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 which makes his perspective a false one, and in a way that would not necessarily be so with other periods. For it is a consequence of his omission that in large measure he gives us not German thought as it actually was, but German thought as it was in its own self-image. The German nineteenth century was preoccupied precisely with its belief in itself, its belief in its own autonomy, in its freedom from external background. To which the retort will surely be: what about Marx with his view of thought as rooted in economic relations? What about Schopenhauer with his view of thought as a mask of Will? What about Nietzsche’s stress on the biological determinism of thought?

To this there is a two-fold reply. For all their stress on the conditioned character of the thought of others, and for all their use of this theme as a polemical weapon, each of these writers presents his own thought as objective and unconditional. All these writers, moreover, represent either withdrawal or emigration from the German social scene. In so withdrawing they emphasize all the more one central feature of the German nineteenth century: the systematic split between the realm of critical thought and evaluation and the realm in which social and political life is lived. We can even put a date to this split. It is in the months of September and October, 1819, when the Carlsbad decrees were passed in Prussia, Fries lost his chair, and the professorate were informed that the traditional exemption of the university and of the Prussian Academy from censorship was at an end. Not that the first impact of these events was purely negative. Hegel felt liberated to write and to publish because he now knew where he stood, and because there was no tension between him and the censors. But henceforth the stance of German society was such that only those ideas which could be made acceptable to the status quo could have a social impact. I do not wish to imply that it was only or even essentially by means of formal mechanisms such as censorship that this happened. The very forms of German society showed themselves able to absorb and to tame in the most surprising way.


Thus from within, to someone like Meinecke, the outcome appeared to be a splendid union of the political and the cultural; from the outside, criticism appears to have been effective only against those forces which might have altered or restrained the inner development of German society. Heine is the prophet of this development, seeing German philosophy as essentially destructive of what had hitherto helped to contain the Nordic passions beneath the surface, and predicting the coming catastrophe. “The heads which philosophy has used for reflection can be cut off later by the revolution for whatever purpose it likes.” Löwith is right to put his emphasis upon authors who dissolved Hegelianism or carried their skepticism even beyond this dissolution: Feuerbach, Ruge, Bauer, Marx, Kierkegaard, and finally Nietzsche. For in doing so, he succeeds in making it clear that Hegelianism was the last philosophy with which German society could be at home and which could be at home in German society. Though this is scarcely Löwith’s conclusion, it is no accident that the best-known German philosopher since Nietzsche is Heidegger, whose system is devoted to replacing thought by incantation. For the decline of Hegelianism—apart from a revival during the 1914-18 war when Hegel briefly reappeared as a culture hero of German-Christian civilization—meant the replacement of philosophy by autonomous social forces: “It is no longer an age of systems,” wrote Hegel’s bitterest critic, Rudolf Haym, “no longer an age of poetry or of philosophy. Instead it is an age in which, thanks to the great technological discoveries of the century, material seems to have come to life. The deepest foundations of our physical as well as our spiritual life are being torn up and remodeled through the triumphs of technology.” The exclusion of critical philosophy leads to what Lenin called the worship of the accomplished fact.

Two episodes in the course of this process should be mentioned. One is the dissolution of that alliance between Germanism and Christianity which Luther had sealed. In effect, Christianity is offered a continued lodging on German premises provided that it will acknowledge that in its supernatural form it is merely an anticipation of German nineteenth-century reality. Those Christians, like Kierkegaard, who refuse to accomodate their faith must either dwell on the cultural outskirts, as Kierkegaard did, or else, like Karl Barth later, will be forced into real or spiritual emigration.

But if Christianity proved impotent in the face of German reality, so did Marxism. And just as Christianity split into a liberal accomodating faction which German society domesticated, and a dogmatic faction which remained outside, but powerless and uncomprehending, so we find Marxists split into the domesticated ranks of the social democratic leadership and the fundamentalists of the Communist Party, who remained faithful in their opposition even to their deaths but as uncomprehending of what had happened to them as any Christian.

It is no accident that Löwith terminates his book with Nietzsche, an author whose deepest weapon is an irony which includes self-irony. Nietzsche’s tragedy is that he could solve his problem only by transcending all the values of German society, including those Christian and socialist values which appeared to their adherents as radical cures but to Nietzsche as mere phases in society’s disease—but that he had nothing to put in their place, except for rhetorical images to which German society could give its own meanings. All that Nietzsche’s apologists have written about his antipathy to nationalism, to Wilhelmian Germany, to anti-semitism is true. To Nietzsche the Ubermensch is an ideal far removed from Nazi ideals. And yet Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche did not wholly falsify; in part she put her own interpretation upon texts of an all too ambiguous kind. The texts are ambiguous, not because Nietzsche could have been clearer but because the urgency of the need for a transvaluation of values springs precisely from an inability to supply it.

Perhaps the final episode in this chronicle is that of the conspirators of July 20th, 1944. All of them seem Utopian and unrealistic, whether romantic Conservatives, Jesuits, or socialists, because they had all in different ways exiled themselves from social reality and knew no way to break back into it. The way that they chose led and could only lead to their own deaths. The heads which philosophy had used for reflection were cut off at last.


This Issue

September 24, 1964