Why Germany Won The Philosophy World Cup

Why Germany Won The Philosophy World Cup

Analytic Philosophy & The Dominance of German Thought

By Professor Andrew Bowie (Royal Holloway University Of London) 

June 10, 2015         Picture: Ulrich Peters/Flickr

This article is part of The Critique Exclusive The Philosophy of Sport In Practice Part I: The FIFA World Cup.

Well, the Germans have won both World Cups this year, and the football win was clearly deserved. But did they deserve to win the Philosophy cup? Whereas the football team was striking for its balance of individual brilliance and team play, the philosophy team is noted for its fractious lack of cohesion, and there were clearly arguments about the selection of the first eleven.

The German Philosophy World Cup National Team 

Starting XI:

(1) Immanuel Kant

(2) Karl Marx

(3) Georg Wilhelm Friederich Hegel

(4) Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

(5) Arthur Schopenhauer

(6) Friederick Nietszche

(7) Johann Gottlieb Fichte

(8) Friedrich  Wilhelm Jospeh von Schelling

(9) Gottlob Frege

(10) Martin Heidegger

(11) Edmund Husserl


Moritz SchlickRudolf CarnapFrederich EngelsHermann CohenJohann Gottfried Von HerderFriedrich Heinrich JacobiNicolai HartmannTheodor AdornoFranz BrentanoChristian Wolff,Jürgen HabermasLudwig Andreas FeuerbachKarl JaspersFriedrich Albert LangeJohann Georg HamannMax SchelerAdolf Reinach,August Wilhelm RehbergPaul NatorpMax HorkheimerHermann Lotze and Hans Reichenbach.

Does Fichte’s individual brilliance really outshine Habermas’ inspiring teamwork? Does Frege’s technical skill in attempting to understand language through logic match up to Adorno’s probing forays into why the modern world, which has so many resources for making life better for everyone, ends up in the horrors of the Holocaust? The omission from the substitutes bench of Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher who, along with Johann Gottfried von Herder and Johann Georg Hamann (who did at least make the substitutes bench), initiated the modern concern with language as central to philosophy, and of the early Romantic proto-pragmatists, Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis, also raised some eyebrows. These worries apart, the question of why the German philosophy team still managed to beat the much-favoured ancient Greeks (18 votes to 15) and the recently very successful British and US teams deserves some answers.

The central role in establishing German preeminence in philosophy must go to Kant. Understanding Kant’s texts is notoriously difficult, but understanding why he is important isn’t that difficult. Think of the following. The shape of the modern world is determined to a massive degree by modern science, which produces reliable laws that enable ever-increasing technological control of natural processes. These laws can claim to be ‘objective’, as they rely on excluding merely random ‘subjective’ opinions about the world. They do this by being based on necessary ‘a priori’ truths in mathematics, and on repeated observations which are agreed on by scientists working in different contexts and locations. However, and this is what concerns Kant, the possibility of such laws also depends on something ‘subjective’, namely the capacity of those investigating natural phenomena to test, and often reject, what the established authority of the church and of ancient Greek and other traditions claimed to be objective truth. This rejection was part of the wider ‘Enlightenment‘ movement in Europe that questioned traditional authority, in the name of the demand for publicly accountable rational justifications, in science, religion, and politics. As is well known, the French Revolution saw itself in terms deriving from the Enlightenment, particularly the assumption that people should be publicly responsible for what they say and do. This assumption puts subjectivity at the centre of philosophy in an unprecedented manner, which was inconceivable in cultures like that of Ancient Greece. Indeed the very notion of ‘subject’, the Greek word for which meant something like ‘substance‘, in the sense of what objects consisted of, now effectively inverts its meaning into the modern sense, that relates to the notion of ‘self-consciousness’.

“The central role in establishing German preeminence in philosophy must go to Kant. Understanding Kant’s texts is notoriously difficult, but understanding why he is important isn’t that difficult”

Modern objectivity depends, then, on the actions of subjects who take responsibility for using their powers of judgement to question received wisdom. Without the activity of rational subjects the new forms of objectivity would not emerge. It is this active role of the subject in the constitution of objectivity which Kant brings to the fore in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781). He thereby decisively moved beyond Leibniz’s version of the idea that rational necessity was built into the structure of the universe, which had dominated much German philosophy until that time.

But doesn’t this mean that the supposed truth about the world is just the product of human thinking? And if it is, what stops the notional truth being just the way the world appears to us, so that the way the world really is must be inaccessible? On the other hand, the assumption that there is preexisting truth about the world in itself can’t be proven: all we can do is arrive at whatever truths we find out. Traditional views based on divine authority or faith had illegitimately claimed access to proof about the ultimate nature of things, but Kant shows such claims cannot be legitimated. Once rational proof is demanded, the question is what constitutes such proof. Kant thinks proof has to be based on preexisting necessities in the way we think, because the ever differing perceptual material we receive from the world, that forms the evidence for our claims, has to be organised into the stable identical forms required for laws of nature.

Why is German philosophy’s raising of these issues so significant? The main reason is that Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy offers the most sophisticated response to the fact that previous assumptions about what is subjective and what is objective can no longer be sustained. What is objective has now to be established by human subjects, not assumed to be already in existence. What gives rise to such changes in how the world is understood clearly has do with changes in the economic, social and political spheres, where social mobility increases and so undermines the idea of a fixed, hierarchical, God-given social and natural order. Why the philosophical implications of these changes are most extensively explored in Germany is still contested. It has something to do with the fact that, unlike in France, the people who came to reject traditional authority were unable to realise the consequences of that rejection in the political world by establishing more democratic political forms. The majority of the German team were members of the new bourgeoisie, which took far longer to establish any real political power than the English or French bourgeoisie. This meant both that much had to be responded to in the world of thought that could not be responded to in reality, and that thinkers in Germany were sometimes more aware of the complexities and ambiguities of the changes associated with the modern period than thinkers elsewhere.

Take a further example that is central to Kant: if we cannot prove that there is a divine court of authority, what makes human action morally right or morally wrong? This clearly cannot just be randomly subjective, because the establishing of laws involves the same kind of questions about the legitimation of right or wrong as occur at an individual level. The key to much modern philosophy is the giving of reasons. At the same time, moral and legal choices are made in the context of motivations and interests that are not necessarily transparent to those making the choices. Kant thinks the freedom to determine one’s actions according to agreed moral rules is essential to being a responsible human being. But people can be unconsciously motivated by urges that are part of ourselves as natural beings, or by the drive, based on those urges, to increase one’s power over both the human and the natural worlds. How does what we are as a piece of objective, causally determined nature relate to what we are as rational beings who are capable of moral self-determination?

“The majority of the German team were members of the new bourgeoisie, which took far longer to establish any real political power than the English or French bourgeoisie”.

The philosophers who come after Kant, the ‘German Idealists’, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, the ‘early German Romantics’, Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel and Schleiermacher, and, in a different way, Schopenhauer, share a concern with how objective nature can be said to give rise to subjective mind, which is in turn the source of objective knowledge. Now this may sound rather complex and confusing. The best way to understand it is in relation to the widespread tendency in some of contemporary culture to think that neuroscientific accounts of the objective basis of thinking in the brain will eventually be able to give a full explanation of ‘subjective’ thought. This reduction of thought to its objective basis, though it contributes to explanations of underlying mechanisms without which thinking is impossible, does not take account of the fact that arriving at such an objective explanation has an irreducible ‘subjective’ aspect. Brain science cannot itself explain brain science: how did we come to the point of thinking we need to understand the brain at all? That can’t be understood in terms of the brain wanting to understand itself – what does that even mean? – and has instead to be understood in terms of how science came to seek to explain thought in the same way as it explains the rest of nature. Such an account necessarily involves the history of how humankind relates to nature and how that history relates to what thinking is taken to be. These are not questions that can be answered solely in causal terms, and are thought of in this tradition in terms of the development of ‘Geist’, ‘spirit/mind’. It is these kinds of question that concern German Idealist and Romantic thinkers, albeit in often conflicting ways, and continue to play a major role in German philosophy, for example in the later work of Husserl, in Heidegger, and in Adorno.

The post-Kantian thinkers, then, confront what are essentially issues of meaning that are not reducible to scientific explanation. In these terms one becomes able to ask questions about the ways natural science comes to dominate the development of the modern world. As Schelling suggests, if subjectivity itself is just one aspect of nature, its growing ability to control other aspects of nature can lead to questionable consequences. The ecological crisis we now face makes clear that Schelling was prescient in worrying that scientific rationality could blind us to the possible negative consequences of the application of science. Moreover, does being able to control more and more of nature ultimately make more sense of human existence? The sociologist Max Weber talks of modern science as involving the ‘disenchantment’ of the world, because it replaces questions about the meaning of events with explanations of them in causal terms. This brings huge advantages – which should never be forgotten – but at the price of potentially neglecting ways of understanding and relating to the world which cannot be grasped in causal terms.

“The ecological crisis we now face makes clear that Schelling was prescient in worrying that scientific rationality could blind us to the possible negative consequences of the application of science”

It is probably this dimension of philosophy’s attempts to understand the world that has led to the growing renewal of interest in the German philosophical tradition in English-language philosophy. The analytical tradition of philosophy, which for much of the twentieth century ignored most German philosophy, apart from Frege – who was vital to the establishing of the analytical tradition – tends to employ modes of argument that are seen as analogous to those the sciences. The post-Kantian German tradition is, on the other hand, also concerned with kinds of sense which are not just the product of argument and proof. It is no coincidence that the analytical tradition did nothing to contribute to the growing widespread awareness that nature should not just be subjected to human ends. Its focus on specific analysis of particular arguments leaves little space for the kind of ‘holistic’ reflection on how things interact on a global scale that makes things manifest which can otherwise be hidden, even if these things may not be definitively proven.

From Kant onwards making sense of our place in nature, rather than explaining the laws which determine how nature works, is very often associated with questions about art and the beauty of nature. It seems no coincidence that, along with winning the Philosophy World Cup, many would bet on Germany (especially if one includes Austria) winning the Music World Cup. The development of music from Bach, to Beethoven, Wagner, and Schoenberg, which starts with a liberation from traditional forms but thereby poses problems over the establishing of new forms of musical order, can be seen in terms related to the development of philosophy from Kant to Heidegger. The reason why can be suggested by the following.

“It is no coincidence that the analytical tradition did nothing to contribute to the growing widespread awareness that nature should not just be subjected to human ends. Its focus on specific analysis of particular arguments leaves little space for the kind of ‘holistic’ reflection on how things interact on a global scale”

The changing significance of music in the modern period accompanies the startling change in the understanding of natural beauty that emerges in the second half of the eighteenth century. Prior to this time the beauty of nature is essentially a manifestation of divine order, and wild nature is largely seen as threatening. Wild nature now comes to be seen as revealing affective and other relationships to the world which objectifying explanations of nature can obscure. It is precisely the sense in which wild nature is felt to be beyond human control that makes it a new source of meaning by offering a new sense of our place in the world. In analogous fashion, music’s irreducibility to words means that, instead of being merely an accompaniment to other cultural activities or to religious observance, it comes, from the later part of the eighteenth century onwards, to be understood as a language which makes a kind of sense that is inaccessible to verbal language. Schopenhauer, albeit very questionably, sees music as a direct manifestation of the nature of the world in itself, which he calls ‘the Will’. The essential nature of things for him is an arbitrary struggle of impulse against impulse, of the kind mirrored in the tensions in music, which moves between consonance and dissonance, tension and resolution.

Schopenhauer’s anti-rationalist conception of conflict contrasts with Hegel’s attempt to make rational sense of the fact that contradiction and conflict are inescapable, especially in a post-traditional world. The differences and similarities between the two thinkers are paradigmatic for subsequent philosophical debate. Schopenhauer sees history as ‘zoology’, because he thinks it involves no more meaning than does the life and death of an animal species. Hegel, on the other hand, seeks to show how we can make sense of apparent negativity by showing it is necessary for things to develop into more rational forms. The resistance of the objective world is what makes us come up with new ways of overcoming that resistance and so developing our abilities. Their respective assessments of art highlight their differences. For Hegel art is not decisive for the culture of the modern world in the way it had been for ancient Athens. The universal claims to validity of science and law now concretely enable the growth of human rationality in ways art cannot, because it is tied to the particularity of the material of which it is made. For Schopenhauer art, in contrast, is a means of temporarily escaping the futility of finite human existence into a sphere of contemplation in which the constant frustration inherent in embodied human existence is suspended.

“It seems no coincidence that, along with winning the Philosophy World Cup, many would bet on Germany (especially if one includes Austria) winning the Music World Cup”

One crucial issue here is how time is interpreted in philosophy; the other is how conflicting philosophical positions become more and more explicitly connected to political conflicts. If there is no overall goal of human existence, or of the cosmos as a whole, time can appear as just the endless eventual destruction of whatever happens to be in existence at any moment. The theory of the ‘heat death of the universe’, which emerges in the 1850s, suggests that the whole universe will finally wind down into featureless stasis. It seems no coincidence that it is around this time, which is also when Darwin undermines human pretensions to superiority over the animal kingdom, that Schopenhauer begins to become a potent force in European culture, influencing figures like Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler, Thomas Mann, and many others. Such views of the brutal facts about disenchanted nature can lead to the idea of the need for an escape from transience suggested in Schopenhauer’s view of art. However, it can also lead to the idea that the value of existence therefore lies in the more immediate need to make finite life more bearable by socio-economic, technological, and political change, given the fact that the transient human world is the only location of value anyway. Recent interpretations of Hegel have argued that he should be understood as concerned with making sense of the here and now by understanding the historical necessities which led to things being the way they are.

A related contrast to that between Hegel and Schopenhauer can be seen between Marx and Nietzsche. Marx thinks history has to move beyond the destructive conflicts between socio-economic classes, of which capitalism is seen as a brutal but necessary stage, to a more just world that would realise the creative potential inherent in human nature. Nietzsche, on the other hand, regards any philosophy which seeks to transcend historical conflict as just involving another failure to see that ‘God is dead‘. All such visions are ultimately manifestations of the religious illusion that one can escape or redeem the often brutal nature of existence. Instead, Nietzsche seeks ways of affirming that existence, in order not to fall prey to a paralysing resentment of the conditions of finite human existence that stops us living creatively in the here and now.

Despite their political divergences, Marx and Nietzsche coincide in their sense that philosophy itself may be turning out to be a problem, rather than the solution to the dilemmas of the modern world. The search for timeless metaphysical truths about the nature of the universe, and about right and wrong, good and evil, which had animated philosophy since the ancient Greeks, seems to both thinkers often to hide much more immediate historical and political motivations. Philosophy can therefore really be a form of ideology, something invested in because it furthers one’s interests by creating a distorted image of the world. For both Marx and Nietzsche religion had played and plays such a role, and metaphysics is always in danger of being another version of religion.

“Marx and Nietzsche coincide in their sense that philosophy itself may be turning out to be a problem, rather than the solution to the dilemmas of the modern world (…)metaphysics is always in danger of being another version of religion”

The traumatic breakdown of civilisation in the First World War made the issues raised by Marx and Nietzsche ever more pressing. A sense that academic philosophy had lost touch with the realities that had developed beneath the surface of modern European society was almost inescapable in the face of a conflict that was initially seen as likely to be a brief cavalry war, but turned into a long-lasting industrial massacre of millions of people. Dreams of inevitable human progress of the kind that informed Enlightenment thinking seemed irredeemably smashed, and the very sense of human existence was put in question. Although Edmund Husserl’s work on phenomenology begins well before the descent into war, it starts from the assumption that philosophy has failed to give an adequate account of how we actually experience and understand the world. This will lead him in his later work in the 1930s, under the influence of his pupil Martin Heidegger, to question the effects of the natural sciences’ ‘mathematisation of the cosmos’, which he sees as impoverishing the ways in which we understand ourselves and the world.

It is, though, Heidegger who has the most far-reaching effects on philosophy after the First World War (and who has begun to have significant effects on contemporary analytical philosophy). Just how complex things now get with respect to the relationship between the philosophical and the political is apparent in the fact that Heidegger was a member of the Nazi Party until 1945. How far this fact is germane to his philosophy is still a bone of considerable contention. It seems clear, though, that much of his work can survive the justifiable criticism of the failings of the man. His basic idea in his earlier work, like Being and Time (1927), is simple: the theoretical understanding provided by the natural sciences is always secondary to practical understandings which we always already engage in, so as to be able to cope with the world. AsLee Braver has put it, Heidegger is therefore concerned with ‘the meanings flowing through our behaviour which evaporate under the light of theoretical reason’. Rather than assuming that the whole universe is just sitting there waiting to be fully discovered, which is the basic assumption of traditional metaphysics, Heidegger thinks the fundamental nature of being is to be hidden. What we come to know or understand is an uncovering of some aspect of being, but this will make some other aspect of being hidden. As such, truth can be said to ‘happen’ in time, rather than being something which already exists in the world. This approach can best be understood by Heidegger’s notion in the essay ‘Origin of the Work of Art’ that works of art are ‘world-disclosive‘, a ‘happening of truth’, because they make things visible that would otherwise be hidden. Rather than art re-presenting what is already there as such, it brings things to light in different ways. To do this a sculptor, for example, has to bring out from the piece of stone that she works on something which may make us see shapes, such as the human body, in a new way.

Heidegger develops an account of technology in terms of his view of being as essentially hidden. Science frames the world as the object of mathematically based research, so only certain kinds of claim can be valid. In turn, this means that technology will have the tendency to subject nature to the purposes which technology itself reveals (1). Technological purposes can offer great advantages to humankind, but the longer term consequences of increased technological control, of the kind that already concerned Schelling, cannot be understood via technology itself. Heidegger sums up this view in his dictum that ‘Science does not think’. What he means is that science cannot understand itself in the terms it uses to describe objective natural laws. ‘Thinking’, which he links to poetry, is about making sense of things in ways that do not just involve manipulating them and controlling them. He talks of this kind of sense in terms of ‘letting things be’, and ‘listening’ to things in ways which open up new relations to the world. Heidegger later comes to claim that metaphysics itself actually becomes natural science in modernity, because what metaphysics from the Greeks onwards sought to explain is explained in real terms by the particular sciences. The question is what the role of philosophy is now to be, and this question preoccupies the most significant German philosophers in Heidegger’s time and since.

Late in his career Nietzsche had written, in Twilight of the Idols, a brilliant short piece called ‘How the True World became a Fable’. This suggests that the history of philosophy has been a misguided pursuit of a true world beyond the one we concretely inhabit. He sees the situation in his time as follows: ‘The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one’. If we give up the idea of a metaphysical ‘ready-made’ world, the changing world that appears is just the world, not an appearance of something else. This means that there need be no central, defining perspective – no ‘God’s eye view’ – and so there will inevitably be widely differing perspectives, the scientific perspective being only one of them, albeit a hugely important one. The task in these terms is to negotiate the consequences of abandoning the search for metaphysical certainty, of abandoning the search for a point of view from which all other points of view could be judged. In contemporary philosophers like Juergen Habermas this leads to a concern with communication, not just as the conveying of information, but as the key form of social interaction in which we come to terms with our differences of perspective from those of other people.

If one looks at how philosophy is done in the contemporary world there is a division between those who seek through argument to establish true theories in epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, semantics, etc., and those who wonder why it is that such arguments never seem to reach the kind of agreement that seems possible in the physical sciences. The latter insist on seeing philosophy in historical terms, in the manner of Hegel’s dictum that philosophy is ‘its age depicted in thought’; the former tend to see themselves as involved in something like a scientific enterprise. The German tradition is probably most notable for its development of the realisation that our being is inherently historical, and so cannot be fully grasped by theories of a scientific nature. This approach chimes with key aspects of the American pragmatist tradition, which was also ignored for significant parts of the twentieth century. The success of the German team in the Philosophy World Cup may be a sign that the dominance since the Second World War of the English and United States philosophical teams, who generally follow the tactics of an exclusively analytical, science-oriented approach in academic philosophy, may be on the wane. If philosophy in a globalised world is about making sense of life and the world in the broadest terms, rather than just about specific technical problems, the resources in the German tradition, which are now increasingly being explored and extended in the Anglophone world, may prove decisive in the next phase of philosophy’s development.

Footnotes & References

(1) Adorno and Horkheimer, Jewish philosophers on the political left, suggest something similar in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), which again suggests the difficulty of the politics/philosophy relationship in Germany.

Andrew Bowie
Andrew Bowie
Andrew is a Professor of Philosophy and German at the University of London, Royal Holloway. He is the author of German Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010), Introduction to German Philosophy: From Kant to Habermas (Polity Press, 20013), as well as a book on Schelling (Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, Routledge Publishing, 1993) and Adorno ( Adorno and The Ends of Philosophy, Polity Press, 2013). He is an accomplished Jazz Saxophonist who has played with some of Britain's top jazz musicians, and is supervising theses on jazz and philosophy (https://soundcloud.com/andy-bowie). His interest in music has produced a number of publications, including Music, Philosophy, and Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 2007). You can read more about Andrew and his work in an interview at 3:AM Magazine: http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/schelling-adorno-and-all-that-jazz/
Recent Posts
  • foobie


  • Guest

    I’m pretty sure the Greeks won it…

  • Guest

    I’m pretty sure the Greeks won…

  • EKU28

    Engels is a sub?

  • Josh

    I think you rather ignored or did not respond to any contemporary Christian (or for that matter, any Abrahamic) thought.

    “Traditional views based on divine authority or faith had illegitimately claimed access to proof about the ultimate nature of things, but Kant shows such claims cannot be legitimated.”

    I, for one, think that rationalist approaches to proving the existence of God were misguided (e.g. Descartes) – but that doesn’t delegitimate all religious thought. Also, you make a huge leap and blanket statement that Kant somehow managed to wipe to slate clean of any non-positivist metaphysics – I totally disagree that he was successful at any such thing.

  • UserGoogol

    It is no coincidence that the analytical tradition did nothing to contribute to the growing widespread awareness that nature should not just be subjected to human ends.

    What about Peter Singer? He’s quite vigorously a part of the Anglo-American analytic tradition, and he’s been a big part of pushing animal rights.

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