Peter Sloterdijk: Shaping a Multipolar National Debate

A prolific writer, publishing some sixty books over a career spanning four decades, German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk recently celebrated his seventieth birthday. Europe’s leading intellectuals and academics flocked to Mr Sloterdijk’s native Karlsruhe to pay tribute. Chancellor Angela Merkel chipped in with a congratulatory letter praising Germany’s most controversial thinker for his contributions to culture.

Mr Sloterdijk enjoys a popularity that in Germany is normally reserved for football players. His late-night talkshow on national television – In a Glass House: The Philosophical Quartet (Im Glashaus: Das Philosophische Quartett) – ran for close to ten years and obtained consistently high ratings. His lectures at the University of Art and Design in Karlsruhe are always packed, drawing student from all faculties.

Yet, Mr Sloterdijk is hard to pin down. He has steadfastly refused to elaborate a single grand thesis and is happy to shine his philosophical light on any topic, no matter how esoteric or trivial, from the sexuality of the Neanderthals to the travails awaiting German pensioners wishing to renew their driving license, meandering off into the primitive-aggressive behaviour of motorists.

Whilst enunciating his carefully crafted thoughts, Mr Sloterdijk frequently appeals to irreverence – he enjoys a good laugh even at his own expense – becoming the odd one out in a nation that still equates dryness to seriousness. His 1983 publishing debut – A Critique of Cynical Reason (Kritik der zynischen Vernunft)- instantly identified the author as an original thinker – one not bound by established convention or boxes. In the two-volume book which runs to well over a thousand pages, Mr Sloterdijk reviews both philosophical and popular cynicism as a societal expression in European history. An unlikely candidate for best-seller status, the book outsold all other philosophical works published in Germany since 1945 – and still remains in print.

Mr Sloterdijk gained a global following with the Spheres trilogy, his magnum opus spanning nearly 3,000 pages, which he touts as the book Martin Heidegger should have written as a companion volume to On Being and Time – On Being and Space. Whilst deploring the poor political and personal choices made by Mr Heidegger – who joined the Nazi Party in 1933 as a born-again antisemite and promptly broke with his Jewish mentor and champion Edmund Husserl who had secured him the rectorate of the University of Freiburg – Mr Sloterdijk has played a leading role in restoring the philosopher’s severely tarnished reputation.

He draws extensively on Heidegger’s work – in particular On Being and Time – to cast and explain contemporary life whilst he remorselessly deals with his fellow countrymen’s “polite illusions”, displaying, for example, no sympathy for Chancellor Merkel’s bold decision to open Germany borders to Islamic refugees. He also repeatedly dismisses the welfare state as a “fiscal kleptocracy” and brands the country’s political establishment a “lethargocracy”. Though most Germans thoroughly enjoy Mr Sloterdijk’s painful digs at their collective accomplishments, progressive politicians denounce him as a stooge for the rightwing Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland) party.

However, Mr Sloterdijk is no closet-fascist – not even close; he merely wishes to stir up a nationwide debate and has frequently warned that the vacuous acceptance of globalisation as the cure for all societal ills and the engine of growth inevitably leads to a resurgence of provincialism. Already fifteen years ago, Mr Sloterdijk predicted that before long society would look back nostalgically on the time when a clownesque politician such as the late Jörg Haider from Austria was considered a menace.

Times have caught up with the philosopher. Mr Sloterdijk fears that only a few politicians truly grasp the magnitude of the challenges ahead. In German politics, he can only muster some enthusiasm for the near-libertarian Free Democratic Party (FDP – Freie Demokratische Partei) which argues that the country’s welfare state has become hypertrophied and now only creates resentment on both sides of the fiscal divide – amongst those who pay taxes and those who receive benefits.

Heaving his massive frame onto a bicycle – Mr Sloterdijk’s estranged father was Dutch – the philosopher embarks on an ode to inventors – his favourite subject – whilst deftly navigating local traffic. He expresses both delight and anger at the invention, by a German man, of the retractable dog leash which now constitutes a grave danger to cyclists who may become entrapped.

Philosophy, it turns out, need not restrict itself to existentialist questions and proves equally useful to describe and help understand the mundane.

If there is one great, yet often ignored, accomplishment Mr Sloterdijk may be celebrated for, it is perhaps his thorough disassembly of the Frankfurt School (Frankfurter Schule) – the school of social theory and philosophy that forged postwar Germany and created a fertile middle ground between capitalism, communism, and fascism.

When Jürgen Habermas – arguably Germany’s greatest living philosopher and the leading exponent of the Frankfurt School – stated that Mr Sloterdijk’s work contains “fascist implications”, his colleague did not take long to strike back with a debilitating blow: “The days of hyper-moral sons of national-socialist fathers are coming to an end.” The country’s intellectuals may, perhaps in a reflex, have sided with Mr Habermas but the truth was out for all to see. Suddenly, Mr Sloterdijk became the Frankfurt School’s philosophical antipode – ending sixty years of unipolar national debate.

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