Karl Löwith

Karl Löwith (09 January 1897–26 May 1973)

Today is the 125th anniversary of the birth of Karl Löwith (09 January 1897–26 May 1973), who was born on this date in 1897.

Löwith wrote one of the most influential books in twentieth century philosophy of history, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History, as well as several historical studies of note, especially From Hegel to Nietzsche: The Revolution in Nineteenth-Century Thought.

An interesting study of Löwith can be found in Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse by Richard Wolin, though from the point of view of someone primarily interested in Heidegger’s philosophical legacy. (Wolin has also edited the interesting volume The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader, which includes a short account by Löwith of his last meeting with Heidegger in Rome after Löwith had fled Germany.) Wolin wrote that Löwith ultimately came to advocate Stoic detachment, but that “The Stoic standpoint venerated by Löwith has been overwhelmed by modern intellectual tendencies.” Ultimately, Wolin argued that Löwith and Heidegger shared a peculiarly modern kind of fatalism:

“Both Löwith and Heidegger insist on the fecklessness of ‘action’ or practical reason. They contend that the modern project of human self-assertion, beginning with the scientific revolution and the age of European expansion, has reaped nothing but disaster. But their understanding of the consequences and potential of the modern age remains limited and one-sided. In truth, the project of modernity is multidimensional. There are various logics or normative potentials at stake in each of modernity’s various spheres.”

Wolin’s advocacy of modernity is almost enough to make me think that Löwith and Heidegger were right in their critique of modernity (Wolin continues on in the above vein), and, of course the critique of modernity is front and center in Löwith’s Meaning in History, which Wolin called “Löwith’s emphatic rejection of philosophies of history.”

Another estimate of Löwith can be found in Karl Löwith’s View of History: A Critical Appraisal of Historicism by Berthold P. Riesterer, again strongly Heideggerian, but Riesterer also considers Löwith’s work in relation to Dilthey, Max Weber, Burckhardt, Kierkegaard, Carl Schmitt, and others, including Saint Augustine, as in the following passage:

“Löwith points out that the first great attempt to elicit an ultimate meaning in history, Augustine’s City of God, is not to be considered a genuine ‘philosophy of history’ at all; rather it is a dogmatic historical interpretation of Christianity. ‘Though he is demonstrating the truth of the Christian doctrine in the material of sacred and profane history, the history of the world has for him no intrinsic interest and meaning. The City of God is not an ideal which could become real in history… and the church in its earthly existence is only a representative signification of the true, transhistorical city. For Augustine the historical task of the church is not to develop the Christian truth through successive stages but simply to spread it, for the truth as such is established.’ In other words, Augustine’s true theme is not the human history of the world per se; instead it is the special eschatological history of the faith, the Heilsgeschehen, which is a kind of esoteric history within secular history visible only to those who possess the eyes of faith. For Augustine, the entire course of history becomes progressive, meaningful, and intelligible solely by anticipating a final triumph, beyond historical time, of the city of God over the sinful city of man.”

Meaning in History is a skeptical look at speculative philosophies of history, which Löwith reads as bastardized expression of traditional Christian eschatology. Löwith says he will use “philosophy of history” 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.” Löwith continues:

“Taken in this sense, philosophy of history is, however, entirely dependent on theology of history, in particular on the theological concept of history as a history of fulfillment and salvation. But then philosophy of history cannot be a ‘science’; for how could one verify the belief in salvation on scientific grounds. The absence of such a scientific basis and, at the same time, the quest for it caused modern philosophers and even theologians like Troeltsch to reject the prescientific treatment of history altogether, while accepting, in principle, the empirical method of Voltaire. Arguing that the philosophy of history from Augustine to Bossuet does not present a theory of ‘real’ history in its finitude, wealth, and mobility but only a doctrine of history on the basis of revelation and faith, they drew the conclusion that the theological interpretation of history — or fourteen hundred years of Western thought — is a negligible affair. Against this common opinion that proper historical thinking begins only in modern times, with the eighteenth century, the following outline aims to show that philosophy of history originates with the Hebrew and Christian faith in a fulfillment and that it ends with the secularization of its eschatological pattern.”

Löwith’s philosophy of history is a principled rejection of philosophy of history — essentially, a non-philosophy of history. What remains after draining the meaning out of history (even if that meaning is a kind of a counterfeit borrowed from Christian theology) is only the attitude that the individual can assume vis-à-vis history, hence the Stoic detachment that Wolin finds in Löwith.

If Riesterer is correct that Augustin’s philosophy of history isn’t really a philosophy of history, then this touchstone of philosophy of history in the western tradition is another non-philosophy of history, like Löwith’s non-philosophy of history, meaning that the work of Augustine and Löwith are philosophically adjacent.

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