Reinhart Koselleck

Image: Emelindo Nardin


Excerpt from the Presentation of the newly edited book “A latent philosophy of time”

Reinhart Koselleck devoted his professional life to analyzing the configuration of time that shaped modernity. The German historian identified that in the middle of the XNUMXth century and, above all, during the XNUMXth century, a fissure opened up that rapidly thickened between the past and the future in the Western world. The events that emerged within this conjuncture could not be located and explained in the repertoire of language already sedimented. The events differed fundamentally from the previous ones, replaced certain beings and became new.

Modernity revealed itself as a temporality in which experiences and expectations were transformed more quickly than what had been possible to imagine until then. From this process emerged the phenomenon that we understand by “history”. This thesis runs through the author's work. It, however, more than a characterization of modernity, harbors a latent philosophy of time.

The originality of Koselleck's reflections made him stand out among the most important historians of the XNUMXth century. His work on the emergence of the historical character of the world, alongside The words and things, by Michel Foucault, for example, takes on essential contours. The mention of Foucault in this introduction to Koselleck aims to underline the importance of his diagnoses on modernity and the convergence of some understandings. The analysis of the profound historicization that invaded the depths of things, giving them a historical character by virtue of which everything would be subjected to transformation, caused a certain language to lose its privileged space in maintaining the organicity of the world.

Truth has become detached from what things would be, at least in a more natural or immediate way. It took shelter in the passage of time and it would be up to man to travel through it. This search became exhaustive and from it emerged various forms of social organization and new ambitions that competed for space. The paths seemed endless due to the multiplicity of points of view. To this process, Foucault named “crisis of representation” and Koselleck called “crisis of perspectives” or “temporalization of perspectives”.

These openings, however, competed from a Judeo-Christian heritage that became secularized: the belief that the passage of time was determined by previously given principles and would lead to perfect realities. It is about progress as temporal systematization. This logic, which for a long time was confused with the very notion of history, took root in most of modern man's modes of organization. From this gesture, the erosion of modernity itself erupted: expectations of universal progress led to the blurring of differences and the totalitarianism of the XNUMXth century.

A Archaeology of Foucault and the History by Koselleck sought to identify and describe, based on their specificities, the fundamental elements that allowed the emergence of ideas, theories, policies and any and all organization of social life that emerged with modern man. In these diagnoses there is also a critical movement with regard to these legacies, especially those rooted in the construction of knowledge or in what is conventionally called scientificity.

The power of their diagnoses resides in the fact that they highlighted the most fundamental discovery of modernity: things are subject to time, susceptible to transformation. But, at the same time, they presented the limits of such a discovery: the belief in a redemptive and universal form of science and political organization guided by progress. They worked to demystify the linear and, consequently, authoritarian character of this reaction to temporal change that today seems (or should) sound obvious.

In this sense, the authors dedicated themselves to a certain break with the episteme traditional, producing works attentive to the multiplicity of meanings also accumulated in space. They challenged the belief in the supposed senses proper to reality projected into/through time. Foucault's “heterotopias” and Koselleck's “time strata” are based on this critical effort. Both revealed the dated or historical character of a philosophical anthropology that reduced man and history to a Cartesian and procedural rationality.

Foucault recorded in The words and things the passing character of modern man – he would “fade away like a face of sand on the shore”; a “recent invention”, whose end would be near. Koselleck pointed out something similar. The modern man type, who was socially organized by the belief in reason and progress, became possible in a particular time-space: “the asymmetry between experience and expectation, was a specific product of that time [modernity] of sudden transformation in which this asymmetry was interpreted as progress”.

Despite highlighting the ephemeral character of modernity itself, neither Foucault nor Koselleck objectively questioned or developed specific studies about the temporality that followed the crisis of historicism and that took shape from the authoritarian and bellicose collapses of the XNUMXth century. In Koselleck, this effort is curiously more ambiguous. He underlined the dated character of progress, however, when asked about the form of time that followed or would follow modernity, he seemed not to understand the question or dodged it.

The curious thing is that all of his work warns of this transformation, offering categories to analyze it. His reflections approach time as a dimension of existence in a unique way. In them, Edmund Husserl's understanding of time stands out as the basic structure of human consciousness articulated through the notions of retention and protection without which it would not be possible to apprehend any experience. It also dialogues with the conceptions of finitude and historicity proper to the notion of To be there in Martin Heidegger.

But his philosophical reflection on temporality, described here as latent, is sometimes neglected when compared to the emphasis given to Koselleck's reception in his relationship with the history of concepts, with the history of the Enlightenment and with the defense of scientific protocols. specific to the discipline of History. For this reason, we seek to highlight Reinhart Koselleck not only as one of the most important historians and theorists of XNUMXth century history, but also as a philosopher of time, whose approaches are central to the broader challenges faced by the Humanities and the contemporary world.


Heidelberg and the denazification

Koselleck entered the University of Heidelberg in the summer of 1947. It was a time of restructuring of academic life in Germany due to the denazification processes coordinated by the American, Soviet, British and French occupations initiated after the German surrender in 1945, which they sought to banish, for example, from the universities the supporters of National Socialism. Heidelberg was closed by the American occupation in April 1945 because a significant part of its professors had some involvement with National Socialism.

After denazification, it reopened in January 1946 and became one of the most important universities in the post-war debates. In this context, Heidelberg brought together intellectuals of different profiles who were decisive in the formation of Koselleck's intellectual and professional interests, such as Johannes Kühn, considered one of the founders of the history of concepts, Karl Löwith and Hans-Georg Gadamer. Carl Schmitt and Heidegger, although officially banned from teaching, also had a great impact on his education. After attending Alfred Weber's seminars, Koselleck approached Schmitt, and the latter became a kind of informal mentor. As for Heidegger, his main work, being and time, was considered in Heidelberg as a kind of “initiation book” deeply studied in the seminars and phenomenology groups of Gadamer and Franz-Josef Brecht, to which Heidegger even attended.

The post-war atmosphere provoked the constitution of a generation of “skeptical intellectuals” formed by young people who grew up in the midst of the war, like Koselleck, and who sought to explain the rise of Nazism in their research. Although skeptical, this is not a generation with a homogeneous profile. As Niklas Olsen's studies reveal, Koselleck would be closer to conservative liberals who would echo a certain pessimism. This liberal conservatism did not approach the defense of anti-democratic positions, but was critical of political projects associated with “utopia” – those who believed in some kind of redemption of the recent German past.

This atmosphere also echoes a crisis between two generations – young people between 15 and 30 years of age, who held their older brothers and parents responsible for what had happened in the country between 1933 and 1945, and older people, who argued that younger people should have protected the country from the Nazi experiment. This discussion refers to the absence of a sense of responsibility, which the next generation would take for themselves.


Criticism and crisis: the arrogance of philosophies of history

Koselleck's doctoral thesis defended at the University of Heidelberg initially sought to investigate the origin of modern utopia through Kant's criticisms. The project, however, expanded to an analysis of the birth of Enlightenment thought in general, associating it with what would be the preconditions for the constitution of National Socialism and modern totalitarianism. Critique and crisis: a contribution to the pathogenesis of the bourgeois world sought to defend that the authoritarian experiences of the XNUMXth century did not concern an isolated phenomenon, but that they would have unfolded from modern philosophies of history. They, along with the rise of the bourgeoisie, would have inaugurated a perception of the world that denied absolutism through a utopian perspective (direction towards the future in an abstract, idealistic and moralizing way) that obscured the crisis that the Enlightenment criticism itself had opened.

Koselleck submitted his thesis for evaluation in October 1953. Not having much expectations of a career in Germany at that time, he went to England, where he worked in a lecturer's chair at the University of Bristol. Next year, Criticism and crisis was defended. For financial reasons, the first publication appeared only in 1959, and by a small publisher. The work, however, is among the most important books of the second half of the XNUMXth century, having been translated into several languages.

Among the most significant contributions of the thesis, the identification of a specific political rationality as a reaction to the emergence of a new temporality stands out. The first chapter – “The political structure of absolutism as a presupposition of the Enlightenment” – described, together with the reading of Hobbes, the process of birth of the absolutist State and the consolidation of the doctrine of “Reason of State” as responses to the religious civil wars that took place. unfolded from the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation.

In this process, the “exclusion” of morality from political repercussions occurred, given that the vassals transferred political activity and responsibility to the sovereign, who needed the accumulation of power to control civil wars and guarantee the existence of the State and the subjects' safety. This is the beginning of the secularization process, in which the State began to assume the central power of organizing social life, putting the role of religion “in the background”.

Individuals, exempt from political responsibility, were reduced to the private space, where a particular morality emerged that operated in a system of secrecy, since the State could not be publicly criticized. It allowed each one to become a “judge” authorized to prosecute and morally evaluate what would be good or bad. The “kingdom of criticism” under which the Enlightenment world was structured was born. The theme was explored from John Locke in the second chapter – “The understanding that the Enlightenment had of themselves and the response to their situation within the absolutist State”.

As the state gained control of civil wars, the reason for its origin and its centrality as a basic force in the organization of political and social life began to lose its value. The “kingdom of criticism”, formerly hidden in the private sphere, was strengthened in the search for a breakdown in the hierarchy between subjects and the sovereign. Royal power came to be considered abusive – there should no longer be subjects or kings, but citizens.

The separation between morals and politics, previously carried out by the State itself, turned against him and the critics questioned the structuring elements of his “reason” such as corruption, violence, power and the estates. After the emergence of the “kingdom of criticism”, the State could no longer exist as it had been constituted until then, despite and free of criticism.

However, in the same way that the absolutist State submitted everything to its reason, the “kingdom of criticism” would have followed a similar path, that is, authoritarian. The third chapter – “Crisis and philosophy of history” – thematized how the bourgeoisie, through the philosophies of history, acquired an original awareness of itself: it saw itself as an educator and representative of a new society that denied the State and the politics built until then. then. It promised the end of violence and domination in the name of freedom and equalization.

The bourgeoisie, by denying the instances under which life was organized, left history open. Other possible paths for humanity to be disputed emerged: the construction of a liberal State, the construction of a socialist State, the construction of a world without a State… Various possibilities appeared and claimed space through the philosophies of history – the world lost its meaning basic general capable of organizing social life, the absolutist State.

Opening up to new possibilities far removed from absolutism was not in itself the problem. The bourgeoisie ensured by the philosophies of history produced a world turned to the public sphere, but the challenges that arose were covered by utopian expectations in the sense that we explained earlier. A future without hierarchies was projected. The “kingdom of criticism”, however, postponed this conquest to the future, postponing the political responsibilities of individuals. Bourgeois criticism, after the denial of the estate order, constituted a society that considered a way of life from which violence and power were in themselves an evil. When absolutism was eradicated, it was believed that kings, power and violence would instantly disappear.

However, the construction of this society in practical terms took place from previously existing order regulation mechanisms that were in their nature authoritarian: the burning of books, the criminalization of enemies, censorship... The violent character of absolutism remained present in the philosophies of history and bourgeois society obscured by them in the name of a utopian expectation with regard to the end of brutality. In this regard, Koselleck's analysis sought to highlight the limits of the notion of “public space”. This performative and agnostic space in which part of the differences would be expressed and disputed only took place in the expectations of the illuminists.

Koselleck attributed the pathogenesis of the bourgeois world to modern utopias that, in the name of reason, of a universal moral judgment to be reached by posterity, harbored the germ of authoritarianism in the XNUMXth century.


History in modernity: in itself and for itself

Criticism and crisis harbored a concern pursued by Koselleck during his intellectual life: the transformation undergone in the experience and understanding of history from the mid-eighteenth century. Previously, history concerned accumulated (and even regional) experiences that were narrated as they could be used in practical life as a safe environment through which certain men could orient themselves. Synthesized in the topos Ciceronian – Magistra Vitae History - the story (History) was a space destined to teach prudence through a repertoire of examples that it was believed possible to repeat.

This mostly practical dimension of History, however, weakened with the appearance of unprecedented events such as the French Revolution. History as a source of exemplarity gave way to history as an autonomous and necessary journey. In German, the change can be most clearly identified in the replacement of the term History by History(history as event and self-narration). It is a phenomenon in which the ancient space of action and human suffering capable of guiding men is reorganized by metanarratives and expectations of new destinations linked to history.

Koselleck, returning critically to Hegel, called this phenomenon the emergence of 'history in and for itself'. There are two complementary consequences that unfold from this phenomenon. The first is that modern history has come to operate as a 'collective singular'. The belief that it would act on the basis of previously given meanings subjected particular experiences to the following ultimatum: each and every event would integrate a telos that co-opted and neutralized difference in the name of a universal expectation. The second consequence is that “history in itself and for itself” would also have absorbed history as a narrative and source of information for practical life (History). This resulted in a fusion of experience and interpretation in which events became dependent on the elaboration of historically given meaning.

The modern experience of history was built, in this way, on the basis of an ambivalence: it was understood as an autonomous subject who could act freely on men, determining their destinies and, at the same time, an object whose activity of interpretation, the discovery of this destiny would be up to man through the philosophies of history and, later, historicisms. The exercises of narrativization and historicization proper to the critical elaboration of history formed the basis of what came to be systematized as the discipline of History and of what was conventionally called “human sciences” in general.

Knowledge, especially historical and philosophical knowledge, was then dedicated to a systematization of teleological interpretations that made events a necessity, obscuring their plurality and contingency. This composition bequeathed to the humanities epistemological paradigms vulnerable to metaphysical structures, which attributed responsibility for social disarrangements to providence. These paradigms and their legacies constitute what Koselleck's work sought to combat.


Koselleck student of Löwith

Koselleck's criticisms of the philosophies of history were decisively influenced by the work of Karl Löwith, who was the second evaluator of Criticism and crisis. Löwith was a student of Husserl in Freiburg, where he also met Heidegger and later became his student at the University of Marburg. In 1934, early in his academic career, he was forced to leave Germany because of anti-Semitic policies. During this period, he lived and taught in Italy, Japan and the United States until he returned to Germany in 1952, with the help of Gadamer, when he took up a chair of Philosophy in Heidelberg.

the sense of history, one of Löwith's main books, had a great impact on Koselleck's formation and it is easy to identify him with regard, especially, to their concern with the birth of modern philosophies of history as a result of the secularization of Judeo-Christian eschatology. Koselleck reported that the time he worked on translating the last three chapters of the book into German was one of the most intense lessons of his life, leading him to investigate secularization along with the emergence of an unprecedented temporal configuration. Löwith's student insisted that secularization was only one aspect of a process of temporalization.

Löwith argued that philosophies of history referred to the systematic interpretation of history as a universal phenomenon. One principle – progress – would unite events and lead them to the realization of human perfection and salvation. This belief postponed facing frustrations through the expectation of perfection as destiny. This is the modern world presented as a result of the secularization of theological principles (Judeo-Christian heritage) applied to historical events (Greek heritage).

The presence of the Judeo-Christian heritage in the conception of modern history vetoed the experimentation of frustration due to the permanent postponement of eschatology (an issue in relation to which Koselleck continued in Criticism and crisis). In an intellectual context that sought explanations for the emergence of totalitarianism and the denial of progressive interpretations, Löwith presented a notion of history as a structure marked by the absence of a solution to suffering and pain: history as an “experience of invariable failure”. There is in this understanding a nostalgia for the idea of ​​the cosmos closer to the ancient world.

The Greeks would be more moderate in their speculations about human destiny, they did not aspire to identify an ultimatum of history and would have had a better relationship with temporal rhythms and oscillations. Koselleck, without echoing his teacher's nostalgia, continued his critical gesture towards modern utopian enthusiasm. But he insisted on a differentiation: the process of secularization, although central to modernity, unfolded from a more radical phenomenon – the crisis of a certain temporality that took shape through a “temporal acceleration”.

* Thamara de Oliveira Rodrigues Professor of History at the State University of Minas Gerais (UEMG).



Reinhart Koselleck: A latent philosophy of time. Organization: Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Thamara de Oliveira Rodrigues. Translation: Luiz Costa Lima. São Paulo, Unesp, 2021, 164 pages.


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