Science as a Vacation

November 8, 2007 § 2 Comments

I don’t want to question the merits of either Peter Sloterdijk nor Rüdiger Safranski, both acclaimed philosophers in Germany, but point to a more general trend among the German humanities which explicitly deals with the break of symbolic exchanges in the Academia – in Germany and elsewhere probably. I am told that Safranski’s book on Nietzsche is highly readable and serves as a profound introduction for non-experts. For Sloterdijk, the case is harder, his “Sphären” (Spheres, as yet not translated into English, only Spanish as Esferas) repelled me when I glanced over the first sentences but I am not an expert on philosophy either. It might have its merits in certain respects among the community.

Ruediger Safranski

Both are good at writing it seems, but their TV show on ZDF shows the unbridgeable gap between the so called “ivory tower” of philosophy and the language of practitioners such as Otto Schilly, former German Minister of Interior. The subject was security and how to keep it. Schilly had been accused of curtailing civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism during his term. It was Safranski, who started a monologue about how Ministers live in a safe environment with bullet proof windows, bodyguards and safe work spheres, that they imagine the outside world to be inherently hostile. Thus they perceive of the outside as a threat and enemy, passing stricter laws against criminals and terrorists even as a preemptive measure. Schilly had a laugh at the philosopher’s indulgence in his own words and “theorizing”. At this point the audience was undecided which threat to follow. I follow Schilly here, neither to endorse his reasoning, nor to get involved in the debate about security. But the pointlessness of such philosophic discourse was revealed in that very moment, as Safranski and Sloterdijk kept on pondering their ideas. It became clear that Schilly and the others were concerned with different sorts of questions. Where decisions mark the horizon of theorizing, philosophy turns into science as a vacation from decision-making. But more accurately, this sort of science has lost any contact with the public that makes it possible.

Max Weber wrote a marvelous article on “Science as a Vocation” in 1917 (several versions exist) where he detailed not only the exterior factors of the academic apparatus, the status relationships and financial structure, but more importantly the “inner disposition” of the scientist. The conclusion is that Science is dedicated to a “cause” first and foremost, but with the ultimate realization that any scientific achievement will be and wants to be surpassed. After struggling through the busy days of assistant, the new scientist steps up to a more influential position, where he is finally able to achieve his true vocation. But his findings will be at the hight of their time only for a short period of time – 10 years or 20 at the maximum. He will be criticized, refuted and ultimately he is forgotten. That has nothing to do with the shelf-life of books, it is the course of progress, according to Weber. Today, science is only rarely identified with a vocation but rather seen as a profession. This is in part founded on the break of symbolic relationships between professors and disciples that for a long time ensured the passing of knowledge outside the immediate realm of publications.

Peter Sloterdijk

For Weber and others, the crowd of disciples has been the vanguard against oblivion. Whereas the natural sciences need a certain group of new staff for complex measurements and experimentation, the humanities have problems enticing new disciples to the challenge of being soon forgotten, because the idols in the the cosy ivory tower of narcissist reflection stay beyond their deadline of achievement. Certainly, there is always a spill-out of dubious texts on less obvious subjects in the humanities. No one should want to regard intellectual production only in the light of a subsequent publication. But for the most part, publications in the German “Geisteswissenschaften” seem to favor another interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation.

This is especially true of Media Studies, which has lingered as an open form between philosophy, sociology and advertising research. The obligatory reference to Baudelaire when writing about the city, refers not only to an out-dated interpretation, but also obliterates the difference between a text and an observation. Writing about texts is a pleasurable and non-committing activity. For many, science is akin to vacation because they fear the price of true vocation. Instead of admitting their own ephemerality, the heads of the discipline cling to subjects of which they know nothing of, only to stay in the circuits of the media themselves. The reverse effect is that they thoroughly neglect their function as professors. But when the symbolic order of generational change is overridden by the financial calculus and neglect of teaching, science can not be at the service of society.

Photos: ZDF, Das Philosophische Quartett


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