Philosophy, the Impossible Practice

As somebody who deals with philosophy and would describe himself as being influenced by thinkers like Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Paul Feyerabend, or Theodor W. Adorno, the very simple answer would be: »Yes! My practice is political.« But actually the question strikes into the very heart of doubts I have. And maybe not only into my personal doubts, but to the more general question of what the term »political practice« could or should mean in the horizon of philosophy. Which of course leads to the even harder question »what is philosophy?«

My work is fully discursive, in the end it’s just about language, which is maybe already a lot.

What is my practice? As I wrote in the first sentence, I am dealing with philosophy. I studied philosophy and I am writing a dissertation in philosophy. So I tend to say I am a philosopher. This is already a provocation (to myself), for the word is highly charged with expectations I maybe cannot meet. Thus my practice isn’t very practical. I dive into books, theories, narratives, histories; I do a lot of reading, I may ask friends on their opinion of misunderstandings I had, I go to colloquia and conferences, I take notes, make conclusions, I try to write texts, I try to find my own voice among those speaking to me from books. My work is fully discursive, in the end it’s just about language, which is maybe already a lot.

One path in seeking the determination of philosophy leads to the ancient Greek word theoriá – describing a practice that can be translated as »distant and free observation.« [1] Gaining knowledge is connected to observation and »[n]ot only with a view to action, but even when no action is contemplated, we prefer sight, generally speaking, to all the other senses. The reason for this is that of all the senses, sight best helps us to know things and reveal many distinctions.« [2] And the reason for this is that seeing allows us to create and control distance. The scientist and hence the philosopher is the one having a look at the nature of things from a distant point of view, which allows better overview and insights. We should understand distance not only in a spatial sense of being far away. If you lay down on the grass to have a closer look at a flower or an insect, or if a scientist takes that flower and is examining it under a microscope, this »coming closer« is also a result of having distance, but having control over distance. It’s the ability of having the autonomy to make decisions about your distance to objects. [3]

Those who do philosophy have a truly free existence, because their actions are not bound to practical needs.

But »free« observation is therefore meant not only in an anthropological way. Freedom here means an absence of direct purposes. Theoretical observation ends in itself. It lacks the purpose of fulfilling a practical need (like building a chair or cooking a meal). They are, as Aristotle puts it, »not necessary« and »free.« In that sense philosophy is completely useless, to put it in a more radical way – and already in Aristotelian times this was kind of common sense. [4] You can also see this from the opposite point of view and find a definition of freedom: Those who do philosophy have a truly free existence, because their actions are not bound to practical needs.

Of course these are – and were already for Aristotle – very abstract explanations, describing not an empirical reality but a scheme in which you could think about the preconditions of theoretical thinking. For me the concept of philosophy as something that keeps distance from practical needs is very striking. You can also see how arts and philosophy touch, as they both don’t aim to produce something for practical use.

In modern societies, this freedom of theoriá has found its place in an institution – the university. But as public institutions guaranteeing this freedom, they are in grave danger if they are confronted with political and economic need. Derrida calls it »the university without conditions,« »[b]ecause it is absolutely independent, the university is also an exposed, tendered citadel, to be taken, often destined to capitulate without condition, to surrender unconditionally.« [5] The university is of course not the only institution guaranteeing this freedom. Akademie Schloss Solitude is one as well, and that makes it such an important place.

So my practice is, one could say, to get away from things, to achieve distance, to get far away from the center of our society, to become ex-centric. [6] Coming back to the question of a political practice, it seems like there is some kind of paradox, or at least a hard tension. Philosophy is a practice without practices. It seeks to get away from practical constraints to make theoretical thinking possible. A thinking which maybe can be political, but it is not in the sense that it wants to answer a question.

This can be frustrating. Reading and writing means being alone. It also means being extremely slow. For both you have to make a strong decision, because the social and technical reality of our present pushes us in another direction – of being very quick and »participating« all the time. The problems of our present cannot be solved by philosophy.

Reading and writing means being alone.

But sometimes I doubt if this position is fitting anymore. Since the end of the Cold War we have lived in a vacuum of ideas about the political foundation of our societies. The implosion of eastern Europe and the Soviet Union led to a kind of imaginative shock. We are now confronted with the fact that in these decades of political dumbness a kind of global techno-neoliberalism has evolved, which is now hard to combine with the institutions of a democratic society. We now see philosophy and arts trying to mess with that speed, on the premise that we have lost the »present« or, in other words, a political access to time (see the attempts of accelerationist politics or the latest radical affirmative appearance of the ninth Berlin Biennale). And as if the past is also forgotten, We now see philosophers trying to be spin doctors of »authentic German values,« [7] with refugees shelters burning behind them.

Philosophy will always be to late to extinguish the fire. »Take your time,« says Derrida, »but be quick about it, because you do not know what awaits you.« [8] We may wish to have a philosophy that is agile and swift enough to be useful as a political practice, but abstract and distant enough from the entanglements of the present that we have the space to take a breath and feel prepared for the things that await us. It will not work. We will never have the time to develop a philosophy as a political practice. But still, this impossibility is the only chance we may have.

  1. Jump Up Here I am following Joachim Ritter [in an of course heavily shortened way], »Die Lehre vom Ursprung und Sinn der Theorie bei Aristoteles,« in: Metaphysik und Politik. Studien zu Aristoteles und Hegel, Ffm. 2003, pp. 9–33, as well as Hans Jonas: »The Nobility of Sight. A Study in the Phenomenology of Senses,« in: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 14, No. 4, 1954, pp. 507–519. The privilege of the eye finds its echo in all metaphors describing »truth« as something connected to light. See Hans Blumenberg: »Light as a Metaphor for Truth at the Preliminary Stage of Philosophical Concept Formation«, in: Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision, ed. David Michael Levin, Berkeley 1993, pp. 30–62.
  2. Jump Up Aristotle, Metaphysics I.980a.
  3. Jump Up It’s not a coincidence that the beginning of science in ancient Greek is described in visual metaphors, given the fact that the European culture of gaining knowledge is highly connected to making things visible – and let loose the flood of pictures, maps, diagrams, and simulations which should reveal the truths of the world.
  4. Jump Up And therefore philosophy as a practice with no direct purpose is linked to the divine – because the gods also have the freedom to fulfil actions without the constraints for needs.
  5. Jump Up Jacques Derrida: »University Without Conditions,« pp. 202–238, in: Without Alibi, ed. Peggy Kamuf, Stanford 2002, p. 206.
  6. Jump Up Although there’s not the space here to go deeper, you might see that artists and philosophers share this need for an ex-centric life. At least for art, we see this changing nowadays. There is an »Army of Artists« as Jan Ritsema puts it, not living ex society but defining the very center of neoliberal capitalism.
  7. Jump Up I am speaking about Mark Jongen, former assistant of Peter Sloterdijk, now candidate of the right-wing party AfD. His interviews and texts connect the ideas of his mastermind Sloterdijk to the ideology of a new national-conservatism. A step that doesn’t need much intellectual effort.
  8. Jump Up Jacques Derrida: »University Without Conditions,« p. 237.