One of the youngest philosophy professors in Germany, Markus Gabriel teaches in 16 languages, dreads metaphysics and thinks that the philosophy of mind needs to tighten up, and understand the problem with focusing on the English-specific term 'mind' (in German, 'geist' has no connection to the brain). Author of ‘I Am Not A Brain’ and ‘Why The World Does Not Exist’, in the interview below, Gabriel discusses the link between Brexit, breakfast and the analytic/continental split, and how the language we speak shapes and limits our answer to what he considers philosophy's key question – what it means to be human.
You mentioned in an interview that you find the distinction between analytic and continental philosophy ridiculous. Could you elaborate on that?
Being from the so-called continent I was never able to understand what continental philosophy is. It always looked to me, when travelling to the US or the UK, like continental breakfast – something that you shouldn’t try, or a weird confusion of all sorts of things. It didn’t look like it was in good shape.
The very classification is of course problematic – it includes the kind of philosophy practised in Germany and France, maybe including parts of Italy. And then some of this philosophy got translated into English and this now counts as continental philosophy.
Analytic philosophy prides itself on being scientific.You’d hear things like, continentals give you names, we give you arguments. But if you look at so-called continental philosophers, say Hegel or Spinoza, or Deleuze, they only give you arguments. So the distinction cannot be between those who love arguments and those who do something else, like writing poetry or making up stories. You’ll never be able to classify people according to these categories.
So given that it’s not a helpful distinction, why stick to it? On the other hand, who ever said what analytic philosophy is? If anyone should be considered an analytic philosopher, that’s Timothy Williamson and he, in The Philosophy of Philosophy, rejects the label saying there’s no specific meaning to the term.
"‘Continental philosophy’ is in as good conceptual shape as the word ‘European Union’ when used by Boris Johnson."
Would you say that analytic philosophy is an identity that North Atlantic philosophy academics have taken to distinguish themselves from what other Western philosophers do?
Yes. That’s exactly what it is. ‘Continental philosophy’ is in as good conceptual shape as the word ‘European Union’ when used by Boris Johnson. There is a European Union, that’s true, but there’s a use of the term by Boris Johnson which distorts the phenomenon.
The term ‘continental philosophy’ is just that – a terrible misunderstanding. It is a British invention used to distinguish a certain class of Oxbridge professors from some nonsensical people somewhere in Paris. The term itself is flawed.
If you’re trying to save the distinction, it’s like saying “‘Negro’ is not such a bad term. I mean, there are black people after all, why not stick to ‘negro’?” The historical origin of that distinction is arrogant, and usually many people on the continent are just nice about it. I’m coming out of the closet now when I say – this is how we perceive it.
I was raised philosophically in Heidelberg. If any place was continental, even if Chris Bright came as a visiting professor, I was raised in such a place. And then you go to Britain and people have all these fantasies about how you think, what your preferences are, so you’re immediately subject to prejudices.
"The historical origin of the analytic/continental distinction is arrogant."
You’re known as the philosopher who teaches in 16 languages. How does speaking other languages inform your ideas?
I’ve had this experience that certain things seem more plausible to me when I teach or discuss in one language than in another one. The way I make a point in English is different to the way I will make it in Portuguese. This leads me to the conclusion that there is no language-free position from which you can ask a philosophical question. No language transcends philosophical questions.
I’m a realist so I’m not saying we’re constructing philosophical questions, let alone reality. However, we should be aware of the fact that there are certain things that you can only think in English and other things that you can only think in German. There are ways of translating between the two, they are not radically isolated. But we often ignore this fact.
"Humanity is only partially available to us."
So the idea of there really being different traditions is largely ignored despite the fact that people pay lip service to this idea by having ancient Greek or French philosophy professors. That is not sufficient to understanding the degree to which a language or a tradition plays a role in the formation of a thought.
So would you say that by only speaking one or a limited number of languages, we can only give parts of the answer to what you consider the ultimate philosophical question - what it means to be human?
Yes. Because many ways of being human are completely isolated from our current access, both past, future and present. What do I know about the life of a Peruvian vineyard owner, and how she sees herself, and what it means for her to be human? Humanity is only partially available to us. That is part of the current crisis because those who have the assumption that they know what humanity is and what humans want are struck by the fact that not everyone behaves accordingly and this triggers human fantasies about human otherness, for instance, that Arabs grew up with a different culture, that they are violent misogynists, etc.
Can a dialogue with other people who speak different languages help us find out more about what it means to be human?
Absolutely. The common ground is given by the following simple insight: higher order anthropology. We’re all the same, there is a universal humanity but the universal humanity is just the insight that other humans realise universal humanity in a different way. But the realisation condition is the same for all of us. That’s why I am not a relativist. But the general form of being human is realised in different ways.