The Chronicle Review

Slippery Sloterdijk: the Edgy European Philosopher, Circa 2012

Ulf Andersen, Getty Images

Peter Sloterdijk
November 05, 2012
Slippery Sloterdijk

Ulf Andersen, Getty Images

Peter Sloterdijk

The formula to be a hip European philosopher—the sort who attracts rapid-fire English translations, secondary trots from publishers such as Routledge and Polity, students cross-legged on the floor during visiting lectures at Yale or NYU—remains more or less what it's been since the mid-20th century.

Choose obscurity over clarity. Use abstract language and neologisms, the uglier the better, as if sprinkling opaque phrases, operating as a Jürgen Appleseed, is the most important thing philosophers do.

Refer en passant to the endlessly interpretable giants of the Continental tradition (e.g., Nietzsche, Heidegger) whether they add anything to one's arguments or not. Refer to cutting-edge European philosophers (e.g., Levinas, Latour, Zizek), both to show easy familiarity with the here and now and to suggest that literacy in their work is necessary to discuss important philosophical issues.

Be prolific, even if you don't have much to say, because regularly pumping out books indicates that you do have much to say. Rigorously avoid clear-minded science, social science, journalism, or history—the specter of interdisciplinarity—as if to proclaim that philosophy commands its own territory, concepts, and nomenclature, and outsiders must pay a literacy fee at the door.

Think of Zizek. Alain Badiou. Peter Sloterdijk.

OK, one step back. Sloterdijk, of all of them, complicates the formula because, as a writer and thinker, he's sometimes deliciously tactile and at other times maddeningly rhetorical as he ascends, at age 65, to world-class and household-name status, at least in philosophical households.

Born in Germany, with a Dutch father, Sloterdijk studied at the Universities of Munich and Hamburg in the late 60s and early 70s, taking his Ph.D. in 1975 from Hamburg. At first a freelance writer, he became famous after his two-volume Critique of Cynical Reason (1983) sold 40,000 copies in its first few months. These days he's best known in Germany as a professor of philosophy and aesthetics and former rector at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design, and longtime co-host of a German television show on ZDF, Im Glashaus: Das Philosophische Quartett.

Sloterdijk's high profile in media partly comes from his notorious clash with Jürgen Habermas—still considered Germany's greatest living philosopher and apostle of democracy and public deliberation—in the late 1990s.

Sloterdijk gave lectures in 1997 and 1999 that he titled Rules for the Human Zoo: A Response to Heidegger's Letter on Humanism. In them, charitably interpreted, Sloterdijk, while addressing such modern matters as genetic engineering, sees humanism as a kind of "taming of men" that saves them from "barbarism." That notion seems clear enough in the wake of World War II without tying it to unhelpful notions like Heidegger's amorphous conception of "dwelling." The "zoo" metaphor took Sloterdijk back to Plato, to the way we place ourselves in human zoos—that is, organize and domesticate our social life through the creation of institutions.

Habermas, however, didn't care for Sloterdijk's use of Nazi-tainted words like Zuchtüng ("breeding") and Selektion ("selection"), his references to a "failure of humanism." Habermas saw a move to radical neoconservatism in Sloterdijk, the whiff of "fascism" and eugenics, "a hatred of democracy." Habermas's votaries in the German press tore into Sloterdijk, questioning whether he was of "sound mind."

While that controversy has largely faded, it illustrated what makes Sloterdijk both beguiling and frustrating. On the weaker side of the ledger, he operates in the shadow of Heidegger, overtly identifying his work as an extension of the great obscurantist's reveries about Dasein, or Being, announcing his major project in Critique of Cynical Reason as the creation of a "Heideggerean Left," and elsewhere as to think "with Heidegger against Heidegger." When he is working the Heidegger greenhouse, Sloterdijk's language becomes hot air, concreteness disappears, and little is achieved.

When Peter Sloterdijk concentrates on tangible objects or actions, he illuminates. The more anthropological he is, the more he reveals.

On the other side of the ledger, when he engages themes associated with but never effectively articulated by Heidegger—such as man's relationship to technology—he does so with greater clarity and detail, embracing technology as part of what makes man human. In those passages, he resembles Foucault in his ability to mix big-picture metanarrative about the development of civilization with exact and even entertaining focus on concrete cultural examples, as in his lovely line about how the main fact of the new age of maritime trade "is not that the earth goes round the sun, but that the money goes round the earth." Indeed, he's often called the most French of current German philosophers.

Sloterdijk now vaunts an architectural and intermittently anthropological approach to philosophy. He writes much in his recent work of how man comes to occupy space, to create dwellings for himself—bubbles—and this plays out in his trilogy, Sphären, published from the late 1990s to 2004. There the "bubbles" extend from mother's womb to apartment complexes. Again, when he concentrates on tangible objects or actions—e.g., the primal act of the primitive child throwing a stone as a step toward civilization and occupation of a larger life-world—he illuminates. The more anthropological he is, the more he reveals. Then Dasein appears and darkness descends.

The most recent translated Sloterdijk—The Art of Philosophy: Wisdom as a Practice (Columbia University Press)—appears chosen to be the Ur-text (95 pages) meant to ease new readers into Sloterdijk's spherical universe. A spirited brief for Aristotelian-moderated philosophy it is, urging "the life of practice" that doesn't veer too sharply to the ivory tower or the barricades. "My aim," Sloterdijk writes, "is to show why the idea that the thinking person has to be a kind of dead person on holiday is inseparable from the ancient European culture of rationality, particularly classical, Platonic-inspired philosophy."

Yet the best introduction to Sloterdijk's thought remains his 2007 interview, "Living Hot, Thinking Coldly," with Éric Alliez in the journal Cultural Politics. There Sloterdijk not only addresses directly and sarcastically the assault from Habermas, who he insists assigned acolytes to destroy his reputation ("an impossible controversy with an adversary who's omnipresent and absent at the same time," says Sloterdijk of the affair), but gives some of his clearest and most accessible formulations of his notion of philosophy and his larger theoretical projects.

Sloterdijk sees his clash with Habermas as "a struggle for the definition and redefinition of philosophy itself." While acknowledging that he perhaps labors too much in the thickets of Continental predecessors, he declares that its positive upshot is to reject hermetic, establishment approaches to knowledge.

"Since my beginnings in philosophy," he told Alliez, "I've been too steeped in the lessons of Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Adorno, Bloch, Sartre, Foucault, Canetti, and other master-thinkers for my generation not to be persuaded of this exigency: Truth games of the philosophical type, if they are not to sink into anodyne salon conversation, cannot and must not be confined within the frames of an epistemological establishment or within institutions of a politics of knowledge that's given once and for all."

Take that, Prof. Habermas, soul of German democracy, ultimate authority to many on what the public sphere needs and deserves.

Further, while Sloterdijk concedes "we can't at the present time be said to need one more definition of philosophy; we have too many of them already, all useful and all useless," he speaks forcefully for a 21st-century philosophy that recognizes the necessity of its interdisciplinary attention to other fields of knowledge. Modern philosophy, he observes, when it is fruitful, "exposes itself" to "that which is not philosophy—social struggles, madness, pain, the arts, politics, accidents, clinical practice, and technologies. For 200 years, everything that has fired authentic thinking has come from nonphilosophy erupting into philosophy."

Of course, he can't resist dropping a definition of philosophy anyway, and not a bad one: "that agency of wisdom whose task is to manage the question of truth within an advanced civilization." But the man's heart is in the right place.

So in evaluating whether Sloterdijk is the real thing as European masters of thought go, or a gasbag like Zizek, I urge boldness in whisking past the grotesque vocabulary he and his exegetes often toss around: homonization; neoteny; philosopheme; aletheological; anthropotechnology; palaeo-ontology; homeotechnology. (No, I'm not wasting my breath defining them.)

Ignore just as rigidly the labels and terms coined to capture Sloterdijk's thought, such as "hyperhumanism," meant to capture Sloterdijk's own Uberhumanismus.

Pay attention, rather, to his rich readings throughout his work of precise cultural phenomena, such as the incisive analysis Sloterdijk gives in The Art of Philosophy to a 1907 letter Edmund Husserl wrote to the young poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, trying to lasso him into phenomenology, construing it (Sloterdijk remarks) as a kind of philosophical photography. Husserl thought his method resembled Hofmannsthal's vision of the poet as "all eyes and ears ... the silent brother of all things ... who can't ignore anything." It's when Sloterdijk slips happily from Heideggerean field hand to the cultural critic he began as that his insights strike home.

That, of course, tempts me to add "Slippery Sloterdijk" to the labels meant to catch the man's style, but no matter. I await my invitation to edit one of the 18 anthologies of essays on him sure to be coming down the pipeline.

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle and professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College, is the author of America the Philosophical, published this year by Alfred A. Knopf.