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Hans Saner is both an original thinker and a link to the great days of existentialism. Filiz Peach asked him about his relationship with Karl Jaspers, and about the future of philosophy.
Thinkers are often not fully appreciated during their lifetimes. One example is the Swiss philosopher, Professor Hans Saner. It is regrettable that his name is hardly known in the English-speaking world – for on the Continent of Europe his scholarship and his original contributions to philosophy are widely recognised. Those few in Britain and North America who do encounter his work usually do so as a result of an interest in existentialism, and particularly if they are interested in the ideas of the great existentialist Karl Jaspers (1883-1969). Jaspers himself has also been rather neglected in the Englishspeaking countries, but is widely regarded as one of the three leading figures of 20th century existentialism, along with Heidegger and Sartre. The connection between Saner and Jaspers is an important one; Saner was Jaspers’ last personal assistant at Basle University between 1962 and 1969.
Hans Saner’s contribution to our understanding of Jaspers’ philosophy is invaluable. He has written, published and edited a vast amount about it, and he has a vivid way of explaining Jaspers’ sometimes obscure and difficult concepts and views. He sometimes resorts to diagrams and arrows to map out the relationship between Jaspers’ concepts of Dasein, Existenz, Transcendence, Reason, and so forth.
Saner’s contributions to philosophy are not limited to the analysis and clarification of Jaspers’ philosophy, and he has written and published a great deal on art, science, religion and politics too. In my view, Die Anarchie der Stille, which is described as ‘philosophy as experimental thinking’, is where his particular style and wit are best exemplified. In it, one finds his thoughts on various themes written in short paragraphs and aphorisms. Alas, it has not yet been translated into English.
Professor Saner, could you tell our readers where your main philosophical interests lie?
In the history of philosophy my main interests are in Spinoza, Kant, Jaspers and Hannah Arendt – and in systematic philosophy they are in problems of anthropological, political, aesthetic and cultural philosophy.
You are an eminent authority on the philosophy of Karl Jaspers. What, to your mind, was the most important contribution which the existential philosophy of Karl Jaspers made in the 20th century?
In the early years it was without doubt the philosophy of boundary situations in its tension with existential communication. In the later years I see his greatest importance in opening up European philosophy to non-European thought and in the critical destruction of all philosophies, ideologies and beliefs which tended towards closed and totalitarian structures.
In what respect, if at all, has Jaspers’ philosophy influenced your own thinking?
For me his philosophy opened the prison-gates which every human being carries in his head; it has given me a consciousness of the architecture of reality and of how to think about reality. An even more forceful impact, however, was meeting the man. He was a sovereign and eloquent partner in conversation, who possessed an unequalled culture of precise listening and clear responding. At that time I was young and still almost inexperienced in thinking, and he seemed to me like the very incarnation of philosophy.
How do you assess the relation between the theoretical and the practical task of philosophy in society?
The tasks of theoretical and practical philosophy in society are the same. They clarify our conscious thought and give it orientation in the world. It seems to me therefore that theory and practice ought to be combined in all philosophising. They are, as Jaspers has said, the two wings of thought. If one is missing, the practical becomes flat or the theoretical unworldly. When they move together you never know which one contributes more to the fulfilment of their tasks
What is your prediction for the future of philosophy?
That it will be needed.
Then what, to your mind, is the main task of a philosopher?
That he, within his powers, contributes to enlightening his time and that he has the courage and independence to say what he thinks.
What have we been able to learn from the 20th century?
That there must never again be a world war or a war among the great European states; that we have an obligation to resist when we are being forced into political obedience; also that we can do more than we are allowed to do; that freedom without justice causes too great a misfortune to too many people, as does freedom without reason; that, however, equality without freedom is the misfortune of all.
Do you believe that philosophers in the new millennium will have to attend to new tasks and new responsibilities?
Certainly there will be new technologies which will give rise to new moral problems. The world population is going to drastically increase, and available resources are going to decrease. Ecological problems are going to be aggravated. The economically less developed peoples are going to make their claims. The poor in Europe are going to storm the stock markets like the third estate once stormed the Bastille. In the background, however, the ancient questions are going to remain: Where do we come from? Why do we live? What is going to become of the world? Where are we going? And philosophers will be right back at the beginning and will be as puzzled as ever.
Do you envision a significant globalisation of philosophy in the near future?
The kind of philosophy which would lend itself to globalisation would have to be a world philosophy. I don’t mean a philosophy which spread throughout the whole world, but instead a kind of thinking capable of comprehending everything that is thought and has been thought in the world. Only such a philosophy of understanding could be global without coersion. Any philosophy, however, which wanted to gain world-wide acceptance, would be accompanied by a claim to power and would, in its attempts to be implemented, resort to force. This kind of philosophical imperialism would be ideological and deeply counter-rational. It would be a catastrophe, whether it was called analytical philosophy, deconstructionism or postmodernism.
Thanks for the interview.
[Filiz Peach is working on a PhD on Karl Jaspers’ views on death.]
[Interview translated from the German by Anja Steinbauer.]