A German Idealist on Globalization – and what he might have to say to an anti-Brexiteer


Rüdiger Safranski is one of the best-known philosophers in contemporary Germany. Together with his many prizes, the highly rated television programme, Philosophisches Quartett, ‘The Philosophical Quarter’, he has presented with Peter Sloterdijk, since 2002, has secured his name. In the anglophone world we know him more as a biographer than a philosopher. His monographs on Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche and Heidegger, plus studies of German Romanticism, and of Schiller or the Invention of German Idealism, haven’t all been translated into English, but there can hardly be an anglophone reader interested in the topic who doesn’t know the English version of Safranski’s Ein Meister Aus Deutschland Heidegger und seine Zeit. I quote the German title here because its inspiration, an eerie quote, ‘A Master from Germany’, from a poem about Heidegger by Paul Celan, didn’t travel well into English. The book we know is rather Martin Heidegger Between Good and Evil, an evident companion  volume to Safranski’s Nietzsche A Biography of his Thinking.  It’s Safranski’s work on Goethe and Schiller meanwhile that is his ultimate anchor. It situates him as a connoisseur  of the greatest literary-philosophical era in German history, the time from 1749, the year of Goethe’s birth, to 1939, the date when Hitler destroyed an intellectual and artistic culture that had been the wonder and envy of less cerebral nations; and shows him wanting to rescue its astonishing creative individualism and perpetuate it.

Safranski has not only deeply immersed himself in a philosophical world that for forty years after the second world war, and in an anglo-american-led climate of analytic neo-positivism was regarded as deeply unattractive by most contemporary thinkers. He is also capable of thinking outside the box. To compare Heidegger in the early 1920s with the anarchic art European movement Dada, its hilarious mindset so scarred by the first world war that it disdained all the great cultural traditions that had upheld the West since the Renaissance, was to my mind a masterstroke. Well aware of Heidegger’s fatal attraction to Nazism, Safranski can still interpret a deeply German philosopher in the Romantic tradition without fear.

Born in 1945, Safranski was still in time to learn in person from the last living German Idealist, Theodor Adorno.  From 1965-1972 he was a student in Frankfurt am Main some years after Adorno returned from his wartime American exile, and then in West Berlin.  His  doctoral dissertation was concerned with working-class literary culture, which suggests to me he never entered a post-humanist phase, unlike his French counterparts, in the 1980s and after. Perhaps his most curious book is an essay of 2003 entitled Wieviel Globalisierung verträgt der Mensch? It was rendered into English as How Much Globalization Can We Bear? in 2006 and is a robust defence of German Idealist values in a new global age. As his publishers describe the project: ‘He suggests that the era ofglobalization should not be thought of as that epoch in world history in which all human beings will see themselves in the same, indistinct situation. There will always be, Sanfranski argues, some need for understanding one’s own situation by drawing boundaries and conceptualizing  “otherness” and individuality.’

Perhaps it’s not surprising that a German literary scholar of Safranski’s persuasions should see globalization as the risk of overstepping the human mark, of anxiously wondering whether there isn’t ‘too much or too much false globalization’ (p.13 of the German edition, my translation) such that we feel, as a species, uncomfortable and ‘wonder whether we are organizing ourselves in the right way any more’ (ob man sich überhaupt noch in der richtigen Veranstaltung befindet). He calls it an anthropological question, but it’s hard not to see it as metaphysical, as subsequent chapters quoting from Plato and Rousseu, Kant and Hegel demonstrate. In this context globalization,  which risks losing something sacred about human nature, begins to look like a Faustian question.  What for Safranski is threatened is what we make out of ourselves. What can we know? What can we build? How far should we push it? (p.10)

The international order of the latter half of the twentieth century, the global institutions that diminish the risk of war and defend human rights and boycott tyranny are the political good news, although, in the fifteen years since Safranski wrote his book, it’s clear that the backlash against ‘bad’ globalization has incited a new generation of populist agitators to attack the justification for just that good global order in the minds of their dissatisfied national publics. A major outcome of globalization was a new kind of inequality we were mentally ill-equipped to deal with, he wrote back in 2003. He seems to have got the history right even before it climaxed in populist rebellion. As globalization as a set of ideas tried to tackle vast differences in economic development across the globe (p.20), he argued, it tended to suppress those differences, thereby turning itself into an ideology. Economic neo-liberalism, anti-nationalism and global ecological awareness made the world outlook of the West as it entered the twenty-first century more of an aggressive assertion than a wonderful offering. What came out of the wave of ecological right-thinking was that ‘those who come last must bear the burden’. In 2003 he addressed that thought to developing countries being asked to bear the burden of ecological taxation. As we read him now we can extend that sentiment to cover whole Western populations coming to feel ‘left behind’ in their own countries: a feeling that they, the local working classes undermined and displaced by global economic activity, have been relegated to a third-class existence despite their first-world geography.

One of the great achievements of globalization has been its inherent anti-nationalism. It’s why European populations in the not so distant past, and still at Safranski’s time of writing, so enthusiastically espoused the European Union. Anti-nationalism had such strong moral reasoning behind it after 1945, in Europe, and especially in Germany.  But the great and growing differences in wealth and prosperity thrown up by globalization began to wreak havoc in Europe with the mass inward migrations  of 2015-2016.  As I write Britain, apparently not bound by moral anti-nationalism, is leaving the European Union to seek another form of globalization more favourable to its desire to trade among independent nations rather than from within an economic bloc. Britain wants to revert to being a world leader in an international marketplace where it can also set its own accompanying ethical-political rules.

Could anything Safranski argued fifteen years ago make the British decision seem right, or at least explain it to those of us in despair at leaving Europe? One thing he might have noticed is how neo-liberalism fitted the anglo-american glove so well because its prototype was the British Empire. In a way Britain never changed; or rather, it did its best to refloat Europe on the neo-liberal tide. I came across this example recently. Nineteenth-century Britons in India, on coming across the beautiful hand-woven patterns of Punjabi textiles, sent samples home to be copied by English factories. These mass-produced fabrics were then re-exported to India, where they destroyed local markets. The Brits aren’t anti-global. They just want globalism on their own robust terms, destroying other people’s localities if necessary, while protecting their own.

But British exceptionalism was never in Safranski’s purview, and his concerns for the future of human nature seem exceptionally German, or at least Continental, compared with a typical British point of view still based, after more than two centuries, on Adam Smith’s moral justification of self-interest. (I know Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments was more nuanced than his Wealth of Nations, but even so.) I have to try to sort this European/British distinction out for myself, as a Brit whose moral compass was created many years ago by precisely the German writers and philosophers Safranski has rediscovered for my German and English generations. His questions seem real enough to me. What kind of people are we turning ourselves into? What spiritual capacities for happiness are we stifling when we live in a real-time experience of everywhere and nowhere courtesy of globalization’s marriage with the internet?  Globalism, he writes on p.73, narrows us. He means that neo-liberalism and its attendant economic blitzes on less prosperous, less innovative regions of the world, combined with a culture over which technology, rather than human interaction reigns, thins out our personalities. Somewhere in there is also a worry I very much share, about our human relationship with nature, at the mysterious interface between our bodily and spiritual existence, being neglected if not totally ignored in the present day. It’s undoubtedly a moral lesson Safranski’s delivering, one that carries a Faustian warning not to stray too far from what we can humanly, as natural creatures, take the measure of; a warning not to let our technological prowess take over the moral substance of our lives. It’s also a lesson drawn from the Romantic heart of German literature, about the uninspiring character of materialism as a world outlook and the damage done to the human heart by the falsehoods embedded in progress.

He writes (in my translation from his German text):

‘In the nineteenth century forests were the place of the good, the beautiful and the true for some, while for others they were hiding-places for eerineness and mystery. But we should also think about the forests of nostalgia, the forests of the image and the symbol. [They] have been, from the forest tales of German Romanticism to Heidegger’s ‘forest paths’ a poetic-philosophical resource. The whole is a story of the long dismantling of mythical potential, of loss of magic and of the grubbing-up of trees, and of the growth of a desert. The world goes to the net and in the uniformity of globalization is trapped in a net. What disappears here is the external correspondence of the inner transcendence of the human being, a transcendence without metaphysical construction. In the impenetrability of nature outside us – for which the metaphor of the forest stands – we experience that we are also nature and a mystery to ourselves. The forests reflect back to us our own strangeness, which also plays a part in our relationship to ourselves. Whoever is prepared to expose themselves to this strangeness retains contact with the mystery of life.’

But it’s not only Germans who were once and are still  ‘searching for real reality’ – auf der Suche nach der wirklichen Wirklichkeit. (pp. 94-95) Henry David Thoreau in On Walden Pond was too.

It’s difficult to believe that Safranski’s idea of the human was not originally a metaphysical construct that has been passed down through centuries of Protestant belief. That was always the character of German Idealism. A fellow blogger and Safranski enthusiast focuses on a quote in How Much Globalization… from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1796), where Safranski takes over Goethe’s ideal for the individual of  ‘eine regelmäßige Selbsttätigkeit.’ The phrase points towards  self-directedness or autonomy. ‘And a new sense of autonomy is exactly what Safranski prescribes for us,’ he writes. ‘We need new ways to filter the global stream of information, a new immune system to be able to function in the face of all these global processes.’

Safranski hopes for a better outcome for the mass of humanity in the twenty-first century than life in front of a screen or otherwise self-harming. Self-knowledge, and the ability to liberate oneself from the otherwise overwhelming technological exigencies of the day, needs to return to the heart of education, if the detrimental aspects of globalization are to be resisted. An education which tells its students that learning is the key to economic success is insufficient, and, to take up Safranski’s implicit metaphor, even Mephistophelian.  Education needs to show us how to construct a self, a rich inner life, a way of being a person through the amount of world we can transform into our own humanity.  He has a marvellous quote from the early nineteenth-century German educator Wilhelm von Humboldt: ‘Whatsoever man, when he is dying, can say to himself, “I have grasped as much world as I could, and transformed it into my humanity”- he has achieved his goal.’

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835)

To be a person is not just to have an identity, and least of all a encrypted internet identity, or a flow of infinitely reproducible tweets and digital images. But this is me speaking now, finding where I can agree with the conservative but European Safranski, while still needing to engage with my own country and its post-Brexit future. This historic trading nation to which I belong by birth, selfish, self-possessed and powerful, and which insists on taking the utilitarian and materialistic path, chopping down quite a few German Romantic trees on its way, has taught me to be a little more sceptical than I once was about the nature of the human soul. I’m more inclined to see personhood with Hume as a bundle of impressions than a mysterious entity containing a divine spark. And yet all my work revolves around the ideas that Safranski still believes in without inhibition, and I’m grateful for his reminder.

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