Ransacking the Western philosophical tradition – Adam Kirsch on Peter Sloterdijk

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 08/08/2013

Against Cynicism: A philosopher’s brilliant reasons for living – Adam Kirsch

Despite its parodic Kantian title, Sloterdijk’s Critique is not a work of theoretical abstraction; it is a highly personal confession of this generational world-weariness. As a philosopher, Sloterdijk is especially struck by the way he and his peers were able to master the most emancipatory and radical philosophical language, but utterly unable to apply its insights to their own lives and their own political situations. Coming after Critical Theory, whose post-Marxist diagnoses of social ills are a key reference point and antagonist for Sloterdijk, younger thinkers have found themselves brilliant at diagnosis and helpless at cure. “Because everything has become problematic, everything is also somehow a matter of indifference,” Sloterdijk observes. The result is cynicism, which he defines in a splendid paradox as “enlightened false consciousness”: “It has learned its lessons in enlightenment, but it has not, and probably was not able to, put them into practice.”

If we are to break out of this learned helplessness, Sloterdijk argues, we must ransack the Western tradition for new philosophical resources. Such ransacking is exactly the method of Sloterdijk’s thought, first in the Critique and then, on an even grander scale, in Bubbles and You Must Change Your Life. Drawing on very wide reading—wider, the reader often feels, than it is deep—Sloterdijk excavates the prehistory of contemporary problems, and some of their possible solutions. In the Critique, he offers an extended analysis of the culture of Weimar Germany, in which he locates the origin of twentieth-century cynicism—as well as describing the many sub-varieties of cynicism (military, sexual, religious), and doing a close reading of Dostoevsky, and cataloguing the meaning of different facial expressions. The effect on the reader is of being shown around a Wunderkammer, where what matters is not the advancing of an argument but the display of various intellectual treasures.

In Critique of Cynical Reason, Sloterdijk charted a wholly individual path to a familiar spiritual position, a Romanticism of what Wordsworth called “wise passiveness.” This pattern is repeated in Sloterdijk’s later books: he is better at the forceful restatement of old problems than at the invention of new solutions. This might be regarded as an objection by certain kinds of philosophers, who see themselves as contributors to a technical process that produces concrete results. For Sloterdijk, whose greatest influences are Nietzsche and Heidegger, it is not at all disqualifying, for his goal is, as he writes in You Must Change Your Life, “a provocative re-description of the objects of analysis.” Like a literary writer—and he once told an interviewer that he thought of writing the Spheres trilogy as a novel—Sloterdijk’s goal is to restate our basic quandaries in revelatory new language, to bring them home to us as living experiences instead of stale formulas. The prison of reason, the need for transcendence, the yearning for an absent meaning: these have been the stuff of literature and philosophy and theology for centuries. In Sloterdijk, these old subjects find a timely new interpreter.

But if Sloterdijk is not a believer, then where does he think we can actually experience this kind of perfectly trusting togetherness? Where do we find a sphere that is wholly earthly, yet so primal as to retain its power even now? The answer is surprising, even bizarre. In a long section of Bubbles, Sloterdijk argues that the original sphere, the one we all experience and yearn to recapture, is the mother’s womb. This is not, for him, a place of blissful isolation, where the subject can enjoy illusions of omnipotence; if it were, the womb would be only a training ground for selfishness and disillusion. Sloterdijk emphasizes instead that we are all in our mother’s womb along with a placenta. The placenta is what he calls “the With”—our first experience of otherness, but a friendly and nurturing otherness, and thus a model for all future “spheres” of intimacy.

The reader who has no patience for this kind of thing—who finds the whole “With” concept New Agey, or unfalsifiable, or just wildly eccentric—will probably not get very far with Sloterdijk. This is not because placenta-ism is central to his thought. On the contrary, it is just one of the many provocative ideas that he develops and then drops in the course of the book, which reads less like a structured argument than a long prose poem. Sloterdijk’s strength and appeal come from the intuitive and metaphorical quality of his thought, his unconventional approaches to familiar problems, his willingness to scandalize. As a theorem, the “With” is easy to refute; as a metaphor, it is weirdly persuasive. It is another way of describing, and accounting for, the central experience of homelessness that drives all of Sloterdijk’s thought. Deprived of our “With,” he writes, “the officially licensed thesis ‘God is dead’ ” must be supplemented “with the private addendum ‘and my own ally is also dead.’ ”

The word “practice” is central to Sloterdijk’s argument here, and to his understanding of religion. We are living, he observes, at a time when religion is supposedly making a comeback around the world. The old assurance that all societies must inevitably converge on secularism is failing. For Sloterdijk, however, it is a mistake to think that what people are turning to is faith in the divine. Rather, the part of religion that still matters to us, for which we have a recurring need, is its practices: the “technology,” primarily mental and inner-directed, that allows us to reshape our ways of thinking and feeling. With typical bravado, he argues that “no ‘religion’ or ‘religions’ exist, only misunderstood spiritual regimens.

One of the most appealing things about Sloterdijk’s philosophy is that, like literature, it leaves itself vulnerable. It does not attempt to anticipate and to refute all possible objections. And the objections to You Must Change Your Life, as with Bubbles, are not far to seek. For one thing, by conceiving of religion as an elite training regimen, Sloterdijk implies that a religion is justified only by its saints. Anyone who is not a saint is insignificant, and so the average person’s experience of religious meanings—whether metaphysical doctrine or spiritual consolation or tradition or identity or communion—is dismissed out of hand. This is false to the lived reality of religion for most people, and shows how tendentious Sloterdijk’s equation of religion with “practice” really is.

…This is as much as to say that Sloterdijk has not solved the immense problems that he raises, even though he claims to know the way toward the solution. But maybe the philosopher does not need to solve problems, only to make them come alive; and this he does as well as any thinker at work today.


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