Löwith, Löwith’s Heidegger, and the Unity of History

HISTORY AND THEORY 53.1 (2014): 45-68

The realization of the varieties of history radically unhinged the pursuit of modern philosophy. Philosophers want to know. More importantly, they want to know that they know, but history intrudes itself by altering contexts. Nagging doubt that truth may be more than just difficult but radically relative has prompted either denial or assertions of the will. If Truth refuses to disrobe, then assert  belief. Heidegger’s thought stands out as the quintessential contemporary example of how such thought can go terribly wrong, and his student, Karl Löwith, exemplified the ultimate inability to deal with that unfortunate turn.

In this interesting essay by Henning Trüper, Löwith’s particular aim of saving large swaths of Heidegger’s philosophy is analyzed, and found ultimately wanting. Trüper sympathizes with Löwith’s desire to find the roots of Heidegger’s Nazism in his conception of historical identity, in the peculiarly mismatched embrace of identity from the detritus of secondary historical circumstance (as distinguished from primary individual experience of time as movement towards death), but ultimately finds Löwith’s particular approach equally deficient—ultimately unable to discard the sense of historical time which Löwith felt so strongly to be threatening the pursuit of philosophy. It was Löwith’s belief that secularized notions of linearity, leftovers from Judaism and Christianity, ultimately tempted dangerous desires towards some ultimate fulfillment or end. Löwith faulted Heidegger for not asserting the irreducible plurality of experience in time and returning philosophy to a pre-Christian notion of pagan cyclicality under the hegemony of nature. In this way, he thought philosophy could be protected from history, but as Trüper notes, this really does not solve the problem: “Ultimatley, this philosophical tradition presupposed a historical ontology of its own, and thus the plurality of history. The discussion to which Löwith contributed required the regime of historicity it employed; and this regime had to have limited scope if it was to protect philosophy from the mess of other histories.”