Günther Anders Existential “Occasional Philosophy” with a Critical Approach

Günther Anders was many things: cultural and media theorist, critic of technology, essayist and story-teller, pessimist, moralist, pacifist and activist. Above all, he was a committed and fighting writer, who received numerous awards for his work. As co-founder and leading figure of the anti-nuclear war and peace movements, and member of the Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal, he became internationally famous.

Günther Anders; © Lorenz Vierecke Günther Anders | © Lorenz Vierecke Günther Anders was born Günther Stern on July 12, 1902 in Breslau. The versatilly gifted son of two well-known Jewish child psychologists, he studied philosophy with Ernst Cassirer, Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl, with the last of whom he took his doctorate in 1924. A subsequent attempt at taking a postdoctoral qualification with the theologian Paul Tillich in Frankfurt am Main failed because of the opposition of Tillich’s then assistant Theodor W. Adorno. Together with Hannah Arendt, whom Anders had met at one of Heidegger’s lectures in Marburg and married four years later, Anders moved to Berlin where, recommended by Bertolt Brecht, he was made editor of the reviews section of the Börsen-Courier. It was here he assumed his pseudonym, which he kept for the rest of his life. In 1937 he and Arendt divorced. At this time Anders was already living in the United States, where he had emigrated in 1936 after a three-year stay in Paris. In the United States he kept his head above water with odd jobs such as private tutor and factory worker; he also wrote diaries and articles for exile journals.

In 1950 Anders returned to Europe and settled in Vienna; a year later he took Austrian citizenship. In Vienna Anders wrote his most famous work, the two volume collection of essays, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen (The Outdatedness of Humankind) (1956/1980). He received numerous awards for his writings, which comprised not only cultural and contemporary criticism but also poetry and novels, including the Austrian State Prize for Cultural Journalism (1979) and, oddly enough, the Theodor W. Adorno Prize of the City of Frankfurt (1983). Günther Anders died in Vienna on December 17, 1992, at the age of ninety.

“Occasional philosophy”

Three great turning points stand out in Anders’s life, all bound up with certain fundamental decisions. The experience of the First World War and early experiences of anti-Semitism already made Anders into a pacifist and a moralist in his youth. The Nazi seizure of power, combined with his knowledge of the horrors of the concentration camps, made him into a political intellectual and committed writer – both of which he remained up to his death. The third great turning point was the dropping of the atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. Henceforth Anders’s theoretical and practical engagement was dedicated to coming to terms with this traumatic event.

His academic experiences also left their mark. Although trained as a philosopher, he did not think much of academic philosophy. He declined offers of professorships. He called his way of thinking “occasional philosophy”, like “occasional verse”, because it was oriented to occasions and because it sought to open occasions to practical intervention. Following the cultural sociologist Georg Simmel, Anders assumed that if only individual phenomena were observed carefully and interpreted boldly enough, they could yield far-reaching inferences about politics, society and history. He believed, moreover, that it is not worthy academic empiricism that brings truth to light, but rather only polemical intensity.

The “Promethean divide”

Anders became known above all for his critique of technology. Its core message: man is not master of his own technical inventions. From being a means to ends determined by man, technology has become an end in itself and the real subject driving history. It can no longer be controlled by man; on the contrary, it dominates him, because due to the complexity of the technological world, man can no longer gain an overview of the consequences of his own actions and certainly no longer predict them.

Anders called the gap between objective production and subjective idea the “Promethean divide” and, logically enough, his own thought that reflected on this rift a “philosophy of discrepancy”. Man can produce and do more than he is capable of imagining and is in a position to answer for; above all, he is incapable of imaging the number of corpses that the exponential growth of destructive power may exact. His imagination has not developed along with his technological capabilities and is in no way equal to them, whether intellectually or emotionally or ethically. It is this that Anders means by the “outdatedness of humankind”.

“End time” and “apocalyptic blindness”

The occasion and catalyst for Anders’s critique of technology was the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima und Nagasaki. Anders became not only the most influential theorist of the significance of this event, but also, together with Robert Jungk, one of the initiators and most important figures of the international movement against nuclear weapons. He took part in international conferences and published countless books on the issue, including a startling correspondence he conducted in the early 1960s with one of the American pilots involved in dropping the bomb.

For Anders of course the atomic bomb was more than just any weapon of mass destruction; it was a symbol, the beginning of a new era: from now on, said Anders, all life stood under the sign of atomic self-annihilation. For the first time in human history, mankind had to envisage the end of the human race as a real possibility. Thus the “end time” has begun, an era that must anticipate the possibility of the “end of time”, a “world without human beings” – a possibility about which philosophy too cannot be ultimately indifferent.

Anders saw the greatest danger for the future of the planet not in the atomic bomb itself, but rather in the “apocalyptic blindness” of people, in their inability to imagine the dire consequences of their actions. It is only because of their lack of imagination that people believe they are allowed do what they can do, that they trust in a technological progress which not only delivers them into the clutches of their technical systems but also, even worse, threatens to engulf them. Against this menace, argues Anders, only the expansion of the imagination can help, or in other words, the courage to feel fear and the courage to frighten others. This courage Anders possessed all his life.