A conversation with Prof. Hans Sluga

Department of Philosophy at the University of California Berkeley

speaking to Michael Shirrefs—27th March 2018


Prof.Hans Sluga: I am Hans Sluga. I am a professor of philosophy and we are here in Berkeley California. I have taught for many years at the University of California at Berkeley but I’m originally from Germany and I studied at Oxford. And my first job was at University College London and then eventually I came to California and never left. And I do philosophy. I have been working across fields, my interests have changed over time. So, I started very much in technical areas of philosophy, logic, history of logic. I worked on Wittgenstein and the philosophy of language. But in recent years I’ve become more and more interested in political philosophy and ethics, or practical philosophy you could say, more broadly.

Michael Shirrefs: Just in a sense of a tradition, a lineage, what is your philosophical tradition? Who are your antecedents?

Prof. Sluga: Well, my life story should tell you something. I have this German background and so I’m somewhat influenced by what’s called Continental Philosophy, German Philosophy, historically oriented philosophising. But I also studied, at Oxford, Analytic Philosophy, so more technical ways of doing philosophy and I’ve tried to combine them both. I’ve always said what a distinction is this really? On the one hand we have a methodological term, Analytic, on the other hand we have a geographical term, Continental. There must be ways in which we can combine the interests and strengths of each of these movements.

Shirrefs: So, certainly reading your work, it feels like you are trying to map across traditions?

Prof. Sluga: Yes, I mean I think that we have been through an amazing period in the history of philosophy, really starting in the late 19th century and it brought forth a vast variety of different philosophical movements. Everything from Analytic Philosophy, Positivism, Scientism, Naturalism, but also Phenomenology, Existential Philosophy and Critical Theory. So, we have this broad front and most people look at only one strand or the other. And my concern has always been let’s look at this whole movement and see what it means that we have had this powerful rejuvenation in philosophy, which I think has run its course and we are now in a new situation.

Shirrefs: Well, you describe yourself now as a political philosopher. But you’ve also written that politics and philosophy are both in a state of peril. So where does that leave you as a political philosopher? Does that make your job important or does it potentially make your job redundant?

Prof. Sluga: Well, when we are in peril, political peril, the time for political philosophy it’s come, I think. So, I think this is the moment to think about it. It’s more difficult of course when things are in turmoil, but this is exactly the moment where you ought to be thinking about where we stand and how to think about, how to conceive of where we are politically and socially … and culturally in the end.

Shirrefs: Never more so than at this time in America I would say … 

Prof. Sluga: Absolutely, yes. So, we can see that here, but it’s a crisis that has been long in coming. In some ways I feel that Obama has been an interruption in this. He would never have been elected if the financial crisis hadn’t come so surprisingly at that moment, when the election was due. And it, in a way, has interrupted a process of critical dissolution of the tradition.

Shirrefs: So, one of my focuses has been very much about an idea that I grew up with, that I understood implicitly as being part of my social fabric, which we referred to as the Common Good. But it has many different names, in German I think it’s das Gemeinwohl. Give me a philosophical definition of the idea of the Common Good.

Prof. Sluga: Well, I believe that being political is an attempt to find a common ground, something we can agree on and that can make us work together to some goal, right? And so, what I called the search for the Common Good is what politics is really ultimately all about. In contrast to other people who talk about the Common Good, I don’t think it’s fixed. It’s not waiting to be discovered in some ways. We have to come to work it out together. So, it’s a political process that is necessary to determine what that good is where there are many different options. So, in some societies, maybe security is the uppermost concern, right? And this is what they share as their common goal. And in others, it’s more freedom, or it’s more progress, or more maintaining of tradition. So, there are different goods that are not fully compatible with each other and have to make choices between them. Working those out is what politics is about.

Shirrefs: Different goods and also different Commons. So, what is geographically, socially appropriate in one area is not going to be a cookie cutter solution in another area?

Prof. Sluga: Yes, so determining who we are is something that is also essential to politics there, right.

Shirrefs: One of the things you said at the end of your book, Politics and the Search for the Common Good, is that the idea must stay fluid, it must be able to change shape. It can’t be a rigid concept, otherwise it will fail?

Prof. Sluga: Yes, so I oppose it myself to philosophers like, starting with Plato or we could say and Aristotle, but also contemporaries like John Rawls and his followers, who think that they can fix, once and for all, in a philosophical manner, this is the Common Good. I think this is something that is worked out in the political process and therefore is variable, and has to be variable as long as we are political beings. 

Shirrefs: John Rawls is interesting because he bundles up the idea of the Common Good into a larger concept. He talked about the Comprehensive Doctrine.

Prof. Sluga: Yes, so Rawls’ conception is, you could say, a two-step one. On the one hand he believes we can agree on formal principles of justice, procedural justice, by which we work out together how to live. But then people will bring to this different conceptions of the good and we then have to still kind of determine how we agree on those right. He says very little about the second. That’s the interesting one. That’s the political level.

Shirrefs: The Common Good relies, like any collective agreement, it relies on consensus. And one of the things we are seeing, in many places that were arguably founded on a concept of the Common Good, and in my case I’m particularly interested in looking at Europe and the European Union, we’re seeing those structures start to fail. Are we seeing withdrawal of consensus in the idea of the Common Good?

Prof. Sluga: Well, there’s always that danger of course, and that’s when, so to say, our political … capacity to be political with each other collapses. When we become totally confrontational or alienated from each other. So, I say in my book that we can distinguish two different situations, both have to do with freedom with individual liberty. We can, as a community, come to an agreement that individual liberty is a good that each one of us ought to have, right? That’s an understanding of a Common Good. But we can also conceive of a society, which would not be a political society in my picture any more, in which people just individually pursue their own liberty and don’t care what others do. So, they would be not concerned if others are enslaved, or in some sense diminished. That is not their concern, it’s only their own individual liberty that matters. And I think we are in a danger from moving from one to the other here—from a communal understanding of the importance of liberty, to a completely individualistic and autistic kind of understanding of liberty.

Shirrefs: This sort of brings me to one of the people that you write a lot about, Hannah Arendt. In her book, The Human Condition, which I think was 1958, she defined two concepts that I find really interesting, that sort of revolve around this idea. She talks about Worldliness and Worldlessness. Just define those two ideas as s h e saw it?

Prof. Sluga: So, World does not mean the physical environment. It means a socially agreed space in which we can coexist and in which each one of us has a place. And so Worldlessness would then be a situation in which we don’t have a common understanding any more of that space, that space has dissolved, and we are therefore no longer in the world—we are world-less. This distinction of course is a Heideggerian distinction, like much else she has borrowed from Heidegger. But in an interesting way she has turned this into a political form of thinking, where in Heidegger, it’s much more individualistic.

Shirrefs: There’s a real tone in her writing of almost despair, because it’s … at that period, 1958, post-war … it is crossing into an era where she is almost describing something that’s relevant today, almost a state of being, where society or individuals have no sense of responsibility to their past, and certainly no responsibility to the future. Nothing beyond their lives.

Prof. Sluga: Yes, we mustn’t forget that the book that preceded The Human Condition was The Origins of Totalitarianism, right? She very much thought about Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany as models of new ways of living for human beings, but an unworldly worldless existence for her, because it’s no longer a reality in which people could freely communicate, interact with each other, but everything is organised and structured. And that’s what she was afraid of was kind of a remaining potential. It wasn’t something that had been there once and had disappeared, but totalitarianism was a new possibility that we now have to face.

Shirrefs: It’s funny that if you don’t have that as a sort of a backdrop to it, her subsequent writing seems extraordinarily apt now. It’s almost as if we’ve gone through a cycle, or the thing that she most feared had a hiatus and is now quite present.

Prof. Sluga: Yes. I mean I think that she has total relevance and when I read her with my students, I think they are very much alert to how much she writes then, or what she wrote then, is of significance for 21st century America, 20th century world.

Shirrefs: One of the things, talking about the idea of the individual vs. the world, the collective society, something that seems to come up a lot for me is noticing a shift, over a period of some decades, from a society of citizens to a society of consumers. So that what you have is a thoroughly commodified society where you have a credit card, you passively sit back and wait to be serviced. But there is no sense of reciprocal responsibility to the wider organism. So, whereas once upon a time you had rights, but you had responsibilities as a citizen. Is that part of what she was describing or is that a sort of a separate almost dystopia?

Prof. Sluga: No, when she talks about this emergence of society as she calls it, it’s a society of labor but also of consumerism. She is very much aware of us turning into workers, on the one hand, who make money, and then on the other hand people spend money and that’s all there is left to our social existence. So, yes this was definitely a concern of hers I would say.

Shirrefs: So, it’s a very reductive state, it’s a state that says our world exists only in purely monetary economic terms, as opposed to social economic terms.

Prof. Sluga: Yes, and of course that made her also a critic of Marx and Marxism, to some extent, because she said Marxist over emphasised this labouring side of human existence. But we have to think also of that other side, that social side that makes us worldly beings, makes us capable of acting and interacting with each other.

Shirrefs: When we look at something like Europe … I mean, I think of the Common Good as having been a foundation for many things that we’ve grown up to accept as normal, public health, public education, public broadcasting … European Union had one foundation firmly in the idea of the Common Good. Do you agree with that?

Prof. Sluga: Yes, so I grew up in the post-war period and in my teenage years I was a convinced committed Europeanist. I joined a group called European Youth and was very much for European unification. I still am, because I think there are things that we share that we need to, of course, look at and emphasise also, that we share and that are worth preserving and that are best preserved when we work together and have a structure in which we can maintain these goods.

Shirrefs: So, what has happened to that European project. I mean it was founded in ideas of trade—steel, shared wealth. But there was a great optimism about it which was founded in an idea of a collective optimism. What has happened since?

Prof. Sluga: Well, the economic difficulties, of course, have intervened right, of many different kinds. But it’s also that we have come to realise that we can’t just be Europeans, we will still be Germans and Spanish and Italians and so on. And so the question is, how do we reconcile this duality or this diversity of our commitments? I personally don’t find that so difficult. I grew up in the Rhineland, in the west of Germany and the Rhineland and has always considered itself as quite separate from Germany. So, when German unification came, the Rhineland became part of Prussia, surprisingly, and we called ourself ‘must be Prussians’—muss Preußen— because we really didn’t want to be part of this arrangement. So, we have always been somewhat separate and we have that separate identity. We look at people across the Rhine in a different light. We identify maybe more with people in the Western Europe. But at the same time yes, we are also Germans so, I think Bavarians might tell you a very similar story. So, Germany is very typical for this division and these local affinities that still exist. But at the same time you are part of this larger unity and so we need to learn how we can be both Europeans and Germans and British and so on.

Shirrefs: It is a crisis of identity for many people, to not understand that they can carry these different layers of identity simultaneously. You know, that they can be Franconian and Bavarian and German and European, all at once, and that things don’t have to jar. But people do seem to feel very uncomfortable with those multiple layers.

Prof. Sluga: Yes, that’s true. And of course the European Union is inevitably also a bureaucratic structure with its rules. Rules are impositions in many ways ,  right, or are felt to be such. So, there are also difficulties of a practical kind, that one struggles with. But I think this European ideal is still worth kind of keeping alive. I’m a great admirer of Nietzche, who always said nationalism is a disease and it has led Europe into many difficulties, and I’m a good European and I really do believe in this Nietzsche a n lesson.

Shirrefs: And we are returning to a very bordered Europe. What has happened in Hungary, with Viktor Orban’s serious challenge to the value system of Brussels, by challenging ideas of segregation, ideas of free movement, challenging ideas of freedom of the judiciary, of the media. At all these levels he’s thumbing his nose at Brussels. And the idea of European Union doesn’t quite have an answer for that because it assumed, once you were a member of a club, it was this sort of perpetual transcendence. And this hasn’t happened.

Prof. Sluga: Yes, so we all struggle, all European struggle with their past, so the past is always present. It has a long, long kind of tail to it, right? And so we have that difficulty, I think the British do. They still don’t know how European they are, how non European they are. So, I remember when I went to college in Oxford and my English friends. I always thought, under different circumstances, they probably would have become colonial officials at some point, they would have been going into the world. But there they were now, kind of limited to their own little island, right? And they still hadn’t quite lived through this loss of the Empire. I think other European countries have done somewhat better, than Netherlands for instance, they don’t hark back to the Indonesian empire anymore, they have done well, right? But I think the British, for instance, still haven’t outlived this. And I think something like this is true also in Eastern Europe in particular. These countries often haven’t outlived their own past. But they will.

Shirrefs: You spoke of memory, and memory is, along with identity, is a very important thing. But it strikes me there are two types of memory. There is an historical narrative memory. But there is also a visceral memory. And the visceral memory, I don’t think translates across generations. So, you may carry the stories, but the visceral memory that made European Union possible, which was this must never happen again, doesn’t translate across generations, and that’s a problem.

Prof. Sluga: That’s a problem, yes, and we don’t know how that will play out. But I’m often reminded of Sigmund Freud saying that neurotics suffer from memory, right? If you remember too much, then that’s also bad, it makes you crazy. You also have to learn to forget.

Shirrefs: The problem for Brussels is that the inheritors of the European project are desperately trying to find new reasons for new generations to believe in an idea of European unity. And it is very difficult when all that is known within living memory is peace, relative wealth and well-being, mobility—that all seems normal. How do you revive a memory of a past that was always turbulent, without it becoming hectoring, without it becoming a sort of a didactic way of talking to new generation?

Prof. Sluga: Well, I think Germany and France maybe has done relatively well there. We fought for seven hundred years as you know, ever since Charlemagne you could say. But somehow we have outlived that and have come to somehow accommodate ourselves to each other as countries. So, that’s a good model. I do believe in the Europe of different speeds, of different degrees of integration. I think this idea of one kind of format will fit everybody doesn’t work. So, some countries will have to have more independence, will be more loosely associated. Others are more ready to be more closely connected. I think that’s the way to go. And maybe eventually that’s where we will go, I think.

Shirrefs: I’m wondering then, is there that battle, between our desire for individuality and a collective state, where the collective state exists only under duress, because a collective European Union happened grudgingly for many people in Europe, because they realised that the alternative was worse. But it was hardly what you’d call a gracious acceptance of collectivism. Is that again the case, do we need something that is so cataclysmic, that just forces us to actually gather together and operate in that collective state?

Prof. Sluga: Well, I think there are many of us who live as Europeans right I’d certainly think of myself in this way, much more than as a German. So, having lived in Germany, been grown up there and then going to England, lived there, I feel as committed and as deeply interested in the English way of life and English literature. I read English novels, right? I’m constantly looking at England and seeing what’s happening there. And even though they are engaged in Brexit right now, nevertheless I think we have lots in common and we can enrich each other and I’m both, right? I have something English in me and something German and that’s good. And there are many people now, many younger people who are like this. You may know about the Erasmus Scholarships, they really have brought this also about. So that people kind of learn about other aspects of Europe and they begin to understand, yes this is also part of me, but a different part. So, if Europe is anything, it’s variety, right.? And we certainly do want to maintain that variety. It would be terrible if it became a uniform nation state. So, we do want this multiplicity, but we also want to be able to see that we have things in common, which we can share and which can be the basis of acting together politically and socially and publicly as well, right? So that we have an understanding of a Common Good as well.

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