From Hegel to Nietzsche: The Revolution in Nineteenth-Century Thought
It is only when we read histories of philosophy of the highest order that the inadequacy of the history of philosophy as an intellectual enterprise comes home to us. For to write the history of philosophy apart from the rest of history is to suggest that philosophy is a self-contained activity. That it is not—that philosophical problems arise out of dilemmas created by social and intellectual activity of many kinds and not only by earlier philosophical activity—is a truth whose importance varies with the period with which we are dealing. It is nowhere more important than in the study of the German nineteenth century.
The kind of history of philosophy which I would advocate must not be confused with the type of project undertaken by Lord Russell in his History of Western Philosophy where the purely philosophical narrative is broken up by small chunks of social background, which lie about the text like boulders on a barren hillside. It is rather that a genuinely sensitive outline of the philosophical problems will itself open up questions which force the intellectual history into a social frame. Both the achievement and the inadequacy of Dr. Karl Löwith’s great book arise from the way in which he almost, but not quite, makes the transition. There is a good deal in From Hegel to Nietzsche about German society, but it is always refracted through the authors he writes about. We are given accounts of Hegel, Arnold Ruge, and Marx on the nature of work; we are not told about work in industrial society. We are given Marx’s criticism of Steiner’s individualist anarchism as a mere reflection of the individualism of bourgeois life; we are not told about the individualism of bourgeois life.
This is important because it is their own relation to their society which preoccupies Löwith’s authors. His central theme is the nineteenth-century critique of what he calls “the Bourgeois-Christian world.” “Thus the human problem of our days’ is the fact that the modern bourgeois is neither a citizen in the sense of the ancient polis, nor a whole man.” As bourgeois, man belongs to society and to the state; but from Christianity man inherits a view of his nature as transcending all finite institutions. What is he to make of this dualism? Hegel offers him a set of reconciling formulas; Marx sees both state and individual as misleading abstractions; Kierkegaard sees Christianity perverted by any accommodation to society; Nietzsche criticizes Christianity, state-worship, and bourgeois life, and tries to transcend all existing values; the minor characters, Von Humboldt, the Young Hegelians, Rosenkranz, Overbeck, and the like, write notes in the margin of philosophical history. Löwith’s chronicle is accurate and exhausting. Reading it is rather like sitting through the Ring.
When Löwith does connect this whole revolution of thought with social life he shows its effects on later events rather than on its contemporary background. This absence of contemporary social background is not just an omission which renders his book incomplete; it is a distortion…
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