Last winter I found an email in my mailbox with an invitation, out of the blue, to give two lectures in Southern Germany. Near the Bodensee, in a village called Weingarten, which translates as Vineyard. The organisor of a yearly philosophical summer week, Dr. Hälbig, had found my German article of a few years ago on Emanuel Swedenborg. If I wanted to come and speak on him and on Spinoza. The theme of the week was the other side of the Enlightenment. Of course I said yes, especially after a friendly phonecall with Herr Hälbig. Not all of my readers know that I feel verbally more at home in German than in English, as I spent quite some time in with relatives and friends in the country. Still it was a challenge to see if I could also speak as freely for a group of interested people who would not all be versed in philosophy. This past week I was there. Close to the Swiss border, in this very hot summer, in a continental climate.
I had the opportunity to stay there three days, and also hear several German colleagues whom I didn’t know before. Especially two of them, full professors, surprised me the by their truly German style of doing philosophy – which reminded me of my student days at Leiden university, where some of my teachers also knew that style. One of them spoke on Leibniz’s metaphysics, and doing so took the audience on a dizzying ride through metaphysical arguments from the Middle Ages to Immanuel Kant, discussing the problem of freedom. When I also saw an essay he recently published on freedom I was stunned by its exclusively German list of references. Even to discuss positive and negative freedom he didn’t need Isaiah Berlin, but other, German authors. In English language philosophy the opposite is of course also the case, where many great continental thinkers who were mentioned here would not even be known by name.
The other was a Kierkegaard specialist, who took us through the dark moors of protestant existentialist experience of sin, aptly summarized by an elderly lady who attended as ‘Sündensumpf’. While listening my mind kept wandering back to my student days, where for the last time I had been immersed so deeply in North-European and German ways of seeing life through philosophy. And to the very specifically German style of doing philosophy, from which I obviously had removed myself so far that for my bio I had just indicated that I taught philosophy at my university, while all the other speakers had listed, in the right order, their Studies, their PhD, their Habilitation (second research exam after the PhD, neccesary to become a full professor). The exams and titles and positions which I had forgotten to mention, perhaps also because somewhere along the way I must have lost interest in the game of academic hierarchy.
What struck me also, upon reflecting, is that there is no such thing as continental philosophy. French philosophy is just as different from German philosophy as Anglo-saxon philosophy is. And I thought further about the debate on the existence of a specifically African philosophy on which I had been reading over the past years. In this debate, the participants often struggle with the claim of European philosophers that their ideas are universal, whereas those of philosophers of other continents were supposed to be local and bound to their specific cultures. Here, in Weingarten, among the vineyards, that suddenly appeared as a non-issue. For everything here was so German, including the appropriation of Kant, who was mentioned in every second sentence, so to speak, and always with the full realization of the very specific historical and cultural context of his philosophy. No, things were even more localized, for, as Germans do – always discussing the differences between their constituent peoples at dinner or at the bar (in this case the closest two – the Frankish and the Swabians), there was no escaping the grounded and situated nature of the philosophy being done. It kind of relieved me. After all we are all in the same boat: Anglo-saxons, French, Swabians, Tamils, Han-Chinese, and Igbos – we all come from our own fields with different animals, foods and fruits, and our own histories of power struggles over them, and the identities we developed while tending to them. And from these very local circumstances somehow in all cases thoughts emerge that may attract others from other fields and languages, making them interlocal, although never universal or global in asimple manner. In this case the fields grew grapes.
My lectures went well, years of teaching philosophy to non-philosophy students had done their work. The participants liked it that I discussed texts with them and took them along the very personal and existential questions about modernity I have had ever since my early teenage years. And I was relieved all the German idiom I had gathered was still there and helped me to get into a real dialogue with very nice, interested and interesting people, some professional philosophers, others from other professional backgrounds. It was a good experience, to visit my neighbors in their homeland, and sit and philosophize in the vineyard.