Modern philosophical historiography has to constantly face some well-known problems. Julian Young’s book on the history of twentieth-century German philosophy is not only a precise, instructive and critical exposition of the work of Adorno, Husserl and Heidegger (among others). It is also a prime example of applied historiographical methodology with respect to some of these problems. Young’s original approach to philosophical historiography resonates throughout the text. His remarkable sensitivity for political and theoretical issues expresses itself through a brilliant and clear prose. This review will try to present a concise but complete exposition of the contents of the book. However, coherently with the author’s intent, it will attempt to do so while highlighting the critical choices that defined his work.
Roughly speaking, over the last two centuries the academization of philosophy resulted in two broad challenges for the historian of philosophy. The first issue concerns the technicalization of philosophy. The specialization of philosophers, along with the growth of productive interaction between philosophy and other sciences or disciplines, is responsible for the progressive blurring of the borders of philosophy as a specific praxis and as a distinct form of knowledge. With respect to philosophical historiography, this process culminated either in an inflation of the metaphilosophical question, or in various debates about the “end” of philosophy. The second general issue concerns the need for a canon of philosophy. It is true that this demand dates back at least to Aristotle’s Metaphysics. But the modern search for a canon had to deal specifically with an extensive increase of the material available to the historian. Today, a plurality of cultures is involved in the history of thought – a plurality so vast and articulated that the very possibility of a rigorous and neutral canon of philosophy is called into question.
In this broad context, German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century stands out immediately by virtue of the author’s attentive and radical approach to the apparent opposition between “objective-historiographical” and “theoretical-philosophical” history of philosophy. Even without an explicit thematization of his own historiographical method, Young manages to deal with this antinomy both in its relation to the metaphilosophical problem and in its link to the idea of a philosophical canon. He does not attempt at neutralizing the ambiguity between historiographical exposition and theoretical framework. Rather, he elaborates it by presenting an accurate historical exposition, while at the same time defining this exposition by means of an original critical premise. This premise could sound, in the words of the author, like this:
“Crisis […] lies at the heart of modern German philosophy. And in spite of the personal, philosophical, and above all political animosities that marred relations between Frankfurt and Freiburg, that the modern world is in crisis is a point on which they agree. The thinker who […] provided the most signiﬁcant articulation of the nature of the crisis was the sociologist Max Weber” (2).
The reference to Weber gives a unitary frame to Young’s analysis, both internally and within the context of German philosophy as a whole. The proposed canon is defined by the concept of crisis: namely, German philosophy is a philosophy of crisis. But “in German thought, the conception of Western modernity as a ‘crisis of humanity’ reaches back”, in fact, “to the end of the eighteenth century, to the critique of the Industrial Revolution initiated by Goethe and the German Romantics” (2). Thus, “Weber’s primary signiﬁcance for philosophy is that he transmits this critique to the twentieth century” (2). According to Young, the twentieth century sees a separation of this heredity along two branches: the “Frankfurt” one (Horkheimer, Adorno, Habermas, Marcuse) and the “Freiburg” one (Husserl, Heidegger, Arendt, Gadamer). These two branches delineate the two parts of the book, while each chapter concerns an author. Interestingly, Young devotes two chapters to Heidegger: the early Heidegger (between Husserl and Gadamer) is markedly distinguished from the later Heidegger, protagonist of the book’s last chapter.
Even if the book is a complete and exhaustive reading in itself, it constitutes only the first part of a broader project about the history of German philosophy. A future instalment should deal with other relevant German thinkers such as Benjamin, Bloch, Lukács, Scheler and Schmitt. It is left unclear if these philosophers will, in the end, all fit within the “Frankfurt-Freiburg” frame. If that will be the case, it seems that two main obstacles should be overcome. First, philosophers like Benjamin or Schmitt can hardly be defined as belonging to any school of thought. Second, the explanation of Bloch’s and Scheler’s work would require an extensive mention of German traditions that do not seem to be part of Young’s canon: psychologism (e. g., Külpe) and Lebensphilosophie (e. g., Simmel). On the other hand, it should be noted that, within Young’s narration, “Frankfurt” and “Freiburg” are not properly names of cities, schools or traditions. They are names for two different critical approaches to Weber’s idea of a link between crisis and rationalization. Or rather, they are names for different theoretical positions within the long-lasting German debate about rationalization and loss of freedom.
“While the Frankfurt thinkers recognize loss of meaning as indeed a pathology, in practice, their attention is directed almost exclusively towards loss of freedom. […] The Freiburg thinkers, by contrast, while recognizing loss of freedom as an issue, attend far more closely to loss of meaning” (253).
“Frankfurt” and “Freiburg” are indeed names of constellations within the same cosmos, rather than rigid titles. Thus, it should be possible to define intermediate and “heretical” positions, thanks to the fluid nature of these distinctions.
The main theoretical and political point that Young wants to prove is that “with respect to the task of understanding the communitarian need, liberal thinkers have […] a great deal to learn from the German phenomenological tradition” (254). This theoretical thesis is motivated by a political reason.
“What, since 2016, had become unmistakeable is the existence of a widespread revolt against the liberal hegemony, the appearance throughout the West of political movements that in every case represent, at least in part, the demand for fraternity: for the community that comes from sharing with one’s neighbours what, borrowing the term from the Roman Stoics, Gadamer calls a sensus communis […], an intuitive understanding of the good life. Often, the manifestations of this demand are cynically manipulated, distorted and ugly—white nationalism, Islamophobia, homophobia, misogyny, illiberal democracy—but sometimes they evoke a greater or lesser degree of sympathy – the independence movements of Catalonia, the Basque region, Flanders, Corsica and Quebec, for example” (254).
Nowadays, this urge for a new Gemeinschaft is resurfacing despite a fifty-year-long association with conservative and right-wing values.
“The notions of ‘tradition’, ‘homeland’, ‘people’, and ‘community’ were hijacked by the Nazis. It is unsurprising, therefore, that in mainstream post-war political thought, in Germany and elsewhere, such notions have been anathematized. Liberal, cosmopolitan, Habermasian, anti-traditional, modernity-embracing thought has been in the ascendant” (253).
The theorist that blindly follows this anathema ends up neglecting the urge for a new Gemeinschaft. However, this urge exists, and the current forms of its expression are often violent and populistic. In fact, the danger for a liberal critical theory is to ignore these pulsations that run across society, rather than attempt at comprehending and redirecting them.
The political motivation sets the tone and the main intention of the book. It is the tone of a liberal historian of philosophy speaking to liberal philosophers and liberal humanities students. Coherently, the demonstration of the aforementioned thesis aims to help the liberal thinker in “the challenge […] of understanding the character of this need [for community] and of assimilating it into liberal thought” (254). This aim is perhaps the key to understand some of Young’s methodological choices, such as the stark distinction between a “early Heidegger” and a “later Heidegger”. The author means to remark an implicit influence of Weber’s work on Heidegger’s conception of “technology” (Technik). Thus, he needs to draw a dividing line between a more generic Weber – “early Heidegger” relation (mainly through Sein und Zeit and its position within the Zeitgeist) and the specific role that Weber allegedly has in relation to the “later Heidegger”.
In short, German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century presents, more or less explicitly, each thinker’s work in its relation to Weber’s announcement of a crisis in modern European thought. Thus, Young’s exposition of Weber’s work is of pivotal importance for the internal economy of the book. Even so, it mainly concentrates on one short (and famous) lecture delivered by the old Weber to the students of Munich University in 1917: Wissenschaft als Beruf.
“The lecture is far from a celebration of science as a ‘vocation’. One reason for this, one can hypothesize, is the fact that the First World War, still in progress, had deployed the fruits of modern science to kill people on a hitherto unimaginable scale (38 million in total). […] Whatever the original intention that led to the delivery of the lecture, in the event, its central force is to place a serious question mark against the value of science, against, indeed the entire post-Enlightenment development of the West” (7).
The central equivalence of Weber’s lecture identifies modernity and rationalization. Modern science is, first and foremost, a vehicle of rationalization – i. e., of “control trough calculation”. Namely, control on nature and man is obtained trough the calculated manipulation of causes, in order to obtain certain consequences. The transformation of non-human nature in a series of causal relations generates a pathological “loss of meaning” (14). The transformation of human relationships in a series of causal relations, for its part, implies a “loss of freedom” (10). Disenchanted nature and organized work are, according to Weber, the main products of modern science. “We face, Weber tells us, a future denuded of both freedom and meaning. We stand in a moment of world-historical crisis, a crisis that can only be resolved by […] a ‘turning’ to a new, genuinely post-modern age” (15).
Young underlines how Weber’s solution to this crisis has already embraced a certain irrationalism. The only possibility for this revolutionary turning lies in the appearance of charismatics prophets: leaders that are capable form a new meaningful Gemeinschaft, defined by shared values. The nature of these values remains unspecified. But “Weber explicitly warns against ‘chiliastic prophets’ who believe that a noble end justiﬁes any means […]. Weber’s call is a call for charismatic leadership within the limits of liberal democracy—the charisma of a Churchill or a Martin Luther King Jr.—rather than for charismatic leadership instead of democracy” (16). Thus, Wissenschaft als Beruf can also be read as the mature self-critique of a social scientist. Weber recognizes that the European man lost more than it gained from modern science. “Weber’s belief that rationalization has been a disaster places him in the tradition not only of Wagner and the youthful Nietzsche’s neo-Romantic critique of the Enlightenment, but also of the critique of the Enlightenment conducted, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, by the German Romantics themselves. […] It is through the early Nietzsche’s neo-Romanticism that the Romantic critique of Enlightenment rationalization passes to Weber, and primarily through Weber that it passes into twentieth-century German philosophy” (17).
The idea of a nearly irrecoverable loss pervades most of the following philosophical debate, in Germany. Young presents Horkheimer and Adorno’s common work as the first attempt at dealing with this loss. They both “reject the ‘bourgeois’ conception of the task of thought in general, and social thought in particular, as that of providing a neutral analysis of the way things are. To be worth anything, thought must be an attempt to alleviate suﬀering, an act of ‘solidarity’ with a suﬀering humanity” (21). This therapeutic, political and praxis-oriented character is what makes critical theory stand out from traditional theory. It is the Marxist trait that, along with a dialectical conception of history, makes Horkeimer and Adorno’s theory “critical” of the status quo. “Critical theory, writes Horkheimer, thinks in the ‘service’ of an ‘oppressed humanity’ and seeks to eliminate ‘social injustice’. […] Whereas […] traditional theory thinks of itself as simply trying to understand the world, the critical theorist wants to change it, change it so as to bring about ‘a future society (Gesellschaft) as a community (Gemeinschaft) of free men’. The aim, then, is liberty, liberation, but also – a point often overlooked – that other battle cry of the French Revolution, fraternity, community” (25). The struggle of critical thinking addresses, at least in principle, both the loss of freedom and the loss of meaning. However, Young argues, while contributing to a better articulation of our loss of freedom, Horkheimer and Adorno fail to provide a positive indication for action – a pars construens that is especially important with regards to the problem of meaning. Sure enough, the liberation that could amend our loss of freedom would consist in the negation of a condition we already know, inasmuch as we already are in it. On the other hand, the loss of meaning could be resolved only through the affirmation of new shared values: that is, by placing and constructing something that, at the moment, remains unknown. Horkheimer and Adorno “rouse us out of false consciousness to an explicit awareness of the suﬀering it causes, but that, it seems, is all they do. Yet is ‘negation’ enough, given that the aim is, with Marx, not merely to understand the world, but to change it; to engage in the ‘intellectual, and eventually practical, eﬀort’ to change the order of things for the better?” (40). Young implicitly argues that this inadequacy is a flaw of “Frankfurt” philosophy as a whole, and that, consequently, an actual and up-to-date critical theory would need the constructive help of “Freiburg” phenomenology.
An emblematic instance of the weakness of the “Frankfurt” approach with regards to the loss meaning can be found in Habermas’ idea that social solidarity can be supplied by communicative rationality. In this case, the appeal to feeling that characterizes charisma – both in religion and in politics – would be replaced by the binding force of rationally valid claims. These claims would be defined by rational deliberation and criticised within public debate. This would be the frame of a “deliberative” liberal democracy. But such a liberal democracy would be the very antithesis of an actual Gemeinschaft.
“For while a community is deﬁned by a sense of ‘belonging together’, a liberal democracy is deﬁned – ever increasingly, in multicultural modernity – by a sense of belonging apart. […] Political liberalism is the solution to a problem: the problem of how we can live together without harming each other, given that we no longer have a shared conception of the good life, a shared ethical substance. While community is based on both respect for and ‘fraternity’ with the other, liberal democratic society is based on respect alone” (56).
This discrepancy within classical liberalism and a radical, genuine idea of Gemeinschaft excludes the simple solution, so to speak: a true Gemeinschaft cannot, as such, be re-imposed by the same Enlightenment culture that dissolved it in the first place. In order to appropriate the very idea of Gemeinschaft, the contemporary liberal philosopher must rethink Enlightenment in its defining terms, rather than extrinsically “apply” it on the current social situation.
While still being an important contribution to the German “philosophy of crisis”, critical theory remains wanting in its constructive aspect. An important exception, within the “Frankfurt” context, is represented by the work of Marcuse. His research constitutes not only a diagnosis of present-day social pathologies, but also of an audacious indication of possible remedies. It could be argued that it is actually Marcuse’s phenomenological education that mostly contributed in shaping the rich and lively idea of man that animates the future society he wishes for. Marcuse’s deep acquaintance with American society contributed to this vision too. One could say that Marcuse’s main distinctive trait, among “Frankfurt” theorists, consists in the importance he assigns to a positive description of man’s free desires: namely, the desires one harbours beyond the extrinsic conditioning imposed by advanced industrial society. “A true desire is a desire one would retain even after having become fully aware (through exposure to critical theory) of the degree to which advanced industrial society attempts to manipulate one in its own interests” (63). The very admission of the possibility of free desires opens a utopian space within Marcuse’s philosophy. And this space is positively characterized by means of a psychoanalytical (and partly phenomenological) anthropology.
“As a Marxist, Marcuse believes the point of all worthwhile theoretical activity is to change the world for the better, and so one might imagine that his engagement with Freud is generated by the need to refute his pessimism. […] The reason for the engagement is Marcuse’s belief that Freud got almost everything right. He believes, in particular, that Freud got the nature of happiness right. Freud’s belief that happiness within civilization is impossible is, however, a mistake. Perhaps it was once true, concedes Marcuse, but it is no longer so. Therefore, purged of this error, Freud’s theory can be developed in a way that provides the key to a happy civilization” (67).
Marcuse accepts Freud’s hedonism: he deems all human action motivated by the search for immediate libidinal pleasure. Thus, the inner pathology of civilization consists in the fact that it demands the sacrifice of this erotic impulse. But not all instances of rational civilizations are equal in their repressive aspect. There is a possible social organization within which repression would be reduced to its basic, “natural” contrast against the pleasure principle: socialism.
“If some repression is surplus, man-made rather than imposed by nature, then it is ‘artiﬁcial’, which means, contra Freud, that there is a […] [possibility of its] elimination by revolutionary action aimed at installing socialism as society’s reality principle. Given the current state of technology, a degree of repression will continue to be essential to any society’s survival. But, with the installation of the socialist reality principle, it will weigh on the individual in a greatly reduced, ‘basic’ form” (70).
Marcuse sees science as an historical process, rather than as a static aspect of civilization. This allows him to believe that modern science can, in fact, define a different distribution of work without altering its productivity; and his optimism regarding human nature prompts him to find the contents of a future, utopic Gemeinschaft in the creativity of human fantasy and in the free exercise of a polymorphous and sublimated sexuality.
Young makes a conscious effort in explicating the elements of phenomenological thought that could resonate with Marcuse’s attempt at a therapy for the crisis of meaning. Vice versa, he presents Husserl’s work under a specific perspective: the perspective that deems phenomenology essentially as a philosophy of crisis. After a concise summary of transcendental phenomenology’s main ideas, the author focuses on the late Husserl, and especially on Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie. The early Heidegger is presented under the same light. Young’s discussion of Sein und Zeit is markedly characterized by a specific interest in the link between meaning and culture. However, this apparent one-sidedness is, in fact, an attempt at rethinking the relevance of classical phenomenology as a “political” philosophy – that is, as a philosophy that, even if not directly concerned with political issues, produces the idea of a possible human community.
The author finds this relevance in the common space sketched by Husserl’s idea of lifeworld and Heidegger’s idea of being-in-the-world.
“As Husserl puts it, the question that modern humanity finds ‘most pressing’ is that of ‘the meaning or meaninglessness of the whole of human existence’ […]. What, however, is missing, according to both Nietzsche and Husserl, are ‘norms of absolute validation’, that is […] moral norms that are universally valid” (104).
The result of modern science is “the epistemological view that our only access to knowledge is through the natural-scientiﬁc method, together with its ontological consequence that nothing can be said to exist save the entities recognized as existing by natural science. An important fact about the natural sciences – and the social sciences, too, which ape the natural sciences in this regard – is that they are ‘value free’: among the entities recognized as existing by science, values (as distinct from valuings) are not to be found. Husserl’s claim […] is that it is the exclusion of values from the realm of the objectively real that results in the onset of nihilism, of ethical polytheism” (104). There is little doubt that both the late Husserl and the early Heidegger acknowledge the relation between modern rationalization and the pervasive sense of meaninglessness that characterizes present-day human life. To put it briefly, German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century sees the phenomenological movement as the part of the rationalist enterprise that is capable of a rigorous self-critique – that is, of a critique of Enlightenment that is neither (critical) refusal nor (critical) acceptation, but radical reformulation instead.
The idea of lifeworld gives Husserl the critical margin that such a self-critique presupposes. Lifeworld claims are, roughly said, the claims of everyday knowledge. They are the basis for the construction of every scientific knowledge. Sure enough, insofar as they define every self-evidence, they constitute the last ground of each complex scientific experience.
“What naturalism forgets is that the lifeworld is the ‘meaning-fundament’ of science, that what science is really talking about – ‘the only real world’ that is available to be talked about – is the lifeworld. […] Husserl uses ‘lifeworld’ sometimes to refer to culturally and historically speciﬁc lifeworlds and sometimes to refer to a structure that is common to them all, a structure that is partially deﬁnitive of what it is to be a human being. In Husserl’s language, ‘the’ lifeworld belongs to the ‘essence’ of human being. […] Transcending all culturally speciﬁc lifeworlds is the lifeworld together with the norms embedded in it, norms which are common to all cultures” (111-112).
Young presents Sein und Zeit’s project of a fundamental ontology as a deeper investigation in the ontological structure of this proper, more comprehensive lifeworld.
Heidegger’s approach to the question of being definitely refutes the idea of a phenomenology that deals exclusively with abstractions. His ontological analysis is, at the same time, a phenomenological description of the most primordial features of human existence.
“What explains the excitement surrounding Being and Time is not the fact that it chooses to interrogate Dasein but rather the manner of interrogation. […] We can only answer the question of the meaning of being by providing a ‘primordial’ account of Dasein, of us ourselves. […] Being and Time’s account of who we are portrays us as particularly fascinating, not to say troubling, beings. […] Suddenly, the seemingly dry investigation of what we mean when we say that something is has transmogriﬁed itself into ultimate Nietzschean and Kierkegaardian questions about the meaning of life. Ontology has become existentialism, phenomenology has become existential phenomenology” (119).
Young’s presentation of the young Heidegger remains within this frame. Heidegger’s existential determination are critically discussed as aspects of his (provisional) solution to the problem of the meaning of human life. The key to this problem would be, according to Young’s interpretation of Heidegger, in the concept of praxis. Praxis should be defined as the original source of meaning. But, if praxis is in fact the structural source of every meaning, present-day meaninglessness must be a result of some change within the context of human praxis. Thus, an ethical problem arises: what is the proper, most authentic praxis? How can we act in a way that makes our lives meaningful?
The author describes Gadamer’s and Arendt’s philosophical projects as attempts at answering these questions. They both write against the dehumanizing effects of rationalization. Gadamer adopts an approach that is both ontological and epistemological. His task consists in rehabilitating artistic expression as a form of knowledge in its own right and as a moment of a complete human Bildung, in opposition to the privilege that positivism accords to an education based on natural science. On the other hand, Arendt deals with the problem of the loss of meaning from a political point of view. She emphasizes the role of educators in transmitting and enriching a shared ethical tradition.
In Young’s eyes, Gadamer and Arendt partake in the history of German philosophy inasmuch as they take part in a debate started by Goethe, transmitted by Weber and concluded by the last great philosophy of the crisis: the philosophy of the later Heidegger. Considering that this moment of Heidegger’s thought paved the way for the so-called postmodern philosophy in Germany (Sloterdijk), France (Derrida), Italy (Vattimo) and America (Rorty), one could probably say that the course of the German “river” described by Young flows again into the European “sea” from which it gushed out in the first place, with the French revolution and the end of the age of Enlightenment.
Young summarizes later Heidegger’s thought as a new appeal to the charismatic and unifying power of common “gods”. But this is not a repetition of Weber’s Wissenschaft als Beruf. The long phenomenological detour has shown that these “gods” are not specifically conservative forces. They represent the idea that every past meaning preserves a possibility for the future, but only inasmuch as the realization of any future simultaneously creates a new past – i. e., a new concealed possibility for yet another possible future.
“When we take into account the possibility that future generations will experience the world in ways that are unimaginable by us, not to mention the possibility of non-human knowers, we realize that there is no limit to the number of potential horizons of disclosure that are concealed by the horizon – the ‘being of beings’, as Being and Time calls it – that constitutes our life-world. This ‘unexperienced domain of being’ is the ‘non-essence of truth’ and is as inseparable from the essence of truth as is […] the dark side of the moon from its illuminated side. Heidegger calls this unexperienced domain simply ‘the mystery’. And since it is unlimited in extent it is, as with all things we cannot fathom, profoundly awesome” (233).
In this awesomeness appears the possibility of a rational, immanent salvation from the crisis. The search for this possibility – the search for a new rationalism – is, in the end, the story that German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century passionately narrates.
On January 30, 2016, Alain Badiou and Jean-Luc Nancy conducted a public dialogue at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK) moderated by Jan Völker. The agenda for the dialogue was Badiou’s and Nancy’s perspectives of German philosophy and of its influence on French philosophy. This book records their conversation.
In his “Afterword”, Völker wonders if something like a dialogue is ever possible between philosophers. While skeptic that a dialogue in the strong sense is possible among philosophers, he suggests that to have a philosophical dialogue is to “exhibit the presence of philosophy, to share its essence, to develop problems by debating shared concepts…it is always an address, a praxis—an invitation, a letter” (81). What a philosophical dialogue does not seem to be, is a shared effort to reach an agreement and mutual understanding. With that in mind, we need also to remark that this book is not a discussion about the reception of 19th and 20th Century German philosophy into French philosophy in general, but a reflection on Badiou’s and Nancy’s personal and highly original relationship to Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger. It is not the history of German philosophy in France, which would have to include also the influence of the different strands of neo-Kantianism, but an attempt to map the convergences and divergences between two leading French thinkers, which also happen to be the last representatives and inheritors of the great “Philosophical Moment of 1960’s”.
Völker opens the conversation stating that German philosophy plays an important role in the thought of Badiou and Nancy, while at the same time both subscribe to the idea of the timelessness of philosophy. Based on that, Völker asks from Badiou and Nancy to assess the philosophical relationship between Germany and France.
Badiou replies that philosophy is not really timelessness. There are discontinuous philosophical periods that we can locate historically and geographically. We can speak of a Greek, an Arabic, a French (which starts with Descartes, and includes Spinoza and Leibnitz, both not French as he acknowledges), an English, a German (German Idealism), and finally a German-French period which seems to be reaching its end. This German-French period includes thinkers such as Heidegger, Derrida, Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy and Ricoeur, and continues in Lacan’s and Foucault’s influenced French structuralism. Characteristic of this “French period”, which represent the last stage of the German-French philosophical constellation, is the effort to release Philosophy from its academic restraints and infuse it with new life, and to orient it towards a more political role, drawing inspiration from Psychoanalysis, the Arts and Mathematics.
Nancy adopts a more historical approach. He first comments on the fact that while Völker asked about the French-German philosophical relationship, both interlocutors are French, and they represent the French tradition. Nancy stresses that the influence of German philosophy dates from the interwar period, while the Second World War and its aftermath saw the departure of Philosophy from Germany and the invigoration of French thought. What French philosophy inherited from the German tradition was the idea that the saying of Philosophy should be present in what it is said (7), which he opposes to a Cartesian tradition advocating a neutral language.
The second movement of the dialogue pertains to Badiou’s and Nancy’s relationship with Kant. Badiou doesn’t like Kant. He does not like the idea that there is a limit to human cognition, nor does he like the notion of a categorical imperative or the distinction between sublime and beautiful. Nancy offers a nuanced rebuke to Badiou. Indeed, he also finds Kant “unlovable”, but this can be explained by the fact that Kant is writing in a language which is not mature enough to express his thought. Nancy also rejects Badiou’s understanding of Kantian epistemology as placing limits to knowledge. The “thing-in-itself” is not a something unknowable hidden behind the phenomena but, in a Heideggerian spirit, the “positing of the thing as such” (15). Nancy further explains that this is pure reality, which pushes reason to seek the unconditional, even if Reason knows that it will not find it. Badiou declines this position. Everything can be absolutely known (17). The “thing-in-itself” is nothing but “the general system of the possible forms of multiplicity”, one that we can explore mathematically, and therefore come to know (18). To say otherwise is to open the door to obscurantism and to political enslavement.
The question of limits to knowledge serves as a cue to Völker to steer the conversation to Hegel and to the question of the negative. Völker asks: “How much system is necessary to think negatively” (21). Nancy interprets negativity as mobility. Hegel’s system is one that does not cease to systematize itself. Even when Hegel engages into fields that seem odd today, like in his Philosophy of Nature, his purpose is to give voice to all things or to “traversing all things through language” (23). Badiou, for his part, expresses his passionate relation to Hegel, but also his impatience with Hegel’s encyclopedist drive, which does not leave room for what is to come. But Hegel is also a true thinker of an affirmative negativity. In this, he is, in spite of his shortcoming, our contemporary.
Nancy objects to Badiou’s affirmation of contemporaneity. We come after Hegel, and we reread him. For Nancy, the relationship is one of reception. There is no direct encounter with a text but through those reading that already influenced our encounter. Nancy’s own reading of Hegel is mediated by a chain of tradition constituted of Derrida, Bataille, and Kojève. Nancy also objects to Badiou’s emphasis on the “exhaustive” impulse in Hegel. Nancy prefers to speak of a “process of coming to fulfillment”. He sketches the difference through a succinct discussion of Hegel’s presentation of the modern state as a “moral idea”, which already contains the idea of the disappearance of the State and its replacement with a more adequate form of “ethical idea in action”. On a more general way, Nancy reads Hegel’s like a philosophy of “infinite jouissance”.
Badiou rejects Nancy’s characterization. The “jouissance” we find in Hegel is a relationship internal to the spirit. Therefore, does not exclude the exhaustion of possibilities. Furthermore, Badiou believes that there is a big difference in the way in which he and Nancy relate to texts. Badiou characterizes his own reading as “naïve”, as seriously taking into consideration what it is said, and then to rewrite it in his own terms (30). Nancy feels compelled to defend his hermeneutical approach, shifting the question to the relationship between history and thought, and to Marx.
At this point, the moderator steers the discussion to Marx and to Marxism. Völker asks the panelists to address the questions that Marx poses to philosophy: the question of practice, the question of the absence of Marx in contemporary critical discourse.
Badiou asks if it is adequate to characterize Marx (and also Freud) as philosophers. Marx’s oeuvre contains philosophical ingredients but is not primarily a work of Philosophy. Furthermore, Badiou criticizes the notion of philosophical praxis and the idea—which goes back to the “Theses on Feuerbach”—which reduces philosophy to the interpretation of the world. Badiou understands interpretation in a narrow sense, e.g., the production of myths, religions, wisdom. Philosophy, on the other hand, belongs to the realm of the rational and is based on science and mathematics.
Nancy concurs that Marx is not a philosopher because he does not push his questioning to the end. Marx is happy with pointing out to a future state of humankind but does not push forward to say what that future state would be. Marx is a philosopher which at a certain point got caught into something more urgent. Interestingly, Badiou retorts that while not a philosopher himself, Marx indeed elaborated in the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 the concept of “generic humanity” (Badiou’s rendering of Gattungswessen, generally translated as “generic being”), and the “problem” is to identify in existing societies the seeds of this generic humanity (39). It is noteworthy that Badiou is quoting here from the same 1844 Manuscripts that his master Althusser banished to the realm of the pre-Marxist. Badiou concludes this answer with the observation that on this point he feels that they both agree and that he is happy that such understanding was reached in reference to Marx.
Nancy and Badiou agree on the claim that philosophy is not interpretation but something else, but their agreement is only nominal. And their conversation turns to the question of the beginning of Philosophy which becomes the question of the beginning of Mathematics. Badiou’s position seems to shift during the conversation. He begins asserting that the birth of Mathematics is an event, an exception to the laws of a given situation (41). But finally, he accepts Nancy’s hypothesis that Mathematics, as well as Philosophy and Tragedy, had their origin in the de-mythologization of the world. Badiou prefers to formulate this using the formula: “to speak the truth is no longer a question of a prescribed enunciative position” (44). But under the insistence of Nancy, he finally sums up his position beautifully saying that Philosophy needs to find rational and shareable protocols so that humanity is not poisoned by its mourning the death of the Gods (46).
The book concludes with two questions which were added by Völker after the discussion, one dealing with Adorno and the second with Heidegger. Völker asks about the disconnect between Critical Theory and post-structuralist French thought, particularly at a time when the questions asked by Adorno are again relevant. Badiou rejects the idea of “negative dialects”, preferring an affirmative form of dialectics that can be the basis for a measured, controlled, and creative form of negation. Nancy’s position is more nuanced. He acknowledges that Adorno is not well known in France. This is in part because of his difficult style but is also related to the divorce between radical political movements which emphasized “workerism” at the expense of theory, and a university where Positivism was hegemonic. This split left room only for marginal forms of Marxism (he offers as an example, Bataille and Lefebvre). Nonetheless, Lyotard, Abensour, and others were interested in Adorno. From an English reading perspective, it is noteworthy that Habermas and the thinkers from the third generation of the Frankfurt School are airbrushed from the discussion and also from the conference that provided the framework for this dialogue, though the conference shows extensive examination of Adorno’s philosophy.
The last question refers to Heidegger. Völker refers to the renewed debates on Heidegger’s antisemitism and entanglements with Nationalsocialism. Badiou offers a succinct response based on three points: (a) that Heidegger’s merit was to bring back the question of being; (b) that he brought it essentially as a historical question; (c) that Heidegger brought the question of being in what is essentially an identitarian context. Nonetheless, his crude nationalism and antisemitism do not erase the importance of bringing back the question of being (53-54).
Nancy disagrees. It is not enough to say that regarding the question of being Heidegger was a great philosopher but that otherwise, he was an uninspiring human being. Nancy also rejects those interpretations of the work of Heidegger that focus exclusively on his criticism of technology. Nancy believes that there is something more, which was deeply attuned to his time. He refers to the infamous Black Notebooks in terms of “philosophical hyperbole” and “unbelievably hysterical”, that has to do with the “overwhelming within Europe” of the relationship to what we know as “politics”. But he does not elaborate further, turning instead to “being” in what can be taken as a silent rebuke to Badiou’s affirmation of the importance of the question of being. Badiou begs to differ and offers an autobiographical observation: “it was only in a space opened by the Heideggerian question that I was able to arrive at this mathematical vision of the indifference of being” (59). He then summarizes their discussion as follows:
“…after the French infatuation with German thought (exemplified by Sartre and Derrida) and the distance separating French structuralism and German hermeneutics, what we can now expect to emerge is a new form…of thinking…that…will address the following problem: how are we to reconstruct an affirmative dialectic on the basis of an ontology that accepts the indifference of being” (64).
It befalls to Nancy to pronounce the closing sentences of the discussion, but it is doubtful that these last words should be taken as a summation of the whole conversation. Ultimately, Völker is right in arguing that what was productive in this debate was the debate itself, and not some implausible coincidences between the parties. French philosophical thought in mid 20th century was intertwined with German Philosophy in complicated ways, and resonated differently in different philosophers, constituting their distinctive oeuvre. Völker created the opportunity for this wide range exploration
The task to write a short history of German philosophy is daunting. Hösle approaches this task with erudition, precision and admirable polemical style. Readers should note that Hösle’s account is not meant to be a neutral encyclopaedic one which narrates the entire history of philosophical ideas in the German-speaking world. While his selection and evaluation of certain figures might appear questionable, it would be unfair if one judges it with an expectation of encyclopaedic comprehensiveness. Indeed, it is a specific account representing the German Spirit in a specific way. He gives four criteria for his selection of German philosophers: 1. quality of the philosophical work, 2. influence on subsequent developments in the history of philosophy, 3. whether the work paradigmatically expresses the basic ideas of the time and of German culture and 4. whether the philosopher helps us make sense of the developmental logic of the process of development. Along with the use of the German language, these make up the formal necessary requirements of Hösle’s historiography of German philosophy. On this basis of selection, he identifies a set of material features that characterize the German Spirit, and they are: 1. rationalist theology; 2. a commitment to synthetic a priori knowledge (trust that God created the world in a rational way); 3. a penchant for system-building; 4. grounding ethics in reason not in sentiment and 5. a combination of philosophy and philology. This review consists of two main parts. I will first sum up the line of ideological development given by Hösle, and then I will critique Hösle’s account of the withering of German philosophy and its Spirit.
In Hösle’s account, which consists of 16 chapters arranged by chronological order, German philosophy first started with Meister Eckhart and reached its climax in German idealism. Eckhart is not only the first medieval philosopher who expresses his original philosophical ideas in vernacular German language, his rationalist theology and mystic idea of an unmediated relationship to God are characteristic traits of the German Spirit. Nicholas of Cusa, though he did not write philosophical treatises in German, was influenced by Eckhart’s rational theology and conceived the project of an a priori, theologically-grounded natural philosophy, which sees the universe (and human mind) as an image of the Trinitarian infinite God and critiques the Aristotelian geocentric worldview of finite cosmos. The reasons for Hösle to include him despite the fact that Nicholas did not write his works in German seem to be his use of the distinction between understanding and reason and his epistemological optimism about human mind’s approximation to divine infinity. Paracelsus is a natural philosopher in the Spiritualist tradition that was partly inspired by the Reformation and partly broke with the dogmas of orthodox Lutheranism and biblical authority. His polemic against traditional medicine called for founding medicine in chemistry and mineralogy and he sees the forces of nature as God’s manifestation and particular sciences as subordinated to theology.
But it is Jakob Böhme whom Hösle identifies as “the first epoch-making German philosopher of the modern period.” Böhme considered himself a pious Lutheran and his experience of mystical visions brought him to provide a deeper theosophic foundation for Lutheranism. In his contemplation on the problem of evil and suffering, Böhme recognizes in God three principles: the positive (the “Yes”), the negative (the “No”) and their synthesis. Devil and Hell are the expression of the negative divine principle, and it is through this opposition that God becomes knowable and apparent. The reunion of the Yes and the No was found in Christ.
Leibniz must be included in any historical account of the emergence of German philosophy. Not only did he contribute to raising German to the rank of a language suitable for academic purposes and founding the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences (now the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities), his philosophical contributions also earned him a place among the greatest philosophers. Interestingly, Hösle understands modern philosophy as a competition between ontology-first and epistemology-first thinkers (or “ancientizers” and “modernizers” in Hösle’s own terms). The prime example of the former camp is Spinoza, and the leader of the latter is Descartes. Whereas Spinoza starts with an ontological proof of natura naturans with extension and thought being its two knowable attributes, Descartes starts from the undeniability of the cogito, with the physical and the mental being two different kinds of substances. Though Hösle did not clearly assign Leibniz to either side, Leibniz seems to be straddling both with a stronger sympathy for the modernizers. Despite Leibniz’s personal admiration for Spinoza and the partial agreement in their philosophical positions, Hösle is quite right in stressing their differences regarding the concept of necessity, the moral status of God and the notion of substance. The appropriation of possible worlds in Leibniz’s metaphysics is bound by the axiological view that the actual world must be the best possible world created by God if God exists, and Leibniz’s pluralistic view of substances is supplemented by the notion of pre-established harmony.
By tying God down to the actual world as the best possible world, Leibniz in effect exacerbated the theodicy problem. Not only did Kant uncover the problem by critically examining previous proofs of God and pointing out their implausibility, he is also a revolutionary in ethics because his practical philosophy detached the foundations of ethics entirely from any hopes of an after-world. The value of moral conduct no longer depends on God’s reward or on subjective feelings, but rather it lies within the act as an end in itself. Ethics so conceived is grounded on a categorical, unconditional imperative that is owed to practical reason’s self-determination and not to any heteronomous factors. This alignment with practical reason generates a stream of anti-eudaimonism in Kant’s ethics, in which human dignity consists in the capacity of sacrificing one’s own happiness for the fulfilment of obligation, and one’s relation to God is grounded internally through the compliance with moral obligation. Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal realm and the noumenal realm along with his epistemological distinction of the capacity of understanding and reason allow him to reserve a regulative role for the idea of God while restricting its objective validity in accordance with his criterion of significance for the phenomenal realm.
The development of a new human science is another important achievement of the German eighteenth century alongside Kant’s critical philosophy. The historical reliability of biblical narratives was challenged and the narrow-minded salvation history of Jews and Christians was discredited by the universalistic spirit of Enlightenment. But the Lutheran pathos of sincerity prevented the German intellectuals, many of whom came from a Lutheran parsonage, to adopt a detached attitude of irony. Instead, modern philology provided the means to reconstructing the meaning of the Scriptures in response to not just biblical criticism but also Enlightenment universalism. This led to the idea that understanding the word of God is not simply understanding the Bible (literally), but rather the whole history of the human spirit; and the establishment of human science became a religious duty. In this regard, Herder’s contribution to German philosophy is unmistakable, for he gave it a new focus in philosophy of language, history, aesthetics and anthropology. Schiller’s aesthetic theory attributes a moral function to the traditional aesthetic category of beauty, and aesthetic education was conceived as an apolitical alternative to political revolution for the realization of moral ideas and the unification of all spheres of life. Through the Schlegel brothers and Novalis philosophy and poetry achieved an integral and yet anti-systematic cohesion, which became an essential characteristic of early Romanticism. Schleiermacher’s theology of feeling granted religion an autonomous status within human sciences, making it accessible via rational standards for those who had detached themselves from the dogmatic authority of tradition. Humboldt’s linguistic works and his analysis of the relationship between thought and language constitute an important contribution to the German tradition of the philosophy of language. He also played a significant role in the institutionalization of human science in the modern blueprint of the research university.
German idealism is for Hösle the most ambitious philosophical school of thought in the history of German philosophy and he focuses on the three most prominent figures: Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. The philosophizing of each of the three philosophers manifests not just the essential character of religious seriousness that defines the German Spirit, but also the longing for a comprehensive metaphysical system that defies the current prevalent trend of specialization. Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre is a reflexive transcendental philosophy that seeks to uncover (or “deduce”) the implicit presuppositions, or the fundamental principles (and their implications), of the faculties of the mind assumed by Kant’s philosophy. Fichte traces the foundation of the laws of logic (identity and contradiction) in the I’s self-positing and counter-positing act, and all theoretical knowledge is based on the mediation of the divisible I through the divisible not-I. His ethics, like Kant’s, not only recognizes autonomy as the necessary condition for moral acts, but it represents a view more radical than Kant’s in that it does not allow for morally neutral acts. The mutual recognition of the spheres of freedom among individuals is enacted by law; and it is with Fichte that intersubjectivity is deduced for the first time as a necessary condition of autonomous self-consciousness. Practical belief takes priority in his system, as it is the only way to avoid nihilism.
Schelling started out as a Fichtean philosopher but soon broke with Fichteanism by attributing to nature a much higher status than Fichte’s Wissnschaftslehre allowed. Instead of deducing nature as the field of ethical striving for rational beings, Schelling’s objective idealism sees nature and consciousness as manifestations of the Absolute, and the basic structures of reality are conceived as the results of the development of a polar structure. Built on a metaphysical view that seeks to accommodate the real and the ideal, Schelling took inspirations from the contemporary development of natural science and attributed metaphysical significance to its latest discovery. Schelling’s view on religion is closer to traditional Christianity in that he does not content himself with a negative philosophy that postulates God as a logical abstratum but demands a positive account that affirms the vitality of a personal God.
Hegel started his philosophical career as a loyal follower of Schelling’s absolute idealism, but he established it with much greater brilliance and systematic rigor than Schelling was ever able to do. His mature metaphysical system contains three parts: logic, nature and spirit. In contrast to what Hegel calls “the reflective philosophy of subjectivity,” the a priori categories in Hegel’s system are not to be understood as subjective concepts imposed on an objective reality. Instead, reality is conceptually structured, and the categorial structures of reality are not ens rationis from a transcendent realm, but dynamic moments in the teleological self-movement of the Absolute. Thus, the theological significance of Hegel’s Science of Logic is prominent, since the entire system can be taken as an ontological proof of God. Hegel also places intrinsic value on social institutions and intersubjectively shared ways of life.
Schopenhauer is an essential key to understanding the transition from German idealism to Nietzsche. Clearly, his epistemology was influenced by Kant’s subjectivism and the German idealists’ wish to bring the thing-in-itself to light, and he reacted to them with an alternative, pessimistic worldview that parallels Indian Buddhism. His epistemology adopts space, time and causality as our subjective constructions, and takes the will to live for the ultimate ground of reality. Prioritizing intuition over concept and the will over reason and understanding, Schopenhauer sees reality as a series of objectivizations of the will, which is fundamentally driven by unconscious biological drives for procreation and self-preservation. Reason is therefore nothing but a symptom of the will, and human knowing is in continuity with animal knowing. With great philosophical depth and eloquence Schopenhauer expressed Europe’s hangover after the gradual flickering out of Christianity, anticipating Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.
In the wake of Schopenhauer, two Hegelian philosophers emerged and determined the history of European consciousness. Feuerbach’s investigation of the essence of Christianity uncovers contradictory ideas in Christian dogmas. He gives an anthropological explanation of religion, according to which God is the hypostatization of human understanding or moral experience. His critique of Christianity seeks to free humans from “religious alienation” which he sees detrimental to morality. Although Feuerbach was a member of Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, he was not a political activist and the influence of his revolt against Christian dogmatics remained within the intellectual circle. On the other hand, with the goal of changing the world, Marx and Engels left the domain of philosophy. Marx’s historical materialism is directed against German idealism and any metaphysical tradition in philosophy that stands on ideas. From a historical materialist point of view, morality, religion, metaphysics, and the rest of ideology are to be explained externally by social economic activities and conditions. Although Marx’s critique of the modern state and his analysis of the effects of alienation are pioneering, he underestimated the influence the “superstructure” can have on material conditions, leaving human capacity for grasping truth incomprehensible. His claim to be scientific was indefensible, not only because his prediction of communist society did not accord with our experience, but also because his emphasis on the primacy of the economic is one-sided and prejudiced.
The prominence of Nietzsche’s philosophy lies in its attempt to provide a philological explanation of the origin of Greek tragedy, in which he identifies and upholds the irrational element in ancient Greek culture represented by Dionysus. As the Antichrist in the history of German philosophy, Nietzsche is no less critical of metaphysics, morality, and Christianity. According to Hösle’s judgment, Nietzsche’s genealogical account of the emergence of religion and morality contributes to the “the German adventure of crushing the Christian order of values and the creation of an alternative value system that dripped with the desire to kill” (158). Against any universalist democratic ethics, Nietzsche demands a higher culture of the noble and the strong. His doctrine of the superman and his theory of the will to power replace all theological or religious grounding of values and express his rejection of transcendence.
Contrary to Nietzsche’s expressive language, Frege’s concept script was a precision instrument that achieved not only absolute clarity in inference, but it also brought about a logical revolution by attempting to ground arithmetic in logic. Although Frege’s new logic is incomplete and he was forced by Russell’s paradox to abandon his logicistic program, the new logic, compared to the traditional logic, was a much better candidate for providing a foundation for the new science and for accommodating its results and methods. This led to the very fruitful contributions to philosophy of mathematics and philosophy of physics made by the Viennese and Berlin Circles of logical positivism. Characteristic of this movement is its deflationary or anti-realist approach to metaphysical as well as moral statements, such that it recognizes no synthetic a priori judgments. The most prominent figure from this tradition is Wittgenstein, who once claimed that the limits of one’s language mean the limits of one’s world. The logical and mathematical structures underlying our languages reflect the structures of the world. The late Wittgenstein moved away from his early position, but the boundary of philosophy remained for him to be that of our language. His reflections on rule-following led him to conclude that meaning consists in the concrete use of language and not in any inner image, hence also his rejection of the possibility of private language and his reluctance to recognize any individualistic transcendental grounds of language.
Parallel to the development of logical positivism and Wittgenstein, the enterprise of grounding human and social sciences in reaction to the emergence and domination of natural sciences was undertaken by the Neo-Kantian philosophers, Dilthey, Husserl, and others. Hermann Cohen, founder of the Marburg School, gives a rationalistic interpretation of Judaism as a kind of universalist ethics that preserves its originality and at the same time rejects Zionism. Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert from the Baden School were concerned with the status of the knowledge in human and social sciences in contrast to natural sciences and they made important contributions to the investigation of the role of values. Wilhelm Dilthey tries to ground human sciences in an understanding of psychology and offers a critique of historical reason that objectivizes human mind and philosophical systems on an historical dimension without any idealistic commitment to the validity of any single system. Having lost the religious consciousness characteristic of the Protestantism of traditional German philosophy, Dilthey’s historical relativism loses at the same time the religious and ethical claim to absolute truth. Husserl is the most loyal defender of the traditional concept of reason in the 20th century. Having taken up the influences of Brentano’s and Frege’s realism, Husserl’s phenomenology is a scientific philosophy that seeks to determine the foundation of all the sciences without any theological ambitions. On this basis, his analysis of the phenomena of consciousness takes the relationship between meaning and expression seriously, investigates the dependency relation between contents and the laws that are the a priori conditions of meaningfulness. His phenomenology made not only advances in the investigation of the structure of subjectivity and intentionality, his concept of the life-world also offered a modern alternative to transcendental solipsism and a foundation for regional ontologies of essences. Although Husserl himself was not keen on building a comprehensive system, his phenomenology inspired some of his best students to apply it in new domains, e.g. aesthetics and practical philosophy.
Hösle then ponders in chapter 13 the question whether ideas in German philosophy play any role in the rise of National Socialism or in the hindrance of the opposition to it. He sees in the central figures of the German tradition (i.e. Luther and Kant) the lack of a plausible theory of resistance. The recess of universalist ethics brought about by Nietzsche and logical positivism, coupled with the rise of an anti-democratic right after the First World War in response to the threats of communism and British hegemony, contributes to the weakening of the binding power of an ethical order, paving the way to the emergence of a totalitarian regime. In this light, Hösle offers a critical assessment of Heidegger, whose philosophy redefines and undermines the traditional moral sense of terms such as conscience and guilt. His empty notion of resoluteness, even though it does not necessarily lead to National Socialism, is said to have encouraged the radicalization of irrational convictions.
For the Third Reich period, Arnold Gehlen and Carl Schmitt are picked as the determining figures of German philosophy. Gehlen’s pragmatist anthropology, taking into account a broad range of results from various sciences as well as the influence of Fichte but without any transcendental reflection, centers on action and the stabilizing function of social institutions, which are necessary for the constitution of consciousness. However, Gehlen fails to ascribe any moral significance to questioning unjust institutions. Despite the moral repulsiveness of Schmitt’s refusal of denazification after the Second World War, the influence of his political philosophy has to be acknowledged. His competence of intellectual history is unusual for a jurist, which enables him to see the plausible continuity between legal and theological concepts. But Hösle points out that Schmitt’s reference to the absolute decision as the ultimate ground of law is as problematic as Heidegger’s “resoluteness.”
After the Second World War, Germany could no longer retain the special cultural status it enjoyed since Kant. Not only did several intellectuals leave the country, the occupation and integration the country underwent made it impossible to travel further with the especially German philosophical paths. Gadamer’s attempt at breaking out of the aporias of historicism increased confusion in human sciences. Despite his concept of the anticipation of completeness that re-established some hermeneutic sense of truthfulness and his attempt at constructing an equivalent of first philosophy, he inspired the deconstructivist undermining of human sciences. The first Frankfurt School, for which Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno are the best representatives, reacts against the progress-oriented philosophy of history as well as the culture industry, but carries the Marxist ideal of eliminating concrete suffering through a cooperation with empirical sciences. Its lack of a normative foundation following from a rejection of Kantian ethics becomes the main concern of the second Frankfurt School represented by Jürgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel. They seek to ground normativity by a theory of intersubjectivity influenced by American pragmatism. Though much originality can be found in the two Frankfurt Schools’ social critical stance and Hans Jonas’ environmental concern, it becomes clear to Hösle that up to this stage the Spirit of German philosophy has lost much of its earlier appeal.
Hösle’s account of the history of German philosophy shows an admirable intellectual capacity of synthesizing various materials and understanding them in a coherent, unifying manner that pieces together a pessimistic developmental picture. It is a pessimistic picture, because, as the title of the final chapter clearly suggests, it is likely that German philosophy will not exist in the future. Hösle points out sharply and accurately the current conditions of German philosophy that prevent it from having a bright future. The internet culture of our digital era has witnessed an explosion of information and it has become practically impossible to keep track of the works of all intellectuals. This phenomenon significantly dilutes the influence of any intellectual. The trend of specialization in the knowledge industry makes every attempt at system-building untimely and unattractive. And the institutional policy of German universities makes it hard for them to compete with Anglo-American universities, which in comparison offer much better financial support to junior researchers and systematically encourage the academic performance of professors. Given the global trend of technical specialization and the dominance of English as the lingua franca in the academic world, Germany has now become a “second-rate scientific power,” as Hösle put it. It sounds as if German philosophy has already sung its swan song, and what is left for researchers in German philosophy to do is only preservation of this repertoire of valuable ideas, so that these can be carried by the ark of culture “to the salvific shore of a new beginning” when environmental problems force human civilization to start anew.
The diagnosis in the final chapter that German philosophy has come to a dead end is disputable even if one accepts the preceding account of its historical development. One cannot help but suspect that this lament over the withering of German philosophy is rather a consequence of sticking to the letter (viz. the German language), and not the Spirit, of German philosophy. It is not necessary to restrict the domain of German philosophy to only those works written in German. Although most of the canonical works in German philosophy were written in German, making a logically necessary condition out of a genetic factor is a confusion. When the academic lingua franca in Europe was Latin and German philosophy was still in a nascent stage, tracking the intellectuals who first composed philosophical works in German is the philologically reasonable thing to do in recording how German philosophy came into existence. But over the course of development, it has gained worldwide attention and multilingual contributions. One might argue that contributions in foreign languages are not works in German philosophy, but about it. For instance, there are numerous careful and sophisticated exegeses on Kant and Hegel in English and although many of them are excellent scholarly works that are useful to readers of German philosophy, they do not extend the scope of German philosophy nor do they determine its course of further development by adding original insights. And when they do, they count as original works in foreign culture. British idealism and French phenomenology can be seen as prime examples of such cases. However, not every case is as clear. For example, as long as one cares not only about the historical genesis of Kant’s and Hegel’s philosophy but also their validity, ignoring the related works of Peter Strawson, John McDowell, Robert Brandom and others on the ground that they are not German philosophers and their works are not written in German and hence fall outside of the relevant scope, is counterproductive for the prosperity of German idealism. Here we need not draw a rigid line to settle the question whether original, non-German works that take positive reference to German philosophy should be counted as canonical works in German philosophy. Hösle’s historical account informatively and polemically demonstrated what kind of Sonderweg the German spirit has travelled, but this path is not an isolated (abgesondert) one, instead it has many crosses and sometimes even merges with other paths. Perhaps it is not Hösle’s intention to announce the death of German philosophy when he warns of its extinction, and philosophers in this field should heed the warning; but Hösle gives no advice as to how the withering of German philosophy can be avoided (one even has the impression that it is not avoidable at all).
If Hösle were not so insistent on abstracting from his historiography all Anglophone and Francophone influences, he should observe that, in recent years, the porous spirit (now with a small “s”) of German philosophy has crossed other paths, from which it has found new inspirations and directions. Phenomenology and German idealism, two outstanding branches of German philosophy, have seen important transformations after encountering foreign influences. The encounter with speculative realism, neuroscience and cognitive psychology forced phenomenology to defend against naturalistic criticisms or to reconcile them by broadening its own conceptual space. The encounter with American pragmatism, contemporary philosophy of mind and analytic philosophy of language brought idealist philosophers to incorporate ideas from external sources in order to generate a broader and more cogent foundation that would require a conceptual reorientation in epistemology, philosophy of mind, as well as other fields of philosophy. But all these cannot happen without philosophers, who seek not only to study the past history of German philosophy but also to participate in its future course of development, writing and engaging others in English (or other non-German languages), even though it is reasonable to require from them a robust knowledge of the German language. More generally speaking, the institutional structures of philosophy faculties in Germany have become much more diversified, new chairs and institutes that encourage applied ethics and interdisciplinary co-operations on research have been established, to mention only a few; a focus on the interaction of contemporary philosophy of mind and language in Bochum; pioneering works on philosophy of mathematics and science in Munich; analytic German idealism in Leipzig; an interdisciplinary approach to mind and brain in Berlin, etc. Just as it is too early to register these occurrences in any account of the history of German philosophy, it would be premature, too, to say that they evidence its disappearance. German philosophy is no natural object, and as a cultural enterprise undertaken by finite rational beings who do not just think but also feel and will, its essence cannot be the same as that of natural entities.