Robert Spaemann’s contributions

Till Kinzel memorializes the departed Robert Spaemann:

In 1978, a major conference called Mut zur Erziehung (“Courage to Educate”) took place in Bonn, which Spaemann had co-organized and for which he had co-authored various papers that rejected the major tenets of ‘emancipatory’ pedagogy. Instead, Spaemann and his colleagues emphasized the continuing relevance of old anthropological wisdom concerning the virtues of discipline, industry, and order. These could not be jettisoned to achieve some easy and equally distributed happiness, as was often suggested by those refusing to accept any kind of ‘repression’.

As a philosopher, Spaemann aimed at presenting “rational objections against the abstract utopia of the radical emancipatory rule of reason”. This could only be regarded by critics as a dangerous vision that would ultimately undermine plurality and provide the ideological legitimation for the use of violence against those resisting this alleged rule of reason. But Spaemann repeatedly raised his voice in defence of the freedom of the press and argued against political correctness. He was neither a partisan of the left nor of the right, which he saw as modernist phenomena: “I am not modern,” he once declared in an interview. And recently, in October 2017, Spaemann was one of the co-signers of the so-called “Paris Statement”, the conservative manifesto formally titled “A Europe We Can Believe In”, which is a re-statement and affirmation of the civilizational inheritance of Europe which was promulgated by a group of European philosophers and thinkers in opposition to the “fashionable abstractions of our age”.

Spaemann also criticized other developments in areas beyond mere philosophy. In modern science, the concept of nature had undergone a significant change: It became ‘de-teleologized’. Beginning with Francis Bacon, philosophers had suggested that one should never ask the question ‘why?’ in connection with natural phenomena. Only causal explanations were acceptable, so that in the course of the modern era, a teleological understanding of nature became anathema. Spaemann, in contrast, together with his colleague Reinhard Löw, opened up the debate on the meaning and ‘directedness’ of nature and human beings by examining the history — and the re-discovery — of teleological thinking in a work entitled Die Frage Wozu? Geschichte und Wiederentdeckung des teleologischen Denkens (1981). In this and later works, nature as such again became an issue, with immense consequences also for ecological thinking. Spaemann’s ‘conservatism’, therefore, always put a strong emphasis on the protection of the environment.

The concept of nature also relates to another feature of Spaemann’s ethical and political thought — namely, that which can perhaps be called a ‘modern version’ of natural right. He did not suggest that this could take the form of a ‘catalogue of norms’ but rather should be considered a way of thinking that enables human beings to ask about the justice of laws and their justifications. Understood in this way, ‘natural right’ remains vitally important.

One of the major fields in which Spaemann has certainly left his biggest mark is ethics. In his various writings on ethics, he offered reflections on major issues of modern society, such as the ethically problematic character of nuclear power, assisted suicide, and the biological manipulation of human beings — particularly abortion. Spaemann was one of the most emphatic defenders of the right to life. He also did not refrain from producing popular radio lectures (his Moralische Grundbegriffe of 1982 is notable) as well as a handy anthology of key ethical texts titled Ethik-Lesebuch: Von Platon bis heute (1987).

The character of human beings as persons became a focal point for Spaemann’s later thought, particularly in his 1996 work, Personen: Versuche über den Unterschied zwischen ‘etwas’ und ‘jemand’ (Persons: Essays on the Distinction between ‘Something’ and ‘Someone’). For Spaemann, this implied the recognition of all human beings as persons, even if not all thinkable criteria for personhood should be actualized in a given case. Especially in these cases, he argued, we should recognize the other’s humanity; and a test case for a civilized society, according to Spaemann, is ensuring that this humanity — even of retarded or handicapped people — is not put into question.

Spaemann’s deeply humane reasoning offers important succour against all attempts to negate the value of some people’s lives by claiming that they are not ‘proper’ persons. Many of his ethical reflections, as well as his more overtly political interventions, were later collected in a volume significantly titled Grenzen: Zur ethischen Dimension des Handelns (Limits: On the Ethical Dimension of Actions), published in 2001. To think about ‘limits’ implies taking a critical distance towards modernity. This also led Spaemann to criticize attempts to preserve ‘tradition’ without asking the crucial question whether what Plato said is true. Thus, the actual content of our intellectual traditions needs to be taken seriously instead of merely talking about secondary issues, such as the question over what the functions of a given body of thought might be under certain conditions. According to Spaemann, it is not enough to say that prima philosophia (metaphysics) is important; one actually has to practice it.

“He was neither a partisan of the left nor of the right, which he saw as modernist phenomena…”