A lot of philosophy is detrimental
health : Michael Theunissen in conversation: "Philosophy uses where it becomes dangerous"
During the upgrade, he called his colleagues on strike and received a reprimand from the university president. He gave Marx courses in overcrowded lecture halls, read about Kierkegaard and Holderlin, Hegel and Heidegger. The philosopher Michael Theunissen (68) had a fascination for his students - hundreds of them came to his seminars and lectures. Theunissen, who was born in Berlin, will receive the Leopold Lucas Prize from the University of Tübingen on May 15th. The award recognizes outstanding achievements in theology, intellectual history and philosophy and honors people who contribute to the promotion of relationships between people and peoples. Previous winners include Paul Ricoeur, the Dalai Lama and Richard von Weizsäcker.
You are someone who has never shied away from the big questions, someone who still takes metaphysics seriously. How do you become a philosopher, Mr. Theunissen?
The philosophy that I find important can only be reached through negative experiences, through the experience of being outcast or being aloof. I spent my childhood here in Berlin. My family was in strong opposition to the regime. For a long time we had repeatedly hidden Jews, which was extremely dangerous for these people as well as for us. Of course, we couldn't go into the bomb shelter during the air raids, but had to stay upstairs on the fourth floor. That shaped me enormously.
So the feeling of being excluded, of not belonging.
Yes. Then after the war, when I was fifteen, I sustained an eye injury. That strongly determined my future path in life. After several operations, I was blindfolded in hospital for six or eight weeks. When something like this happens to you at fifteen, you get torn out of your everyday life very much and ask yourself more questions. That is where philosophy begins.
Is that the philosophy of asking yourself questions?
Take the kids. They ask incredibly philosophical questions. Questions that subvert the self-evident: "Why is this and that so and not different?" Adults dismiss these questions as useless. They are driven out of the children.
So is philosophy about asking useless questions?
Nobody less than Aristotle said with all determination that the dignity of philosophy is its uselessness. Your questions and your answers cannot be used. Today that means that such a subject is in dire straits. We have a cultural policy that actually no longer allows this. The exploitation of the sciences is considered the only thing that makes sense today.
If philosophy cannot be used, what is it good for?
Philosophy is useful where it becomes dangerous. Where it reflects alternatives to the existing that are not in demand. Take this radical approach to modern philosophy, as Descartes made it: Philosophy begins with doubt. That means questioning all the prerequisites that are taken as a matter of course for self-preservation. You can then regain it, but you have to question it first, and that is dangerous. You can lose the ground under your feet.
That is only dangerous for the individual.
No not only. Philosophy is also dangerous for existing forms of society. Politics, for example, is largely oriented towards the means that are used for goals that are even accepted without discussion. This is what makes politics so boring today and is one of the main reasons for what is called disenchantment with politics.
You once said that today many forms of consciousness have dried up and buried. What did you have in mind?
I am thinking primarily of the historical. We pretend our present is everything. We hardly have any awareness of the historical, of the deep dimensions from which metaphysics and religion arise. These dimensions of depth can only be strangled at the cost of immense impoverishment.
And philosophy can keep this awareness of the deep dimensions, of the historical, awake?
Philosophy is a fundamental reflection on how we relate to ourselves and the world. Both aspects are part of it: self-related questions, such as the confrontation with the death of the individual, but also the question of our relationship to the world, of our understanding of the present, historically given time.
In recent years you have tried to dig up buried forms of consciousness among the pre-Socratics, for example the poet Pindar. But don't we live in a different time today? Our consciousness is determined by the given historical situation. How can we learn anything from the pre-Socratics?
I used to emphasize the share of historical changes much more strongly, so much so that I was suspicious of terms like "human nature" because - as Marx says - they project historical contingency onto the heaven of eternal natural necessity. But there are basic human experiences that do not fall victim to such historical changes. I had to learn that.
What are the basic experiences of being human do you mean?
Finiteness, death, illness, failure, decay. The Greeks had a highly developed awareness of this dark side, of this negativity of existence.
As a philosopher, you have also been working with physicians, especially psychiatrists, for many years. For example, you have dealt with the psychopathology of time, that is, with unusual, clinical ways of perceiving time. Why are you interested in these aspects of being human?
We can learn a lot about ourselves from our failures and failures. The sciences of the sick soul, psychopathology and psychiatry, show how things are going. Schizophrenics, for example, have insights that are hidden from ordinary people. They very often articulate excellent time experiences. For example, the experience of a standstill in which something else lights up. A frozen eternity, as it were, but behind which there is another, better eternity. Seen in this way, the world of the schizophrenic has a high truth value. It is like a concave mirror in which we have to see our existence.
You also counted finitude and death among the basic experiences of being human.
These are important questions for me, for example, whether there is also good death forgetfulness in addition to the bad repression of death. Such existential basic questions show that philosophy is not detached from pre-philosophical consciousness, but reflects questions that arise in human life.
Do you have answers to these questions?
We shouldn't bypass death entirely. It is only with a certain foresight to death that our life gets the necessary energy in the first place. If we could say we live forever, I think we'd be pretty much hanging around.
So we gain the energy we need to take our life in hand, to have goals, to shape it, from the fact that we are aware that we will die one day?
Of course, you shouldn't overdo it because it very easily leads to a neurotic compulsion to perform. We also need moments in which we don't always think about the fact that we are dying and how we will shape our future until then. Aesthetic experiences, for example, in a broad sense that is not restricted to works of art, are experiences in which we free ourselves from living always oriented towards death. When we immerse ourselves in something beautiful, we dwell on it in such a way that we pull ourselves back from the future. That is then a real oblivion of death.
The Leopold Lucas Prize honors personalities who have contributed to promoting relationships between people and peoples. You have also written a book, The Other, which is about human relationships. What is important in the relationship between people?
I once asked a doctoral student of mine: What is the highest value for you? After some hesitation, she said: "Kindness". It's kind of amazing because you think "Well, friendliness, that's almost a matter of course". But I think it's incredibly important that people treat each other in a friendly manner not only in the family, but also in the tram and on the street. One accepts the other or the other for what they are.
Would you also rate friendliness as the highest value?
I confess that I am unsure if I would say the highest value. But the answer made me very thoughtful.
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