ECO-SOPHIA: AN INTERVIEW WITH WOLFGANG SCHIRMACHER
In this interview Wolfgang Schirmacher presents a philosophical understanding of the modern human attitude to environmental issues from the point of view of Heidegger's thinking and other philosophical trends of the 20th century. The contradictory nature of human being is indicated, striving to harmonize their co-existence with the living environment, the natural world and, at the same time, creating an artificial environment based on the development of technologies. The concept of eco-sophia is used by the author as a way of explaining and possibly overcoming this contradiction.
Keywords: eco-sophia, ethics, human being, humanism, technology
Brief note about the interviewee:
Wolfgang Schirmacher is a philosopher of technology. He is currently a professor of philosophy and the philosophy of technology, as well as the Arthur Schopenhauer Chair, at The European Graduate School / EGS. In 1998, Schirmacher founded the Media and Communications division of The EGS (renamed the Division of Philosophy, Art & Critical Thought). He was the founding dean of the Media and Communications division until 2006 and program director until 2015. He is the author of two books that take their cues from where the late Heidegger left off: Technik und Gelassenheit (Technology and Gelassenheit, 1983) and Ereignis Technik (The Event of Technology, 1990). Heavily influenced by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, Schirmacher has coined the interrelated concepts of the homo generator and life techniques, as well as offered his own highly affirmative interpretation of the notion of artificial life.
Perhaps the most central concept of Wolfgang Schirmacher’s philosophy is homo generator. It intends to replace the notions of homo sapiens, homo faber, or homo creator, which, in his perspective, have become irrelevant with the advent of advanced technology. It no longer suffices to see humans as bearers of knowledge or as making and creating things in a deterministic fashion. What homo generator does is joyfully create worlds in which he or she engages openings for new futures toward which he or she bears responsibility.
His writing is infused with the affirmation of all life and all that is worth living for. He believes that the experience of life offers the perspective that allows us to examine the world through theory. However art and play, not theory, are the privileged practices to engage with the world.
Alexander Kopytin (AK): In some of your philosophical works, you raise issues of ecology, and, it seems to me, you indicate a pessimistic view of the possibility of any fundamental revision of the positions of modern humankind in its relationship with the living environment. Do you really think that it is probably too late to hope that humanity will abandon the dominant consumeristic attitude towards nature and assume certain self-restraints?
Wolfgang Schirmacher (WS): Technology is our mode of living, yet today we are living, against our will, a death-carrying technology, one whose decisive characteristic is that it is theoretically as flawless as it is comprehensive. This does not mean it is immune to criticism. Worse than that, this death technology produces even its own counterpart without the slightest difficulty. Heidegger convincingly demonstrated that this counter-project remains dependent upon the foundation it strives to leave. It then follows that alternative thinking springs from the source of familiar metaphysics. Herbert Marcuse, probably Heidegger’s best student, responded to the unavoidable fact that alternatives possess no reality of their own with the call for a “great refusal”—a seemingly helpless gesture, but one whose inner truth has yet to be surpassed. And Adorno’s philosophical achievement lies above all in refusing to accept any reconciliation in this irreconcilable society that is “false to the very core.” A final example: “…through willful non-willing life, technology demands a transformation shattering all reason and cutting into the flesh”—this was my argument at the end of Technik und Gelassenheit, a study taking its cue from Heidegger’s later works.
What does this mean? It reveals nothing less than the self-deception of our present efforts whose “small steps” we register with such satisfaction. The much-discussed “new start” is only a game, and death remains its director, now as ever. The “way back to nature,” ecologically secured and now longed for by many as a new ethical alternative to the values of the times, is the wrong path. For the changed behavior and new values which now look to acknowledge us as “embedded in nature” are subject to a double fallacy. For one thing, this nature-friendly attitude owes its possibilities to an advanced technology alone, to the “objective status of the productive resources” (Karl Marx), which made scarcity, as a basic concept, obsolete. It is too late to make peace with nature, for this nature no longer exists—it has become landscape, our artificial product, not even the outermost reaches of the Amazon have been spared. For another (and here the implications are even more trenchant), the desire for a return to nature skips over modern technology and with it the human individual as he is. This remains true even when clearly “gentle” technologies, those protective of nature, are demanded exclusively. The idea of nature underlying such intentions is directed against the technology we must, after all, live.
Technology is not to be used, but lived. With the guiding concept of “ecology,” we want to eliminate the difficulty into which we got ourselves by taking economy as our standard of measure. But in this way, according to Heidegger, we risk the greatest danger of once again failing, perhaps decisively, the essence of the human individual and his dwelling on earth, the original meaning of which is “ethics.” “Good intentions” hopelessly entangled in metaphysics and attempting to guide us today simply make the necessary self-criticism more difficult.
AK: Do you think that the idea of the human beings as a part of nature, that is, as a creature that, although it has unique abilities for intelligent activity and the creation of an artificial habitat, but has common ontological foundations with the Earth's ecosphere, is groundless? Are the hopes for the strengthening of “ecological identity” in a person (in accordance with the concept of deep ecology by Arne Ness) nothing more than naive and false hopes?
WS: In the present world situation, it is highly misleading, nevertheless true, to say (contrary to all pretense and ideology) that our oikos (as it is called in Greek)— the house of human existence—cannot be understood by regarding the human individual as a natural being, and the logos which claims this lie to us. Ecology, then, is the wrong answer to the right question: How do we live? Man is not the dilettante among creatures, wanting in ability and therefore satisfied in all things. The “professionalization of our global behavior and relations” occurring as instrumental technology and thus only in perverted form, reveals the core of our existence: We are the artificial beings by nature. The human individual lives in accord with the cosmic home as a worldly-wise technician, and not as a nature-happy dreamer!
Learning from nature, finding natural ways of life, an ethics of partnership between human beings and nature—these are hopes necessarily betrayed. For we ourselves are the ones who suddenly take nature’s standpoint so as to sneak a legitimation which can never be ours. We may strive for such an identification with nature, the phenomenon of the whole, but as individual beings our claim is insupportable. Hegel called such immediacy plain “terror.” But is it not in fact possible, many might object, to learn quite a number of things from nature? The integration into the biotope, the alternation of tensing and relaxing, the feedback process, to name only a few elements of a possible anthropology of technology. But does this withstand a critical inquiry? Who is really learning here—is it not that pursuant and shrewd subject of metaphysics who sees and hears what he wants to hear and see?
AK: What possibilities, in your opinion, does humanity have to reconcile its existence with what can be called a "natural given"? Since you are to some extent an adherent of eco-sophia, can I assume that an ethical relationship of human beings to the natural world is still possible.
WS: We human beings cannot, however, resolve not to be subject any longer. From our eating habits to information satellites, our actions would still testify against us. For this reason, Heidegger’s radical criticism of subjectivity (a principal part of his thinking) remains as theoretically influential as it does inconsequential in practice. Even with an ecological ethics, we still remain interested in ourselves: our “concern” (Sorge) is in no way for “Being itself,” as would be proper for the human individual existing as “openness for Being” to overcome Being, according to Heidegger. And so, the attempts to discover the other, the “wild one in us,” are marked by an unyielding ambiguity. But what remains true is reviving the stifled senses and awakening those never discovered in us, and training our poetic sensibility which we systematically spoil and shatter in daily life. If we should succeed in this, at least to some small extent, we would then “feel” differently and experience a person seemingly worlds apart from that suspicious subjectivity. Everyone is capable of developing an “aesthetic self.” By rejecting the habitual blocking out of the aesthetic perspective of the whole, and by admitting the inherited thin-skinnedness of our species, we free ourselves from the prison of our perception in which our fear of the unknown causes us to live. We hold out bravely in openness, trust unconcealment, we are poets of life, and we would not be “entirely different individuals” only in our daydreams if, yes, if only it were not for the technological world “disturbing” so violently and threateningly. To want to “switch off” this technology (at least occasionally) or to press it into our service, as we are unflaggingly led to believe possible, is a futile labor of love. That which disturbs and is also increasingly destroying our human world indicates (even if only negatively) how the human individual really lives, as well as what his ethics should be like.
We must accept this negative indication, whether or not it fits our customary notion of humanism. Eco-Sophia is wisdom, not knowledge, and as concrete intuition it precedes the division of theory and practice. Taking the road of science—and be it the new science of ecology—would still only lead us to the relation between man and nature and to a deontic ethics. But this would present a deteriorated version of the human being and merely proves itself organically, not humanely. Our biological structure tells us nothing about our humanity.
Eco-Sophia takes seriously that which is concealed, the nascent human being, still, and perhaps always, in concealedness. Moments of true humanness burst forth suddenly, briefly. This “flashing” (Aufblitzen) in the aesthetic experience as in the ethical process of fulfilling cannot be accommodated in a one-dimensional determination, in a definition of the human being, that is, which includes only the obvious about us or what has been cleverly raised to a conscious level. On a metaphysical scale, that aspect of the humane life form that does not impose itself does not have anything human about it. This is true for the divine poet as well as for those devices by which we make a bare living. And that which is ecosophically of the greatest significance is then scorned as a tool and mere means to the preservation of life. Language and cities alike can speak of this from bitter experience!
How reluctant we really are to part with the traditional image of man, despite our pretense at being severe critics of subjectivity, is proven by our fierce resistance when computers and robots are called “flesh of our flesh.” Ironically, this resistance intensifies the closer the cybernetic machines come to approximating those human characteristics which we have reserved for ourselves alone: thought, imagination, learning from mistakes. But by the advent of the fifth generation of computers at the latest, a generation which, despite independent programming, will actually still represent the computer stone age, by this time the game of hide-and-seek will end. For here will emerge, without a doubt, a new form of human intelligence: as “artificial intelligence,” it will be as natural as breathing from a certain stage of evolution on. Within the confines of metaphysics, how human beings live appears distorted as a symbiosis of man and cybernetic machine.
AK: What could be the new ethics of human relations with the living environment today?
WS: If ethics is to have a sense today, it must mean a guide to action which will keep us alive. For this reason, all those constructs which sound good in theory but are of no use in the practice of the technological world have already been rejected. Kant’s categorical imperative comes under this heading, as do the newest drafts of an ecological ethics, for they follow the logic of the human individual as a “privileged” being, one distinguished above all from nature, although they should resist precisely this presumption. The truth of a phenomenon remains true even in its distortion, throughout a false expression of its trueness. And so as perverse as it may seem to be in metaphysical categories, it nevertheless appears true that the basis of a humane ethics beyond anthropocentrism is beginning to emerge in the symbiosis of man and cybernetic machine. Understood ecosophically, the Ereignis Technik, the disclosure of appropriation of technology through which technology comes into its own, is this symbiosis; it is our attainment of maturity, which enables us to live the cosmic form of life befitting us. Indeed, there is precious little of this to be seen in the Frankenstein reality of instrumental technology whose best artificial intelligence merely simulates atomic wars. The new, potential technicians would rather pursue biodynamic agriculture and celebrate archaic rites in wood and stone.
The “New Age” disciples manage though to live quite comfortably in the niches of the old age! Their “No” to the present and “Yes” to the future is not without willfulness, violence, for even in resistance it is bound to the metaphysical way of life and its principle of reality. Nowhere is the absence of Eco-Sophia felt more painfully than in the fruitless opposition of the alternative culture to the most modern technologies. And yet, a genetic technician with the inner attitude of a Francis of Assisi (to give an example not at all eccentric) would never be in danger of committing acts in any way monstrously degenerate.
The “step back” through metaphysics, following Heidegger’s thinking, in no way leads to a “Being” renovated by temporality. For the “danger” which threatens to destroy us is one of Being itself. Not surprisingly, this insight of Heidegger’s is suppressed more often than not. At the end of “The Danger,” Heidegger says: in the “entrapping” of modern technology that “Being itself (seyn) pursues its own essence (wesen) with the oblivion of this essence”. Rarely in the history of philosophy has this been said so harshly. A new destining, a sending forth of Being, if it were possible and if it were called “self-referential structure” (Heinrich Rombach) would not escape the fatal pull of an imposing, willful process. “Fourfold thinking” and the finite disclosure of appropriation which shapes our life would actually remain a philosophical glass bead game if the disclosing in the fourfold were not also “inscribed” in the cybernetic machines. For these are—perhaps more clearly than their more primitive predecessors—the beginning of differentiated responses to the humane life situation and not merely makeshift solutions. As mad as it sounds, the military-industrial complex holds the intellectual reserves of humankind, and in the destructive instrumental technology lies our life technology. The once unimaginably complex web of our actions and sufferings can become our own through various techniques which know no rift in theory and practice, through a simultaneous understanding and integration, for the diversity of masks and fashions alters nothing in the finite disclosure of appropriation of human beings. The “biocybernetic network” (Frederic Vester) is certainly never strong enough for reality, not strong enough to capture its sense, but for us it may suffice in discovering whether our life technology keeps its promises.
AK: Can humanity have hope, and what can be the justification for human existence?
WS: What status do such deliberations have; how real are they? Are we not dealing with mere superficial post-metaphysical dreams which make concrete action more difficult? A test of reality would actually have to have devastating results. No technician of today would agree to surrendering his instruments; he will concede only their improvement. No society, no matter how democratic it purports to be, will do without socio-technological thought control. The political systems are at irreconcilable odds with one another and bristling with arms; there is no lack of “small wars.” The sovereignty of states, this disastrous counterpart to the subjectivity of the individual, is defended more jealously than ever. The Third World has fallen desperately ill with ecological problems but is capable of little more than aggressive begging, thereby dying of hunger at the end of the outstretched arms of the industrialized nations. A world government is nowhere in sight, whereby the question remains open whether this would be truly desirable.
As long as there are states, there will be no true knowledge about the human individual, for we are keeping ourselves concealed and fear the sanctions of the rulers. Our private life is a defense technology necessary against the crude political technology—the state! The ignorance of the essential questions of our time has increased despite, or perhaps precisely because of, the flood of information. The overinformed citizen now chooses the assumed security of traditional solutions but will still only gain an ever more apparent ungovernability in public matters. But institutions and artifacts are long-lived; the walls will still be standing and the advertising billboards will still be legible when there is no longer anyone alive who knows their meaning. Does only a negative ethics remain for Eco-Sophia, does it rest with this bearer of wisdom to teach us as a species to die and to issue the death certificate for humankind with the exact date to be filled in later?
The situation is hopeless, but this is our conception. This does not claim that the idea of our imagining with all its consequences is easily abandoned, or even could be. For Arthur Schopenhauer, this was an irrevocable part of the condition humaine. But it is just as true (and Schopenhauer did concede this for the lifestyle of the saint) that each new generation is capable of radically changing the conditions of human life. Never has this been simpler and more obvious than in the technological world, where the headlong rush to change the end of our desire for security is proclaimed—against our will perhaps, but in accordance with our life technology. Basic technologies which are as “natural” as breathing for us grant unrequested security, and thus allow us those “turnings,” up against which no signature of any age, no matter how distinct, can remain recognizable. The leap without a net, the renunciation of substance, the ease of thought are metaphors of the artist’s existence, foretold us by Friedrich Nietzsche in Zarathustra. What once only the mystics dared and what had to destroy them will become common practice in the technological world. Zarathustra’s brothers and sisters are the dancing technician, the joyful saint, the anarchic ethicist. They leave no stone standing, and so we finally begin to live as human beings—but without being aware of it! The art of living humanely depends on imperceptibility as well as impermanence. The ethics of Eco-sophia is an event prior to our knowledge of it.
Doctor of Medical Sciences, Professor, Department of Psychology, St. Petersburg Academy of Postgraduate Pedagogical Education (St. Petersburg, Russian Federation)
Reference for citations
Kopytin, A.I. (2021). Eco-Sophia: An interview with Wolfgang Schirmacher. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 2(1). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y)
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