Robert Spaemann's 'Philosophische Essays.'

By Madigan, Arthur | The Review of Metaphysics, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Robert Spaemann's 'Philosophische Essays.'

Madigan, Arthur, The Review of Metaphysics

In 1983 the Stuttgart publishing firm of Philip Reclam brought out a slim volume containing an introduction and seven essays by Robert Spaemann, then Professor of Philosophy at the University of Munich. Entitled Philosophische Essays, it presents and illustrates Spaemann's philosophical project: to understand the phenomenon of modernity, to criticize the deficiencies of modern thought, and to preserve what is good in modernity by rehabilitating the teleological understanding of nature that modernity largely rejected. A second edition in 1994 included three more essays.(1) As little of Spaemann's work has yet appeared in English,(2) the aim of this paper is modest: to present as clearly and accurately as possible his position in the Philosophische Essays.

Spaemann's project is, first of all, a venture in intellectual history: to understand modernity. Study of modernity discloses a dialectical progress of opposed abstractions. Modernity has developed in two directions: as a transcendental philosophy or philosophy of consciousness, and as a reductionist naturalism: Modernity has tended to interpret itself as a radical emancipation from what preceded it, and in particular from a teleological view of nature. But a philosophy of consciousness that tries to proceed without reference to teleology falls prey to the objections of a reductionist naturalism that spells the end of philosophy and the death of reason. The second element in Spaemann's project is, then, to rescue modernity from its own interpretation of itself as a radical emancipation from what has preceded it, and to infuse it with a teleological outlook.(3) Modernity is beset by terrible conflicts that it cannot resolve, but there is no question of returning to a premodern outlook. The task is to take the great positive contributions of modernity--enlightenment, emancipation, human fights, and modern natural science with its accompanying mastery of nature--into a kind of protective custody (10-17).


Spaemann understands philosophy as a continuing unsettlable controversy. The essay "Die kontroverse Natur der Philosophie" (The controversial nature of philosophy) examines the distinctive character of philosophical controversy, and especially the differences between scientific and philosophical controversy. All science involves controversy, but science normally operates with a degree of consensus on certain basic assumptions. In philosophy, by contrast, everything is controversial, including what counts as philosophy. Spaemann proposes three theses: (1) philosophy is by its very nature thoroughly controversial; (2) the attempt to resolve philosophical controversy only intensifies it; and (3) despite this, philosophy is neither senseless nor superfluous (106).

Spaemann defines philosophy as a continuing discourse about ultimate questions, such as we face in life-decisions, in crises, and in confronting death. As discourse, it is a matter of argument, not to be settled by religious or political authority. Philosophy has always been marked by controversy, but in the modern period the differences go even deeper (106-11). Modernity has seen three attempts to put an end to these differences: self-evident foundations (Descartes, Fichte, Husserl); drawing of boundaries between theoretical and practical (Kant, Comte); and method (Leibniz, followed by ideal language analysts in the twentieth century). All these moves presuppose that philosophy ought to make cumulative and consensual progress by following the path of mathematical natural science, but Kuhn has shown that the model of cumulative consensual progress does not apply in science (111-13). If we can no longer use that model to understand philosophy, can we use the Kuhnian model of paradigm shifts? No, says Spaemann. He gives three reasons. The first is that philosophical shifts are even more radical than paradigm shifts in science. There is no pragmatic control in philosophy. Philosophy is not defined by sets of questions to which there are agreed-on answers; it is always trying to think out and express the unspoken things that make ordinary discourse possible, but can never do so completely (113-16). …

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