“I think of philosophy as an art of life”, proclaims the philosopher, publicist and editor Wolfram Eilenberger (Freiburg, Germany, 48 years old), who defends that reflections on the great existential questions must be applied in everyday life . This is what the thinkers Simone Weil, Simone de Beauvoir, Hannah Arendt and Ayn Rand did in the 1930s, when the rise of totalitarianism swept through Europe. The four star in their new essay, The fire of freedom (Taurus), which addresses the complex dialectic between the individual and society in times of crisis. Eilenberger, who combines philosophy with sports columnism, repeats the formula from her previous successful essay, Magicians time, which intertwined the life and work of the thinkers Benjamin, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Cassirer in the 1920s. Now he focuses on “philosophers who were women, not women philosophers, which is not the same,” he says during the interview, that the cold and wind in early April in Berlin force them to be covered, with distance and open windows. His response to anxiety was “to be entirely in the present. Or, in other words, philosophize ”. The echoes of those reflections in troubled years resonate in our times of proliferation of populisms, identity dilemmas, trivialization of politics and global health crises.
QUESTION. Why did you choose those four thinkers?
ANSWER. I am interested in philosophers who not only proclaim their ideas, but embody them, who make philosophy the engine of their life. I think of philosophy as an art of life. In times of crisis, we are forced to understand what philosophy can do for our lives. His biographies are heavily influenced by war and totalitarianism. But the most important thing is that they were thinking about the same problem: what is my relationship with other human beings? They are among the most interesting, underrated, and almost forgotten in the history of philosophy.
P. The book focuses on the tension between the individual and the community, which is back in force with the pandemic. We lose individual freedoms for the common good. How to balance both needs?
R. There is no clear answer. The pandemic is a starting point for us to re-evaluate how we live with other human beings and what our obligations are to them. Our generation lived in a time of individualism, some call it neoliberalism. Our parents, society and politics taught us that each of us is the most important thing in the world. And that we are not responsible for other people. But just by breathing we see that our existence has an impact on others. And that is something that we find difficult to recognize, individually and also politically.
P. In times of crisis like this, science provides solutions: vaccines, treatments, tests. How can philosophy help?
R. Politicians invite a philosopher and wait for him to tell them what to do. And that is a catastrophe for politicians, for the expectations that are generated, and for the philosophers themselves. The truth is, we don’t know what to do. It is a shame that in the field of applied ethics philosophers assume that role because it gives them power. It has never been good for philosophers to give advice to powerful people. If you ask me what to do, I am not the right person, because philosophy does not consist of that. But if we come across an experience that puzzles or scares us, these four thinkers can give us examples of how to think and live in times of despair.
Q. If we move them to the present, how would they respond? Would Weil volunteer to test the vaccine? Would Rand be an anti-vaccine denier?
R. Weil would now be seen on Lesbos in a refugee camp working with unvaccinated and unvaccinated people herself. Rand would be on the streets with these Querdenkers [el movimiento alemán de protesta contra las restricciones de la pandemia] and anti-vaccines that say that forcing us to wear a mask is the first step to a totalitarian state. The person who would most resemble Weil today is Greta Thunberg. He has the same nonconformist attitude and the same maturity.
P. ¿Y Arendt y De Beauvoir?
R. Arendt would write articles saying “Look, I understand that this is a critical situation but we cannot give the State this absolute power to tell us when we can leave home or do this or that. If we start like this we can fall down a slippery slope ”. De Beauvoir would go to illegal parties and try to live life, and basically deny the situation. I’m talking about the time when I describe them in the book.
P. They were all very young.
R. I am interested in describing philosophers when they develop their thinking, not when they have already reached it. When they are already icons it is not so interesting. In this book I try to understand them in their initial development to understand what it means to embark on philosophy and what it means in your life. Your questions, your passions, are ours.
P. We are living a boom of populism: Trump, Bolsonaro, Orbán. With what tools does philosophy protect citizens against the simplification of political language?
R. Populism creates a phantasmic collective, which is granted certain rights that are deprived of those who do not belong to it, and a leader appears who presents himself as the incarnation of the movement. You have to ask yourself: what kind of group is that? What kind of values does it represent? And who is the person who claims to represent it? If you follow these steps you are practically vaccinated against populism. You have to be intellectually capable of doing it, but also brave.
P. We give a lot of thought to the question of identity and nationalism. Do you think Spain has a problem with that?
R. I had a teacher in Spain who told me: “The German problem is history. The Spanish problem is Spain ”. Before Franco, the people fought to maintain their language, their culture, their tradition. I think now no one denies access to those three things. All the rest is to hijack identity politics and bring it into a sphere dominated by economics and the dark side of nationalism. Catalonia is a clear case. If it were less economically powerful we would not have that problem. It cannot be argued that Catalan culture is in danger. It is a populist movement.
Q. You often say that we take democracy for granted. What is the main threat?
R. The ecological question. The pandemic shows us the restrictions that we will have to overcome if we want to tackle it successfully. Perhaps in the future the individual will not have so much freedom. Perhaps we can address it with democratic measures. But what if not? The second threat is artificial intelligence. Algorithms that make decisions for us so that we do not have political responsibility. If you combine both things, it is a very different world.
P. Three of the protagonists of the book were Jewish. What did the loss of the Jewish tradition in the 1930s mean for Europe?
R. In terms of the intellectual history of my country, we never recover from the losses of the 1930s. If you think about the history of philosophy, nothing that happened after the 1940s in the United States would be possible without the Jewish thinkers who emigrated. and they built another philosophical culture.
P. Heidegger said that you can only do philosophy in Greek or German. Do you think that each language has a different way of thinking?
R. Yes, in two ways. If you have a long tradition of philosophy in a language, words and concepts are more natural for you. Languages conceptualize the world differently. We should not underestimate the power of languages to see the world the way we see it, and that is why it is a shame that a philosopher applying for an academic position must do so in English. It is a great loss not to be able to express yourself in your own language.
Q. Why do you think philosophy is increasingly cornered in the educational system?
R. The Catholic Church does not want philosophy to be part of the academic curriculum. In Germany it is an optional subject and sometimes it is not even offered. Where there is rivalry with the church, philosophy always loses. It makes no sense because there is no opposition between theology, religion and philosophy. All three have the same desire: to find you in a world that is too complicated to understand. Philosophy can be a part of your daily life. Philosophy is not just another academic discipline, it responds to a need to ask ourselves questions that are at the center of our existence.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.