Odo Marquard Inverview, Pt. 2

Part 2 of Marquard’s interview in Skepticism in Modernity. (You can find Part 1 here; and an explanatory/translator’s note here). 

JH: What was the catalyst that led you to occupy yourself with the philosophy of history?

OM: At first the philosophy of history was not my central problem. Some of my favorite books early on were Burckhardt’s World-Historical Meditations and Max Weber’s The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (‘This is how serious scientific works are supposed to look!’). And I had also in my third and fourth semester minored in history. But the central entryway into philosophy was art (architecture, painting: I had at first during my studies painted almost more than I wrote). The decisive philosophy for me was aesthetics; and my interest was quickened by Joachim Ritter’s masterful lectures on that subject. My philosophical area of expertise quickly became German Idealism: Kant, Schiller, Schelling. I came to the philosophy of history, then, in trying to grasp the relationship between aesthetics and reality: that led straightaway to the philosophy of history. György Lukács played an important role after 1950; he moved Marx into my field of view. For awhile around 1954 I held that a philosophy of the history of rejecting the philosophy of history would be advisable. This led to ever harder Difficulties with the Philosophy of History [Schwierigkeiten mit der Geschichtsphilosophie, the title of a book by Marquard: Surkhamp Verlag 1973]. Up to about 1960 the decisive idea was this: the process of the philosophy of history comes out of the process of theodicy, and the autonomous philosophy of history—which established a decisive motif (or motive) within German Idealism—is a secularized theodicy, a theodicy through the death of god. (“Theodicy succeeds, God dies,” so to speak). From then on I have—with ever stronger emphasis on human finitude—increasingly criticized the philosophy of history: ultimately by rejecting the Utopia of a unitary and autonomous history of world-progress and this-worldly redemption, and embracing a philosophical—and a historico-philosophical—pluralism. This rejection of the philosophy of history became concrete after 1968, and it brought me to hold a liberal-conservative political position. It brought me to the idea, which had not in the beginning lay in my field of view, to see something of value in some of the conservatives in the administration: the burden of proof lay on the activists.

JH: Discussing Francis Fukuyama, you have written that the “the portentous end of the philosophy of history” is not the end of history itself, but rather a “turning back in history.” But toward what are we turning back?

OM: Toward history. Toward the vicissitudes of the now-irksome, now-happy experience of contingencies, with a conflictual politics, and if the case is favorable a civil world.

JH: You have been described by some as a thinker who made conservatism in Germany fit for the postmoderns. Or put negatively: you count as an expert of postmodern arbitrariness, which makes you all for a valediction to matters of principle. You sing the praises of polytheism, of diversity and plurality. But at the same time you continually announce another theme: the future requires tradition. What sort of traditions, origins, what sort of pedigree or ancestry do we need, and above all: how can we know what we need?

OM: I’m afraid that shoe doesn’t fit me. In 1986 I wrote an essay, “Against the Postmoderns,” which is included in the opening passages of [Marquard’s book] Aesthetics and Anesthetics, which had the thesis: after the postmodern comes the modern. The postmodern is not an epoch. One must recognize “pluralistic dis/solution” as an old modernist motif, to which the skeptical tradition in moral philosophy and the modern sense of the separation of powers have long contributed. The speculation that the principles of philosophy tend in the direction of an absolute zero-degree is an otherworldly abstraction. We are not looking for an absolute zero-degree (or home position, home base) from which to derive a way of life; rather we are always dallying with different ways of life. We always have before us—in our “living before death”—ways of living, traditions, habituations: this is a completely non-arbitrary situation, which always hangs together with the arbitrariness of our lives. We don’t ‘seek out’ an absolute position for our ways of life, rather in every case arises the question—incompletely, fragmentarily—of whether we should leave behind some part of our way of life in favor of something different. This question—in which we are always historically entangled—is partially critical, not totally so. I approach it from within a bounded swarm of traditions and habitudes. I think that there is in this some kind of multicultural motif: I must live with the traditions and habitudes of others, in as tolerant a way as possible. But we do not have the ability—against all the insecurities that belong to this life—to toy with being wholly arbitrary beings who play with arbitrary traditions. An authentic or proper provenience is not indeterminate and undetermined but rather—insecurities and dangers notwithstanding—a specific one. My heritage or point of departures is the liberal-civic tradition that comes from antiquity (Aristotle above all), Christianity (with a slight Protestant bent), the conciliating form of Enlightenment, the skeptical tradition of moral philosophy. And we come to know this, what we need, not through comfortable aprioris, but rather through life experience.

[The next question deals more with Marquard’s teacher Joachim Ritter, and M’s politics. If you haven’t caught on yet, he’s fairly conservative. Ritter is an interesting writer on subjects touching philosophy of history].

JH: Aside from your being a fellow-traveler of the liberal-conservatives, you are often counted as a skeptic. On this point: does skepticism not become wearisome if the enemy to be dealt with has already come and gone, if there is no grand plan anymore against which a person can offer their arguments, when there remains only agreement, affirmation, and apology for western civilization? Or, to put this another way: where does the normative lie, Prof. Marquard?

OM: My self-identification as a skeptic (first of all, call it an ‘intermittent skepticism’) is older than my opposition to the philosophy of history and the ‘grand narrative’. At first, the skeptical method was just a philosophical theme, but later I came—especially strongly in the area of moralistics—to actually carry it out. Naturally the background of my skepticism is the trauma of national socialism: in the clarity of hindsight, I have put my fears and outrage and irritation upon the certainty of philosophical positions; I also belong to the ’skeptical generation’ (Schelsky). As a teacher and author I hate to present myself as some kind of missionary. Nor am I a missionary for skepticism. Even so, I am against the description of my form of skepticism as overly affirmative and too apologetic. I believe that it at least belongs to skepticism to break up the suppression of positivity and to overturn and transgress the idea that affirmation should be forbidden. We human beings are far too fragile to have the ability to peer into the “rosy cross of the present” (Hegel). […] My defense mechanisms absolve me not through philosophy, but through sleeping soundly: I am a denier of denialism, I take a negative view of the negative. The normative is before all else the small: the smaller the affirmation, the harder is it to mount a grand, heroic denial.

A Note on Translating Marquard

Odo Marquard’s philosophical language can at times seem plain and self-interpreting. It can even seem simple, but it’s a deceptive simplicity.

In the first part of the interview translation (below), Marquard talks about a notion developed elsewhere in his work: the Unvermeidlichkeit des Unverfügbaren. I translated this as the “unavoidability of the non-distributable.” It’s not a terrible interpretation: unvermeidlich clearly intends something that is inevitable, inescapable, ineluctable, or ‘necessary’ in the causal sense of that word. ‘Unavoidable’ retains the sense of something that befalls one, rather than something that entraps, and I think this is the sense Marquard has in mind. Unverfügbar presents a bit more difficulty. Prior to the negation by ‘un,’ verfügbar is usually translated as “available.” This is in English at least a tricky adjective, since it can mean something tangible or palpable (the money I have in the bank is what is available to me) as well as something abstract (as when a concept is said to be ‘available’ to human rationality, or we describe a person as ’emotionally unavailable’).

Verfügbar derives from the verb fügen, which appears in phrases with a wide range of meanings: to join two things together, to acquiesce (joining by agreement), to form a compact, to dispose in a particular arrangement, to comply, to go along with something, to pay deference to someone, or to accept something (ex. one’s fate). So what are die Unverfügbaren taken as a plural substantive? It seems to indicate ‘Those Things Which are (In Principle) Not Available,’ with available taken in a very inclusive sense.

I chose to translate this as ‘Non-Distributable,’ and while I’m not totally happy with it, I think it’s a defensible choice. The downside is that it seems to suggest something which is indivisible, and therefore unable to be parceled out. This is an unwelcome distraction from the sense of the original. The upside is that it hearkens to a ‘problem of distribution’ which influences Marquard’s understanding of theodicy and fate. It is the uneven distribution of goods and ills–here again defined in the broadest sense–that gives rise to the need to frame theodicies. Perhaps the most important aspect of the modern project has been that it seeks to take in hand, to make available, a whole host of things that were previously unavailable to us. We do this by constructing the goods ourselves, as well as constructing instruments intended for the suppression of ills. Nevertheless, there are still things that are profoundly unavailable to our human capacities. It is not that we can never have them, only that we cannot be sure when we will get them, if ever we do, nor who stands to get them in our stead. They remain beyond our power–not our power of attainment (for some will attain them) but our power of distribution.

In another translation of Marquard’s work, Farewell to Matters of Principle, Unvermeidlichkeit des Unverfügbaren is rendered as ‘The Inevitability of Things Over Which We Have No Power of Dispensation.’ This avoids the ambiguous suggestion that die Unverfügbaren are monadic or indivisible. But it also renders less explicit the connection to the problem of distribution which, I think, underpins and motivates Marquard’s reflections.


Why do we think images of stellar phenomena–say, nebulae or ringed planets or whatever–are aesthetically pleasing? (I assume most people think they are aesthetically pleasing; if you don’t I’d like to know why). It’s far from inevitable. What if we had built powerful telescopes and satellites, imaged the heavens, and found the images completely repulsive? On the whole they are far less repugnant than they might be, given their immensity and absolute indifference. We had to prepare ourselves for a long time to accept such images with anything less than total despair, and only part of this training had to do with theories of the sublime. Still, it probably isn’t a coincidence that telescopy and the revival of sublimity arrive so close to each other historically.

Odo Marquard Interview (Pt. 1)

Continuing on with the translations from Skepticism in Modernity, here is part one of an interview between Jens Hacke and Odo Marquard. 

Update: You can find part 2 here

“I’m A Denial Denialist” [Weigerungsverweigerer]

JH: As a pupil at an Adolf Hitler school, as a ‘Luftwaffenhelfer’ [child soldiers deployed during WWII], as a prisoner of war — can you describe what sort of historical sense the past sixty years have impressed upon you?

OM: You are talking about the period from my twelfth year up to the seventeenth year of my life. Mainly it seems to me that it was about an increasingly irritating sense of history, with two tendencies: half realistic assessment, and half a fear of the end and a fleeing into wishful thinking. The future appeared ever more to be the end, and yet there remained a duty to have faith in the nation. Perhaps I can describe it through a situation that took place at the end of March, 1945. At that time the visiting Inspector of the Adolf Hitler schools in the area of Teupitz / Gross Köris, Kurt Peter, called together all us kids who had just been enlisted into a Volkssturm battalion, and explained to us: (I summarize his little speech with my words): “The war is lost; now don’t play at being heroes.” I have accepted that as a disillusioning moment of clarity with a certain liberatory effect, but after that I still from time to time had some belief in the Wunderwaffen. This experience of ambiguity came to interest me later. So: national megalomania and the depressing experience of being at the end of things.

[The next question concerns Marquard’s view of postwar German politics, particularly the student movement in ’68 and its aftermath. Hacke raises the point that the ’68 movement had little institutional impact; but Marquard rejoins that eventually it became clear, to him at least, that the post-68, post-Cultural Revolution German nation is “no failed Revolution, but a successful democracy.”]

JH: In your work you have consistently drawn attention to contingency and fate, the “unavoidability of the non-distributable” [Unvermeidbarkeit des Unverfügbaren—to elaborate: the unavoidability of that which is given or distributed to people without their having any say in the matter, the obvious fact that we are not free to choose certain fundamental features of our lives]. Does it make any sense to spend time thinking about the “Big Plan”?

OM: The “unavoidability of the non-distributable” has become important for me—sadly—because history itself is not an activity following a grand plan, but rather a swarming mix of purposeful activity and events that just befall us [ein Gewimmel von Handlungs-Widerfahrnis-Gemischen]. It consists of both purposeful actions and contingengencies. In point of fact, I do not believe in the grand plan of the philosophy of history: it brings more sorrow than felicity. Partial plans are on the other hand important and much better, since more individuality comes into play there.

Translating Odo Marquard

I’ve been wondering what to do with this blog for some time. Most of my long-form scholarly stuff ends up on my academia.edu page, and most of my time goes toward producing long-form scholarly stuff. Well, that and everything else: teaching, walking the dog, drinking coffee and so on. 

But lately I’ve been doing some translations in my free time, mostly bringing over from the German essays by my favorite under-read philosopher, Odo Marquard. Marquard is an interesting thinker and writer. His short, witty essays cover a wide range of topics from aesthetics to the history of ideas. He already has two books translated into English: Farewell to Matters of Principle and In Defense of the Accidental. They’re both excellent; you should read them. 

I’m working on Skepsis in der Moderne, which was the last volume Marquard published before he passed away. I’m glad to finally have something to put on this blog, and very glad to possibly introduce Marquard to a wider English-language audience. Here’s the first essay: 

How Political Must an Author [Schriftsteller] Be?

Human beings—so wrote Aristotle—are political creatures. Authors are human beings. So, authors are political creatures as well. They can and must, therefore, be political like all human beings, indeed neither less nor more political than all other human beings.

Authors need—as do all human beings—life experience, in order to exist and for their profession. And politics is an essential field of human life experience, from which one will, if one wishes to be a human being and an author, stay only so far away as from other fields of human life experience: the scientific, the religious, the erotic, and so forth. It belongs to human beings and to authors to traverse the political field and to participate in it by means of their composition [Gestaltung; art, arrangement, forming].

Surely though, it does not follow from this that authors have a special status and advantageous constitution respecting the political. They are not in any especially important political position [politische Eigtenlichkeitsposition]; and wherever they claim this, they misunderstand their relationship to the political. The authors are not those who—in contrast to the rest of humanity—are privy to the actual political roadmap of the world, through some kind of special revelation. They are not those who—as the real guardians of what is politically correct, politically reasonable or good—must tell other people what kinds of political things they may and should do or think. Authors have no such special revelation; therefore they are not able to establish any political tribunal which they can somehow escape, because it is intended only for the others. Authors do not even enjoy a special competence or ability to express themselves in the domain of politics: their aptitude for sensitive political situations, and their passionate political discourses, are as a rule inexpert and, to say the least, narrow. When they express themselves politically, the expressions don’t constitute some political-priestly announcement, ex cathedra, of the world-spirit; rather, they are in themselves expressions that can be politically prudent and productive or—especially when authors preen themselves and seek after the feeling of being important—politically unwise and counterproductive. Political expressions from authors, as from all other citizens, are capable of stupidity, and therefore disputable; and that they are criticized, is therefore normal and no insult to the inherent dignity of an author, no act of grand impiety.

In political affairs—and here I will get right to the point—authors are average citizens: humans, like you and me. They have political positions. But, I repeat, they do not have any special and intrinsic political standing [Eigentlichkeitsposition]. No one should lament that those with political power don’t listen enough to the authors. Only when authors express sagacious policy in a politically savvy way, should anyone listen to them and do what they say. And this not because they are authors, but because they have uttered something wise, which they by no means always do. That in the field of the political evil will only cease when those with political power are wise authors, and the wise authors are invested with political power: this variant of Plato’s Philosophy-King state is just as erroneous as Plato’s Philosophy-King state itself, which more than any other opens itself to the danger that political power becomes callow, or naïveté becomes politically powerful.

Human beings—so wrote Aristotle—are political creatures. Authors are human beings. So, authors are political creatures as well. They can and must, therefore, be political like all human beings. That is, neither more nor less political than all other human beings.