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Philosophical Practice - A Question of Bildung?

by Gerd B. Achenbach

Ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues!

There are two things I would like to start with: First of all, I want to thank you for your friendly invitation to hold this opening evening lecture here in Copenhagen. Secondly, I want to congratulate the organisers for their wise choice of the conference topic of reflecting the relation of philosophical practice to `Bildung´, because not much else seems to be appropriate in order to help the philosophical practice, still young and searching itself, finding its due and possibly binding profile. It would fit this endeavour if this seventh international conference had a lasting impact on the history of philosophical practice, which I hope it will have. But one thing is possible already now, and I will therefore do it: To congratulate the organisers, our hosts, to their exemplary commitment and to thank them for all the efforts they have made. Hence, congratulations and many thanks!

And now it would seem appropriate – according to custom – to directly address the topic and therefore approach the question which gave this conference its title:

But I am interrupted by something which crosses my mind, and this impels me first of all to offer a philosophical greeting to the place which hosts us. Wouldn't it have also been reasonable to suggest as a conference topic “Philosophical Practice – a question to Søren Kierkegaard“? Definitely yes. Even the title "The Philosophical Practice tracing the paths of Søren Kierkegaard" could have been justified, indeed without a question mark! For this Dane really has the vocation to become one of the main sources of our practical philosophy, if he hasn`t achieved this already. I add: For me, he is indeed one of the most important suppliers of stimulation and ideas.

Who else could have presented the exemplary role-model development of a philosophical counselling on the highest level in form of poetry, with his brilliant `Either-Or´? The dialectical refinement with which the man of high principals, husband and family father leads into contradictions he who existentially lives in the presence, who is a genius of seduction, who escapes responsibility and thereby helps him to gain insights which otherwise would remain inaccessible to those who consider themselves experts in the art of living. This is almost a masterpiece of philosophical practice!

However, in our conference programme you asked for the relation between philosophical practice and `Bildung´ and not between Søren Kierkegaard`s philosophy and philosophical practice. And your will be done. On the other hand: Shouldn`t the one be partly linked to the other? Shouldn`t the question in how far and in which way philosophical practice is a matter of `Bildung´, be answered with regard to Kierkegaard?

Of course I know that this Dane's philosophy is usually not associated with `Bildung´. But why actually not? Aren`t the charmingly light-heartedly written works of his youth an example of wisely arranged `Bildung´ with a practical intention? What does this philosopher undertake so that his contemporary is awakened to himself? An interpretation of Antigone, thoughts about the tragic, reflections about Goethe`s “Elective Affinities”, an extensive amplification of Don Giovanni, an en passant theory of the opera, an ironical presentation of the so-called art of living and the cunning mocking of the omnipresent entertainment industry and economy of distraction – in his works put under the category of `buying and selling´. These and others, not to forget his unequalled masterpiece `Diary of a Seducer´, the presentation of a seemingly hopeless devilish awareness, the caricature of happiness which in fact is desperation, the claim of power which actually is an escape, the figure of the victorious conqueror whose hands actually remain empty – and so on and so on.

You see: The philosopher who is able to draw from such registers and who understands to animate his thoughts with such a variety of images and traditions – this philosopher we might call one who is gebildet. The narrow study, the mere expert knowledge of the scholar or of those bookworms sitting around in libraries don`t rule here – rather, broadness and diversity of the world open up as well as the depth of history. To be more precise: We may call such a richness of a philosopher `Bildung´ in a first, common and therefore noteworthy sense of the term: The proof of `Bildung´ here is the extensive knowledge of traditions, the acquired capacity to know about literature, music, arts and theatre beyond all borders of specialisation. And `to know about´ means here: To move in it as if it were your second home.

Of course I know that `Bildung´ in this sense is quite often looked down upon. The prejudice against the educated bourgeois shows up easily. But why actually `educated bourgeois´? Is someone with `Bildung´ in this first sense not at the same time or rather still an intellectual in the best sense? In Germany, Hans-Magnus Enzensberger might represent that, here in Denmark, an example might be Morris Cohen who named himself Georg Brandes, the Dane and citizen of Copenhagen and the prototype of a modern, European intellectual, a man with masterly `Bildung´ and broadest horizons, who made Nietzsche promise to read Kierkegaard – although too late, because Nietzsche collapsed shortly after that...

Well, I would like to argue in favour of this first sense of `Bildung´ and also show in how far it is of concern in philosophical practice.

Of he who is `gebildet´, it should first of all be said that he lives in more than one world and, in particular, that he is not a slave of his contemporary world. That is the point in his favour. A saying of Nietzsche might serve him as a motto: “We philosophers want to be left in peace especially by one thing: above all `today´” (Genealogie der Moral, Schlechta II, 851). And how does he who has `Bildung´ achieve his peace from the tyranny of the `today´? By also feeling at home in other times and with the masters of former epochs having become his contemporaries. But there is just one way leading to this advantage: `Bildung´ - namely in the first and quite common sense of the term.

And now to the question of our conference: In how far is philosophical practice also a concern of such a `Bildung´? Why are the wide horizons and the acquired familiarity with the manifold epochs of the mind a precondition for the philosophical practitioner? Why do we demand of him that he has left behind and overcome the narrow-mindedness of the nothing-but-modern human?

Answer: Because those people will visit him who – maybe without knowing – suffer from the imperatives of the `today´! Because in his practice, he will encounter people who can rightly be labelled as `cripples of the presence´, people who have fallen victim to contemporary thinking and sensitivity. Or, to use the dramatic image which Kierkegaard found for it: People will visit him who feel obliged to do their military service for the `demands of time´ but who want to refuse this drudgery, maybe with the vague idea they should rather serve themselves instead of submitting to the `demands of time´.

[Details can be found in Kierkegaards `literary announcement´. I quote: “Luckily, I myself never had anything to do with the demands of time as someone being obliged to military service. Concerning the demands of time, the same happened to me as with military duties: I immediately got my farewell, and both times this was completely according to my wishes. And starting to say farewell to something has the advantage of not being drawn too deeply into it” (6f)].

Indeed my impression is that nowadays for the majority of people there is no other authority than this `today´ which in a comparable way legitimates demands! There are also some validities, as far as I will come back to them, which draw their apparent self-evidence from circulating `in these times´. Modernity as such could therefore be well described as tyranny and despotism of the presence, as dictatorship of the day and as merciless power of fashion which encompasses everything, and that also means thoughts, judgements, wishes, esteems, hopes and fears.

But as with many dictatorships, it also holds true in this case: Some appreciate its care whereas others suffer from it. Most ride the wave, some few drown in it. I tell you from my experience: It is those few which consult us in our philosophical practice. And what would they expect if they hadn`t had the chance to meet somebody with `Bildung´, somebody who, like Kierkegaard, bid his farewell to the military service of the `demands of time´? They would expect somebody contemporary, which means a representative of precisely that species which they have tried to escape from!

A question for those knowing Kierkegaard: Is it possible to say that Kierkegaard in this sense would be a representative of `Bildung´, as few of his fellow philosophers from Plato to Habermas were? Who – except maybe Nietzsche – would more than he have been a dissident of the presence and a critic of modernity? In that, he is of course the natural companion of all those who suffer from the absolutism of the `today´. By the way, for me it is a sign of Kierkegaard`s `Bildung´ that Socrates was closer to him than many of his stubborn and narrow-minded contemporaries. And with whom did he talk correspondingly? With Hegel! And he was well advised in doing so! For who else could have been a more cultivated, encompassing opponent for dialogues? Should the objection be valid that Hegel had since long died? Of course not! What a ridiculous objection! For Kierkegaard, he was still alive, and he was as alive and present as nobody else! Precisely this is the kind of relation I will soon take as constitutive for any kind of `Bildung´. More to that later.

Before that, rather as an interlude, as a hypothesis and side remark: I recognise Kierkegaard`s `Bildung´ in his almost instinctive detesting of the press: “Woe, woe the daily press! If Christ were born today: as sure as I am alive, he would not aim at the high priests but rather at the journalists” (Unwissl. Nachschrift I, Jena 1910, S. 241) This exclamation stands side by side with Nietzsche`s invective: „One more century of newspapers – and all words will stink“ (X, 73). Both, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, still had that fine ear which heard `Zeit´ out of `Zeitung´, 'time' out of 'The Times' and `le jour´ out of `journalism´... As opposed to that, `Bildung´ has always aimed beyond day and hour, it was untouched by year and day, and it never just swam with the tide but breathed the spirit of centuries, the epochs of time if not of the ages of the world.

Indirectly, coming to a second sense of `Bildung´, I said that it has always been constitutive for `Bildung´ that its knowledge is not worn-out or distant but rather present and alive, because `Bildung´ not only salutarily creates a distance to that which is all too close, at the same time it is the magic of recalling presence: That what is gone is not gone at all.

If we linger here a few moments, we will see more clearly in how far among all the figures of philosophy none is as much a matter of `Bildung´ as philosophical practice is! Permission is just needed to explain this a little further...

Great philosophy – I quote the names nowadays regarded as such: Hegel, Schilling, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche – great philosophy has always been presented as criticism of `Bildung´. Therefore those which I have mentioned criticised `Bildung´ so that nobody would confuse that what is philosophically meant with that what is being looked for!

And I myself will now as a second step introduce that kind of `Bildung´ which results from such criticism of `Bildung´ and honour its significance for philosophical practice.

An exemplary radical criticism of `Bildung´ has been presented by Hegel in his “Phenomenology of Mind” in the chapter “The self-alienated Mind: `Bildung´”. What Hegel introduces there as the alienated as well as alienating mind of `Bildung´ is a “judging and speaking” which “overpowers everything” and whose “speech” is merely “witty” (386). As such, it would be a “vanity” which not only “knows how to judge and to chat about everything, but also knows how to wittily name the fixed nature of reality as well as the... definitions which are put forward by the judgement in its contradictions”.

May I quickly say what mess such a mind would make in the philosophical practice? It would be the power to dissolve every problem in the acid baths of his intellectual sharp-wittedness and to evaporate everything burdening – until finally nothing would be left but the haze of chattering.

Hegel saw rising such a power of `Bildung´, dissolving and atomising everything, in the thoughtless refinement of sophistry, and he found a literary example of it in Diderot`s “ Rameau`s Nephew” which no one less than Goethe had translated. The triumph of this intellectual Bildung finally culminates in cynicism, which has freed itself from everything, floating freely in the nowhere, superior to all lower sides of life where those who labour and are heavy laden eke out their miserable existence.

I think it doesn`t need many words to justify why the spirit of philosophical counselling has to be understood as the precise opposite if such a merry thoughtlessness.

Not only this shining figure of salon-intellectual `Bildung´ was criticised by Hegel but also the other one of a mere collecting and hoarding preservation of traditions, which is a task for the “book-keepers of the mind” who “like servants of a warehouse... only keep account of foreign property ... without acquiring wealth of their own”, who “are concerned with truths which had been truths – namely for others” (Theorie-Ausgabe Bd. XVI, S. 48f.). For them, philosophical truth became a storage of opinions and thought-things which they treat like stones or wooden blocks, although they are presented as precious stones in well-kept showcases. The preserving man of philosophical knowledge – to carry on Hegel`s image – hoards treasures which have since long been out of service as currency, so that he can`t buy anything with them...

However, I would advise being careful should we tend to fully adopt Hegel`s criticism of the one or of the other figure of `Bildung´. Because what is the objection he raises against both? That they are dull against the truth, the substantial, that they fail to realise the obliging and valid content of true validities and objective demands. To put his estimation of the history of philosophy briefly: `Bildung´ enters the stage as soon as the subject has forgotten the obliging truth. `Bildung´ is the veil thrown on intellectual nihilism. `Bildung´ is the decoration of the moribund who ties a ribbon around the cancer of his throat.

Again: I advise to be careful! In spite of all sympathy for Hegel`s philosophy: I mistrust he who – especially as philosophical practitioner – appears as always having been acquainted with the truth. Maybe in counselling nothing is more fateful for the practical philosopher than pretending to possess abilities which we don`t actually possess and of which we can`t say how to achieve them...

Here, it seems to me to be worth casting an eye on the criticism of `Bildung´ brought forward by Nietzsche. It appears as heavy as the criticism presented by Hegel. However, I suspect that the demand resulting from it can be met more easily by the practical philosopher...

What is unmasked? All mere knowledge which has not really been acquired and has not really become an inner concern. The modern educated man, it says in Nietzsche`s second “Untimely Meditation”, drags with him “an enormous amount of undigestable knowledge blocks, and these start rumbling in your stomach quite strongly on ocassion, as it is said in the fairy tale”. It is this rumbling which reveals `Bildung” (KSA I, 272f.). “It is a generation of eunuchs”, he continues, and then: “For the eunuch, one woman is like the other – just a woman”, and he himself is “neither man nor woman, just neuter”. This would be the “shallow man of `Bildung´”, “blown out to eternal... objectivity” (283f.).

The hightening and exaggeration of such men of `Bildung´ finally are the scholars which Zarathustra is mocking:

“Like those who walk down streets and just stare at people passing by: Thus they are waiting too and stare at ideas which others have thought of. If you grab them, they dust you like flour bags, and not voluntarily: but who would guess that their dust derives from the grain and from the yellow pleasures of summer fields?... They work and pound like millstones: just throw your seeds at them! They will know how to grind them and make white dust from it” (KSA 4, 161).

But I will refrain from quoting further. In the end, this lecture itself would be nothing but a pile of “glued sheets” as Zarathustra finds them everywhere in the “land of `Bildung´” (ibid., 153ff).

Thus I will stop in order to ask after all this: What has philosophical practice to do with such criticism of `Bildung´? My hypothesis is: It is precisely philosophical practice which like no other philosophical figure is concerned with such a criticism of `Bildung´.

As a first answer, another such “sheet”, simply because I love it and because a more drastical and pictorial information and explanation can hardly be found. The sheet is from Schopenhauer: “You don`t nurture others with undigested passings but only with the milk which is secreted from your own blood” (Schopenhauer, Parerga und Paralipomena II: 426).

Hence: The philosophical practitioner will necessarily fail in his practice with everything that is merely read through, rehearsed and repeated, even worse: He will make himself ridiculous. Nobody visiting us in need will gain from being served scraps of foreign tables, and nobody will visit us to merely hear us repeating what others have thought. Instead, our guest visits us in order to enter a dialogue with us. This dialogue, however, does not have its starting point and its ground in our lecturing or repeating what we know but rather in listening and understanding.

We now have presented the core of every philosophical criticism of `Bildung´: Whether that what we acquired philosophically has really become our own is shown not by repeating it and also not by having understood it, but rather and only by understanding with it! What we have gained philosophically and what then deserved the honorary title of philosophical `Bildung´ does not show itself in what we are able to tell our visitor, but rather in how we ourselves are able to comprehend what he has to tell us.

Philosophical `Bildung´ in this purified second sense is not a training of the mouth but rather a refinement of the ear. I don`t recognise somebody with such a philosophical `Bildung´ in what he says but rather in how he listens. And this I expect of him: That he, as one who has learned to listen to many philosophers – and thereby to a variety of different thinking, also different mentalities and characters –, has developed a fine ear for nuances, overtones and undertones, for peculiarities, atmospheres and moods. And that he doesn`t take thoughts as dry arguments in order to tackle them and turn them back and forth with his tools, but that he rather has developed a sense for shades and colours in which an idea might wrap, dress, disguise or even hide itself.

Is it now still necessary to point out that such demands presuppose a criticism of external `Bildung´, that the concern of philosophical practice is not a mere gathering of knowledge, that the philosophical practitioner doesn`t need anything to nurture his visitors with, but that the question rather is whether he himself is philosophically well-fed and strengthened?

And now I add: This is the question of `Bildung´ as it rises concerning philosophical practice, of `Bildung´ in a second and profound sense. It will pass its test by proving itself as capacity to listen meaningfully, just as in the second part of `Either-Or´ the man of high principals understands listening to and watching that unrestrained virtuoso of life until he reaches the point where he understands him better and more thoroughly than he who is understood would ever have been able to understand himself.

Dear colleagues, I had told you that the question of philosophical `Bildung´ as the concern of philosophical practice might possibly be related to some insights into the philosophy of Kierkegaard. And now we really do have the chance, which I welcome. I will take this opportunity to empathically point at the works of this Dane which develops to a large extent a theory of practically applicable philosophy. He has published it under the title “The Point of View of My Work”.

Among others, he demonstrates in it how `Bildung´ proves itself in this second sense as the art of listening. He calls this cultivated listener the other teacher, but there are good reasons to recognise this other teacher as a philosophical practitioner. What is the crucial difference which separates us as philosophical practitioners from “normal” teachers? Well, the philosophical practitioner or this other teacher is, according to Kierkegaard, not confronted with somebody “ignorant” whom he should “teach knowledge”, there isn`t an “empty glass to be filled”, neither is there a “white sheet to be written on”. Rather, the other is entangled in his own thoughts, and first of all these thoughts should be doubted before others are able gain entry. Kierkegaard continues describing this other teacher, the philosophical practitioner of today:

“You neither become a teacher by saying: that`s the way it is, nor by teaching somebody a lesson; instead, you truly become a teacher by being able and willing to learn. The teaching for you as a teacher starts with learning from the pupil, with understanding what he has understood and how he has understood it (if you yourself haven`t understood it before), and if you have already understood it, you have to let yourself be tested to give him the impression that you truly know your part... This is the introduction, and then the teaching in a different sense may begin” (21).

Much is gained for the philosophical practice if we understand such an attitude as acquired `Bildung´ and if we realise that it is expected from the philosophical practitioner. By supporting this with two more borrowed passages from Kierkegaard`s “The Point of View of My Work”, I will at the same time prepare another and further notion of the `Bildung´ which is a must for philosophical practice. But first of all, the next two quotes, which easily connect to what has been said so far.

“If you want to bring somebody to a certain place, you first of all have to know how to find where he is and to start there”. He explains this recommendation as follows:

“This is the secret in all arts of helping. Whoever doesn`t understand this and still thinks he would be able to help somebody else is himself trapped in an illusion. If I truly want to help somebody, I have to understand more than he does, but in particular I have to understand that what he understands. Where not, that and what I do understand more than him, is of no help for him. If I still insist on that, I do it out of vanity and pride; and basically I don`t really want to help him but rather be admired by him. [Instead,] all true helping begins with humiliation. The helper first of all has to humbly place himself under whom he wants to help, and thereby understand that helping does not mean ruling but serving; that helping asks for patience and not for power; that the helper for the time has to accept that he is not right and does not understand what the other understands”.

In utmost shortness we find the crucial point in a note of Goethe in his “Elective Affinities”. I quote: “To express oneself is natural, to accept what is expressed as it is, is `Bildung´” (Wahlverwandtschaften, 129)

By quoting this passage, the third aspect of Bildung which I announced before, is already opened up. `Bildung´ in this third sense might be essential and, as far as philosophical practice is concerned, in any case a must for the philosophical practice. It is an attitude which really is acquired, not just the content of possible knowledge but rather the constitution of the person. To put it shortly: philosophical practice is in so far a question of `Bildung´ concerning in the first place not only what the philosophical practitioner knows or thinks but rather who he is. More precisely: who he has become.
And the result of this becoming is the result of his `Bildung´.

Here, an insertion seems to be necessary. Already the phrasing of the conference title indicates: `Bildung´ is, at least as a term and as a concept, a rather originally German concern. What else has the German given to other languages? The famous `kindergarden´- thanks to Fröbel! And as I have heard 'rucksack'. Well, but also and especially the central concept of this conference: `Bildung´. I do not wish to explain at present how this term found its way into the German language – namely through Meister Eckehart, who developed his theory of stages. His sixth stage, the highest which humans could possibly reach, is one where man gets rid of his own `Bildung´ in order to receive the `Bildung´ coming from God`s image. However, these are theologically highly ambitious teachings which resist being presented briefly.

Instead, I want to hint at that man who in Germany possibly represented the most ambitious concept of Bildung, and I add: this highly ambitious concept of `Bildung´ is to be inherited by the philosophical practice, as long as its concerns shall become serious and it wishes to deserve the title of being a philosophical practice. This sense of `Bildung´, which I here have counted as the third one, is that of Wilhelm von Humboldt, the important founder of the Berlin university which still bears his name.

What is `Bildung´ for Humboldt? The fulfilment of `the quest of our existence´, and that is: to acquire `the notion of mankind in our own person´, a content as wide as possible” (Theorie der Bildung des Menschen, in : Bildung des Menschen in Schule und Universität, Heidelberg 1964, S. 6). The final purpose however was that “`Bildung´, wisdom and virtue” would create such a high “inner value” of a human being “that the notion of mankind, if it had to be derived from him as a single example, would gain a great and honourable meaning” (7).

I use to clarify with an imagined and strange, yet helpful story what Humboldt has put up as aim and measure of `Bildung´. Imagine that against all odds a spaceship landed on our Earth which had been sent by the superior inhabitants of a distant planet for discovery, and that now these strangers would take you on board as the only example of mankind so that back on the home planet of these strangers it could be demonstrated what a human being actually is. And now, please ask yourself whether you might be convinced with a clear conscience that those strangers really made a good choice in deciding to pick you, that you represent mankind at its best and would deserve honour with you as its representative. If you ask the question in this way, you at the same time ask in Humboldt`s sense for the value of your `Bildung´.

And then you will realise that the answer to this question turns out to be a” highly complex” one, as it is said today. Every one-sidedness would here be without rights – hard to imagine that mankind would see itself as well represented by a molecular biologist or by a circus artist, and I would also refuse my consent if an election committee came across the odd and shameless idea to offer the extra-terrestrians a dressman or a weekly beauty of the `Playboy´ magazine as a representative. As such a representative, I would rather prefer a human being with a “beautiful soul”, to quote Socrates – and if it were the gnome and fox from Athens` agora himself in his impressive ugliness.

Above all, the chosen one would have to possess all the good qualities we use to call virtues. He would have to be considerate and wise, intelligent in his choice of means for reasonable purposes, lenient in his esteem of other human beings, loving in dealing with his relatives, open for everything which deserves our interest, calm when facing an unestimable fate. He would truly keep his words and be trustful wherever there is no reason for mistrust. His opinions would be well-considered, he would have gathered experiences in manifold ways, his judgements, silently matured, would be just, because in everything he would look for the best outcome possible and not only his own advantage. He would know what he wanted, and before that, he knew what he was capable of, because he refrains from overestimating himself – this would be his way of exercising humbleness…

His character would be clear and obvious, so that you could rely on him. His idols would only be the best, and he would refuse to excuse himself by referring to the worst and to find shelter in mediocrity. What has to be demanded he would first of all demand of himself rather than of others. His speech would be upright, his attitude would be noble, his heart gracious, his thinking orderly. His hopes would be a promise, his fears justifed, and in the face of life`s brevity, he would manage to get along with the help of humour.

Thus, he would be of a merry spirit and, taken altogether, he would be satisfied with himself and with his fate, which in sunny hours would give him reason to be grateful – even when he does not really know to whom he should be grateful.

Dear colleagues – this small collection and enumeration should be enough to clarify what was important for me. Of course, the portrayal which I tried to make should have been more precise and extended ad ultimo. But this is probably not really necessary. Surely it has become clear by now what `Bildung´ shall mean in the third sense, as that acquired attitude which does well correspond to that rightly famous idea of human `Bildung´ which Humboldt had thought of. And so it is sufficient to add our conference topic: Is philosophical practice a question of `Bildung´ in this sense? Is its justification and success for the philosophical practitioner tied to not shying away from measuring himself with this most ambitious measure? My answer: yes.

Finally, in the three senses of `Bildung´ which I have aimed at presenting, philosophical practice has its other measure, its goal, its “where-to” in the dialogues with its guests and visitors. In other terms: Neither healthiness nor cleverness, neither the success brought home from business nor its popularity among the people is what philosophical practice aims at, rather, it aims at supporting the `Bildung´ of those who visit the philosophical practice. Its finest success would be finally sending away those who have become life master. Because this is a new term for `Bildung´: Life mastery or “Lebenskönnerschaft”. But this is what I told you already in Oslo. And who likes to repeat himself?

This is why I bid you farewell with a hearty thanks for your patience and for the attention you have paid to me. I wish this conference to become a success, and I wish you, its participants, a lasting experience of `Bildung´.

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