Heidegger on History: Generations and Ages
“Der lebendige Geist ist als solcher wesensmäßig historischer Geist im weitesten Sinne des Wortes,“ we read in Martin Heidegger’s Habilitationsschrift of 1916. The remark signals a singular philosophical preoccupation with history that lasted from Heidegger’s earliest writings to the end of his long life.
Given the range and depth of Heidegger’s reflections on history it is difficult to speak about them in a compact and comprehensive manner. I will approach the topic circumspectly by focusing on a single aspect: the fact that he writes about history at some moments in terms of shifting generations and at others in terms of discrete ages or epochs My discussion deals, in this way, with a specific but crucial feature of Heidegger’s thinking on history – his conception of historical time as “non-homogeneous.” It will, nonetheless, still be only provisional. I will endeavor to sketch some of the features of Heidegger’s thinking on the topic of generations and ages and identify some of the phases his thought went through but aware at every point of how much qualification, correction, and expansion may as yet be necessary. At the same time, my project is also ambitious in that my account aims at undermining a pivotal element of Heidegger’s philosophy of history and thus at opening the path for another kind of historical thinking.
Heidegger’s first and as yet tentative reflections on history are recorded in the trial lecture he delivered in Freiburg in 1915 on “The Concept of Time in the Science of History.” Imbued with the spirit of Neo-Kantianism, the lecture sought to make a contribution to “the comprehensive future task of a general theory of science.” (p. 358) Such a theory, Heidegger added, would have to concern itself, in particular, with “the logical foundations of the research methods of the individual sciences.” (p. 359) As part of this undertaking, he proposed to examine “the structure of the concept of time” in the science of history. The question to ask in this context was: “What structure must the concept of time of the science of history have in order for it to be able to function as the concept of time that corresponds to the goal of that science?” (Ibid.) Heidegger proceeded to argue that we can study this matter by “turning our attention to the methodology of the science of history through which it gains access to the past and depicts it historically.” (p. 370) We then discover that the essential feature of the historical concept of time is that “historical ages (Zeiten) differ qualitatively.” (p. 373) He went on to invoke at this point the view of the 19th century historian Leopold von Ranke that ages (Zeitalter) are separated from each other by their “leading tendencies.” The historical concept of time was thus, in contrast to that of natural science, “non-homogeneous” and could not be represented as a mathematical series “since there is no law that determines how ages follow each other.” (Ibid.) Heidegger concluded that the historical concept of time refers thus to “the condensation – crystallization – of an objectification of life that is given in history.” (Ibid.) A number of points are noteworthy in these remarks. The first is Heidegger’s early attachment to the Neo-Kantian theory of science; second, his distinction between the natural and the human sciences and specifically between physics and history in terms of their respective conceptions of time; and third his reliance on classical German historiography with its emphasis on great historical ages or epochs (Zeiten or Zeitalter).
In another lecture four years later, in 1919, Heidegger spoke of both historical epochs and historical generations. In response to contemporary calls for University reform, he declared: “We are today not ready for genuine reforms in the area of the University. Becoming mature for this is a matter for a whole generation. … Only life makes ‘epochs,’ not the noise of overly rushed cultural programs.” But the lecture did not further expand on the two notions of generations and epochs and how they might be related. We can read Heidegger’s remark, if we want to, as saying merely that University reform will take at least thirty years or so (= “Sache einer ganzen Generation”) and only a transformation of life will bring about significant change (= “macht ‘Epoche’”- a common German colloquialism). More significant, perhaps, than Heidegger’s talk of both generations and epochs in this lecture is the way he joined together thoughts about history and University reform together – a conjunction he will return to, as we will see, in the coming decades.
Being-historical in Being and Time
By 1924, Heidegger had left the Neo-Kantian theory of science behind and no longer sought to extract the historical concept of time from the methodology of the science of history. In a posthumously published treatise on The Concept of Time he spoke now, instead, of the need for “an ontology of the ‘historical’… [which] cannot take its course through the science of history and its object. The phenomenal ground for it is rather given in human being-there (Dasein).” It is this same task that Heidegger was to pursue also in Being and Time, three years later, through his “transcendental” and “ontological” analysis of human being-there.
The declared over-all aim of the book was to elucidate “the question of Being” but on the assumption that “an analytic of human being-there must remain our first requirement.” Heidegger noted, in passing, that there are many ways in which being-there has been interpreted “in philosophical psychology, in anthropology, ethics, and ‘political science’, in poetry, biography, and the writing of history, each in in a different fashion.” But, he asked, had this been done in a philosophically compelling, “primordially existential” fashion? (p. 16) Seeking to go beyond such usual undertakings, the goal of Being and Time was “to point to temporality as the meaning of the Being which we call human ‘being-there’.” Being-temporal was, moreover, so Heidegger added, “the condition which makes being-historical (Geschichtlichkeit) possible as a form of the temporal being of being-there.” (p. 19) No longer expecting the understanding of historical time to come from the science of history, he was now taking “the happening” of human being-there to be “the ground that makes ‘world-history’ possible.” (p. 20) Human being-there, he argued, involves a particular way of being in relation to the past, the present, and the future and a corresponding understanding of Being. And of the past he said two crucial things. The first was that the past “goes ahead of” human being-there rather than clings to it from behind. And the second, that the past of human being-there “means always that of its ‘generation’.” (p. 20)
Being and Time thus sought to develop a philosophical and ontological account of both being-temporal and being-historical. Heidegger did not mean to indicate with these terms that human beings live factually in time and specifically in historical time. He meant to identify, rather, the way in which human beings comprehend and thus constitute themselves as temporal and historical being-there. The question was, he wrote with respect to history “to what extent and on the basis of what ontological conditions, does being-historical belong, as an essential constitutive state, to the subjectivity of the ‘historical’ subject?” (p. 382)
This turn gave Heidegger the opportunity to look at the study of history in a more detached and more critical fashion. In asking about the subjectivity of the historical subject, he was, in fact, raising a series of fundamental questions about what we indiscriminately call “history.” He was raising in particular questions about our narratives concerning “historical” events and thus also about the academic discipline we call “History.” Heidegger insisted now on the need to distinguish sharply between the factual events that make up “history” and the “historical” tales we tell about them. The latter are made possible only because we understand the brute “historical” facts as historical and we can do this, he argued, because we understand ourselves in terms of being-historical.
A brute fact – say, the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 – is not as such part of “world history.” It is so, in the first instance, because the quake destroyed great parts of the city of Lisbon and thus killed and displaced human beings. The earthquake is a historical event even more specifically because the survivors conceived it as historical and in historical terms and they did so because they understood themselves as historical beings. Thus, the Christian theologians interpreted the earthquake as a manifestation of divine judgment and thereby inserted it into a narrative of sin and salvation with which the faithful were already familiar. The philosophers used the event in their own way to refute metaphysical optimism and thus helped to undermine both the Christian picture of human lives as being in the care of a benevolent God and the rationalist belief in the inevitability of progress. These interpretations had, in turn, consequences for what people thought and did after the earthquake and they contributed in this way to the subsequent European history. What we call “history” is, in other words, not a series of brute happenings (“one damned thing after another”) but concerns also how human beings understand them, how they understand both themselves and others, and how they act on this understanding. The subjectivity of the historical subject is, thus, a constitutive element in history. When we tell the story of the Lisbon earthquake, we give voice to ourselves as beings with a historical understanding. It is only by being-historical in his being-there that the narrator of an event will have a sense of it as part of history. If we are to understand “history,” we must then also understand the subjectivity of the historical subject and if we are to give an adequate account of history as an academic discipline – what it is and how it should properly be conducted – we must equally take this historical subjectivity into account.
The ontological analysis of being-historical
But how are we to determine this historical subjectivity? Is it possible to do so in abstractly philosophical terms? Speaking of the “ontological conditions” of historical subjectivity and of its “essential constitutive state,” Heidegger made clear that he sought to give a positive answer to that question. He did not even consider the alternative possibility that the way being-there comprehends and constitutes itself as temporal and historical might be contingent, variable over time, and thus historical in a straightforwardly factual sense.
We may grant Heidegger that we would not be human without a sense of ourselves as temporal beings. But it may also be true that the specific way in which we understand our temporality at any given moment is only factual and contingent. By contrast, Heidegger wrote without qualification that being-temporal has to be understood philosophically as a “forerunning towards death.” One wants to ask here: Could this particular conception of being-temporal not be characteristic only of a Christian or post-Christian understanding and, thus, of a specifically historical and contingent understanding of being-there? Heidegger argued in a parallel fashion that to see ourselves as historical beings meant to understand ourselves in terms of a heritage and inheritance, a fate and a destiny one shares with one’s community and “Volk.” Here, too, we may want to ask: Could this way of being-historical not be a merely factual and historical configuration? Perhaps specifically Germanic and German? And thus not anything that can be determined by an ontological analysis. Heidegger wrote, instead: “We contend that what is primarily historical is being-there. That which is secondarily historical, however, is what we encounter with-in the world, not only useful equipment in the widest sense, but also surrounding nature as ‘the historical ground.’” He added that “the vulgar conception of ‘world-history’ arises precisely from an orientation to this secondarily historical.” (p. 381) But is it not possible that we cannot escape vulgar world-history when we seek to understand the being-historical of human being-there? If our temporal and historical subjectivity can only be understood in terms of their factual history, then an historical narrative would have to undergird any account of them. And that narrative would have to advance beyond the subjectivity of the temporal and historical subject to the factual conditions that make them possible.
Heidegger followed a different route. He first made a case for saying that the nature of temporal subjectivity can be determined through an ontological analysis of human being-there and then proceeded to argue that the nature of historical subjectivity could, in turn, be derived from this. He promised thus that “the interpretation of being-historical of human being-there will prove to be, at bottom, just a more concrete working out of being-temporal.” (p. 382) The claim deserves further attention because it will ultimately throw light on Heidegger’s conception of both generations and ages. In order to make this evident it is useful to take a detour by contrasting Heidegger’s and Hannah Arendt’s respective conceptions of history.
Heidegger had begun his discussion of Being-historical in section 72 of Being and Time by asking himself whether his preceding account of being-temporal had given him the complete analysis of human being-there that he had been looking for. “It seems,” he writes, “that the required primordial interpretation of being-there has been reached with the explication of being-temporal.” (p. 372) But this assumption provoked admittedly a serious concern. The analysis had considered being-there so far only as a “being towards the end,” as a running forwards towards death. But death was only one “end” of the totality of being-there. The other was the beginning, birth, and it might seem reasonable to assume that only the space between birth and death constituted our total being-there. It would seem, moreover, that our being-historical beings manifested itself in precisely this intermediate space. This raised the possibility that in order to understand the being-historical of being-there it was necessary to analyze not only human mortality but also what might be called human “natality.” It raised the question f our being “gebürtig,” as Heidegger put it. But the Heidegger of Being and Time was not ready to admit that his preceding account of temporality had, in fact, provided only an incomplete analysis of human being-there. “Factual being-there exists in its being born,” he conceded (Faktisches Dasein existiert gebürtig.) But in its condition of “natality,” he added, “it is already dying in the sense of being towards death.” (p. 374) The self’s resolute stand against the fleeting distractions of an inauthentic life produces a “steadfastness,” he also wrote, in which being-there “incorporates birth and death and their in-between into its existence.” (p. 390) Birth as such was, therefore, no factor that called for an independent analysis; it had to be understood, rather, as “brought into existence as a coming back from the unsurpassable possibility of death.” (p. 391) The “hidden basis of being-historical of being-there,” he declared was, in fact, “authentic being-towards-death” or, in other words, “the finitude of being-temporal.” (p. 386) While Heidegger took being-historical, indeed, as existentially and ontologically fundamental to human being-there, he treated it thus nonetheless as conceptually derivative.
This was the point at which Hannah Arendt distanced herself most sharply from Heidegger and established herself as an independent thinker. Heidegger had passed too quickly over the fact of human natality, she chided. It was essential to consider human natality, Arendt argued (and I think convincingly so), if we are to understand our social, political, and historical existence. Death, she quoted Heidegger, individuates and, in fact, isolates us from others. But as born we come from others, depend on others, and grow into who we are together with others. The fact of human natality reveals thus a fundamental plurality at the heart of the human condition. Every one of us is born at a singular place in space and time, to different parents, in different circumstances, and we grow up, flourish and perish under different conditions. As a result, every one of us has a unique perspective on the world. Heidegger did not, of course, ignore human coexistence (“Mitsein”), but on Arendt’s view, his pre-occupation with death stopped him from properly conceptualizing the fact of human sociality and its definitive pluralism.
It was to this, Arendt added, that one could trace back Heidegger’s failure as a political thinker. She did not specifically comment on his philosophy of history and his theory of generations and ages but it followed from her account that they, too, are, in fact, vitiated by Heidegger’s lack of attention to human plurality.
Heidegger’s assumption that the ontological analysis of being-historical could be derived from an analysis of being-temporal explains, perhaps, why he gave so much more space to the former over the latter. The imbalance becomes visible in Division Two of Being and Time which begins with a detailed analysis of temporality and only much later, in section 72, turns to the question of the historical being of being-there. While Heidegger elaborates his analysis of temporality in four thoroughly argued chapters, he confines himself to a single chapter on the being-historical of being-there. He was not unaware of the disparity and ascribed it to “the poverty of the ‘categorial’ means at our disposal and the insecurity of the primary ontological horizons.” (p. 377) More than anywhere else in his book he felt it therefore necessary to draw on others. Where most of Being and Time had developed Heidegger’s thought in his own chosen words, the chapter on being-historical ends with lengthy quotations from the correspondence of the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey with his son-in-law Yorck von Wartenburg. Heidegger wrote that his own analysis of human Being-historical could, in fact, do no more than “pave the way for the appropriation of Dilthey’s researches,” an undertaking, he added, that was “still ahead for today’s generation.” (p. 377)
And with this last word Heidegger touched on what he considered to be most in important point in Dilthey: his account of history in generational terms. “Dasein’s fateful destiny in and with its ‘generation’ goes to make up the full and authentic historical happening (Geschehen) of being-there,” Heidegger added some pages later with a further reference to Dilthey. (pp. 384-385) What “today’s generation” had to learn from Dilthey was then, first and foremost, that history had to be understood in terms of generations and generational shifts. If “today’s generation” was to attain an authentic understanding of history, it needed to conceive of itself, in particular, as a generation. It had, in other words, to grasp the “non-homogeneous” nature of historical time and understand itself accordingly.
Heidegger’s appeal to his own generation – even though it is made, as it seems, only in passing – signaled, in fact, a remarkable turn in Being and Time: the moment, to be precise, where his project of an ontological analysis of being-there gives way to a historical intervention. For Heidegger did by no assume that “today’s generation” – understood as a cohort of contemporaneous humans – was already aware of its “task.” The generation that Heidegger had in mind was, presumably his own – “the generation of 1914,” as it is often called, with its devastating experience of the First World War and its aftermath. But this generation was by no means united in the philosophical, historical, and political lessons it was drawing. Heidegger’s own views differed, for instance, dramatically from those of his contemporaries Horkheimer and Adorno. The year before the publication of Being and Time, the art historian Wilhelm Pinder had written in a widely discussed book that Heidegger may have known of the “non-contemporaneity of contemporaries.” According to Pinder, the inner time of one artist is not inevitably the same as that on another and the spirit of an age is thus inevitably a polyphony of voices. But on the basis of his ontological analysis, Heidegger still held on to the idea that his generation was facing a single task if it was to authentically confront the inheritance, fate, and destiny of its community and its people, just as he had spoken eight years earlier of academic reform as the not yet fully recognized task for a whole coming generation..
Karl Mannheim, writing in 1928-29 on the problem of generations, characterized such thinking as “romantic-historicist” in contrast to the positivistic understanding of generations as biological cohorts that he found in David Hume, Auguste Comte, and other French theorists. The characterization seems, indeed, appropriate for Heidegger’s entire conception of human being-historical. The terms he mobilizes – heritage, inheritance, fate, destiny, community, “Volk,” and generation – are, in fact, all familiar romantic notions. But as such they also refer us to a factual history that Heidegger’s “existential analysis” is meant to bracket out. Consider, first, the notions of heritage and inheritance. An inheritance consists always in the actual possession of something that we have received from others and that as such serve as a memento. There is no inheritance, if there is nothing we have inherited. And this inheritance is typically often a particular material good. The notion of inheritance refers us, furthermore, to traditional, legal, and thus historical understandings of property and how it is rightfully passed from one hand to another. Consider also the notions of community and Volk. Heidegger writes that human being-there is “thrown into the world” and “submitted to a ‘world’,” and forced to face its situation with “authentic resoluteness,” handing “itself down to itself, free for death, in a possibility which it has inherited and yet has chosen.” (p. 384) But it does not face its destiny alone. For: “Dasein, as Being-in-the-world exists essentially in Being-with-others.” (Ibid.) But there is surely, as Arendt has pointed out, more than one way of being with others. Community can have many different forms. It can appear as family, or tribe, or as a chosen community of faith or allegiance. If, it takes for Heidegger the form of belonging to a Volk, that will be true only as part of a contingently factual history. Human community in the form of the Volk is, thus, part of the “vulgar world-history” that Heidegger wants to set aside in his ontological analysis of Being-historical.
The same thing is true of “Dasein’s fateful destiny in and with its ‘generation’.” (pp. 384-385) For the idea of generation in the sense that Dilthey developed it and that Heidegger adopted it is once again to be understood only as part of a factual history. This becomes evident from Dilthey’s 1875 essay “On the Study of the History of the Sciences of Man, Society, and the State” to which Heidegger refers us. Dilthey writes in it of “the structure of the course of intellectual movements” and determines that this structure has two components. The first is that “the course of a human life is the natural unit for the intuitive measurement of the history of intellectual movements. (p. 36) Only when we look at matters from outside can we measure the history of intellectual developments in terms of hours, months, years, and decades. Internally, such developments can be measured only in terms of a unit integral to their history. And that is, first of all, the unit of a human life with its own “internal psychological measure of time.” Heidegger may well have taken this to be a gesturing to his own view that human being-historical must be understood in terms of Dasein’s authentic being-temporal.
It is, however, the second component in Dilthey’s account of the structure of intellectual history that Heidegger identifies as crucial to the characterization of human being-historical: the idea of a historical generation. “Generation,” Dilthey writes, “is to begin with the term for a temporal space and, moreover, for an internally measured representation.” (Ibid.) The term is used, second, as the name for a “relation of contemporaneity of individuals” who are united by great happenings and changes that occurred in the age in which they were most receptive, happenings that have molded them into a single “homogeneous whole.” To illustrate what he means, Dilthey writes: “Such a generation form, e.g., A. W. Schlegel, Schleiermacher, Alexander von Humboldt, Hegel, Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel, Hölderlin, Wackenroder, Tieck, Fries, Schelling.” (p. 37) He does not identify what he considers to have been the tie that bound this particular group of individuals together into a single generation. What were the “great facts and changes” that, according to Dilthey, define this generation’s identity? In his earlier biography of Schleiermacher, Dilthey had written of three generations in relation to the theologian’s life. The first generation was that of Lessing and specifically Kant; the second generation that of Goethe and Schiller; and the third Schleiermacher’s own generation. Is it coincidence that Dilthey illustrates his account of generations in both contexts with references to the Romantic age? Was it not precisely the men of this age who began to see themselves as a generation and thus distinctly set apart from those who had come before them. Thinking of oneself as belonging to a generation meant to identify with others who had gone through the dual experience of a great break and of a new beginning. And precisely that was the case with the men of the Romantic generation that Dilthey speaks of. They were united, on the one hand, by their experience of the French Revolution and on the other by the rise of Kantian philosophy. Both Dilthey’s and Heidegger’s account of generations is thus grounded in the factual developments and ruptures of world-history.
We need not concern ourselves with Dilthey’s further speculations on this point. Of importance to us is that for Dilthey, generations constitute a beginning and thus a break in the actual course of history. Generations generate something new. They may produce new philosophical ideas, new forms of literature, new ways of thinking, or even new institutional arrangements. Generations are, thus, dynamic and active moments in history, not merely passive by-products of historical developments. Generations are, furthermore, most productive in their early years. It is, thus, the “young” generation that represents the future and that as such stands typically apart from and against an older and fading generation.
Heidegger incorporated this entire complex of ideas into his understanding of human being-historical. But this created a tension in his account of being-there of which he seems not to have been aware at the time. The appearance of a new generation is in Dilthey’s account, in fact, the social equivalent of the birth of an individual human being. Both bring something new into the world. But that conflicts with Heidegger’s express idea that human being-historical must be analyzed as a forerunning towards death and thus in terms of human being-temporal. The observation leads to a broader critical assessment of Heidegger’s entire account of Being-historical in Being and Time. His premise that being-historical is nothing more than a working out of being-temporal leads one to expect that the notions he introduces to characterize human being-historical can be analyzed in terms of the concepts he had employed in his account of human being-temporal. But this is, in fact, not the case. Neither the notion of generation nor the notion of “the people” can be explained in this way. Reinhart Koselleck has, in fact, critically noted with respect to Heidegger’s attempt to establish “the temporal constitution of human being-there as the condition of the possibility of history,” that “the question remains open whether the intersubjective structures of time can be derived from an analysis of being-there.” If this is correct, we should expect that something would eventually give way in Heidegger’s story.
Heidegger himself was, in fact, not unaware of the lacunae in his work. Even before the completion of Being and Time, he had written to his friend Karl Jaspers in 1926: “Only you will understand its real intentions. All in all, it is a transitional work for me.” (p. 64) And the moment of transition would eventually come. Eventually Heidegger let the analysis of being-there as a forerunning towards slip away. Eventually, he gave up the assumption of the priority of being-temporal over being-historical. Eventually he came to see both human being-temporal and human being-historical in world-historical terms. Eventually he abandoned his view of history in terms of the syndrome of notions gathered around the idea of generation. But all this happened years later and only after he had experienced two dramatic failures: one personal and the other public. One being the end of his friendship with Karl Jaspers, the other his failure as rector of the University of Freiburg.
The generational struggle
Heidegger’s friendship with Jaspers had blossomed around 1920 and they both soon came to speak of their relation as a “Kampfgemeinschaft,” a fighting association in which they stood together against an older philosophical generation and, in particular, the heavily Neo-Kantian establishment. On June 27, 1922 Heidegger wrote to Jaspers: “Either we are serious with philosophy and its possibilities as being principled scientific research or we engage in the most serious error as scientific people in that we play around with borrowed concepts and half-clear tendencies and work according to what is popular… Quite unsentimentally I am clear that the decision to be a scientific philosopher is, to begin with, the only option… And this reinforces in me the consciousness of a rare and unique fighting association which I do find nowhere otherwise – certainly not today.” (pp. 28-29) Jaspers responded in a similar spirit. On November 24, 1922 he wrote to Heidegger: “It is beautiful to be able to have trust [in someone] given the philosophical desolation of our time.” (p. 35) On July 14, 1923, Heidegger wrote to Jaspers : “The concrete realization of our friendship would be ..,. the complete transformation of philosophy at our Universities .. And the more organically, concretely, and unnoticeably the revolution (Umsturz) occurs, the more effective it will be. And for that we need an invisible community… Much idol worship must be eradicated; the frightful and wretched handiwork of the various medicine men of today’s philosophy must be exposed.” (p. 42)
Throughout their correspondence, Jaspers and Heidegger sought to identify like-minded associates as well as opponents. There were those they sought to promote to academic positions and those whose appointment they sought to torpedo. From all this there emerges the picture of a struggle between a new philosophical generation and an old, tired academic establishment and its latter-day epigones. Among their associates Jaspers and Heidegger counted Karl Löwith, Oskar Becker, Alfred Baeumler, Julius Ebbinghaus, and Erich Frank, whereas the opposing side included for them Nicolai Hartmann, Neo-Kantians like Bruno Bauch and Richard Kroner, nationalists like Max Wundt and Erich Jaensch, but also Edmund Husserl as Heidegger made clear in his letter of July 14, 1923 when he wrote: “Husserl has come completely apart, if he was ever at any time together…He lives off the mission of being “the founder of phenomenology;” no one knows what that is.” (p. 42)
With the help of Jaspers and their associates, Heidegger hoped to bring about a revitalization – a “Neubelebung” – of philosophy (p. 15) and he had an ambitious view of what that involved. The old ontology and its categorial structures, he declared, had to be completely revised from the ground up. “Needed is a critique of ontology as it has been conducted until now starting from its roots in Greek philosophy.” It was necessary, he added, “to gain a primordial sense of the being of being-alive and of being-human and to determine this categorially.” (pp. 26-27) But Heidegger wanted, in fact, still more. He wanted to transform also the other academic disciplines and thus create a new German University. He had addressed this issue already in Being and Time when he turned to history as an academic discipline. He wanted to liberate the discipline, he wrote, from the “current fact-driven science business” (BT, p.393). This inauthentic form of historiography was to be replaced with a new, “existential idea of historiography.” Heidegger added that such a transformation was, in fact, necessary in all the sciences. “If the being of being-there is fundamentally historical, then every factual science will obviously be tied to this happening.” All science was thus to be reconstructed; first and foremost, of course, the academic discipline of history. This call for the reconstruction of the sciences and with it of the German University, Heidegger repeated even more emphatically in his rectoral address in 1933. “That there should be science at all,” Heidegger said on this occasion, “is never unconditionally necessary. But … under what conditions can it the truly exist? Only if we again place ourselves under the power of the beginning of our spiritual-historical being-there… All science is philosophy, whether it knows it and wants it – or not.” (p. 8) And thus, if philosophy was making a new beginning, as Heidegger thought it was, then the sciences and the German University as a whole would have to follow.
The picture of a generational struggle also motivated Heidegger’s political engagement. His turn to politics was accompanied by the break of his friendship with Jaspers. Already by 1930, Jaspers was noting Heidegger’s muteness in their conversations. On May 24, he wrote to Heidegger: “I long very much for the mutually radical debate which used to take place but now is long gone.” (p. 136) Jaspers had proved unable to follow Heidegger’s political enthusiasm and, in particular, his enthusiasm. for the new, revolutionary student generation. A decade earlier, Heidegger had complained to Jaspers: “There is no profit in the work one does for those who sit before one.” (p. 24) And in 1926, he had written from Marburg: “The students are philistines and without drive.” (p. 69) But by 1933 he was fully in tune with his newly politicized students – “the young and youngest strength of the people,” as he called them in his rectoral address. (p. 22) There was a need now, he said in that address, for a “fighting association” of teachers and students” (die Kampfgemeinschaft der Lehrer und Schüler). The struggle was no longer just one over philosophy but also about its place in the new reality. On April 3, 1933, Heidegger had written to Jaspers: “As dark and questionable as many things are, I feel more and more that we are growing into a new reality and that an age has become old. Everything depends on the question whether we can prepare the right place for philosophy to get engaged and to be heard.” (p. 152) This was three weeks before he let himself be elected rector at Freiburg, signaling in this way his willingness to go along with the new Nazi authorities. Teachers and students, he said in his rectoral address a month later, had to join together now to face “the German fate in its most extreme distress.” (p. 7) “No one will ask us whether we want to or not when the spiritual strength of Europe fails and the entire edifice comes tumbling down, when the decrepit sham culture collapses on itself and pulls all that is strong into confusion and lets it suffocate in madness.” (p. 22)
Heidegger understood the events of 1933 and his own role in them still in terms of his generational conception of history. And he still held the monistic view of generations that he had previously expressed in Being and Time in talking about the singular task of the new generation. But with its new political twist and the collapse of his fighting association with Jaspers, Heidegger’s philosophy of history had, in fact, undergone a profound transformation. The idea of a new philosophical generation, akin to the generations Dilthey had been thinking of, gave way now to the image of a generation united in labor and military service as well as in studying.
But this was not yet the end of Heidegger’s development as a philosopher of history. His initial confidence that he could practically and directly help to shape the National-Socialist revolution in terms of his new vision of generational struggle came to a quick end when he abandoned his rectorate in 1935. His attempt to reconstruct the University in the light of (his) philosophy and the (his) philosophy of history had failed. Heidegger had managed to promote a few colleagues he found congenial. He had protected a few others from political persecution. He had, above all, succeeded in getting his colleagues to go along, more or less reluctantly, with the new regime. But he had spectacularly failed at re-organizing the institution and reconstituting the various disciplines as authentically philosophical sciences. The faculty did not allow their rector to interfere in their own understanding of what they were doing. It was this rather than political disagreements with the regime that brought about Heidegger’s premature resignation from the rectorate.
Heidegger’s return to philosophy occasioned a reassessment of his previous thinking. A more thorough engagement with Nietzsche’s work helped him along. With this, Heidegger’s understanding of history also changed. Nietzsche’s reflections on history had from the start run a different course. Being a classical scholar by training, familiar with European and – through Schopenhauer and Deussen – also with non-European civilizations, and associating with Jacob Burckhardt at Basel, Nietzsche’s historical horizon had from the start been much wider than Heidegger’s. Where Burckhardt had found the beginning of modern Europe in the age of the Renaissance, Nietzsche discovered the origin of philosophy in what he called “the tragic age of the Greeks.” This had been one theme also of his first book, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. The tragic age, the book argued, had come to an end with Socrates. Since then, we have been living in the age of Socratic, “Alexandrian” rationalism. Nietzsche went on that the Socratic age was now, in turn, reaching its conclusion. He foresaw a return “from the Alexandrian age (Zeitalter) to the period of tragedy” and with this the birth of a new tragic age in Germany, signaled by Schopenhauer’s philosophy and Wagner’s music. The Birth of Tragedy conceived thus of history as divided into three sharply separated ages, each characterized by a distinct metaphysical view. Nietzsche’s understanding of where the significant historical breaks are to be found evolved, however, over time. The rise of Christianity came eventually to mark one such break which it had not done in The Birth of Tragedy. Jacob Burckhardt convinced him eventually that the Renaissance as the beginning of modern individualism was another, again a thought not found in The Birth of Tragedy. The dissolution of the Christianity and the Christian tradition, marked a third, one which again had not played a role in Nietzsche’s earlier thinking.
Heidegger returned to writing about ages and epochs after the failure of his political engagement, reviving a line of thinking he had pursued in 1919 but then dropped in favor of Dilthey’s generational account of history. Following Nietzsche, he now singled out an age of early Greek culture in which an original philosophical thinking had emerged soon to be overshadowed by the Platonic-Aristotelian turn of thought. Plato and Aristotle, he said dramatically in his 1935 lectures, marked “the beginning of the end of philosophy.” Like the mature Nietzsche, he also argued now that the change from pagan antiquity to Christianity marked a shift in epochs. He agreed with Nietzsche moreover in identifying a modern age and coming out of that the age of a looming nihilism.
Heidegger publicly expressed his new conception of history for the first time in his lecture “The Age of the World Picture” delivered in Freiburg in July 1938 when he said: “Metaphysics grounds an age (Zeitalter), in that in that it provides the ground of its essential structure through a specific interpretation of what there is and through a specific understanding of truth.” He added that this metaphysical ground penetrates and dominates all the characteristic phenomena of an age. This turn of thought was, no doubt, a result of Heidegger’s disillusionment with his earlier generational conception of human history. That conception had embodied an activist vision of the role of human beings, of human beings acting together in shaping and changing history. Nowhere had this vision been more apparent than in Heidegger’s rectoral address. “We want ourselves,” he had said. “For the young and youngest strength of the people, which stretches already beyond us, has by now decided the matter… All that is great stands in the storm.” (p. 22) The failure of Heidegger’s fighting association with Jaspers and the subsequent failure to establish a new such association under the flag of the 1933 revolution, ultimately disillusioned Heidegger about the power of human action. His history of being was thus the result of a disappointment; and as time went, the war came and was lost, it also gave rise to an increasingly pessimistic view of human history.
This pessimism became fully evident in the culminating words of Heidegger’s posthumously published interview in Der Spiegel, which was no doubt meant to be his intellectual testament. Heidegger said then: “Only a God can save us.” And in this one sentence he summarized his ultimate view of history. Heidegger’s readers have often sought to trace this sentence to Hōlderlin, but the political context make clear that he meant to refer, instead, to Plato and his Politikos, one of Plato’s darkest and most difficult writings. In it, Plato tells the story of the creation of the world in order to put human politics and, in fact, all human endeavor into its proper place. The Gods created the world and originally took care of it. “Over every herd of living creatures throughout all their kinds was set a divine daemon to be its shepherd. Each of them was in every way sufficient for his flock, so that savagery was nowhere to be found nor preying of creature on creature, nor did war rage nor any strife whatsoever.’ (272d-e) But eventually the Gods withdrew from the world and left their creation to its own course. The event was so violent that in its course time itself turned around and we are now living in a backwards moving universe. In this God-forsaken universe, human beings had to learn to take care of themselves. They did so, initially, by copying as far as humanly possible the divine rule of the cosmos. But when the universe travels on without its divine pilot, “things go well enough in the years immediately after he abandons control, but as time goes on and forgetfulness sets in, the ancient condition of discord also begins to assert its sway. At last as this cosmic era draws to its close, this disorder comes to a head. The few good things it produces it corrupts with so gross a taint of evil that it hovers on the very brink of destruction both of itself and the creatures in it.” (273c-d) At his point the world is in danger of dissolving “in the bottomless abyss of unlikeness.” It is at this very moment that the God who first set the world into order, beholds its troubles and “he takes control of the helm once more. Its former sickness he heals; what was disrupted in its former revolution under its own impulse he brings back into the way of regularity; and so, ordering and correcting it, he achieves for it its agelessness and immortality.” (273e) But, so Heidegger’s last word in Der Spiegel tells us, that God has not yet returned. We are still in the state of disorder and in danger of ultimately falling into the abyss of unlikeness. Now only a god can save us.
Establishing discontinuities is not an easy task
“Establishing discontinuities is not an easy task even for history in general. And it is certainly even less so for the history of thought. We may wish to draw a dividing-line; but any limit we may set may perhaps be no more than an arbitrary division made in a constantly mobile whole,” Foucault wrote in The Order of Things at the very moment he was striving to divide the history of modern thought into sharply distinct ages.
Foucault’s warning applies to both the attempt to understand history in terms of separate generations as to the attempt to understand it in terms of ages or epochs. We have already considered reasons for skepticism about the generational conception of history. There are moments when it makes sense to identify such a generation, if we mean by this a group of contemporaries that shares a set of decisive experiences, is led by them to think and act in the same way, and whose thoughts and actions make a significant historical impact. Dilthey was, probably right, in speaking of such a generation in the Romantic period. But such groupings will be exceptional given the plurality of the human condition that Hannah Arendt has depicted so vividly. Similar criticisms can be lodged against the epochal conception of history advanced by the later Heidegger.
An appropriate point to start critical reflection on the idea of historical ages and epochs is the term “Zeitalter” employed by Nietzsche and Heidegger. The word is, in fact, a relatively recent creation. It had been coined only in the 18th century and had come into common use only in the early 19th century. There had, of course, for long been pictures of separate historical periods and epochs as, for instance, the binary picture of pagan antiquity and a Christian age. In the 15th century, Italian humanists had added the term “medieval” in order to distinguish their own “modern” time from the preceding centuries and to connect themselves to classical antiquity. A German scholar, Christoph Cellarius, popularized this tripartite division in the seventeenth century and it then became standard in the emerging field of academic history where it has remained in practice to the present day. In the 19th century the French invented “the Renaissance” as a secularist alternative to “the Reformation” in order to account for the rise of “the modern age” – an idea promoted and spread by Burckhardt and inherited by Nietzsche. Since then, we have learned to speak of all kinds of ages such as “the Baroque,” “The Victorian,” and “The Digital Age.” There is, of course, nothing inevitable in thinking of history in these terms just as there is nothing inevitable in thinking of history in terms of generations. The concept of an age or epoch is, after all itself a historical invention, just as the concept of generation. We should therefore not hesitate to ask critical questions about it. Why do we find it useful or even necessary to divide the historical time-line in this fashion? There are obviously pragmatic reasons for doing so. A division of the time-line into segments makes it easier to keep an overview over the welter of facts that make up the course of history in the same way that a division of a novel into chapters helps us to keep track of its narrative. Some divisions of the historical time-line will, no doubt, also be more plausible than others in that they identify periods of relative stability. But the segmentation may also mislead us. Historical change is often gradual. The Christianization of the West, for instance, took hundreds of years. And what we identify as a significant historical break may be due to and they may due multiple changes and changes across a wide front that are not necessarily coordinated. The period we now call the Renaissance is characterized by the emergence of a new kind of learning, new forms of philosophical and scientific thinking, religious upheavals, the emergence of banking, development of a new political order, technological advances and particularly changes in navigation and warfare, territorial discoveries and conquests, and so on. No wonder we find it difficult to say exactly when this new age began.
Both Nietzsche and Heidegger conceived of ages as sharply separated from each other and characterized by their distinctive forms of thinking. The difference between them was this: Nietzsche thought of ages as characterized by their value systems, Heidegger thought of them in terms of their metaphysics and, in particular of their understandings of “Being.” Over time, Heidegger came to elaborate an entire history that characterized ages in terms of their understanding of Being as presence, or as created, or as thing, or as resource. I won’t follow him along these paths. Instead, I want to ask, instead, why we should follow Nietzsche and Heidegger in assuming that historical ages are identified by their “Interpretation” and “understanding” of values or Being? Did the modern world, to take an example, begin with a new metaphysics, or did it perhaps begin with new means of crossing the seas and the resulting “discovery” of a new world? Why should we assume that all the phenomena of an age are marked by the same value system or the same metaphysics? Is the modern world, to take that example again, not perhaps more adequately described by its competing values and its conflicting metaphysical beliefs, its incommensurable understandings of “Being?”
Epochal historians are almost unanimous in assuming that historical epochs are united by their way of thinking. They assume that the characteristic form of a thought of a period will then generate a corresponding material culture. But this oversimplifies the relation of thought and reality. The ways we think will no doubt affect material reality, but that reality, in turn, affects the way we think. Neither Nietzsche nor Heidegger considered material or economic conditions, however, relevant for drawing the boundaries between ages. When the later Heidegger spoke, for instance, of a technological age, he always characterized it as due to a technological form of thinking, not to its actual technology. He did not even consider the possibility that technological thinking might itself be a product of our material, technological reality in the way that, for instance, Foucault suggested in Discipline and Punish.
Nietzsche and Heidegger also shared the more general assumption that all the phenomena of a particular Zeitalter were united by the prevailing value system or interpretation of Being. This assumption is once again pervasive in epochal theories of history. We find it Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West and Michel Foucault’s Order of Things. It is, nevertheless, entirely fanciful. Different, incompatible, and, in fact, incommensurable forms of thinking and life typically co-exist in a period. Our own, modern Western culture is particularly marked by such a pluralism. Carl Schmitt recognized this point in his own attempt to distinguish different “stages” of political history, when he wrote in 1929: “People in the same age and the same country, even the same family, live side by side at different stages. For example, today, Berlin is culturally closer to New York and Moscow than to Munich or Trier.” Nietzsche and Heidegger might have done better, if they had seen the “pluralistic side-by-side” of historical epochs that Schmitt diagnosed. The problem of a “monistic” conception of historical epochs becomes apparent when we ask how Nietzsche and Heidegger who were themselves located in a particular age could claim to understand a different age. And what enabled them to take a critical stance towards their own age? Heidegger seems to have assumed that in addition to the cultural main stream of an age there are “marginal” positions from which a perceptive and critical account of an age can be achieved. We may, indeed, want to distinguish dominant and recessive features in a historical period. But we must also recognize that there may be no single dominant characteristic in a period but, instead, a genuinely pluralistic side-by-side. Our own period may be a prime example for such a genuine “multiculturalism” with all its attending problems and conflicts.
Finally, there is a third feature that Heidegger’s view of historical ages shares with Nietzsche. In speaking of historical ages, they are both focus specifically on the present age. Talk of different historical ages is, in fact, a characteristic device for trying to identify the distinctive nature of one’s own present. This was certainly so, when the ancients talked about a golden, silver, and iron age. It is also manifest in characterizations of the present age as “modern.” But in what sense can there be a “history of the present”? We need, perhaps, to question Heidegger’s and Nietzsche’s belief in the possibility of such a history and conclude with Hegel that philosophy “as the thought of the world … appears only when actuality has completed its creative formative process and has finished itself. … When philosophy paints its gray in gray, a form of life has grown old.”
However far the affinity between Nietzsche and the later Heidegger extended with respect to their thinking about ages and epochs, there were, of course, also important differences between them. One of them was that Nietzsche thought of historical breaks as the work of powerful and creative actors. Heidegger came to think about history, by contrast, in terms of reception and even surrender. According to him, the work of art was not produced by the artist but the artist, instead, by the work of art. Similarly, he refused to think of different understandings of being as produced by intellectual endeavor. Human action at any given stage in history could, on the contrary, so he thought, be understood only in terms of an understanding of being but that the origin of this understanding was itself not open to human view.
I have sought to analyze in this discussion some of Heidegger’s thinking on history. And I have tried to establish in this way, first of all, that we cannot speak of Heidegger’s philosophy of history in the singular. He advanced, rather, a series of philosophical understandings of history that moved him from thinking in terms of generations and generational shifts to thinking about historical ages as aspects of a history of Being. In sketching this trajectory, I have tried to make clear that what moved him was not an inherent dynamic in the ideas, but changing historical circumstances such as his reading of Dilthey and later of Nietzsche, the development of his friendship with Jaspers and their ultimate parting of ways, the political momentum he felt in 1933 and his subsequent disillusionment with its promise, and finally the rise of a new regime in 1933 and its collapse in 1945 with an outcome that Heidegger had feared for a long time: the empowerment of Russia and America and the enfeeblement of Europe. If we can speak of the being-historical of Heidegger’s own being-there, we can see then that it permits no ontological analysis but calls for a historical accounting in terms of what Heidegger has called vulgar history.
We should not doubt that there are discontinuities in history. Heidegger was right in saying that historical time is non-homogeneous. But it would be wrong to historical discontinuities as if they were gestalt-switches in which generations or ages suddenly gave way to other generations or ages. Historical changes are unlikely to be of that sort. They may appear sometimes as abrupt. But they are too complex to permit sudden transformations.
My doubts about Heidegger’s attempts to conceive of a philosophy of history extend to his attempt to provide an ontological analysis of the being-historical of human being-there and the possibility of separating such an analysis from the facticity of actual history. The project of an ontological analysis of both human being-temporal and human Being-historical and their interrelation – as conceived in Being and Time – strikes me as unfeasible. An alternative analysis will have to provide an account of human being-temporal and Being-historical on the basis of a concrete, factual, “ontic,” and material history. I would like to think of this essay as a contribution to this kind of undertaking.
I don’t want to end, however, on this critical note. I need to acknowledge, finally, that Heidegger has made important contributions to this discussion. He has opened up an entire philosophical agenda with his examination of human being-temporal and being-historical. He was also right in conceiving of human mortality as profoundly significant in the constitution of this temporality. But he failed to appreciate the corresponding role of human natality. There is, furthermore, no reason to assume that the being-temporal of human being-there can take only one form. The same is true of human being-historical. Heidegger has identified one form of being-historical. But there are others, like the possibility of a forward and backward looking form of historicality, as well as a form of historical consciousness that, like Nietzsche’s, perceives great historical cycles. Conceiving history in terms of generations and generational change, as Heidegger does in Being and Time, is, no doubt, one form that human being-historical can take. Conceiving it in terms of great epochs is another. But these various forms of human historicality call for further analysis. Heidegger’s philosophy of history, I conclude, sets us a task. It is up to us to attempt to carry further and look beyond the horizon Heideggerian thought.