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20/08/2007

"The time for philosophising is over"

Philosopher Ernst Tugendhat on Heidegger, the fear of death and unfounded speculations in brain research

The interview was supposed to last just two hours in the afternoon, but it went until almost midnight. Ernst Tugendhat, 77, had doubts about whether he wanted to see it printed. In the end a letter came from Tübigen: "I find the text alright as it is now" was written in the round characters of his old typewriter. Tugendhat doesn't like to send emails: his thoughts still travel by post.






Ernst Tugendhat. Photo © Verlag C.H.Beck

Die Tageszeitung: Professor Tugendhat, your most recent philosophy deals with fear of death. When was the first time you experienced this fear?

Ernst Tugendhat: I wrote my first lecture on death when I was 64. I was in Chile at the time, alone, and I had the feeling that all that awaited me was death. But perhaps I was already open to the topic, because I'd studied with Heidegger, in whose thinking death also plays a major role. When I think I only have a short time to live, I'm horrified. Not because I want to go on living at all costs, but because I feel I've frittered away my time and should have lived very differently.

And how?


That I don't know. I just have this worry that I could have missed out on the main thing. But in the meantime this feeling's been pushed to the side by mysticism.

But how can mysticism help?


It helps you recognise that in any event you're not so relevant. That has to do with amazement at what Heidegger called being, or, as Wittgenstein said, that this world exists at all.

If you're not important yourself, then where do you get the motivation to live? Isn't it debilitating to believe that everything is important, except yourself?

No, I'm just as important, but no more so. In addition, I do have philosophical ambitions, and I'm happy when I'm successful in what I do, even if in fact I condemn such an attitude. I try to downplay my own importance, but in point of fact I experience how important I do consider myself.

Would that not be grounds for rethinking your theory that one should relativise oneself?

No. Mysticism and egocentricity are not mutually exclusive. I believe a person never gets past taking himself seriously, even as a mystic. Because in doing mysticism, he is interested in the fact that HE is doing mysticism. There is this gap between taking-oneself-exaggeratedly-seriously and the serenity of relativising oneself, putting oneself into perspective.

When one says: I'm not important, then one also says: I'm not important for others. What becomes of love?

Of course, love involves a mutual understanding that people find each other important. I just believe that at one point this moment becomes independent.

Nevertheless it seems to me that overcoming the fear of death requires no longer having any passions.

Yes.

That seems like a price to pay.


Look, those are only opposites within a framework of tension. Take the case of vanity. It's something we would all find funny, because it's an exaggeration of one's own importance.

Are you vain?


We're all egocentric. But some are more reflective than others. And the vain are particularly unreflective.

May one be happy about one's successes?


Good question. I'd say yes - as long as you don't overdo it.

Which of your successes pleased you most?


When I took up my first post as professor in Heidelberg, I let out a deep sigh of relief. In the years beforehand, all those years as an assistant at Tübingen, I didn't believe in myself. I read job vacancies in the papers but I never found anything I felt I could do. I had no faith in myself as a philosopher. I had a sense of inferiority - that's true of a lot of haughty people.

You were haughty?

Basically I'd always had a high idea of myself. Gradually I gained self-confidence, but I still consider myself far too dependent on how people react to my lectures. That depresses me. And my lectures in Germany were always well-received, as opposed to in the Anglo-Saxon countries.

Where does the difference lie?

Here there's a lot of bragging in universities. In England and the USA, people have a different way of addressing you, particularly with me, because my style of thinking is rather Anglo-Saxon. Many German colleagues have it easier in America because there people think, oh, that's some German profundity that's so profound that it can't be understood anyway.

So nowadays good philosophy is only done in England and the USA?

No. I believe that German academics are more aware of what the big questions are. But on the other hand they pay less attention to methodology and very little to discipline in discussion. After a lecture in Germany, a lot of people will stand up and go on about one thing or other, without referring to what the speaker has just said. German audiences tend to see themselves as panel members.

What's your relationship to Jürgen Habermas like? You've known each other a long time.

That's too complicated a question.

May I put it differently? Habermas too is discovering religion.


But very differently. He himself has no need for religion, he says so himself. Just what interests him in religion I don't exactly know. But in any case it's not what interests me. I've certainly got a need for belief. He's interested in the moral components of religious tradition, not religion as such.

Your most recent book seems paradoxical. With its strong reference to death it seems like a farewell - and a new beginning.

What gives you the impression of a new beginning?

Your attempt to give new answers to the question: what is philosophy? What's your method? Is there a general question that can bundle together the individual disciplines within philosophy?


I say in the foreword that what I've said until now on certain topics seems to me very insufficient. I'd already said my previous book would be my last. Then I wrote these essays, which appeared in March. Now however, I really do think it's my last book.

Because you're content with yourself?


No, but I have the feeling that for me the time for philosophising is over.

Your desk looks very tidy. All that's on it is an old typewriter.


I can only think when sitting at the typewriter. I've got small sheets of paper, half the size of a normal page. The page number is on the right, the date on the left. I order them chronologically.

There's a pile of almost two thousand manuscript pages. How do you find your thoughts again?

That can be difficult. I tossed everything away before leaving Chile in 1999, and sold off anything that still had a value. I don't cling to things.

Not even your own thoughts?


When an essay's written, you can throw away the notes.

That's rather unfortunate for a potential biographer.


Everything should be thrown away shortly before your death. I don't want people to be tempted to publish anything. Even Heidegger's letters to his wife are now being published. I don't think he'd have approved of that. I can't understand why people think that when someone's dead you don't owe them any more respect, and you can turn their private life inside out.

Nevertheless, one more clue for potential biographers: how did you spend your free time? They say Ludwig Wittgenstein read old detective novels.

Most of my life I did nothing but philosophy. Maybe I heard a little music, or met people. I was a workaholic, I think.

Did you have role models for that?


My parents perhaps. My father was very calm, very strict, he exuded authority.

For 25 years you preoccupied yourself primarily with ethics - and now at an advanced age you turn to anthropology. How did this change in focus come about?

I address a certain problem with Heidegger in an essay I wrote in 1999, his use of the German term "man" (generally translated into English by "one" - ed.). I try to show that Heidegger had a false anthropology, and can't explain his own terms. That happened rather coincidentally, but then I kept going from there.

Could one describe your entire philosophical life as an overcoming of Heidegger?

Yes. I read "Being and Time" when I was fifteen. At the time I often studied philosophical texts with my mother, more out of friendliness to her. It was terribly important for her to do things with me. I came to Germany as soon as I could, and studied the whole time in Freiburg.

Heidegger had the reputation of being very aloof.


You know, as a person he was never very important for me. When he'd been rehabilitated, that was in my second year or so, I took the three courses he was offering. Then I visited him in Freiburg from time to time, and we'd go for walks together. I was always scared stiff, I felt totally unprepared. Then he sent me a card telling me when I should come with the words: "No need to prepare."

And later?

We had one really good talk after I'd left Freiburg - when I began to criticise his notion of the truth in my Habilitation dissertation. That was the start of a short while when I think he was quite taken with me. But our personal relationship was entirely unimportant for me. At that time I didn't consider Heidegger's Nazism important enough, and that was wrong. That was naive of me. Later I reproached myself for that very much.

Because it was because of him that you returned so quickly from your emigration to the land of the perpetrators?

That was a very questionable step. My gesture of reconciliation now seems scandalous to me vis-à-vis the victims. Because I didn't suffer under Nazi rule. I didn't even experience the emigration as a personal loss. For me as an eleven-year-old, the ship voyage to Venezuela was an adventure.

But you had to leave one of the most famous houses in the history of modern art, Villa Tugendhat, which Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe built for your father in Brno.


That house never played a role in my life, or if it did, then it was a negative one. It's a matter of complete indifference to me where I live. Perhaps that's a reaction to our family's glorifying the house so much.

Why did it take so long for you to think it was wrong to return to Germany so soon?


I grew up in a circle of Jewish emigrants who had studied with Heidegger. They all acted as though you could separate his work from his person. That I as a Jew came back to Germany prematurely – that eventually struck back at me.

But only at you? Nobody reproached you for it?

No, no reproaches or accusations. But people were surprised.

Your family?

My family for sure, at the time in any case. But I had a friend in Berlin, and we were sitting at Cafe Einstein in the mid 80s. She was English, and asked me why I'd had returned to Germany. It was then I noticed that now, speaking from a distance, I can't give a good answer to the question. That was one of the reasons why I left Germany for South America in 1992.

Is it possible to correct a decision fifty years on?


It was irrational. It was probably an aggression against myself, which I exteriorised. I suddenly had this hatred of Germany, I wanted to undo it.

Then in 1999 you returned to Germany a second time. How do you feel now? Normal?

I only came to Tübingen because of the libraries.

In 1968 you were a Dean at Heidelberg. How did you experience Germany at the time?

The student movement led me to reconcile myself with Germany. In the early years I always felt like a foreigner. But I fully identified with the student protests. I was put off by the strange reaction of a large number of my colleagues. They wanted their peace. And yet it was quite a striking experience for me. I was treated as a normal human being! We professors simply argued. My colleagues behaved in a way that was neither anti-Semitic nor philo-Semitic. To this day I don't understand that. They were all people who'd experienced the Nazi period.

What was it like later on?

I personally didn't experience any anti-Semitism. But that's not an objective statement, it may be a coincidence. What I do witness is philo-Semitism, for instance when Germans tell me they aren't entitled to voice the same criticism of Israel as I, when I describe Zionism as nationalistic, for example. Many Germans would not have the courage to do so.

Coming back to Heidegger, how do you see him now?

C. H. Beck publishers suggested I write a book on "Being and Time." But that would do him too much honour. It's not only the way he behaved in the Nazi era, but also what he said after 1945 – awful. I think there was something dishonest about him. In human and political terms for sure, but also in philosophical terms.

You're always quoted as saying that the problem in Heidegger is the absence of a concept of untruth.

He developed a concept of truth, the concept of "unconcealment", to which the contrast of falsehood no longer essentially belonged. Things are relatively complicated in his philosophy. He always had ways of talking his way out. But in principle the critical dimension was lost.

Nevertheless you, too, remained fascinated throughout your life.

Not throughout my life. My turning point was when I received an invitation to go to Ann Arbor in Michigan shortly before my habilitation on Husserl and Heidegger. I was 35 at the time. It was there that I realised that analytical philosophy is of greater help in explaining things for which Husserl made inventions like "categorical intuition." To me, that was a major methodological shift. I continued to adhere to questions posed by Heidegger, but I was no longer fascinated by them. Heidegger tried to apply his metaphysical concepts to Aristotle. I on the other hand wanted to show that Aristotle had actually headed for a philosophy based on an analysis of language all along.

Your turn to anthropology in 1999 – in opposition to Heidegger – nevertheless still shows what a great influence he had on you.

I'm aware of that. In a lecture here in Tübingen, I recently tried to unravel which parts of Heidegger are tenable? And constantly I had to tell people that's not the way to do things. That's why I can't write a book on "Being and Time."

Because it would be too destructive?


Yes. To write a commentary on a book, your relation to the book has to be primarily positive.

So you couldn't write that ultimately the only thing Heidegger has to offer is the "om" of Indian mystics, as you did in your last book. People sometimes accuse you of being almost polemical in your criticism.

I find it a lot easier to criticise than to pay tribute to someone. Jürgen Habermas once said to me: "You don't just criticise, you try to kill."

Many of your students and assistants suffer from a "Tugendhat Trauma." Your remark "I don't understand" whenver somebody gave a presentation is legendary.


That was simply the case; there was no strategic intention behind.

That's precisely why it was so deadly.

I may have inherited that from my mother. She was just as naive.

You had a great many students who are now themselves professors. Do you have the feeling of leaving a kind of school?

No. For many years, I saw my role as a German professor as one in which I had to provide clarity in all the German profundity. And I believe that if there's anything I have achieved, it is the development of this methodological consciousness. But there are hardly any people who work on the same topics.

Would you have liked to found a school?


No, that never crossed my mind.

Because you refuse certainties?

I refuse certainties?!

You call it "retractions". You're constantly criticising your old publications in the recent articles.


Yes, that happened to me a lot in moral philosophy. I kept being absorbed by it.

To a reader, it seems as if you first needed to publish an article before being able to develop and reject it.


No! That's not the way to think. Only sometimes did I publish things that I knew in advance weren't quite correct, but that doesn't matter. Let other people sweat over them.

A kind of division of labour, then?


But nobody actually does that. I don't feel that a great many of my ideas have been absorbed.

Do you have the impression that you may have been working on the wrong subject?


No, I actually never have that impression. I think that some topics are important and others, I feel I should comment on, given the way I'm built.

How are you built?


In a sense, I am a very short-sighted person. I am not a person who has the vast overview of social contexts. I can only continue with my little problems. On the other hand, I have an advantage that others do not have because I work in a very precise manner. Strictly speaking, I cannot say anything on matters relevant to society because these are far too complex for me. I only speak about things that are part of individual identity. For a long time, I suffered from not being able to work empirically. At the time, I left university, and Heidelberg, to learn that.

What do you mean working empirically? Did you want to do sociology?

Sociology and history. But it was an absurd idea. In the end, I was lucky that Habermas offered me a job at this institute in Starnberg. If I had worked without a safety net for several years, I would have suffered. But I wanted to learn to work empirically. I have now given that up. Now I do things which I know I can do, and I simply omit things which I know I cannot.

You nevertheless commented on the first Gulf War, for example.

Those were probably always questions that were relatively easy to narrow down. I also gave talks about the danger of an atomic war. But I was scared and shaking when I had to give the first of these talks.

At the time, even your opponents admitted that you may not always have been on the right side – but you did have the best arguments.

Nevertheless I got bogged down in the 80s. I only gave two to three lectures in Berlin that made sense – but not many more.

What function does philosophy have now? Is it becoming superfluous – because of the behavioural sciences, brain research and evolutionary biology?

I am very careful about that. As far as the behavioural sciences are concerned, I think that people are too rash in looking for analogies – for example between human morals and animal altruism. That is what Konrad Lorenz, among others, did. As for brain research, I think it's rather crazy what's going on today.

Why?

They can only find out what types of processes are going on in which parts of the brain. But then those professors of brain physiology appear and present theories about the nonexistence of human freedom. And those theories are only based on the fact that they see themselves as scientists and believe in determinism. They are not even aware of the philosophical literature of the last decades, which tries to not see determinism and free will in opposition. I consider that to be completely untenable speculation.

But brain research is still in its infancy.


Brain research may become interesting for philosophy in a hundred years, but it hasn't been until now. I admittedly am a naturalist; I see human beings as part of a biological development. But what the biological sciences do in relation to human beings hardly makes sense.

If brain research has so little to offer – does sure philosophical knowledge exist?

No. And we don't need it. The desire to be on sure ground is the relict of an authoritarian frame of mind. It's a relict of those times when people believed they would receive all that is essential through revelation from the Gods.

*

The interview originally appeared in German in Die Tageszeitung on July 28, 2007.

Ulrike Herrmann studied philosophy and is a political and economic correspondent for Die Tageszeitung.
Ernst Tugendhat is professor emeritus for philosophy at the Free University of Berlin. He lives in Tübingen and Latin America. His most recent work, "Egozentrizität und Mystik. Eine anthropologische Studie," was published by C. H. Beck in 2003. Another feature by him here.


Translation: jab, Claudia Kotte

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