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Philosophical Rumblings in the German Republic: Der Philosophenstreit

Mark Peacock reports on a massive public row involving philosophy, history, language and genetic engineering.

Intellectual opinion plays a remarkably important role in German political debates, especially when they concern German history and its ramifications; a good example was the discussion surrounding the erection of a national monument to the victims of the Holocaust. Conversely, debates of a more narrowly ‘intellectual’ nature are often conducted in the German press; the Historikerstreit in 1986, in which historians debated the ‘uniqueness’ of the Holocaust, is a case in point. The latest episode in this tradition of public debate is a Philosophenstreit, the peculiar course of which shows how academic opinion can send tremors through an entire nation.

The central player is Peter Sloterdijk, author and professor of aesthetics in Karlsruhe. A somewhat renegade figure, he came to public attention with his bestselling Critique of Cynical Reason (1983). His lively rhetoric and iconoclastic message make him an exponent of the ‘dangerous thinking’, which he holds to be a duty of the thinker. Paradigmatic here, for Sloterdijk, are Nietzsche and Plato. In July, Sloterdijk delivered a paper to the ‘Exodus from Being: Philosophy after Heidegger’ conference in Bavaria. Stripped of its philosophical analysis, the thesis of the paper, ‘Rules for the Human Zoo’, reads thus: classical humanism was an attempt to educate people through literature, thus rescuing civilisation from barbarism. Humanism’s educational programme was one of taming-through-reading. The era of humanism is over, claims Sloterdijk; as a taming medium, literature has been superseded by mass media which convey sounds and images which are anything but civilising. This raises the question: What can tame humanity when humanism fails to fulfil this role?

Sloterdijk describes how the humanist project, prior to the age of universal literacy, consisted of a literary elite cultivating the mass after its own image; ‘lection’ cannot be divided from ‘se-lection’; the ‘production of people’ via ‘taming’ and ‘breeding’ lies at the heart of humanism’s educational mission. Hence humanity, or its ‘main cultural fraction’, is (and always has been) master to itself, a role which cannot be attributed to God or fate. In the future, humanity must “take up the game actively and formulate a codex of anthropotechnics” with which the breeding process can be continued by other means. The future of humanity will be one of “species-political decisions” in which the ability of humanity to tame its bestial impulses will be put to the test. Irrespective whether it comes to ‘genetic reform of species characteristics’ or ‘prenatal selection’, our future dawns upon us with such issues.

Isolated newspaper articles criticising Sloterdijk’s ‘fascistoid’ tones appeared in July, but they were not to foretell of the coming debacle. Only in September, when Thomas Assheuer of Die Zeit added his voice to the criticism did the debate take a new turn. Assheuer accused Sloterdijk of advocating the creation of an elite band of philosophers and geneticists which, using breeding and selection techniques, would execute a genetic revision of the species. Sloterdijk responded, exasperated by Assheuer’s interpretation of the text, which Sloterdijk was not content to attribute to bad reading alone: the journalist’s alarmist tone, wrote Sloterdijk, had been undertaken at the behest of a ‘third party’ who had been pulling the media’s strings without revealing his identity. In the same issue of Die Zeit Sloterdijk assuaged our burning curiosity as to the identity of this mystery person with an open letter to Germany’s leading intellectual figure, Jürgen Habermas. Habermas, alleged Sloterdijk, had engineered a conspiracy by circulating bootleg copies of the text (which Sloterdijk had not released for public perusal) to colleagues and journalists, upon whom Habermas had impressed his own misreading, whilst simultaneously urging a call-to-arms against Sloterdijk. “For a theorist of democratic dialogue this is unthinkable”, remarked Sloterdijk. Critical Theory and its leading exponent had shown its true, Jacobin colours, he averred, and declared that Critical Theory is dead; it died on 2 September 1999, the day on which Assheuer’s article appeared. The date coincided almost exactly with the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Institut für Sozialforschung in Frankfurt – the cradle of Critical Theory.

A week later Habermas responded. He took Sloterdijk to task for not addressing Assheuer’s ‘critique’, and alleged that Sloterdijk was not the ‘harmless bioethicist’ which he presents himself to be. Habermas then rebutted Sloterdijk’s “amusing ghost story”, writing that the latter overestimates both Habermas’ influence and his interest in Sloterdijk’s work. Sloterdijk has since reiterated that he is the victim of ‘left-fascist agitation’. Philosophers and geneticists are now busy addressing Sloterdijk’s thesis in the press, some in a mocking, others an outraged, tone. A new subplot has also emerged: in his letter to Habermas, Sloterdijk claimed that Habermas’ ‘hypermoralism’ and the ‘culture of suspicion and accusation’ in Germany have lost their relevance for the post-war generations and act as fetters on free thinking. Some commentators (in Die Zeit in particular) interpret this as an attack on the whole post-war political culture of the Bundesrepublik.

For the non-German observer, the Streit is most remarkable for the fact that it currently rages in at least eight German broadsheets or news magazines (twice as the front page story) as well as in the Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung, not to mention numerous TV and radio broadcasts. This bespeaks a fundamentally different intellectual culture to that in Britain or the U.S. Why can one scarcely imagine British or American philosophers making headline news in this way? Three answers suggests themselves:

Germans, for obvious reasons, are more aware of, and critical towards, their past. Those who fail to exercise this critical attitude to its full extent fall prey to sharp critique emanating not only from left-liberal quarters. In the last years a number of public figures have felt the force of such critique.

Habermas commands enormous respect in Germany, not only in academic circles, but also in public life. Indeed, the Frankfurt School generally has exerted great influence in shaping that public life. The category ‘public intellectual’ applies to Habermas as it does to nobody in Britain or the U.S. The sensational nature of Sloterdijk’s allegations is due, in large part, to this fact.

Finally, the German press carries debates which elsewhere might be banished to the pages of academic journals, or, more likely, not take place at all. Indeed, there is no clear equivalent in Britain or North America to the Feuilletons in German newspapers which are central fora for political discussion in which intellectual opinion is voiced in the public sphere.

Whether the Sloterdijk debate will yield any interesting conclusions is yet to be seen. That it is taking place at all is edifying to those of us concerned with the role of the intellectual in the public sphere.

© Mark Peacock 2000

Mark Peacock works at the Institute for Economics and Philosophy, Witten/Herdecke University, Germany.

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