Peter Sloterdijk is currently one of Germany’s most important and most controversial philosophers, and his work has been emerging in English translations more and more over the past ten years. Polity Press has published quite a bit of Sloterdijk’s work, and its publication of Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger is a much-needed addition for Sloterdijk’s English audience. In this book of essays, lectures, and excerpts, Peter Sloterdijk presents the reader with a collection of thoughts which all swirl around two main concepts: 1. That Heidegger is a fallen soul whose inability to venture from the provincial into the cosmopolitan led him to retreat from the human world; and 2. That only through what Sloterdijk terms the anthropotechnic – the mobilization of the human being – can modern humans find their way in the world and to create of it what they will. In his fashion, through extended dialogues with both the reader and with a wide range of thinkers, as well as a developed depth and breadth of intellectual knowledge – with a literary style that is dense and compelling – Sloterdijk laments the fallen Heidegger, acknowledging and admonishing Heidegger’s embrace of cynical evil, while offering a positive vision of human power based on conscious activity and intelligent creation.
Concerning the first point, the substance of Sloterdijk’s critique of Heidegger is that Heidegger, in eschewing the cosmopolitan city for the village, never fully understood how humanity expands. Instead, Heidegger sought to impede modern growth by insisting on a philosophy of anti-expansion, one in which, according to Sloterdijk in the later works of Heidegger, becomes a parochial return to the Catholic-Augustinian acceptance of the human as a deeply flawed being incapable of overcoming this fall except through some metaphysical/spiritual intercession. Heidegger sought to ground the person in Ursprunglichkeit (origin), but for Sloterdijk this was a false consciousness: The human is anthropotechnic by nature, one whose growth is dependent on creating and recreating itself and its world through constant kinetic movement forward. In this instance, for Sloterdijk, the “The People” is a fiction, as this assumes, like Heidegger, that there is an essential essence which is what connects people together. But if we reject this Heideggerian Ursprunglichkeit for a more mobile ontology, we see that what connects people together is not essential ideology, but rather necessary technics of desire. Here, Peter Sloterdijk writes the following:
We will be dealing with a bit of mythology in which the screenplay for the history of this world begins with its prelude in the beyond. The Augustinian Satan, who represents something like an allegory of negation on a level below the principal, does not resort — this much is certain—to any external motive for his revolt against the origin. He finds everything that is necessary for sedition in himself — to put it more precisely, in his capacity for freedom, his most important endowment. By virtue of this, he can, parodying divine creation ex nihilo, generate his ‘no’ from the abyss of an unmotivated act of the will. Thus one may not ask why and from where he has acquired his evil will. He wills as he will and nothing more. (63)
It is the Augustinian-Satanic human, flawed and always doomed to failure and falling by engaging in degrading and dehumanizing behavior, of itself and of others for which contemporary humans have embodied in the new era. But Sloterdijk both laments and admonishes Heidegger for his own evil. Because Heidegger was afraid to move forward, he therefore had to justify his own failures within this Augustinian-Satanic paradigm, which also allows Heidegger to posit that there are classes of human beings: God and human, rulers and ruled, and breeders and bred.
However, the antithesis to Heidegger’s cynicism is through anthropotechnics and mobilization. Mobilization is a theme throughout Sloterdijk’s main work, and it is also found within the sections of this book as well. This lack of mobilization is what makes Heidegger’s fall to the Augustinian-Satanic figure so much more difficult for Sloterdijk. In the first essay in the book, titled “The Plunge and the Turn: Speech on Heidegger’s Thinking in Motion,” Sloterdijk writes, “With this fanciful sketch, ladies and gentlemen, with this almost ridiculous curriculum of the philosopher educated to the end, I have outlined what Heidegger, The Freiburg professor of philosophy and educator/inspirer of a generation of young thinkers and scholars, never did nor even attempted” (27). It may appear as a strong interpretation of Sloterdijk here, but Heidegger was evil because he was a coward, and Sloterdijk sees this in Heidegers’s own retracting from cosmopolitan human engagement. Sloterdijk lays bare the stark contradiction in Heidegger as he writes, as he lays bare this critique of Heidegger. But Sloterdijk goes further to demonstrate that Heidegger’s retreat into Augustinian solipsism is actually a perversion of Augustine’s own emphasis on movement through mediation. Heidegger selfishly adheres to the retraction part, which is where, according to Sloterdjk, Heidegger’s fear of expansion leads him to fall into the ignorance of the Augustinian-Satanic figure. This misappropriation of Augustine can also be found in Heidegger’s own awestruck admiration for Nietzsche. Heidegger’s affinity for Nietzsche rests within a narrow focus on power in Nietzsche, where Heidegger then mistakes power for the pastoral in Nietzsche. He refers to Heideger’s myth of “path of thought” (41) grounded in the “heroic apprehension of the self” in pseudo-Nietzschean terms, while Sloterdijk then remarks that this is because Heidegger retreats into a philosophy which pleads for salvation while still at the same time cowardly hides behind the fear of mobilization.
Therefore, according to Sloterdijk, Heidegger turned away from thinking and retreated towards a mythic metaphysics, as, according to Heidegger, the human cannot find a path to thought without help. Here we can feel Sloterdijk wrestling with an apologetics for Heidegger as Sloterdijk sees Heidegger as a fallen figure to be pitied. The true power of the human, according to Sloterdijk, is the mobilization towards outward expansion, which itself is a movement towards atmospheric and ecospheric migration, leaving behind the Augustinian for the propulsion into the macrosphere. But Heidegger himself never experienced this, and as such he sought to keep others from experiencing it as well through the appeal to philosophical certainty. Therefore, according to Sloterdijk here in Not Saved, philosophy is the attempt to plot a course, which is what Heidegger got right. But there is not one course, and Sloterdijk reads Heidegger as falling into a trap, in which for Heidegger contemplation is the tension and the kinetics of discovery, not truth. Once the philosopher abandons the search for truth, he becomes the lost soul, never finding the real and substituting that for chasing redemption in exile.
This theme runs throughout the book, in which Heidegger as the Augustinian-Satanic character is prevalent. In the essay “Luhmann, Devil’s Advocate,” Sloterdijk writes that the essentialist nature of Heidegger is exposed through Lumann’s own critique of the Augustinian, in which Luhmann demonstrates he is not afraid of the underlying systems of human ontology. This can also be seen in the essay “The Domestication of Being,” where Sloterdijk contrasts Luhmann to Heidegger by writing “The discourse on the human being in historical anthropology proceeds from the fact that the expression ‘human being’ does not designate any object concerning which one could formulate direct (edifying or lamenting) statements, but rather only presents a conceptual container that, to speak with Luhmann, holds ‘vast complexities’” (98). Here we see Luhmann embracing the macrospheric expanse, where Heidegger seeks to retreat away from this complexity into a mythology of a cynical rejection of human complexity. Here again, Sloterdijk points out that this expansionist thinking was present in Plato and Aristotle as the demiurgic and creative power of the human being.
However, the essay that encapsulates this dichotomy between the fallen Heidegger and the anthropotechnic antithesis is “Rules for the Human Park,” for which Sloterdijk started a controversial war of words between he and Habermas. Habermas raised the criticism that Sloterdijk was relying on the eugenic language of the Nazis, while Sloterdijk would go on to accuse Habermas of fascistically trying to smother Sloterdijk’s main point in the essay: That humanism is based on sophisticated dialogues between others and for which creates the topological space for human identity and human being. In this essay, Sloterdijk returns to the themes he has already raised in Not Saved by focusing on the categorical mistake Heidegger makes in dividing the world into God and human, rulers and ruled, and breeders and bred. Here, Sloterdijk insists that it is through true humanism – the study of the minds of the past and present – that will move the human from being a part of a breeding stock and towards a holistic being.
In “Rules” Sloterdijk writes:
The phenomenon of humanism deserves attention today above all because it recalls—in however veiled and timid a manner—the fact that human beings in high culture are continually engaged by two formative powers at the same time—we would like here, for the sake of simplicity, to designate them simply as inhibiting and disinhibiting influences. The conviction that human beings are ‘impressionable animals’ and that it is hence necessary to get them to come under the right kind of influences belongs to the credo of humanism. The label ‘humanism’ recalls—with false harmlessness—the constant battle for the human being, which is carried out as the struggle between bestializing and taming tendencies. (196)
Here Sloterdijk argues that human beings are “impressionable animals,” alluding to Aristotle’s comments concerning humans as politikon zoon while also harkening back to Plato’s theory of how proper education helps to create the good citizen and the just state. With a specific emphasis on Plato’s regard for rules regarding human political and social conduct, Sloterdijk then argues that human beings are not firstly interested in education, but rather, human beings are like animals who want to engage in the conditions which may breed successful human beings within a political-social topology. As Sloterdijk writes “In his dialogue Politikos—often translated as The Statesman—Plato put forward the Magna Carta of a European pastoral politology . . . Its incommensurable position in the history of thinking about the human being above all consists in the fact that it is conducted as though breeders were having a conversation about work” (207). Therefore, in Plato’s dialogue, Sloterdijk sees the beginning of Heidegger’s turmoil: From its very inception, philosophy has been about creating rules for human consumption. According to Sloterdijk, “Thus this Stranger and his counterpart, the Younger Socrates, devote themselves to the tricky endeavor of placing the politics of the future or the herdsmanship of the city under transparently rational rules” (207). On the surface, one may be tempted to take Habermas’ rejection of Sloterdijk here as true, but that would be facile at best. Sloterdijk is not advocating eugenics or any kind of political-social breeding program; instead, Sloterdijk wants to reorient the anthropology of the breeding human towards a positive and forward thinking humanism.
To do this, Sloterdijk begins the essay by defining humanism as “What from Cicero’s time onward has been called humanitas belongs, in the narrowest and broadest senses, to the consequences of literacy . . . It has allowed its writing to continue like a chain letter across generations” (193). From this point, Sloterdijk moves into a sustained critique of Heidegger, specifically Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism.” Sloterdijk begins by acknowledging the vast gratitude he has for Heidegger in general, but from there begins to criticize Heidegger for allowing the humanism of philosophical discourse degenerate into attacks against humanity in general. Sloterdijk writes:
A part of Heidegger ’s strategy thereby becomes manifest: the word ‘humanism’ must be given up if the actual task of thought, which in the humanist or metaphysical tradition wanted to appear as though it had already been accomplished, is to be experienced once more in its initial simplicity and inevitability. To put it sharply: why again tout the human being and his prevailing philosophical self-depiction in humanism as the solution when it has just been shown in the catastrophe of the present that it is the human being himself, along with his systems of metaphysical self-elevation and self-explanation, that is the problem? (198)
Here Sloterdijk once more takes Heidegger to task for not directly engaging in humanity, or rather from disengaging from humanity. The critique here is based on Heidegger’s Post-War status as a former Nazi in exile, rather than the esteemed philosopher Heidegger used to be. We must now realize that Sloterdijk is wrestling with both Heidegger the philosopher and Heidegger the historical figure, and for Sloterdijk both of these positions come together in Heidegger’s work in general. Because Heidegger always saw philosophy as a provincially elitist activity, Sloterdijk now contends that Heidegger never fully understood the true quality of human activity: To create humanism. Humanism, even in the face of Sloterdijk’s own arguments concerning breeding in this essay, is the rule for human activity.
In order to affect this new concept of humanism, Sloterdijk must also focus on the concept of anthropotechnics and its mobilization as the power of humanism. Therefore, the other philosophical archetype in this essay for Sloterdijk is Nietzsche, for whom Sloterdijk views as the antithesis for the cynical Heidegger. Sloterdijk asserts that it is through Nietzsche that Heidegger’s rejection of Plato’s concept of education is now understood as a human breeding system which arranges the material world by strict rules of hierarchy of powers, both material and phemonenological. Sloterdijk’s use of Nietzsche in this essay leads him to advance a radical critique rooted in a position posited strictly against the inhuman form of late modernism itself. For example, Sloterdijk writes that “The era of modern humanism as the model for schooling and formative education is over with, because the illusion can no longer be maintained that large political and economic structures could be organized on the amiable model of the literary society” (195). Modern society – which for Sloterdijk is the contemporary world of late and hyper capital – is awash in Heidegger’s cynicism: Instead of embracing humanism and the good, the modern age has followed Heidegger down the rabbit hole and into a world where there is no human good to truly discuss. Because Heidegger sees his own failure as a failure of ideas, so to then the modern world must be bereft of ideas for Heidegger to hide his own cynical, evil Nazi persona. Again, according to Sloterdijk’s critique of Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism,” Heidegger hides his shame behind the Augustinian-Satanic figure by shifting the blame onto an abstract concept of evil rooted in anti-humanism.
From this point in the essay, Sloterdijk begins to unpack Nietzsche for the reader. For Nietzsche:
In contrast, Nietzsche—who read Darwin and St. Paul with equal attention—thinks that he perceives a second, darker horizon behind the bright horizon of the formation of the human being in schools. He perceives a space in which inevitable battles over directions of human breeding will begin—and it is this space in which the other, veiled aspect of the clearing is revealed . . . He [Nietzsche] wants to call the proprietors of the monopoly on taming up to this point—the priests and teachers who present themselves as friends of the human being—by their name and to designate their secret function; he wants to launch a world-historically new kind of contest between different breeders and different kinds of breeding programs. (204)
Sloterdijk’s understanding of Nietzsche here is a complex articulation of both the fundamental problem within political philosophy – philosophy as regulator of human activity – and what Sloterdijk sees as Nietzsche’s strength: The human as anthropotechnic and mobile. Sloterdijk demonstrates that Heidegger’s cynical rejection of humanism has wrestled humanity away from its own consciousness by technologizing human labor and regulating human congregation, specifically through modern capital’s control over media and the phantasy worlds they create. By reproducing text itself not as a phenomenon of human cognitive self-positioning but as a measurable quantity of human worth and dignity, reproducible within technological apparatuses, human being can be controlled through the architecture of modern capital itself. Plato and Heidegger posit that rules must come from specialized types of ruler, referred to as breeders, for which Sloterdijk questions whether or not the breeders become a different species altogether, as Heidegger also differentiates between human and animal species, effectively rendering any discussion of consciousness from the later.
The result in the essay “Rules for the Human Park” is that Sloterdijk comes back to the concept of humanism as not a set of rules but the means to create human spaces. Sloterdijk writes:
It is the signature of the technological and anthropotechnological era that human beings become increasingly involved in the active or subjective side of selection, without having to be voluntarily thrust into the role of the selector. Additionally, one may observe that there is an unease in the power of choice; soon it will become an instance of opting for innocence when human beings explicitly refuse to exercise the power of selection that they have in fact managed to achieve. But as soon as powers of knowledge are positively developed in a field, human beings cut a poor figure if they—as in earlier times of incapacity—wish to allow a higher force, whether it be God or chance or something else, to act in their stead. Since mere refusals and dismissals generally fail in their sterility, in the future it will arguably be necessary to actively enter the game and formulate a code of anthropotechnics. Such a code would even retroactively transform the significance of classical humanism—since it would disclose and put in writing the fact that humanitas not only involves the friendship of human being with human being; it always implies as well—and with growing explicitness—that the human being represents the higher force for the human being. (206)
Sloterdijk’s reading here of psycho-socio culture is as an aggressive purveyor and user of cynicism against philosophy as humanism and humanity as biological. In this case, the human is not a self-creating being with anthropotechnic power, but rather is a product of a radical barrier which cuts off from the self its desire to create, maintain, and sustain its own ontology. Humanism is recognized here by Sloterdijk as the extended dialogue with past minds and as the concretization of the ideal through this mobilized poesis. Therefore, the antithesis for Heidegger’s cynicism is for human beings to return to true humanism and become the very spirit for which has to overcome its current bioorganic-technological existence. Instead of creating categorically false differences between classes of breeders and those who are bred, mobilization becomes the activity for consciousness to embody and extend itself into the material through a synthesis of anthropotechnic root structures.
The selections of the essays, lectures, and excerpts from Sloterdijk’s works here in Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger provides the reader with a sustained critique of Heidegger while also clearing a path towards unity between human and world. The uncovering of Heidegger as a fallen figure allows Sloterdijk to posit a philosophy of mobility and movement forward, and the analysis of the anthropotechnic – the self-creating mobile human being – becomes the action and the activity for which we as modern humans find mobility. The translation of these pieces by Ian Alexander Moore and Christopher Turner is sensitive to Sloterdijk’s style while at the same time offering English readers the ability to savor Sloterdijk’s literary approach to philosophy. The book itself is not a primer for Sloterdijk, as it presents essays, lectures, and selections as pieces of an extended argument, as well as the nature of Sloterdijk’s dense prose, which is never stultifying but rather engaging and erudite. However, the translators are keenly aware of this as well, and as a general introduction to Sloterdijk’s methodology and concepts, this book is essential for anyone interested in one of the contemporary world’s most prescient, prolific, and prominent philosophers.
Sloterdijk, P. (2017). Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger. Cambridge: Polity Press.