Sunday, November 12, 2006

Philosophy in Germany

Simon Critchley and Axel Honneth

SC: Simply as a way of initially organizing our discussion, we both agreed to read a short article by Dieter Henrich that appeared in Merkur in his philosophy column, 'Eine Generation im Abgang' ('A Passing Generation').1 Henrich rightly claims that a change of generations is coming to an end in German philosophy, which is most clearly marked by the retirement of Jürgen Habermas in 1994 and the death of Hans Blumenberg in 1996. But we might also speak of a wider generational change that would include Karl- Otto Apel, Ernst Tugendhat, Michael Theunissen and Niklas Luhmann, as well as figures like Otto Poeggeler and Robert Spaemann. Almost all of this generation are now retired, and it is at the moment unclear who and what will take their place.

As Henrich explains, the oldest and the youngest of this generation are only separated by about fifteen years, and most of then came out of three philosophical schools - Bonn, Münster and Heidelberg. Gadamer's name, and his brand of urbane Heideggerianism, should also be mentioned in this postwar conjuncture, although he precedes the generation we are talking about. Before moving on to the question of how the contemporary philosophical scene looks in Germany, we might perhaps begin with Henrich's description of what the 'passing generation' had in common. First and foremost, despite their obvious philosophical and ideological differences, what they shared was a common context: the overwhelming presence of the trauma and catastrophe of National Socialism. Thinking of Habermas, if one reads a fascinating early piece from 1961 on 'Der deutsche Idealismus der jüdischen Philosophen' ('The German Idealism of Jewish Philosophers'), it reveals the postwar philosophical ambition to reconcile Jews and Germans.2 But Henrich puts the issue in the following terms:

With these considerations in mind one has really understood what the first task of young philosophers in postwar Germany had to be: essentially they worked in order to maintain or restore the worldwide credibility of thinking in the German language. Alongside music, philosophy was for a long time the most significant cultural export good of Germany. Since Kant, German philosophy has distinguished itself through a basic style of investigation that always ended in a synthesis in answer to questions of principle, limit and life.3
To this demand for synthesis, we might also add the requirement of universalism and the method of rational argumentation. So it would seem that it is through a rationally achieved synthesis with a universalist scope that German philosophy responds to the catastrophe of National Socialism; and this is combined with an overwhelming fear of relativism and irrationalism, which always seems to go together with the fear of reducing the wissenschaftlich ('scientific') character of philosophy, or the reduction of philosophy to what Henrich calls 'Literarisierung' ('making literary'). In your view, is this a fair characterization of German philosophy in the postwar period?

AH: Yes, I think it is to a certain degree, but maybe it is not broad or differentiated enough. As is indicated by the Habermas article you mentioned, there was not only the search for the restoration of a certain kind of credibility; there was also from the beginning among some of that postwar generation the ambition to address and clarify the moral disaster of National Socialism. There was therefore not only the attempt to regain the great German tradition in the sense of the Kantian heritage but also to regain or overcome the separation from the Jewish tradition, which was highly specific and extremely important for the whole of German philosophy at the beginning of the century. This was not only an enterprise of Habermas, but others too, who attempted to reconstruct the specifically Jewish element in German philosophy. If you take the example of someone like Michael Theunissen, he spent a lot of energy in his first major work - the book on the Other - reconstructing the work of Martin Buber, and that was intentional.4 It was meant to overcome the separation between the Jewish tradition and the German situation after the Second World War. This is something totally excluded from the picture given by Henrich.

The other thing that he underestimates is, let us say, the moral dimension of the early period of German philosophy after the Second World War, after the disaster or catastrophe. This is something best described by Karl-Otto Apel in a famous article which I strongly recommend.5 There Apel describes his own enterprise - namely, the search for a universal ground for moral principles of respect and autonomy - as a response to, and a clarification of, the moral dimension of the disaster. So there was also the moral dimension in that whole postwar period, and this is also not clearly enough indicated by Henrich. That is very closely connected with people in Bonn. I mean, if you take the three universities mentioned by Henrich, then one should be careful to differentiate between these places. For example, it is interesting that in Münster from very early on - the middle of the 1950s I think - there were several people trying to come into contact with Carl Schmitt. It is hard to explain why suddenly, in a group of younger people, there was this interest in the work of Schmitt when they were all aware that he had been deeply involved in the fascist juridical administration. These people were no longer connected to the fascist world; they were trying to be liberals, democratic liberals. I think one can explain this interest in Schmitt because he was the only one who participated in fascism who never publicly regretted having done so. This made Schmitt quite singular because all the others - Gehlen and even Heidegger - were either silenced by their involvement, or very quickly became converts to the new regime. So, to complicate Henrich's picture, this interest in Schmitt at Münster, which came out of the circle of Joachim Ritter, led to a very fruitful, although not unproblematic, relation to the prewar past. All I want to say is that Henrich's picture is not differentiated enough. I think it is rather simplistic to say that the main ambition of postwar German philosophy was to regain credibility; there were so many other motives, moral motives. There was also the motive of finding one's place in a culture increasingly influenced by the United States. One should not forget the continuation of the Heideggerian tradition to an incredible degree in the postwar period. In Bonn, where Habermas and Apel were students, the influence of Heidegger was striking. Habermas and Apel started as what we might call left Heideggerians. If one adds these additional elements to Henrich's picture, then I think it is basically correct.

SC: OK. But what about the desire for synthesis that Henrich talks about. Does this define the postwar period of German philosophy?

AH: Yes. I think what was still very important, and almost seen as self-evident in that period, is that any philosophical enterprise requires synthetic power. I wouldn't reduce that requirement uniquely to Kant's philosophy, as it is a very traditional idea of German philosophy that you have to construct your own system. You have to find your own theory, your own philosophical position. This was a requirement not explicitly formulated but deeply internalized. So it was true that almost all the main figures in the generation we are speaking of had the strong belief that they had to formulate their own systematic philosophical position during the next ten or twenty years. This was indeed as it has been in the prewar period, where you had Husserl or Nikolai Hartmann or Heidegger; where you not only had philosophical teachers and professional philosophers, but strong philosophical positions connected to specific persons. Each one stood for a whole programme, and you could describe the philosophical landscape with reference to persons who represented clearly demarcated positions, discrete forms of synthesis. It was clearly understood that in order to find your own synthetic position, your own new and original position, you had to rework the philosophical tradition. Originality was the requirement both before and after the war.

Published in Radical Philosophy

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