Foreign Policy Magazine

Pop Goes German Philosophy

With their TED Talks, TV shows, and runaway best-sellers, a new generation of celebrity philosophers has made German philosophy more popular than ever. But are they ruining it in the process?

IN MAY, A CELEBRITY CONTESTANT appeared on the German version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. In a sharply cut dark blue jacket and a black open-necked shirt, with designer stubble and flowing locks, philosopher Richard David Precht had no trouble answering question after question until the host asked: “Which of the following was a headline in a British newspaper in February? Was it A) Darwin Becomes Foreign Secretary, B) Dickens Takes Over the BBC, C) Shakespeare Trains Champions, or D) Tolkien Wins a BRIT Award?”

Precht, understandably, decided to quit while he was ahead rather than risk losing the 64,000 euros he’d already amassed. The correct answer was C (Craig Shakespeare is the manager of the football club Leicester City, which won the English Premier League title in 2016).

Though he raised a significant sum for charity, for some, Precht’s appearance on the show was just another signal that something has gone quite wrong with German philosophy. Other German philosophers have certainly been sniffy about Precht’s media-friendliness. Markus Gabriel calls Precht a “philosophy performer,” while Peter Sloterdijk calls Precht a “popularizer by profession.”

But Precht is unrepentant. As one of the most prominent—and sought after—figures in a new wave of German philosophy, he has argued that in order for the discipline to remain relevant, it must come down from the ivory tower and commune with the masses. As a student in Cologne in the early 1990s, Precht envisioned a world in which philosophers would be seen as fascinating people living exhilarating and uncompromising lives. His generation of idealized contemporaries would forge their own path, and their ideas would bear little similarity to the “ineffectual academic philosophy” of his professors, who were “boring middle-aged gentlemen in pedestrian brown or navy suits.”

There’s no doubt that Precht

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