JH: What was the catalyst that led you to occupy yourself with the philosophy of history?
OM: At first the philosophy of history was not my central problem. Some of my favorite books early on were Burckhardt’s World-Historical Meditations and Max Weber’s The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (‘This is how serious scientific works are supposed to look!’). And I had also in my third and fourth semester minored in history. But the central entryway into philosophy was art (architecture, painting: I had at first during my studies painted almost more than I wrote). The decisive philosophy for me was aesthetics; and my interest was quickened by Joachim Ritter’s masterful lectures on that subject. My philosophical area of expertise quickly became German Idealism: Kant, Schiller, Schelling. I came to the philosophy of history, then, in trying to grasp the relationship between aesthetics and reality: that led straightaway to the philosophy of history. György Lukács played an important role after 1950; he moved Marx into my field of view. For awhile around 1954 I held that a philosophy of the history of rejecting the philosophy of history would be advisable. This led to ever harder Difficulties with the Philosophy of History [Schwierigkeiten mit der Geschichtsphilosophie, the title of a book by Marquard: Surkhamp Verlag 1973]. Up to about 1960 the decisive idea was this: the process of the philosophy of history comes out of the process of theodicy, and the autonomous philosophy of history—which established a decisive motif (or motive) within German Idealism—is a secularized theodicy, a theodicy through the death of god. (“Theodicy succeeds, God dies,” so to speak). From then on I have—with ever stronger emphasis on human finitude—increasingly criticized the philosophy of history: ultimately by rejecting the Utopia of a unitary and autonomous history of world-progress and this-worldly redemption, and embracing a philosophical—and a historico-philosophical—pluralism. This rejection of the philosophy of history became concrete after 1968, and it brought me to hold a liberal-conservative political position. It brought me to the idea, which had not in the beginning lay in my field of view, to see something of value in some of the conservatives in the administration: the burden of proof lay on the activists.
JH: Discussing Francis Fukuyama, you have written that the “the portentous end of the philosophy of history” is not the end of history itself, but rather a “turning back in history.” But toward what are we turning back?
OM: Toward history. Toward the vicissitudes of the now-irksome, now-happy experience of contingencies, with a conflictual politics, and if the case is favorable a civil world.
JH: You have been described by some as a thinker who made conservatism in Germany fit for the postmoderns. Or put negatively: you count as an expert of postmodern arbitrariness, which makes you all for a valediction to matters of principle. You sing the praises of polytheism, of diversity and plurality. But at the same time you continually announce another theme: the future requires tradition. What sort of traditions, origins, what sort of pedigree or ancestry do we need, and above all: how can we know what we need?
OM: I’m afraid that shoe doesn’t fit me. In 1986 I wrote an essay, “Against the Postmoderns,” which is included in the opening passages of [Marquard’s book] Aesthetics and Anesthetics, which had the thesis: after the postmodern comes the modern. The postmodern is not an epoch. One must recognize “pluralistic dis/solution” as an old modernist motif, to which the skeptical tradition in moral philosophy and the modern sense of the separation of powers have long contributed. The speculation that the principles of philosophy tend in the direction of an absolute zero-degree is an otherworldly abstraction. We are not looking for an absolute zero-degree (or home position, home base) from which to derive a way of life; rather we are always dallying with different ways of life. We always have before us—in our “living before death”—ways of living, traditions, habituations: this is a completely non-arbitrary situation, which always hangs together with the arbitrariness of our lives. We don’t ‘seek out’ an absolute position for our ways of life, rather in every case arises the question—incompletely, fragmentarily—of whether we should leave behind some part of our way of life in favor of something different. This question—in which we are always historically entangled—is partially critical, not totally so. I approach it from within a bounded swarm of traditions and habitudes. I think that there is in this some kind of multicultural motif: I must live with the traditions and habitudes of others, in as tolerant a way as possible. But we do not have the ability—against all the insecurities that belong to this life—to toy with being wholly arbitrary beings who play with arbitrary traditions. An authentic or proper provenience is not indeterminate and undetermined but rather—insecurities and dangers notwithstanding—a specific one. My heritage or point of departures is the liberal-civic tradition that comes from antiquity (Aristotle above all), Christianity (with a slight Protestant bent), the conciliating form of Enlightenment, the skeptical tradition of moral philosophy. And we come to know this, what we need, not through comfortable aprioris, but rather through life experience.
[The next question deals more with Marquard’s teacher Joachim Ritter, and M’s politics. If you haven’t caught on yet, he’s fairly conservative. Ritter is an interesting writer on subjects touching philosophy of history].
JH: Aside from your being a fellow-traveler of the liberal-conservatives, you are often counted as a skeptic. On this point: does skepticism not become wearisome if the enemy to be dealt with has already come and gone, if there is no grand plan anymore against which a person can offer their arguments, when there remains only agreement, affirmation, and apology for western civilization? Or, to put this another way: where does the normative lie, Prof. Marquard?
OM: My self-identification as a skeptic (first of all, call it an ‘intermittent skepticism’) is older than my opposition to the philosophy of history and the ‘grand narrative’. At first, the skeptical method was just a philosophical theme, but later I came—especially strongly in the area of moralistics—to actually carry it out. Naturally the background of my skepticism is the trauma of national socialism: in the clarity of hindsight, I have put my fears and outrage and irritation upon the certainty of philosophical positions; I also belong to the ’skeptical generation’ (Schelsky). As a teacher and author I hate to present myself as some kind of missionary. Nor am I a missionary for skepticism. Even so, I am against the description of my form of skepticism as overly affirmative and too apologetic. I believe that it at least belongs to skepticism to break up the suppression of positivity and to overturn and transgress the idea that affirmation should be forbidden. We human beings are far too fragile to have the ability to peer into the “rosy cross of the present” (Hegel). […] My defense mechanisms absolve me not through philosophy, but through sleeping soundly: I am a denier of denialism, I take a negative view of the negative. The normative is before all else the small: the smaller the affirmation, the harder is it to mount a grand, heroic denial.