Ludwig Landgrebe

Ludwig Landgrebe (09 March 1902, Vienna — 14 August 1991, Cologne)

Today is the 120th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig Landgrebe (09 March 1902, Vienna — 14 August 1991, Cologne), who was born on this date in 1902.

Ludwig Landgrebe is not a particularly well known name among philosophers, except perhaps among phenomenologists, as Landgrebe worked closely with Husserl as his assistant for many years. Husserl’s Experience and Judgment: Investigations in the Genealogy of Logic was assembled by Landgrebe from Husserl’s manuscripts, so from this we can understand the close relationship between Husserl’s writings and Landgrebe’s writings.

Landgrebe formulated a distinctively phenomenological philosophy of history expressed in books and papers. A chapter in Landgrebe’s Major Problems in Contemporary European Philosophy, from Dilthey to Heidegger (Philosophie der Gegenwart, Wissenschaft der Zeit, 1952; English translation 1966) is devoted to the problems of history, and sets up discussion of philosophy of history in this way:

“According to a still widely held opinion, the philosophy of history is a speculation on the course of world history as it has been explored by the science of history, in the form of subsequent reflection. This reflection — in separation from the course of history — seeks to answer the question whether there is any ‘meaning’ to be found in the course of historical events, either in the sense of a progress toward a definable goal or, conversely, in the sense of a process of decline, or in the sense of a cyclical movement of the return of identical formal structures (Gestalten). This question thus asks in the final analysis whether a general law can be observed or established in these historical movements. This kind of philosophy of history is — with some justification — rejected by most historians as a barren construct which does violence to the course of historical events and which cannot furnish any guiding principles for concrete historical research. Even a cursory survey of contemporary works dealing with the problem of history shows that questions of this kind play a very insignificant role because a new style of questioning has become prevalent.”

Thus Landgrebe immediately distances himself from speculative (or substantive, or material) philosophy of history, though for Landgrebe the “new style of questioning” is not the analytical philosophy of history familiar to Anglo-American philosophy (this is what Maurice Mandelbaum called formal philosophy of history, and others have called critical philosophy of history), but rather phenomenological philosophy of history. Also, it should be noted in Major Problems in Contemporary European Philosophy Landgrebe frequently writes in a Heideggerian idiom.

Several of Landgrebe’s papers on phenomenological philosophy of history were collected in his book Phänomenologie und Geschichte (1968). This has not been translated into English, and I have not been able to obtain a copy of the German original, but there is a review of the book by Samuel L. Hart from 1969. I did manage to find a copy of “das Problem der Ende der Geschicht,” which is the last of the essays in this book. Here is a part of the paragraph from this essay:

“…where does the end of history occur if its conception — and this remains the case — does not correspond to any objective reality, because both the end and infinity are not objects of possible experience? To this it must be said: Just as history does not have its own continuity and unity, because history only exists through the actions of people, and because its continuity is always re-established where actions combine the past with what is to be realized in the future relates, the end as meaning and goal of the event can only be decided in the event of the action.”

Here Landgrebe is being thoroughly Kantian, even as he invokes the Hegelian idea of the end of history, as his formulation in terms of “objects of possible experience,” which is a familiar Kantian idiom. Another essay in the same book, “Geschichte im Denken Kants” (“History in Kant’s Thought”), is described by Hart as:

“…a comprehensive and critical exposition of Kant’s philosophy of history. The author synthesizes Kant’s ideas expressed in the various small essays, and in the book on the ‘Perpetual Peace.’ Kant is skeptic as to philosophies of history which aim at some inevitable historical laws and purposes, knowing very well that man’s history is a strange mixture of sense and senseless, rational and irrational. The real purpose of history is for Kant a Projected ideal which man ought to implement. What history ought to be interests him more than what history is. The implementation of the categorical imperative is for Kant the only worthwhile ideal attesting to man’s rational nature. Taking as a constitutive principle it leads to disillusionment, taken as regulative, heuristic principle it nurtures the kind of hope and courage needed in approximating the ideal in reality.”

One might call Landgrebe a Neo-Kantian as much as a phenomenologist, and Landgrebe’s Kantian formulations give us tantalizing hints toward a systematic Kantian philosophy of history that Kant did not write, but which he could have written had he had the interest in doing so (this, in turn, is an implicit claim about the philosophy of history, and one that would have been dismissed tout court by Sartre, which implies that there could be an existentialist philosophy of history based on Sartre’s formulations).

Phänomenologie und Geschichte consists of nine essays, but, interestingly, does not include three papers available in English on Landgrebe’s philosophy of history, “The Life-world and the Historicity of Human Existence,” “Phenomenology as Transcendental Theory of History,” and “A Meditation on Husserl’s Statement: ‘History is the Grand Fact of Absolute Being’.” Thus Landgebe left a significant body of work on the philosophy of history from a distinctively phenomenological perspective, only some of which is currently available in English translation.

“Phenomenology as Transcendental Theory of History” appears in the anthology of papers Husserl: Expositions and Appraisals, edited by Elliston and McCormick. In a savage review of the volume, Hubert Dreyfus called Landgrebe’s contribution, “Among the worst papers included in the collection.” While Dreyfus may not think this any good as phenomenology, it is interesting nevertheless as philosophy of history. In the final paragraph of this paper Landgrebe writes:

“We have attempted to show that the factualness of history depends upon the factualness of the ‘there’ of the individual existence, singularized in each case. If there is to be a future for this ‘humanity,’ bound in its ‘there’ upon the ‘earth,’ and if its history is not to be at its end, the condition for this is not only the acknowledgment of all ‘our likes’ as equal but also, at the same time, as absolutely individually different. The unconditionally general, binding requirement is thus acknowledgment and respect of each individual existence, of each of ‘our likes,’ and those of historically evolved groups, peoples, tribes, and nations in their ‘collective’ individuality. Only this acknowledgment, namely, the acceptance of one’s own facticity, is the ground for the possibility of a human world rather than subjugation under an impenetrable fate.”

Earlier in the same paper Landgrebe wrote of the Earth:

“…history is in no way merely a history of nature. True indeed: ‘natural occurrences’ form its ground; but not at all in the sense of ‘matters’ that could not be further defined. Rather, they are known to us as the ‘earth,’ that is, as the totality of the conditions which set the boundaries for all the activities of man and consequently for his history in the sense of ‘res gestae’.”


“‘Earth’… is a transcendental limiting concept. It is a fundamental structure of the human lifeworld and denotes, at the same time, the limit with reference to which all our talk of ‘nature’ can gain only for us an intuitively fulfillable sense.”

There are several interesting ideas here. Firstly, Landgrebe is deriving a moral imperative from his approach to philosophy of history. Insofar as philosophy of history involves substantive axiological commitments presumably not to be found in science, this isn’t precisely a violation of the is/ought distinction, but it presents to us several problems related to this distinction. Should a philosophy of history (i.e., ought a philosophy of history) to be sufficiently objective that is aspires to the value neutrality of science, or are we to expect, if not celebrate, the substantive axiolotical commitments of a philosophy of history? Certainly, providential philosophy of history (as in Saint Augustine and Bossuet, inter alia) make no pretense to scientific objectivity, but we may ask ourselves whether we should aspire to scientific objectivity in the philosophy of history.

The other idea I find interesting is the conception of “earth” that Landgrebe defines in this passage, which both differs from a more conventional, naturalistic conception of the earth, and exceeds it, insofar as the totality of conditions that set the boundaries of human activities include both material and non-matural factors. In Husserl’s later writings he sometimes employs a conception of earth that departs from the strictly naturalistic, which is not surprising as Husserl was actively seeking to lay the foundations for a non-naturalistic rigorous universal science.

Much of what Landgrebe says in “Phenomenology as Transcendental Theory of History” parallels the non-naturalistic formulations of Husserl in his posthumously published essay “Foundational Investigations of the Phenomenological Origin of the Spatiality of Nature: The Originary Ark, the Earth, Does Not Move.” It would be an interesting project to compare these two texts of Husserl and Landgrebe, and it would be an interesting and larger project to place the conception of Earth presented by Husserl and Landgrebe, presumably part of what Husserl thought of as a universal but non-naturalistic science in relation to the more naturalistic conception of what Husserl’s and Landgrebe’s positivist contemporaries called “unified science.”

In the paper “A Meditation on Husserl’s Statement: ‘History is the Grand Fact of Absolute Being’,” the line from Husserl that Landgrebe quotes is from the final paragraph of addendum XXXII to Husserl’s Krisis, which is not translated in the English edition. Here is the German original:

“Absolut betrachtet, hat jedes ego seine Geschichte, und es ist nur als Subjekt einer, seiner Geschichte. Und jede kommunikative Gemeinsehaft von absoluten Ich, von absoluten Subjektivitaten — in voller Konkretion, zu der die Konstitution der Welt gehört — hat ihre ‘passive’ und ‘aktive’ Geschichte und ist nur in dieser Gesehichte. Die Geschichte ist das große Faktum des absoluten Seins; und die letzten Fragen, die letztmetaphysisehen und -teleologisehen, sind eins mit den Fragen nach dem absoluten Sinn der Geschichte.”

Here is a highly imperfect rendering of this final paragraph into English:

“In absolute terms, every self has its history, and this history is only as a single subject. And every communicative community of the absolute selves, of absolute subjectivities — in full concreteness, to which the constitution of the world belongs — has its ‘passive’ and ‘active’ history and is only to be found in this history. History is the great fact of absolute being; and the ultimate questions, ultimate metaphysical and ultimate teleological questions, are one with the questions about the absolute meaning of history.

(Note on the translation: The quoted line in Landgrebe’s title appears in the original German with textual emphasis, i.e., wider spacing between the latters of each work, which serves a function similar to that of italics in English. The textual emphasis in the original is here rendered as italics, which is an imperfect solution as “ego” in Husserl’s text is italicized, while German words are given textual emphasis. Usually in translating Husserl, “ego” is remains as “ego,” but I have made it “self” because in the second sentence “absoluten Ich” would need to be translated as “absolute I’s,” which doesn’t make any sense in English, or “absolute ego.” However, there is no textual justification for rendering “ego” as “self” and then “Ich” as “self,” but I think it reads better this way.)

This little known passage from Husserl suggests a radically historical reading of phenomenology, and suggests that history could potentially influence phenomenology as much as a phenomenological philosophy of history could potentially influence history proper. One could understand Landgrebe’s work as following up on this approach that Husserl only really began to pursue in the Krisis manuscript, but which never received a thorough exposition. Thus while Dreyfus sees the central concern of phenomenology as being a correct interpretation of Husserl’s reduction, and so dismisses the work of Landgrebe because Landgrebe does not give the same emphasis in his interpretation of Husserl’s thought, one could just as well argue that Husserl’s late insights on history is the central concern of phenomenology and pursue a path like that of Landgrebe.




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