by Jalees Rehman
Nietzschean, Heideggerian, fascist, anarchist, libertarian, brilliant genius, blabbering nutjob – these and many other labels have probably been used to describe Peter Sloterdijk, who is one of Germany's most widely known contemporary philosophers. He has achieved a rock-star status in the echelons of contemporary German thinkers, perhaps because none is more apt than Sloterdijk at fulfilling the true purpose of a public intellectual: inculcating his audience with an insatiable desire to think. His fans adore him; his critics are maddened by him. Few, if any, experience indifference when they encounter the provocateur Sloterdijk.
Sloterdijk achieved fame in Germany after publishing his masterpiece “Kritik der zynischen Vernunft” (English translation: “Critique of Cynical Reason“) in 1983, but his hosting of the regular late-night talk show “Das Philosophische Quartett” on the major German TV network ZDF for ten years turned him into a cultural icon and a household name. I realize that it might seem strange to non-Germans that philosophers instead of comedians can host TV talk shows, however Sloterdijk would probably be the first to agree that there isn't much of a difference between a true comedian and a true philosopher. Not only do we Germans have TV philosophers, we even enjoy the TV gossip and cockfights that they indulge in. When the ZDF network decided to get rid of Sloterdijk and replace him with the younger, more handsome and less thoughtful philosopher Richard David Precht, they start engaging in reciprocal mockery and name-calling.
Unfortunately, Sloterdijk is not quite so well-known in the English-speaking world and this may in part be due to the fact that much of his oeuvre has only recently been translated into the English language. It is no easy feat to translate his writings, in part because his playful mastery of German words is one of his signatures. Sloterdijk is a wonderful story-teller who weaves in beautiful images and puns into his narration, many of which are unique to the German language. His story-telling also makes it difficult to understand some of his texts in the original German. One may be enthralled by his stories, but after reading a whole chapter or book, it is quite difficult to condense it into a handy “message” or “point”. Sloterdijk is a professional digressor, going off on tangents that are entertaining and exciting, but at times quite frustrating. He shares his brilliant insights on a broad range of topics ranging from metaphysics to politics with his readers, but he also offers practical advice on how we can change our lives as well as bizarre and pompous statements.