Peter Sloterdijk - Biography
Peter Sloterdijk, Ph.D., is a famous German philosopher, essayist, cultural critic and television host. Arguably, he is today Germany’s most influential public philosopher. He was born on June 26, 1947 in Karlsruhe, an industrial town and port in western Germany where he not only grew up but where he would return to work. He has been a Professor of philosophy and aesthetics at the German University Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe (University of Art and Design Karlsruhe), where since 2001 he has served as the President of the institution. Sloterdijk also teaches at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. He is the son of a German mother and a Dutch father. After finishing his PhD dissertation in 1975 he would publish in 1983 an essay entitled The Critique of Cynical Reason (Kritik der zynischen Vernunft) that would quickly generate a large amount of buzz. It would thus not only be translated into thirty-two languages but would beat record sales for a philosophy book written in German since WWII. This launched his career as a writer. Peter Sloterdijk is also an avid bicyclist and travels thousands of miles per year, having notably climbed the “Mont Ventoux" in 2006, a French peak in Provence culminating at 1912 meters (over 6000 feet).
From 1968 to 1974 Sloterdijk studied philosophy, history and German literature at the University of Munich. In 1975 he defended a thesis on the philosophy and history of autobiography at Hamburg University. Subsequently, Sloterdijk began a successful writing career which starting in 1992 would be supplemented by a University teaching career first in Vienna and then in Karlsruhe. The Critique of Cynical Reason would even be hailed by the famous critical theorist Jürgen Habermas, whom would generously comment: “The most important event since 1945." Sloterdijk would receive the Ernst Robert Curtius literary award in 1993 and would also enhance his reputation by teaching at, among other places, Paris, Zurich and New York.
In 1998 Sloterdijk started work on Spheres. The collection is considered a companion work to Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. Volume one, Bubbles, a 664 pages thick work, would be published for the first time in English in August 2011. In this work he begins his analysis of the conditions under which man makes the world habitable. Bubbles explores philosophical figures from Plato to Jacques Lacan examining what we have won and lost with modernity. In doing so Sloterdijk underscores our exile from One and our quest for a new unity.
In September 1999, Sloterdijk published a talk entitled “Rules for the Human Park: A Response to Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism", which he had prepared for a conference on Martin Heidegger’ in Germany. The piece gave rise to a highly publicized scandal which was quickly ensued by an international debate on whether the “end of humanism" was really coming and if it would be followed by something like Sloterdijk’s description of the self-domestication of humans. In this essay Sloterdijk offers a reflection on humanism, genetics and the problems posed by what he calls the "domestication of the human being". The use of the word "Selektion"(a very sensitive term in Germany since Nazism) caused Sloterdijk to be severely criticized, notably by Jürgen Habermas who had supported him in his early career. The term is used twice in the paper. First in the context of “native selection", and in parallel with the word “lektion" (lesson). However, he would also receive support from other intellectuals, including Jean Baudrillard who taught at EGS until he died in 2007. The association of his teaching ability and his clarity of expression would nevertheless allow Peter Sloterdijk to animate from 2002 on, in collaboration with Rüdiger Safranski, a philosophical and literature focused television broadcast on German TV.
In Rage and Time (2007; published in English in 2010), Sloterdijk began thinking about politics in terms of angry expressions. Anger or rage here become the engine of politics. Such anger we are told can come together in society and keep accumulating for a future revenge. After Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, Sloterdijk too thinks of political time as a vehicle for anger and resentment or ressentiment (Nietzsche). This study of rage from a psycho-political standpoint will lead him in God’s Zeal: The Battle of the Three Monotheisms (2008; 2009 in English) to denounce the excesses of what he considers to be the three monotheistic zealots, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which all claim close links to Abraham. His work here is to draw a logico-psychological matrix to explain these religions’ intolerance of the One in order to offer an ambitious way to solve conflicts through a trialogue that would value learning what an ethics based on civilization might look like.
The point and originality of Peter Sloterdijk’s overall work is in the fact that he has tried to solve the dilemma in the opposition between humanism and technology. According to him, it is equally important to get away from the fantasies of biologists as much as the fears of humanists, as each carry the same misunderstandings. In denouncing what he refers to as critical humanism, which in Germany he associates with Jürgen Habermas, Tugendhat and Spaemann, Sloterdijk seeks to open the way to a new humanism that is no longer an obstacle to the technical instrumentation of oneself. The humanism of Western tradition, which critical humanism is only the latest incarnation of, is according to him bound to adopt a reactionary position. Sloterdijk attempts to provide a new synthesis of humanism and science, what he terms “anthropotechnical". He argues this should take the form of a humanism capable of fully assuming the proper technical dimension of human existence. In his own words: “We must become technological in order to be humanist."
In this debate around humanism which Sloterdijk tackles head on, he wants to think both with and against Martin Heidegger at the same time. Indeed to begin his own restoration work of humanist thought, Sloterdijk builds on his illustrious predecessor. For both the issue is that classical humanism has failed in its task because it has been unable to think the humanity of man. Sloterdijk agrees to define man as the being who has a world, in contrast with animals for example that only have an environment. In this way Sloterdijk acknowledges with Martin Heidegger that man lives in an ontological sphere reserved for him: “the clearing". Hence Sloterdijk’s trilogy entitled Spheres. In the work of Heidegger the clearing is the necessary space in which things appear. Martin Heidegger argues the history of Being in western philosophy has been one of misunderstanding the notion of clearing. In effect, according to him instead of letting that space be in the background, it has been replaced or reified in such various ways as for instance the good, the unmoved mover, God or man himself. As it were, to fill in the clearing when its point is specifically to be space is problematic.
Like Martin Heidegger Sloterdijk wants to announce the end of humanism as we have known it, showing how it has both stemmed from and extended the oblivion of Being. According to Sloterdijk, Martin Heidegger's mistake, however, and that in spite of his best efforts, was in fact basically the same as all forms of humanism before him. That is, the problematic approach in all forms of humanism, Martin Heidegger included, has thus far been in the assumption that the humanity of man is somehow a given that naturally unfolds in the experience of this one. From such a standpoint, the philosophical task is simply to know how to read and gather (Heidegger) such an apparently neutral given reality. It is important to note that Derrida too finds this problematic. However the issue here Sloterdijk tells us specifically, is that man is actually built by man and thus maintains through and through the mark of human work. This comes as one of the answers to the question that Sloterdijk poses. Before going into the question, however, it is important to know that in German clearing is lichtung, which not only means a clearing, as in the woods for instance, but because lichtung comes from the German word for light (licht), lichtung is sometimes translated as lighting:
So I ask, thinking with Heidegger against Heidegger, how has man come to the clearing, and how was produced the lightning from whose light only the world as world could begin to shine.
Perhaps ironically, then, by leaving in the shadow the actual circumstances, the history, that has led today’s humanity to materialize in humans, according to Sloterdijk we close all access to the essence of truth: the ways of its manufacture. That is why Sloterdijk proposes not to explore once again, like many others, Martin Heidegger's interpretations of the human clearing, but instead much more importantly to offer a genealogy of it. Arguably, Sloterdijk’s project here comes near that of late Michel Foucault, whom we now know was much more influenced by Martin Heidegger than was initially thought, perhaps even equally as by Nietzsche. Professor Hubert Dreyfus, for example, tellingly talks of Michel Foucault’s key notion of power as social clearing.
Sloterdijk’s publications translated into English are still too few, even though, interest seems to be growing. They include God's Zeal: The Battle of the Three Monotheisms (2009), Derrida, an Egyptian (2009) and Rage and Time (2010).