Philosophy of the Acrobat: On Peter Sloterdijk

By Keith Ansell-PearsonJuly 8, 2013

    Philosophy of the Acrobat: On Peter Sloterdijk

    The Art of Philosophy by Peter Sloterdijk. Columbia University Press. 0

    You Must Change Your Life by Peter Sloterdijk. Polity. 0

    PETER SLOTERDIJK MUST BE the most erudite man currently dwelling on the planet. He has fresh and novel insights into whatever he’s discussing at any particular moment. His recently translated book You Must Change Your Life is a tour de force that engages the history of philosophy, religion, and thought, both Western and Eastern, in ways that make you think deeply about the evolution of the human being these past few thousand years. As if this weren’t already enough, Sloterdijk is also concerned with the future, and on a planetary scale. Where are we heading? Where do we wish to go? More to the point, where must we go? How must we change our lives? Sloterdijk thinks there is a new global ecological and economic imperative facing us today, and to this we need to respond with a new sublime.

    As Stuart Elden has pointed out in his introduction to Sloterdijk Now (Polity, 2012), Sloterdijk writes two kinds of books: short, and sometimes polemical, interventions, of which The Art of Philosophy is an instance (first published in Germany in 2010); and longer, wide-ranging, and often digressive examinations of a large topic from a variety of perspectives, of which You Must Change Your Life is an excellent example (first published in Germany in 2009). The Art of Philosophy can be considered a short companion piece, focused on what philosophy is, to the sprawling and more complex You Must Change Your Life, which deals not only with philosophy but also with religion, art, and science. In what follows, I’ll consider both books together.

    You Must Change Your Life begins by considering a thesis that has rapidly gained ground in the intellectual and cultural world, namely, that in recent years we have been witnessing, after a godless century, the return of religion and, as a result, intellectuals must reckon seriously with its renewed presence. Are we not now living in a world, the thesis goes, in which the achievements of the Enlightenment show themselves to be so many banalities? From a global 21st-century perspective, couldn’t the Enlightenment simply be seen as an anomaly? Whilst “we in the West” have glorified disillusionment, in the rest of the world there are millions of believers — indeed, the Western glorification of disillusionment may itself qualify as just another kind of belief. Sloterdijk, for his part, finds the “return of religion” thesis superficial — as he does the work of the enemies of religion such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and he proposes a new understanding of what is taking place.

    The thesis that religion has returned after the alleged failure of the Enlightenment project needs to be confronted, Sloterdijk argues, with a clearer view of what we can legitimately consider as “spiritual facts.” Such a consideration shows that the return to and of religion is impossible since, so goes Sloterdijk’s initial contention, religion does not, in fact, exist. Instead, what exist are only misunderstood spiritual regimens. All human life requires the cultivation of matters of body and soul, and all philosophies and religions have attended to this fundamental feature of our existence. By this view, any clear-cut dichotomy of believers and unbelievers falls away. In place of this dichotomy, we should distinguish between the practicing and the untrained, or those who train differently.

    In one especially illuminating part of the book, Sloterdijk considers the Church of Scientology and the ideas of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. With wit and irony, he takes Hubbard to be one of the greatest enlighteners of our times who, albeit involuntarily, increased our knowledge about the nature of religion: “After Hubbard, it is clear once and for all that the most effective way of showing that religion does not exist is to establish one’s own.” In The Art of Philosophy, he points out that the term “religion” is a Christian one that fails to do justice to the Indian, Chinese, Iranian, Jewish, and ancient European philosophical systems of leading one’s life. The ancient schools of philosophy were part of “training cultures” that were focused on the tasks of ethical self-transformation. Their aim was to align human agents to a cosmic order or a divine canon.

    Sloterdijk complicates his bold and simple thesis in You Must Change Your Life by acknowledging that something is indeed returning today, though it’s not religion as is commonly supposed. He sees this recurring element as more anthropological than religious in its implications. It centers on what he calls “the recognition of the immunitary constitution of human beings.” Although human beings have been experimenting with new forms of life over the centuries, we now realize that we exist, irrespective of the ethnic, economic, and political situations that govern our lives, in “symbolic immune systems and ritual shells.” In short, we cannot simply approach philosophical anthropology as if a focus on the material conditions of human existence were sufficient to understand human beings. So, Sloterdijk’s argument goes, we need a new anthropological approach. He calls this new approach — perhaps a little too coolly and rationally, as he himself notes — “anthropotechnics.”

    I would agree with him that it is a coolly rational approach that is needed if we are to arrive at an adequate understanding of the complex animal that is the human being, and to contribute to its future well-being, health, and flourishing. As Nietzsche demanded in his middle period — in texts such as Human, All Too Human; The Dawn; and The Gay Science — there is a need to temper the emotional and mental excess of our overheating culture. Sloterdijk’s book makes a major contribution to this cause, helping to cure intellectuals of their own inflammatory tendencies.

    In addition to this Nietzschean influence, Sloterdijk is also inspired by Wittgenstein’s ambition of putting an end to “chatter about ethics.” Indeed, one could contend that he aims to replace “ethics” with “anthropotechnics” so as to better understand the actual practices of human beings. He wishes to give a new truth to the insight developed by Marx and the Young Hegelians in the 1840s that contends that “man produces man”: in short, the human being is never given to itself or to anything else, but produces and reproduces its own conditions of existence and as a project of personal development, even an adventure. Sloterdijk, however, differs from Marx and the Hegelians in not wanting to place the stress on labor or work as the key category by which to understand this self-forming process of man. He proposes that the language of work be transfigured into that of “self-forming and self-enhancing behaviour.” We need, then, to go beyond both the myth of homo faber and of homo religiosus and to understand the human being as a creature that results from repetition. As he notes, humans live in habits, not in territories. If the 19th century can be viewed as standing under the sign of production, and the 20th century under the sign of reflexivity, then we need to grasp the future under the sign of the exercise. None of this refining and purifying work is without significance for our understanding of the human animal, since it holds the potential for unlocking anew the secrets of the human animal, including a reinvigoration of the key words by which we understand our so-called spiritual life, words such as “piety,” “morality,” “ethics,” and “asceticism.”

    Clearly, this is a continuation of some fundamental sort of the Enlightenment project, and Sloterdijk admits to such a commitment. Indeed, he calls his task an “Enlightenment-conservative enterprise” that rests on an interest in preservation. On the one hand, there is the desire to hold onto the continuum of cumulative knowledge that represents the Enlightenment and its inheritance. On the other, Sloterdijk is keen to pick up the threads, some of which are millennia old, that connect us to early manifestations of human knowledge about practice. To a large extent it’s a task of making the implicit explicit, and Sloterdijk concedes that his work is part of a rich set of traditions of intellectual inquiry. The thinkers and traditions he relies upon to animate his core theses are of an astonishing range: he references Buddhist, Biblical, and Stoic sources, including the mythical author of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali.

    Nietzsche is a constant presence throughout the book (as he is throughout Sloterdijk’s corpus). Sloterdijk relies in particular on Nietzsche’s text of 1887, On the Genealogy of Morality, and for obvious reasons: it is a far-reaching study of human asceticism. Personally, I would have preferred it if Sloterdijk had made use of the neglected texts of Nietzsche’s middle period, those “witty and graceful” books as Michel Foucault called them, in which Nietzsche is at his Enlightenment best, taking religion and traditional moral schemes to task. Nietzsche is here the great moral skeptic and Enlightenment educator, warning us against the dangers of fanaticism, be it moral, religious, or even philosophical (he is especially critical of the “tarantula of morality,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau). Contra the “bloody quackery” of the French Revolution, Nietzsche favors an approach to self-cultivation and social transformation based on the need for slow cures and small doses, amounting to a veritable philosophy of the morning, which presages so many new dawns, dawns of knowledge and self-overcoming.

    For Sloterdijk, the novelty of the new stems from what he sees as an unfolding of the known into large, brighter, and more richly contoured surfaces. This means that innovation in an absolute sense is not possible since it’s always a continuation of the cognitively existent. However, if we wish to appeal to cognitive novelty that has far-reaching consequences, we can do no better than refer to the appearance of immune systems in late 19th-century biology since here nothing can remain the same, including scientific concepts such as animal organisms, species, societies, and cultures. This biology deeply informs his novel ecological thinking about so-called ethics and moral matters. Understanding the various functions of immune systems can help us get a grip on the behavior we call “religious” or “spiritual” in the sphere of human existence. As Sloterdijk writes, “For every organism, its environment is its transcendence, and the more abstract and unknown the danger from that environment, the more transcendent it appears.” It’s a view that’s poetically expressed in a famous line from Rainer Maria Rilke’s eighth Duino Elegy: “The creature gazes into the open with all its eyes.” Or, one could say: life is an exodus that relates inner concerns to an environment.

    This conception of life leads Sloterdijk to a concern with the “auto-therapeutic” and “endo-clinical” competencies of human organisms and forms of life. This is not to “biologize” the human animal since, as Sloterdijk points out, the human being is made up of a multiplicity of immune systems and not just the biological one, including socio-immunological methods as well as symbolic or psycho-immunological practices. With the latter, for example, the task is to learn how to deal and cope with our psychic and social vulnerability, as well as with the brute and stupid fact of our mortality. Ultimately, the aim is an ambitious one: with the aid of the notion of practice Sloterdijk seeks to overcome the gap between biology and culture, or between natural processes (on the one hand) and human actions (on the other). For him there is no ontological dualism — say between natural events and the work of freedom — by which one can preserve the integrity of the spiritual realm from naturalistic interference. However, Sloterdijk is after something more than naturalism.

    This brings us close to understanding the essential task of You Must Change Your Life. In large part it involves a further reinvention of the idea of philosophy (or religion) as a way of life, and so it continues the pioneering work of the French historian of ancient philosophy, Pierre Hadot, and Foucault’s late work. The book is an attempt to write the biography of homo immunologicus and focuses on the mental and physical methods by which human beings from diverse cultures and civilizations have sought to optimize their “cosmic and immunological status” in the face of the risks of life and the certainties of death. That this still remains for him an ethical task, as opposed to one of mere genetic engineering — which is how some interpret the need for anthropotechnics today — is evident in the title he gives to the work: you must change your life. For Sloterdijk the human being is above all a creature of repetition and artistry, the “human in training” as he puts it, or which we could call shaping and self-shaping. Not only is the earth the ascetic planet par excellence, as Nietzsche contended, it’s also the acrobatic planet par excellence.

    Sloterdijk contends that human beings are always subject to “vertical tensions” in all periods and in all cultural areas: “Wherever one encounters human beings, they are embedded in achievement fields and status classes.” I take Sloterdijk to be referring in general terms to the self-surpassing tendencies of the human animal, or its perfectionist aspirations. Thus, he recalls at the outset the Platonic Socrates, saying that man is the being who is potentially superior to himself. He takes this to indicate that all cultures and subcultures rely on distinctions by which the field of human possibilities gets subdivided into polarized classes: religious cultures are founded on the distinction between the sacred and the profane; aristocratic cultures base themselves on the distinction between the noble and the common; military cultures establish a distinction between the heroic and the cowardly; athletic cultures have the distinction between excellence and mediocrity; cognitive cultures rely on and cultivate a distinction between knowledge and ignorance; and so on. There is thus in humans an upward-tending trait, and this means for Sloterdijk that when one encounters humans, one will always find acrobats. One great modern “myth” of our time that captures this, and the idea of verticality in general, is that of Nietzsche’s tale in Thus Spoke Zarathustra of the being that is fastened on a rope between animal and superhuman. What model of vertical perfection and “progress” is encapsulated in this idea?

    This is where matters get controversial in Sloterdijk’s study since he is dealing with matters such as training in the sense of “breeding” that have a highly dubious history. However, here he endeavors to be dexterous in his appreciation of projects that aim to fashion new human beings. On the one hand, he takes seriously Nietzsche’s seemingly fantastical ideas about the ?bermensch; on the other, he is severely critical of the “Soviet” attempt to create a new human and a new society by means of large-scale social and technological engineering. In reading Nietzsche, Sloterdijk does not find a biological or eugenics program (in spite of all the talk about “breeding” in Nietzsche), but an artistic and acrobatic discourse in which the emphasis is on training, discipline, education, and self-design. As Nietzsche has Zarathustra say, one builds over and beyond oneself — but to do this well one needs to be built first “four-square in body and soul.” The human subject needs to be seen as a carrier of “exercises,” made up of, on the passive side, an aggregate of individuated effects of habitus, and, on the active side, a center of competencies that allow for some minimal sense of self-direction and self-mastery. Should we thus not calmly agree with Nietzsche that egotism is but “merely the despicable pseudonym of the best human possibilities”?

    For Sloterdijk, Nietzsche is an “event.” In The Art of Philosophy, he shares the view of Albert Schweitzer that Nietzsche is the next major Western ethical teacher after Socrates and Jesus. In You Must Change Your Life, his writings are said to denote an epochal shift in human self-understanding in which we move from metaphysics to “general immunology,” and for Sloterdijk this is an event in human consciousness that modern philosophy, sociology, and theology have failed to comprehend. Nietzsche is important, then, not because he says completely new things about the human condition — as Sloterdijk points out, the call for man’s superelevation has been around since ancient times and forms a key component in the mission of Christianity — but because he raises the level of articulation in the process that Sloterdijk calls “anthropotechnic explication.” Nietzsche argued that we were experiments and urged us to want to become such. Indeed, in a note, which Sloterdijk likes to return to throughout the book, Nietzsche says he wants asceticism to become natural again and outlines a schema of a new “spiritual” life for humans.

    There is, of course, a dark side to the story Sloterdijk is telling us in You Must Change Your Life. This centers on programs for social engineering and the re-engineering of humans that has been a hallmark of social modernity since 1789. Sloterdijk thus speaks of “the moral-historical caesura of the Modern Age” as an era in which there is a change from “individual metanoia” to a mass reconstruction of the human condition from the roots, as it were. Modernity is in part, therefore, to be understood as the process that radically secularizes and collectivizes the life of practice by removing asceticisms from their spiritual contexts and dissolving them “in the fluid of modern societies of training, education, and work.” Now, the disciplinary measures and imperatives of modernity establish themselves on all fronts of human self-intensification. In the modern period, we have witnessed the conversion of Europe into a training camp for human improvements on a multitude of fronts, such as the school, the military context, as well as the arts and sciences.

    For Sloterdijk, we misunderstand the Russian Revolution if we understand it simply as a political event. It’s better comprehended as an anthropotechnic movement in a socio-political guise. Bolshevism was an experiment in biopolitics, a politics of absolute means, a “culture of camps” that invoked the French Revolution and took over the sanctification of terror of the Jacobins. Sloterdijk thus contends that the birth of modern extremism as an entrepreneurial form can be dated precisely to September 5, 1918, when Lenin decreed on Red Terror, stating that enemies needed to be incarcerated in camps and eliminated step by step. Sloterdijk is unforgiving in his criticism: “While the denial of Nazi crimes is rightly treated as a punishable crime in some countries, the atrocities of the Marxist archipelago are still considered peccadilloes of history in some circles.” Sloterdijk judiciously alerts us to the dangers of moralism, indeed, of the inclination towards “moral-demonic excess.” He astutely notes that the 20th century was the most instructive period in world history for understanding man-made catastrophes. What was demonstrated in the century was the fact that the greatest “disaster complexes” came about in the form of projects designed to assume control of the course of history from a single center of action.

    Sloterdijk appeals to the inevitability of a normative component in the activity of theory. He argues that a study of this kind, which is basically an exercise in “practice-anthropology,” cannot be simply carried out in a detached and unbiased fashion. He contends that every discourse on man goes beyond the limits of description and pursues a normative agenda (whether this is made explicit or not). He maintains that this was in fact clearly visible in the early Enlightenment of Europe and at a time when anthropology was established as the original civil science.

    So, what does he offer his readers by way of a conclusion? In his final reflections on the imperative, “you must change your life,” the voice Rilke heard speaking to him at the Louvre, he notes that it has departed from its point of origin and is now part of the general zeitgeist. Being a call that cannot be neutralized into a mere statement of fact, the imperative continues to live on as an articulation of “the motto that arranges the innumerable chaotic particles of information into a concise moral form.” Once again, there is an appeal to Nietzsche since it is he who best understood the mode in which the ethical imperative needs to be conveyed in modern times (rather like his strange exhortation for us to become the ones that we are), namely, in the form of a command that establishes an unconditional overtaxing, such as demanding the impossible of oneself. Of course, the model for this ethical becoming is to be found best articulated in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. This may not be the wisest model of self-becoming to draw out from Nietzsche today, given its romantic idealization and moralization. I prefer the Nietzsche who calls for modesty in moral matters, who labors against moral fanaticism, and who remains focused on the smallest and closest things.

    Sloterdijk appeals also to the sublime in his concluding reflections, claiming that if you hear the call without defenses, then you will experience the sublime in a personally addressed form. Here the sublime refers to the “overwhelming” and is as personal as death and as unfathomable as the world. Typically, the sublime refers to states of elevation. The word itself is derived from the Latin “sublimis,” which is a combination of “sub” (under), and “limen” (a lintel or the top piece of a door, suggesting threshold); thus, in the Oxford English Dictionary the sublime is defined as “set high up or raised aloft.” The treatise by Longinus, of uncertain date but typically ascribed to the first century CE, Peri Hypsous, translated as On the Sublime, On Greatness, or On Eloquence, literally means “On the Height,” and the text is concerned with showing how our natural gifts can be led to states of elevation. Sloterdijk fails to refer to Nietzsche’s critique of the sublime in his middle and late periods of writing, where it is precisely identified with the so-called profound and overwhelming. Nietzsche is much more interested in beauty (see his critique of “the sublime ones” in Zarathustra). Sloterdijk is on firmer footing when he notes that today the only authority that is still in a position to exhort us to change our lives is the global crisis. “Humanity” needs to become a political concept, he argues, in which a romanticism of brotherliness is replaced by a logic of co-operation and in which the members of this humanity are not naïve travellers on some ship of fools, such as Enlightenment ideas of abstract universalism, but “workers on the consistently concrete and discrete project of a global immune design.”

    For Sloterdijk, there remains an important lesson to be learned from the example of Communism: although it had a few correct ideas and innumerable wrong ones, the reasonable part of Communism consisted in its recognition that the shared interests of life require for their realization a horizon of universal co-operative asceticisms. It’s this communism of the future that, for Sloterdijk, will have to assert itself sooner or later, pressing the need for a “macrostructure of global immunization” or “co-immunism.” In short, we need to make the decision to take on the good habits of “shared survival in daily exercises.” Sloterdijk leaves it to us, his readers, to work out the ethical and political details of this ecological conception of a new future humanity.


    Keith Ansell-Pearson has published widely, with a concentration on the work of figures such as Nietzsche, Bergson, and Deleuze.

    LARB Contributor

    Keith Ansell-Pearson has published widely, with a concentration on the work of figures such as Nietzsche, Bergson, and Deleuze, and has presented lectures around the world, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the USA. He serves on the editorial boards of, among others, Cosmos and History and Deleuze Studies.


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