Philosophy In Germany: Too Popular For Its Own Good?

An article in the current issue of Foreign Policy,German Philosophy Has Finally Gone Viral. Will That Be Its Undoing?” describes the surge in philosophy’s popularity in Germany and asks whether it comes at too high a cost.

How popular is philosophy in Germany? The article notes that the bimonthly Philosophie Magazin has a circulation of 100,000. Philosopher Richard David Precht has a TV show, Precht, with nearly one million viewers. Philosopher Markus Gabriel’s recent book, Why The World Does Not Exist, was an international bestseller. A philosophy festival in Cologne is attended by around 10,000 visitors each June.

The question the article raises is whether the “accessibility and relevance” of philosophy in Germany “mask its degradation” (compared to Hegel, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Marx, and others mentioned in the article) or whether “those qualities are vital to keeping the discipline alive and resonant.”

It seems to me that articles like this misidentify the substitution going on. If popular magazines and television shows about philosophy were displacing academic work by serious scholars, then perhaps we’d have a question about the quality of philosophy being threatened. But the article provides no reason to think that is happening. (German readers, do you have information to the contrary?) It seems, rather, that what we have are relatively new competitors for the attention of middlebrow consumers of ideas, and these new competitors work in philosophy. In other words, if people are putting something down to tune into Precht, it’s probably not the latest issue of Kant-Studien.

It turns out the article’s author, Stuart Jeffries, doesn’t think that there’s necessarily a trade-off between popularity and quality in philosophy. He cites the popularity of the work of Markus Gabriel as “a rebuke to those earlier philosophers who imagine that the masses cannot and should not read philosophy” by “demonstrating that German philosophers can find a wide audience—without being merely slick or superficial.”

But this, too, seems to be kind of a mistake—not because of the quality of Gabriel’s work (I have not read it and issue no judgment on it) but because the type of philosophy the lay public consumes is not at all a straightforward guide to the quality of philosophy produced by a society’s experts.

We wouldn’t suggest that the increased popularity of science educators like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye “mask science’s degradation.” Nor we would take the quality of a book by Stephen Hawking, say, as evidence of the sophistication of a society’s science program. So why think these lines of thought have any more traction when it comes to philosophy?

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