Trump And The World

A Call To Philosophers: Join The Fray, Help Fix Our World

Our era of authoritarian rulers and 'alternative facts' makes the guiding light of philosophy more vital than ever.

Rodin's The Thinker in Paris
Christoph Behrens

MUNICH — The Enlightenment seems to be taking a few steps backwards these days. The citizens of Britain voted against the idea of a unified Europe. Politicians in Eastern Europe are celebrated for sounding off on refugees and building and re-building walls and fences. The new U.S. president, meanwhile, is a man named Donald Trump.

So where are the philosophers to sound the alarm, to explain and categorize everything? Are they too afraid? Do we not hear them as clearly as we should? Or do they simply not have anything left to say?

By now there is more at stake than the debate on the refugee crisis, nationalism or anti-liberal thoughts. With Trump, a man has become president of the most influential and enlightened nation in the world thanks in large part to lies, half-truths and cleverly placed fake news. And he is extremely successful with this strategy. The truth itself has become a matter of debate in the digital age.

This is a dangerous development, not just in terms of politics, but from a history-of-ideas perspective. A core discipline of philosophy is to obtain and explain indisputable knowledge. That, at least, is what philosophers told us for thousands of years. Philosophers should be fuming with rage over the abuse of knowledge systems such as the Internet. Instead they keep silent.

Daniel Dennett, one of the most important contemporary philosophers, recently said that "a majority of philosophy nowadays does not even deserve a place in this world." Occasionally, philosophers do still make their voices heard. Prior to the U.S. elections, for example, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek went so far as to recommend that people vote Trump. Why? Because he had the "desperate hope" that this will be such a shock to Democrats and Republicans alike that a new political movement may spring from it. For the most part, though, philosophical forays into current affairs are rare.

Be brave and risk everything

"Contemporary philosophy has failed to serve society's needs," Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, both professors in Texas, suggest in their recent book Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st Century Philosophy. The book is a destructive reckoning of their very own discipline. The philosophical practice in the style of Socrates, i.e. hanging around the market square and provoking people to start thinking, is no longer in existence. And anyone who would try to do so nowadays would be laughed off "stage" for being a "hopeless amateur." Instead, university philosophers write texts that only other academic philosophers can understand.

"Socrates could never get a position today in a philosophy department," argue Briggle and Frodeman. They say the reason, paradoxically, is philosophy's elevation to the status of professional science. When the first natural sciences and humanities emerged at the end of the 19th century, philosophers had no other choice but to become more academic themselves (or at least act that way). The thinkers adapted to the structures of their universities and became more and more specialized. Frodeman calls this specialization the "original sin" that resulted, ultimately, in philosophy's irrelevance.

Socrates and other Greek star thinkers — Photo: Matt Neale

As a solution to the problem, the U.S. philosophers suggest we become more like Socrates. The recalcitrant scruff lived in Athens in the 4th century B.C. Instead of recording his ideas, he preferred to talk to everyone and anyone on the street, was often at loggerheads with the mighty and powerful, and was eventually sentenced to death for godlessness. The lesson here? Be brave and risk everything.

"Philosophy has to get outside. The sun will do it good," writes Frodeman. Now, more than ever, there is a desperate need for street-level philosophy, he argues. That's because the market square is dilapidated, and the lessons to be discussed — from autonomous killer robots to privacy in the digital age, climate change and the impact of biotechnology on human development — are literally choking the streets.

The military journalist Franz-Stefan Gady even suggested sending a Socrates-like philosopher to the Pentagon. A type of "Philosopher in Chief" would be very useful, he argues, to question the behavior of military personnel and constantly bombard them with questions such as "What is the military?" or "What does victory even mean?"

Slaves and rebels

Thomas Vašek, founder and editor in chief of the Philosophy magazine Hohe Luft (High Air), is of a similar mind. "Clearly the hour of the philosopher is now," he says. "The word of the year — "post-truth," for example — is a philosophically highly problematic term."

Vašek sees the need for a reprimanding voice, especially in these heated times. Hohe Luft recently published a "philosophical manifesto" calling on philosophers to once again become role models, to take digitalization seriously, and stop acting like an estranged elite. Vašek describes it as "something of a wake-up call" but doesn't expect it'll have much effect on universities. "Some people within the academic system think that they have to have a PhD at the very least before they are allowed to open their mouths." Vašek pins his hopes, therefore, on the young, people outside the academic system, rather than on the "old, established authorities."

Frodeman and Briggle call these young thinkers the "Republic of Letters," reminiscent of the brotherhood of European scientists in the 17th and 18th centuries. Business managers, scientists, engineers and futurists are part of this informal network nowadays. In short, people who work for the research branches of Google and Apple rather than at a university; people who "philosophize on the fly," applying ad-hoc philosophy to concrete problems.

The direction this new philosophy is taking can, of course, be a bit strange sometimes. In Silicon Valley, for example, stoicism — with its emphasis on sensory chastity, self-control and insusceptibility towards setbacks — seems to be making a comeback. Even Google is said to have held seminars on stoicism for its employees.

Others argue that stoicism is the last thing the world needs right now. Philosopher Sandy Grant of the University of Cambridge recently called stoicism "a philosophy for a time of slaves." Indeed, one of the early proponents of stoicism was the Roman slave Epictetus. Grant says that if people accept the idea that things are beyond their control, they won't rebel. What we need instead, she says, is for people in times of injustice and oppression to act in unison, even when our situation seem irreversible.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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