I (do not) think (my own thoughts), therefore I am (not)


This year I will appear on stage on occasion of “The Night of Philosophy” 2016 (“Die Nacht der Philosophie”,  in Vienna’s “zur rezeption”, Sperlgasse 6, 1020 Vienna, at  19:00 o’clock.

The title of my performance is “I (do not) think (my own thoughts), therefore I am (not)”  (“Ich denke (nicht meine Gedanken), also bin ich (nicht)”).

This title is, of course, a  critique of Descartes’ famous saying “I  think, therefore I am”. Let me say some words about Descartes: I have never taken Descartes’ philosophy seriously, because its outcome seems  to aim at only one goal: to confirm the dominating beliefs of his epoque. Thus from “I think, therefore I  am.” follows the idea of God, because it is an clear idea which, because of its clarity, also has to exist in reality. And God, vice versa, guarantees the reality of the outer world (that is: outside of the thinking subject). From the first moment on, when I came into contact with Descartes’  philosophy, I had the impression of assisting at a foul sleight of hand, and I  was never able to take it seriously. On the other hand, I was surprised when I found out that Analytic philosophers take it very seriously, so seriously indeed that they have invented the “brain in the vat”-mind experiment. (But that only shows that I am not too concerned with proofing the reality of the outer world.)

Only recently, however, it came to my mind that also the basic idea of Descartes (which I had taken for granted), is flawed: I just need to compare “I think, therefore I am” with my own experience to understand that it  is not true. E.g. after some hard days of work I do need  at least one full day (if not more)  to come to myself again. It is just not true that I am able to beware the conscience of the fact that I am thinking this when I am thinking thoughts that are not  mine and do not evolve from my own motivation.

Anyway, the topic of my “evening” during the “Night of Philosophy” will not just be that Descartes is wrong, but the truth lies in the opposite direction. I will argue that the conscience of your existence is not just something that cannot be lost whatever you think, but that you have to work hard and permanently on your thinking in order to regain it sometimes. Writing a diary regularly is a good means for that end to start with. It also helps if you have a friend with whom you can discuss your ideas in order to develop them further, and who will not stop you after the first words you utter.

helmut hofbauer_twisten mit dem verstand 2015 cover

By the way, how did I arrive at my criticism of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” A necessary prerequisite for that idea was a series of 6 texts which I wrote for my book “Twisting With the Mind” (“Twisten mit dem Verstand”), tredition, Hamburg 2015, titled: “How will it be when we will have forgotten entirely what ideas are?”

In this series of texts I have tried to describe phenomenologically the following experience:  When you try to discuss your ideas with other persons, it happens nowadays quite often – and even more in the case when your discussion partners have an earned an academic degree – that your  interlocutors just cut your words by saying something disappointing like: “That’s not true.”  The feeling you will have then is that they did not even bother to try  to understand the problem you are working on. Instead of that they pulled your statements out into a public world, where of scientific or political assertions and qualified them as  “not true in this world”.

This phenomenon I labelled as “oblivion of the concept of the “idea””  for, basically, an idea is “your idea” and to understand an idea  that you utter means to understand you, to understand the problem how you see it, and to understand the solution the way you have worked it out. My conclusion in those series of texts therefore was that studies at the university (and not only those in the subject of philosophy) make us forget the concept of what an idea is by forcing us to understand ourselves as living in an objective/scientific/logical world where something like personal ideas does not even exist. In this world all our ideas have to lose their attribute of being our ideas if they want to be considered as valid arguments by ours. In other  words, in acadamy and in science we are trained to cultivate a way of thinking which is not our thinking or where thinking is not an activity of ours.

The consequence of this training are conflicts and crashes in interpersonal communication because academics are not longer able to imagine themselves in the shoes of the other person and lack empathy.


Another prerequisite for my ability to understand that Descartes’ Claim “I think, therefore I am.”  was a story I once read in a book by José Ortega y Gasset. Gasset related that he was in the zoo observing the monkeys. Those monkeys moved around quickly with all attention directed towards their surroundings in a way, that Ortega fatigued by just watching their constant tension. He concluded that the capacity of thinking must be something that allows you to look into yourself, to be at home in yourself, without beeing forced to watch your environment all the time.

I do not know anything about  monkeys (and I suppose that Ortega did not either), but this thought is really inspiring. Its consequences are that thinking does not mean to be focused on something (because the monkeys are  focused all the time) thinking it through logically, but that in reality it is completely the other way round. The capacity of thinking means that you are able to refrain from focusing on some problem and look into yourself instead. It means that you are able to daydream, to think wishful thoughts, to listen and wait for the new thoughts that are coming to your mind – in one word, the capacity of thinking means that your are able to think what you want to think and not what your  environment forces upon you to think (because this is just what happened to the monkeys in the zoo).

Now compare this to how we learn in school what thinking is: The teacher places a problem in front of us that has nothing to do with us and orders us to think in order to resolve it. In this situation it is the problem of the “good student” that he or she is docile and accepts that order together with the concept of thinking that accompanies it. By doing that, the good student  “makes the monkey”, that is he or she is passively focused on the theoretical problem without any capacity to gain mental distance from it and to find his/her own point of view. The bad student preserves his/her own thinking by thinking: “Just leave me alone with that crap!”

The same thing happens with philosophy: In the subject of Philosophy the students taught ideas of famous philosophers which are alien and unrelated to them instead of presenting those philosophers to them as examples of human beings who have thought by themselves. The opposition against and indignation of many people at philosophy is all too undertandable:  It  is a sign of mental health when you defend yourself against the social requirement of studying things you are not interested in and thinking about thoughts that  do not have anything in common with you just because they are important in the History of Philosophy.

In science it is unavoidable to think thoughts that are not yours; let the differencia specifica between science and philosophy be that philosophizing means thinking your thoughts, or finding out which thoughts among all of them are your thoughts. Otherwise  it will not only be impossible for the human individual to think indepently, it also will not really exist – because if you always only think the thoughts of others, you are not.


The Gettier Problem and Patient Knowledge

As I have now studied the Gettier problem for some time (3 years) and will not continue to go on with it, let me resume my experiences in three short statements.

  1. I did not make the experience that analytic philosophers (at least here in Austria) liked to discuss the Gettier problem with me. This may be due to the fact that the Gettier problem has been discussed within Analytic philosophy for already more than 50 years, and they are fed up with it. It may also have to do something with the fact that the Gettier problem is not exactly a glory for Analytic Philosophy, but rather the opposite. Anyway, it did not seem to me that analytic philosophers were pleased that somebody with a different philosophical orientation showed interest in one of their theoretical problems.
  2. Being an analytic philosopher seems to be very much a question of intuitions; and if one does not share their basic intuitions it is not possible to join their group. For example, I do not share their intuition that in Gettier problems the truth condition is fulfilled. (The truth condition is fulfilled only if the analysis of Gettier cases is narrowed down to the literal meaning of propositions, but not if the intended meaning of the persons who utter those sentences is taken into account.) However, there was no way for me to discuss that issue with analytic philosophers, they just were not interested in it. This phenomenon may be problematical, for if it is necessary to share the intuitions of analytic philosophers in order to enter a career in academia, then becoming a philosopher is not so much a question of rationality but of joining a group of quasi-religious believers (the group sharing analytic intuitions).
  3. The analytic philosophers I have discussed the Gettier problem with did not accept any other method of analysis of it than their own. Their own method consists in inserting the propositions generated by the specific Gettier case into the equation of the so called Standard Analysis of Knowledge. As I, with my background in Phenomenology, came up with my phenomenological method I did not encounter any understanding of its relevance for the Gettier problem from the side of analytic philosophers.


In my paper „What we can learn from the Gettier problem about knowledge. And what follows from that concerning the possibility of patient knowledge” I have tried to show that the emphasis on the aspect of truth within the concept of knowledge leads to a decrease of self-confidence in weaker epistemic subjects and, consequentially, has a disempowering effect on them.

Hofbauer Kaelin Ankersmit Feigl Is the Patient a Human Being 2015

[„Was wir aus dem Gettier-Problem über den Begriff des Wissens lernen können. Und was daraus für die Möglichkeit von PatientInnenwissen folgt“, in: Helmut Hofbauer, Lukas Kaelin, Hendrik Jan Ankersmit, Walter Feigl: Ist der Patient ein Mensch? LIT Verlag, Münster 2015, p. 131-165.]

The argumentation is divided into two parts: in the first part the situation of the individual subject of knowledge is considered, in the second part the social dimension is added.

The Standard Analysis of Knowledge and the Gettier problem sketch the problem of knowledge on the level of an individual subject of knowledge knowing one specific proposition (one sentence). On this level I focus on the fact that all Gettier cases omit the question who supplies us with the information about the truth. We are, for example, told that a person sees a sheep in a field and forms the belief that there is a sheep in the field (the proposition in question), but that this sheep is in reality a dog that looks like a sheep. However, behind a little hill in the same field there actually is a real sheep that makes the proposition “There is a sheep in the field.” true.

In such a case I, as a phenomenological philosopher, would now be interested in knowing the person who brings the news about the real sheep behind the hill, and I would like to ask her under which circumstances she saw it and if she made sure that it really was a sheep. However, analytic philosophers do not have any problem with the concept of a truth that is not noticed and communicated by anybody. This is why in Gettier cases the truth is just told by the auctorial storyteller, and we have to accept that there is a real sheep behind the hill although this information somehow pops out from nowhere.

In my paper I have used this “magic” in the Gettier problem (that we do not know the source from which the knowledge about the truth is provided from) in order to question another central intuition of analytic philosophers, namely the intuition that in order to call something “knowledge” the content of what we know has to be true. In my opinion (and following my intuition), if we say that we “know” something we just want to say that we are quite sure about it, but not that we are 100% sure about it. Because otherwise we could not err.

Remark: This stands in blatant contrast to what analytic philosophers believe: “Everyone agrees that knowledge entails true belief, in the sense that if one knows a proposition, p, then one believes p and p is true. (Of course, one might think that one knew a certain proposition which turned out to be false, but in such a case one would thereby discover that one did not really know it after all).” (Duncan Pritchard: “Knowledge”, online: http://www.philosophy.ed.ac.uk/people/full-academic/documents/KnowledgeCIPFINAL.pdf)

Confusing knowledge with absolute knowledge and with the fact that we also know for sure that we know a specific proposition is hubris. In my paper I have visualized this hubris by a God’s eye that is suspended above the hill and able to see the real sheep hiding behind the hill. By believing in the Standard Analysis of Knowledge, that is, in the claim that knowledge is (a) believing a proposition which is (b) true and (c) being justified in believing that proposition, we are kind of playing to be God for the truth condition in my opinion is too strong for knowledge.

Therefore, there is something wrong already in the Standard Analysis of Knowledge, namely the truth condition, and the Gettier problem just shows this mistake by construing a fold into reality which in this case is represented by the hill that separates the spectator from the sheep. In the original Gettier cases this “reality fold” is built by the unpredictability of the future and by great geographic distance.

It can thus be deduced that persons who have the intuition that something they know is really true (because otherwise they would not know it) are people who are very sure of themselves. They are know-alls, people suffering from the mania of always being right. The phenomenological method actually shows that by indicating to the fact that in Gettier cases it would be necessary for them to use God’s eye in order to conceive the truth.

Gettier case-sheep in the field example philohof

In the second part of my paper I have added the social dimension to this basic situation. The argumentation goes as follows: We, human beings, are not gods, but we are experts and lay-persons, stronger epistemic beings (healthy persons, grown-ups, professors) and weaker epistemic beings (ill persons, children, students), and an expert looks like a god in comparison to a lay-person.

The truth condition of the Standard Analysis of Knowledge therefore is a good criterion for knowledge if the goal is the defence of the established social order. The expert, as a person who is busy all day long in her narrow field of specialization, will always be able to prove to the lay-person that the lay-person does not know anything about a specific topic because she does not know as much about it as the expert.

However, if the goal is to empower the weaker epistemic subject, as is case e.g. in patient knowledge, the truth condition is too ambitious: From the expert point of view the ideas of a lay-person and, even more, of a chronically ill person suffering from pain and shortness of breath, must inevitably appear to be irresponsible.

Therefore, in order to make something like patient knowledge possible – that is: to establish knowledge of weaker epistemic subjects – knowledge would have to be defined differently than in the Standard Analysis of Knowledge. The truth condition which is only useful for the search of mistakes committed by weaker epistemic subjects in order to make them ashamed of themselves would have to be substituted by one or more other condition(s). Possible candidates are: whether additional knowledge about their illness enables patients to change their behaviour, whether it adds up to their already existing knowledge, whether it empowers them to get along alone for longer periods without panicking and rushing for expert’s advice, whether it improves their self-confidence, and so on.

In summary, the intuition shared by analytic philosophers (and they claim that this intuition represents common sense) that something we know has to be true in order for us to know it, is only true for over-self-confident people, for know-alls and dogmatics. Patient knowledge construed after the model of this intuition will result in permanent control of patients by doctors via technical devices like cell phones. The reason for that is that is appears irresponsible to let somebody alone who knows less than you do (that is: who is not right all the time, at least according to your own standard).

The situation would be different if we ventured to define knowledge as the ability of a person to get along by herself – and only in then something like patient knowledge would be possible. However, in this case we would have to renounce from our tendency of judging this person every time she commits an error. For the knowledge of an autonomous person is not judged by the truth condition of the Standard Analysis of Knowledge but by her ability to get along by herself.

Twisting With Your Mind

helmut hofbauer_twisten mit dem verstand 2015 cover

Helmut Hofbauer: Twisten mit dem Verstand. tredition, Hamburg 2015.


You can order  the book here or also at Amazon.

When talking about philosophy with non-academics I have always the problem that I have made certain experiences during my philosophy studies at the University of Vienna which are unknown to them.

One essential experience of this kind is that the minds of university students are transformed during their studies in a manner so that afterwards they are not able any more to communicate ideas or respond accordingly to ideas of another person in a conversation.

This is the topic of 6 texts in my new book Twisten mit dem Verstand [Twisting with one’s own mind] that carry the title “Wie wird es sein, wenn es unverständlich geworden ist, was eine Idee ist?” [How will it be when it has become incomprehensible what an idea is?]

The central idea of this series of texts is: An idea is an idea of a human being. When a person tries to communicate an idea to another person, what she is doing is to explain to the other person an attempt of a solution of a problem or of a question she concerned with.

However, when this person turns with her idea towards a graduate of a university, what will happen? The university graduate has undergone scientific education. This means that for her ideas of people do not exist anymore (because they would be “subjective”), she only knows an objective reality.

So she will most probably respond to the first person something like: “Of what you have said this and this and this is wrong.” By doing that she will absolutely frustrate the first person for what those person wanted in the first place was to find some understanding for her concern and for the relevance this very problem or question had for her life.

The thought on which the title of this series of texts is based is: The term “idea” is used improperly in academic or scientific discourse; anyway, as we use it differently in everyday language, the use of “idea” in academic discourse is still profiting parasitically from its meaning in everyday language. And this meaning of “idea” in everyday language could be lost someday soon (because university students are trained so rigorously to forget it that this attitude becomes their second nature), and what happens then is that this word altogether loses its meaning for us.

To make things clear: in my understanding, “idea” in everyday language means “someone’s idea”, and in academic discourse it means “some kind of statement that can be true or false”.

As philosophy tries to solve the problems of human beings, it is especially difficult to discuss a problem philosophically with a university graduate because for the university graduate problems and ideas are something that can stand alone, they do not need any subject that holds them.

This is also valid for university graduates of philosophy. That’s the reason why I recommend everybody who is interested in philosophical questions not to study philosophy at the university: As long as you do not study philosophy you can try to solve your philosophical problems, but after your philosophy studies at the university you will be deprived of your problems. They will be objective problems that are of no special concern to you.

Saying that a problem is “my problem” is a form of appropriating one’s own thinking. The common denominator of all texts of this book is autonomy of thinking. To convince us that my problems and your ideas are not my problems and your ideas but objective entities that exist in some kind of “platonic heaven” of today’s scientific community is a method of dispossing us of our own thinking.

Another method is long years of drill. Why does a pope or the American president practically never step down from their offices? The answer is: because they have invested long years of work and a great part of their lives in getting into their offices. Now in one text I have taken Ludwig Wittgenstein as a negative example for this hypothesis: While nowadays a young academic philosopher has to spend long years of formatting the footnotes of his articles in order to submit them to scientific journals, Wittgenstein actually did not publish any academic work during his lifetime. He was the son of a rich father, he had been primary teacher in Lower Austria and the architect of his sister’s house before he became university professor in Cambridge. So he was free as a bird, and this is why it was no surprise that in Cambridge he produced a philosophy his doctor father Bertrand Russell did not like.

When talking about famous professors we usually tend to think in terms of genius and intelligence. By doing this we underrate the significance of drill. Normally a person does not become professor because she is intelligent but because she is intelligent and has endured the drill. It is important that a case like that one of Wittgenstein from the institutional point of view was a mistake – and was something that nowadays will not occur anymore.

The book contains two texts on Tomas S. Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. What I find interesting in Kuhn’s theory of science is that he described science as a social enterprise. However, if society enters into science society’s chaos and unreasonableness will also enter into science. And because it cannot be true what should not be true, philosophers have found ways of interpreting Kuhn’s theory as if it was not a social theory of science.

Before I knew that I had thought that I could use Kuhn’s theory in order to support my ideas on science. But since I know it I also know that every rational argumentation on the topic of science as a social institution will remain unheard because philosopher refuse to listen to it – the same as they refuse to listen to Kuhn.

helmut hofbauer_twisten mit dem verstand 2015-bookshelf

The frame of my book is constituted by two texts on personal knowledge. One is on José Ortega y Gasset’s book El tema de nuestro tiempo [The topic of our time] and the other on his pupil’s, Julián Marías’, book Razón de la filosofía [Reason of philosophy]. The topic of Ortega’s era, and this is almost one hundred years ago (1923), was that he thought it was time to conceive thinking and knowing as activities of living beings. This is what he also called “life philosophy” (filosofía de la vida). It means that in philosophy we should not look for objective truths but for truths relevant to persons thinking them.

After all, when I remember my time as a philosophy student at the university and how I asked my professor what she thought about my seminary paper and “There is a mistake in the footnote on page 23.” – was the only answer I got, this is exactly what I am concerned about: My teacher then did not understand what was relevant for me (or if she had understood it her scientific attitude did not allow her to admit it to me), and that is why the conversation about my paper turned into a discussion about the footnote on page 23.

In science, in the end no fact is more important than any other fact. So it was science to remind me of the footnote on page 23. However, I had wanted to talk about my seminary paper in order to learn something about it; I did not learn anything from the remark on the footnote on page 23 – it just served to drill me.

These two texts on the two Spanish philosophers allude to the fact that in order to come closer to autonomy in thinking, we would have to re-appropriate our own thinking, we would have to make thinking our thinking again. And this would start by conceiving a thought or an idea not just as a sentence that can be objectively true or false but as a concern of relevance for the life of the subject thinking it. Despite the fact that Ortega’s approach is basically quite straight and common sense, science and scienticism (the exaggerated belief in the power of science) are so strong nowadays that Ortega’s topic of his era sounds to us like the most esoteric thing imaginable.

In other words, I think that if someday in the future we want to achieve autonomy of thought, we would have to go right down to the bottom, to the ultimate cause of the problem: and this cause is that today – in the shade of science and its concept of objective truth – it is forbidden that I consider my ideas to be my ideas.

That the ban of personal thinking does not lead to objective truth but rather to the beliefs of different tribes and groups of people is the topic of another text in this book, a text on isms. Also in today’s philosophy isms are abundant: internalism, externalism, reliabilism, coherentism, contexualism, indexicalism and so forth. They force you to join a group before you have even made up your own mind.

The title of the book stems from a song by the Austrian songwriter Heli Deinboek. In this song he describes the zombies we call “normal people”. These are persons who work and consume as society expects them to and are desperate about the senselessness of their lives. I have always thought that it is necessary to twist a lot with one’s own mind in order to meet this situation. That is: to move one’s own mind, to think a lot, to philosophize.

It should be clear by now that by “philosophizing” I do not mean thinking Plato’s thoughts or those of Descartes or those of Donald Davidson, but thinking my own thoughts. By thinking my own thoughts I am moving myself, maybe in the form of a dance.

The subtitle of the book is: “Philosophizing with the goal of surviving mentally”.

Servants of a Greater Master – Are They Still People?

A philosophical problem that keeps me thoughtful lately is the following: Sometimes when you are philosophizing with another person, you suddenly become aware of the fact that the person you are talking to is not really a person!
This astonishing effect usually occurs when the other person does not speak for herself but for another entity that is larger and much more venerable than a single human being.

This may be the case for a professor of philosophy. For a professor of philosophy does not speak for himself but is an intermediary representing philosophy the subject. He (or she) is, so to say, the servant of a greater master – in this case of philosophy the subject. The same, of course, is true for students of philosophy who study philosophy not in order to become philosophers but in order to become professors of philosophy.

Now, what is wrong with being a servant of a greater master, a servant of philosophy?

The problem is whether these people are still human beings?
At this point, I have to concretize my concern because, of course, representatives of institutions do not lose their human rights in any respect.
So, in what aspect could it be the case that they lose their humanity?

Answer: They lose it in that aspect that they become unable to understand what a human being wants, thinks or is asking for.

This becomes especially visible when it comes to philosophy. Imagine a person who is philosophizing because she has some personal problem, and this person starts to talk to a representative of philosophy the subject. The most probable thing is that the representative of philosophy the subject will not even take the other person seriously, because what she is talking does not look in any way like a contribution to philosophy the subject.

Now, let’s consider the other case, namely that a representative of philosophy the subject is talking about philosophy. Will she say anything useful for other people? Most probably not, for she judges the value of insights according to their valuation in the subject of philosophy. She has lost her sense for the “Put yourself in my shoes-thing”.

When we look now at the subject of philosophy: what is philosophy? The decision that philosophy is a subject and should be developed as such is at once a decision against Socrates’ opinion that people should philosophize in order to take care for their souls.

Or let’s put the same thing in other words: “Philosophy”, the word, means “love of wisdom”. However, wisdom is an attribute that is inseparable from human beings. A philosopher can be (or could be) wise, but never can philosophy be wise. By developing philosophy as a subject, what we did in reality was, we separated philosophy from people. That means that we have decided that the task of philosophy is not anymore to solve the problems of people but in order to solve the problems of philosophy the subject.

Building institutions like philosophy the subject corresponds to our need to build up something greater and more durable than we ourselves are, something that lives longer than a human being. Anyway, when it comes to building social institutions, we always again tend to deceive ourselves: First, we intend build up an institution that serves us and helps us to live better lives. However, soon afterwards this function, to be at our service, seems to be an obstacle to the greatness of the social institution. Therefore, we put ourselves at the service of the social institution and do not ask for anything in exchange for our efforts anymore. What makes us happy then is just to see the institution grow and proliferate. The institution lives instead of us. And we live secondary lives by serving the institution and staring at her well-being.

Something in that manner has also happened to philosophy. For once, a long time ago, philosophy helped people to live better lives. Nowadays many people are already unable to understand the sense of the effort of helping a human individual by means of finding orientation in life anymore because this activity does not contribute anything to philosophy the subject. Any philosophical effort seems senseless and worthless to them if it does not contribute to philosophy the subject.

Now we come to the “philosophical” part of this text. The “philosophical” part of a thought – in my understanding – is always that one where it is not enough to understand my words but where you get the option to change your opinion. Well, and the philosophically tempting question here is: Could it really be that servants of a greater master acquire the habit of living their lives as pure intermediaries or representatives and that they, by that, lose their ability to feel, think and react as humans?

Think about it! If you decide that the answer is yes, then it is like a really big and disgusting thing that you will have to swallow.

On the other side, if you decide that the answer is no than you will most probably go on making the same irritating experiences a person makes when she is talking to another person who is not representing herself.

So, the real philosophical question here is: Are people really able to forget what it means for a person to be unhappily in love, to be afraid of illness or concerned about what the future will bring? Can a person really forget that sometimes one has a problem, which is personal, and one would like an honest and personal reaction from the other person? Is it really possible that a person forgets that language, that communication basically serves the task to tell another person what the first person thinks and wants to tell her?

I am afraid all this might really actually be the case.

We are standing here in front of a quite astonishing phenomenon: What happens when a person considers herself in the first place to be a representative, a servant of a greater master, and not a person? What happens then is that this person somehow abandons her responsibility towards herself. She takes herself not serious anymore. Or, she takes herself serious, but only in her function as a representative, not in her function as a person. In other words, she somehow gives it up or neglects it to be herself.

That means that she actively and deliberately stops being a person. And when you are talking to her you cannot be sure that you are talking to her. Because she will not stand up for herself. She will react as if she were just a kind of membrane of the body of the social institution she belongs to.

At this point, I would like to add a thought that lately seems very important to me. Currently I am working among medical doctors, at the General Hospital of Vienna, and I have learned that they are able to encounter a great deal of sense in the effort of healing a person from a disease. I suppose, this is just the way medical doctors should function psychically in order to be good medical doctors. Anyway, I find it difficult to share their passion for healing the bodies of human beings. Therefore, I asked myself: why do I have a different attitude towards the help medicine can provide to human beings?

To my surprise, I have found the answer to this question in the phenomenon I have just described: I think that there are many persons, who are spiritually dead while living in perfectly healthy bodies. I am afraid that our notion of health, which is closely related to the health of the body, distracts us from the fact that many adult human beings have abandoned being themselves by allowing their social roles to completely absorb them.

With this I want to say that although I dread pain and disease as much as any other human being does I have found a task that seems more urgent to me, the task of preventing immediate, voluntary death by manner of a person renouncing to be herself.

It does not even make much sense to me that a person who is not herself should be bodily healthy, because in this situation illness could provide her with time to think about her life while bodily health allows her to work continuously and keeps her away from looking after her soul.

Maybe this is the reason why I have never even considered becoming a medical doctor: the reason that I can conceive something more horrible than bodily disease, namely immediate, voluntary death by giving up oneself while living in an absolutely healthy body.

Every human being has just one life. If we do not live our lives for ourselves, we do not live them at all. However, many persons prefer to live their lives not for themselves but for abstract social institutions like the nation, we belong to, the company, we are working for, or philosophy the subject. They prefer to do that because the social institution is bigger and more durable than they themselves are, and it makes them feel bigger and stronger if they put themselves at the service of an institution that is big and strong instead of living for their own purposes. It is a bit of a Mafia-like thing: people feel lost and vulnerable if they have no strong protector.

And if somebody, like me, says: philosophy should be an activity in order to gain orientation in one’s own life, and not a contribution to philosophy the subject, the servants of a greater master will react by showing their hostility. That is understandable: Wisdom does not give anything to eat, but philosophy the subject is able to provide a household income.

This leads us to another intriguing aspect of my topic here in this text: maybe many people are just too social? By that, I mean that they try to realize a kind of society, which is like an organic body and its cells. If a cell does, what it wants to do, the result is called cancer. In consequence, the organic society is a society, which is based on the concept that her members should give up their own lives in order to only serve the greater whole. However, I think that the human society is not – and should not be – an organic society. Human society should provide the means for its members to live their own lives. It is a kind of society where the society should be at the service of its members, and not the other way round as in the case of the organic Society.

Returning to the activity of philosophizing and its goal: I have now talked a great deal about the interesting phenomenon that many people are tempted to dissolve themselves in society. They think that the only way of being a good member of society is by giving up being themselves. My idea of the activity of philosophy is that it has a goal that is diametrically opposed to that temptation, namely to help us to “come to ourselves” once more, that is to regain individual conscience again after losing ourselves in social alienation.

My idea of the goal of philosophy is based on Socrates’ idea of taking care of one’s own soul and on the idea of rational autonomy as condensed in Kant’s formula for the age of enlightenment: “Sapere aude!” – “Dare to think for yourself!”

These allusions underline that my understanding of philosophy is not so alien judging it from the perspective of the history of philosophy.
Nevertheless, if we take all the ideas in this text together and draw the conclusion, the result is that the principal goal of philosophy would be to cure professors of philosophy from being professors of philosophy. That is to say, that philosophy – as an ego-strengthening activity – should incite alienated intermediaries, who just try to contribute to philosophy the subject, to think for themselves again.

The last paragraph highlights, of course, in a garish manner, to what degree philosophy has failed on the social level and to what degree it has been incapable to explain the sense of its very existence and effort to the people.

Impressions from the 37th International Wittgenstein Symposium 2014 in Kirchberg/Austria

The 37th International Wittgenstein Symposium took place from 10 – 16 August 2014 in Kirchberg/Wechsel, Austria.
The general topic of the Symposium was “Analytical and Continental Philosophy: Methods and Perspectives”.
To my surprise, many phenomenologists were present. I had the impression that they come “out of their holes” as soon as the topic of a conference somewhat allows for their participation. Phenomenology still seems to exert a strong attraction on many philosophers.
In some talks a reconciliation between Analytic and Continental Philosophy was proposed. I thought that the role of the “peace dove” surely provokes the impression in the audience that the speaker possesses a mild, wise and experienced character. The desire to create this impression may be present especially in philosophers who are already professors and are situated (firmly) in the philosophy departments of their universities. These philosophers do not need to achieve anything anymore, therefore they can present themselves exhibiting a generous attitude.


A preferred way to perform the reconciliation between Analytic and Continental Philosophy consisted in claiming that, in reality, there is just “good” and “bad philosophy”. Good philosophy is characterized by linguistic “clarity”, whereas bad philosophy is “cloudy” and incomprehensible. This differentiation between good and bad philosophy seemed to echo the difference between scientific and unscientific philosophy, where the former one is, of course, the good one whereas the latter one is to be detested.
During this year’s Wittgenstein Symposium there were more hints than usually pointing to the fact that Ludwig Wittgenstein’s adscription to the analytic tradition of philosophy is not so clear that it can be taken for granted. The later Wittgenstein might be conceived as a phenomenologist for studying the use of words in everyday situations. But also the younger Wittgenstein already delimited the project of Analytic Philosophy in the ‘Tractactus’ by claiming that we have to be silent about that about what we are not able to speak.


To resume this idea about Wittgenstein: It seems that there was a sceptic attitude in Ludwig Wittgenstein which caused him to maintain a modest opinion concerning the possibilities and limits of philosophical inquiry. This modesty contrasted with the epistemic optimism of the project of Analytic Philosophy; and it was also this sceptic attitude or epistemic modesty that induced Wittgenstein to undertake studies of everyday life whose purpose does not consist in adding new findings to scientific knowledge.
The idea here is that, in last resort, it was Wittgenstein’s sceptic attitude towards knowledge that made him to be kind of a phenomenologist whereas the optimism of the analytic philosophers to solve all epistemic problems was what inclined them towards science. In the ‘Tractatus’ Wittgenstein explicitly declared philosophy to be an “activity” and not to be “a science”.
All these impressions and thoughts about the 37th International Wittgenstein Symposium are, of course, my personal ones, and not the official outcome of the symposium.

My talk on the Gettier problem at the 37th Wittgenstein Symposium 2014

As I am not so confident about the possibility of reconciliation between Analytic and Continental Philosophy, in my talk “Is the Getter Problem Caused by the Epistemic Passions of Analytical Philosophers?” I proposed an additional differentiation, namely that between academic or scientific philosophy versus unscientific or practical philosophy.
For my purpose I defined unscientific philosophy as that kind of philosophy that tries to answer questions of human beings whereas scientific philosophy is busy with projects like establishing the “foundation of epistemology” and the like which represent the questions of fields of enquiry or those of academic subjects, but not those of human beings. In short, science considers itself to be a very important project, so important that the questions of real human beings usually seem to be lacking the dignity to be answered by science.
This may look like a “polemic” definition of science. Actually, it is not meant to be polemic. It is rather my everyday experience when reading scientific and academic texts. It represents a scientific mindset which, in my opinion, cannot be reconciled with that one of a practical or phenomenological philosopher. I think those two kinds of philosophers are even unable to understand each other. This is because they embrace differing concepts of philosophy, and they are searching for different things in philosophy. Therefore, when talking to each other, they are usually talking past each other.
The Gettier problem served me as an example for a typical scientific or academic problem. In my talk I especially worked out the loss of personhood in the setup of the Gettier problem. I said that it is no coincidence that in the Edmund Gettier’s first counterexample against the so called Standard Analysis of Knowledge the subject of knowledge is presented to us as somebody who needs to get a job but inspite of that concentrates on the number of coins in the pockets of his competitor in the job interview.
From an objective point of view a job is not more important than the number of coins in somebody else’s pockets. They are both just facts in the world possessing truth values that can be ticked ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘true’ or ‘untrue’.
The loss of knowledge as personal knowledge is prepared by defining knowledge as propositional knowledge. Propositional knowledge means that there is a concept of knowledge that claims that a person is able to know a proposition, that is: a sentence, alone and that she is able to know any proposition.


Propositional knowledge separates of the knowledge of a specific proposition from the rest of the knowledge a person possesses, it separates the knowledge of that proposition from what the person needs to know and from her interests, and it separates that piece of knowledge from its significance for the subject of knowledge and from its social significance.
By cutting knowledge into pieces the subject of knowledge as a person is also cut into pieces. But analytic philosophers are not aware of that fact. They continue to think that it is still a person, in Gettier’s counterexample a person called Smith, who knows that his competitor Jones has ten coins in his pocket. They continue to perceive the subject of knowledge as being a person while they have reduced knowledge to being a piece of information that can be saved on a computer hard disk.
It is a real concern of me to explain why science provides us with a lot of (true, and therefore valuable) knowledge about reality but not with any orientation in the world, and I consider that what I showed in my talk at the 37th International Wittgenstein Symposium to be an important philosophical finding; a finding that can possibly answer the intriguing and seemingly paradox question: Why is it that exactly the epistemic project that was invented and is undertaken in order to provide us with knowledge – science – does not provide us with knowledge insofar as we are persons or individuals?
The answer is that this is so because the epistemic subject in science is neither a person nor a human individual. The epistemic subject of science is an abstraction; that means that it was reduced by a process of theoretical abstraction. It was reduced to a being that has no special interest in anything, and, therefore, considers all possible objects of knowledge to be of the same relevance.
In this context it is also interesting that in the second Gettier counterexample, the logical inference Smith draws neither helps him to find out where his friend Brown is, nor to make sure that his other friend Jones owns a ford. It can be shown that in Gettier examples the subjects of knowledge do not gain anything when they gain knowledge.
Furthermore, in the same context it is also interesting that in Gettier examples like Gettier’s own counterexamples or Chisholm’s “Sheep-in-the-field”-example, the proposition that allegedly is the justified true belief of the subject of knowledge is understood literally whereas it is quite clear from the description of the situation that the literal meaning of theses propositions is not what the person meant to say. Utilizing Gettier examples, it can also be shown that analytic philosophers do not care about what people have in mind when they say something. Hence, how could they possibly care about people learning anything – any content learned by a person is also only something that she has in mind.
Actually, the hypothesis of my talk was even stronger: Gettier examples show persons who do not know anymore what they need to know. For them everything is of the same interest. They have lost the contact to themselves. They are alienated. Smith has forgotten that he needs a job; he is distracted; his attention is caught by something completely unimportant, by the coins in the pocket of the other job applicant. This is why some forms of philosophizing (the Gettier problem is one of them) are to be considered not only as being theoretical in the sense that they are not offering a promise of utility to anybody in a direct form; they are rather actively distracting us from what we need to know.
In other words, the Gettier problem belongs to an actively disorientating form of philosophizing. I concluded my talk by saying that the Gettier problem makes us silly.
If we reflect about how such a paradoxical thing is possible we have to think about the role of social institutions in the process of knowledge creation. When a scientist is considered as being an alienated person for whom everything is of the same interest, it is clear that a person like this needs an appropriate social background in order to survive economically. The employment at a University makes it possible for the scientist or the scientific philosopher to stop focus on what he or she needs to know and focus instead on any problem brought forward in her academic subject. As the peers, the big names that field of research, are the only important persons of reference for a scientist, the scientist does not need to produce any knowledge that is of concrete use for any human individual.
That is to say that the scientific way of thinking has its complement in a specific social way of life: Institutions like universities create people who have no problems in their lives and who, after some time, even forget what it means for a person to have a problem. As it is this kind of people who are solving our problems, it seems to be quite understandable why it is often the case that we cannot learn anything from science and academic philosophy. Scientists are people who are living in a bubble that separates them from everyday reality.


Although in the audience there were some people who understood my concerns, there was, of course, no undivided consent to my ideas. The problem here had to do with a further specific inclination of analytic philosophers which is to discuss and solve a problem such as is was posed. I had left this ‘convention of discussion’ of analytic philosophers by not trying to solve the Gettier problem but questioning it instead. The question arising here – which, on the other hand might by typical for Continental Philosophy – is whether we are still discussing the Gettier problem if I talk about what the Gettier problem is for me or what I can see in the Gettier problem?
More generally expressed, this problem consists in the question whether I, as the other person, or whether I, as a philosopher belonging to a different philosophical tradition, am entitled to collaborate in the definition of the philosophical problem we are discussing, especially in the case that this problem is taken from the history of Analytic philosophy?
This problem of how the Gettier problem can or cannot be defined in a discussion between analytic and continental philosophers induced analytic philosophers in the audience to discuss my objections to the Gettier problem as objections to this problem within the analytic tradition of enquiring it. By doing that I am quite sure that they, themselves, lost and that they distracted others from the point that I had made about the Gettier problem and personhood.
Instead of that at the end of the discussion following my talk we were evaluating the problem that if one philosopher had made a definition that claimed a necessity for all relevant cases (e.g. for all cases of knowledge) then for a second philosopher it suffices to show just one possible case against that claim in order to invalidate it, and that, for doing this, it is not necessary to take a close look at such counterexamples and study them intensively.

New Book Out Now!

I am happy to announce that I have just published my sixth book: MoralkEulen in die Ethik tragen. Studien über den Hang der Ethik zur Moral (364 pages , 18 EURO, tredition, Hamburg 2014).



Book Hofbauer: MoralkEulen in die Ethik tragen, Hamburg 2014

MoralkEulen in die Ethik tragen is a book on ethics. It raises the question why ethics was overruled by morals and the question of how a good human life can be lead has dropped out of ethics.

The word “Moralkeule” means a moral club or moral bat to “beat up” others with morals. It was elected to be the “non-word of the year” in 1998 because it combines a word like morals that has a positive connotation and is worthy of protection with an instrument for killing people. (Of course, by selecting non-words of the year the jury responsible for that is herself swinging the moral club.)

The title of the book suggests that bringing moral clubs or moral bats into ethics is like bringing owls (Eulen) to Athens or coals to Newcastle. Ethics has become a moral clubs-business. But why is that so? After all, ethics has started with the question what a good human life consists of.


The book is a collection of numerous short investigations studying questions like:

  • Is the form of society we live in responsible for the school of ethics we chose for ourselves?
  • Which ethics is appropriate for a static society and which one for a society where progress plays an important role?
  • Which place is/was held by ethics/moral philosophy in contemporary philosophy, the philosophy of Aristotle, the philosophy of the Stoics, The Epicureans, of Plotin, of Thomas of Aquinas, of Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant, Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, Auguste Comte, and Jean-Paul Sartre?
  • Which questions are typical “ethical questions” according to a contemporary introductory book to that topic, and what do these questions have in common?
  • Is testosterone responsible for Utilitarianism?
  • Is the trend towards outsourcing responsible for the ethics boom of the last years?
  • Does Jeremy Bentham want us to be machines?
  • Are fantasies of omnipotence responsible for becoming a utilitarian (e.g. Peter Singer’s and Henry Sidgwick’s “point of view of the universe”?)
  • Can Excel-sheets help the Kantian to manage the moral rules he gives himself?
  • How much masochism is there in Kantian ethics (Kant wanted every person to kill all self-love and pride.)
  • Isn’t John Rawl’s “veil of ignorance” actually a bogus argument (because behind the veil of ignorance you would lack the concrete experience needed to decide upon those questions Rawls asks you to decide upon behind the veil of ignorance)?
  • Doesn’t Kant’s saying of “the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me” actually means that his moral philosophy wants us to seek orientation in dimensions that are to large for our lives on planet Earth (following the stars) making it impossible for us to conceive what is in front of our noses.
  • Didn’t Kant actually have a specific form of government in mind when he formulated his ethics (namely a liberal state where all individuals are strong, a state without women, children, old people, handicapped people and other persons that cannot satisfy Kant’s requirements for a fully valid subject of action)?
  • Can autonomy really consist in following rules?
  • Is ethical behavior visible in ethical surroundings?
  • Is it ethical to require people to act ethically instead of changing the social framework in order to become an ethical one?
  • Wasn’t Machiavelli actually a Utilitarian?
  • What does utility actually mean? (For if you are maximising utility by promoting the greatest good for the greatest number of persons, and these people are enjoying the utility created by you, they are obviously not following the utilitarian rule. Instead of enjoying, they too should maximise utility. But then, who is enjoying anything after all?)
  • Why have three of the four cardinal virtues got lost?
  • Should ethical subjects act morally in any circumstances, even when they are exhausted and physically and psychically at the end of their forces?
  • When was the exact moment in history when the question of conduct of life has dropped out of ethics (I was not able to determine this point in time exactly, but at least I could state that in René Descartes provisional ethics it was still there whereas in Kant’s moral philosophy it was already lost. So this point in time was possible around the year 1700 A.D.)
  • Why do we cultivate so many forms of one-sided communication in our present society (submitting scientific articles to journals, applying for jobs by filling out online forms, etc.), and is our concept of ethics as morals responsible for our readiness to accept unequal communication?
  • How does ethics manifest itself in our contemporary world (ethics committees, ethical investing, CSR (corporate social responsibility, etc.), and what happens to the concept of human action when confronted with those examples of socially organised “good ethical practice”?
  • And many more!

By writing MoralkEulen in die Ethik tragen, I have expressed a concern which I consider to be legitimate and vital for all human beings: By excluding the question of conduct of life from ethics, contemporary moral philosophers separate us from ethics: human beings cannot do anything good if they can’t integrate it into their lives. But what is even worse: concepts of good human lives are not discussed anymore in contemporary ethics. The consequence is that people today do not think anymore about how to lead good lives.


Or, sometimes they do try to think about this question, but they lack the appropriate words and concepts for doing that. They are taught by modern moral philosophy that ethically/morally good deeds are done by unspecified, unknown subjects of action possessing unknown capacities and resources. This is the manner how the program of academic philosophy to make people lose their concepts of practical reason and practical knowledge is performed nowadays.

Philosophy Is an Activity – What That Means

I use to say that philosopy is philosophizing or doing philosophy, an that this is an activity. I know, of course, that people do not understand me when I say such things. Therefore today I want to explain this issue which is central for me.

Maybe you will ask: “But aren’t all things that are done by human beings human activities? Philosophy is obviously done by human beings – so what else can it be than a human activity?”

Well, no. I will explain the difference to you.

Academic philosophers do say things like: “The questions of epistemology (which is a branch of philosophy) are: Can we really know anything? What is knowledge? … [and so on]”

This clearly indicates that academic philosophers do not share my idea that philosophy is an activity. If philosophy was an activity, there would be for example us two, you and me, philosophizing. We would then ask each other: “What are you interested in?” And what we would answer then, those are our philosophical questions.

Do you understand the difference? If philosophy was an activity, there would be no “questions of epistemology” or “questions of philosophy” because the discussion would not be about epistemology, or ethics or philosophy, it would be about us.

Seeing philosophy as an activity means that we reappropriate our questions. Those questions might be so called philosophical questions, but they might es well be mathematical questions, biological or musical ones. What makes them to be philosophical questions is not that they belong to philosophy but what we do with them, the special treatment we give them.

What does this special treatment consist in? Here again we can find orientation in the idea that philosophy is an activity. Academic philosophers (who do not understand that philosophy is an activity) will say that a philosophic dispute is about who is right. This is false. Philosophical discussions between two or more persons is not about who has the right answer to the question, but about helping the others and oneself to come to a decision about what one really thinks about the question discussed.

The aim of philosophy is not truth (itself), but it is a decision about what one thinks about a specific question. This decision is a deed, it has do be done, accomplished. This is the reason why philosophy cannot in any sense be theoretical, it is always practical. Philosophizing you are “manipulating” yourself, trying to achieve new convictions and leave old ones behind yourself. The topic of your philosophizing might be theoretical or practical, if you achieve the goal to change your own opinion you have done something. This is why philosophy is eminently practical.

There is one more example that shows very well that academic philosophers do not understand philosophy as an activity. If you read papers in philosophy journals you will often come about expressions like “realists” or “anti-realists”, “contextualists”, “invariantists”, “non-reductionists”, and so on. What are they doing here? They invent names for every possible opinion one could hold about a specific question, and then they situate these opinions in the form of positions in some kind of imaginary landscape or continuum. This landscape or continuum is nothing else than the topic itself. The result will be that knowing something about a specific philosophical proeblem in the academic sense will mean to possess knowledge about all possible intellectual positions that exist in this specific theoretical field.

In short, academic philosophers are analysts of positions. They want to find out why something is, or has become, like it is. They do not want to change anything or do anything, they just want to see how things are.

But if you, like myself, embrace the idea that philosophy is an activity the task is a different one. There might be “realists” and “anti-realists” and so on, but you will have to decide yourself for one position because you are just one person. If you want to decide yourself for two positions, you have to make clear if this is possible at all for just one person. Maybe it is possible in some cases, in others it will not be possible. So, for example in ethics for academic philosophers it suffices to know that there are utilitarianists and kantians and virtue ethicists, and so on. It suffices because they do not want to do anything. But if you are a philosopher for whom philosophy is action your task is to find out whether you, yourself, decide to be a utilitarianist a kantian, a virtue ethicist or something else.

And this is because, philosophizing for you will mean to do something, to make up your mind. You will ask yourself: “Did I accomplish something philosophizing today? Did I arrive at some point? If I haven not arrived anywhere, my philosophical work of today was of no use.”

Did I make myself clear about why not all human activities are activities? (Some of them just try to figure out where we are and have no aim to get us anywhere.)