“Been in America”: Interviews with German researchers in the USA and Canada

Lucian Ionel

Lucian Ionel

© Privat

(11/02/21) Through its research fellowship program, and since 2019 through the Walter Benjamin Program, the DFG supports junior scientists in their academic careers by funding an independent research project abroad and, since 2019, in Germany too. A large proportion of these fellowships are awarded in the USA and Canada, thereby reflecting the belief still prevalent in many disciplines that for a career in research it is helpful to have “been in America.” In a series of talks, we aim to give you an impression of the wide range of DFG funding recipients. In this edition, we take a look at who is behind funding number IO 99.

DFG: Mr. Ionel, many thanks for taking the time to talk to us. You were born in Iasi, Romania, a place that is probably unknown to most readers. Could you tell us a little bit about it?

Lucian Ionel (LI): Thank you very much for the opportunity to talk to you – and thank you once again to the DFG for the research fellowship that enabled me to spend the last two years in Pittsburgh. I was indeed born in Iasi and grew up among the grey prefabricated buildings of a district that was built under Ceausescu. Historically the capital of Moldova, Iasi was important in the historical development of Romania – it is the home of the country’s first university, first national theatre, first literary circle, etc. The population of the city was half Jewish at the beginning of the 20th century and a horrific pogrom took place there in June 1941. I also spent part of my childhood in the countryside near Bukovina. You may be aware that this area has a link with Paul Celan. Even in the 1990s there were still villages in the region that were largely untouched by modern civilization, with lots of horses, for example.

DFG: One more word about Iasi. You took your school-leaving exams there at the Richard-Wurmbrand-Kollegium, a secondary school named after a Lutheran pastor who died in 2001. He was known for supporting Christians persecuted under the totalitarianism regime, having previously helped Jews during the National Socialist era. Was your decision to pursue studies in philosophy shaped there, or might you have opted for a different path at that time?

LI: Even as a teenager, I knew it was going to be philosophy. I had teachers at secondary school who turned my attention to philosophical texts. Once I got into those, my other interests, such as mathematics, physics and music took a back seat. The time I was able to devote to these other passions gradually evaporated. Even the guitar got left behind at some point because of all our moves – whether on the same continent or to a different one.

DFG: You came to study in Freiburg under the Erasmus program. Might you describe yourself as a child of the Erasmus generation, i.e. a pan-European, or did you come to Freiburg for specific subject-related reasons?

LI: In a sense, Freiburg was the capital of phenomenology and hermeneutics in the 20th century. This was my area of interest when I came to Germany in 2008 – I was 19 at the time. The question of whether my generation has created a new understanding of community based on our self-understanding as Europeans is an important one. In my opinion, a community is created through sharing. Right now, we’re talking to each other in German – so we both belong to the community of those who speak German. In the same way we might share a love of Italian cuisine with others, or more precisely Sicilian or Tuscan cuisine. There’s Italian language and Italian football, too, but there’s no entity that brings all these together under itself and determines them to be Italian: the word “Italian” has a different meaning in each case.

The concept of nation has not only eradicated regional differences, it has also prompted the misleading notion of an overarching and pre-determining identity. Our communal identity is a multi-layered, pluralistic and dynamic form of sharing. My hope is that European identity will stimulate this kind of understanding of community. Seen in this light, the European process is a deconstruction of nationalism – which had disastrous consequences for Europe, especially in the first half of the 20th century. This doesn’t mean there should be no more Italian football and no more Italian customs. On the contrary, they should be seen for what they are: practices, habits, experiences and historical backgrounds that certain people share.

DFG: You went to Pittsburgh on a DFG research fellowship. Why there of all places?

LI: Pittsburgh philosophy is a great example of how classical philosophy can lead the way on contemporary issues and debates. In Pittsburgh I worked with John McDowell. He is dedicated to the question of how our thinking can free itself from the modern anxiety regarding the place of the mind in nature – the idea that our capacity to think is natural to our way of life, but no less autonomous because of it. My project started with the question: what does it mean for a person to acquire an ability, to actualize their capacity to think? What is the role of activity in the acquisition of a rational capacity? What is the significance of nature when we talk about the human form of life? Pittsburgh was the obvious place to go to pursue this kind of question, partly because of the importance they attach there to the classical authors, who I wanted to draw on: Aristotle, Kant, Hegel. In this way, I was also able to establish links with the work of Robert Brandom and Michael Thompson through my project, and I was able to benefit from the fact-focused and hierarchy-free atmosphere in Pittsburgh.

DFG: After your time in Pittsburgh, you went back to Berlin rather than Freiburg. What are you doing there and what are your career plans?

Architect and philosopher in front of buildings

Architect and philosopher in front of buildings

© Privat

LI: In Berlin, In Berlin, I am a Fellow at the Human Abilities Center, invited by Barbara Vetter. The institute she co-directs with Dominik Perler was founded last year and provides the ideal environment for me to exchange ideas with younger, international scholars from different traditions of thought on the topic of “ability”. The DFG is funding my return with a grant aimed at reintegrating me in the German academic system. So in the months to come I’ll be working on a funding proposal for a long-term project, but I’ll continue to attend to my texts, too. My career plan is to carry on what I love doing: teaching, reading, writing, and thinking. How and where this happens has not yet been decided, but preferably in the same place as my wife. She’s an architect, so the buildings she constructs are not just made of ideas. She works with space, I work with time.

DFG: Where and how can philosophy be relevant outside academia? Can you personally imagine pursuing employment outside the university -- and if so, where?

LI: Well, philosophy itself is not concerned with the academic world. Human beings live in the light of an understanding of themselves. Philosophy has the task of articulating this self-understanding. On the one hand, there are categories by which humans understand themselves and their world – for example, the category of ability. On the other hand, philosophy articulates the view that human beings develop historically about themselves and the world – such as the view that we are created beings or merely natural beings. So philosophy is concerned with how human beings conceive of themselves. So philosophy is concerned with how human beings conceive of themselves. In my opinion, this is not an academic matter, even if it is pursued in an ivory tower. The ivory tower is just a laboratory. Whether or not philosophy might be pursued meaningfully outside a university is a question that depends on very concrete, empirical conditions. It is clear that philosophizing requires not only material conditions but social ones, too, i.e. stimuli and dialogue.

DFG: In your contribution to the DFG campaign “Research Matters,” one of the points you make is this: “Human knowledge knows itself – in such a way that it is able to express its own assumptions and rules.” For the purpose of intersubjective understanding and in the interests of intellectual honesty, wouldn’t it be better to say: “... in such a way that it must always express its own assumptions and rules”?

LI: I agree. I believe that articulating the assumptions and implications of our claims to knowledge enriches our semantic world. Expressing what we mean makes our lives richer. This idea was the subject of my dissertation. But the imperative that we must express the presuppositions of our knowledge is based on an ability that is implicit in every claim to knowledge. By this I mean that even when someone refuses to articulate their knowledge –invoking a particular and inexpressible experience, for example – they tacitly know what they are doing. For example, we are implicitly or potentially aware of the rules of logic, even if we refuse to follow them. In other words, we are capable of articulating the horizons of our knowledge and therefore to question deep-seated assumptions because our knowledge – both day-to-day and scientifically – is implicitly self-conscious.

DFG: Philosophy promises answers to the three particular questions, among others: what can I know, what should I do and what can I hope for? Shouldn’t the first of these questions be broadened further in the sense of “how can I know something?” I find it remarkable that people have always fought each other more over questions they believe they know the answer to rather than over something like Pythagoras’ theorem, for example. According to this, surely the locality of the respective knowledge and therefore its suitability as evidence is an important aspect of knowledge?

LI: People don’t fight each other about what they are able to know, but about what they believe or wish to claim for themselves. They are fighting over power, not knowledge. Matters of belief are often related to the attribution of authority. By contrast, something is a claim to knowledge only if it can be justified. In my opinion, however, the rules of reasoning are not merely negotiated intersubjectively, as is too easily asserted; they in fact arise from our capacity to know – from what it objectively means to be able to know something. When you learn carpentry, for example, you first acquire the rules of the craft intersubjectively. When you have acquired this skill, you then come to understand the meaning of the rules in practicing carpentry itself. You learn how to creatively practice what this craft objectively comprises. This comparison may fall short, since our ability to know is not simply one skill among many. But by drawing on this comparison, I want to show that the situatedness and subjectivity of our knowledge does not stand in opposition to the generality and objectivity of our ability to know. It is no easy intellectual task to maintain this apparent paradox: our cognitive capacity is socially and historically acquired, but it is nonetheless objective.

DFG: You worked in Pittsburgh on the concept of freedom – an essential prerequisite for us as human beings to be able to talk about what to do and what not to do. Büchner puts it in cynical terms: “Morality is when you’re moral.” Do we now have more to go on than this tautology?

LI: There are multiple ways in which freedom is understood. We should not underestimate how the history of the political concept of freedom is related to the history of the metaphysical concept of freedom. In antiquity, political freedom essentially meant unemployment. It is no coincidence that ancient literature describes freedom as contemplation – Greek theoria, Latin contemplatio. If in the modern age political freedom is achieved in liberation from authority, then philosophy speaks of autonomy as self-legislation. But in the Enlightenment, this was not meant to say that people could simply do what they liked, since the motives for doing so might still come from an external authority. Instead, it was meant in the sense of acting in the light of the better reason. So in the Enlightenment, it is not individual authority that is played out against the authority of tradition and hierarchy, but the authority of reason – i.e. of better justification.

The post-modern view that the individual is the ultimate authority of truth and that freedom therefore means selfhood has significant consequences, especially in the public digital sphere. What we need is the rehabilitation of the Enlightenment concept of freedom; we are free when we recognize and articulate the reasons for action and judgement, and also when we see these reasons not as given facts but as possibilities about which we can engage in reasonable conversation.

DFG: Philosophies of history such as those of Hegel or Marx presuppose that history has a telos, i.e. a goal, possibly even a meaning. Can such a presupposition be justified other than axiomatically or dogmatically, and if not, what would then remain as the subject of the philosophy of history?

LI: History does not have to be constituted teleologically. The debates we enter into, the concepts that shape our world – all these have a history. Our human world is one that has developed over a period of time – as has our conception of nature and spirit. To claim otherwise is usually a symptom of ideology. Ideology is – following Hegel and Marx – false consciousness: to believe that what has in fact developed over time is a given fact. Of course there are categories in terms of which human beings understand themselves and ask questions with a timeless core. But the form in which those categories and questions are formulated is a reflection of history. Not to be aware of this would be akin to driving along a road without knowing where the route started. So philosophy can trace how concepts or social contexts have developed historically without seeking a mysterious agency or a projected necessity behind them.

DFG: Mathematics employs a language of the greatest possible rigour, but even here the point has now been reached where contradictions are unavoidable. Yet for philosophical non-experts such as myself, texts by Hegel or Heidegger read like an admission that philosophy reached such limits much earlier on. I no longer see them as an attempt to convey intersubjective clarity: I appreciate them aesthetically. In the case of Adorno, one is usually forgiven an aesthetic appreciation, but you teach Heidegger and Hegel, too. How does that work?

LI: Every terminology has the tendency to become jargon. Our conceptual capacities enable us to access realities that we otherwise would not see at all with the naked eye. For example, the concept of sustainability opens up a reality that is there whether we are able to grasp it or not. The concept brings it to light. What concepts do is interpret realities, carve out facts, map out meanings. Over time, however, these concepts become self-standing and self-referential – because in discourse they tend to be referred to as if they were separate entities. We get hung up on the expression, the appearance, the form. That – I suspect – is where your aesthetic experience of these writings comes from. It is the risk involved in an edifice of thought: thinking becomes a school, philosophy becomes scholasticism. In order to avoid running this risk, philosophy has to take on the responsibility of speaking in plain language. We need to keep reminding ourselves what concepts actually are – ways of interpreting and talking about human reality.

DFG: Mathematics can claim to work cumulatively, i.e. being able to – or indeed having to – incorporate thoughts, evidence and techniques from tradition in contemporary work. But philosophy still treats the teleological proof of God’s existence as proposed by Thomas Aquinas – which is obviously nonsensical in logical terms.

LI: Here we have to differentiate between philosophy, history of philosophy, and philology. Philosophical classics contain great conceptual and argumentative resources that are capable of illuminating contemporary questions and debates. Thomas Aquinas can be systematically relevant from this point of view, too – not just philologically or in terms of the philosophy of history, given that his work was authoritative for an entire epoch. According to Wilfrid Sellars, the founding father of the Pittsburgh School, „Philosophy without the history of philosophy, if not empty or blind, is at least dumb.” Good philosophy thus draws insights from the tradition and integrates it into its contemporary concerns; not least because the way questions are asked has a history. But what Sellars calls for is not a purely historical approach to classics; if you philosophize with Descartes, you can’t pretend that there was no Darwin. However, it is possible to abstract from this if you look at the Cartesian text philologically or in terms of the history of ideas. But we do well to distinguish between these activities – each of which is worthy in its own right.

DFG: Mathematics makes statements about the structure of the world, uses coherent formalisms and easily handles concepts such as point, zero or infinity which quickly derail the thinking of non-mathematicians. When it comes to the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, what guardrails does philosophy have to offer?

LI: That’s a difficult question. The immediate answer would be that the guardrail of reason is the logical form of thought. But this is only a formal standard: it has nothing to do with the content of what is to be thought. Philosophy can be formalistic and argue about how many angels can dance on the tip of a needle. That does not include any reference to the world. However, reason is related to the world. Allow me to briefly pursue this train of thought: science describes or explains. Philosophy should articulate what describing and explaining are. This doesn’t just include the formal aspect of knowledge, however, such as mathematics or pure logic. It’s also about what we implicitly know as being world-related in our describing and explaining.

DFG: As a philosophical discipline, aesthetics aims to make statements about “the beautiful” that can be subjected to the criteria of “true” and “false”. So strictly speaking, a philosopher must not merely “find” something beautiful, such as the music of the Second Viennese School, he or she must “know” it to be beautiful. Do you still allow yourself to just “find” something beautiful?

LI: This distinction goes back to Kant. What I myself find beautiful – such as a color, a tone or a temperature – is actually pleasant. Beautiful is that which we humans generally experience as harmonious and orderly, without being able to say what the order consists of, or what principle governs this harmony. According to Kant, the experience of the beautiful is independent of our social and historical background. It merely engages our human power of imagination as such, without demanding or evoking a clear interpretation. The fascinating question for me is whether an aesthetic experience is a meaningful experience – whether meaning is possible without a concept. An aesthetic experience cannot be a mere sensation of pleasantness -- it must be meaningful. The question I investigated in my dissertation was whether there are experiences of meaning which do not involve our conceptual faculty. There I believed that our conceptual capacities enable us to experience meaningfulness even when we have to be silent about what we are experiencing. I still believe that our conceptual faculty enables the experience of the beautiful even when we cannot find the words to describe the experience adequately.

DFG: What are you working on at the moment?

LI: I’ve already cited the question that is currently occupying me in the form of the following paradox: how can reason have developed over time and still be objective? In thinking, we claim to know the world objectively. But we must fear – more or less secretly – that our thinking has become as a natural-historical phenomenon. There are two paradigms that challenge the legitimacy of reason today: evolutionary naturalism and historical constructivism. These paradigms spring from scientific achievements: on the one hand, Darwinian evolutionary theory, which has proven our species not to be fixed and stable, and on the other hand, post-Hegelian or post-Nietzschean genealogical thought, which has declared our minded forms of life to have developed historically. These achievements have given rise to the view that our capacities can be traced back to their genesis, that their operating principle is derivative and that the rules governing them are socially constructed.

Admittedly, there are theoretical attempts to respond to these challenges, i.e. to rescue the legitimacy of reason. But my aim is to approach the meaning of the genesis itself. Philosophy has dismissed this question as psychologism – so did Frege or Husserl, for example. But what does it mean for reason to have developed over time? What kind of ontology do we need to reconcile ourselves with this? The problem is an ancient one: how can the forms that make the realm of change intelligible themselves belong to this realm, Plato asks? The question is nevertheless a pressing one and underlies many scientific and philosophical endeavours.

DFG: Is the US a more fertile landscape for such experiments than Germany or Europe?

LI: This might be due to an initially innocent ignorance of history in the US, which results in a definite boost in creativity. In Europe, the awareness of past achievements and a sense of responsibility to history can become a burden. If significant works have already been created, then all that remains is for us to manage them. So a certain degree of ignorance can be required for action and creation. On the other hand, ignorance as such is a major obstacle, especially since prudent action and informed creation rests on the shoulders of others.

DFG: We often know a lot about the shortcomings of the world yet at the same time feel powerless to do anything about it. Two common techniques to push this divide into the background are the superhero and the cynic, whose advice is: head in the sand and eyes open! What would a proponent of action theory advise?

LI: There’s a difference between what philosophers advise and what they do. They’re hesitant because they’re careful. People who take care over details will tend to act with restraint. But this hesitancy shouldn’t make us hide – for example by seeking refuge in technical jargon. I believe transparency is a condition of meaningful action and healthy living. However, transparency shouldn’t be cultivated at the expense of nuance, differentiation or conceptual rigour. We need a lot of these things in the public sphere – though at times, as in this interview, we have to make it easy for ourselves to say anything at all. When it comes to remedying the world’s shortcomings, we need careful thinking; when it comes to shaping our life together, thought is action.

DFG: The Greek tradition includes the staged dialogue as a genre of philosophical literature, i.e. deriving knowledge from the interplay between thesis and antithesis. Why has this gone out of fashion, and which figure from the history of philosophy would you choose to conduct and record a fictional dialogue with?

LI: There are many options, but we know too little about the ancient philosophers – whether men or women – to make an easy choice there. So I would tend towards Kant. His intellectual rigour largely conceals his equally remarkable sense of humour; what is more, he was a regular and intense socialiser. Talkative and rigorous, serious and ironic at the same time – that makes him an ideal conversation partner.

DFG: On the University of Freiburg website there’s a picture of you in a radio studio. Were you doing philosophical “chat radio” – and if so, with music or without?

LI: Appearances are deceptive here – I’m surprised the picture still exists. There was indeed a philosophical “chat radio” program in Freiburg, run by Zlatko Valentíc, but on that occasion I was “only” the person being interviewed. It was ten years ago – I’m afraid I don’t remember if there was music in between.

DFG: Yes, the internet regularly ignores people’s right to be forgotten. You speak at least three languages with native proficiency. What language do you think in?

LI: That depends on where I am and what I’m thinking about. German is the language in which I can best articulate myself theoretically. But in the US I only ever worked in English. My day-to-day inner dialogue is always in the language of my environment – when I’m in Italy I sometimes dream in Italian, for example, which is closely related to Romanian.

DFG: Thank you very much, Lucian Ionel, for this entertaining excursion into philosophy in general and action theory in particular. We wish you all the very best for your career and we hope for all our sakes that the Enlightenment will become relevant once again and enjoy a broader reception. Sapere aude!