German Philosophy Has Finally Gone Viral. Will That Be Its Undoing?

A new generation of rockstar philosophers are taking the discipline to the masses. But their TED Talks, TV shows, and best-sellers might be ruining it forever.

ILLUSTRATIONS BY OLAF HAJEK

In May, a celebrity contestant appeared on the German version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. In a sharply cut dark blue jacket and a black open-necked shirt, with designer stubble and flowing locks, philosopher Richard David Precht had no trouble answering question after question until the host asked: “Which of the following was a headline in a British newspaper in February? Was it A) Darwin Becomes Foreign Secretary, B) Dickens Takes Over the BBC,C) Shakespeare Trains Champions, or D) Tolkien Wins a BRIT Award?”

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Precht, understandably, decided to quit while he was ahead rather than risk losing the 64,000 euros he’d already amassed. The correct answer was C (Craig Shakespeare is the manager of the football club Leicester City, which won the English Premier League title in 2016).

Though he raised a significant sum for charity, for some, Precht’s appearance on the show was just another signal that something has gone quite wrong with German philosophy. Other German philosophers have certainly been sniffy about Precht’s media-friendliness. Markus Gabriel calls Precht a “philosophy performer,” while Peter Sloterdijk calls Precht a “popularizer by profession.”

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But Precht is unrepentant. As one of the most prominent — and sought after — figures in a new wave of German philosophy, he has argued that in order for the discipline to remain relevant, it must come down from the ivory tower and commune with the masses. As a student in Cologne in the early 1990s, Precht envisioned a world in which philosophers would be seen as fascinating people living exhilarating and uncompromising lives. His generation of idealized contemporaries would forge their own path, and their ideas would bear little similarity to the “ineffectual academic philosophy” of his professors, who were “boring middle-aged gentlemen in pedestrian brown or navy suits.”

There’s no doubt that Precht has made good on this dream, cultivating a much wider audience for his field. Dubbed the “Mick Jagger of the non-fiction book,” a reference presumably intended as a compliment, Precht has sold more than 1 million copies worldwide of his most popular book — Who Am I?: And If So, How Many? — in 32 languages. His TV show, called simply Precht, boasts a viewership of nearly 1 million.

German philosophy today is not so much the kind of intellectual discipline that Martin Heidegger would practice, hermitlike, in his Black Forest hut but rather a successful service industry competing for customers. Take, for instance, Philosophie Magazin, a bimonthly glossy publication distributed around Germany that hit the newsstands in 2011. The editor in chief, Wolfram Eilenberger, outlined its mission in an editorial: “It’s a magazine that takes its questions to the marketplace, letting the public help feel them out.”

Philosophie Magazin now has a circulation of 100,000, proof that Eilenberger’s approach paid off. Indeed it would appear there is a new demand for ideas in Germany, one ripe for the plumbing. In 2017, philosophy in Germany is booming. Student enrollment in philosophy courses has increased by one-third over the past three years. Its leading practitioners are giving TED Talks and producing best-selling books, top-ranking TV shows, and festivals such as phil.cologne, which attracts more than 10,000 visitors to the German city each June.

Such has German philosophy changed: Words like “delightful,” “beguiling,” and “easily consumable” would never have been used when speaking of Immanuel Kant or Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. At its best, the trend indicates German philosophy is engaging a mass audience as never before. At its worst, this means philosophy is becoming an item of conspicuous consumption designed to flatter users’ intellectual self-images.

More than 70 years ago, two of Germany’s most renowned philosophers, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, leaders of the Frankfurt School of critical theory, described what they called “the culture industry.” For them, the industry — rife with a stupefying parade of celebrities and brain-rotting TV shows — was effectively a means of mass deception and subjugation. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer posited that products of this culture industry would only stunt the consumer’s powers of imagination and spontaneity and was “so designed that quickness, powers of observation, and experience are undeniably needed to apprehend them at all; yet sustained thought is out of the question.” In 2017, you would be forgiven for supposing, this new wave of German philosophers has become part of what their predecessors had warned against.

The pivotal question then is: Can German philosophy be consumed at a common, everyday level without being dumbed down or having its ideas stripped of their complexity? Moreover, German philosophy was supposed to critique everyday life rather than provide the intellectual tools to sustain it. The greatest German philosophers, including Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Karl Marx, and the Frankfurt School, gave us eviscerating analyses of the forces underpinning everyday life. In their struggle to keep German philosophy relevant, have its current champions forgotten what German philosophy once excelled at doing?

And if that’s the case, this new consumerist version of philosophy is not a signal of its modern importance but is actually just masking the field’s decline. And if it is indeed declining, German philosophy has made the kind of Faustian pact German literary giant Johann Wolfgang von Goethe would have appreciated — exchanging profundity for popularity.


On April 22, 1969, Theodor Adorno was just about to begin his lecture series, “An Introduction to Dialectical Thinking,” at Goethe University Frankfurt when he was interrupted by student protesters. One wrote on the blackboard: “If Adorno is left in peace, capitalism will never cease.” Then three female protesters surrounded him, bared their breasts, and scattered rose and tulip petals over him.

Adorno grabbed his hat and coat, ran from the hall, and later canceled the lecture series. He plunged into a depression and a few months later, during an Alpine holiday, died at the age of 66.

German philosopher Theodor Adorno in a 1958 portrait. (Photo credit: Imagno/Getty Images)

This so-called Busenaktion (“breast action”) was later described by Peter Sloterdijk in his 1983 tome, Critique of Cynical Reason: “Here, on the one side, stood naked flesh, exercising ‘critique’; there, on the other side, stood the bitterly disappointed man without whom scarcely any of those present would have known what critique meant.… It was not naked force that reduced the philosopher to muteness, but the force of the naked.”

In another culture, it would not have mattered quite as much that student protesters had thwarted a philosopher’s lecture. But German philosophy is different. The grand German tradition of philosophers such as Kant, Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Heidegger has been a source of national pride. But the Busenaktion was a devastating attack on the otherwise constant deference to German philosophers.

This unchallenged culture of respect had come about in part because German philosophy and German national identity have been yoked together ever since Hegel, who, writing in the shadow of the defeat of Napoleonic France and filled with the nationalism inspired by Prussia’s late military victory, dreamed of a united Germany. Hegel imagined that such world peace entailed the emergence of a vanguard state that would overcome others as human history progressed to its fulfillment. And as far as Hegel was concerned, Prussia (and then, fingers crossed, the united Germany) was uniquely positioned to satisfy that historic role. No other country’s philosophers have quite so assiduously built the concept of national identity into their intellectual systems; no other philosophers have burdened their homelands with such a destiny.

Of course, Adorno, who came to prominence more than a century later, was writing in the shadow not of Prussian military victory like Hegel but of Auschwitz, a singular obscenity that eternally put an end to, among other things, philosophical justifications for German nationalism. Adorno, furthermore, was a Jew who loathed Hegel’s Protestant notion of progress. And after Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust, German philosophy could no longer posture as marching toward some grand denouement at the end of human history.

Adorno was certainly no nationalist, but, despite everything, he was profoundly connected to the German language and the culture in which he was raised. On his return from Californian exile he posited that the German language has a particular affinity for philosophy. “Historically speaking,” Adorno wrote, “the German language, as part of a process that still requires proper analysis, has become capable of expressing something about phenomena that goes beyond their mere essence, positivity and givenness.” In other words, Adorno seems to say: If you wanted to do philosophy properly, forget English, French, Arabic, and Greek. To get to the heart of philosophy, you need to do it in German. After the Holocaust, moreover, Adorno became something like the conscience of a nation (at least the West German nation; the ideologues of the new East German state detested his and the Frankfurt School’s heretical neo-Marxism). It was Adorno who, in Negative Dialectics, wrote: “A new categorical imperative has been imposed by Hitler upon unfree mankind: to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen.” Here was the German philosopher speaking to Germans about their moral duties and expecting to be listened to.

For some Germans, merely listening seemed beside the point. In 1969, those student protesters targeted Adorno because he was, ostensibly, a Marxist but one who disdained their call to action. In their view, he had retreated into theory when the revolutionary need was for action. As Karl Marx wrote in 1845, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” In this light, the intellectuals of the Frankfurt School, and Adorno in particular, dramatized how German philosophy had failed at its moment of reckoning.

If philosophy were to mean anything in Germany after Adorno’s death, it would have to become something different from that.

German philosophers Richard David Precht, left, and Jürgen Habermas, right, both shown in 2013. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

To understand what happened to German philosophy since Adorno’s death — and what eventually led to its new media-friendly enfants terribles — we need to consider the grand old man of German intellectual life, the 88-year-old Jürgen Habermas. It was Habermas, a repentant Hitler Youth who became Adorno’s assistant and, in the early 1970s, his anointed successor as head of the Frankfurt School, who would change the direction of German philosophy.

He did so in a kind of Oedipal rebellion against his intellectual father figure. “I do not share the basic premise of critical theory, the premise that instrumental reason has gained such dominance that there is really no way out of a total system of delusion, in which insight is achieved only in flashes by isolated individuals,” Habermas said in a 1979 interview. For him, that kind of insight was limited — both elitist and hopeless.

Instead, Habermas has spent his career building an intellectual system that, spanning philosophy, political theory, sociology, and legal theory, is infused with the optimistic hope that humans can thrive under market capitalism with something like autonomy and self-mastery — precisely what Adorno and the earlier Frankfurt School had denied was possible. In Habermas’s culminating work The Theory of Communicative Action, published in 1981, he envisioned an “unlimited communication community” in which people, through discourse and argument, would learn from one another as well as from themselves and question beliefs typically taken for granted.

Essentially, Habermas’s work became the bridge between Adorno’s pessimistic, elitist style of philosophy and the new consumerist revival of the discipline. Instead of despairing about the fate of humanity, the discourse now theorized on how to change its course. And though Habermas didn’t attempt to obliterate Adorno’s leading injunction — avoiding forever another Hitler — his more optimistic philosophy was premised on trying to theorize ways to prevent Auschwitz from occurring again. And to do so, Habermas believed philosophers like himself had to work on improving the conditions in which life is lived rather than issuing, as Adorno tended to do, despairing jeremiads about the fate of human beings. That’s to say, he took his mentor’s leading injunction more seriously than Adorno did.

But what also made Habermas revolutionary is how he has dared to look beyond it to the hitherto anathematized thinking of American and British philosophers. For Adorno, Anglophone philosophy was a mere handmaiden to technocratic capitalism, when he, and the rest of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School, thought philosophy should be critiquing the powers that be rather than providing their intellectual justification. Instead, Habermas found inspiration in the writings of American pragmatist George Mead, Harvard justice theorist John Rawls, and Oxford’s J.L. Austin, as much as with Kant, Hegel, and Marx. Though Adorno spent years at Oxford and more than a decade in the United States, he never treated the philosophers of Britain or America with anything other than contempt. And with this radical shift, Habermas opened up an intellectual pathway that today’s young guns of German philosophy have eagerly followed.

German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk at the 2015 Turin Book Fair. (Photo credit: MARCO DESTEFANIS/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Indeed, current stars like Precht and Gabriel also took Habermas’s lead when it came to operating in the wilds of the media. Habermas was a tireless fighter in the 1980s op-ed feuds known as Historikerstreit (“historians’ conflict”). Time after time he took to the pages of German newspapers to lambaste revisionist German historians who sought to exculpate the Nazis for the singular evil of the Holocaust. In 1999, Peter Sloterdijk, known as something of a one-man philosophical provocation, stirred a scandalous controversy when he broke a taboo that had existed in German intellectual life since the end of the Third Reich. During a speech, Sloterdijk invoked the word Selektion rather than the more contemporary word Auswahl to suggest how human procreation by means of genetic reproduction might be not just possible but defensible. An outraged Habermas promptly wrote an editorial in which he called Sloterdijk a fascist. Habermas’s role in this quarrel was resonant. Here was a German philosopher compelling his countrymen and women to engage with their nation’s shameful past and thereby revolutionizing their sensibilities. A reflection of that transformation can be seen in the moral leadership of the current chancellor, Angela Merkel, who just a couple of years ago made Germany, above all other countries in the world, welcoming to refugees.

But while Habermas used public platforms to examine Germany’s wartime shame, as well as to extol a new brand of German constitutional patriotism and a utopian vision of what he called “communicative rationality,” critics of the new wave of philosophers that followed in his wake would argue their TV shows and New Age books are hardly so virtuous.

From 2002 to 2012, Sloterdijk, who remains a popular figure in Germany because of rather than despite his controversial ideas, was co-host of Das Philosophische Quartett, a talk show on the German channel ZDF. The show fostered the kind of discussion program scarcely imaginable on American or British TV; Sloterdijk and historian of German philosophy Rüdiger Safranski would debate issues of the day with two invited guests. But after a decade, ZDF worried about the show’s ratings and replaced the hosts with none other than Richard David Precht.

As if to clinch the point about German philosophy falling prey to the populist cult of personality, the show changed its name from Das Philosophische Quartett to Precht. Though the new presenter doesn’t quite wear his shirt open to the navel, Precht — with his good looks and media-friendly charm — bears a striking resemblance to his French counterpart, Bernard-Henri Lévy. Sloterdijk, in what reads like sour grapes, told the German press that his replacement’s “clientele is more like that of [the popular violinist] André Rieu, to whom ladies, especially those over 50, listen in a late-idealistic mood.”

But the truth about German philosophy’s current predicament is actually more nuanced than Precht’s on-screen performances — or his deriders — would suggest. Consider Markus Gabriel, whose 2015 international best-seller, Why the World Does Not Exist, is confirmation, just possibly, that modern works of German philosophy can be both profound and successful.

The cover of Gabriel’s book features a unicorn, which is fitting for a text that offers an easily digestible explanation for why all sorts of improbable entities — not just unicorns but elves, fairies, or even President Hillary Clinton and Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn — really do exist. Gabriel’s work proved such a hit not only because it is an attack on the arrogance of science and the relativistic black hole of post-modernism but because it was written according to the principle set out by Ludwig Wittgenstein, namely that “whatever can be said at all can be said clearly.” What’s more, like his new book, I Am Not a Brain: Philosophy of Mind for the 21st Century, it serves as a rebuke to those earlier philosophers who imagine that the masses cannot and should not read philosophy. Only 37, Gabriel is demonstrating that German philosophers can find a wide audience — without being merely slick or superficial.

And philosophers like Precht and Gabriel are not simply meeting a native demand. While German philosophy is hardly as lucrative an international brand as BMW, Deutsche Bank, or Adidas, its new media-savvy, consumer-friendly exponents are giving it a global reach. That’s significant since, while Germany’s industrial and financial prowess is widely acknowledged, the country is hardly noted for soft power. German cinema and literature, for instance, all too rarely have an international profile in this millennium. German philosophy, by contrast, does seem to have an export market, thanks precisely to its young peddlers. Perhaps we should not be as cynical as Sloterdijk when he disparages Precht. Maybe if philosophers want to be heard in 2017, they need to perform as well as think.

In the culture war over the destiny of German philosophy, for some like Sloterdijk, accessibility and relevance mask its degradation; for others like Precht, those qualities are vital to keeping the discipline alive and resonant. In 1934, the French-German theologian Albert Schweitzer told fellow philosopher Ernst Cassirer that their colleagues must address what most concerned everyone, in a style that is not only accessible to an educational elite. This, he believed, was essential. That, at least, is what Germany’s new media-friendly philosophers are attempting to do.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of FP magazine.

Stuart Jeffries is the author of Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School.