The task to write a short history of German philosophy is daunting. Hösle approaches this task with erudition, precision and admirable polemical style. Readers should note that Hösle’s account is not meant to be a neutral encyclopaedic one which narrates the entire history of philosophical ideas in the German-speaking world. While his selection and evaluation of certain figures might appear questionable, it would be unfair if one judges it with an expectation of encyclopaedic comprehensiveness. Indeed, it is a specific account representing the German Spirit in a specific way. He gives four criteria for his selection of German philosophers: 1. quality of the philosophical work, 2. influence on subsequent developments in the history of philosophy, 3. whether the work paradigmatically expresses the basic ideas of the time and of German culture and 4. whether the philosopher helps us make sense of the developmental logic of the process of development. Along with the use of the German language, these make up the formal necessary requirements of Hösle’s historiography of German philosophy. On this basis of selection, he identifies a set of material features that characterize the German Spirit, and they are: 1. rationalist theology; 2. a commitment to synthetic a priori knowledge (trust that God created the world in a rational way); 3. a penchant for system-building; 4. grounding ethics in reason not in sentiment and 5. a combination of philosophy and philology. This review consists of two main parts. I will first sum up the line of ideological development given by Hösle, and then I will critique Hösle’s account of the withering of German philosophy and its Spirit.
In Hösle’s account, which consists of 16 chapters arranged by chronological order, German philosophy first started with Meister Eckhart and reached its climax in German idealism. Eckhart is not only the first medieval philosopher who expresses his original philosophical ideas in vernacular German language, his rationalist theology and mystic idea of an unmediated relationship to God are characteristic traits of the German Spirit. Nicholas of Cusa, though he did not write philosophical treatises in German, was influenced by Eckhart’s rational theology and conceived the project of an a priori, theologically-grounded natural philosophy, which sees the universe (and human mind) as an image of the Trinitarian infinite God and critiques the Aristotelian geocentric worldview of finite cosmos. The reasons for Hösle to include him despite the fact that Nicholas did not write his works in German seem to be his use of the distinction between understanding and reason and his epistemological optimism about human mind’s approximation to divine infinity. Paracelsus is a natural philosopher in the Spiritualist tradition that was partly inspired by the Reformation and partly broke with the dogmas of orthodox Lutheranism and biblical authority. His polemic against traditional medicine called for founding medicine in chemistry and mineralogy and he sees the forces of nature as God’s manifestation and particular sciences as subordinated to theology.
But it is Jakob Böhme whom Hösle identifies as “the first epoch-making German philosopher of the modern period.” Böhme considered himself a pious Lutheran and his experience of mystical visions brought him to provide a deeper theosophic foundation for Lutheranism. In his contemplation on the problem of evil and suffering, Böhme recognizes in God three principles: the positive (the “Yes”), the negative (the “No”) and their synthesis. Devil and Hell are the expression of the negative divine principle, and it is through this opposition that God becomes knowable and apparent. The reunion of the Yes and the No was found in Christ.
Leibniz must be included in any historical account of the emergence of German philosophy. Not only did he contribute to raising German to the rank of a language suitable for academic purposes and founding the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences (now the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities), his philosophical contributions also earned him a place among the greatest philosophers. Interestingly, Hösle understands modern philosophy as a competition between ontology-first and epistemology-first thinkers (or “ancientizers” and “modernizers” in Hösle’s own terms). The prime example of the former camp is Spinoza, and the leader of the latter is Descartes. Whereas Spinoza starts with an ontological proof of natura naturans with extension and thought being its two knowable attributes, Descartes starts from the undeniability of the cogito, with the physical and the mental being two different kinds of substances. Though Hösle did not clearly assign Leibniz to either side, Leibniz seems to be straddling both with a stronger sympathy for the modernizers. Despite Leibniz’s personal admiration for Spinoza and the partial agreement in their philosophical positions, Hösle is quite right in stressing their differences regarding the concept of necessity, the moral status of God and the notion of substance. The appropriation of possible worlds in Leibniz’s metaphysics is bound by the axiological view that the actual world must be the best possible world created by God if God exists, and Leibniz’s pluralistic view of substances is supplemented by the notion of pre-established harmony.
By tying God down to the actual world as the best possible world, Leibniz in effect exacerbated the theodicy problem. Not only did Kant uncover the problem by critically examining previous proofs of God and pointing out their implausibility, he is also a revolutionary in ethics because his practical philosophy detached the foundations of ethics entirely from any hopes of an after-world. The value of moral conduct no longer depends on God’s reward or on subjective feelings, but rather it lies within the act as an end in itself. Ethics so conceived is grounded on a categorical, unconditional imperative that is owed to practical reason’s self-determination and not to any heteronomous factors. This alignment with practical reason generates a stream of anti-eudaimonism in Kant’s ethics, in which human dignity consists in the capacity of sacrificing one’s own happiness for the fulfilment of obligation, and one’s relation to God is grounded internally through the compliance with moral obligation. Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal realm and the noumenal realm along with his epistemological distinction of the capacity of understanding and reason allow him to reserve a regulative role for the idea of God while restricting its objective validity in accordance with his criterion of significance for the phenomenal realm.
The development of a new human science is another important achievement of the German eighteenth century alongside Kant’s critical philosophy. The historical reliability of biblical narratives was challenged and the narrow-minded salvation history of Jews and Christians was discredited by the universalistic spirit of Enlightenment. But the Lutheran pathos of sincerity prevented the German intellectuals, many of whom came from a Lutheran parsonage, to adopt a detached attitude of irony. Instead, modern philology provided the means to reconstructing the meaning of the Scriptures in response to not just biblical criticism but also Enlightenment universalism. This led to the idea that understanding the word of God is not simply understanding the Bible (literally), but rather the whole history of the human spirit; and the establishment of human science became a religious duty. In this regard, Herder’s contribution to German philosophy is unmistakable, for he gave it a new focus in philosophy of language, history, aesthetics and anthropology. Schiller’s aesthetic theory attributes a moral function to the traditional aesthetic category of beauty, and aesthetic education was conceived as an apolitical alternative to political revolution for the realization of moral ideas and the unification of all spheres of life. Through the Schlegel brothers and Novalis philosophy and poetry achieved an integral and yet anti-systematic cohesion, which became an essential characteristic of early Romanticism. Schleiermacher’s theology of feeling granted religion an autonomous status within human sciences, making it accessible via rational standards for those who had detached themselves from the dogmatic authority of tradition. Humboldt’s linguistic works and his analysis of the relationship between thought and language constitute an important contribution to the German tradition of the philosophy of language. He also played a significant role in the institutionalization of human science in the modern blueprint of the research university.
German idealism is for Hösle the most ambitious philosophical school of thought in the history of German philosophy and he focuses on the three most prominent figures: Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. The philosophizing of each of the three philosophers manifests not just the essential character of religious seriousness that defines the German Spirit, but also the longing for a comprehensive metaphysical system that defies the current prevalent trend of specialization. Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre is a reflexive transcendental philosophy that seeks to uncover (or “deduce”) the implicit presuppositions, or the fundamental principles (and their implications), of the faculties of the mind assumed by Kant’s philosophy. Fichte traces the foundation of the laws of logic (identity and contradiction) in the I’s self-positing and counter-positing act, and all theoretical knowledge is based on the mediation of the divisible I through the divisible not-I. His ethics, like Kant’s, not only recognizes autonomy as the necessary condition for moral acts, but it represents a view more radical than Kant’s in that it does not allow for morally neutral acts. The mutual recognition of the spheres of freedom among individuals is enacted by law; and it is with Fichte that intersubjectivity is deduced for the first time as a necessary condition of autonomous self-consciousness. Practical belief takes priority in his system, as it is the only way to avoid nihilism.
Schelling started out as a Fichtean philosopher but soon broke with Fichteanism by attributing to nature a much higher status than Fichte’s Wissnschaftslehre allowed. Instead of deducing nature as the field of ethical striving for rational beings, Schelling’s objective idealism sees nature and consciousness as manifestations of the Absolute, and the basic structures of reality are conceived as the results of the development of a polar structure. Built on a metaphysical view that seeks to accommodate the real and the ideal, Schelling took inspirations from the contemporary development of natural science and attributed metaphysical significance to its latest discovery. Schelling’s view on religion is closer to traditional Christianity in that he does not content himself with a negative philosophy that postulates God as a logical abstratum but demands a positive account that affirms the vitality of a personal God.
Hegel started his philosophical career as a loyal follower of Schelling’s absolute idealism, but he established it with much greater brilliance and systematic rigor than Schelling was ever able to do. His mature metaphysical system contains three parts: logic, nature and spirit. In contrast to what Hegel calls “the reflective philosophy of subjectivity,” the a priori categories in Hegel’s system are not to be understood as subjective concepts imposed on an objective reality. Instead, reality is conceptually structured, and the categorial structures of reality are not ens rationis from a transcendent realm, but dynamic moments in the teleological self-movement of the Absolute. Thus, the theological significance of Hegel’s Science of Logic is prominent, since the entire system can be taken as an ontological proof of God. Hegel also places intrinsic value on social institutions and intersubjectively shared ways of life.
Schopenhauer is an essential key to understanding the transition from German idealism to Nietzsche. Clearly, his epistemology was influenced by Kant’s subjectivism and the German idealists’ wish to bring the thing-in-itself to light, and he reacted to them with an alternative, pessimistic worldview that parallels Indian Buddhism. His epistemology adopts space, time and causality as our subjective constructions, and takes the will to live for the ultimate ground of reality. Prioritizing intuition over concept and the will over reason and understanding, Schopenhauer sees reality as a series of objectivizations of the will, which is fundamentally driven by unconscious biological drives for procreation and self-preservation. Reason is therefore nothing but a symptom of the will, and human knowing is in continuity with animal knowing. With great philosophical depth and eloquence Schopenhauer expressed Europe’s hangover after the gradual flickering out of Christianity, anticipating Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.
In the wake of Schopenhauer, two Hegelian philosophers emerged and determined the history of European consciousness. Feuerbach’s investigation of the essence of Christianity uncovers contradictory ideas in Christian dogmas. He gives an anthropological explanation of religion, according to which God is the hypostatization of human understanding or moral experience. His critique of Christianity seeks to free humans from “religious alienation” which he sees detrimental to morality. Although Feuerbach was a member of Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, he was not a political activist and the influence of his revolt against Christian dogmatics remained within the intellectual circle. On the other hand, with the goal of changing the world, Marx and Engels left the domain of philosophy. Marx’s historical materialism is directed against German idealism and any metaphysical tradition in philosophy that stands on ideas. From a historical materialist point of view, morality, religion, metaphysics, and the rest of ideology are to be explained externally by social economic activities and conditions. Although Marx’s critique of the modern state and his analysis of the effects of alienation are pioneering, he underestimated the influence the “superstructure” can have on material conditions, leaving human capacity for grasping truth incomprehensible. His claim to be scientific was indefensible, not only because his prediction of communist society did not accord with our experience, but also because his emphasis on the primacy of the economic is one-sided and prejudiced.
The prominence of Nietzsche’s philosophy lies in its attempt to provide a philological explanation of the origin of Greek tragedy, in which he identifies and upholds the irrational element in ancient Greek culture represented by Dionysus. As the Antichrist in the history of German philosophy, Nietzsche is no less critical of metaphysics, morality, and Christianity. According to Hösle’s judgment, Nietzsche’s genealogical account of the emergence of religion and morality contributes to the “the German adventure of crushing the Christian order of values and the creation of an alternative value system that dripped with the desire to kill” (158). Against any universalist democratic ethics, Nietzsche demands a higher culture of the noble and the strong. His doctrine of the superman and his theory of the will to power replace all theological or religious grounding of values and express his rejection of transcendence.
Contrary to Nietzsche’s expressive language, Frege’s concept script was a precision instrument that achieved not only absolute clarity in inference, but it also brought about a logical revolution by attempting to ground arithmetic in logic. Although Frege’s new logic is incomplete and he was forced by Russell’s paradox to abandon his logicistic program, the new logic, compared to the traditional logic, was a much better candidate for providing a foundation for the new science and for accommodating its results and methods. This led to the very fruitful contributions to philosophy of mathematics and philosophy of physics made by the Viennese and Berlin Circles of logical positivism. Characteristic of this movement is its deflationary or anti-realist approach to metaphysical as well as moral statements, such that it recognizes no synthetic a priori judgments. The most prominent figure from this tradition is Wittgenstein, who once claimed that the limits of one’s language mean the limits of one’s world. The logical and mathematical structures underlying our languages reflect the structures of the world. The late Wittgenstein moved away from his early position, but the boundary of philosophy remained for him to be that of our language. His reflections on rule-following led him to conclude that meaning consists in the concrete use of language and not in any inner image, hence also his rejection of the possibility of private language and his reluctance to recognize any individualistic transcendental grounds of language.
Parallel to the development of logical positivism and Wittgenstein, the enterprise of grounding human and social sciences in reaction to the emergence and domination of natural sciences was undertaken by the Neo-Kantian philosophers, Dilthey, Husserl, and others. Hermann Cohen, founder of the Marburg School, gives a rationalistic interpretation of Judaism as a kind of universalist ethics that preserves its originality and at the same time rejects Zionism. Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert from the Baden School were concerned with the status of the knowledge in human and social sciences in contrast to natural sciences and they made important contributions to the investigation of the role of values. Wilhelm Dilthey tries to ground human sciences in an understanding of psychology and offers a critique of historical reason that objectivizes human mind and philosophical systems on an historical dimension without any idealistic commitment to the validity of any single system. Having lost the religious consciousness characteristic of the Protestantism of traditional German philosophy, Dilthey’s historical relativism loses at the same time the religious and ethical claim to absolute truth. Husserl is the most loyal defender of the traditional concept of reason in the 20th century. Having taken up the influences of Brentano’s and Frege’s realism, Husserl’s phenomenology is a scientific philosophy that seeks to determine the foundation of all the sciences without any theological ambitions. On this basis, his analysis of the phenomena of consciousness takes the relationship between meaning and expression seriously, investigates the dependency relation between contents and the laws that are the a priori conditions of meaningfulness. His phenomenology made not only advances in the investigation of the structure of subjectivity and intentionality, his concept of the life-world also offered a modern alternative to transcendental solipsism and a foundation for regional ontologies of essences. Although Husserl himself was not keen on building a comprehensive system, his phenomenology inspired some of his best students to apply it in new domains, e.g. aesthetics and practical philosophy.
Hösle then ponders in chapter 13 the question whether ideas in German philosophy play any role in the rise of National Socialism or in the hindrance of the opposition to it. He sees in the central figures of the German tradition (i.e. Luther and Kant) the lack of a plausible theory of resistance. The recess of universalist ethics brought about by Nietzsche and logical positivism, coupled with the rise of an anti-democratic right after the First World War in response to the threats of communism and British hegemony, contributes to the weakening of the binding power of an ethical order, paving the way to the emergence of a totalitarian regime. In this light, Hösle offers a critical assessment of Heidegger, whose philosophy redefines and undermines the traditional moral sense of terms such as conscience and guilt. His empty notion of resoluteness, even though it does not necessarily lead to National Socialism, is said to have encouraged the radicalization of irrational convictions.
For the Third Reich period, Arnold Gehlen and Carl Schmitt are picked as the determining figures of German philosophy. Gehlen’s pragmatist anthropology, taking into account a broad range of results from various sciences as well as the influence of Fichte but without any transcendental reflection, centers on action and the stabilizing function of social institutions, which are necessary for the constitution of consciousness. However, Gehlen fails to ascribe any moral significance to questioning unjust institutions. Despite the moral repulsiveness of Schmitt’s refusal of denazification after the Second World War, the influence of his political philosophy has to be acknowledged. His competence of intellectual history is unusual for a jurist, which enables him to see the plausible continuity between legal and theological concepts. But Hösle points out that Schmitt’s reference to the absolute decision as the ultimate ground of law is as problematic as Heidegger’s “resoluteness.”
After the Second World War, Germany could no longer retain the special cultural status it enjoyed since Kant. Not only did several intellectuals leave the country, the occupation and integration the country underwent made it impossible to travel further with the especially German philosophical paths. Gadamer’s attempt at breaking out of the aporias of historicism increased confusion in human sciences. Despite his concept of the anticipation of completeness that re-established some hermeneutic sense of truthfulness and his attempt at constructing an equivalent of first philosophy, he inspired the deconstructivist undermining of human sciences. The first Frankfurt School, for which Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno are the best representatives, reacts against the progress-oriented philosophy of history as well as the culture industry, but carries the Marxist ideal of eliminating concrete suffering through a cooperation with empirical sciences. Its lack of a normative foundation following from a rejection of Kantian ethics becomes the main concern of the second Frankfurt School represented by Jürgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel. They seek to ground normativity by a theory of intersubjectivity influenced by American pragmatism. Though much originality can be found in the two Frankfurt Schools’ social critical stance and Hans Jonas’ environmental concern, it becomes clear to Hösle that up to this stage the Spirit of German philosophy has lost much of its earlier appeal.
Hösle’s account of the history of German philosophy shows an admirable intellectual capacity of synthesizing various materials and understanding them in a coherent, unifying manner that pieces together a pessimistic developmental picture. It is a pessimistic picture, because, as the title of the final chapter clearly suggests, it is likely that German philosophy will not exist in the future. Hösle points out sharply and accurately the current conditions of German philosophy that prevent it from having a bright future. The internet culture of our digital era has witnessed an explosion of information and it has become practically impossible to keep track of the works of all intellectuals. This phenomenon significantly dilutes the influence of any intellectual. The trend of specialization in the knowledge industry makes every attempt at system-building untimely and unattractive. And the institutional policy of German universities makes it hard for them to compete with Anglo-American universities, which in comparison offer much better financial support to junior researchers and systematically encourage the academic performance of professors. Given the global trend of technical specialization and the dominance of English as the lingua franca in the academic world, Germany has now become a “second-rate scientific power,” as Hösle put it. It sounds as if German philosophy has already sung its swan song, and what is left for researchers in German philosophy to do is only preservation of this repertoire of valuable ideas, so that these can be carried by the ark of culture “to the salvific shore of a new beginning” when environmental problems force human civilization to start anew.
The diagnosis in the final chapter that German philosophy has come to a dead end is disputable even if one accepts the preceding account of its historical development. One cannot help but suspect that this lament over the withering of German philosophy is rather a consequence of sticking to the letter (viz. the German language), and not the Spirit, of German philosophy. It is not necessary to restrict the domain of German philosophy to only those works written in German. Although most of the canonical works in German philosophy were written in German, making a logically necessary condition out of a genetic factor is a confusion. When the academic lingua franca in Europe was Latin and German philosophy was still in a nascent stage, tracking the intellectuals who first composed philosophical works in German is the philologically reasonable thing to do in recording how German philosophy came into existence. But over the course of development, it has gained worldwide attention and multilingual contributions. One might argue that contributions in foreign languages are not works in German philosophy, but about it. For instance, there are numerous careful and sophisticated exegeses on Kant and Hegel in English and although many of them are excellent scholarly works that are useful to readers of German philosophy, they do not extend the scope of German philosophy nor do they determine its course of further development by adding original insights. And when they do, they count as original works in foreign culture. British idealism and French phenomenology can be seen as prime examples of such cases. However, not every case is as clear. For example, as long as one cares not only about the historical genesis of Kant’s and Hegel’s philosophy but also their validity, ignoring the related works of Peter Strawson, John McDowell, Robert Brandom and others on the ground that they are not German philosophers and their works are not written in German and hence fall outside of the relevant scope, is counterproductive for the prosperity of German idealism. Here we need not draw a rigid line to settle the question whether original, non-German works that take positive reference to German philosophy should be counted as canonical works in German philosophy. Hösle’s historical account informatively and polemically demonstrated what kind of Sonderweg the German spirit has travelled, but this path is not an isolated (abgesondert) one, instead it has many crosses and sometimes even merges with other paths. Perhaps it is not Hösle’s intention to announce the death of German philosophy when he warns of its extinction, and philosophers in this field should heed the warning; but Hösle gives no advice as to how the withering of German philosophy can be avoided (one even has the impression that it is not avoidable at all).
If Hösle were not so insistent on abstracting from his historiography all Anglophone and Francophone influences, he should observe that, in recent years, the porous spirit (now with a small “s”) of German philosophy has crossed other paths, from which it has found new inspirations and directions. Phenomenology and German idealism, two outstanding branches of German philosophy, have seen important transformations after encountering foreign influences. The encounter with speculative realism, neuroscience and cognitive psychology forced phenomenology to defend against naturalistic criticisms or to reconcile them by broadening its own conceptual space. The encounter with American pragmatism, contemporary philosophy of mind and analytic philosophy of language brought idealist philosophers to incorporate ideas from external sources in order to generate a broader and more cogent foundation that would require a conceptual reorientation in epistemology, philosophy of mind, as well as other fields of philosophy. But all these cannot happen without philosophers, who seek not only to study the past history of German philosophy but also to participate in its future course of development, writing and engaging others in English (or other non-German languages), even though it is reasonable to require from them a robust knowledge of the German language. More generally speaking, the institutional structures of philosophy faculties in Germany have become much more diversified, new chairs and institutes that encourage applied ethics and interdisciplinary co-operations on research have been established, to mention only a few; a focus on the interaction of contemporary philosophy of mind and language in Bochum; pioneering works on philosophy of mathematics and science in Munich; analytic German idealism in Leipzig; an interdisciplinary approach to mind and brain in Berlin, etc. Just as it is too early to register these occurrences in any account of the history of German philosophy, it would be premature, too, to say that they evidence its disappearance. German philosophy is no natural object, and as a cultural enterprise undertaken by finite rational beings who do not just think but also feel and will, its essence cannot be the same as that of natural entities.
A curious intellectual phenomenon occurred in Germany after 1850. Suddenly, the mood was doom and gloom with no obvious or single explanation. The global market was booming. Germany was a capitalist power rivaling England. French imperialists were defeated. But German intellectuals were stuck in a funk.
The word is Weltschmerz – ‘world pain’. Instead of Hegel’s more optimistic Weltlauf – ‘the march of the world’ towards freedom – Weltschmerz implies “weariness about life arising from the acute awareness of evil and suffering” (1). German pessimism involved “a rediscovery [and reformulation] of the [ancient] problem of evil” (5). In short, German intellectuals secularized the concept of evil and attempted to comprehend the meaningfulness of life in the face of the radical ontological evil envisioned by Kant.
For Beiser, the origins of Weltschmerz are a mystery. The great capitalist depression from 1870 to 1900 that came after only helps to explain the spread of Weltschmerz, not its cause. If pessimism were all the rage among the genteel, one would expect them to be cynics to the suffering of others. Yet Weltschmerzers and their challengers had differing positions, not only on metaphysics, but over the “social question” of capitalist modernization and the exploitation of the worker. Many optimists, convinced that social progress (when left alone) is certain and sufficient, opposed welfare reforms. Pessimists wanted state intervention and technical progress to alleviate suffering even if, as a matter of principle, they believed ours was a world racing to the bottom. If pessimism did not have an identifiable social cause, Beiser locates the sullen Zeitgeist in the history of ideas and, specifically, in the work of Arthur Schopenhauer.
Schopenhauer came from a wealthy family. He is famous in the annals of philosophy for coming up with the most offensive philosopher-on-philosopher insults. For years, Schopenhauer languished in obscurity, berating the German professoriat that was represented by Hegel and taking breaks to look for his soon-to-be disciple, Julius Fraunstaedt, his brightest follower and most fervent critic. Living off his father’s rents in Frankfurt, Schopenhauer spent his days musing on nothingness and absurdity in the comfort of his “Grand Hotel Abyss”. When the dust settled and the “dragon seed of Hegelianism” was finally eradicated by the good Christian king (with no small help from Schelling), Schopenhauer had his chance.
At that time, there were two branches of German philosophy. On the one hand, Neo-Kantians offered “transcendental grounds” for science, thereby attempting to justify philosophy in the face of great scientific advances. These were not the advances of Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton, but the electromagnetism of Michael Faraday, Leon Foucault and the rotation of Earth and, of course, the equations of James Maxwell. On the other hand, positivists saw their craft as a sui generis science of facts. The problem was that both schools forgot the world of emotions, the problem of freedom and the the sense of evil. That is, the very bread and butter of the philosophia perennis. Furthermore, philosophers lacked an audience. Nobody was buying.
With the publication of Parerga and Parapolimena, a collection of witty essays about existence and the meaning of life, in 1851, Schopenhauer became the celebrity philosopher of the second half of the long nineteenth century. As Beiser tells us, his “influence lies more on his age than on individual thinkers.” Schopenhauer successfully set Germany’s philosophical agenda for the rest of the century. What was that agenda?
Schopenhauer devised an anti-theodicy, according to which non-existence is better than existence because existence implies that, even in the very best of lives, a minimum of suffering that is absent in not existing. The position is both perfectionist and realist. First, Schopenhauer argued like an upturned Leibniz: the worst of all worlds has a maximum of evil compatible with existence because if we add one gram more of that poison, the world ceases to be. Second, Schopenhauer endorsed Epicurus and some of the ancient utilitarians. Pain always outweighs pleasure and, if we were rational, we would choose nothingness over being. Yet we exist, so what to do in such a pickle?
Schopenhauer returned to the questions of classical philosophy: life, pain, death and meaning. According to Schopenhauer, evil and suffering belong to the very make-up of our world. However, it is not Kant’s concept of evil, which is a matter of just intelligence, of freely and rationally choosing the opposite of the Categorical Imperative. Radical evil for Kant allows us to disrespect other people’s dignity, violate their autonomy and walk all over their humanity in a purely disinterested and universal way. For Schopenhauer, however, evil is not only a “noumenal” idea that guides our actions. Evil is noumenal in a more radical way; it is part of the very nature of existence. The will only cares about itself. As Beiser puts it, “life is suffering because it is the product of an insatiable and incessant cosmic will” (37).
Schopenhauer’s assertions on cosmic wills were, in a sense, more radical than those of Kant. The latter told the world that it is impossible to know things as they really are. He critiqued a type of reason that thinks it speaks for things in themselves, or worse, for non-things like God and the soul. Kant built a wall between representation and whatever was behind or beyond it. He argued, instead, that we can only know our own mental representation of things. But Kant was not an atheist. He reserved the capacity to think beyond appearances for morality. Only as a commandment of the will can the idea of God or the soul be of any use. Such entities cannot be proven by science but ethical beings need them to make free-will feasible. Freedom is not proven but demanded. As Fichte claimed, freedom is “posited” by an infinite will.
Schopenhauer, however, was a Kantian. He was aware of the faux pas against established orthodoxy and he “solved” the ontological question by inlaying a new dimension to the already radical duality between things-in-themselves and representations. Schopenhauer agreed, following orthodoxy, that the faculty of understanding produces representations. But he reserved the will for the noumenal realm — the old country of metaphysics. Beneath all representations of things, there is this inexhaustible, irrepressible and unending will of which everyone is only a fleeting quote.
Yet, for Schopenhauer, a return to metaphysics had only practical significance. It is not Scholasticism 2.0. Schopenhauer addressed “the puzzle of existence” in practical terms. This simple and apparently antiquated, yet profound, change in tactics made him different and popular among readers of the time. So, what were the ethical implications of his new metaphysics?
Beiser thinks that Schopenhauer produced a sort of Protestant atheism, or “Protestantism without theism”. It is not enough that we suffer. We deserve to suffer. In their obstinate attachment and reiteration of original sins as excuses for our suffering, Schopenhauer joined other great modern reactionaries like Joseph DeMaistre and Juan Donoso Cortés. Furthermore, Schopenhauer’s negative anthropology was useful in drawing the necessary weapons against starry-eyed Enlightenments. Because man is evil, a strong hand is needed. Because man is evil, only grace can save us. However, due to the impenetrability of God’s designs, such voluntarism is usually resolved in a monastery and in the blind acceptance of rules. But Schopenhauer was not a man of mystery. His catholic rationalism and cosmological voluntarism is a fascinating mix. Schopenhauer did believe that natural law can be known. The problem is that his notion of natural law is not the happy and elated one of Aquinas. The selfish will is the only natural necessity. Yet, unlike Spinoza, Schopenhauer thought that we can separate ourselves from an absolute will (“lift the veil of Maya”) by using our understanding and denying the will. It is the aesthetic quietism well known to Schopenhauer readers. Yet, how does one reconcile Schopenhauer’s determinism of the will with intellectual autonomy? Beiser offers an explanation of this contradiction. However, his is not a decent solution. Ultimately, it is a problem that manifests when philosophy starts with absolute definitions and proceeds through dichotomies until the end. Antinomies always remain antinomies because of a static universe despite Schopenhauer’s hyperactive will.
Historians have long ignored the tradition Schopenhauer started. However, Beiser shows that, from 1860 to 1900, Schopenhauer towered above all others in Germany. Schopenhauer’s followers like Eduard von Hartmann or critics like Karl Eugen Duhring (sadly remembered today for being the punching bag of Engels and for his late anti-Semitism) were stars in the intellectual sky of the Second Reich. Hartmann’s “flat, dry, and boring” Philosophy of the Unconscious went through eight editions. Duhring’s Natural Dialectic went through no less than ten revisions and an equal number of editions. Beiser reminds us of the contemporary importance of these neglected thinkers and, moreover, places Nietzsche within his proper context. Many of Nietzsche’s ideas were borrowed from the “pessimist controversy” that defined German thinking, that is, between Schopenhauerian curmudgeons and the positivist and neo-Kantian Panglossians.
There were many voices involved in the Weltschmerz controversy: Agnes Taubert, Olga Plümacher. Büchner, Duboc, Windelband, Paulsen, Meyer, Vaihinger, Fischer, Rickert, Cohen, Riehl. Beiser, however, explores the philosophies of five of Schopenhauer’s disciples and critics, who responded by recalibrating or re-mixing in different ratios the pessimist and optimist elements in a sort of moral chemistry.
First, there is Julius Frauenstaedt, Schopenhauer’s first apostle and critic. Frauenstaedt was the only Schopenhauerian who came from the fading Hegelian tradition. All others were neo-Kantians or positivists. Frauenstaedt abandoned Hegelianism because the monism of Hegel’s dialectics was not enough to account for the identity of faith and reason. Where does human freedom stand if in the last instance reason is both divine and human? This “divine reason” or “speculative Good Friday” of Hegel cannot be resolved in theism or pantheism because both are “illegitimate metaphysics”. Frauenstaedt finds in Schopenhauer a more feasible solution to this problem. There is, in Schopenhauer’s body of work, both a system of transcendental idealism, according to which the thing-in-itself is separate from appearances and a system of transcendental realism whereby appearances are objectifications of this transcendent will. Thus, it is the will that unites reason and faith. However, Frauenstaedt finds a new dualism in Schopenhauer – the separation of will and understanding. The will needs to represent the object of its striving; it needs to have an idea of what it wants. On the other hand, why does the cosmic will that is all-powerful and self-sufficient divide itself into two — itself and non-will? Other dualist problems in Schopenhauer concern the distinction between philosophy and natural science and the Schopenhauerian contempt for history in favor of metaphysics. All these problems that originate from Schopenhauer’s radical dualism were signs for Frauenstaedt that Schopenhauer remained trapped in “the cage of idealism.” In the end, Beiser thinks Frauenstaedt could not abandon the basic Hegelian conviction that things always work out for the better even if they do so through the worst.
Karl Eugen Duhring was Schopenhauer’s fiercest detractor. He opposed Schopenhauer with an optimism based on natural science and socialism. Duhring’s positivism precluded any metaphysics of cosmic wills and known unknowns. Immanence is absolute. We determine the value of life, our own small measure of peace. However, according to Beiser, Duhring contradicts himself. We can grasp nature and reality through intellect and correctly conclude that there is no world beyond. Yet, for Duhring, the intellect cannot make a final determination on the worth of existence. That determination is ineffable. On the topic of death, Duhring joined the gang of pessimists repeating Epicurus and Marcus Aurelius; we shall not fear death since we cannot experience it.
Duhring was one of only a couple of Weltschmerzers that harbored leftist sympathies in the “pessimist controversy.” Most were well into the political right. However, unlike Mainlander, Duhring thought that we can make life happier for the greatest number through science and redistribution. For Mainlander, even socialism does not solve suffering.
The most influential theorist of pessimism was Eduard von Hartmann. Philosophy of the Unconscious was the “eye of the storm” in the 1870 pessimist controversy. Hartmann tried to reconcile Schopenhauer’s pessimistic voluntarism and Hegel’s optimistic rationalism in a systematic way through a) pantheistic monism, b) transcendental realism, c)an eudemonic pessimism and d) evolutionary optimism. Hartmann saw that spiritual monism solves the problems of theism and materialism altogether. It avoids the traps of theism in that ethics is autonomous in a pantheist system because moral law comes from the dictates of a cosmic self, while theistic ethics is heteronomous; one should obey an alien God. Spiritual monism also avoids the traps of materialism. This cosmic self has a purposeful nature in the sense that it is not a machine without track. Secondly, against Kant, Hartmann followed Schopenhauer in taking a transcendental-realist position; appearances can give us some information on the things-in-themselves. Consequently, Hartmann thought that the best position is the ancient ideal of eudaimonia because it has an idea of how the universe really works. The world is pain and suffering but life is worth living if one follows the ancient utilitarian principle of avoiding both. However, Hartmann shared with the positivists and Hegelians a belief in progress and claimed that, culturally or as species, mankind heads for the better. This evolutionary optimism allowed Hartmann some measure of social Darwinism in that pain, suffering, war and colonialism are tools for progress unbeknownst to us in another iteration of the Hegelian List der Vernunft.
Beiser devotes a later chapter on Hartmann in relation to the pessimist controversy between 1870 and 1900. It describes the main points of the polemic between Hartmann and his two “female allies”, Olga Plumacher and Agnes Taubert, against Lutheran priests and neo-Kantians (a more intellectual kind of Lutheran) on whether life is worth living on the basis of love, pain, and pleasure. It is worth mentioning that one of the debates is about the question on whether the hedonic calculus should be considered quantitatively or qualitatively. By that time, economic thought was undergoing a profound change on this question. Marginalism — to which this problem was central — caused a major revolution that transformed economics into the science that it is today.
Phillip Mainlaender (née Phillip Batz) was the most utopian politically and the most coherent. He followed his master’s proclivities for dark and gore with even more gusto. He signed off his only book and immediately hung himself. Mainlander’s philosophy is a gospel of suicide. The only way out of suffering is death. His view of life is not that of Stoic tranquility but of the Christian mystic. Life is suffering and death redeems us all. Yet, Mainlaender was a materialist and did not believe that there is life after death, not even the promise to enjoin the one true cosmic will of Schopenhauer. For him, such ideas are abstractions. Mainlander was a nominalist. For him, there is only the individual will. He was also profoundly democratic and nationalist. For all his ethical pessimism, what matters in social life is sympathy and pity for the suffering of others, not the misanthropy and scorn proper to reactionaries like Schopenhauer.
Finally, there was Julius Bahnsen. His philosophy further problematized Schopenhauer’s metaphysics along familiar scholastic lines of whether the will is universal (Schopenhauer), multiple (Bahnsen) or individual (Mainlander). Bahnsen’s ideas were powerful and original, yet those traits came from a profoundly mentally ill man. His marriage was a disaster. His career as a professor failed. Some of his anxieties betrayed his petty-bourgeois conditions. Much of Bahnsen’s views were rooted in that social resentment that comes, like Schopenhauer, from not being of the establishment. For Bahnsen, pessimism sprang from failed dreams, not from the primacy of suffering in life. If suffering were the criterion, “even animals would be pessimists”.
In the face of dissatisfaction, Bahnsen revised some key aspects of his master’s doctrine. Firstly, there is individual responsibility in life’s actions and projects. Accordingly, the cosmic will is useless. Will is just a property or potential but the actual outcome is the sole province of each. Secondly, since responsibility presupposes autonomy (Kant), then the will must be redefined as plural and individual — a monadology so to speak of individual substances in the noumenal realm. Thirdly, even with disinterested activities such as aesthetics, there is also will — a “higher interest” of “self-promotion, self-affirmation, and self-satisfaction” (again, Bahnsen’s job anxieties come to the fore.) That the will is resilient in all fields of activity questions the stark division between will and representation. On the one hand, to experience art without interest or intellectual curiosity is boring “even if it were forms of Plato”. On the other hand, Schopenhauer’s notion of aesthetic detachment is refuted by the real fact that “we are touched and moved by aesthetic objects.”
Beiser’s book is delightful, clear and thorough. It is written in the best style of historians of philosophy. My only issue as a reader who prefers social histories of thought is that his approach is too internalist and textualist. For Beiser, “there seems to be no straightforward social or historical case for [German Weltschmerz]” because the period studied seems like “a happy age” for Germany. However, I take issue with this hypothesis and subsequent dismissal of social explanations. Furthermore, I think Beiser mirrors sociological reductionism in reverse. For mechanical theories of material-cum-intellectual conditions, then, if social conditions are happy, intellectual traditions have an optimistic outlook. Indeed, if conditions are dire, then pessimism is the intellectual order of the day. Beiser’s argument is similar: since social conditions were good in Germany, then the only reason for intellectual pessimism is the ideas of an individual (Schopenhauer) who caused the entire ruckus. However, to accept this theory would reduce German pessimism to a dull workout of the disgruntled class of intellectuals. In my opinion, things are always socially conditioned despite the apparent contradiction, or precisely because of real contradictions, between thought and (social) being. It is more interesting to speculate on why capitalist expansion produces periodically the kind of languor we see today and of which German Weltschmerz were the outcome and not the cause. I recall Walter Benjamin’s studies on Baudelaire. Why is it that Baudelaire produced dark and gloomy poetry in Paris, “the capital of the 19th century”? Why did Baudelaire use another genre of allegories to express a problematic that was not visible in economic indicators? Though speculative, Benjamin offers a more satisfying social theory to Weltschmerz. It is precisely in times of commodity abundance and high consumer satisfaction offered by a buoyant capitalism that the meaninglessness of material life expresses itself as boredom and hopelessness. Even Benjamin’s explanation would make sense along Schopenhauer’s lines: since desire is endless and instant satisfaction guarantees boredom, why do we need more?
Interpretation of Nietzsche’s Second Untimely Meditation (INM) is a translation by Ullrich Haase and Mark Sinclair of a seminar conducted by Martin Heidegger in Freiburg over the Winter Semester 1938-39. Originally published as GA 46, the text consists of a collection of lecture notes and diagrams that loosely correspond to the topical sections of Nietzsche’s essay. Throughout the course Heidegger deepens his critique of Nietzsche, revisits the question of animal life, offers a lengthy reflection on the connection between truth and justice, and extends his reflections on the unity of temporality, historicality, and Being.
The title describes the contents perfectly: these lectures record Heidegger’s thoughts on Nietzsche’s “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.” Readers should be familiar with the latter work to get the most out of Heidegger’s text. Needless to say, readers will also want to know a fair bit of Heidegger, starting with Being and Time (BT), but The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude (FCM), and Contributions to Philosophy: From Enowning are also advised. While Nietzsche scholars may find some items of interest, and should take Heidegger’s overall critique seriously (more below), this text will be primarily of use for scholars and students of Heidegger.
These lectures appear at the tail end of Heidegger’s decade-long rumination on Nietzsche’s philosophy, a period also marked by Heidegger’s so-called Turn (Kehre). In Being and Time it’s clear that Dasein oscillates between authenticity and inauthenticity, but through the Turn Heidegger began to view these transitions historically through the destiny (Geschick) of Beyng (written so in order to accentuate the verbal, eventful meaning of the term). That history is punctuated by certain epochal figures, of which Nietzsche is the last, marking the transition from the ‘first’ to the ‘other’ beginning. The sort of considerations that guide Heidegger’s thinking through the turn are not the focus of this text but they are evident as background assumptions that shape certain lines of questioning. As Haase and Sinclair note in an insightful article that can be read as a companion piece to the book[i], Heidegger alters his approving evaluation of Nietzsche in Being and Time[ii] to a more confrontational mode in these lectures.
It’s refreshing, given the expansive nature of some of Heidegger’s other writing from the period, to find a text so focused on a single topic. While often repetitive and enigmatic, the text is content to take its cues from Nietzsche’s essay and simply to reflect on what is offered. Rather than itemize these all and run down a list, I’m going to review some of the most important themes so that readers get a sense for what the text at its best can offer.
Nietzsche begins his second Untimely Meditation (UM) famously envying the cattle in pasture for their incessant forgetfulness. These meager creatures with their uninspiring lives achieve an effortless happiness, while we, even in our most joyful moments, suffer the awareness that all moments necessarily pass. The cause of this melancholic existence is our inability to forget, which is why we are historical and animals unhistorical. This distinction marks Heidegger’s first major point of contention. It is incorrect to call animals unhistorical, he says. Just as only beings who exist essentially with others can be alone, and only beings who are essentially determined by speech can be silent, so Heidegger claims that only essentially historical beings can exist unhistorically: “only that which is historical can be unhistorical”.[iii] Rather than unhistorical, Nietzsche’s cattle lack history altogether, Heidegger says.[iv] This is not just a pedantic point, for important consequences follow.
Nietzsche’s analysis implies that humans and animals occupy distant points along a continuum, from total forgetting to total remembering (later in his essay Nietzsche worries about an oversaturation of historical knowledge). For Nietzsche, the key is not to settle at some sensible mid-point, but to acquire a horizon that let’s one retain just the proper amount of historical consciousness necessary for life.[v] Heidegger complains that this encourages us to think that the problem is one of how much or what sort of things to forget, whereas there is a kind of forgetfulness that characterizes Dasein’s inauthentic, unhistorical way of being that has nothing to do with the amount or kind of memories Dasein retains. In fact, Heidegger says, being unhistorical is itself a way of being historical, in parallel with (or as another way of framing) the relation between authentic and inauthentic existence. After the Turn, machination and reification take over the role played by inauthenticity, where rather than structural features of Dasein these are increasingly understood as being-historical tendencies in the destiny of Western metaphysics. These lectures explain that we ought to understand Dasein’s unhistorical being not as some nearer approximation to animal life but as contemporary Dasein’s inauthentic way of being historical.
This is important because contemporary Dasein is unhistorical despite a flood of historical information and historical awareness. The massive increase in historical knowledge—Heidegger and Nietzsche agree—is not the result of exogenous improvements in the technology for discovering and disseminating historical facts (quite the reverse actually) but due to contemporary Dasein’s dominant self-interpretation as historical. Contemporary Dasein has so much historical information because it seeks it out and interprets itself accordingly. The rise of historicism in the German academy only reflected the rise in historical consciousness through which Western Dasein increasingly came to understand itself over the course of the 19th century. Many of Heidegger’s and Nietzsche’s contemporaries believed that this increase in historical awareness and information resulted in a manner of conduct and self-evaluation showing unique historical sophistication, as if modern Dasein were more in touch with its history than its ancestors. Heidegger and Nietzsche both dispute this idea. For Heidegger, it is clear that our scientific mode of framing and retaining historical knowledge— not the amount or kind—paradoxically blinds us to our historical existence. We know ever more about the past but by this very mode of knowing turn away from it.
In Being and Time Heidegger believed that this mutual distrust of historical science indicated a deeper philosophical agreement with Nietzsche. He claims that Nietzsche’s distinction between three modes of history—monumental, antiquarian, and critical[vi]—shows that Nietzsche had achieved—though left unsaid—an insight into the original unity of authentic temporality. Nietzsche claimed that the historicism of his day overlooked the fact that history is in service to life, and Heidegger seemed to detect an affinity between this claim and his own warnings against scientism as the de-worlded representation of beings in the mode of the present-to-hand.
A decade later, these lectures show that Heidegger has substantially revised his understanding of Nietzsche’s project. Rather than revealing the ground of authentic historicality, Nietzsche now represents the final forgetting of Being. Specifically, Heidegger believes that, behind an ostensible critique of science and objective historiology, Nietzsche surreptiously announces the culmination of the scientific, technological enframing of Being.
The first sign of this re-evaluation is obvious in early sections of the text. Nietzsche argued that the proper approach to history should strive for the right balance of memory and forgetting. Specifically, historical memory ought to be measured by the life-affirming values it enhances in the present—via inspiration, reverence, and liberation, corresponding to the three modes of history. Heidegger reflects on different kinds of memory and forgetting—anticipating such distinctions as semantic, episodic, and observer memory—but the general conclusion is that Nietzsche only understands memory as ‘making present’ and thereby conceals its essence. Heidegger points as evidence to Nietzsche’s conflation of Historie with Geschichte. Historie for Heidegger is more than just the academic writing of history, and might better be described as telling history, something constitutive of any human community. In Being and Time he argues that it is important that such telling arise as an authentic expression of Dasein’s gechichtliches way of being grounded in ecstatic temporality. In these sections of INM Heidegger’s comments seem trade on a distinction familiar from Husserl. Husserl distinguished Gegenwärtigung from Vergegenwärtigung, the latter often translated by the somewhat clumsy ‘presentifying.’ Memory—or ‘recollection’—is a paradigmatic ‘presentifying’ act for Husserl, an act which presents its object as absent in its absence. Husserl was clear that presentifying acts presuppose and take as their content prior, original intuitive presentations, so recollective acts are founded on and take as their content direct, intuitive retentions. Heidegger, both here and in Being and Time, argues that a similar relation obtains between the telling of Historie and Dasein’s original, geschichtliches way of being. Heidegger does not mean of course that Historie is answerable to Geschichte in the way that propositions are answerable to facts. “Mere making present and remembering are fundamentally different,” he explains, later clarifying that to ‘make present’ is to ‘take up into the present,’ whereas ‘to remember’ is “placing oneself into that which has been and as belonging to it”.[vii] So unlike Husserl, who grounded recollective memory on intuitive perceptions, Heidegger’s Historie is grounded in Dasein’s ontological involvement with or (as he frequently puts it in this text) ‘belonging to’ the past. Nietzsche, by effectively writing Geschichte out of Historie, erases Dasein’s ontological foundation in the past. Whatever meaning the past has for Nietzsche is written back into it from the present, and whatever has no present use ought to be ‘forgotten.’[viii] There are parallels here (not coincidentally, given that these texts are composed in the same period) to the way that enframing in the mode of Gestell projects the being of beings as standing reserve for the will, so ‘making present’ in Nietzsche’s sense displays a similar enframing projection of the past.
There are more entries on life in this text than on any other topic. In Being and Time Heidegger implicitly associates Nietzsche’s thinking about history with Wilhelm Dilthey’s philosophy of life and defense of the originality of Geistwissenschaften, but especially following the rigorous analysis of life in FCM, Heidegger no longer thinks that life is an appropriate concept for understanding Dasein’s way of being and has concluded that Nietzsche’s thinking about life stands directly opposed to Dasein’s fundamental historicity. Many of the statements about life in this text repeat the analysis from a decade earlier. Animals are ‘captivated’ by their milieu (Umfeld) whereas Dasein understands its ‘environment’ (Umwelt). Animality, says Heidegger, is not grounded in any intrinsic property of organisms but by the ‘absorbtion’ and mutual determination of organism and environment. Although this should not be understood causally, animals are merely responsive to their environment whereas Dasein is in some sense free. Animals do not transcend their milieu and so are “bound to the moment”.[ix] By elevating life to the name of being as a whole, Nietzsche projects all of being through this totalizing presentism.
Heidegger’s claims about animality remain controversial and the focus of ongoing research.[x] Scholars will not find anything in this set of lectures to contradict or add nuance to claims about the ‘world-poor’ existence of animals. However, readers will acquire better insight into the kinds of considerations that motivated Heidegger to undertake those analyses in the first place and the context they occupy for him. Recent interest in Heidegger’s remarks about animality has been driven by growing contemporary attention to animal rights and a broader critique of anthropocentrism, but as this text makes clear, those are not part of the frame that Heidegger brings to these issues. Instead, this text shows that foremost in his mind is combatting—what Heidegger believed to be—the confusions and regressions of Lebensphilosophie, historicism, scientism, rationalism, and the technological projection of being. He is especially concerned to awaken an attunement to the existential potential of historically transcendent Dasein. Richard Polt, in a recent lecture at Emory University organized around the Black Notebooks, states that during this period Heidegger began to interpret the barbarism around him as a regression to a form of animality that formed the counterpart to the calculative rationality of enframing.[xi] This sentiment is consistent with what one finds in INM.
This text also covers ground familiar from Heidegger’s more famous writings on technology and earlier set of lectures on Nietzsche. Looking beneath the surface of Nietzsche’s frequent critique of consciousness, moral motivations, and objective truth, Heidegger claims to find an even purer expression of modern rationalism. As Heidegger would explain in the Question Concerning Technology (QCT), what defines technological rationalism is not consciousness per se but the projection of being as standing reserve for the encompassing presentism of the subjectum. Nietzsche’s ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ might undermine the epistemic self-certainty of consciousness but only to the effect of extinguishing any remaining resistance from beings themselves to ‘life’ and thus the erasure of being into nothing. Being itself is nothing but the projection of life. Thus “despite the enmity with Descartes,” Heidegger writes, Nietzsche “only replaces the cogito by a vivo and thereby raises the subjectum to the highest level of preeminence”.[xii] This story, as I’ve mentioned, will be familiar to readers of Heidegger’s other writings on Nietzsche and technology, but this text adds a specifically historical inflection to that critique.
That inflection sets the context for one of the more noteworthy sections of the text where we find Heidegger offering a sustained reflection on justice. The original connection—between life, truth, history, and justice—is not Heidegger’s but Nietzsche’s. In UM, Nietzsche describes, in his usual complex way, the drive for an austere objectivity in history as a kind of justice. Unlike other areas of science, we cannot remain indifferent to the results of history. (Feigned indifference, modeled on scientific dispassion or aesthetic indifference, always dissembles ulterior, self-aggrandizing motives, Nietzsche believes). I have no particular stake in the specific atomic weight of some element, but to discover that the revered founder of my country was a kleptocratic murderer, or that your friends have never really respected you, can be profoundly affecting. It requires a rare and special sort of fortitude, Nietzsche imagines, to look directly at historical truth nonetheless, calling that a kind of justice. Normally, Nietzsche assumes, we use the past for precedents and excuses, for scapegoats and reassurance, a tendency at both the individual and collective level. Those few who are not seduced by such drives possess what Nietzsche calls a “dreadful virtue” that confers the right to be a “regulating and punishing judge”.[xiii] But even this drive for justice must be wed to an artistic drive to create lest it undermine the very life it expresses. As Heidegger explains, Nietzsche’s notion of justice is not about what is or has been but about possibility, the ability to posit new goals and ideals.[xiv] Without such goals, this dreadful justice only destroys. Nietzsche points to the withering effects historical criticism had had on the spiritual power of religious figures like Jesus, and today we might point to contemporary histories that turn an unflinching eye toward the details of the oppressive and unjust legacies of our own past. When in service to a life-affirming ideal, the dreadful virtue of historical honesty can be creative, but most of us never achieve or even aspire to such historical virtue. Instead, we are motivated by “boredom, envy, vanity, the desire for amusement,” etc.[xv] Nietzsche mocks the careful historians of his day (and he could easily be talking about our own) for judging the deeds and opinions of the past by standards of the present and calling that ‘objectivity,’ work he derides as the attempt “to adapt the past to contemporary triviality”.[xvi]
In Being and Time Heidegger saw in this accusation of banal anachronism a connection to his own critique of publicness, but in these lectures he finds something else. The drive towards justice—even the austere, virtuous kind that Nietzsche admires (and would practice with his method of genealogy—belongs rather to life than truth. Nietzsche will persist using the word ‘truth’, but Heidegger argues that his failure to see past metaphysics nullifies his right to that term. Nietzsche’s claims to truth are a ruse: “The will to truth belongs to “life” and in this belonging it is precisely the will to untruth, to appearance.[xvii] Truth is really untruth, which is to say, no truth at all, only life.
For all of his criticisms of how philosophers talk about truth, the need for truth remains one of Heidegger’s deepest and most persistent commitments. It is a commitment Nietzsche cannot share because, Heidegger claims, Nietzsche continues to think of truth through the metaphysical opposition of being and becoming.
“What Nietzsche here grasps as “will to truth”—always from the perspective of the human being—is it not simply the will to the “true,” that is, to what is “fixed,” and therefore precisely not will to truth as an essential will to the question-worthiness of the essence of the true?”[xviii]
For all of his ability to see through the pretensions and self-deceptions of philosophy, Nietzsche still cannot see how that which changes—that which has a history—can be true, and so he rejects truth—and with it, being—for the sake of something he calls life. (Heidegger includes several interesting asides cataloguing the inconsistent ambiguities in Nietzsche’s use of that term in connect with similar ambiguities in his uses of ‘justice’ and ‘truth.’)
Heidegger scholars will find this text frequently fascinating if also enigmatic and frustrating. As this review illustrates, it stays for the most part on the level of critique. But a positive understanding of being-historical is intimated between the lines of this critique, and begins with the aforementioned notion of historical truth. Understood within the framework of traditional epistemology the very idea is barely intelligible. How could truth change? Historical relativism or some sort of temporally-indexed contextualism are insufficient. Either way, truth itself is not ‘historical’ but relativized into fixed frame or constantly shifting perspective. This suggests that we should look elsewhere than traditional epistemology to get a sense of what truth as historical might mean. The first step is to recognize that truth is a guiding, constitutive feature of Dasein’s existence—lived out more than known, enacted rather than objectively grasped. As Haase and Sinclair note, this is a sense of being-historical already laid out in 1919/20 in Phenomenology of Religious Life. As I write, my country—the United States—confronts a deep crisis about the kind of country it has been, is, and will be. And familiar arguments over our history have once again become public (Are we an immigrant nation or an ethnic one? A liberal and progressive nation or reactionary and conservative?) It is a mistake to assume that the past is fixed, or that history unfolds a fixed essence. But it is equally wrong to assume that there is no ‘truth’ to the matter or that historical truth is confined to the present. The past not is a set of facts, but one ground for the possibility of meaning, a possibility that also includes the present and the future. The meaning, for instance, of the Constitutional Convention is not found only in the facts of what occurred in Philadelphia in 1787, but in the meaning that those facts continue to have today for those of us responsible to them, and that meaning in turn is not just found in the present facts of today but in who we become in the future. We right now are aware of all this right now and thus our present is this responsibility towards our future by way of our past. The truth is not something we create, nor something we find, but something for which we are responsible. It is—and this is my final observation—this notion of responsibility that Heidegger implies is missing from Nietzsche’s philosophy. For Nietzsche the past and the future are consumed by a drive for power into a totalizing present: “‘life’ is posited in advance as life-intensification, as the consuming desire for victory, spoils, and power, which in and of itself means: always more power”.[xix] Is this a hint at Heidegger’s so-called subtle ‘resistance’ to National Socialism in his Nietzsche lectures? If so, it is an important datum for intellectual historians trying to gauge Heidegger’s precise sympathies, but all the same, must strike us now as pathetic and insufficient.
[i] Haase, Ullrich and Sinclair, Mark. “History and the Meaning of Life: On Heidegger’s Interpretations of Nietzsche’s 2nd Untimely Meditation.” Heidegger in the Twenty-First Century. Springer: 2015.
[ii] See especially BT, Division II, Ch. 5.
[iii] INM, 24.
[iv] “The animal is not unhistorical, but much rather without history [historielos] — and these are not the same.” (INM, 24). See also: “The human being is in its very essence characterized and distinguished by the historical. At the same time, the unhistorical has a primacy within human life.” (INM, 18)
[v] “A living thing can be healthy, strong, and fruitful only when bounded by a horizon.” (UM, 63). Heidegger questions why Nietzsche seems to equate the ‘horizon limitation’ with ‘being able to forget.’ (INM, 115)
[vi] See UM.
[vii] INM, 33. And elsewhere: “representing—bringing before oneself—derives from a mere making present (free and unrestrained) which is not carried and goverened by remembering (the being concerned by what has been, being affected by it)” (INM, 92).
[viii] “…for Nietzsche, ‘history’—when he does not simply equate it with historiology—is what first of all comes into being by means of objectification on the part of historiology” (INM, 78).
[ix] INM, 16.
[x] See Calarco, Matthew. Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida. New York: Columbia UP, 2008; Derrida, Jacques, Michel Lisse, Marie-Louise Mallet, and Geoffrey Bennington. The Beast & the Sovereign. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011; Padui, Raoni. “From the Facticity of Dasein to the Facticity of Nature: Naturalism, Animality, and Metontology.” Gatherings. The Heidegger Circle Annual, 3 (2013): 50–75; Tanzer, Mark. “Heidegger on Animality and Anthropocentrism.” Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 47.1 (2015): 18-32;
[xi] “Inception, Downfall, and the Broken World: Heidegger Above the Sea of Fog.” In Heidegger’s “Black Notebooks”: Responding to Anti-Semitism, ed. Andrew J. Mitchell and Peter Trawny. New York: Columbia University Press, forthcoming 2017.
[xii] INM, 114.
[xiii] UM, 88.
[xiv] See INM, 144-5.
[xv] UM, 88.
[xvi] UM, 90.
[xvii] INM, 118.
[xviii] INM, 119.
[xix] INM, 178.
With the recent publication in English of the ‘Black Notebooks’ (2014), much renewed attention has been paid to Heidegger the man, and particularly his association with Nazism and anti-Semitism. It is refreshing then to find the release of a work where political and biographical controversies take a back seat. Originally published in German in 2003 as volume 46 of the Gesamtausgabe (‘Complete edition’), ‘Interpretation of Nietzsche’s Second Untimely Meditation’, is the translation of a series of seminar notes from the winter semester of 1938-39 in Freiburg. The content of these seminars, delivered eventually in the form of lectures by Heidegger, was the second of Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations: ‘On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life’ (1874) ((hereafter, when cited, UTM: 2)) . And this has been ably translated into English by Ullrich Haase and Mark Sinclair, who also provide a brief introduction and a post-script by the original German editor, Hans-Joachim Friedrich.
As said then, Haase and Sinclair render the German into a readable and fluent English. They make potentially clunky and jargon laden passages from the original seem natural, and also do a good job of dealing with the specific difficulties thrown up by this text. In particular, they confront well the problem of distinguishing between Historie, the study of the past, and Geschichte, which is the past in general, as it underpins reality. And they do this by translating the former as ‘historiology’ and the latter as ‘history’. Likewise, they deal effectively with the various German terms surrounding memory and forgetting. Specifically they render Erinnerung as ‘remembering,’ Gedächtnis as ‘memory’, Andenken as ‘remembrance,’ Vergegenwärtigung as ‘making present’, and Behalten as ‘retaining’. However, while providing some context, and flagging up issues of translation, they could do more in the way of guidance for the reader. That is to say, Haase and Sinclair could say more about how one should read the text. This is an issue precisely because as the translators acknowledge ‘Heidegger’s notes are for the most part schematic and fragmentary’ (xii). As such, read simply in themselves, large sections may come across as confusing or obscure, especially for those not versed in Heidegger or the work being interpreted. For this reason, a helpful suggestion might have been for the text to be read in conjunction with the second Untimely Meditation itself. Like the lectures originally therefore, The Interpretation would make more sense when it is read alongside the passages from Nietzsche under discussion. Indeed, given that the sections from Untimely Meditations analysed are relatively short, a prior reading of each before looking at the corresponding chapter in Heidegger is highly recommended.
The introduction might also do more regarding other relevant texts by the author. For instance, attention could be drawn to ‘The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics’ (1929-30), the ‘Letter on Humanism’ (1947), and’ What is Called Thinking’ (1951-52), all of which touch on similar themes found in The Interpretation. In particular, Heidegger’s understanding of the distinction between the human and the animal, and critique of the ‘animal rationale’, is something developed in each of these works. In any case, looking to the text itself, we can say that the structure of the work is relatively straightforward. With the exception of a short introduction on the nature of interpretation and ‘thinking’, Heidegger’s twenty chapters by and large track the ideas and arguments raised in the first six sections of the second Untimely Meditation. These lettered major sections, from A to T, are typically direct discussions of what Nietzsche said in a particular section. And these are sometimes followed by more thematic chapters related to specific ideas raised there. As a result, after the ‘preliminary remarks’ he begins with an account of section one of Nietzsche’s text. This is focused on the nature of memory and forgetting, and the meaning of the historical and ‘unhistorical’. After this, Heidegger looks at section two of ‘Advantages and Disadvantages’, which deals with what Nietzsche calls ‘monumental history’. We then, in C, have an account of the antiquarian and critical modes of history found in that Untimely Meditation. Chapters E, F and G meanwhile represent thematic discussions concerning historiology. A discussion of section four of the ‘Advantages and Disadvantages’ follows, which deals with cultural critique. Barring thematic digressions, the rest of the text then looks at sections five and six of the second Meditation. This involves, respectively, a critique of the ‘historical man’, and an analysis of the pursuit of historical truth for its own sake. That is, it looks at what Nietzsche calls ‘truth that eventuates in nothing’ (UTM: 2, 6: 89). Heidegger then finishes The Interpretation with a lengthy thematic discussion of the concepts of truth and justice employed by Nietzsche in the later sections.
It is worth noting, before moving on, that Heidegger’s attention to each of these themes and sections is not necessarily commensurate with the emphasis given to them by Nietzsche. Sections one and six, for instance, receive much more attention than the others of similar length in the original, and the issues of truth and science are also stressed far more in Heidegger. It should further be observed that he does not address the final four sections of Nietzsche’s text, only the first six, and that the other three Untimely Meditations are not even mentioned. The reasons for such an omission are never really made clear. Although it is consistent with Heidegger’s predilection for minutiae in interpretation, this may be a source of frustration for anyone expecting a more definite reading of the Untimely Meditations as a whole.
Nevertheless, moving away from these more general considerations, there remains much of value in Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche here. Specifically, the discussion of memory and forgetting stands out as particularly thought provoking. This is because this issue constitutes the most sustained, and philosophically interesting, theme which Heidegger explores in relation to this work. This discussion also forms the kernel of what is illuminating about other aspects of Heidegger’s reading of this text, as well as how the two figures differ. That is, it also informs subsequent themes in the dialogue between Nietzsche and Heidegger. To explain briefly then, Nietzsche argues in the second Untimely Meditation that the human being is fundamentally just an animal that has acquired the ability to remember. That is, the human is an animal that has gained the ability to be aware of itself within, and stretched over, time. Or, put more precisely, we are an animal that has overcome that constant proclivity to ‘forget’ which traps other creatures in the perpetual present. And this is, for Nietzsche, what gives the human its distinguishing nature as ‘an imperfect tense that can never become a perfect one’ (UTM: 2, 1: 61)
Yet it is precisely this point of clarification regarding forgetting that Heidegger takes issue with. This is because, he believes, Nietzsche mistakes the order of logical priority pertaining to this capacity and that of memory. As he says, ‘The characterization of forgetting remains in Nietzsche underdetermined and contradictory, because he fails to clarify the essence of remembering and of making present.’ (40) And, continuing, this means that ‘Nietzsche does not determine forgetting as a variant of retaining (making present to oneself and remembering), but vice versa: “remembering” is a variant of forgetting as not being able to forget.’ (41) In other words, Nietzsche, according to Heidegger, fails to analyse remembrance properly. And this leads him to view memory as the suppression of forgetting, rather than seeing forgetting as something that is possible only once a memory has been established in the first place. Furthermore, this has consequences for of an understanding of the life of the animal. For Nietzsche, on this view, fails to make sense of a certain observable phenomenon in the natural world. This is what Heidegger describes when he says that,
‘the tit always finds its way back to its nest, and therefore must be able “to retain” its place and aspect. The robin waits every morning for the mealworm that has been put out for it. Migratory birds always return to the same region. The dog comes back to the buried bone.’ (39)
Put another way, Nietzsche’s stress on the primacy of ‘forgetting’, and of the animal as in a state of constant forgetting, means he is unable to make sense of these more ambiguous instances. That is, wanting to determine the animal purely in terms of the ‘perpetual present’, he is forced to ignore those cases where they appear to possess something with certain inchoate similarities to human memory. Further this, for Heidegger, is merely symptomatic of a deeper misunderstanding and simplification of the world of the animal on Nietzsche’s part. And central to this, is an overlooking of what he calls ‘captivation.’ As he says then,
‘It is not that the animal retains something for itself in the mode of a constantly possible making present; rather the animal is held within its milieu as captivated by it, in such a way that, depending on the sort of animal it is, now this now that emerges in a withholding manner and then sinks back, again within the indeterminate contours of its milieu. This emerging and taking away and taking in happens in each case within a circle of relations that is not present as such.’ (39)
In other words, we should not understand the animal in terms of an endless state of ‘being present’; trapped in series of perpetually static moments. Rather we should view it more in terms of a fluid, and temporally ambiguous, absorption, or captivation, in its world. Thus the animal is continually moving back and forth between a state of ‘being-taken-along-with’ (39), its interest held by some specific engaged relation to its environment, and a more passive ‘sinking back’ into the amorphous totality of its world. And critically it is this model, rather than that of ‘perpetual forgetting’ that for Heidegger can make sense of the problem cases described earlier. That is to say, it is this model, rather than Nietzsche’s, which can account for how certain animals, without having ‘memory’, nonetheless exhibit a more complex temporal relationship to their environment than perpetual presence.
However returning to an assessment of other parts of the book, this issue continues to play a role. The question of memory and forgetting, for a start, is for Nietzsche tied to the different kinds of history that may be practiced by a culture. So for example ‘monumental history’ involves a veneration of past great figures and actions so as to inspire the present. But this also necessarily involves a certain kind of wilful ‘forgetting’ of what may be limited or problematic about such figures and their ages. Conversely ‘critical history’ involves the effort to soberly ‘remember’ and critique the past as objectively as possible, regardless of its effect on the present. The danger of this approach though is that, as with the individual, an excess of memory may paralyse present action. Heidegger’s analyses of these different modes of history, and of the ‘antiquarian’ mode, are nevertheless for the most part uncontroversial. Since the advantages and disadvantages of these types of history are also relatively well known we will not dwell on this aspect of The Interpretation. That said, he does make an interesting point regarding the correspondence of these different modes to what he sees as the three essential comportments of human life. These are ‘life-intensification, life-preservation, life-liberation’ (75). Likewise these are said to correspond to the three temporal dimensions of the human: past, present, future.
In any case, we can say this theme of ‘memory’ also informs the ideas developed in subsequent chapters. Specifically, Heidegger’s discussion of sections IV and V of Nietzsche’s text, chapters H through K, on the topic of culture, is underscored by this basic concern. Here Heidegger provides a succinct analysis of how ‘the over-saturation by historiology’ (100), and hence a lack of forgetting, according to Nietzsche has ‘five noxious effects’ (Ibid). Again there is not space to go into all of these, but ‘the destruction of the “instincts”’(Ibid) and ‘the spread of a mood of “irony” and cynicism’ (Ibid) are two of them. And it should also be noted that Heidegger is actually very critical of this attack by Nietzsche on modern culture, describing it as ‘“polemical,” shallow, a rant’ (Ibid).
Moreover, the analysis of forgetting and remembrance in this text, as a final point on this, reveals a fundamental philosophical difference between Heidegger and Nietzsche. This concerns the distinction between the human and the animal, and is one of the most revealing aspects of Heidegger’s Interpretation. For Heidegger says that Nietzsche’s construal of the human being as essentially an animal with the capacity to remember leaves him trapped in a certain tradition of western metaphysics. This is the idea of ‘the essential determination of the human being as animal rationale.’ (134) And, put more exactly, it is a tradition which suggests that ‘The human being is a present-at-hand animal, and this animal has something like ratio—νοῦς—in the same way that a tree has branches.’ (134-135) Further, ‘The human being is endowed with this faculty and it uses it just like the hand uses a “tool”. (Ibid) A defence of Nietzsche on this point though could be proffered. For we might argue that to say the human is a type of animal does not necessarily commit one to the idea that it must therefore either be present-at-hand or exist as an animal in addition to some other capacity. Indeed, as also seen in The Genealogy of Morals, an animal that is divided against itself, and over time, does not have to exist as a substantial present-at-hand entity. Likewise, in so far as the human is an animal turned against its animal nature then what distinguishes it from other animals is not a specific attribute, but the radical transformation of its entire relationship to self and world.
Nevertheless, whoever is right, the present text sheds interesting light on this fundamental difference between the two. That is, it sheds light on Nietzsche’s naturalism in contrast to Heidegger’s belief in a more ‘abyssal’, to use a recurring term in the book, distinction between animal and human. Perhaps what is frustrating though is that Heidegger does not really spell out what this difference amounts to, or what an alternative to the human as a type of animal would look like. There are also, we should point out, other limitations with Heidegger’s engagement with Nietzsche in ‘The Interpretation’. Principal amongst these is that he does not really delve into the philosophical problems associated with a selective attitude toward the truth or history. For how can one choose to forget more, and remember less? This is an issue that crosses over with problems raised by philosophical work on self-deception by Mele (2003) and others. In other words, how can we be wilfully selective about our view of a certain age, and toward a certain end, without in some ways engaging in distortions of what we know to be true? And Heidegger’s claim that Nietzsche’s ‘doctrine concerning truth should in no case be associated with a coarse and cheap American pragmatism’ (155) is obviously inadequate to answer these concerns. Similarly, Nietzsche’s own over-valorisation of the Greeks is something that goes unchallenged by Heidegger. For how can the ‘example’ of Greek culture really be an inspiration if we know that the ‘example’ is in many ways based on a myth?
All that said, ‘The Interpretation’ as a whole doubtless has a lot to offer. It certainly will be of enduring worth to Nietzsche and Heidegger scholars. And this is particularly because we see here the latter’s sustained engagement with a specific published text, rather than the more familiar interpretation based on Nietzsche’s notebooks (‘Will to Power as Art’, v.1 1936-39, v.2 1939-46). It is also of value for bringing to light an intriguing critical discussion of a key issue running throughout Nietzsche’s thought. That is, it sheds light on what is an important philosophical question in its own right: the nature of remembering and forgetting in connection to what separates the animal from the human. In this sense, this book will as well be of interest beyond Heidegger and Nietzsche scholarship. Arguably, as mentioned, Haase and Sinclair could do more to guide the reader regarding how to read the text. For it is doubtless best read in conjunction, and dialogue with, the Untimely Meditation it is interpreting. They may also have flagged up Heidegger’s somewhat polemic, and politically motivated, rejection of Nietzsche’s cultural critique. Yet there is still much to be applauded here. And, in conclusion, the effort in bringing ‘The Interpretation’ to English speakers for the first time has certainly proved to be a worthy one.