In “The Plunge and the Turn,” the first chapter of Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger, the German philosopher, polemicist, and sometime television host Peter Sloterdijk recalls walking around the campus of Bard College, “one of the academic institutions in the state of New York favored by students from the upper-middle classes,” and discovering “almost accidentally” a cemetery containing the grave of Hannah Arendt. At the time, he reports, “I was in the process of beginning to contemplate whether I should take up the expected call for a professorship in Germany.” These ruminations on his future career path led Sloterdijk to consider the different places occupied by professors in “the Old World” and “the United States of America, the hyperbolic European colony.”
The existence of “a cemetery of professors” fills him with amazement: “What European professor would today be laid to rest at a university’s own cemetery?” The discovery of Arendt’s grave provokes a contrast with Heidegger’s chosen resting place:
Professor Heidegger’s grave is not found on campus but rather in a rural cemetery, not in a university town but rather tucked away in a little town with a pious name, not in the vicinity of lecture halls and libraries where the philosopher had been at work but rather not far from the houses and fields of his childhood, as though the tenured professor at the illustrious Albert-Ludwigs-Universität refused moving to the urban world even in extremis.
The lesson Sloterdijk thinks can be drawn from these graves is not altogether clear. At points he seems to be critical of Heidegger’s choice of resting place, which could be construed as revealing a preference for provincial quietude over engagement with the historical forces of his time. At the same time—possibly bearing in mind Heidegger’s engagement with Nazism—Sloterdijk seems to detect an ennobling significance in this retreat:
Wasn’t his village a secret outpost of the civitas Dei? And isn’t this the reason why his grave could not be located on a campus or in a city? This grave belongs to the counter-world, the nonconformist, questioning church that is concealed in the shadows of the visible, pontificating one.
On balance, it seems that Sloterdijk finds Heidegger’s choice fitting for a philosopher “who had no interlocutor among his contemporaries in the twentieth century” and entered “into a dialogue with his only two equals in the Western tradition,” Plato and Augustine.
At present Sloterdijk is Professor of Philosophy and Aesthetics at the Karlsruhe School of Design. Unlike Heidegger he has avoided committing overtly to any political party. Yet throughout most of his career he has been a prominent and controversial public figure, engaging forcefully in debates about the welfare state (he has advocated the abolition of taxes), genetic engineering (he seems to support human genetic alteration), immigration (he was a strident critic of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy), and other issues. In 1999 he clashed with Jürgen Habermas, who attacked him for echoing aspects of Nazi discourse when in “Rules for the Human Park” he used terms such as “selection” and “breeding” to suggest that future generations might be shaped by some version of eugenics. More recently Sloterdijk has been criticized for appearing to give intellectual legitimacy to a rising current of German nationalism. Nonetheless his political thinking—like his philosophy as a whole—has always been unsystematic, diffuse, and hard to define.
Born in 1947, he studied at the universities of Munich and Hamburg, where he received his doctorate in 1975. In the late 1970s he spent some years in India as a disciple of the Indian guru Osho, otherwise known as the Baghwan Shree Rajneesh. In 1983, having returned to Germany to become an independent scholar, Sloterdijk published his first major philosophical work, the one-thousand-page Critique of Cynical Reason, a best-seller that sold more copies than any other philosophy book in Germany since World War II. By the early 1980s the world-storming radicalism of the student movements of the Sixties had in some measure given way to world-weary resignation. Against this “cynicism,” Sloterdijk recommended the “kynicism” of Diogenes, the ancient Greek philosopher who was reputed to have shown his contempt for conventional values by publicly masturbating and telling Alexander the Great to stop blocking his light.
For ten years, between 2002 and 2012, Sloterdijk hosted a popular television show, Im Glashaus: Das Philosophische Quartett (In the Glass House: The Philosophical Quartet). Alongside these public interventions, he has maintained a prodigious rate of intellectual production. His Spheres trilogy runs to over 2,500 pages, and he has written numerous shorter works, only a few of which—Stress and Freedom, Philosophical Temperaments, and In the Shadow of Mount Sinai, for example—have been translated into English. Overall he has produced some fifty books.
For all his prolixity, Sloterdijk’s contribution to philosophy remains elusive. One reason is his style. Praising Richard Rorty, Sloterdijk has described the late American pragmatist philosopher as a thinker
from whom one could learn why a philosopher with an understanding of the times must have the courage to strive for simplicity: only in a jargon-free language can one discuss with one’s contemporaries why we, as members of modern civilization, may not have entered a Golden Age.
It is good advice, which Rorty followed in his writings. But Sloterdijk has done the opposite, adopting a tortuously complicated style that obscures any clear ideas his writings may contain.
Consider the closing lines of Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger:
To have grasped hold of a ground in the existing duality: this much autochthony or anchoring in the real must also be retained, even if philosophy continues to vigilantly pursue its indispensable escape from the empirical commune. For thought, it is now a matter of working through the tension between autochthony (ab ovo and in regard to the community) and liberation (in regard to death or the infinite) anew.
What this means is anyone’s guess. The difficulty is not in translating the text from German; there is general agreement that English-language translations of Sloterdijk’s works are of high quality. Instead the problem lies in his mode of writing, in which argument takes second place to a rhetoric deploying abstruse terminology and self-invented neologisms. The monumental trilogy reads more like a convoluted prose poem than an exercise in philosophical discourse.
The effect is sometimes comic. “Different people,” Sloterdijk writes, “experience themselves first of all as different odors.” He continues:
The etymological kinship between the Latin words odor (“smell”) and odium (“hatred”) points from a distance to the nasal clash of civilizations…. Every merdocratic space, every here, everything ours, is a kingdom of its own; it forms an auratic monad that catches its inhabitants in a particular underlying mood and impregnates them with the whiff of the smellscape. What came to be thought of—somewhat wilfully, speculatively and tendentiously—as national spirits in eighteenth-century Europe are therefore, initially and mostly, national smells or gases…. The paling odor-auratic local mood is replaced through the establishment of a national informatic climate system whose purpose is to ensure the large society’s affective, thematic, toxic and thus domestic political self-ventilation…. It would be easy to show that what the initially press-supported, then later radio-supported national climate creators do is, in many ways, nothing but a transposition of the communes’ latrinocentrism to a national and regional level.
What is entertaining in this passage is not the suggestion that national cultures are constructed from “smells or gases,” an assertion that relies chiefly on a “kinship” between two Latin words, or neologisms such as “latrinocentrism” and “merdocratic.” Instead the droll effect comes from the use of the words “therefore” and “thus,” which inject an appearance of logic into what is, at bottom, an exercise in wordplay. In this regard Sloterdijk has something in common with the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, another prolific writer in the shadow of Heidegger. In both writers a provocative style is used to project an image of original thought, when what is being presented is a succession of variations on familiar Heideggerian themes.1
Sloterdijk regards Heidegger as a thinker of world-historical stature. He accepts that Heidegger’s interaction with Nazism in the mid-1930s poses a problem but thinks it was occasioned by a temperamental flaw: “Heidegger was carried away by imperial delirium and wanted to enjoy being a bigshot.” The implication is that Heidegger’s Nazi period was not much more than an ill-judged exercise in opportunism. Never very plausible, this once common view has been confuted by writings of Heidegger’s that have appeared since Sloterdijk endorsed it in the German edition of Not Saved in 2001. The publication of the “black notebooks” in 2014 should have put an end to any suggestion that Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism was unconnected with central features of his thinking. Heidegger’s conception of “the worldlessness of Jewry” demonstrates that his flirtation with Nazism was not accidental.2 However, it would seem that Sloterdijk has not found it necessary to alter his view of Heidegger in light of these discoveries. In a conference on “Heidegger and the Jews” held in Paris in January 2015, he addressed the issue only toward the end of his presentation with the observation—reported and paraphrased by a student who was there—that “anything Heidegger wrote after Sein und Zeit need not concern us much.”3
While he treats it as an error of judgment, Sloterdijk allows that Heidegger’s Nazi period also revealed defects in the philosopher’s thinking. But rather than suggesting his complicity in the demonization of Jews, whom Heidegger described as embodying the worst ills of the age, these flaws had to do with his neglect of the spatial relationships between people as essential elements in how humans live in the world. Making being-in-time the central feature of human life, Heidegger had given insufficient attention to the fact that humans become what they are in an ongoing encounter with other human beings. We are not separate individuals trundling along a solitary trajectory to death, as Heidegger seemed to suggest in Being and Time (1927). From our months in the womb to the moment of our death, we inhabit spaces formed by and shared with other people.
According to Sloterdijk, neglect of this fact played a part both in Heidegger’s “lapse” into Nazism and in the celebrated “turn” in his later work:
From 1934, Heidegger knew, even if only implicitly, that his enthusiasm [Bewegtheit] for the National Socialist uprising had been a Being-in-the-slipstream: here time had become space…. Heidegger’s late work discreetly draws the consequences of the lapse.
How a supposed conflation of time and space could have informed Heidegger’s “lapse” is not explained. But Sloterdijk’s project in Spheres is an attempt to remedy Heidegger’s confusion: “The project of Spheres can also be understood,” he writes, “as an attempt to salvage—at least in one essential aspect—the project Being and Space, which was tucked into Heidegger’s early work as a subtheme, from its entombment.”
Published between 1998 and 2004, ranging from prehistory to the present and freely crossing disciplinary boundaries, the richly illustrated trilogy addresses a wide variety of themes. Beginning with reflections on Sir John Everett Millais’s 1886 painting Bubbles, which shows a small boy entranced by a soap bubble, Sloterdijk goes on to discuss an “erotic-romantic” fourteenth-century verse novella, the life of the fourteenth-century Italian mystic Catherine of Siena, the Crystal Palace in mid-Victorian London, Greek funeral urns, “negative gynecology,” various cultural understandings of the umbilical cord and placenta, the French Enlightenment philosopher La Mettrie’s conception of the human animal as “an enlightened machine,” the role of the Sirens in the twelfth book of Homer’s Odyssey, and Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, along with many curiosities of art and design. The two further volumes include reflections on “the metaphysics of telecommunication,” intercontinental shipping and globalization, the history of headgear, the nation-building functions of latrines, the vial of Parisian air that Marcel Duchamp conveyed to New York, air-conditioning and air-warfare as quintessentially modern projects, robots that play table tennis, space stations, hothouses, islands, and a multitude of other topics.
Throughout these lengthy reflections Sloterdijk claims to be rectifying Heidegger’s underestimation of space as an essential feature of human existence. He outlines his project in characteristic style:
Under the spell of Heidegger’s existential analytics of time, it has mostly been overlooked that this is rooted in a corresponding analytics of space, just as the two in turn rest on an existential analytics of movement. That is why one can read an entire library about Heidegger’s doctrine of temporalization [Zeitigung] and historicity—ontochronology—and a few studies on his principles of movedness [Bewegtheit] and ontokinetics, but nothing—aside from unquotable pietistic paraphrases—on his work towards a theory of the original admission of space, or ontotopology.
Spheres is an attempt at such a theory. But in what sense does this oversized scrapbook of thoughts and images offer any kind of theory? Throughout the trilogy facts are selected in order to illustrate indistinct generalizations, not as evidence for or against testable propositions. “Just as every group involuntarily brings about its self-isolation in its own sound world, as if concealed by a fence of incomprehensibility,” Sloterdijk writes, “every cultural unit spontaneously insulates itself through its modus vivendi or its normative constitution.” How are such far-reaching claims to be assessed?
In his most recent book, The Aesthetic Imperative, Sloterdijk applies his spatial account to music. “Spherology” enables the creation of
an in-depth musicology that would embrace both the musical art of the past and contemporary music….We could say that the individuated or unhappy ear continues irresistibly trying to move away from the real world towards a space of intimate a-cosmic reminiscences.
Is Sloterdijk saying that music is an attempt to recapture sounds heard in the womb? If so he provides no reason for accepting this claim, or even for taking it seriously.
Some of Sloterdijk’s assertions are not much more than expressions of European cultural prejudices. Discussing American religion, he writes of “the countless evangelical sects” in which
Christ is transformed into a demon of success with strong monetary skills, assuming he does not directly intervene in life, on camera, as a miraculous healer. And this relapse is observed year after year among Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem from all over the world, who are occasionally cast into confused states by the sites of the passion and require the empathy of Jewish psychiatrists.
How such observations could validate any theory is unclear.
Much of the trilogy reads like a monstrously extended version of a digressive literary meditation of the kind W.G. Sebald produced in The Rings of Saturn. But Sloterdijk’s foamy verbosity has nothing of Sebald’s exquisite restraint and delicacy, and he displays none of Sebald’s modesty. Though he distilled a twentieth-century sense of uprootedness that has been recognized by many of his readers, Sebald did not seek to write from a position of authority. In contrast, Sloterdijk represents miscellaneous impressions gathered from his eclectic erudition as elements in what he claims is a universal morphology of “social forms”—relationships and social arrangements, as he wrote in Spheres, “under which human beings first of all gather, understand themselves, defend themselves, grow and dissolve boundaries.”
The large claims Sloterdijk makes on behalf of his theory leave one wondering about its political implications. If Heidegger “lapsed” into Nazism by failing to incorporate space into his account of being-in-the-world, how does a philosophy that makes spatial relationships central contribute to discussion of contemporary public issues? Throughout his career Sloterdijk has been adept at articulating the prevailing cultural mood. His Critique of Cynical Reason was a book that played to the temper of the time, with its attack on the pessimism of the early 1980s. Later, the Spheres trilogy appealed to a different, post–cold war mood in which technology was increasingly embraced as a way for humans to reshape their lives. For Sloterdijk technology included many cultural practices, including religions, which in our time have revealed themselves as “anthropotechnics,” tools devised by humans to enable them to manipulate themselves and one another. He pursued this theme in You Must Change Your Life, a five-hundred-page conspectus of “anthropotechnic tricks,” encompassing Greco-Roman Stoicism, yoga, icon painting, the “Parisian Buddhism” of the French-Romanian essayist E.M. Cioran, “neo-athleticism,” advertising, and much else.
Sloterdijk comes closest to an extended diagnosis of contemporary politics in Rage and Time (first published in German in 2006). Arguing that “Europe’s first word” is “rage,” which appears in the opening lines of Homer’s Iliad, the book develops an interpretation of modern politics in which the central moving force is “thymos.” The word, he writes, “signifies the impulsive center of the proud self, yet at the same time it also delineates the receptive ‘sense.’” He goes on to discuss “the piling-up of Jewish rage” in the biblical conception of a wrathful God, Lenin’s project of harnessing thymos in the service of the Bolshevik Revolution, and the “depression of rage” in post–cold war capitalism. The book closes with a discussion of the rise of what he calls “political Islam,” which he describes as a totalitarian movement of “hopeless male adolescents” from “an agitated subproletariat,” which Sloterdijk believes could nonetheless transform itself and become “a religious readymade excellent for mobilizing purposes.” He concludes: “It would be absurd to claim that rage’s best days are behind it.”
So far Sloterdijk has produced no systematic account of how the ideas of rage and thymos apply to the current European crisis. But his ideas have been deployed by Marc Jongen, a leading intellectual light of the nationalist, far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, who was for a time one of Sloterdijk’s assistants.4 Founded by economists in 2013 in opposition to Germany’s membership in the eurozone, the AfD has developed to focus chiefly on a campaign against immigration, particularly from Islamic countries. Jongen has argued that Germany is “under-supplied” with thymos and called the EU a “post-thymotic” institution. What Germany and Europe need, it seems, is a revitalizing jolt of thymotic energy.
Sloterdijk has dissociated himself from his former assistant’s views. But, as Jan-Werner Müller has noted, the argument that advanced liberal societies are deficient in thymos is one Sloterdijk has himself deployed on a number of occasions. In Rage and Time, he commends Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History and the Last Man (1992) as a “contemporary form of thymotology” that “pursues with astonishing sensitivity the question of whether the currently successful liberal democracy is actually capable of providing the complete satisfaction of the intellectual and material needs of all of its citizens.” According to Sloterdijk, Fukuyama has shown that liberal democracies “will always be infiltrated by currents of free-floating dissatisfaction,” since “human beings are condemned to suffer from thymotic unrest, and ‘last men’ even more than everyone else.” Now it may be that liberal democracies fail to provide for some of the psychological needs of their citizens. But this does not mean that a surge of thymotic energy will solve liberal democracy’s problems. Fukuyama stresses that any loss of thymos in liberal regimes may be part of the price of civilized government.
Sloterdijk’s reservations regarding contemporary democracy go beyond its failure to mobilize thymos. He detects a growing tendency to envy and resentment, expressed in increasing public and private debt, an overextended welfare state, and burdensome taxation. In “A Grasping Hand,” an essay he published in the conservative magazine City Journal, he describes progressive income tax as “the functional equivalent of socialist expropriation.” As Sloterdijk sees it, “the modern democratic state gradually transformed into the debtor state, within the space of a century metastasizing into a colossal monster—one that breathes and spits out money.” Western countries, he continues,
do not live in a capitalist system but under a form of semi-socialism…. The grasping hand of government releases its takings mainly for the ostensible public interest, funding Sisyphean tasks in the name of “social justice.” …Free-market authors have also shown how the current situation turns the traditional meaning of exploitation upside down. In an earlier day the rich lived at the expense of the poor, directly and unequivocally; in a modern economy unproductive citizens increasingly live at the expense of productive ones—though in an equivocal way, since they are told, and believe, that they are disadvantaged and deserve more still.
Sloterdijk’s solution to this threat of expropriation—one of the few concrete policy proposals he has advanced—is that taxation be replaced by voluntary donations. His belief that under the influence of popular ressentiment the modern state has become “a colossal monster” echoes some of Nietzsche’s attacks on democracy. In contemporary politics, the view that progressive income taxation is a form of exploitation is a position whose home is in the Tea Party and the free-market right. In a 2004 interview included in the recent collection Selected Exaggerations, Sloterdijk claimed that “a large number of poorer people are absolutely not exploited; they are people who nobody has deprived of anything, but who have consciously not used their opportunities, mainly because they probably found no incentives to rise above their situation.”
It may be a mistake to take Sloterdijk’s political views too seriously. He might think of them as applications of “spherology”—the grand theory of social forms that he has presented at such inordinate length—but this “theory” is too nebulous to imply anything very definite for politics. Nonetheless, some of Sloterdijk’s contributions to recent debates—such as an essay he wrote in 2016 for the magazine Cicero in which he defended tightening Germany’s borders on the ground that there was “no moral requirement for self-destruction”—suggest he believes his theory can support some questionable judgments about contemporary issues.
Despite the scornful attitude to professors expressed in his thoughts on the campus cemetery, Sloterdijk belongs in a European professorial tradition in his confident assertion of intellectual authority. But this is not some latter-day Max Weber, struggling to diagnose the disorder of the age in writings born from prolonged intellectual suffering. Throughout his career Sloterdijk has been a reactive thinker, voicing the passing moods of the time. Everything suggests he will continue running after the zeitgeist, blowing bubbles along the way.
See Peter E. Gordon, “Heidegger in Black,” The New York Review, October 9, 2014. Gordon’s summary of Heidegger’s intellectual development cannot be improved upon: “The banal prejudices of a provincial childhood were not dissolved through education but only grew more expansive and assumed the vacuous grandeur of world-historical generalities.” ↩
See David Kretz, “Heidegger and the Jews,” Die Bärliner, March 3, 2015. ↩