fatal consequence” of this development in the history of philosophy, in which he sees a key for understanding our own inhuman present.

World history and salvation

Cover of the book “Heidegger – Denker in dürftiger Zeit”, Edition 1953; © S. FischerA sensitivity for social and political consequences in intellectual history also marks Löwith’s second important bookMeaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History, which traces the (usually unacknowledged) “theological assumptions of the philosophy of history”. Again in the form of a history of decline, this time of cosmic-theological awareness, it gives a lucid “meta-critique of … historical consciousness” (Jürgen Habermas), which is intended to help prepare a return to antiquity, that is, to a non-historical, “natural” view of the world.

It is Löwith’s not uncontroversial thesis that modernity, oriented to a this-worldly goal and a philosophy of history obsessed with the idea of a successive approximation of this goal, depends upon theology or the theological view of history as a redemptive process. This idea originates in the biblical belief in salvation and ends with the “secularizing of its eschatological model”. Löwith’s critique of historical consciousness does not spare even his teacher Heidegger: in another place (Heidegger – Denker in dürftiger Zeit, 1953) (Heidegger – Thinker in a Needy Time), Löwith blames him for never having left the Christian horizon of redemptive expectation. Heidegger’s renewal of philosophy through fundamental ontology distinguishes “being-in-the-world” from “authentic being” and reckons with the possibility of a “world-historical moment” in which this authentic being will make itself known, even if in the shape of a Führer.

Philosophy as cosmic knowledge

Against such messianism, Löwith insists on the necessity and the possibility of an authentic philosophy. History, especially in the form of contemporary history, can provide man with no orientation. Only philosophy is capable of doing this – but only a philosophy that has emancipated itself from modern historicism’s idea of progress and the pathos of authenticity, and that looks at the whole of man, nature and history.

In other words, Löwith wants to confront the crisis of modernity not with a philosophical, theological or political decisionism, but with the restitution of philosophy as knowledge of the cosmos or a return, albeit skeptically fractured, to the cosmological worldview of the Greeks. How far such a program is actually feasible today remains to be seen. Yet there is no doubt that Löwith’s works are not only worth reading, but are also still relevant and indispensable for a serious coming to grips with philosophical “modernity” and “postmodernity”.

Bernd Mayerhofer
The author teaches Political Philosophy and Intellectual History at the University for Political Studies in Munich.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
July2011

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