The Advantage of Philosophy “A partner in very practical debates”

Which role does philosophy play in today’s Germany?
Which role does philosophy play in today’s Germany? | Photo (detail): © David Herbertson/iStock

Philosophy provides advice on important social issues, according to Dominik Perler, President of the German Philosophy Society. Yet another reason why interest in philosophical matters remains strong in Germany.

You studied in Switzerland, among other places, worked at universities in England and the United States and are now a professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin. What appeals to you about teaching philosophy in Germany?

There are various things in favour of teaching philosophy in Germany. German philosophy has had a great impact and holds attractions for many interested people, both in Berlin and in other classical locations. You will find very good students here, numerous guest lecturers and an inspiring cultural environment. Another thing is the stimulating mix of philosophical methods and approaches.

Is there such a thing as “German philosophy”?

Fortunately not. There is no homogenous school or tradition. Instead several traditions exist simultaneously, and the exchange between them makes work in this field interesting. We try to take up classical theories, make them accessible in a modern language and link them with topical issues. For example, I have just edited a book entitled The Faculties, which deals with the question of what mental abilities or capacities are. Aristotle and Kant both dealt with this issue, and it plays a role in today’s cognitive psychology and cognitive philosophy.

“A good standing in the press and on radio and television”

For a long time the impression was that the natural and cognitive sciences were questioning the epistemological foundations of philosophy. What is their relationship today?

It is one of exchange and collaboration, and scarcely any animosity. A good example of this is the Berlin School of Mind and Brain, where philosophers work closely with neuroscientists, linguists and psychologists on problems relating to the mind. I myself have done research on the theme of the “Mind of Animals”, which involves engaging not only with biology, but also with anthropology and psychology. In such a project the classical task of philosophy is to clarify the terminology. It examines the terms used in the other disciplines critically, but without functioning as a kind of terminology police.

Currently philosophy is experiencing a bit of a boom. Philosophy journals are sold at newsagents, and the Phil Cologne festival is regularly sold out. How do you see the public perception of your field in Germany?

Philosophy is highly regarded as a subject that gets involved in very practical debates. We are consulted on medical and bio-ethical issues, but also on fundamental issues that concern a broad public, like, What is my mind? Again and again I am pleasantly surprised during lectures at the audiences’ keen interest in such themes. That the media still allot an important place to philosophy is also remarkable. Philosophy plays a role in newspapers, on radio and even on TV in Germany.

“Demanding competence from philosophy in questions of detail”

Do you get the impression that it is philosophy which comes to the fore here, and not perhaps the philosopher as a public figure?

Both. There is of course a need for striking individual personalities, and that can sometimes lead to a personality cult. On the other hand, there is also the wish for something like expert advice. When it comes to debates on medical-ethical issues, for example, it is important to speak with expert ethicists, and that the latter are also members of political committees. That dialogue is highly productive. Philosophers should be seen not just as interpreters of the big picture. It is justifiable to demand that philosophy should also be competent on questions of detail.

Philosophy is also present in the theories of art and culture. How do you see this exchange?

There are close points of contact, here at the Humboldt University in Berlin, for example, between the Institute of Cultural Science and the Institute of Philosophy. Different traditions are carried on, but there is also an exchange. Cultural science has recourse to French authors, to a certain extent, but also to Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer.

Why would you advise school-leavers to study philosophy?

First of all, because it teaches you how to think clearly and analyse problems. Then because you learn to compare theories with one another and view a particular problem from different sides. Finally, because you also acquire general abilities: to analyse, formulate clearly, and write concisely. All of this can be utilised outside the field of philosophy. Only the smallest percentage of philosophy students remains at university. Others work in the Federal Foreign Office, in journalism, in publishing, but also in personnel consulting agencies. Studying philosophy provides a basis for many things.