Wednesday, January 14, 2015

German Philosophers Ponder Unexpected Proposition: Popularity


January 12, 2015

Wolfram Eilenberger, editor of “Philosophie Magazin,” in Berlin, savors the disciplinary boom. Philosophic discourse, he argues, should be conducted not only on university campuses but in the public square.

By Paul Hockenos

In Germany, a country known for esoteric thinkers like Hegel and Heidegger, the growth of media focused on philosophy is drawing university philosophers out of the ivory tower and thrusting them into the mainstream of public life. As flattered as many of them are at the unlikely attention—which has attracted more undergraduates to their classes—some worry that the so-called philosophy boom may put pressure on academics to dumb down the likes of metaphysics and epistemology for a lay audience.

The boom includes several new magazines, three TV shows, several radio "philosophy cafes," which are informal roundtables with  deep thinkers, and an annual Philosophy Festival. Popular paperbacks, too , aspire to tackle the profound questions of the day by employing the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Spinoza, as well as contemporary practitioners like Judith Butler and Jürgen Habermas.

"For us, it’s about how philosophy and today’s philosophers can help us renew our perspective on what we know or seem to know," says Wolfram Eilenberger, editor of the glossy Philosophie Magazin, which is based here.

"Philosophy can be an extremely effective means to help us interpret and order ourselves in our environment," says Mr. Eilenberger, a former academic who taught at the University of Toronto. The public square, not the elitist confines of university campuses, is the appropriate domain for philosophic discourse, he argues.

Philosophie Magazin, which hit the newsstands in 2010 and has a circulation of 90,000, proposes to investigate the "large and small questions in life through a philosophic lens." Its first issue asked "Why do we have children?," bringing Nietzsche, Jacques Derrida, Plato, and other thinkers to bear on the topic. Subsequent issues have dealt with questions as disparate as "Do Germans think differently?," "Do coincidences decide our lives?," and "God, a good idea?" One recent issue looked at the intellectual tenets behind Vladimir Putin’s "New Russia" ideology.

Aside from the magazine, popular, even best-selling, books written by a new generation of philosophers are available at newsstands. The philosopher Richard David Precht’s Who Am I?—And if So, How Many? sold 1.4 million German copies. Along with Mr. Precht, Markus Gabriel, a philosophy professor at the University of Bonn, belongs to the group of best-selling philosophers. His Why the World Does Not Exist, which argues that metaphysics is dead, was on German best-seller lists in 2013.

Observers of the upswing in interest say theoretical thinking is ever more relevant to rapidly changing, crisis-ridden societies. "Many people are searching for the kind of orientation that religion had provided in the past," says Eva Gilmer, philosophy editor at the Suhrkamp publishing house, who notes that Germans have been leaving churches for years. "They’re perhaps also searching for something more substantial than all of the TV channels, Internet information, and social media."

As pleased as university philosophers seem to be in the limelight, they see pitfalls, too. Thomas B. Sattig, chair of theoretical philosophy at the University of Tübingen, says that like any other discipline, philosophy needs experts, and that the best way to do serious philosophy is in "the controlled conditions of a philosophy laboratory"—an academic setting.

"It’s important not to distort philosophy by asking overly simple questions and then providing simple answers to them," he says, drawing a line between rigorous philosophy and pop psychology that poses as philosophy. "Sometimes there are 10 questions behind that one question. If you oversimplify, you risk getting it wrong."

Nonetheless, many philosophers are pleased that the apparent boom includes undergraduates flocking to their classes. At Tübingen, Mr. Sattig says, the number of students enrolled in philosophy courses has increased by nearly one-third, to 1,600, in the past three years. The philosophy departments at both Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg and Goethe University, in Frankfurt am Main, have had to impose limits on enrollments for the first time ever.

Germany’s academic philosophers are adapting to the unexpected demand at their universities and from the public. In the past, says Ms. Gilmer, of Suhrkamp, they wouldn’t have considered aiming books about their latest research at a popular audience. Now even the most serious philosophers enjoy recognition and influence beyond the classroom, she says.

"Academic philosophy and the popular publications can very well exist side by side, as long as you don’t mistake one for the other," says Ms. Gilmer.

Mr. Eilenberger says many academics initially turned up their noses at Philosophie Magazin. But now just about every philosopher in Germany is open to the idea, he says. "The challenge for us is to get academics to express themselves in an accessible, dialogic style."

Michael Hampe, who writes for Philosophie Magazin and is the author of the widely read Four Meditations on Happiness, cites the complexity involved in writing philosophy for a general public. It’s not as easy as conducting academic research and then spinning off a few lighter books about it, he says.

"Sometimes the popular version is harder to write than the academic product," Mr. Hampe says. "The true public intellectual can do both. But it takes hard work and lots of time."