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History and Theory 49 (May 2010), 212-236 Wesleyan University 2010 ISSN: 0018-2656

KoSellecK, AreNdt, ANd the

ANthropology of hIStorIcAl experIeNce
StefAN-lUdWIg hoffMANN
This essay is the frst attempt to compare Reinhart Kosellecks Historik with hannah Ar-
endts political anthropology and her critique of the modern concept of history. Koselleck
is well-known for his work on conceptual history as well as for his theory of historical
time(s). It is my contention that these different projects are bound together by Kosellecks
Historik, that is, his theory of possible histories. This can be shown through an examina-
tion of his writings from Critique and Crisis to his fnal essays on historical anthropology,
most of which have not yet been translated into English. Conversely, Arendts political
theory has in recent years been the subject of numerous interpretations that do not take
into account her views about history. By comparing the anthropological categories found
in Kosellecks Historik with Arendts political anthropology, I identify similar intellectual
lineages in them (Heidegger, Lwith, Schmitt) as well as shared political sentiments, in
particular the anti-totalitarian impulse of the postwar era. More importantly, Kosellecks
theory of the preconditions of possible histories and Arendts theory of the preconditions
of the political, I argue, transcend these lineages and sentiments by providing essential
categories for the analysis of historical experience.
Keywords: Reinhart Koselleck, Hannah Arendt, anthropology, experience, conceptual his-
tory, political theory
When we, the university students of 1951, passionately took up the assignment to
think, then this thinking at the end of radical catastrophes had to be radical as well.
Ivan Nagel
The intellectual fascination that Reinhart Kosellecks writings exert, and that
place him among the great historians of the past century, can be traced to his
understanding of the difference between language and history. History is always
more than language can grasp, and concepts always contain more than what oc-
curs historicallyit is around the distinction of language and history that the
empirical works of Kosellecks conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte) revolve.
Kosellecks own writing style refected this insight. The metaphors that he coined
gained currency because of their suggestive surplus: the Sattelzeit, for the century
of nascent modernity between 1750 and 1850; Erwartungshorizont and Erfah-
1. Ivan Nagel, Der Kritiker der Krise: ber den Historiker Reinhart Koselleck, Neue Zrcher
Zeitung (January 8-9, 2005).
the ANthropology of hIStorIcAl experIeNce
rungsraum, for the widening gap between the utopian promise and the space of
experience so typical for this period; or Zeitschichten, for the different layers of
time and experience that accrue in every historical concept. For Koselleck, con-
ceptual history was more than merely philosophy for historians, and he rejected
resolutely the arguments of intellectual compatriots such as Hans-Georg Gadam-
er, Hayden White, and Paul Ricoeur that historical sources and the rules of their
interpretation were indistinguishable from, for instance, literary texts. Koselleck
not only organized and edited the seven volumes of Geschichtliche Grundbe-
griffe, the most important postwar German lexicon in the humanities (next to
the Historisches Wrterbuch der Philosophie); conceptual history as a historical
method is inextricably tied to his name.
For Koselleck, however, conceptual history was always only the path and never
the goal of his historical thinking. At the center of his thought, I will argue, stood
rather the attempt to outline a theory of the conditions of possible histories, what
Koselleck called a Historik. Since his time as an assistant professor in Heidelberg
during the 1950s, he had refected about such a Historik as a fundamental theory
of historical writingand conceptual history was, as he himself wrote, only a
kind of propaedeutic for this.
For Koselleck, linguistic sources always referred
to a world beyond the text, to the anthropological, pre-linguistic conditions of
historical experiences, which possessed their own repetition structures. These ex-
periences are indeed linguistically shaped, but not exclusively so. They occur re-
peatedly in novel and unique forms, and generate new histories (Geschichten). In
order to grasp how such histories arise, historiography requires a kind of theoreti-
cal prehension that goes beyond historical epistemology as it has been conceived
since Droysen.
Koselleck never brought these refections together into a unifed theory. His col-
lection of essays (Zeitschichten) did bear the subtitle Studies on Historik. But
he was unable to complete a systematic treatise on his theory of history, which he
talked about as much as his planned study on the modern iconography of violent
death, before his own death in 2006. This is not, however, necessarily disadvanta-
geous, as Hans Blumenberg has suggested in a different context: One can defne
correctly and boringly what a theory is, but it cannot then make do or survive
without that which it has received through defnitions. More can be learned from
perception and free variation, which allow the central core to emerge.
his habilitation thesis Preuen zwischen Reform und Revolution (Prussia between
Reform and Revolution), published in 1967, and a short volume for the Fischer
Verlags world history series on the age of European revolutions between 1780
and 1848 (written together with Franois Furet and published in 1968), Koselleck
dedicated himself to the laborious work of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe lexi-
con and recorded his refections solely in a series of pointed essays, perhaps the
2. Reinhart Koselleck, Space of Experience and Horizon of Expectation: Two Historical
Categories, in Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, transl. Keith Tribe (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1983), 256. Recent accounts of Kosellecks writings include the dis-
sertation by Niklas Olsen, Beyond Utopianism and Relativism: History in the Plural in the Work
of Reinhart Koselleck (Florence: European University Institute, 2009), and Begriffene Geschichte:
Beitrge zum Werk Reinhart Kosellecks, ed. H. Joas and P. Vogt (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2010).
3. Hans Blumenberg, Begriffe in Geschichten (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1998), 193.
StefAN-lUdWIg hoffMANN
form of writing most suited to his theorizing. These essayscomposed primarily
on the basis of invitations and tributes that Koselleck began to receive in the early
1970s, and which increased after he became an emeritus professor in Bielefeld in
1988 and accepted guest professorships in New York, Chicago, and Parismake
evident the contours of his Historik.
The thematic range of these essays is breathtaking. Kosellecks unique theoreti-
cal approach allowed him to explore early on questions that his fellow historians
would begin to discover only years later in the wake of yet another turn in his-
torical writing. Whether concerned with the temporal and spatial conditions of hu-
man experience; the workings of historiography, memory, and dreams; the legal
and political theory of civil society; or the iconology of violent death, Koselleck
connected semantic and iconological fndings with his historical anthropology
in new and original ways. In these essays we can discern the conceptual histo-
rian Reinhart Koselleck, who went far beyond Begriffsgeschichte as a historical
It may appear surprising at frst glance that the best-known German conceptual
historian investigated the prelinguistic and extralinguistic conditions of historical
experience. Furthermore, the politically existential tone of Kosellecks historical
anthropology, shaped in the fnal throes of the catastrophic upheavals of the frst
half of the twentieth century, has confused readers who came of age intellectually
during the stolid, uneventful years of the old Federal Republic of Germany. This
made the reception of Kosellecks work more diffcult. In any case, his Histo-
rikin contrast to his methodological refections on conceptual history and his
theory of historical timeshas been largely ignored.
In this essay, I will initially outline how Koselleck sought to work out the basis
for a theory of the metahistorical conditions of possible histories (not history)
in repeatedly new attempts and variations over the course of three decades. Only
by bringing the refections on his Historik in these diverse articles together is it
possible to develop further reference points and questions. Second, I will examine
the substantive proximity between Kosellecks theoretical refections and Hannah
Arendts political anthropology and her critique of the modern concept of history.
This comparison with Arendt is intended to illuminate the political valences of
Kosellecks Historik. Finally, I attempt to demonstrate that the relative proximity
of Kosellecks and Arendts refections on the anthropological conditions of hu-
man action and suffering and the histories emerging from them can be explained
not only through a shared starting pointMartin Heideggers analysis of Dasein
or existence, and a critique of the philosophy of history. Rather, Kosellecks and
Arendts historical anthropologies are grounded in their existential understand-
ing of the political in the wake of the catastrophic experiences of the 1940s. It
is this consciousness of living in an unprecedented present that induced Arendt
and Koselleckonly apparently paradoxicallyto investigate repetition struc-
tures in history. Their own experiences of rupture led both of them to a radicality
of thought, something that constituted the point of departure for their respective
anthropologies of historical experience.
the ANthropology of hIStorIcAl experIeNce
The call for a novel theory of history can already be found in Kosellecks frst
published texts. In a 1961 review of works on the theory and methodology of
historiography entitled Im Vorfeld einer neuen Historik (In the Forefeld of a
New Historik), Koselleck wrote apodictically: The elemental intrusion of politi-
cal eventsand thereby also of philosophical and religious issuespushes his-
toriography anew to review its foundations, that is, to revise uncritically accepted
For Koselleck these questionable presuppositions included the
concept of history itself. Not only a revision of the view of history is necessary,
Koselleck continued, but also a critique of the historical conditions of historicism
and the philosophy of history, both of which are implicated in the emergence
of the crisis of the political. A new Historik, he argued, must react theoretically
to this crisis. Already in his dissertation Critique and Crisis (submitted to the
University of Heidelberg in 1954), Koselleck had traced the emergence of the
philosophy of historysomething that had detached itself from concrete political
experiences and had established a utopian horizon of expectationsback to the
enlightened sociability of Masonic lodges and secret societies.
Freedom in se-
cret became the secret of freedom: this sentence, which referred to the disjuncture
of political and moral authority on the eve of the French Revolution, contained
in nuce Kosellecks thesis in Critique and Crisis. Like Tocqueville, he viewed
the moral utopianism of the Enlightenment as dangerously dissociated from the
political realm proper. Masonic lodges and their cult of secrecy embodied moral
critique in novel social spaces beyond state politics. This critique, untarnished
by the realities of political confict, eventually led to a crisis of the political and
to its replacement by morality and history. In the political constellations of the
eighteenth century Koselleck believed he had discovered the genealogy of the du-
alistic worldview of the Cold War. In their utopian self-conceptions, both the East
and the West invoked the force of history, which could, if necessary, be helped
along by violence. As Jrgen Habermas noted in a review at the time, the political
anthropology underlying Critique and Crisis was never explicitly thematized in
the book, despite the fact that it determined all of the studys questions and, at the
same time, obstructed a number of its answers.
The pessimistic tone of Critique and Crisis disappeared in Kosellecks writing
in the 1960s. Instead, he concentrated on the questions the book had raised in
methodological and theoretical terms. Within the ambit of refections on the Ge-
schichtliche Grundbegriffe lexicon among the Heidelberg study group for mod-
4. Reinhart Koselleck, Im Vorfeld einer neuen Historik, Neue Politische Literatur 6 (1961), 577.
5. Reinhart Koselleck, Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988). The original dissertation of 1954 had the more precise subtitle:
Eine Untersuchung der politischen Funktion des dualistischen Weltbildes im 18. Jahrhundert (An
Investigation into the Political Function of the Dualistic World View in the Eighteenth Century).
6. Jrgen Habermas, Verrufener Fortschrittverkanntes Jahrhundert: Zur Kritik an der
Geschichtsphilosophie, Merkur 14 (1960), 468-477.
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ern social history, as well as his own work on his habilitation thesis, Kosellecks
thought focused in the 1960s and early 1970s on a methodological grounding
of conceptual history in close association with the social history propagated by
Werner Conze. The historical categories of temporalization, politicization,
democratization, and capacity to become ideological that Koselleck devel-
oped there incorporated his previous critique of the collective singulars coined
between 1750 and 1850: in the Sattelzeit, concrete histories came to be conceived
as history; individual progress in particular domains became progress itself,
and so on.
Only with his work on the founding committee of the reform university in
Bielefeld in the late 1960s, and then with his appointment as a member of the
history department there, did Koselleck return to his call for a new Historik. In a
programmatic text in 1972, one year before his offcial appointment at the Uni-
versity of Bielefeld, he summarized from his own perspective the reform goals of
the new history department. Against a historical social theory based on sociology
(for example, the program of the historical social sciences or the history of
society), Koselleck wrote that an as yet unveiled Historik aims at a metahistory
that investigates not movement but mobility, not change in the concrete sense but
This, he argued, requires a historical anthropology that focuses
on the metahistorical conditions of possible histories:
There are many similar formal criteria concerning historical acting and suffering, which
are basically timeless across history and serve to unlock history. I am thinking of such
criteria as: master and servant; friend and foe; the heterogony of purposes; the shift-
ing relations of time and space with regard to units of action and potential power; and the
anthropological substratum for generational change in politics. The list of such categories
could be extended; they refer to the fnitude that sets history in motion, so to speak, without
capturing in any way the content or direction of such movements.

Kosellecks newly established professorship in Bielefeld bore the programmatic
title: Chair for Universal History with a Focus on Historik.
In the early 1970s, history as a discipline became a subject of debate. Against
the tendency to incorporate it into the social sciences, Koselleck fundamentally
reformulated the theoretical claims of the discipline. Already in Wozu noch His-
torie? (Why Still History?), the concluding lecture at the convention of German
historians in Cologne in 1970, Koselleck raised this question and then offered
his own response. Instead of merely borrowing theory from sociology, history,
he argued, had to determine categorically what constituted its specifc object of
study: Only the temporal structures, and that means the structures inherent in the
7. Reinhart Koselleck, Introduction, in Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, vol. 1 (Stuttgart: Klett,
1972), xvii; Koselleck, Geschichte, Historie, chap. 1, v-vii, in Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, vol.
2 (Stuttgart: Klett, 1975), 593-595, 647-718; Koselleck, Fortschritt, chap. 1, iii-vii, in ibid., 351-
353, 363-423. See Jan Marco Sawilla, Geschichte: Ein Produkt der deutschen Aufklrung? Eine
Kritik an Reinhart Kosellecks Begriff des Kollektivsingulars Geschichte, Zeitschrift fr historische
Forschung 31 (2004), 381-428.
8. Reinhart Koselleck, ber die Theoriebedrftigkeit der Geschichtswissenschaft, in
Zeitschichten: Studien zur Historik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2000), 299-300.
9. Reinhart Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts,
transl. Todd Samuel Presner et al. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 2-3.
the ANthropology of hIStorIcAl experIeNce
context of events or in any case demonstrable in them, can adequately order the
historical space of experience as a separate domain of researchthus Kosellecks
plea for a theory of historical times. The form of history in general, and thereby
the histories made visible through it, is its specifc temporality (Zeitlichkeit).
the same time, Koselleck also pointed to the urgency of a historical anthropology,
which he believed to have been recognized, for instance, by Foucault. Only in this
way, he argued, is it possible to investigate something like the order of terror in
concentration camps.

Koselleck unfolded these theoretical issues in a number of essays that exam-
ined empirical fndings spanning from antiquity to the present. In Terror and
Dream (originally published in 1971),
for instance, he showed how the indi-
vidual dreams from the early years of the Third Reich collected by Charlotte Be-
radt testifed not only to the shock-like occurrence of terror, but also constituted
prelinguistically formed modes of enacting terror. This, he thought, undermined
anthropologically the traditional separation between res fctae and res factae, fc-
tion and historical reality. In another classic essay The Historical-Political Se-
mantics of Asymmetrical Counterconcepts,
Koselleck developed the thesis that
since antiquity political entities have always been constituted and negated through
concepts of inclusion and exclusion. According to Koselleck, who drew here from
Carl Schmitt, concrete fndings about the semantics of conceptual pairs such as
Greek and barbarian, Christian and heathen, human and non-human, or superhu-
man and subhuman, presuppose the formal basic structure of friend and enemy.
Kosellecks attempt at an anthropologically grounded Historik becomes par-
ticularly clear in his essay Space of Experience and Horizon of Expectation:
Two Historical Categories, which was also originally published in the mid-1970s.
Experience and expectations break apart in modernity: this was Kosellecks thesis
in Critique and Crisis stripped of its polemical barb. The concrete experience
incorporated into the conceptual frame of expectations continually decreased,
whereas horizons of expectations increasingly expanded. The lesser the expe-
riential substance, the greater the expectations joined to it: this is a formula for
the temporal structure of the modern, to the degree that it is rendered a concept
by progress.
Kosellecks theoretical conclusion was that precisely the ten-
sion between these two formal categories made possible the empirical analysis of
historical times:
The formal prospect of deciphering history in its generality by means of this polarity can
only intend the outlining and establishment of the conditions of possible histories, and not
this history itself. This then is a matter of epistemological categories which assist in the
foundation of the possibility of a history. Put differently, there is no history which could
10. Reinhart Koselleck, Wozu noch Historie? in ber das Studium der Geschichte, ed. W.
Hardtwig (Munich: dtv, 1990), 363, 365.
11. See the Bielefeld dissertation written by a student of Koselleck: Falk Pingel, Hftlinge unter
SS-Herrschaft: Widerstand, Selbstbehauptung und Vernichtung im Konzentrationslager (Hamburg:
Hoffmann und Campe, 1978).
12. Reinhart Koselleck, Terror and Dream: Methodological Remarks on the Experience of Time
during the Third Reich, in Futures Past, 205-221.
13. Reinhart Koselleck, The Historical-Political Semantics of Asymmetrical Counterconcepts,
in Futures Past, 155-191.
14. Koselleck, Space of Experience and Horizon of Expectation, in Futures Past, 274.
StefAN-lUdWIg hoffMANN
be constituted independently of the experiences and expectations of active human agents.
With this, however, nothing is yet said about a given concrete past, present, or future his-
tory. This formalistic property is shared by our concepts with numerous other terms in
historical science.

According to Koselleck, these include the categorical distinction between mas-
ter and slave, or friend and enemy, to which we will return in a moment. Later in
the essay he wrote:
Accordingly, these two categories are indicative of a general human condition; one could
say that they indicate an anthropological condition without which history is neither pos-
sible nor conceivable. . . . The conditions of possibility of real history are, at the same
time, conditions of its cognition. Hope and memory, or expressed more generally, expecta-
tion and experiencefor expectation comprehends more than hope, and experience goes
deeper than memorysimultaneously constitute history and its cognition. . . . [E]xperience
and expectation are two categories appropriate for the treatment of historical time because
of the way that they embody past and future.
Even if the collection of essays Futures Past (originally published in German
in 1979), which contains these texts, is dedicated to the Semantics of Historical
Time, the idea of a Historik outlining the conditions of historical experience
was already evident there as well, exemplifed on the basis of two concepts from
the theory of historical times. At the end of the essay Space of Experience and
Horizon of Expectation, which is also the fnal chapter of the book, Koselleck
formulated the issue quite clearly:
It is evident that experiences can only be accumulated because they areas experiences
repeatable. There must then exist long-term formal structures in history which allow the
repeated accumulation of experience. . . . History is only able to recognize what continually
changes, and what is new, if it has access to the conventions within which lasting structures
are concealed. These too must be discovered and investigated if historical experience is to
be transformed into historical science.
It was the exploratory search for such categories of a theory of the conditions of
possible historieshis Historikthat would become Kosellecks primary focus
from this point on.
Thus my frst preliminary conclusion is that claims of an anthropological turn
in Kosellecks theoretical writings in the 1980s seem exaggerated.
rather, what
is surprising in retrospect is how consistently Koselleck pursued the questions
he had previously formulated, and in doing so he modifed his theoretical refec-
tions in repeatedly new attempts beginning in the early 1970s. Hence, the volume
Zeitschichten (2002), which he was still able to put together himself, was a collec-
tion of his studies on the Historik written over the course of three decades.
The theory of historical time, conceptual history, and refection on the Historik
are thus more closely related than might have initially appeared. It was only on the
occasion of a colloquium in honor of Hans-Georg Gadamer that Koselleck sought
15. Ibid., 256.
16. Ibid., 257-258.
17. Ibid., 275.
18. Kari Palonen, Die Entzauberung der Begriffe: Das Umschreiben der politischen Begriffe bei
Quentin Skinner und Reinhart Koselleck (Mnster: LIT, 2004), 307.
the ANthropology of hIStorIcAl experIeNce
to develop the categories of his Historik more systematically. In his contribution
to the Gadamer Festschrift entitled Historik und Hermeneutik (1985), as well as
in several later essays that further modifed his theoretical refections, Koselleck
formulated more precisely his own historical-anthropological approach. After
both the totalizing explanatory claims of philosophies of history and the optimism
of the social sciences had become historically obsolete, Koselleck sought in the
1980s and 1990s to sharply distinguish his own theoretical approach from philo-
sophical hermeneutics as well as from the linguistic turn in the humanities.
Are the conditions of possible history exhausted in language and texts? Or
are there conditions that are extralinguistic or prelinguistic, even when they are
sought linguistically? This was Kosellecks initial question in attempting to de-
lineate the difference between Historik and hermeneutics. If there are such pre-
suppositions of history that are neither exhausted in language nor refer to texts,
then the Historik must have an epistemological status that cannot be treated as
a subclass of hermeneutics. This was the thesis that Koselleck opposed to his
teacher Gadamer.
As a theoretical science Historik, in contrast to empirical history, is not concerned with
histories themselves, whose past, present, and perhaps future realities are thematized and
investigated by historians. Historik is rather the doctrine of the conditions of possible histo-
ries. It investigates the theoretically necessary parameters that make comprehensible why
histories occur, how they can take place, as well as why and how they must be investigated,
represented, or narrated.
For Koselleck, an irreducible difference existed between past reality and its lin-
guistic comprehension. It was this difference that distinguished history from other
scholarly disciplines. His essay, Linguistic Change and the History of Events,
attempted to defne this distinction more precisely in theoretical terms, identifying
the different temporal structures that are incorporated into events and that give
rise to them. Events, in the course of occurring, have a different mode of existence
from language, which is spoken before, during, or afterward, Koselleck argued,
taking up his refections from Terror and Dream. Between language and ac-
tionand, one might also say, between language and passionthere remains a
difference, even if language is an act of speech, and even if action and passion
are mediated by language.
Though the structures of possible action continue to
be present only in their linguistic form, [n]evertheless, these elementary, natural
givens remain, however much language may seek to efface them.
This talk of elementary, natural givens aimed neither at a metaphysical determi-
nation of human nature nor at a Nietzschean eternal recurrence. Rather, Koselleck
was searching for repetition structures that occurred historically in ever new and
different forms. Every action, Koselleck wrote in the introduction to Zeitsch-
ichten, and every unique constellation carried out or endured by equally unique
19. Reinhart Koselleck, Historik und Hermeneutik, in Zeitschichten: Studien zur Historik
(Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2000), 99. See also the review of Zeitschichten by John Zammito, Kosellecks
Philosophy of Historical Time(s) and the Practice of History, History and Theory 43 (2004), 124-
20. Reinhart Koselleck, Linguistic Change and the History of Events, Journal of Modern History
61 (1989), 650.
21. Ibid., 652.
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and particular humans always contains repeating time layers. These make pos-
sible, condition, and delimit opportunities for human action and simultaneously
unleash them. . . . The presupposition of all individual cases is contained in their
And Was sich wiederholt (That Which Repeats), the fnal text
published during Kosellecks life, contained the thesis
that everything unique in spoken language and in lived history is neither conceivable nor
possible without repetition structures. . . . Thus we have not abandoned, but only amended
our statement that every utterance and every action is irreversible and unique. These are
repetition structures, which store within themselves diachronic presuppositions and syn-
chronic conditions in order to unleash and delimit unique surprises.

Among his different versions and variations of this theme, there were in par-
ticular three anthropological distinctions that prescribed for Koselleck the basic
figures of all possible histories: sooner or later; inside and outside; and above
and below.
Sooner or Later. The frst of these distinctions is the span between sooner or
later, being born and having to die, which makes every life unique and at the same
time part of a generational experience. For Koselleck, the temporal dimension of
human experience is ineluctable; and the reference here to his previously devel-
oped categories space of experience and horizon of expectation is evident.
Koselleck now refers even more directly to Heideggers analysis of existence
(Dasein) and his categories of thrownness (Geworfenheit) and the anticipation of
death and having to die, but also supplements these with the possibility of dying a
violent death. Whatever historical manifestations are thematized over the course
of time in order to investigate the shapes of possible wars and possible peaces
and their arts and their commonalities: Without the capacity to violently shorten
the time span of others life possibilities there would not be the histories that we
all know.
Generativity as a biological parameter of human nature also includes
sexualitywhich encompasses relations between parents and children, and, more
generally, between generations, relations that simultaneously underscore the fact
that historical experience is not directly transferable from one generation to the
Inside and Outside. Second, all possible histories cannot escape the distinc-
tion between inside and outside, or, in the terminology of Carl Schmitt, between
friend and enemy. Here Koselleck drew upon his sharp critique in Critique and
Crisis of the hypocrisies of the Enlightenment, as well as in his essay on asym-
metrical counterconcepts. Enlightened universalism claims to be able to bridge
the boundary between inside and outside through the introduction of the concept
of humanity in the political realm, but this, Koselleck insisted, only intensifes the
boundary even more: political opponents are now excluded semantically from hu-
manity and become non-humans. What interests Koselleck here even more than
this political insight derived from Schmitt is the formal structure upon which it is
based. Plurality, as the fundamental condition of human action, means in political
22. Reinhart Koselleck, Introduction, in Zeitschichten, 13.
23. Reinhart Koselleck, Was sich wiederholt, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (July 21, 2005).
24. Koselleck, Historik und Hermeneutik, 102.
25. Ibid., 107.
the ANthropology of hIStorIcAl experIeNce
terms that an inside and an outside are always established. All humans are fellow
humans, but in historical terms in quite different ways:

Whether in actual history Greeks fought barbarians or Greeks fought Greeks, whether
Christians and heathens fought each other or Christians fought among themselves, whether
the modern units of action have constituted themselves in the name of humanity and com-
bated their opponents as non-humans, or whether the units of actions have comprehended
themselves as the class subject in order to eliminate the existence of classesempirical
extension in its diachronic succession always presupposes the oppositional pair of friend
and enemy. In categorical terms, this is a formal opposition open to any and all substantive
content and is thus a kind of transcendental category of possible histories.
In Historik und Hermeneutik, Koselleck still included the opposition between
the public and the private as part of the insideoutside opposition. However, this
distinction no longer appeared in his later texts, though they did include the dis-
tinction between victors and vanquished as a form of the insideoutside relation.

Moreover, in his later texts Koselleck also differentiated this formal distinction
in terms of confict theory. Now not only the demarcation of political entities (in
extreme cases, enmity), but also the transgression of boundaries became part of
the insideoutside relation:
Without contacts and contrasts, without conficts and compromises, without consensus-
building processes of this or that kind, no community of action could exist or survive, at
least in our complex society. . . . These innerouter demarcations necessary for life become
threatening only when contacts are blocked and compromises are obstructed, when con-
sensus-building processes only serve one-sidedly to fuel confict, to incite civil wars, to
engage in warfare, and to unleash mass murder.
Above and Below. Finally, Koselleck believed that the distinction between
above and below, master and slave as Hegel and Marx had called it, runs through
all social relations in history. This does not mean that freedom and equality are
unobtainable in the course of human history. Social hierarchies, however, will
always be established anew. This is also true, according to the political turn in
Kosellecks historical anthropology, for all attempts to establish equality through
force: Every revolution that has altered power relations in violent ways has led
to the establishment of new power relations. The legitimation may be new; the
legal relations may be different, perhaps ever better; but the return to reorganized
and legally regulated forms of dependence, or the abovebelow relation itself, has
never been changed by this in any way.
In his last published text Koselleck identifed these three formal distinctions as
the basis of his historical anthropology, but also supplemented them with three ad-
ditional categories: the geographical and climatic preconditions that, independent
of humans, make their lives possible; the institutions that establish the exclusively
human-generated conditions of possible histories, for instance, work and law; and
26. Ibid., 104.
27. Ibid., 103.
28. Koselleck, Linguistic Change.
29. Reinhart Koselleck, Feindbegriffe, in Begriffsgeschichten: Studien zur Semantik und
Pragmatik der politischen und sozialen Sprache (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2006), 274.
30. Koselleck, Historik und Hermeneutik, 109.
StefAN-lUdWIg hoffMANN
fnally, the occurrences themselves, which contain their own repetition structures,
as indicated by the concept of revolution.
Kosellecks intention here was not to reduce all human action to these basic an-
thropological conditions (thus his emphasis on possible, not necessary, histories).
Nor did he deny that these conditions could be determined only through their
expression in language (conceptual history was for him the method of empirically
verifying his theoretical categories).
On the contrary, Koselleck believed that
the function of his Historik was to theoretically incorporate historical experience
in such a way that it became useful for future political action as well as for prog-
nostic reasoning, an issue to which we will return later. This also marked a crucial
distinction from Heideggers philosophy, which had provided essential impulses
for Kosellecks Historik, especially the fundamental question raised in chapter 5
of Being and Time about the temporality and historicality of existence. In con-
trast to Heidegger, Koselleck regarded the plurality (Lwiths being-with-one-
another) and the confict potential of humans to be part of the basic structures of
possible histories.
Koselleck readily conceded that in his Historik he had utilized components of
political theory from antiquity to Carl Schmitt. It would certainly be possible to
trace hermeneutically the genealogies of his historical theories. This would not
mean, however, that Kosellecks Historik did not describe the structures of pos-
sibility to which every doctrine of understanding can only react, as he countered
to Gadamer. The Historik, according to Koselleck, aims at disclosing theoretically
how histories can concretely emerge at all:
The general formal determinations of inner and outer, above and below, earlier or later, and
also the concrete determination of friend and enemy, of generativity, of master and slave,
and of the public sphere and the private are always categorical determinations that aim
at ways of being, which must indeed be mediated by language but are not substantively
exhausted in this mediation; rather they are also something independent. Thus these are
categories that aim at a way of being of possible history, which frst provoke something like
understanding and comprehension.
Only in this way, Koselleck argued, can historians achieve a rational ordering
from the chaos of historical fndings and also maintain a concept of truth, which
frst makes history a branch of scholarship at all. History itself, if we accept this
ideology-laden term, is irrationalrational is at most its analysis.

Even more than other scholarly disciplines based on textual exegesis, history,
Koselleck argued, must measure the difference between past reality and language,
even if this reality is itself only constituted in language:
The things which, in the framework of the givens I have named, have gathered themselves
up into reality are more than can be mastered by language. When the fuctuating distinc-
tion between inner and outer hardens into the passionate confict between friend and
foe, when the inevitability of death is preempted by killing or by self-sacrifce, when the
31. Koselleck, Was sich wiederholt.
32. For a different reading, see Angelika Epple, Natura Magistra Historiae? Reinhart Kosellecks
transzendentale Historik, Geschichte und Gesellschaft 32 (2006), 201-213.
33. Koselleck, Historik und Hermeneutik, 101.
34. Ibid., 113.
35. Ibid.
the ANthropology of hIStorIcAl experIeNce
relation between above and below leads to enslavement and permanent subjugation or
to exploitation and class struggle, or when the tension between the sexes leads to degrada-
tionin all these cases there will then occur events, or chains of events, or even cataracts
of events, which are beyond the pale of language, and to which all words, all sentences, all
speech can only react.
Koselleck demonstrated in his own works how empirically productive the oppo-
sitional pairs he considered categorical were for historical analysisfor instance,
by examining of the political semantics of nation and people, the memory
and experiences of the two world wars, or the iconography of death in the age of
He showed this particularly clearly through the example of histori-
ography itself. The conditions of possible histories also prescribe the possibilities
of historical analysis or narration. These conditions are crucial for the perspective
of a historian, Koselleck argued, no matter whether he or she is contemporary or
born later and thus an eyewitness or a retrospective narrator of events, whether
he or she is situated higher or lower in social or political terms, whether affliat-
ed with the winners or losers, or whether he belongs to the political, religious,
social, or economic entity whose history he portrays, identifying himself more or
less critically with it, or whether he is looking on from outside.
Only after Koselleck had identifed the categorical oppositional pairs of his His-
torik did he discover a similar anthropology of historical experience in Goethes
Farbenlehre (Theory of Colors): With light poise and counterpoise, nature oscil-
lates within her prescribed limits, yet thus arrives at one side and the other, at an
above and below, at a before and after, through which all the varieties and condi-
tions of the phenomena are presented to us in space and time.
Koselleck under-
stood his theory of the conditions of possible histories as consciously untimely,
removed from the scholarly fashions of his era, which often lagged behind his
own methodological innovations. In this, connections can be drawn most readily
to Karl Lwiths philosophical anthropology (and his critique of modern histori-
cal thought
), and above all to a political thinker who, like Koselleck, strove for
histories in the plural and against history in the singular: Hannah Arendt.
36. Koselleck, Linguistic Change, 652.
37. Reinhart Koselleck, Volk, Nation, Nationalismus, Masse, in Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe,
vol. 7 (1992), 142-151, 380-431; on the political semantics of abovebelow and innerouter see,
for example, Erinnerungsschleusen und Erfahrungsschichten: Der Einflu der beiden Weltkriege
auf das soziale Bewutsein, in Zeitschichten, 266-272; and, through the example of political ico-
nography: Introduction, in Der Politische Totenkult: Kriegerdenkmler in der Moderne, ed. R.
Koselleck and M. Jeismann (Munich: Fink, 1994), 9-20; Kriegerdenkmler als Identittsstiftung
der berlebenden, in Identitt, ed. K. Stierle and O. Marquardt (Munich: Fink, 1979), 255-276;
Zur politischen Ikonologie des gewaltsamen Todes: Ein deutsch-franzsischer Vergleich (basel:
Schwabe, 1998).
38. Koselleck, Linguistic Change, 662. Koselleck has developed this argument in more detail in
Transformations of Experience and Methodological Change: A Historical-Anthropological Essay,
in The Practice of Conceptual History, 76-83.
39. Zur Farbenlehre, in Smtliche Werke, vol. 23/I, 613, cited in Reinhart Koselleck, Goethes
unzeitgeme Geschichte (Heidelberg: Manutius, 1997), 26. The English edition, Theory of Colours,
transl. Charles L. Eastlake (London: John Murray, 1840), xxxviii-xxxix, contains a shortened version
of this sentence that omits the conceptual pairs.
40. Karl Lwith, Meaning in History (London: University of Chicago Press, 1949), as well as
his essays from the 1950s in Der Mensch inmitten der Geschichte: Philosophische Bilanz des 20.
Jahrhunderts, ed. B. Lutz (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1990).
41. Jacob Taubes coined this formulation with regard to Koselleck in Geschichtsphilosophie und
StefAN-lUdWIg hoffMANN
Explicit references to Arendt are rare in Kosellecks work. When she is men-
tioned, it is usually in connection with other liberal, anti-totalitarian thinkers of
the postwar era such as Raymond Aron, to whom Koselleck felt politically close.
Still, in 1956, a year after the German publication of Arendts book on totalitari-
anism, Koselleck invited her to Heidelberg to give a lecture. Although few col-
leagues attended, many students, as he later recalled, came to the lecture and
discussed the issue enthusiastically with Arendt deep into the night. For Koselleck
and other Heidelberg students who had returned from the Nazi war in the East or
the Soviet gulags, Arendts study of totalitarianism represented an important dis-
covery: Heidegger and Lukcs, Kojve and Jaspers still operated in the run-up to
the catastrophe. This was not the case with Arendt.
There are, conversely, no in-
dications that Arendt ever read Critique and Crisis. The points of contact between
Kosellecks Historik and Arendts political anthropology, which I will examine
more closely in this section, can be explained less from the mutual reception of
each others works than from a shared theoretical starting point: Heideggers anal-
ysis of Dasein, and a critique of the concept of history oriented around modern,
anonymous social structures and processes, whether in the form of the Marxist
philosophy of history or the American social sciences of the postwar era.
For Arendt as well as Koselleck, history possessed no telos and no reason, but
rather was, according to a dictum by Goethe that she noted in her Denktagebuch
(Thinking Diary), no more than a mixture of error and violence.
Like Ko-
selleck, Arendt used Heideggers thought to go beyond Heidegger.
The same
also holds for Carl Schmitts infuence, as recent investigations have demonstrat-
Another shared point of contact, although less infuential for Kosellecks
Historik: Bemerkungen zu Kosellecks Programm einer neuen Historik, in GeschichteEreignis und
Erzhlung, ed. R. Koselleck et al. (Munich: Fink, 1973), 490-499.
42. Reinhart Koselleck, Laudatio auf Franois Furet, Sinn und Form 49 (1998), 297.
43. Ira Katznelson, Desolation and Enlightenment: Political Knowledge after Total War,
Totalitarianism, and the Holocaust (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003); Nils Gilman,
Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 2003).
44. Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch 19501973 (Munich: Piper, 2002), I, 488.
45. For Koselleck and Heidegger, see Taubes, Geschichtsphilosophie und Historik; on Arendt and
Heidegger, see especially Dana R. Villa, Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1996); Rahel Jaeggi, Welt und Person: Zum anthropologischen
Hintergrund der Gesellschaftskritik Hannah Arendts (Berlin: Lukas, 1997); as well as, in particular
on the influence of Heidegger on Arendts historical thinking, Annette Vowinckel, Geschichtsbegriff
und Historisches Denken bei Hannah Arendt (Cologne: Bhlau, 2001).
46. See Reinhard Mehring, Begriffssoziologie, Begriffsgeschichte, Begriffspolitik: Zur Form der
Ideengeschichtsschreibung nach Carl Schmitt und Reinhart Koselleck, in Politische Ideengeschicht
sschreibung im 20. Jahrhundert. Konzepte und Kritik, ed. H. Bluhm and J. Gebhardt (Baden-Baden:
Nomos, 2006), 31-50; for Arendt and Schmitt see, for example, David Bates, On Revolutions in the
Nuclear Age: The Eighteenth Century and the Postwar Global Imagination, Qui Parle 15 (2005),
171-195; Samuel Moyn, Hannah Arendt on the Secular, New German Critique 35 (2008), 71-96;
and Andreas Kalyvas, Democracy and the Politics of the Extraordinary: Max Weber, Carl Schmitt,
the ANthropology of hIStorIcAl experIeNce
theorizing, was Karl Jaspers, with whom both studied, Arendt before 1933 and
Koselleck after 1945.
Both regarded the analysis of accumulated conceptual
sediments as a methodological approach to past realities. Both attempted through
dialogue with texts from antiquity and the older European tradition of political
thought to comprehend the genealogy of the modern experience of rupture and
the catastrophes of the twentieth century. Their respective thinking was closer
to Herodotus, Thucydides, or Tocqueville than to Hegel, Marx, or Parsons. And
both developed metahistorical, anthropological categories that were intended to
perspectivize this rupture in tradition and simultaneously bridge it categorically.
As is well known, Arendts political theory is closely connected to her histori-
cal thought.
Precisely because she did not hold contemporary historiography in
high regarda disinclination that historians, with few exceptions, continue to
reciprocate even today
her attempt to comprehend the political catastrophes
of the twentieth century began with historical-genealogical questions. In The Ori-
gins of Totalitarianism (1951), written in the 1940s, Arendt attempted to show
that totalitarian rule was not only a completely new form of government but was
also based on historical experiences that had never before served as the ground of
politics. Like the term genocide, coined by Raphael Lemkin around this time,
totalitarianism expressed conceptually a novel experience.
According to Ar-
endt, the basis of totalitarian rule was terror, which constricted the space of hu-
man action, causing freedom to disappear; its central concepts were history
and nature, according to whose ostensible laws society was to be organized.
Racism and Marxism intersected at the utopia of the new man. Both were oriented
not around a concrete, experience-based reality, but rather aimed to accelerate its
ideological transformation. Where the law-like extinction of certain classes took
too long or, conversely, the perfect race required an existential battle in order to
continue its evolutionary development, terror helped the process along by force:
Terror makes men conform to the movement of history or nature.
Arendt continued this debate about the modern concept of history in a series
of articles and in her notes in the 1950s (which were published only recently).
The disaster that came into history though the dominance of natural scientifc
Hannah Arendt (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
47. See Reinhart Koselleck, Jaspers, die Geschichte und das berpolitische, in Karl Jaspers.
Philosoph, Arzt, politischer Denker, ed. Jeanne Hersch et al. (Munich: Piper, 1986), 291-302; Hannah
Arendt, Karl Jaspers: Citizen of the World? in Men in Dark Times (New York: Harcourt, Brace &
World, 1970), 81-94.
48. See Claudia Althaus, Erfahrung Denken: Hannah Arendts Weg von der Zeitgeschichte zur
politischen Theorie (Gttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2000); Vowinckel, Geschichtsbegriff; and
Seyla Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield,
2003), 86-101.
49. An exception to this is Hans Mommsen, Hannah Arendt und der Proze gegen Adolf
Eichmann, in Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: Ein Bericht von der Banalitt des Bsen
(Munich: Piper, 1986), 9-48.
50. See Anson Rabinbach, The Challenge of the UnprecedentedRaphael Lemkin and the
Concept of Genocide, Jahrbuch des Simon-Dubnow-Instituts 4 (2005), 397-420; Benjamin Alpers,
Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture: Envisioning the Totalitarian Enemy, 1920
1950 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), esp. chap. 5.
51. Hannah Arendt, The Great Tradition and the Nature of Totalitarianism [1953], Hannah
Arendt Papers, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, p. 8.
StefAN-lUdWIg hoffMANN
thought, she wrote in her Denktagebuch, lies not in the concepts, but rather
in process thinking. Development, namely, the unfolding of an original given, is
a concession of the natural sciences to historical reality: Through it one histori-
cized natural processes (Darwin) and naturalized history.
For this reason, she
also regarded the traditional methods and explanatory models of historiography
to be unusable. To forget all causality, she noted in the summer of 1951; [i]n
its place: the analysis of the elements of events. Central is the event in which the
elements have crystallized. The title of my book [is] utterly wrong; should have
been called: The Elements of Totalitarianism.
In the German edition published
in 1955, the term elements was actually included in the title, along with a new
concluding chapter, Ideologie und Terror: eine neue Staatsform (Ideology and
Terror: A Novel Form of Government), which contained the theoretical outline of
her (never written) sequel on Stalinism.
Thus like Koselleck, Arendt also consistently rejected the modern construc-
tions of history in Hegel and Marx, Spengler and Toynbee (whose challenge
and response continues even today to inform most derivatives of modernization
theory). In contrast to the tradition of premodern political thought, Arendt argued,
modern thought is a thinking in processes of nature or history:
The modern concept of process pervading history and nature alike separates the modern
age from the past more profoundly than any other single idea. To our modern way of think-
ing nothing is meaningful in and by itself, not even history or nature taken each as a whole,
and certainly not particular occurrences in the physical order or specifc historical events.
There is a fateful enormity in this state of affairs. Invisible processes have engulfed every
tangible thing, every individual entity that is visible to us, degrading them into functions of
an over-all process. The enormity of this change is likely to escape us if we allow ourselves
to be misled by such generalities as the disenchantment of the world or the alienation of
man, generalities that often involve a romanticized notion of the past. What the concept of
process implies is that the concrete and the general, the single thing or event and the univer-
sal meaning, have parted company. The process, which alone makes meaningful whatever
it happens to carry along, has thus acquired a monopoly of universality and signifcance.
It is not words, deeds, and eventsthe classic themes of historiography and
politics in antiquitythat constitute the objects of historical thought in moder-
Since Hegel watched Napoleon ride into Jena and saw in him not the emperor of France
nor the conqueror of Prussia, not the son and not the destroyer or overcomer of the French
Revolution, that is, nothing that Napoleon actually was at this moment, but rather world
spirit on horsebacksince that time historians and historiography have believed that they
are fnished with the investigation and depiction of an event only when they have discov-
ered that which is functionally exponential in it, namely that which itself is hidden imper-
ceptibly behind the visible and the experiential.
52. Arendt, Denktagebuch, I, 415 (original emphasis).
53. Ibid., In this passage the words Elements of Totalitarianism were written in English.
54. This chapter was also included in the second and third English editions.
55. Hannah Arendt, The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern, in Between Past and Future
(New York: The Viking Press, 1961), 63-64.
56. Hannah Arendt, Natur und Geschichte, in Zwischen Vergangenheit und Zukunft: bungen
im politischen Denken (Munich: Piper, 1994), I, 50.
the ANthropology of hIStorIcAl experIeNce
This critique of the modern concept of history, which Arendtquite similarly
to Koselleckidentifed not only in Marxism but also in the positivist optimism
of the American social sciences, led her to the question of the metahistorical, an-
thropological conditions of historical experience. In the Human Condition (1958),
particularly in chapter 5, Action, Arendt unfolded her historical-political an-
thropology, which can be understood as a theoretical response to the problems
diagnosed in her studies of totalitarianism. Arendt also had no interest in identify-
ing a metaphysical human nature; she wanted to fnd categories that disclosed the
human condition, which itself structured the possibilities of the politicalwhat
Koselleck called the conditions of possible histories. She identifed three such cat-
egories: natality and plurality; action and speech; and forgiving and promising.
Natality and Plurality. How can totalitarianisms logic of compulsion and fear
be interrupted? That is the existential question that Arendt raised in the new con-
cluding chapter of her totalitarianism book in the mid-1950s. Like Koselleck (who
even referred at this point directly to Arendt
), she turned to Heideggers category
of thrownness (Geworfenheit). Natality, according to Arendt, is a basic condition
of human existence. In contrast to Heidegger, however, she did not believe that
human life rushed from birth to death. Being born, Arendt argued, makes possible
the extraordinary, a new beginning, and with this an ever new and spontaneously
emerging counterweight to rule by terror and ideology. Initium ut esset creatus
es homo, that a beginning be made, man was created, said Augustine. This new
beginning is guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man.

In the Human Condition Arendt returned to these fnal sentences of the sec-
ond edition of the Origins of Totalitarianism. Now in addition to natality and
mortality Arendt included among the basic conditions of human existence life
itself . . . and the earth (in Koselleck, the geographical, climatic, and natural
preconditions of possible histories) as well as worldliness and plurality (in
Koselleck, the confict structures of insideoutside and abovebelow relations).

For Arendt, the Augustinian-Christian concept of the beginning, which every hu-
man without distinction is given as a possibility through birth, is realized politi-
cally only with other humans. The fact of human plurality is manifested in two
ways, as equality and as difference. Human plurality is the paradoxical plurality
of unique beings.
Plurality thus means for Arendt a political multiplicity, which
also implies a sphere of consensus and confict among always distinct and dif-
ferent individuals. This explains as well Arendts polemic against a prepolitical
concept of humanity, a polemic similar to that found in Koselleck. Against the
cosmopolitan illusion that all humans, simply by being human, are citizens of the
world, Arendtwho was herself compelled to be stateless for many yearsre-
called that in order to be able to act politically humans always have to belong to a
57. Koselleck, Historik und Hermeneutik, 107.
58. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, rev. ed. (London: Allen & Unwin, 1958), 479
(hannah Arendt, Elemente und Ursprnge totaler Herrschaft [Munich: Piper, 2003], 979).
59. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 11.
60. Ibid., 176.
StefAN-lUdWIg hoffMANN
concrete political entity. Nobody can be a citizen of the world as he is the citizen
of his country.
This critique of an abstract concept of humanity also explains Arendts skepti-
cism toward human rights; like Edmund Burke, she preferred the rights of state
citizenship. This does not mean that Arendt had an elitist disdain for the equality of
natural rights.
Rather she was unable to see how an appeal to humanity could
guarantee and establish rights as long as a world state did not exist. And for Arendt
such a world state would have been the most terrible form of tyranny possible
because it would have put an end to all politics, which presupposes plurality and
difference. Politics deals with men, nationals of many countries and heirs to many
pasts; its laws are the positively established fences which hedge in, protect, and
limit the space in which freedom is not a concept, but a living, political reality.

Action and Speech. For Arendt, natality and plurality are therefore the basic con-
ditions of human existence. Both refer to the central concept of her historical-po-
litical anthropology: action. In contrast to work and productionthe two activities
upon which, according to Arendt, modern society has been grounded in a politi-
cally disastrous wayaction is played out directly among humans. Inter homines
esse (to be a human among humans) is, Arendt recalled, synonymous in Latin with
being alive. Action thus presupposes plurality, but also natality: [T]he new begin-
ning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer
possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting.
It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be
expected from whatever may have happened before. This character of startling
unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings and in all origins. Arendt thus op-
posed the concept of the event to that of process. Only in this way, she insisted,
can we understand how something novel can occur politically, something that has
not merely been derived from history. The new always happens against the
overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practi-
cal, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears
in the guise of a miracle. The fact that man is capable of action means that the
unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infnitely
Against a providential concept of history that always explains
away events retrospectively as the necessary completion of previous anonymous
processes and structures and thus denies the moment of human freedom, Arendt
posited the eventful possibility of action, which interrupted these processes and
structures. It is not, she insisted, the necessary laws of history or nature that act,
but rather humans themselves.
And the concrete results of this action are not
foreseeable, due in part to human plurality: Hamlets Our thoughts are ours,
their ends none of our own, as Arendt noted in her Denktagebuch.
61. Hannah Arendt, Citizen of the World, 81.
62. As has been argued frequently, for example, by Hauke Brunkhorst, Hannah Arendt (Munich:
Beck, 1999), 102.
63. Arendt, Karl Jaspers: Citizen of the World, 81-82.
64. Arendt, Human Condition, 9.
65. Ibid., 177-178.
66. For a similar argument see Koselleck, Laudatio auf Franois Furet, 299.
67. Arendt, Denktagebuch, I, 274.
the ANthropology of hIStorIcAl experIeNce
Thus, the human condition is realized politically not in work and production,
but in action and speech. Whatever the concrete interests might be that move
humans to act and speak, it is crucial that these are inter-est, that is, that they
generate an in-between and establish relations that bind humans together or also
separate them from one another.
In contrast to thinking and producing, action
can only be done with the help of others and in the world, as Arendt later varied
this thesis in Freedom and Politics, an essay that was central to her work. By
acting in concert, as Burke used to say, the freedom of being able to make a
beginning is manifested as being free. . . . Through this being free, in which the
gift of freedom, of being able to make a beginning becomes a palpable reality,
the actual space of the political emerges together with the histories that action
It is this experience-based reality arising from action and speech
that Arendt called the web of human affairs.
In a key passage of the Human Condition, which is cited in full here, Arendt
explained how new and different things repeatedly arise from the basic anthro-
pological conditions of historical experience that she had proposedand thereby
also histories in the plural:
The realm of human affairs, strictly speaking, consists of the web of human relationships
which exists wherever men live together. The disclosure of the who through speech, and
the setting of a new beginning through action, always fall into an already existing web
where their immediate consequences can be felt. Together they start a new process which
eventually emerges as the unique life story of the newcomer affecting uniquely the life
stories of all those with whom he comes into contact. It is because of this already existing
web of human relationships, with its innumerable, conficting wills and intentions, that
action almost never achieves its purpose; but it is also because of this medium, in which
action alone is real, that it produces stories with or without intention as naturally as
fabrication produces tangible things. These stories may then be recorded in documents and
monuments, they may be visible in use objects or art works, they may be told and retold
and worked into all kinds of material. They themselves, in their living reality, are of an
altogether different nature than these reifcations. They tell us more about their subjects,
the hero in the center of each story, than any product of human hands ever tells us about
the master who produced it, and yet they are not products, properly speaking. Although
everybody started his life by inserting himself into the human world through action and
speech, nobody is the author or producer of his own life story.
Thus the most original products of action are not the realization of concrete aims
and ends, but the unforeseeable histories arising from them that transition from
action to story and history, as Paul Ricoeur aptly summarized Arendts concept
of history.
As Arendt noted:
In other words, the stories, the results of action and speech, reveal an agent, but this agent
is not an author or producer. Somebody began it and is its subject in the twofold sense of
the word, namely its actor and sufferer, but nobody is its author. That every individual life
68. Arendt, Human Condition, 182.
69. Hannah Arendt, Freiheit und Politik, in Zwischen Vergangenheit und Zukunft, 225.
70. Arendt, Human Condition, 183-184.
71. Paul Ricoeur, Action, Story, and HistoryOn Rereading The Human Condition, in The
Realm of Humanitas: Responses to the Writings of Hannah Arendt, ed. R. Garner (Frankfurt: Peter
Lang, 1989), 150.
StefAN-lUdWIg hoffMANN
between birth and death can eventually be told as a story with beginning and end is the pre-
political and prehistorical condition of history, the great story without beginning and end.

The histories that the actors themselves tell about their motives and deeds thus
cannot add up to what actually happened. Only the non-participating historiogra-
pher or storyteller is able to recognize retrospectively the web of references into
which the acting humans have been spun. Thus, although Arendt, like Koselleck,
did investigate the fundamental anthropological conditions that are presupposed,
as it were, in all possible histories and through which the latter occur, Kosellecks
Historik went beyond Arendts narrative concept of history in this particular point.
Certainly both agree that histories can be analyzed conceptually or depicted nar-
ratively only after the fact, so that we learn to deal with the meaninglessness of an
event or to attribute meaning to it. Nevertheless, according to Koselleck, the per-
spectivally fragmented, pluralist perceptions of the participants of an occurrence
contain more than can be incorporated subsequently into a single narration.
toriography must therefore ask which past experiences have been repressed, for-
gotten, or silenced, and it must be aware that it is only a prehension of imperfec-
tion (ein Vorgriff auf Unvollkommheit) in the sense that these past events could
be narrated meaningfully in completely different ways in the future.
Forgiving and Promising. For Koselleck, there is also an irresolvable hiatus
between the primary experiences of those who participated in occurrences and
the secondary experiences of non-participatory observers or later narrators, a
distinction that he derived from beforeafter relations and the category of natality.
The experiences of war and genocide, for instance, fll the memory of those af-
fected; they shape their recollections, fow like a mass of lava in their bodiesun-
alterable and inscribed. By this measure, all the experiences of contemporaries
who were not in the camps are secondary, as are those of subsequent generations.
While these primary experiences can be narratedalthough this is, Koselleck
insisted, a diffcult undertakinga collective memory that equally conjoins per-
petrators and victims cannot be constructed from this.
Arendt formulated a more differentiated position here. She argued that action
and speech among humans create as unintended consequences not only histories
but also and above all power and violence, which in turn are interwoven into the
72. Arendt, Human Condition, 184.
73. Arendt was also aware of this problem: The sources talk and what they reveal is the self-
understanding as well as the self-interpretation of people who act and who believe they know what
they are doing. If we deny them this capacity and pretend we know better and can tell them what
their real motives are or which real trends they objectively representno matter what they them-
selves thinkwe have robbed them of the very faculty of speech. Hannah Arendt, On the Nature
of Totalitarianism, in Essays in Understanding 19301954, ed. J. Kohn (New York: Harcourt Brace
& Company, 1994), 339.
74. Reinhart Koselleck, Vom Sinn und Unsinn der Geschichte, Merkur 51 (1997), 326.
75. Reinhart Koselleck, Formen und Funktionen des negativen Gedchtnisses, in Verbrechen
erinnern: Die Auseinandersetzung mit Holocaust und Vlkermord, ed. V. Knigge and N. Frei
(Munich: Beck, 2002), 23-24. Once again Koselleck used a metaphor to make a theoretical point:
experiences are coagulated lava (geronnene Lava), written on the body that cannot be rewritten
by public memory. Hence his opposition to the blurring of boundaries between different historical
experiences, between victims and perpetrators, as exemplified by the Berlin Neue Wache memorial
site of the Kohl era.
the ANthropology of hIStorIcAl experIeNce
fabric of human affairs and relations. The results of action are unforeseeable and
irreversible; humans do not know what they do when they act. But humans do
possess the power to forgive. To avoid elevating the past into fxed determinants
of human action even in her own historical-political anthropology, Arendt intro-
duced the categories of forgiving and promising.
In contrast to revenge, which is the natural, automatic reaction to transgression and which
because of the irreversibility of the action process can be expected and even calculated, the
act of forgiving can never be predicted; it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected
way and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action.
Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew
and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from
its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven.

The irreversibility of what has been done, and its resulting logic of action and
violence, can therefore be interrupted through forgiving. Conversely, the human
power of promising offers a corrective to the unforeseeability of the results of
future human action. Forgiving and promising are not abstract moral measures,
but rather arise from concrete experience and are achieved in the being-together
of humans, the public space of the political. Forgiving and promising are them-
selves communicative acts that enable new histories and memories. They lead to
experience-based rules and institutions that incorporate the unforeseeable dimen-
sions of political actions.
For Arendt, the singularity of Nazi crimes lay precisely in the fact that they
eluded the human capacity to forgive. For this reason, the bureaucratic, factory-
like extermination of European Jews (in contrast, she argued, to the old-fash-
ioned crimes of Stalinism) constituted radical evil.
The extermination camps
were not only sites of atrocities; they represented their own, unprecedented order
of radical dehumanization, in that they stripped the victims of their capacity to
act and thus of being human, and they exempted the perpetrators from all legal,
moral, or religious norms that humans had created for themselves in the past. Just
as absolute goodness has no place in the domain of human relations because it
replaces political action carried out through conficts and compromises with pas-
sive pity for othersa pity that easily becomes a fnal act of violence intended to
redeem all suffering and all injusticeradical evil is also a negation of the po-
Radical evil, Arendt argued, exceeds the domain of human experience:
All we know is that we can neither punish nor forgive such offenses and that they
therefore transcend the realm of human affairs and the potentialities of human
power, both of which they radically destroy wherever they make their appear-
Arendt believed that the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 confrmed this
insight. There were no categories of morality or law derived from human experi-
ence that could be used to judge Eichmanns deeds, and not because he was a par-
ticularly demonic perpetrator, as the indictment in Jerusalem suggested. Arendts
76. Arendt, Human Condition, 241.
77. Hannah Arendt, Some Questions of Moral Philosophy, in Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and
Judgment, ed. J. Kohn (New York: Schocken, 2003), 52-55.
78. This is Arendts critique of Rousseau, based on her reading of Melvilles Billy Budd; see
hannah Arendt, On Revolution (London: Faber & Faber, 1963), 74-83.
79. Arendt, Human Condition, 241.
StefAN-lUdWIg hoffMANN
frequently misunderstood phrase the banality of evil meant nothing other than
the paradox of a banal perpetrator, in whose deeds radical evil is manifested.
The existential, polemical tone of Arendts and Kosellecks historical-political an-
thropologies can be understood only from their respective historical experiences,
which were, of course, different for the Jewish migr from those of the young
soldier returning from the genocidal war in the East. However signifcant the in-
fuence of existential philosophy of the 1920s may have been for Arendt, I fnd the
reduction of her thought to political existentialism (Martin Jay) or politicized
existentialism (Margaret Canovan) unconvincing.
This is also true of the sig-
nifcance of Heidegger and Schmitt for Kosellecks historical thought. Already in
Critique and Crisis, Koselleck was more an enlightener of the Enlightenment
(Ivan Nagel) than merely an acolyte of Carl Schmitt, as Habermas suggested in his
review of the book.
In its examination of the dangers and hazards of modern so-
cieties, as well as in its rhetoric of decline, Habermass own The Structural Trans-
formation of the Public Sphere (originally published in 1962) owed as much to
Critique and Crisis as to the Human Condition.
Whereas Arendt argued that the
rise of the social since antiquity had led to a decline of politics (and a disappear-
ance of public-political space), and Koselleck located the crisis of the political in
the dialectic between the public sphere and the private in the eighteenth century,
Habermas diagnosed a degeneration of the liberal-bourgeois public sphere only in
the course of the nineteenth century with the advent of modern mass society. All
three of these studies should be seen within the context of the intellectual currents
of the postwar era, which moved between the experience of totalitarianism and
the apocalyptic expectation of global nuclear war.
Arendt and Koselleck shared an anti-totalitarian impulse, whichin contrast
to Habermasseparated them from a Marxist-infuenced social theory. Thus they
also became reference points for Franois Furet and other French intellectuals
80. Dana R. Villa, Das Gewissen, die Banalitt des Bsen und der Gedanke eines reprsenta-
tiven Tters, in Hannah Arendt Revisited: Eichmann in Jerusalem und die Folgen, ed. G. Smith
(Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2000), 247.
81. Martin Jay/Leon Botstein, Hannah Arendt: Opposing Views, Partisan Review 45 (1978),
368; Margaret Canovan, Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought (Cambridge,
UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 190.
82. Habermas, Verrufener Fortschritt, 477: In any case we are thankful to learn from such
clever authors how Carl Schmitt, a specialist who thinks thus, judges the situation today. [Immerhin
sind wir dankbar, von so gescheiten Autoren zu erfahren, wie Carl Schmitt, ein so denkender
Spezialist, die Lage heute beurteilt.] This incriminating final sentence was omitted in the reprint of
the review: Zur Kritik an der Geschichtsphilosophie, in Philosophisch-politische Profile (Frankfurt:
Suhrkamp, 1981), 435-444. Similarly, see the critique by Michael Schwartz, Leviathan oder Lucifer:
Reinhart Kosellecks Kritik und Krise Revisited, Zeitschrift fr Religions- und Geistesgeschichte
45 (1993), 33-57.
83. Jrgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a
Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989). On Koselleck and Habermas,
see Anthony La Vopa, Conceiving a Public: Ideas and Society in Eighteenth Century Europe,
Journal of Modern History 64 (1992), 79-116; on Arendt and Habermas, see Benhabib, Reluctant
84. See Bates, On Revolutions in the Nuclear Age.
the ANthropology of hIStorIcAl experIeNce
who broke with Marxism beginning in the 1970s.
Weat least the older ones
among ushave witnessed the total collapse of all established moral standards
in public and private life during the nineteen-thirties and forties, not only (as is
now usually assumed) in Hitlers Germany but also in Stalins Russia, Arendt
wrote in 1965.
The common opponent here was the philosophy of history with
its totalizing explanatory claims, which, according to both Koselleck and Arendt,
had been transformed politically in the twentieth century into the totalitarian idea
of history-making. Totalitarian rule and the ideological constructions of history
that kept it in motion (but also the planning and feasibility ideology of the West-
ern social sciences) sought to annul the concrete, reality-based experiences upon
which the tradition of political theory had been grounded since antiquity; these
attempts led both Arendt and Koselleck to investigate the metaphysical conditions
of human existence and of history itself.
The urgency in developing new theoretical categories of the political arose for
Arendt from historical experiences in the twentieth century. She saw herself con-
fronted with the following challenge: Not only are all our political concepts and
defnitions insuffcient for an understanding of totalitarian phenomena but also all
our categories of thought and standards of judgment seem to explode in our hands
the instant we try to apply them.
This also explains her sharp critique in the
late 1960s of the New Left, which, she argued, sought to comprehend the reality
of the twentieth century through political categories of the nineteenth century, for
instance, an obsolete concept of progress.
For Arendt, the historical experiences of her era represented an unbridgeable
rupture with the past, which she traced genealogically back to antiquity. Not only
politics, she argued, but history as well had been shattered. What you are left with
is still the past, but a fragmented past, which has lost its certainty of evaluation,
she wrote in her fnal, never completed book The Life of the Mind.
Arendts ele-
giac, pessimistic tone, which has frequently irritated contemporary interpreters,
derived from this consciousness of living in an unprecedented present, which she
shared with Tocqueville and other political thinkers who saw themselves over-
whelmed by the violence of historical events. Since the past has ceased to throw
its light upon the future the mind of man wanders in obscuritythis Tocqueville
citation was a kind of leitmotif for Arendts political thought.
Like Tocqueville,
she believed that one of the consequences of this rupture was the necessity of
outlining a new political science for a new world, of making a new beginning
85. Michael Scott Christofferson, An Anti-Totalitarian History of the French Revolution: Franois
Furets Penser la Rvolution in the Intellectual Politics of the Late 1970s, French Historical Studies
22 (1999), 557-611; Samuel Moyn, On the Intellectual Origins of Franois Furets Masterpiece,
The Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville 29 (2008), 1-20.
86. Arendt, Some Questions, 52.
87. Hannah Arendt, Mankind and Terror, in Essays in Understanding 19301954: Formation,
Exile, Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994), 302; similarly, see her reply to Eric
Voegelins critique of Origins of Totalitarianism: Hannah Arendt, A Reply, Review of Politics 15
(1953), 76-84.
88. Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969), 22-23.
89. Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, vol. 1: Thinking (New York: Harcourt, 1978), emphasis
in original.
90. Arendt, The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern, 77.
StefAN-lUdWIg hoffMANN
in order to comprehend conceptually this unique experience, which could then
serve as a kind of guidepost.
This was the reason for her turn to premodern po-
litical theory, only apparently paradoxical in light of her thesis of an insurmount-
able break with tradition. The rupture, Arendt insisted, is irreparable. We can only
search the oceanic foor of the past in order to pry loose the rich and the strange,
the pearls and the coral in the depths and to carry them to the surface.
Although a number of Arendts time-bound diagnoses of crisis now seem dated,
the theoretical questions and categories that she developed to analyze these ex-
periences of crisis do not.
Arendts anthropology based on historical experience
enabled her to recognize problems of the political that the social sciences have
only recently begun to address: that a labor society that runs out of labor is as po-
litically calamitous as the decline of the nation-state in a world in which rights can
only be guaranteed through and among nation-states. Or that dealing with geno-
cidal violence requires new concepts of law, justice, and memory. Even Arendts
emphatic concept of the event as an unforeseeable miracle, which provides the
possibility of a new beginning, appears today, twenty years after the Soviet Em-
pire suddenly and unexpectedly collapsed, less absurd than the extrapolations of
ostensible experts in the 1970s and 1980s based on empirical data.

Something similar can be said of Koselleck. The existential, pessimistic tone
of the initial postwar years colors his historical anthropology as well. Like Ar-
endt, Koselleck harbored a ferce skepticism toward the supposed machinations
of reason in history. What distinguishes Kosellecks conceptual history from other
approaches to a history of concepts is the way it connected semantic fndings to
political-anthropological hypotheses, such as that of the widening gap between
experience and expectation as the temporal structure of modernity (and the com-
plementary thesis of the continuously growing power of killing and the democ-
ratization of death
), which presupposed a distinctive political anthropology.

There is no history without political theory, whether it refers in the Aristotelian
tradition to constitutional structures or in a modern sense to the open feld of po-
litical action and suffering, or to both at the same time, as Koselleck wrote in a
eulogy for Franois Furet, but also describing his own position. Thus political
theory becomes the presupposition for and the result of historical knowledge.
Kosellecks Historik should be understood in terms of this claim. He regarded
his Historik as a theoretically refective way of dealing with the radical break
in tradition that separated the past and the future. In the preface to the German
paperback edition of the Critique and Crisis of 1973, Koselleck described the
specifc challenge that he faced. If the old topos of historia magistra vitae has
91. Arendt, On Revolution, 176.
92. Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin 18921940, in Men in Dark Times, 205.
93. Harald Bluhm, Von Weimarer Existenzphilosophie zu politischem Denken, in Die
Entdeckung der Freiheit: Amerika im Denken Hannah Arendts, ed. W. Thaa and L. Probst (Berlin:
Philo, 2003), 60-92.
94. See, for example, Alexei Yurchak, Soviet Hegemony of Form: Everything Was Forever Until
It Was No More, Comparative Studies in Society and History 45 (2003), 480-510.
95. Reinhart Koselleck, Daumier und der Tod, in Modernitt und Tradition: Festschrift fr Max
Imdahl, ed. G. Boehm et al. (Munich: Fink, 1985), 176; Kriegerdenkmler, 267.
96. Similarly Palonen, Entzauberung der Begriffe, 309.
97. Koselleck, Laudatio auf Franois Furet, 298.
the ANthropology of hIStorIcAl experIeNce
dissolved in modernity, and history can no longer provide lessons for life (a thesis
that Koselleck had already unfolded in his contribution to the Festschrift for Karl
Lwith in 1967), then we need to explain the signifcance of historical experience
for the political present:
Today historical lessons can no longer be derived directly from history, but only indirectly
through a theory of possible histories. . . . As soon as the structures of a historical epoch
have been successfully identifed in terms of their anthropological conditions, which can
be derived from concrete individual cases, the results can make visible exemplary fnd-
ings, which can also be related to our own present. For regardless of its uniqueness, a past
epochinvestigated in terms of its structurecan contain moments of duration that still
reach into the present day.

Kosellecks Historik identifed these moments of duration not in history, but
in the structures of repetition, the knowledge of which makes historical experi-
ences again accessible for political actions in the presentand thereby properly
realigns the topos of historia magistra vitae in a theoretically refective manner.

Kosellecks Historik sought experiential propositions, as they are called in the
essay Zeitschichten, that were already available before the respective coex-
isting generations and which in all probability will also continue to be effective
after the coexisting generations. Such experiential fndings are the actual object
of history, per defnition the experiential science par excellence, as Koselleck
Nothing can be learned from history, but only from experiential prop-
ositions that can be derived theoretically from concrete historiesthe unique
words, deeds, and events, which in turn possess their own repetition structures.
The formal categories found in Kosellecks workbefore and after, inside and
outside, above and belowstipulate conditions that enable and delimit all speech
and all action, without thereby determining them a priori.
This also means that a Historik can formulate statements not only about the
past, but also about the future. Although we cannot predict concrete histories, we
can make prognoses about the conditions according to which such histories could
occur, as Koselleck demonstrated in an essay on the art of prognosis, which il-
luminated this dimension of his Historik. History is always new and replete with
surprises, especially for those affected by it. Nevertheless, if there are predic-
tions that turn out to be true, it follows that history is never entirely new, that there
are evidently longer-term conditions or even enduring conditions within which
what is new appears.
As more temporal layers of a possible repetition entered into the prognosis,
the more likely the prediction was to turn out to be correct. The more a prediction
referred to and relied upon the incomparability and uniqueness of the coming
98. Reinhart Koselleck, Kritik und Krise: Eine Studie zur Pathogenese der brgerlichen Welt
(Freiburg: Alber, 1959), ix. (The English translation contains a different introduction).
99. On this point see also the conversation between Reinhart Koselleck and Carsten Dutt,
Geschichte(n) und Historik, Internationale Zeitschrift fr Philosophie 2 (2001), 257-271, esp.
100. Koselleck, Zeitschichten, in Zeitschichten, 20 (emphasis in original).
101. Koselleck, Was sich wiederholt.
102. Koselleck, The Unknown Future and the Art of Prognosis, in The Practice of Conceptual
History, 135.
StefAN-lUdWIg hoffMANN
revolution, the less likely it was to be fulflled.
This theoretical distinction,
which Koselleck drew from the example of Christoph Martin Wielands predic-
tions in 1787 about coming revolutions in Europe, also holds for Kosellecks and
Arendts respective anthropologies of historical experience. Manynot alldi-
agnoses of crisis that described their own present as unique and surpassing all
previous experiences and expectations have, from a contemporary perspective,
become historical themselves. This is not the case, however, with the theoreti-
cal categories developed by Koselleck and Arendt. Whoever has identifed the
anthropological conditions of possible histories will not be entirely surprised by
what the future holds for us.
Zentrum fr Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam
103. Ibid., 139-140.