Blowing Bubbles

Critique of Cynical Reason

by Peter Sloterdijk, translated from the German by Michael Eldred, with a foreword by Andreas Huyssen
University of Minnesota Press, 558 pp., $30.00 (paper)

Stress and Freedom

by Peter Sloterdijk, translated from the German by Wieland Hoban
Polity, 60 pp., $45.00; $12.95 (paper)
Peter Sloterdijk
Peter Sloterdijk; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

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…

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