Disappointing Thinking (excerpt #2 No. 5)

Is philosophy, as it was once understood: as a search for a meaning immanent to human life, but also transcending it, as a question of the meaning of being and time, but also of a meaning beyond of being and time, – is such a philosophy not at an end? Hasn’t phi­lo­so­phy become a special science in which these topics and questions are hardly ever or at best only marginally dealt with?

The analysis so far has shown: philosophy, philosophical thought is a disappointing task, and this at all levels of its activity, historically and systematically, institutionally and trans-institutionally: historically because of its disintegration into individual disciplines and its subsequent constitution as a scientific philosophy; systematically because of the in­suf­fi­ci­ent answers it has to offer in view of the persistence of metaphysical needs: the trans­cen­den­tal, the analytical and the hermeneutical „answer“. It was, in retrospect, an error to assume that these answers could be a final, stable basis for further philosophical thinking, teaching and research, freed from internal self-criticism and self-doubt. On the contrary. The disappointments of philosophy were only further advanced by these answers.

This in turn has both institutional and non-institutional consequences. For the time being, institutional as well as trans-institutional philosophy cannot get over the „historical a pri­o­ri“ of a scientifically regulated language, a tradition defined by the history of reception and a categorically limited way of thinking. This a priori functions like a bundle of the so-called paradigms described by Thomas Kuhn: Without reference to them, philosophizing is no longer possible today. But the institutional form of philosophical thought, which sees itself as a scientific philosophy, is more concerned with this than its emphatic, trans-in­sti­tu­ti­o­nal form. For, since it does not understand itself as science, it is bound to such pa­ra­digms only negatively, not positively. It works itself off against them, while the scientific philosopher builds on them.

Philosophy, it seems, is therefore at the end, but not yet at a final one. It is at a turning point. For there are, in order to change from the apersonal form of articulation, which is widespread in the sciences, to the personal form of speech, there are still one or two topics that I would like to address, or one or two questions that I would like to ask – for example in connection with a biographical memory:


In the middle of the 80s I drove from Berlin to Freiburg/Br. for a few weeks and visited my old fellow students P. and E.. A few years earlier I had moved from Freiburg/Br. to Berlin, because I believed that I would be able to realize my – at the beginning surely overly idea­­li­stic – idea of what philosophy could be better in Berlin. Soon after my arrival there, I had started to work in a playful way with language and to experiment with texts. The first drafts of the ZeitSchrift für TopoLogie und StrömungsKunde, edited by Robert Krokowski and myself, were available, and P. and E. approached me about them:

„Isn’t it a little playful what you and Robert are doing? Concrete poetry or conceptual po­et­ry or something?“ I thought it would be good to go a little further and explain: „I once read Wittgenstein, I think he wrote: „The limits of my language are the limits of my world.“ So if I, as a philosopher, want to expand the boundaries of my world, perhaps even those of the world at all, then I must expand language or do language work, or not?“

And because I knew that P. valued Ingeborg Bachmann above all else – E. began to take an interest in Derrida at the time – I added: „Doesn’t it say somewhere in Bachmann: „No new world without a new language“? Doesn’t Bachmann too – at least that’s how I understand her dissertation on Heidegger and her interest in Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle – think that in order to be able to live new forms of life, we need a new language? And isn’t philosophy, even in this existential and explicitly literary sense, language work?“

P. was annoyed: „This is pure idealism. The sentence does not, as it were, normatively call for work on language to change the world, but only points out, purely descriptively, that there is a constitutive, not just a contingent relationship between the world and language. It is a reciprocal relationship, not a one-sided one. Incidentally, what Bachmann is for­mu­la­ting here is an aesthetic program that can certainly also apply to hermetic texts such as those by Celan, Kafka or Beckett. But as far as I understand it – and I know very little about it – you want to pursue philosophy, not poetry. Don‘t you?“


My old friends from Freiburg times were right. I had – negatively – succumbed to an error and had – positively – given myself over to the illusion that I could change the world with a little language work. Like Hegel, whom I admired, I had perhaps even become an in­corri­gible idealist: „The theoretical work, I convince myself more and more every day“, Hegel wrote in 1808 in a letter to Niethammer, „achieves more in the world than the practical work; once the realm of ideas has been revolutionized, reality cannot endure“, as if Feu­er­bach, Marx & Co. did‘nt ever exist – nor the Critical Theory, which P., E. and I had studied in depth a few years earlier in the form of the Dialectics of Enlightenment.

So without much thought – Julia Kristeva’s La révolution du langage poétique was the in­spi­ra­tion for me – I had been involved in a rebellious project that was, indeed, not a re­bel­lious one, or vice versa in a revisionist project that I considered rebellious. But it was pre­cise­ly in this reversal that the whole problem of the so-called linguistic turn lay for me at the time: was it a rebellious or a revisionist turn? So was I or was I not involved in a re­bel­lious project? Depending on how the turn was understood, I was an idealist / criticist or a realist / dogmatist.

Above all, however, I had made a mistake which I made again and again and about which I could gain sufficient certainty only in recent years. Condition and reason were to be dis­tin­guished: The condition sine qua non is not yet a sufficient reason. „A new world isn‘t pos­si­ble without a new language“ does not mean: „A new world is only possible through a new language“; for that would blur the difference between condition and reason. But that is pre­cise­ly the reason why my friends in Freiburg apparently insisted that Bachmann’s sen­tence was not a normative but a descriptive sentence.

But even if one could not understand it as a one-sided, normative sentence, what did it mean? If, for example, one assumed that it meant a reciprocal relationship, that language and the world were mutually dependent on each other, was it not indifferent where one be­gan one’s work: whether one did language work, for example as a philosopher, writer or scholar, or whether one sought to change the world directly, for example as a natural sci­en­tist, technician or engineer, in a very concrete, material way, reshaping the face of the world? And doesn’t the pluralism of postmodernism arise precisely from this fundamental insight: that the binarism of culture and nature, thinking and being, difference and identity etc. does not imply any value judgements, that the areas are in-different (in the sense of: equally valid)?

Über Christian Kupke

Philosoph, Autor + Dozent
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