New Philosophy Magazines Reflection For Everyman

Reader of a philosophy magazine; © Südpol-Redaktionsbüro/T. Köster
Reader of a philosophy magazine | Photo (detail): © Südpol-Redaktionsbüro/T. Köster

2011 saw two new philosophy magazines launched onto the German market, their aim being to set current crises and events into their philosophical context for non-experts and also help their readers master “the art of living”. Critics react with scorn to this popularization of philosophy.

Nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Arab Spring, war in Afghanistan, rampant speculation, industrialized nations teetering on the brink – in 2011, old certainties were swept away in a tsunami of dramatic events. When the euro is nearly torn asunder and prosperity is only enjoyed by a privileged few, when the authority of the highest state office dwindles away and scandals of abuse uproot the faithful, it is hardly surprising that many people cling to philosophy as the last currency of any value. Against this backdrop, Germany has seen the launch of two new philosophy magazines aimed at the masses: Philosophie Magazin and Hohe Luft.

Asking questions about the world and about life

Launched in November 2011, Philosophie Magazin appears once a month and has a circulation of 100,000 copies. Four editors write for this new glossy magazine. In addition, it features a number of columns in which well-known authors can put forward a multitude of views and give their interpretation of current events taking place on the book market, in the world of film and in courts of law.

“Our intention is to ask questions about the world and about life and to discuss such issues in a comprehensible and in-depth manner, without academic pretensions”, explains editor-in-chief Wolfram Eilenberger in his editorial. In the lead article entitled “Why do we have children?”, our urge to reproduce is questioned, with several contributors discussing the pros and cons but ultimately leaving readers to make up their own minds.

French publisher and former investment banker Fabrice Gerschel is the man behind Philosophie Magazin. He gave up banking to concentrate on philosophy, and in March 2006 created the magazine’s French parent publication, Philosophie Magazine. According to Gerschel, the magazine has an urban and highly educated readership that is middle-aged and fairly balanced in terms of gender. Taking the Monde Diplomatique as his role model, the publisher is keen for Philosophie Magazine to become a more “universal” magazine in the longer-term rather than one that interests only experts.

Finding meaning in the pages of a glossy magazine

Hohe Luft is the other philosophical magazine to be found on newsstand shelves since November 2011 (circulation: 70,000). The idea for the magazine was born in a tobacco factory in Hamburg’s Hoheluft district; the aim is to inspire philosophical flights of fancy outside the confines of the lecture theatre. “The first magazine of a new kind, a philosophy magazine for everyman”, writes Thomas Vašek in the editorial. Its publisher is Katarzyna Mol-Wolf, general manager of Inspiring Network, the company that also produces Emotion, a magazine for women who do not really read women’s magazines.

Its title Hohe Luft - which literally translated means “high air” – evokes associations with mountain climbing or cigar smoke, and is an appeal to master “the art of living”. This is also made clear in an interview with Viennese philosopher Robert Pfaller. Asked what makes life worth living, enlightened hedonist Pfaller replies: “Having been caught in a sudden downpour on a summer afternoon, to shelter under an awning with a friend and share the one remaining cigarette...”

The first edition comprises a mix of articles on terminology, classic works of philosophical thought, book discussions and surveys. Associative drawings underline the essayist character of the texts, which are presented in tried and tested journalistic formats such as reports and interviews. It raises questions such as “Thou shalt not lie. But why not?”, “How sensible are feelings?” and “What is a person?”. The reader experiences how new questions can be thrown up during reading and how ambivalences and tensions remain which in our modern lives we are simply expected to cope with – and possibly even to triumphantly savour.

Between mockery and praise

German media have shown themselves to be disconcerted by the popularization of philosophical thought. One typical reaction in the feature pages is scorn. “What are they thinking?”, rails Daniel Haas indignantly in the FAZ newspaper. A reviewer, Haas is annoyed that the new magazines blend philosophical questions with sociological, culture-critical and psychological aspects. He believes that the feature sections are the right place to learn more about philosophy: “Food for thought is served in the context of other types of text, while articles with a diagnostic focus are all the more enjoyable when framed by narrative formats.” He generally views “philosophy for the masses as wrong”, claiming that it is simply a fact that philosophy is most at home in the academic milieu.

Not everyone regards the popular philosophers with disdain, however. So long as it is done in a professional manner, says Frank Hartmann, a media philosopher at the Bauhaus University in Weimar, there is no reason why for instance a dentist should not read philosophical articles that are couched in readily understandable terms. “In Germany, philosophers make an art form out of writing incomprehensibly.” He explains that certain forms of phenomenology have become so boring that he cannot recommend them to his students.

Thus it is hardly surprising that philosophical works tend to end up in the esoteric sections of bookshops. “We cannot afford to leave the discussion of fundamental existentialist questions to the esoteric crowd”, believes Hartmann, “even if only to counterbalance the focus on economics and performance that prevails in society.”

There is no stopping the trend towards popularization. Now it is even possible to buy a build-it-yourself version of Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”. Hanno Depner spent years translating Kant’s classic 800-page work into twelve cut-out sheets. For his 3D model, Depner was awarded first prize at the fourth Science Slam 2011 in Berlin.