Last February, the Dutch Society for Phenomenology (recently renamed as the Dutch Society for Phenomenology and Existentialism) organized a two-day conference on phenomenology, existentialism and realism at our very own Radboud University. Keynote speaker was none other than Markus Gabriel, philosophy professor in Bonn and academic superstar among the ranks of Dennett and Žižek. By now, with his forty years, he might have lost the honorary title of being ‘the young god of German philosophy’, but his credentials are as impressive as ever: full time professor at the age of 29, visiting professor at a dozen of universities around the world (among others, UC Berkeley, the Sorbonne, and the universities of Rio de Janeiro, Lisbon, Aarhus and Venice), an extremely prolific output of more than 20 books and a never-ending list of publications, and a fluent speaker of English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish besides his native German (and yes, he can read ancient Greek, Latin, and basic Hebrew and Chinese as well). On top of that, when he is not busy flying around the world to give lectures, attending talk shows, or writing books in taxi’s and hotel rooms, he is a husband and happy father of two.
Somehow, he also managed to have some time for this interview. After a failed attempt on the night of his talk, we finally managed to steal some of his time during the lunch break of the conference. Even the gods must eat after all. What followed was a roller coaster ride of a conversation – the man talks as fast as he thinks – about the questions that keep him awake at night, his thoughts on (the end of) phenomenology and the future of New Realism, his work ethic and his future ambitions. Full of anecdotes, lots of laughter, and quotes in ancient Greek, it was certainly a memorable interview.
“I definitely said to my mother when I was fifteen that I would be a full professor before the age of thirty. I thought this was the best way to be a philosopher after all: having a good salary and being able to live a bourgeois life if you want to”
Already from a very early age, Gabriel knew he wanted to be a philosophy professor. “I definitely said to my mother when I was fifteen that I would be a full professor before the age of thirty. I thought this was the best way to be a philosopher after all: having a good salary and being able to live a bourgeois life if you want to,” he says laughing. “However, I read the Critique of Pure Reason as a whole when I was about twelve, and already then I thought it contained too many mistakes and unresolved self-referential problems that were not addressed properly. So, I basically became a German idealist when I was about thirteen, although it took me a while to find the guys who came up with satisfying solutions. The best ones I know of, before more contemporary proposals, are given by Hegel and Schelling. When I read them, I was completely overwhelmed. Schelling’s Freedom Essay and Hegel’s Science of Logic were definitely the most inspiring books I read as a student.”
Although Gabriel ended up writing a handful of books on German Idealism – one of them together with Žižek – one of his other “first loves in philosophy” was existentialism, a topic to which he has returned more explicitly in one of his recent books, Neo-Existentialism (2018): “What is existence? This is very clearly the question that keeps me up at night and drives me as a philosopher. But there is a specific flavor to this question that is really problematic for me. It relates to the following experience I have always had in my life and that is hopefully recognizable. We move through life from one situation to another. Now we are doing this interview, before this I was writing, last night there was a conference, and I do all sorts of things in between: going to the toilet, calling someone, sleeping, etc. But these situations tend to be radically different, there are literal gaps in between: instances of nothingness with bumps of being, so to speak. The question we need to ask here is: how do I get from one situation to the next if there is no underlying thread to all these different situations? You might be tempted to say that experience is the continuum that holds reality together, but what happens when I fall into a dreamless sleep and wake up again? In and out of experience as it were? In the end, there is nothing, no encompassing instance that guarantees that I am the same person as yesterday or twenty years ago. One of the reasons I was attracted to the existentialism of Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre is because of their attempts to make this experience of difference and nothingness rationally viable. However, one way or another, they all ended up again with a metaphysical account of some universal form or absolute continuum that keeps reality together as a whole. Thus, what I ultimately try to work out is a view – which, in Fields of Sense and Why the World does not Exist, I call the ‘no world view’ – of the absence of an all-encompassing situation that would capture the existentialist experience of nothingness, more concretely of anxiety and not belonging, that is, never completely feeling at home in the world because there is no such ‘one world’. I take this experience of ‘not belonging’ really as a starting point to address the question what it is for someone or something to exist, which has wide-ranging ramifications throughout all different areas of philosophy, I think.”
While speaking, Gabriel does not pause even one second to think about his answers, or to eat his sandwich for that matter. He talks about all these complex issues in a very self-assured and cheerful manner with the same ease as about his breakfast from this morning. (He had some troubles with the Dutch social conventions while ordering in his hotel.) Naturally, this leaves us quite startled and makes us wonder how these everyday existentialist experiences are accounted for in his philosophy. As a matter of fact, Gabriel’s academic work has a very complex theoretical outlook that, at least at first sight, stands miles away from the vivid phenomenological descriptions of our lived experience we know from existentialist philosophers.
“This is actually part of the reason I became disappointed by existentialism as we know it. I remember I wanted to read Being and Nothingness as a student because I had heard of these famous examples – such as the peeking and flirting case – but those are more or less the only two cases… in seven hundred pages of pure theory!”
“Well, first of all, my trilogy [Why the World does not Exist, I am not a Brain and Der Sinn des Denkens (not yet translated into English)] and Fields of Sense arguably contain more than three times as many examples as all the existentialist literature together. This is actually part of the reason I became disappointed by existentialism as we know it. I remember I wanted to read Being and Nothingness as a student because I had heard of these famous examples – such as the peeking and flirting case – but those are more or less the only two cases… in seven hundred pages of pure theory!” he adds clearly amused. “In my work, even in very theoretical contexts, you find many more examples and jokes that relate to these concrete experiences. They are, however, just examples. They do not do more, nor less than an example can do within a scientifically grounded edifice of philosophical concepts. And this is exactly one of the shortcomings of phenomenologists as I see it: for them, the examples are very often turned into an integral and substantial part of their theoretical arguments as such, which is just fallacious reasoning. They think they can replace a good crisp argument by a biased description of how they experience reality. If a logician objected to Sartre’s theory of nothingness, or a physician to Heidegger’s idea of temporality, they would answer by giving more examples and phenomenological descriptions, or by explicitly refusing to answer, as I have heard Heidegger used to do with the unbelievable response ‘das ist Heideggers Frage nicht’ when confronted with a scientific objection.”
Here, Gabriel touches upon one of the themes of the conference. To what extent can phenomenology – understood as an inquiry into the invariable structures of our lived experience – still live up to its fundamental promise of getting us ‘back to the things themselves’ – understood as a reality that exists independently of any human interference, access, constitution or construction? This has been a heavily debated discussion in recent years, and in no small part thanks to Gabriel’s very own New Realism. Contrary to other self-proclaimed ‘realists’ he continues to engage with phenomenologists, so we wonder where he exactly stands in this debate. Is there still a future for phenomenology within a realist framework?
“I think there is a sociological tendency within the phenomenological community to overestimate their commonalities, which helps to create the illusion that there is this single thing called phenomenology.”
“In general, the answer is going to be yes, but let me first start by observing that no one really knows what phenomenology exactly is. Sociologically speaking, many phenomenologists believe that there is something they all have in common. Most of them would say something along the lines of ‘we are phenomenologists, we describe experience.’ Yet, very are often they are not really doing that at all, and when they actually are describing experience, they are doing it in very different ways. I think there is a sociological tendency within the phenomenological community to overestimate their commonalities, which helps to create the illusion that there is this single thing called phenomenology. Nevertheless, I think there still are phenomenologists in this sense, and some of them were or are really great philosophers who contribute in all sorts of ways to all sorts of problems – including the realism debate – with very heterogeneous methods. For example, Heidegger does a great job at undermining external world scepticism in Being and Time, and the same can be said of Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations with regards to solipsism. And both were damn good logicians by the way. Husserl’s account of abstraction and logical notion is still one of the most sophisticated I know of. However, the contemporary realism debates are on an entirely different level, they have a history of which neither Husserl nor Heidegger could really be aware. Heidegger read Frege and Russell of course, but he only caught a glimpse of what was going on in England in the 60’s and 70’s – with Michael Dummett for example – and this was simply a type of discourse that never occurred to him as a possible way of doing philosophy.”
Gabriel pauses for a moment and, after finally starting to eat his sandwich, continues with the following observation on his own method:
“Every time I introduce a new piece, a new argument, I need to take into account the whole machinery to make it fit and function properly.”
“Thus, yes, there is a future for phenomenology in the sense that we can always use valuable insights from phenomenologists, as from any other kind of philosophy for that matter. This is the way I work: I take the best I can find and integrate it into my own thinking. What other method would we have, right? Some people might find this objectionable, but for me philosophy ultimately comes down to a critique of pure reason. Of course, not in the way Kant meant it, but in the sense that philosophy is, first and foremost, a form of rational theory building. I am a fallible theorist, just like anybody else. All the pieces of my theoretical edifice have a certain function and purpose. For every piece of machinery – the vocabulary, definitions, arguments and so forth – I can give you reasons how it got there and why it is there. These reasons include conversations, readings, purely logical arguments, empirical findings, etc. Every time I introduce a new piece, a new argument, I need to take into account the whole machinery to make it fit and function properly. This is simply the way I construct my system. What if some of the pieces are bad? Well, then I try to change them. If the plane does not fly, you reengineer some of the pieces in order to make it fly. In this activity of theory construction some pieces are going to be replaced by better arguments, or by demonstrations that I forgot, or by important insights from philosophical literature or otherwise. Now, to come back to phenomenology, some forms of it clearly flirt with irrationalism in the sense that they do not follow this logic at all. If we consider this form of phenomenology, then I think we should give up on it. Immediately when they start singing – I’m out. And they start singing, and dancing. If you leave them, and you let the community grow and you come back after a decade, they are all dancing. And after a while, they start dancing differently, which can only end in a series of civil wars. This is exactly what happened to the Freiburg department [the old philosophy department of Husserl and Heidegger].”
“If you leave them, and you let the community grow and you come back after a decade, they are all dancing. And after a while, they start dancing differently, which can only end in a series of civil wars.”
Of course, the question arises as to what might happen when Gabriel’s machinery breaks down and the plane crashes. Seeing that history, and in particular the history of ideas, tends to repeat itself, there is a big chance that this current wave of realism will eventually die out and new brands of idealism will arise, as it has often been the case in the history of philosophy. Gabriel nevertheless thinks that there is still a long way to go before that happens.
“New realism, and the arguments for and within New Realism, are certainly compatible with other outlooks, so I do not see a reason to dismiss it completely in the light of other theories. Of course, the whole plane could break down. Anything could happen in principle. A new form of idealism could emerge that turns out to be a better engine after all. There are actually some people working on that as we speak. However, it is important to keep in mind that most forms of idealism that are on the rise nowadays are of a typical American brand: David Chalmers, for example, is very close to converting to idealism. Think also of Donald Hoffman, who is fully endorsing it in his recent New York Times bestseller The Case Against Reality (2019). Likewise for two of the most influential living neuro-scientists of our time: Giulio Tononi and Christoph Koch. They are all idealists – hardcore, brutal idealists! Nevertheless, this is not a reaction to contemporary forms of Realism, but to a specific homebred version of metaphysical realism that underlies a good deal of Anglo-American analytical philosophy. In other words, I think they are running behind big time, which is quite a disaster for American philosophy if you ask me. In a way, they are repeating a part of the history of philosophy we already have left behind for quite some time. For example, right now, panpsychism [the theory that ‘mind’ is an inherent feature of reality itself] is a big thing in philosophy of mind. Yet, this will slowly but surely turn into some form of idealism [the theory that reality is ‘constituted’ by the mind], I am a 100% sure of that. They are basically moving from Leibniz to Fichte, but then they still have some two hundred years to go in order to catch up with us! An American colleague recently said to me that it might very well be the case that Slavoj Žižek is the greatest living philosopher of our time, but that they are just not there yet. So in that sense, I think we still have to wait some more for a full blown mature idealist alternative to New Realism.”
In the meantime, however, Gabriel keeps writing books about the wider ramifications of his ideas on non-belonging, existence and realism. Already this spring we can expect two new books from his hand. One of them – Fiktionen – being a 600 page tome about the myriad ways human beings shape and interpret themselves by means of ‘fictions’, which are, in spite of their imaginary character, all the more important for our self-understanding and very real in their consequences. With the end of the lunchbreak in sight, we have no time to dive into these interesting matters, so instead we turn to the elephant in the room, undoubtedly triggered by our very own performance pressure, not knowing whether to be inspired or discouraged, and ask: “How do you manage to be that productive?”
“I remember very well when I was still writing my dissertation: one and a half pages of writing and fifty pages of difficult reading were already a very good day. Now it is more like thirty pages of writing and two hundred pages of difficult reading.”
“Sometimes, I just do not know how I do it. It is not something I usually think about, because if I would start thinking about it, it would consume the amount of time I need in order to keep the business going. Sometimes I do wonder myself how it is even mathematically possible. My wife is convinced it has something to do with my neurological makeup, which might be true. It also has to do with the working conditions of course. For example: when I need the morning to write the next twenty pages of my next book, and all the perfect conditions are set, I get up at 8:30, walk straight to the coffee machine, after which I get immediately to my computer, without any interruptions, so that I can start writing in less than seven minutes after getting out of bed with the strongest possible coffee. Usually the twenty pages are there at 10:30 at the latest. That is just the way I produce. Now, of course this is something you learn on the way. Like any other kind of human activity, it needs training, there is an element of pure exercise, constant brutal self-disciplining. You do not run a marathon right away, and the same goes for theory constructing, writing, reading, etc. It needs practice. I remember very well when I was still writing my dissertation: one and a half pages of writing and fifty pages of difficult reading were already a very good day. Now it is more like thirty pages of writing and two hundred pages of difficult reading.”
Seeing that Gabriel already finished his dissertation at the age of 25, this does not do great wonders for our self-confidence, and we quickly turn to our final question: “Is there still ambition left when you reach the peak of your academic career before the age of forty?” For the first time in our conversation, Gabriel seems to need some time to think.
“However, it could very well turn out that my next step is radically different. I have some secret plans… Big institution building you know.”
“Well, that is difficult. For now I will just keep playing my tune, but there comes a certain point where I have to ask myself if it makes sense to continue playing like this when people cannot keep track anymore. Reading, understanding and criticizing everything I am publishing this year will already take quite some time, not to mention everything I am planning to write in the near future. At some point, people will probably tune out, stop listening, or will only pay attention to different parts without an overview of the whole. I do not think that is very desirable for a philosopher. Now, another option would of course be to just let go and play the jazz, and although that would certainly be the mentally healthier option, it remains to be seen if that is really possible for me.” At this moment, Gabriel suddenly strikes a more serious tone. “However, it could very well turn out that my next step is radically different. I have some secret plans… Big institution building you know.” He chuckles and continues with an ironic smile again. “Along the lines of a Marxist ambition to model society anew, resulting in a global dictatorship which is not my responsibility because I never ‘intended’ it that way…” He adds jokingly. “No, but seriously, there is a series of invitations I get from some heavy duty people, heads of state for example, that want to meet me. And that really might turn into something, we will see.”
At this crucial moment, the clock strikes twelve, our lunchbreak is over, and we need to head back to the conference. While we turn off the recording device and walk downstairs, Gabriel casually drops some of the names of these ‘heavy duty people’. This leaves us rather speechless, wondering whether we actually talked to a professor in philosophy or some high ranking diplomat, using the safe walls of academia as a neutral cover up. Apparently, the days of Aristotle teaching Alexander the Great are not over yet.