Peter Sloterdijk

German philosopher (born 1947)

Peter Sloterdijk (born June 26, 1947, in Karlsruhe) is a German philosopher, television host, cultural scientist and essayist. He is a professor of philosophy and media theory at the University of Art and Design Karlsruhe.

In our thinking there is no longer any spark of the uplifting flight of concepts or of the ecstasies of understanding. We are enlightened, we are apathetic. No one talks anymore of a love of wisdom. There is no longer any knowledge whose friend (philos) one could be. It does not occur to us to love the kind of knowledge we have; rather we ask ourselves how we might contrive to live with it without becoming ossified.


M. Eldred, trans. (Original work published 1983 as Kritik der zynischen Vernunft)
  • In our thinking there is no longer any spark of the uplifting flight of concepts or of the ecstasies of understanding. We are enlightened, we are apathetic. No one talks anymore of a love of wisdom. There is no longer any knowledge whose friend (philos) one could be. It does not occur to us to love the kind of knowledge we have; rather we ask ourselves how we might contrive to live with it without becoming ossified.
    • p. xxvi
  • “Knowledge is power.” This is the sentence that dug the grave of philosophy in the nineteenth century. … This sentence brings to an end the tradition of a knowledge that, as its name indicates, was an erotic theory—the love of truth and the truth through love (Liebeswahrheit). … Those who utter the sentence reveal the truth. However, with the utterance they want to achieve more than truth: They want to intervene in the game of power.
    • p. xxvii
  • Our lethargic modernity certainly knows how to “think historically,” but it has long doubted that it lives in a meaningful history.
    • p. xxviii
  • The violent, antirationalistic impulse in Western countries is reacting to an intellectual state of affairs in which all thinking has become strategy; this impulse shows a disgust for a certain form of self-preservation. It is a sensitive shivering from the cold breath of a reality where knowledge is power and power is knowledge.
    • p. xxix
  • Socialization through schooling, as it takes place here, and in Western societies, in general, is a priori stupefaction
    • p. xxix
  • Does not an ingenuous contact with Kantian thinking, with philosophical thinking in general, contain the risk of exposing a young consciousness to a violent and sudden aging? What of a youthful will to know is preserved in a philosophy that makes one dizzy with its bony spiraling turns of the screw?
    • p. xxxi
  • To be “reasonable” means to put oneself into a special, rarely happy relation to the sensuous. “Be reasonable” means, practically speaking, do not trust your impulses, do not listen to your body, learn control, starting with your own sensuousness. But intellect and sensuousness are inseparable. Torless’s outbreak of sweating after two pages of the Critique of Pure Reason contains as much truth as the whole of Kantianism. The understood mutual interaction of physis and logos is philosophy, not what is spoken.
    • p. xxxi
  • Our thinking is becoming much more morose than precise. … Capacity of thought does not keep pace with what is problematic. Hence the self-abdication of critique. … Because everything has become problematic, everything is also somehow a matter of indifference.
    • p. xxxii
  • Psychologically, present-day cynics can be understood as borderline melancholics, who can keep their symptoms of depression under control and can remain more or less able to work. … Their psychic (seelisch) apparatus has become elastic enough to incorporate as a survival factor a permanent doubt about their own activities. They know what they are doing, but they do it because, in the short run, the force of circumstances and the instinct for self-preservation are speaking the same language, and they are telling them that it has to be so.
    • p. 5
  • Zynismus ist das aufgeklärte falsche Bewußtsein, an dem Aufklärung zugleich erfolgreich und vergeblich gearbeitet hat. Es hat seine Aufklärungselektion gelernt, aber nicht vollzogen und wohl nicht vollziehen können. Gutsituiert und miserabel zugleich fühlt sich dieses Bewußtsein von keiner Ideologiekritik mehr betroffen; seine Falschheit ist bereits reflexiv gefedert.
    • Cynicism is enlightened false consciousness. It is that modernized, unhappy consciousness, on which enlightenment has labored both successfully and in vain. It has learned its lessons in enlightenment, but it has not, and probably was not able to, put them into practice. Well-off and miserable at the same time, this consciousness no longer feels affected by any critique of ideology; its falseness is already reflexively buffered.
    • pp. 5-6
  • The only loyalty to enlightenment consists in disloyalty. This can be partly understood from the position of its heirs, who look back on the “heroic” times and are necessarily more skeptical of the results. To be an heir always carries a certain “status cynicism” with it, as is well known from stories about the inheritance of family capital.
    • p. 6
  • Because there are no truths that can be taken possession of without a struggle, and because all knowledge must choose a place in the configuration of hegemonic and oppositional forces, the means of establishing knowledge seem to be almost more important than the knowledge itself. … The demand to universalize the rational draws it into the vortex of politics, pedagogy, and propaganda. With this, enlightenment consciously represses the harsh realism of older precepts of wisdom, for which there was no question that the masses are foolish and that reason is to be found only among the few. Modern elitism has to encode itself democratically.
    • p. 11
  • “Philosophical” ideology critique is truly the heir of a great satirical tradition, in which the motif of unmasking, exposing, baring has served for aeons now as a weapon. But modern ideology critique—according to our thesis has ominously cut itself off from the powerful traditions of laughter in satirical knowledge.
    • p. 16
  • Ideology critique, having become respectable, imitates surgical procedure: … The opponent is cut open in front of everyone, until the mechanism of his error is laid bare. … Ideology critique is now interested not in winning over the vivisected opponent but in focusing on the “corpse,” the critical extract of its ideas. … Those who previously did not want to engage in enlightenment will want to do so even less now that they have been dissected and exposed by the opponent.
    • pp. 16-17
  • … undermined by the need for seriousness ...
    • p. 17
  • The gesture of exposure characterizes the style of argumentation of ideology critique, from the critique of religion in the eighteenth century to the critique of fascism in the twentieth. Everywhere, one discovers extrarational mechanisms of opinion: interests, passions, fixations, illusions. That helps a bit to mitigate the scandalous contradiction between the postulated unity of truth and the factual plurality of opinions—since it cannot be eliminated. Under these assumptions, a true theory would be one that not only grounds its own theses best, but also knows how to defuse all significant and persistent counterpositions through ideology critique.
    • p. 18
  • The argumentum ad personam, is strongly disapproved of in the “academic community.” Respectable critique meets its opponent in its best form; critique honors itself when it overwhelms its rival in the full armor of its rationality.
    • p. 18
  • For as long as possible, the learned collegium has tried to defend its integrity against the close combat of ideologico-critical exposures. Do not unmask, lest you yourself be unmasked could be the unspoken rule. It is no accident that the great representatives of critique—the French moralists, the Encyclopedists, the socialists, and especially Heine, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud—remain outsiders to the scholarly domain. In all of them there is a satirical, polemical component that can scarcely be hidden under the mask of scholarly respectability. These signals of a holy nonseriousness, which remains one of the sure indexes of truth, can be employed as signposts to the critique of cynical reason.
    • p. 18
  • Ideology critique raises a claim that it shares with hermeneutics, namely, the claim to understand an “author” better than he understands himself. What at first sounds arrogant about this claim can be methodologically justified. Others often really do perceive things about me that escape my attention—and conversely. They possess the advantage of distance, which I can profit from only retrospectively through dialogic mirroring. This, of course, would presuppose a functioning dialogue, which is precisely what does not take place in the process of ideology critique.
    An ideology critique that does not clearly accept its identity as satire can, however, easily be transformed from an instrument in the search for truth into one of dogmatism. All too often, it interferes with the capacity for dialogue instead of opening up new paths for it.
    • p. 19
  • Enlightenment … asks, innocently and subversively, for proofs, sources, and evidence. At the beginning it solemnly avers that it would willingly believe everything, if only it could find someone to convince it. Here it becomes clear that the biblical texts, taken philologically, remain themselves their only witness. Their revelatory character is their own claim, and it can be believed or not; the church, which elevates this revelatory character to the status of a grand dogma, itself plays only the role of an interpreter. With his radical biblicism, Luther rejected the church’s claim to authority. This repudiation then repeats itself on the higher level through biblicism itself. For text remains text, and every assertion that it is divinely inspired can, in turn, be only a human, fallible assertion. With every attempt to grasp the absolute source, critique comes up against relative, historical sources that only ever assert the Absolute. The miracles spoken about in the Bible to legitimate God’s power are only reports of miracles for which there are no longer any means of verification. The revelatory claim is stuck in a philological circle.
    • p. 24
  • Enlightenment does nothing more than eavesdrop on likely wolves in their dressing rooms, where they put on and take off their sheep’s clothing.
    • p. 43
  • There probably has to be a worldview for practical men who must be strong enough to get their hands dirty in political practice without getting dirty themselves, and even if they do, who cares? And a second worldview for youths, simpletons, women, and sensitive souls, for whom “purity” is just the right thing. One could call it a division of labor among temperaments.
    • p. 44
  • Bourgeois morality tries to maintain an illusion of altruism, whereas in all other areas bourgeois thinking has long since assumed a theoretical as well as an economic egocentrism.
    • p. 45
  • Since the eighteenth century, enlighteners have concerned themselves—as defenders of “true morality,” whatever that may be—with the morality of those who rule. … The moralism in the bourgeois sense of decency put aristocratically refined immoralism into the position of the politically accused. … But bourgeois thinking all too naively assumes it is possible to subordinate political power to moral concepts. It does not anticipate that one day, when it has itself come to power, it will end up in the same ambivalence. It has not yet realized that it is only a small step from taking moral offense to respectable hypocrisy.
    • p. 46
  • From the start, the bourgeois-positivistic fraction of enlightenment was uncomfortable about the unpredictable, subversive dimensions of the new category, the unconscious. With it, the motif of critical self-reflection was introduced into civilization in a way that could not please those who held themselves to be the representatives of civilization. If every ego is underlaid by an unconscious, then that is the end of the self-satisfaction of a consciousness that thinks it knows itself, and thus knows how to value itself. The “unconscious” touched on the cultural narcissism of all social classes.
    • p. 50
  • Rousseau diagnosed a total degeneration, a complete fall of humanity from “Nature” in the society of the eighteenth century. All spontaneity had been denaturalized through convention, all naïveté had been replaced by finesse, all sincerity had been glossed over by facades of social intercourse, etc.
    • p. 53
  • The evidence introduced for political pessimism; the criminal, the lunatic, and the asocial individual, in a word, the second-rate citizen —these are not by nature as one finds them now but have been made so by society. It is said that they have never had a chance to be as they would be according to their nature, but were forced into the situation in which they find themselves through poverty, coercion, and ignorance. They are victims of society.
    This defense against political pessimism regarding human nature is at first convincing. It possesses the superiority of dialectical thinking over positivistic thinking. It transforms moral states and qualities into processes. Brutal people do not “exist,” only their brutalization; criminality does not “exist,” only criminalization; stupidity does not “exist,” only stupefaction; self-seeking does not “exist,” only training in egoism; there are no second-rate citizens, only victims of patronization. What political positivism takes to be nature is in reality falsified nature: the suppression of opportunity for human beings. Rousseau knew of two aids who could illustrate his point of view, two classes of human beings who lived before civilization and, consequently, before perversion: the noble savage and the child. Enlightenment literature develops two of its most intimate passions around these two figures: ethnology and pedagogy.
    • (describing Rousseau’s philosophy) p. 55
  • From this moment on, the child becomes a political object—to a certain extent, the living security deposit of enlightenment. The child is the “noble savage” in one’s own house. Through appropriate education care must be taken in the future that innocent children are not made into the same artificial social cripples the previous system produced. Children are already what the new bourgeois humans believe they want to become.
    • pp. 55-56
  • The question about “good origins” becomes the crux for enlightenment. It becomes more and more clear that this idea of origin has not a temporal but a Utopian reference. The Good is still nowhere to be found, except in the wishful human spirit.
    • p. 56
  • When conservatives and reactionaries refer to “Nature” to justify their assertions about the inferiority of woman, the lesser capacities of dark races, the innate intelligence of children from the upper social strata, and the sickness of homosexuality, they have usurped naturalism. It remains the task of critique to refute this. Ultimately critique must at least be able to show that what “Nature” gives us has to be recognized as neutral and nontendentious so that every value judgment and every tendency can without doubt be understood as a cultural phenomenon. Even if Rousseau’s “good Nature” has been discredited, he has at least taught us not to accept “bad Nature” as an excuse for social oppression.
    • p. 57
  • Psychology is familiar with the “eternal victim,” who exploits this position for disguised aggressions. Also belonging to this category, in a broader sense, are those permanent losers as well as medical and political hypochondriacs who lament that conditions are so terrible that it is a great sacrifice on their part not to kill themselves or emigrate. On the German Left, not least of all under the influence of the sociologized schema of the victim, a certain type of renegade has emerged who feels that it is a dirty trick to have to live in this land without summer and without oppositional forces. Nobody can say that such a viewpoint does not know what it is talking about. Its mistake is that it remains blind to itself. For the accusation becomes bound to misery and magnifies it under the subterfuge of unsuspecting critical observations. With the obstinacy of a Sophist, in aggressive self-reification, many a “critical” consciousness refuses to become healthier than the sick whole.
    • p. 58
  • Ideologically, the reference to “Nature” is always significant because it produces an artificial naïveté and ends up as voluntary naïveté. It covers up the human contribution and avers that things are by nature, and from their origins, in that “order” in which our representations, which are always influenced by “interests,” depict them. The rudiments for ideologies of order are hidden in all naturalisms.
    • p. 59
  • Every naturalism begins as involuntary naïveté. Initially, we cannot help thinking that the “order of things” is an objective order. For the first glance falls on the things and not on the “eyeglasses.” In the work of enlightenment, this first innocence becomes irretrievably lost. Enlightenment leads to the loss of naïveté and it furthers the collapse of objectivism through a gain in self-experience. It effects an irreversible awakening and, expressed pictorially, executes the turn to the eyeglasses, i.e., to one’s own rational apparatus. Once this consciousness of the eyeglasses has been awakened in a culture, the old naïveté loses its charm, becomes defensive, and is transformed into narrow-mindedness, which is intent on remaining as it is. The mythology of the Greeks is still enchanting; that of fascism is only stale and shameless. In the first myth, a step toward an interpretation of the world was taken; in simulated naïveté, an artful stupefaction (Verdummung) is at work—the predominant method of self-integration in advanced social orders.
    • p. 59
  • The establishment of inwardness and the creation of the illusion of privacy are the most subversive themes of enlightenment. It is still not really clear today who the social conveyor of this impulse of enlightenment may be. One of the ambivalences of enlightenment is that although intelligence can be explained sociologically, educationally, and politically, “wisdom,” self-reflection cannot. The subject of a radical ego enlightenment cannot be socially identified with certainty—even though the procedures of this enlightenment are anchored in reality.
    In this point, the majority of societies seem to strive for a conscious nonenlightenment.
    • p. 60
  • Did not Nietzsche too warn of that “life-destroying enlightenment” that touches on our life-supporting self-delusions? Can we afford to shake up the “basic fictions” of privacy, personality, and identity? Be that as it may, in this question both old and new conservatives have come to the hard decision to take the “stance” of defending, against all the demands of reflection, their “unavoidable lies for living,” without which self-preservation would not be possible. That they are aided in this by the general fear of self-experience, which competes with curiosity about self-experience, does not have to be expressly emphasized. Thus the theater of respectable, closed egos goes on everywhere, even where the means have long been available to secure better knowledge. Crosswise to all political fronts, it is the “ego” in society that offers the most resolute resistance against the decisive enlightenment. Scarcely anyone will put up with radical self-reflection on this point, not even many of those who regard themselves as enlighteners.
    • p. 60
  • The dance around the golden calf of identity is the last and greatest orgy of counterenlightenment. Identity is the magic word of a partially hidden, partially open conservatism that has inscribed personal identity, occupational identity, national identity, political identity, female identity, male identity, class identity, party identity, etc., on its banner.
    • pp. 60-61
  • The courtly person (cortegiano, gentilhomme, gentleman, Hofmann) has gone through a training in self-esteem that expresses itself in many ways: in aristocratically pretentious opinions, in polished or majestic manners, in gallant or heroic patterns of feeling as well as in a selective, aesthetic sensitivity for that which is said to be courtly or pretty. The noble, far removed from any self-doubt, should achieve all this with a complete matter-of-factness. Any uncertainty, any doubt in these things signifies a slackening in the nobility’s cultural “identity.” This class narcissism, which has petrified into a form of life, tolerates no irony, no exception, no slips, because such disturbances would give rise to unwelcome reflections. The French nobles did not turn up their noses at Shakespeare’s “barbarism” without reason. In his plays one already “smells” the human ordinariness of those who want to stand before society as the best.
    With the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie, the place of the “best” is awarded anew. The bourgeois ego, in an unprecedented, creative storming to the heights of a new class consciousness won for itself an autonomous narcissism.
    • p. 62
  • The bourgeoisie is the first class that has learned to say I and that at the same time has the experience of labor. All older class narcissisms can base themselves “only” on struggle, military heroism, and the grandiosity of rulers. When the bourgeois says “I” the idea of the pride of labor, of productive accomplishment can also be heard for the first time.
    • p. 63
  • The one version of the bourgeois comprises the artisan, the trader, the official, the financier, and the entrepreneur, all of whom, in their own way, can claim to know what labor is. Juxtaposed to them from the beginning, stands a type of bourgeois who does research, writes poetry, composes and makes music, and philosophizes and who believes that these activities develop a world that is self-sufficient. It is obvious that these two fractions of the bourgeois ego get on only superficially and come together only in the hollow connection of property and cultivation. They create the century-long tension between the good and the evil bourgeois, the idealist and the exploiter, the visionary and the pragmatist, the ideally liberated bourgeois and the laboring bourgeois. This tension remains as inexhaustible as that between the world of work and “freedom” in general.
    • pp. 63-64
  • Because knowledge is power, every hegemonic power challenged by “another knowledge” must try to stay in the center of knowledge. However, not every power is the right center for every knowledge. Reflective knowledge cannot be separated from its subject.
    • p. 77
  • In the kynicism of Diogenes of Sinope, the laughter about philosophy itself became philosophical. … In the pantomimes and wordplays of the philosopher from the tub, the Gay Science was born, which saw the earnestness of the false life recur in the false earnestness of philosophy.
    • p. 535
  • Diogenes of Sinope … was also the first to recognize the danger embodied in Plato, that the school will subjugate life, that the artificial psychosis of "absolute knowledge" wants to destroy the vital connection between perception, movement, and understanding.
    • p. 535
  • Philosophical thinking peddles its wares today at a fair of self-sublations and falls head over heels in its eagerness to find favor with ironic, pragmatic, and strategic realisms. The risk of such realistic metamorphoses is obvious: It can easily end up by substituting the bad with something worse. It is a short step from the kynical "sublation" of philosophy to the cynical self-denial of what great philosophy had embodied in its best aspects.
    • p. 536
  • Philosophy … lost its prestige to the extent that it lost its evident advantage in cleverness to "normal life." In the transition from archaic teachings of wisdom to philosophy based on argument, it itself was engulfed in the twilight of alienation from life. It had to accept that the independent cleverness theories of pragmatics, economics, strategy, and politics proved themselves to be its better, until, with its logical niceties, it became infantile and academic, and stood there as the Utopian idiot with its reminiscences about great ideals. Today philosophy is surrounded on all sides by maliciously clever empiricisms and realistic disciplines that "know better."
    • p. 536
  • If the movements of reflection in classical philosophy could be depicted in the structure of Homer's Odysseus, in which a wandering hero returns home via a thousand false paths across the whole world, in order there to be recognized by his woman, that is, by his "soul," then the reflections of modern thinking in no way still find their way back "home." They either move on the spot in essenceless flurries, drained of experience, or they drift on, like the eternal Jew or the Flying Dutchman, without hope of arriving, through the perpetually alien. … For the modern subject, a "vagabond in existence," there is no longer any return home.
    • p. 538
  • Since modern thinking no longer entrusts itself with the translation of self-knowledge into worldly knowledge, and of world experience into self-experience, philosophy has had to withdraw from theories of "objective reason" into those of "subjective reason." The ground is thus taken from under the feet of the ancient holistic pathos, and philosophy sinks into the apparent truncatedness and groundlessness of the subjective.
    • p. 538
  • In the twilight of late enlightenment, the insight gains shape that our "praxis," which we always held to be the most legitimate child of reason, in fact, represents the central myth of modernity.
    • p. 539
  • Every active deed is etched in the matrix of passivity.
    • p. 540

The Grasping Hand (2010)

Full text online
  • In an earlier day, the rich lived at the expense of the poor, directly and unequivocally; in a modern economy, unproductive citizens increasingly live at the expense of productive ones—though in an equivocal way, since they are told, and believe, that they are disadvantaged and deserve more still. Today, in fact, a good half of the population of every modern nation is made up of people with little or no income, who are exempt from taxes and live, to a large extent, off the other half of the population, which pays taxes. If such a situation were to be radicalized, it could give rise to massive social conflict. The eminently plausible free-market thesis of exploitation by the unproductive would then have prevailed over the much less promising socialist thesis of the exploitation of labor by capital.
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