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Paper presented at a special section of the XVIIth World Congress of Philosophy in Montreal 1983, and printed in: SOCIAL SCIENCE INFORMATION 23, 3 (1984), pp.603-609.


There are many signs that we live in an age of radical change. Some go further and expect the end of the world. It is certainly true that a chief characteristic of our time is that we have the ability to destroy the world of human beings and lay the earth waste. The holocaust is not a metaphor, but a real factor in political calculations. This is one side, the political side, of the problem of modernity. But also a view of our time from the angle of the philosophy of culture shows the modern age to be a transition between two great epochs, between the Middle Ages and a future, as yet unknown; this is particularly true if that view comes from a different cultural tradition, as we see in the work of the Japanese author Kojima (1983). This undeniable phenomenon of transition is responsible for the somewhat excessive use of the term "post-modernism" (Schirmacher, 1984) and for the "Project on Modernity", an area of research of increasing popularity, particularly in Germany. The "Project on Modernity" has to discover at last what the modern age really is, and what its unifying characteristics are. A line of enquiry like this admits that we have yet to find a unifying principle in the modern age, and, as a matter of fact, Kojima would regard it as typical of the transitory nature of the modern age that such a line of enquiry is doomed to failure.

Does it not grossly exaggerate the importance of the modern age if we put it under the microscope like this? It is understandable that each individual and each age sees itself as the hub of the universe, but this is not justifiable. It is the duty of the philosopher to refuse to view his own time in this way. We must seek the origins of modernity and admit that these origins, which lie in Western thought, are an integral part of the age.

The universal civilization (Schirmacher, 1983a) which today dominates the planet, is a product of Western science and technology; without the tradition of metaphysical thought it would simply not exist. We fail to understand the modern age if we do not admit the part played in its creation by metaphysics from Plato to Nietzsche; and we cannot sensibly discuss post- modernism without a radical and critical grasp of the basic categories, contributed by metaphysics, of existence, time, foundation, contradiction and identity (Schirmacher, 1983c). Martin Heidegger began this discussion in his works, and reduced the problem of modernity to the notion of the "end of metaphysics". What does this mean?

As we have known since Hegel, every true end can be seen at the same time as a death and as a completion. A being has lived out its period in history, its death is essential for the new to arise. Heidegger gave a decisively different slant to this historical and philosophical view when he understood death and completion not as descriptive categories, but rather rooted them in human fate, and in the finite nature of human existence (Marx, W., 1979). To say that metaphysics, and with it the world as we perceive it, has reached its end, is therefore not a proposition in the philosophy of culture, but an expression of the state of our being. We are ourselves the proof of that death of metaphysics. This must be understood literally, and it is especially true when it is spectacularly seen in the exctinction of the human species, a process which has already started.

At first, however, the modern period seemed to show all the signs of the completion of a process, of perfection, and Heidegger's thinking is still fascinated by technology as an "unassailable substitute for metaphysics" (Heidegger, 1976), as the perfection of metaphysics in everyday life. For us, however, helpless victims and perpetrators, at the mercy of the headlong destruction of the world, Heidegger's sanguine analysis of the end of metaphysics is more likely to arouse horror. For Nietzsche's "the will to will", as the absolutely final position of metaphysics, in which nothing but the selfish interest of mankind is recognized, represents the death sentence of the human species.

A view which sees the world as nothing but an image of human beings (Heidegger, 1977 pp. 93ff.), does not nowadays demonstrate our power over the whole of creation, but rather, in contrast, our devastating inability to find a true solution to our problems. Nihilism did not proclaim the freeing of man from the fetters of existence, but rather allowed us to escape into a mirror-image world of illusion. The way of life of the artist was taken up by the pseudo-artist, culture became a pastime for the intelligentsia. As Schopenhauer saw, boredom reigns supreme; we will do anything to escape it. Suffering is nothing more than a newspaper headline (Schuberth, 1982).

Post-modernism contains a great deal of that peculiar interplay between commerce and imagination. Because the post-modern is not exaggeratedly serious, it can remain a business, entertaining intellectuals semi-seriously. However, at the same time, its open denial of art, the ironic and humorous commentary in place of art, also signifies opposition to accepted values. Modern art, above all contemporary art, is as ridiculous and inhuman as the world itself, whose sham respectability and dishonest dignity it rejects (Schirmacher, 1983b).

At the same time the triumphant progress of Western technology, which Heidegger (1967, pp. 72ff.) cites as the third characteristic of the end of metaphysics, alongside the supremacy of the will and the view of the world as an image of man, has proved also to be a Pyrrhic victory. The connection between completion and death is seen nowhere more clearly than in a hybrid technology which does not take account of the finite nature of human beings. Here metaphysics stops, history is at an end, extermination is imminent. For it has become crystal clear that we are very far from being what we imagined we were in our metaphysics. The traditional image of man has become an idol demanding human sacrifices: already in this century countless millions.

Thus, above all else, modernity is the last phase of metaphysics, and post-modernism is simply a metaphorical expression of this end, after which there will be no new beginning. The spatial and temporal concept of a beginning and an end will disappear along with metaphysics. Is this a moment of truth, a chance for humanity to be honest, humanity, for whom, according to Nietzsche, the lie has become an existential necessity?

No one who has followed the discussion on modernism and post-modernism can believe that we will turn back; we think, feel and act according to patterns which have become customary, only the labels for our actions are occasionally changed. The fact that we are imprisoned by logic, grammar and economic rationality, and that we confine our humanity to our own species, are sure signs of the end of metaphysics, and of our own end. As Theodor W. Adorno has shown, art represents resistance to the violence of conformist thinking, but non-conformity, individuality itself wasted away long ago, became insipid, became consumer goods. Art can no longer be a refuge for truth, in the long term it will merely represent a flight into illusion, even if it does have a dialectic force.

Does ephemeral post-modernism really know what it is talking about, as Burghart Schmidt claims (Schmidt, 1983)? It is certainly noticeable how the most varied political interests use post-modernism. Although they believe they have the answers, and behave with tactical skill, nevertheless the post-modernists are as ignorant as everyone else, fighting out, as they go down, the old battles between idealism and materialism, between rationality and irrationality, between politics and the inner life. Schmidt's "new personal warmth" is like the passengers dancing on the "Titanic" and bears no relation to the world of nuclear weapons, dying forests and exploitation in the Third World.

Progress and interruption are the extreme possibilities of history, the conception of which has been so radically changed (Raulet, 1983b). Today, however, we can no longer choose between these two; history itself has come to an end. We should under�stand and respond to the fact that a fundamental shift in the whole historical process is approaching, a shift which is, in a phenomenological sense, self-generated. We could call the new state of affairs "history without metaphysics", which would be, couched in traditional language, the basis for a renewed "practical philosophy", as suggested by Gerard Raulet. But this philosophy would have to be neither anthropocentric nor eurocentric, but would have to depart altogether from the metaphysical conception of a centre (Raulet, 1979, 1983b). What this might mean we can only guess, and had not poets such as Paul Celan spelled it out to us, we would even despair of its possibility.

I can sum up my position in four points:

  • 1.The modern period is not an autonomous epoch, but is simply the last phase of Western metaphysics, which is today dominant throughout the world in its final form, scientific and technical rationality.
  • 2.Where it does not simply denote an intellectual fashion, post-modernism expresses the expected break with metaphysics, which has reached a definitive end.
  • 3.The end of metaphysics means that a life-long project of the human species has become in its historical development a suicidal enterprise. If we proceed along the way of metaphysics only artifacts will survive, not human beings and objects.
  • 4. The change required for the human species to survive is probably so radical that or current debates merely scratch the surface. If we want to prevent the destruction of the world of human beings, we must learn a "bodily" language which precedes the division into subject and object, and we must admit the individual to a successful enterprise which needs no planning.

Wolfgang Schirmacher (born 1944) teaches philosophy at the University of Hamburg. He is President of the Schopenhauer Gesellschaft and Editor of the Schopenhauer Jahrbuch. In addition to several articles in German on Schopenhauer and contemporary German philosophy, two essays of his have been published in English: "Monism in Spinoza's and Husserl's thought", Analecta Husserliana 16, 1983 and "From the phenomenon to the event of technology: A dialectical approach to Heidegger['s phenomenology", in: P.T. Durbin and F. Rapp (eds.) Philosophy and technology (1983). Author's address: Hallerstrasse 72, D-2000 Hamburg 13.

  • 1 In this connection Jurgen Habermas has had a strong influence on a succession of authors, cf. his most recent essay (1983) in K.H. Bohrer (ed.) Mythos und Moderne.
  • 2 This expression, inspired by Nietzsche, took shape in the literature around the turn of the century, and played a key role, which has been neglected hitherto (cf. Cutrufelli 1983).
  • 3 To speak of an "apparent dialectic" as B. Schmidt does in his contribution on post modernism, is, to say the least, problematic. After all, appearance is without doubt part of dialectics (cf. Theunissen, 1978).
  • Cutrufelli, V. 1983 Der Pseudokunstler. Hamburg. University of Hamburg. (Unpublished MA thesis.)
  • Habermas, J. 1983 "Die Verschlingung von Mythos und Aufklarung", in: K.H. Bohrer (ed.) Mythos und Moderne. Frankfurt, Suhrkamp.
  • Heidegger, M. 1967 "Uberwindung der Metaphysik", in: Vortrage und Aufsatze. vol l. Pfullingen.
  • G. Neske, 1976 Der Spiegel (23). 1977 "Die Zeit des Weltbildes", in: Holzwege, vol. 5 of Gesamtausgabe. Frankfurt, Klostermann.
  • Kojima, H. 1983 The moral sense, existence and the life world. Paper presented at a special section of the XVIIth World Congress of Philosophy, Montreal, August 1983.
  • Marx, W. 1979 "Die Sterblichen", in: Ul. Guzzoni (ed.) Nachdenken uber Heidegger. Hildesheim, Gerstenberg.
  • Raulet, G. 1979 "L'utopie comme structure de la conscience historique", in: Raulet (ed.). Strategies de l'utopie. Paris, Galilee. 1983, "The agony of Marxism and the victory of the left", Telos Spring: 163-178. 1983, "La fin de la 'Raison dans l'histoire'?" Social Science Information 23 (3): 559-576.
  • Schmidt, B. 1983 Die agressiv-konfliktscheue Scheindialektik der Postmoderne. Paper presented at the special section of the XVIIth World Congress of Philosophy, Montreal, August 1983. Translation: "Postmodernism as aggressive and conflict-avoiding dialects", Social Science Information 23 (3): 589-602.
  • Schirmacher, W. 1983 "Die Dialektik der Technik. Versuch uber die Weltzivilisation", Hegel-Jahrbuch 1981/1982. 1983 Kunst im technischen Zeitalter. Paper presented at the XVIIth World Congress of Philosophy. (To appear in: Proceedings of the XVIIth World Congress of Philosophy, forthcoming, 1985.) 1983 Technik und Gelassenheit. Zeitkritk nach Heidegger. Freiburg, Munchen, Alber. 1984 "Post-moderne — ein Einspruch", Konkursbuch 11.
  • Schuberth, R. 1982 "Ambivalenz der Langeweile", in: W. Schirmacher (ed.) Zeit der Ernte. Studien zum Stand der Schopenhauer-Forschung. Stuttgart, Frommann-Holzboog.
  • Theunissen, M. 1978 Sein und Schein. Frankfurt, Suhrkamp.
  • The text was translated from German by: J. Stephen Barbour, Dept. of Linguistic and International Studies, University of Surrey, Guildford. Source: Social Science Information 23 (1984), pp.603-609