From Generations to Epochs
It is exceptionally difficult to write about Heidegger’s thinking on history. The scope of his writing is immense. (The edition of his complete works now stands at 98 volumes and is not yet finished.) In a large number of these writings, Heidegger addresses, moreover, issues that bear on history and the philosophy of history. My project in this essay is therefore inevitably limited and tentative. I will try to sketch some of the features of Heidegger’s thinking on the topic of history and identify some of the phases that his thinking went through. But at every point of that story I am aware how much more could (and perhaps should) be said and how many qualifications and corrections may be necessary. But my project is also ambitious in that I will try to use that narrative for undermining Heidegger’s philosophy of history and thereby to open the path for another kind of historical thinking.
Martin Heidegger reflected on history, on the philosophy of history, and on what it means to think historically from the beginning of his career at the time of the First World War onwards. Some of his early writings, such as his dissertation on the psychologist theory of judgment, had a decisively historical tone.
But Being and Time, published in 1927, took him in a somewhat different direction. The declared aim of the book was an analysis of the being-there (Dasein) of human beings from an abstractly “ontological” rather than a historical point of view. It was in this manner that Heidegger sought to account, in particular, for what he called the “temporality” and “historicality” of human being-there. By these terms he did not mean the factual (“ontic”) circumstance that human beings live in time and are part of “history,” understood as an extended period of time. He meant, 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 historicality belong, as an essential constitutive state, to the subjectivity of the ‘historical’ subject?” (p. 382) It was thus the subjectivity of the historical subject that was for Heidegger in question. And by speaking of its “ontological conditions” and of its “essential constitutive state,” he made clear that he meant to treat this question in a philosophically systematic rather than a historical manner. He did not ask himself, in other words, whether the way being-there comprehends and constitutes itself as temporal and historical might not itself be contingent and change over time and thus be historical in another, non-subjective sense of the term. He wrote, instead, without qualification and in an entirely unhistorical voice that human temporality had to be understood as a “forerunning towards death.” But could this particular understanding of human temporality not be itself historical and as such variable and contingent? Characteristic, perhaps, of a specifically Christian or post-Christian understanding of being-there? And again, Heidegger wrote that human historicality involved a sense of belonging to a “Volk” – a people. Here, too, we can ask: Could this understanding of human historicality not be due to a particular historical configuration? Was the idea of the “Volk,” as Heidegger conceived it, not perhaps specifically Germanic and German? The Heidegger of Being and Time never asked these questions. He never asked, in other words, whether human temporality and historicality might not, as historical, be resistant to the kind of “ontological” analysis he was after.
This is important for understanding the priority that Heidegger assigned to temporality over historicality in Being and Time. If human temporality and historicality can only be understood historically, then an historical narrative would have to undergird any account of human temporality. And that narrative would have to advance beyond an account of the subjectivity of the historical subject to the “factical” historical conditions that make both human temporality and human historicality possible. But for Heidegger the historicality of the historical subject was primary and the factual ground on which the historical subject is located only secondary. Heidegger wrote: “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 it may turn out that we cannot escape this supposedly vulgar conception when we seek to understand the dual subjectivity of the temporal and historical subject. Heidegger saw the relation of temporality and historicality, however, in a different light. He wrote that “the interpretation of Dasein’s historicality will prove to be, at bottom, just a more concrete working out of temporality.” (p. 382) Our understanding of ourselves was, then, first of all, as temporal beings and from this was supposed to come an understanding of ourselves as historical. The “there” in Heidegger’s term “being-there” – the “Da” in his German word “Dasein” – refers us accordingly to temporality, and not to the historical locatedness, of being-there.
The supposed priority of temporality over historicality may help to explain why Being and Time gave so much more prominence to the former notion over the latter. The imbalance becomes visible in Division Two of Being and Time which begins with a detailed analysis of what it means to say that human being-there is temporal and only after that, late in the book, in section 72, turns to the question of the historical character of being-there. And while Heidegger elaborates his account of the temporality in four thoroughly argued chapters, he confines himself to a single one on human historicality. Heidegger 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 here dependent on others. Where most of Being and Time had developed Heidegger’s thought in his own chosen words, the chapter on historicality ends with a series of quotations extracted from the correspondence of the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey with his son-in-law Yorck von Wartenburg. Heidegger wrote that his own analysis of human historicality 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 in Dilthey: his depiction 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 wrote accordingly with a reference to Dilthey. 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 changes. If “today’s generation” was to attain an authentic understanding of history, it needed to conceive of itself, in particular, as a generation. Heidegger’s appeal to his own generation – even though it is made, as it seems, only in passing – signals, 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. We should take note, moreover, that Heidegger seems to assume that “today’s generation” – understood here perhaps simply as a cohort of contemporaneous humans, has a single task as a result of its being exposed to the same formative experience. In reality, of course, members of a generation may draw very different conclusions from the same decisive experience. We might say here that Heidegger entertains a monistic view of generations whereas they are, in fact, pluralistic in outlook.
We want to ask how Heidegger had come to this point. He had begun his discussion of historicality in section 72 of Being and Time by asking himself whether his preceding account of temporality 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 temporality.” (p. 372) But the assumption that the task of analysis was now complete, he added, provoked “a heavy worry (Bedenken).” The analysis had so far considered being-there 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 human historicality it was necessary to analyze not only human mortality but also what might be called call human natality? Our being “gebürtig,” as Heidegger put it. And that would, of course also mean that the preceding account of temporality had, in fact, provided only an incomplete analysis of human being-there. The Heidegger of Being and Time was not ready to admit this. “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 independent factor; it had to be understood, rather, as “brought into existence as a coming back from the unsurpassable possibility of death.” (p. 391)
Hannah Arendt would eventually pick up on this point and chide Heidegger for having passed too quickly over the fact of human natality. We need to focus on human natality, Arendt argued (and I think convincingly), in order 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. Human natality made both history and politics possible and if the analysis of being-there by-passed the fundamental condition of human natality then it had ultimately no way of accounting for human historicality. This was, in fact, the point at which Arendt diverged most sharply from Heidegger and established herself as an independent thinker. In contrast to Arendt, Heidegger persisted, however, in thinking that human historicality could be fully accounted for in terms of human temporality which, in turn, could be analyzed as a running forwards towards death. There was thus for him no need to build anything on the distinct notion of natality. The “hidden basis of Dasein’s historicality,” he declared was, in fact, “authentic being-towards-death” or, in other words, “the finitude of temporality.” (p. 386) Though the Heidegger of Being and Time took historicality to be, indeed, both existentially and ontologically fundamental to human being-there, he treated it nevertheless as conceptually secondary and derivative from human temporality.
Karl Mannheim has characterized Dilthey’s and Heidegger’s thinking about generations 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. Mannheim’s term seems, indeed, appropriate for Heidegger’s entire conception of human historicality. The terms in which he characterized historicality: heritage, inheritance, fate, destiny, community, Volk (and finally also generation as Dilthey and Heidegger understood it) are, in fact, all familiar romantic notions. But these terms also all refer us to a factual history that Heidegger’s “existential analysis” seeks 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 or 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 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 factical history. It is as part of the “vulgar world-history” that Heidegger wants to set aside in his ontological analysis of historicality (and only as part of this vulgar world-history) that we find ourselves bound together as a Volk.
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 as his own is once again loaded with factical 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 gesture on Dilthey’s part to his own conclusion that human historicality must
be understood in terms of Dasein’s authentic temporality.
But it is the second component in Dilthey’s account of the structure of intellectual history that Heidegger identifies as crucial to the characterization of human historicality: 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 and 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 tell us what he considers to have been the ties that bound this particular group of individuals together into a single generation. What were the “great facts and changes” that, according to him, 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 was 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. We can note then that Dilthey’s and Heidegger’s account of generations is also 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 historicality. But this created a tension in his account of being-there of which he sees 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 historicality can be fully understood in terms of human temporality, that the latter is to be analyzed as a forerunning towards death, and that there is therefore no need to think about that other end of being-there, the beginning that is marked by human natality. It turns out, then, that human historicality cannot, after all, be fully accounted for in terms of a forerunning towards death and thus in terms of human temporality. The observation leads to a broader critical assessment of Heidegger’s entire account of historicality in Being and Time. His premise that historicality is nothing more than a working out of temporality leads one to expect that the notions he introduces to characterize human historicality can be analyzed in terms of the concepts he had employed in his account of human temporality. 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 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. In 1926, even before the completion of Being and Time, he had written to his friend Karl Jaspers: “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 temporality over historicality. Eventually he came to see both human temporality and human historicality 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.
Meanwhile, he hung on to the picture of generations and generational change. The idea intrigued not only Heidegger. In 1928, a year after the appearance of Being and Time, the sociologist Karl Mannheim published his essay on “The Problem of Generations” which inspired a whole series of studies on the topic. Meanwhile the popular press wrote about the German war generation and the National Socialists hailed the coming of a new, young, revolutionary generation. It was, perhaps, for these reasons that Heidegger, despite the tribute he had paid in Being and Time to the concept of generation, seems to have shunned the term afterwards. At the same time, however, he continued to think about himself and his own time very much in the categories associated with that concept.
As far as his picture of himself was concerned, this becomes evident from his correspondence with Jaspers. The two had begun to communicate around 1920 and they both soon spoke of their relation as a “Kampfgemeinschaft,” a fighting association in which they stood together against an older philosophical generation and, in particular, the heavlily 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. If one accepts the former, then one has chosen the danger of betting one’s entire “outer” and inner existence on something whose success and outcome one will never see. 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 similar spirit to Heidegger, November 24, 1922: “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 were working 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 addressed this issue in Being and Time when he turned to history as an academic discipline. (For clarity’s sake I will speak in the following of historiography.) He wanted to liberate historiography, he wrote, from the “current fact-driven science business” (BT, p.393). The current but 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, historiography. 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 in his friendship with Jaspers. Already by 1930, Jaspers was noting Heidegger’s muteness in their conversations. On May 24, Jaspers 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 University is boring. The students are philistine 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 of the University of 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 became for him the occasion for a reassessment of his entire thinking. A more thorough engagement with Nietzsche’s work helped him along. As a result, his thinking about history also underwent transformation. Nietzsche’s thoughts about history had from the start run a different course from Heidegger’s. Being a classical scholar by training, familiar with non-European civilizations through his acquaintance with Schopenhauer and his friend Paul Deussen, and having come under the influence of Jacob Burckhardt in Basel, Nietzsche’s historical horizon had always been wider than Heidegger’s in the 1920s. Following Burckhardt’s account of Renaissance culture, Nietzsche saw history in terms of ages or epochs not generations. We get a glimpse of this from the title of his early work Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks of 1872. The assumption of such a tragic age (Zeitalter) was also the theme of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. This 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 to argue that this Socratic age was now, in turn, coming to an end. He foresaw a stepping backwards “from the Alexandrian age (Zeitalter) to the period of tragedy” and “the birth of a tragic age” in Germany. Nietzsche’s term “Zeitalter” deserves attention. It had been coined only in the 18th century and had come into its own in the early 19th century. Its invention was due to a new view of history that saw it no longer as a single flow of events but as divided into separate periods, ages, or epochs. There had, of course, for long been pictures of such divisions as, for instance, between pagan antiquity and the Christian ages. But in the 18th century began a preoccupation with more sharply defined historical boundaries. The rise of history as an academic discipline helped this process along. Nietzsche’s thinking about where the significant historical breaks were to be found changed over time. The rise of Christianity came to mark one such break which it had not done in The Birth of Tragedy. Jacob Burckhardt convinced him that the Renaissance was another, again a new thought not entertained in The Birth of Tragedy ; the decline of Christianity and the accompanying dissolution of the highest values of the Christian tradition, marked a third, one which again had not played a role in his earlier thinking.
From around 1935 onwards, Heidegger, too, came to speak about history in terms of distinct ages. He distinguished these ages similarly to the mature Nietzsche. Like Nietzsche he singled out a period of pre-Socratic Greek culture; like Nietzsche he also assumed that the change from pagan antiquity to the Christian period marked a shift in epochs. He agreed with Nietzsche moreover in identifying the coming of nihilism as defining a new age. These agreements rested on another assumption the two philosophers shared. The demarcation of ages, they both considered to be due to shifts in religious and philosophical thinking; they had to do with appearance of different value-systems (for Nietzsche) or with different metaphysical conceptions (Heidegger). In contrast to Marx, neither Nietzsche nor Heidegger considered material or economic conditions relevant for drawing the boundaries between ages. When Heidegger spoke later on of a technological age, he characterized it in terms of a presumed kind of technological thinking not in terms of actual technological developments. And he did not even consider the possibility that technological thinking might itself be a product of our technological equipmenty in the way that, for instance, Foucault suggested in Discipline and Punish.
Heidegger publicly expressed his new view of history as organized in ages rather than generations 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 went on to say that this metaphysical ground penetrates and dominates all the characteristic phenomena of an age. He added: “In reverse, it must be possible through adequate reflection on these phenomena to recognize the metaphysical ground.” The passage elicits a number of questions. Why should we assume with Heidegger (and with Nietzsche) that historical ages are best described in terms of their “Interpretation” and “understanding” of beings and truth, or in terms of their values, or more generally speaking with Heidegger in terms of their metaphysics? Did the modern world begin with a new metaphysics, or did perhaps begin with new means of navigation? And why should we assume with Heidegger (and once again also with Nietzsche) that all the phenomena of an age are structured by the same set of metaphysical assumptions? Is it not more plausible to assume that historical ages are pluralistic structures in which diverse forms of metaphysics and conflicting value systems may flourish side-by-side and that this is most obviously so in the present age? Carl Schmitt once made this point in his own attempt to distinguish different political ages, 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.” If we are to speak of historical ages (as Schmitt still wants to do), this can then only mean that there are both dominant and recessive elements to found in each such age. Heidegger and Nietzsche would have done better, if they had focused on this “pluralistic side-by-side” that Schmitt diagnosed.
It is not my intention to answer these issues here and now. I want to draw attention, instead, to a third feature of Heidegger’s view of historical ages that is again one he shares with Nietzsche. For in thinking about history in terms of historical ages, both Heidegger and Nietzsche are particularly focused on the present age. Talk of different historical ages is, in fact, a characteristic device for trying to identify the distinctive nature of the present age. This was certainly so, when the ancients talked about a golden, silver, and iron age. But 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 confidence 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. Heidegger came to elaborate an entire history of being that characterized ages in terms of their understanding of being either as presence, or as created, or as thing, or as resource. I won’t follow him along these complex paths. I want to emphasize, instead, another difference between Nietzsche and Heidegger. Nietzsche’s thinking about history was activist in character. History was for him the work of powerful actors. He wanted to think, thus, about works of art in terms of the artist and the artist’s creative will to power. He also thought of ages and epochs as produced by human beings: the Socratic age, for instance, which could be named after the one most responsible for its rise. And he would speak of a future new age as the product of great artist-tyrants. 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. The origin of the work of art had to be sought outside the artist and certainly also outside the will to power. Similarly, Heidegger refused to think of different understandings of being as having been produced by human endeavor. Human action in every age could, on the contrary, be understood only in terms of an independently prevailing understanding of being. And these understandings appeared or manifested themselves in ways not open to human view.
I want to interpret this turn of thought as the outcome 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 is this vision more obvious than in Heidegger’s rectoral address. “We want ourselves,” he said at that time. “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 increasingly also of a pessimistic view of human history.
This pessimism became more evident after the Second World War. In order to make this explicit, we need to remind ourselves only of his culminating words in his last testament, the posthumously published interview in Der Spiegel.
Heidegger said then: “Only a God can save us.” And in this one sentence he summarized his ultimate view of history. To those familiar with ancient philosophy it was clear that Heidegger’s sentence meant to refer us to the 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.
In summary: It appears that we cannot speak of Heidegger’s philosophy of history in the singular. He advanced, rather, a series of philosophical understandings of history. I have sketched some of the trajectory on which he moved and in doing so, 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 metaphysical empowerment of Russia and America and the enfeeblement of Europe. If we can speak of the historicality of Heidegger’s own being-there, we can see then that it permits no singular ontological analysis but calls for a historical accounting built on the facticity of what Heidegger called vulgar history.
My various expressions of doubt about Heidegger’s attempts to conceive of a philosophy of history thus extend finally to the very attempt at an ontological analysis of the historicality of being-there and its separation from the facticity of historiography. The entire project of an ontological analysis of both human temporality and human historicality as conceived in Being and Time turns out to be problematic. An alternative possibility might be an account of human temporality and historicality 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.