Diversity in Philosophy. Martin Lenz in conversation with Catherine Newmark (podcast)

[Catherine Newmark kindly invited me for a conversation with the radio station Deutschlandfunk Kultur. Here is a link to the audio file and a brief summary in German.* Below you’ll find a rough translation of the summary.]

Diversity in Philosophy: Who is read, who belongs?

How diverse is philosophy? The canon is still dominated by European white men. The establishment is remarkably homogeneous in terms of gender, origin and class. There are solid reasons for this, says philosopher Martin Lenz.

Is the history of philosophy really just a collection of “dead white men”? For some years now, criticism has increasingly been voiced against the canon of texts that are authoritative for seminars, curricula and public debates: The perspective is much too narrow. Female thinkers and people of colour, for example, are not represented enough with their points of view. Non-European perspectives are ignored.

Competition for very few jobs

The diversity of those who do philosophy is not balanced either. In the workplace, it is still predominantly white men, mostly of European descent, who set the tone, is one reproach. Moreover, in the competition for the few positions at universities, it is mostly people with an educated middle-class background who come out on top, while applicants from other social classes are left behind.

The philosopher Martin Lenz, professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, has himself had ambivalent experiences with classism in academia. In a short text for the blog “FirstGenPhilosophers – Philosophy in the First Generation” of the Free University of Berlin, he looks back on his educational path: how often he, whose parents did not study, was tempted to hide his origins, he says, he only realised in retrospect.

Reduction of equal opportunities

“When I studied, signs were pointing to permeability (Durchlässigkeit),” says Lenz. In the 1970s and 80s, there were “active attempts to attract people from all backgrounds to the university.” In the meantime, however, this development is being pushed back in the name of “elites”, “excellence” and competition. Today, the standard of “employability” is increasingly being applied internationally, i.e. the demand that studies must optimally prepare students for a specific profession, according to Lenz. The classical educational ideal is thus giving way more and more to a “training ideal”.

As far as the canon of philosophical texts and topics is concerned, Lenz observes that diversity in teaching itself is already quite advanced. For his students in Groningen, it is “now completely natural” to look beyond the horizon of Western philosophy. “They are growing up with the fact that philosophy is a global occurence,” says Lenz.

Too little incentive for discovery

The fact that the inclusion of new voices in the canon is progressing only very slowly, however, also has very practical reasons, Lenz emphasises. For example, established figures of the history of philosophy simply benefit from the fact that their texts are critically edited, translated, annotated and flanked by extensive secondary literature, i.e. they are easily accessible.

In order to edit and publish texts that have received little attention up to now, one needs strong qualifications, experience and a great deal of time. However, this important work is hardly rewarded in academia. No one earns permanent positions or professorships with it. Another factor in the cementing of the canon is the tendency towards conservative appointment procedures at universities.

“We choose our past”

The current debates on diversity at least show that a canon is never set in stone, says Lenz: “Our commemorative culture is not designed to be complete. We don’t try to think of everything, but we try to think of what we take to be important.” And the question of what we consider important is definitely subject to changing insights and interests, so in this sense we “choose our past”.

So if today, for example, we want to remember a thinker like David Hume not only as “a great philosopher”, but strive for a more differentiated view and “just also remember that this is someone who was involved in the slave trade, then that is also a choice of how we want to remember.”

______

* Here the audio file can be accessed directly:

Diversität in der Philosophie Wer wird gelesen, wer gehört dazu? (Deutschlndfunk Kultur)

Education versus employability. A reply to Daniel James Țurcaș and others

Common sense: why don’t you practise your violin more? You are really talented.

Also common sense: why would you waste your time practising a musical instrument, if you can’t sustain a living from it?

***

Taken together, these two questions express everything that is wrong with our education system. The reason is that there are two largely disparate sets of values at work: while the first question expresses educational values, the second is driven by concerns of what now often goes under the heading of employability. While many European education systems pride themselves on fostering the first set, they ultimately honour the second set. The two questions jumped at me when trying to figure out what’s wrong with meritocratic hero narratives designed to empower first-generation students. In reply to my previous piece a number of people have pointed out that it’s basically a Good Thing to spread stories by first-generation academics, the reason being that it might ultimately allow for sharing struggles and rasing awareness. I agree that such stories might be empowering etc. but something keeps nagging me. So here it is:

Academic success as a student follows a different logic than success as an academic employee. Performing well as a student can be honoured by, by and large, academic standards. Even if studying is often competitive, students do not need to compete, because, at least in principle, grades, even good ones, are not a limited resource. By contrast, academic employment is strongly limited. Therefore, academics compete in a zero-sum game. Arguably, then, empowerment for first-gen students might work very well for student success, but it probably has nothing to offer when it comes to employment. My worry is that empowerment through first-gen stories might be taken as a recipe or empowerment for the job market, when in fact it mostly speaks to values that hold or should hold in educational contexts.

Here is what I wrote about these different sets of values two years ago: Most education systems hold a simple promise: If you work hard enough, you’ll get a good grade. While this is a problematic belief in itself, it is a feasible idea in principle. The real problem begins with the transition from education to employment relations in academia. If you have a well performing course, you can give all of your thirty students a high grade. But you can’t give thirty applicants for the same position the job you’ve advertised, even if all the applicants are equally brilliant. Now the problem in higher education is that the transition from educational rewards to employment rewards is often rather subtle. Accordingly, someone not getting a job might draw the same conclusion as someone not getting a good grade.

It is here that we are prone to fallacious reasoning and it is here that especially academic employers need to behave more responsibly: Telling people that “the best candidate” will get the job might too easily come across like telling your first-year students that the best people will get a top grade. But the job market is a zero sum game, while studying is not. (It might be that there is more than just one best candidate or it might be impossible for the employer to determine who the best candidate is.) So a competition among students is of a completely different kind than a competition between job candidates. But this fact is often obscured. An obvious indicator of this is that for PhD candidates it is often unclear whether they are employees or students. Yet, it strikes me as a category mistake to speak about (not) “deserving” a job in the same way as about deserving a certain grade or diploma. So while, at least in an ideal world, a bad grade is a reflection of the work you’ve done, not getting a job is not a reflection of the work you’ve done. There is no intrinsic relation between the latter two things. Now that doesn’t mean that (the prospect of doing) good work is not a condition for getting a job, it just means that there is no relation of being deserving or undeserving.

Or to put the same point somewhat differently, while not every performance deserves a good grade, everyone deserves a job.

Between coming out and self-praise? The meritocratic ring of first-generation stories

Recently, I took part in an initiative concerning first-generation academics. As I took it, the idea was that established professors take the lead in talking about their special experiences and career paths in view of their non-academic backgrounds. The idea strikes me as good and empowering. Although people from non-academic backgrounds have significantly fewer chances of upward social mobility, let alone landing a sustainable position in academia, it is not impossible. Given this, it makes sense to raise awareness for the specific obstacles and stigma, yes, stigma, and perhaps to encourage those sitting on the fence about giving it a try. All the power to empowerment, of course. But is that really the effect of this kind of initiative? Here are some doubts.

“Aren’t you mostly engaging in self-praise?” Thus spoke my interlocutor after reading some of the professorial testimonials showing that they “had made it”. I explained at length how I hoped that these stories would help starting a conversation, eventually empowering some people from similar backgrounds and enlightening those unaware of first-gen issues. What’s not to like? “Well,” my interlocutor retorted, “of course, these are good intentions. But who is the intended audience of these testimonials?” Initially, I took my interlocutor’s criticism of self-praise to be totally unfair. In my view, class separations had tightened rather than loosened, so what could be wrong about raising awareness?

Listening to myself, my answers began to ring hollow soon, though: Who would read this? And wasn’t my story really just like patting myself on the back. Would it not just come across like any old meritocratic hero story? ‘Look, I’ve made it, despite …’ The American Dream all over again. Of course, this sounds too harsh. Reading all the stories by others (and not just professors), there were lots of intriguing perspectives. So one effect of this initiative might be that of normalising talk about diverse backgrounds. That would be good indeed. But while normalisation of such talk might be desirable, it doesn’t shed any light on the actual mechanisms obstructing social mobility. Indeed, thinking back, what really made a difference for me was not the opportunity to talk about my background but the political efforts allowing for social mobility within schools and financial support.

Now you might object that I’m misunderstanding such initiatives. While social mobility is hampered by lack of political and financial support, it is also hampered by stigma and more subtle forms of social oppression. These issues are addressed by such initiatives. The situation for first-gen students and academics will not only be improved by throwing money at it, but by normalising such backgrounds. But will it really?

Looking back at the situation I was met with as a student, what helped me most was, among many other things, the then widespread idea that it doesn’t matter where you come from. This idea is ingrained in countless songs, stories, and pop culture at large that accompanied my youth. It carries an enticing promise: the promise that you can just invent yourself – irrespective of who your parents or your ancestry are. Rather than highlighting my background (which I didn’t feel very connected to anyway), then, I felt empowered by the assumption that my background doesn’t matter. When I say in my testimonial that I was lucky to have grown up in a politically empowering environment, I partly refer to this idea. The political birth of this idea is probably linked to 1968, stressing a cut with previous generations especially in Nazi Germany. By the 1970s and 1980s, it probably had taken some hold in educational institutions.

Now you might rightly object that this idea, while perhaps desirable, is not true of the class differences that now rule many educational decisions. To this I’d reply that even back then ‘when I was young’, this idea was not true of most political mechanisms. The ties to the Nazi past were not really cut and we still had strong class differences. The point of the idea that your ancestry doesn’t matter is that it was a normative idea. It shouldn’t matter where you come from, even if it still did.

But if your class or ancestry shouldn’t matter, then what good does it do to focus on the differences in backgrounds? Thinking about this, I realise I’m torn about first-generation initiatives. On the one hand, I really believe that normalisation of such talk might help individuals in navigating through their environments. On the other hand, I worry that I end up normalising meritocratic drivel instead.

Yet again, while class origins (and the meritocratic hero narratives about overcoming them) shouldn’t matter, they do make a difference. While good education should be available to everyone and not hampered by origins, educational paths are often construed as stories of overcoming one’s origins. The Latin roots of “education” in the verbs “educare” (“to train”) and “educere” (“to lead out”) insinuate as much. If this is correct, education means at least partly leaving behind one’s origins.

In this sense, stories about educational paths will probably remain, at least to some degree, stories about leaving one’s origins behind. The very term “first-generation student” or “academic” has this narrative baked into it. So yes, keep talking about origins, but don’t forget to fight for political and financial support.

***

Many thanks to Daniel James Țurcaș and Barbara Vetter for launching the recent FirstGenPhilosophers initiative of the Gesellschaft für Analytische Philosophie (GAP), and to Marija Weste for inspiring conversations on the topic. – As it happens, this blog is now nearly four years old. So special thanks also to all my readers and interlocutors.

Just a joke? A pseudonymous guest post on “we too” by Anickodnes

In the past few days, the most recent decision by five people, in the USA, to cancel the right to abortion of 40 million women has raised heated debates and criticism. As it often happens, cultured people, artists, have spontaneously gathered in pointing their fingers against this decision which puts – dangerously – women in danger. Danger not to be able to decide for themselves, danger to have to give up their health – in what is, sadly, the same old story. The discussion around women and their rights is something that never sleeps nor goes on holydays. It fills in the gaps, it fills in the blanks.

Some days ago, I have read in a newspaper a declaration by the art director Oliver Stone, whose basic idea was: after “me too”, when you go out with a woman it is better to go together with two other persons (to avoid any possible accusation of abuse by that woman, that was the sense of this speech). My first reaction was that of being irritated although, as a European woman, I am aware that I am probably overlooking the American proportions of the “me too” story and the interferences in men’s lives (I tend to think that in America everything is bigger than here, from food to streets and distances). Yet Stone’s words sound stupid, flatly stupid. They sound as if there was an ongoing war between, on the one hand, women willing to report every single abuse – verbal, physical – and to side amongst “the good ones”, and on the other, victim-men, falsely accused of every evil in the world and continuously, tenuously under attack. As if any kind of dialogue among two disagreeing parts was not even possible; as if expressing one’s own disagreement had become the equivalent of an accusation that cannot but be solved in a court. Since when has talking or expressing disagreement become something to condemn?

These are the questions I asked myself, for lately I have felt myself almost guilty for having expressed loud disagreement on words. I have told a colleague of mine that the words he has addressed me with when we were examining together were not funny and utterly inappropriate. He has told me, in front a student who had just done a poor performance, that it was my fault if she had failed, that my explanations in class had not been good enough. Sure, he was joking. The problem is … well no, plural, there are many problems. Here are a few: I work twice as much as him, who dislikes teaching and dislikes students. I prepare my courses thoroughly because I enjoy it, I prepare the students for the exams trying to do my best, because I think it is my job. Of course, none of us is infallible, but at least trying to do our best is something we can do. Oh, I was forgetting I also do his consultation hours, for he does not reply to the messages of his students. Since word has gotten around that I reply to emails and that I care for their preparation, students started asking me more and more for meeting and discussing. So, these were part of my reasons to be mad at my colleague. I literally saw red when he was joking. Oh, I was forgetting I hardly imagine him doing the same joke with another male colleague. I am younger than him, and a woman: as an ex of mine (wondering why it is an ex? Here is why) told me, once when I was complaining about this colleague to him, that “it is normal that he looks down on you, you are a female colleague, and younger, that can be irritating.” (Understood why?)

No, certain things are not normal. Not because we are part of the “cultured people”, and therefore good. Culture is neither synonymous nor exchangeable with moral, or ethical behavior. Not necessarily. De Sade wrote books that are hard to read, yet they are books. Certain philosophical doctrines – just think about Augustine, the scariest face of God and predestination – are more than controversial – almost built up against ethics.

But certain behaviors are not normal, because they come with the assumption that it is normal to look down on someone because of her or his belonging to a gender, an orientation, a group she or he just belongs to by nature. There is nothing to say, no doubt, about the fact that I am younger and a woman. But this does not make a target of me. I am not by nature irritating anyone. I have the same right as him to have students that fail (of course!). Nor would I ever make any such jokes about a colleague in front of a student. Does this mean I am good? Particularly good?

Not even for a second. When I am at work, I focus on what I am doing, and that’s it.

Well, what has happened next is that tired of years of similar (but never that irritating) verbal normal mistreatments by this senior male colleague, I have reported this story to head of my department. Because I think that such behavior and tone compromise the quality of our work and pollute the air we all breathe (including students). I found that joke unprofessional and misplaced and did want a more authoritative voice than mine to take a stand against it. I have found but support and sincere solidarity. Not because we are good; we are human beings who struggle each day to do our best – and we can fail. Yet I have felt guilty for this. So guilty to have talked. Am I exaggerating? Am I going to be perceived as a hysterical woman? These were my doubts. Eventually, I already had replied to him, loud and clear – that his joke was not funny and misplaced.

I have concluded that this sense of guilt is the “men’s look”, the so-called male gaze I was raised with – as a daughter, as a student, as a girlfriend, as a colleague. Education is a powerful tool, the most powerful of voices – just like it is hard to forget how to bike, it is equally hard to forget the voices of our childhood. I am not going to give examples, each of us has way too many, I am sure. The problem is to get rid of such voices and to become able to hear one’s own. The voice that tells you: I might be perceived as hysterical, and so what? Surely there is someone who also thinks I am no good, or stupid, or whatever. What is not normal, is to leave the ground to people who decide for us who we are, and how we should be treated. Even among us, the “cultured people”.

Anickodnes

#FirstGenPhilosophers

FirstGenPhilosophers is a webpage (in German) curated by Daniel James Țurcaș and Barbara Vetter. It is about and for philosophers with a non-academic background and intended as a forum for sharing stories and ideas. Currently, it hosts stories by Elif Özmen, Andreas Hütteman, Christian Neuhäuser, and yours truly. The curators welcome further contributions.

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In case you’re interested, here is a quick translation of my contribution:

My parents fled from Pomerania and East Prussia to West Germany as children at the end of the Second World War. My mother worked there as a cleaner and shop assistant, my father as a lorry driver. My ambitions surprised them. Nevertheless, they tried to support me as much as they could. During my studies and afterwards, I was not really aware of any particular difficulties. It was only much later that I realised that I had often tried to hide my origins and that my life was often associated with a certain shame in this way. When my academic teacher once pointed out how selectly I was dressed, I was somewhat startled because I realised how well I had learned to disguise myself – even from myself. Seeing how much it can encourage others to know about this shame and other difficulties has encouraged me to address my experiences occasionally. So I have stayed well in touch with my “inner student” and like to bring him out to understand and address certain problems. On the one hand, perhaps for this very reason, I realise today how much I personally owe to the democratic education orientation in the Germany of the 70s. On the other hand, it is frightening to see how much this orientation is now being fought politically. In this sense, the still claimed meritocratic orientation in academia appears as a toxic fig leaf. For philosophy in particular, it is essential to regain a democratic and pluralistic educational orientation. That is why I try to keep these issues present in my blog and through active work in the union. So if there is one experience that I associate in a special way with my background, it is this: Promoting academic work requires living in solidarity rather than competition.

A review of ‘Handling Ideas’. Guest post by Timon Beeftink

As a student in Philosophy, you are expected to write some essays every now and then. You pick a topic, find some literature, design an argument, and write down your findings—preferably in a clear and organized format, with an introduction, three sections, and a conclusion. Looking back on my first essay in philosophy, an essay on the ‘Third Man Argument’ in Plato’s Parmenides, I clearly find a ‘scholastic approach’: there is no personal engagement—the essay is merely produced for the sake of fulfilling the assignment.

Of course, sometimes you have to write some essays on topics you are not really interested in. But in taking this scholastic attitude, you run the risk of extending this approach to anything you write: by distancing yourself from the content of the essay, you might produce something true—but what is the function of truth if it stood “before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I acknowledged it or not, inducing an anxious shiver rather than trusting devotion?”[1] What I often find lacking in my own essays, is exactly this personal engagement: I take truth as an external object, rather than something that is to be related to. But how do you write an engaged essay, without running the risk of falling into a non-academic subjectivism? As I see it, it is this question that countless students (and academics) struggle with, and the question that is at stake in various blog posts by Martin Lenz.

As such, I think that many students would be served by some thoughts on how to combine personal engagement with academic writing. Students commonly struggle with writing essays and theses, exactly because of this seemingly necessary lack of anything personal in academic writing. What I learned over the years, especially in Martin’s courses on Medieval Philosophy and Wittgenstein, is that finding your own voice is absolutely crucial: without your own voice, your essay lacks something crucial. Particularly the idea of thinking through the text and problems before consulting any secondary literature, is an approach that sticks to my mind: the problem is then not merely an abstract problem, but ‘your’ problem as well. It would have helped me when I had learned the following points in an earlier stage of the Bachelor:

  • Academic writing is no ‘scholastic’ writing: it is exactly your own voice that makes your academic writing vivid.
  • Formulate a clear question: engage with the texts and write down your own questions, before consulting any secondary literature.
  • Don’t be shy: have the courage to find and write in your own style—don’t think that you have to abstract from yourself in order to write something ‘good’.

In what follows, I’d like to focus on three of Martin’s blog posts, as they deal with the above points. They contain some thoughts every student could benefit from. I think that Martin’s future project of turning these and other blog posts into a book (Handling Ideas: Understanding, Expressing, and Applying Philosophical Thoughts) is a very good idea. A few questions that come to mind by reading your general idea of writing such a book, are the following:

  • What is the target group of the work? Is it particularly designed for students of philosophy, or for anyone writing academic, philosophical texts?
  • Are you planning to use an aphoristic approach in Handling Ideas, or do you want to offer a more ‘systematic’ approach in outlining this ‘handling’?
  • How are you going to structure the work? How do ‘understanding’, ‘expressing’, and ‘applying’ relate? Are you planning to write an introduction on what we are to understand with the ‘handling’ of ideas in the first place?

Anyway, these are some of my own experiences and thoughts on Martin’s general ideas. I will now turn to a more blog-specific feedback on the three posts.

1. How do you turn a half-baked idea into a paper?

The idea of ‘confidence’ that you discuss in this blog, is closely related to what I wrote on ‘Don’t be shy’ on the previous page: the idea that we lack the courage or confidence to actually write what we would like to write. This reminds me of a passage of Nietzsche you once quoted: “Was ist das Siegel der erreichten Freiheit? – Sich nicht mehr vor sich selber schämen”.[2]. At the same time, however, you primarily focus on “visible agreement with other ideas”. I think that this is indeed crucial for developing an idea, but that there is something else at play as well. As I told you in our chat a few months ago, and as you write in Don’t read! Or how to start writing, we might lose confidence in sight of secondary literature: faced with the countless ideas and commentaries, we think that our own idea is not worth pursuing. As the comments of ‘Anonymous’ on Don’t read! Or how to start writing indicate, we often want to say something ‘new’ in our writings. When faced with secondary literature, however, we find out that our idea lacks this ‘something new’, but contains something that is relentlessly discussed already. Even before consulting secondary literature, we might be plagued by insecurity: What if my idea is just a common idea? What if various people already had the very same idea? What if my idea is not original enough? I often ask these questions myself as well. In these instances, I try to be aware of the following fact: you are the person that has this specific idea, and as such, the idea is always something new—it is something new for you. This observation crucially relates to our initial reasons to pursue a career in philosophy: Do we want to teach others something new, or do we want to learn something new ourselves? If this first consideration is our reason for doing philosophy, we are going to have a hard time indeed.

Here in Copenhagen, they use an interesting approach for dealing with this feeling. In twelve weeks, we have to write twelve discussion board posts of 500 words. After four weeks, we take one of the four posts and elaborate on our observations in an 5-paged essay. We repeat this process another two times, and end up with three 5-paged essays that contain our own observations on a specific philosophical text. We pick one of these three essays, and expand it into a 10-paged paper. In this final paper, we engage with secondary literature on the topic, and try to formulate our own position in the debate. This might seem to be time-consuming, but it makes it a lot easier to identify your own questions, problems, and ideas. As such, it is closely related to the method you propose: try to narrow down your ideas, and start by writing an introduction containing a topic, problem, hypothesis, and question. We commonly think that writing is the act of writing—but it is equally well taking some time for thinking about what to write: taking a walk is just as part of the process as is the act of writing itself.

As such, having a half-baked idea might equally reflect the approach we take in writing philosophically. More often, we dive into literature in order to determine our point of view, but that is exactly the place where this point of view cannot be found. We should allow ourselves to take a considerable amount of time on developing our own questions—to actually think about what interests and moves us. Read the text, formulate your own questions. If an idea is half-baked, this might indicate that this idea is not actually yours.

2. Finding your voice in academic writing. Some practical considerations

The second blog nicely follows up on this point of finding your own voice in academic writing. As you express it here: “Rather, style is a result of something else: a result of emphasising those things that matter to you.”[3] Later in the blog, you explain how to find that what matters to us: “So your A and B are not authors or papers; they are two positions, isms, types of argument.” When reading this passage, I immediately had to think of Wittgenstein’s opening in Philosophische Untersuchungen: he uses the text of Augustine to illustrate a common way of understanding language.

At the same time, however, this approach worries me a bit. As you mention yourself, we have to be careful not to “build a straw man”. But as I see it, this is exactly what many philosophical texts do: they do not attack or defend an actual position, but an abstract position of some ‘-ism’. The problem with this approach, is that there is hardly anyone who identifies herself with this position in the first place. Let us take existentialism as an example. Suppose that we write a paper on why existentialism is short-sighted in approaching human life from an a priori concept of the subject. We might succeed in refuting this position—but whose position was it anyway? Camus rejects the label. Marcel rejects the label. Merleau-Ponty rejects the label. Heidegger rejects the label. Jaspers rejects the label. Nietzsche cannot be said to be an existentialist. Kierkegaard cannot be said to be an existentialist. Yes, we might only attack Sartre in doing so. But why, then, not responding to Sartre directly, rather than abstracting from his position in an ‘-ism’ which, besides him, nobody is willing to share? I sometimes get the feeling that this abstraction brings a certain form of artificiality in the academic debates.

But at the same time, you are right in saying that—in focusing on Sartre instead of existentialism, for example—we lose ourselves in details of a particular writer that are not at issue in the actual position we are willing to discuss. We might try to outline the meaning of, say, l’existence précède l’essence, and lose ourselves in innumerous details while doing so—but that in no means helps in the discussion of existentialism we were planning to perform. I feel that it is a difficult balance: not losing oneself in a particular author, nor losing oneself in a too general ‘-ism’. But yeah, it is always easy to lose oneself—as we might say in an Anti-Climacian spirit.

3. Alienation: On learning to talk philosophy

As with most of your blogs, this third blog post starts with something clearly recognizable: “Asking questions serves more as an opportunity to show off, making newcomers feel like outsiders.” I don’t know where this general urge comes from, but we all tend to do this—we only dare to pose a question if it is ‘smart’ enough. But in doing so, we prevent our questions from being genuine questions: they do not flow from a need to expose our very self (which a genuine question does), but from the need to show off ourselves.

Crucial to this post is the notion of ‘alienation’. That philosophy can indeed be alienating, is already clear from ordinary life. Once I told my hairdresser that I was studying philosophy, but she he had no idea what ‘philosophy’ was. So I had to explain—and I had a hard time in trying to do so. What seemed to be a normal way of thinking for me, was completely alien to her. The same applies to children—or even more so. What are we to make of this observation? Philosophy deliberately chooses to alienate from ordinary life, for it is exactly in this alienation that questions are to be found. As you write: “Moving within familiar territory generates no questions or ideas.” But at the same time, we can lose ourselves in this alienation: in posing too many questions, we become alien to ourselves. How do we prevent this risk of being alienated from existence? Might philosophy bring us too far?

To prevent this risk, we might speak of philosophy as having the task to bring about a ‘double movement’: it allows us to alienate from reality, to the end of returning us to reality with a new understanding. We might criticize Socrates for the lack of doing so: he merely asks questions. At the same time, we might use this to criticize overconfident philosophers as well: they never ask questions. As you write, “no one will learn anything if no one leaves the realm of mutual expectations”. Philosophy leaves this realm. But if we do not return to this state of mutual expectations and understanding, we lose ourselves in philosophy’s negative movement: the movement of alienation. The illustration on the Condemnation of 1277 clearly shows this process in a positive way: we leave the realm of expectation, but return to this realm with a new understanding. And it is here that philosophical writing has its place: express this very process of alienation and returning home again.

This brings me to another crucial point you mention: “You might end up having a real conversation.” As I’ve experienced it, it is difficult to have a ‘real conversation’ on philosophical matters when you’re a student in philosophy yourself. I tend to assume the position of ‘teacher’, rather than the position of someone who might learn something of the non-philosophical other. With other philosophers, I’ve no hard time in doing so. But with foreigners to the realm of philosophy, it is very difficult to ‘talk philosophy’. Where to start? What to say? How to depart from a common understanding? What I take to be crucial things, say, that we should not confuse Johannes de silentio with Kierkegaard himself, is completely non-crucial for the person I’m talking to. What to say, and what not to say? Is there a difference in the various ways in which we can ‘talk philosophy’? If so, what are the implications for the process of ‘handling ideas’? Who is the person that handles the idea? Do we ourselves do so? Or do we always depart from a common understanding of reality in order to handle some ideas? What is the relation between our handling of ideas and our relation to others? Can (our relation to) others shape the way in which we handle ideas? Who or what does the handling?


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Journalen AA (SKS 17, 24)

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, §275

[3] Your observation of finding someone “who encourages you to think that the things you find important can actually be said”, are clearly recognizable. It was only after reading Kierkegaard and Nietzsche that I felt the courage to actually formulate my ideas in my own terms.

On hope and feelings at war

I don’t know about you, but most of my basic beliefs seem to be shattered. Since Russia invaded Ukraine on the 24th of February 2022, my life feels totally altered. No day passes without bouts of despair. Of course, my point is not that my despair is anywhere near that of the Ukrainians (it is not), but merely to make sense of my experience. Having grown up during the Cold War with parents who lived through WW II, I feel like I’ve come full circle. The reason I find this noteworthy is that I feel fairly alone when considering many compatriots and people around me. Perhaps I’m mistaken in this, but for me this is a war on Europe and everything I believe in. While many people seem to take the question whether Europe is actually under military attack very seriously (and, of course, we should), my feeling is that “my world” has been invaded already.

Let me get one thing out of the way: If you look for clever analyses, look elsewhere. I have nothing important to say. Being a German citizen, I am deeply ashamed of the government of my country, for it does too little to support the Ukrainian people. (Here is a petition that you should consider signing.) But I happily leave political and strategic analyses to people more competent. All I’m attempting is to share my grief and some impressions – in the hope that this might be soothing or whatever to others.

So what is it that’s getting to me? Somehow there seems to be so much hatred in the world that it might become uninhabitable. What does that mean? Climate change is threatening to make the world uninhabitable in terms of heat etc. But there might also simply be too much hatred. – I come from a working class family in what was called Western Germany. My parents were poor and timid, in the way that refugees from the East seem to feel out of place, but they always inspired love and hope in me. Although I’ve hardly kept contact to family members from Eastern Germany, I always felt a strong bond with them, and when I moved to Hungary in the early 90s, I felt very much at home. The same was true of other European countries: wherever I came I felt at home. Europe was home. And it was, despite all shortcomings, a beacon of hope and progress.

The first time I thought something was off was after people voted for Brexit. (Of course, there are many other events that were bad and sinsister, but for some reason this held a special weight.) From my early days onwards, I grew up with a love for Britain. This love was intensified through music and, later, through briefly joining the academic world there. When I crossed the border, I felt like coming home. Brexit has taken that away. It felt like people were spitting me in the face saying “you were mistaken”. The election of Trump was another such event. Yes, a lot is rotten in the world, but certain places held a promise for me that has been diminished since 2016.

Looking back at this today, these events feel like a preparation for what was to come. People who know me know that I felt and feel a very strong bond to Eastern Europe. I don’t know why, but visiting countries like Hungary and Romania always felt a bit like coming home. Although I was mainly an onlooker at the time, 1989 defined my understanding of my place in the world. In a nutshell, you might say that I experienced 1989 as real progress. Not the end of history, for sure. I am very much aware that much went wrong and that the “former East” was clearly colonised by the West. But still, things seemed to get better.

In 1945, when my mother was five years old, her home was invaded by Russian soldiers. One of them directed his machine gun at the children huddled against a wall, shouting “one, two, three, I shoot you!” My mother never told me what precisely had happened. But whatever else she (or my father for that matter) might have left out of their accounts, I never would have thought that Europe would return to a state of being a source for these kinds of stories. – This dream was shattered, of course, with the war in former Yugoslavia. But, it seemed, this wasn’t fatal for the European idea. Note again please that I’m not trying to diminish anything here. I’m talking about my experience. Not world history.

Anyway, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, all these dreams seem shattered. I am grateful that my daughter Hannah, who is five years old now, does not (yet?) have to undergo what my mother might have lived through at the same age. But I begin to realise that her world is very different from the one that I had the privilege to spend the last fifty years in. It is a world where Europe is filled with war and hatred. And now this world is becoming even smaller by the hour. Smaller like eyes narrowed by hatred.

Although I’m suffering from anxiety, it’s strange that the current situation doesn’t instil fear. Rather, it leaves me with a strange and perhaps futile determination. The courage of the Ukrainian people is inspiring, as is – for very different reasons – the spirit of my students. Reading the news these days mainly reduces me to tears. My life and most things that matter to me, it seems, are put on hold until this war will be over. At times it feels like there is nothing left, nothing worth living for, in the face of these atrocities. My hatred for Putin and his supporters seems endless. But then, there is my daughter and all the young people for whom we must remain hopeful.

I have often cynically thought that the idea of progress is a sham. Call me pathetic, but listening to President Biden’s speech and thinking of the wonderful people I know gave me hope.

We must stand with Ukraine. It is not just a manner of speaking when people say that they are defending our freedom.

Petition: Stop the import of gas and oil from Russia!

Evelina Miteva and I have initiated the petition “Stop the import of primary fuels from Russia”. Here is a brief explanation. Please sign by clicking this link.

Putin has cruelly escalated the war against Ukraine through numerous attacks against the civilian population. Threatening to use nuclear weapons, he is simultaneously trying to keep the rest of the world in check. No one should be allowed to get away with something like this. Germany, too, is called upon to do everything sensible to stop this painful war.

What have we done so far? Well, Germany has eventually managed to help suspending SWIFT and delivering some weapons. However, we continue to buy oil and gas from Russia. This way, we pay hundreds of millions into Putin’s war chest every day. By contrast, many experts and politicians now recommend stopping imports of primary fuels or at least Nord Stream 1 as a first step.*

A common objection is that this would be quite expensive. However, this overlooks how much more expensive an escalating war and possibly Germany’s entry into hostilities would be. We must act quickly. Please sign to make the German govement reconsider the options of an embargo.

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* Here is a summary of some recent analyses.

A photo from my history book

The Terror of War” 1972, by Nick Ut

The photo above was taken on the 8th of June, 1972, in Vietnam, after a napalm bomb attack (you can read more about the photo and the photographer here).*

I must have been eleven or twelve years old when I first saw it in my history book at school, perhaps in 1981 or 82. It has been deeply ingrained in my memory ever since.

Reading about the air raids in Kiev daily now and seeing a constant flow of photos and videos, my memory becomes more vivid again. The images mingle. Still shocked and confused, there is not much I have to say right now.

I keep wondering what images my daughter (who is just five years old) will grow up with.

Seeing the courage of all the people fighting against Putin’s attacks in various ways gives me hope.

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*Thanks to Siegrid Agostini who posted this photo this morning.