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Culture

Philosophy booms with popular answers to life's big questions

The immense success of writers such as Richard David Precht, festivals of ideas and philosophy magazines is has made thinking hip again. But is this legitimate philosophy, or more a lifestyle trend?

As a European cultural center, Cologne is used to being overrun. During Carnival the city doubles in population and a bevy of landmark festivals, fairs and fiestas hosted in the western German city cater to interest groups of every stripe. While the attendees of the third phil.Cologne, which opened this week and runs until June 3, may not be sporting striking costumes, their numbers are impressive. Organizers expect 10,000 visitors to attend the festival where people come to listen to intellectual discourse.

The public image of philosophy had long been in crisis. The last philosophical schools to prove a social sensation were Existentialism and the Frankfurt School, both originating in the 1940s. After a brief public explosion during the student protests of the 1960s, the discipline of thinking withdrew once again to its ivory tower. At the end of the 1960s German news weekly "Der Spiegel" asked: "What is philosophy today?"

From the ivory tower to the masses

In recent years there has been a noticeable paradigm shift. Videos from the international "ideas lectures" such as the TED Talks are certified YouTube hits and frequently go viral on social networks, alongside the flood of cat videos. Philosophy in 2015 has little to do with the hermit-like tendencies of Martin Heidegger - today it's more about ideas for everyday use rather than esoteric evaluations and complex concepts.

Richard David Precht. Copyright: Oliver Berg/dpa.

One of the most famous faces of the philosophy boom: journalist and media personality Richard David Precht

The popular philosopher Richard David Precht is at the front of this pack with his books, including titles which translate to "Who am I - And if so, how many?" and "Love: A messy feeling," frequently hitting the bestseller list. Precht has also become a regular talk show guest and a certified media star. His colleagues Hartmut Rosa and Byung-Chul Han have also shaped the public debate with their common themes of "slowing down" and "fatigue society." None of these three thinkers, however, conforms to the classical stereotype of the reclusive and eccentric philosopher.

Is philosophy, once again, on the popular rise? Or is the current "ideas" boom more a lifestyle trend with a short shelf-life? Markus Gabriel, a professor of philosophy at the University of Bonn, confirmed there is an increasing presence of his craft in the public sphere. However, he said he doesn't perceive it as a direct response to the popular media presence of people like Precht, but more the work of the universities themselves.

"There are simply more trained philosophers than at any other time," he said. For Gabriel, Precht is a "philosophy performer."

"There is no single theory of Richard David Precht. He says only what others have already said," Gabriel said, adding, however, that Precht presents theories in clear and understandable ways.

Whether or not the trend develops in the direction of everyday advice and motivational speeches, authors like Precht and the popularity of "thinking festivals" such as phil.Cologne are clear examples that philosophy in Germany is on the rise and has undergone fundamental changes in recent decades. This shift is characterized as a move from the academic ivory tower and highly complex vernacular towards a new, clear, real-life approach, modeled on the Anglo-Saxon philosophical tendencies.

The "new enlightenment"

Markus Gabriel. Copyright: Markus Hintzen.

Markus Gabriel: Philosophy is about thinking more "cleanly and clearly"

Precht's greatest achievement, perhaps, has been to create broad interest amongst the public for "real philosophy." The high numbers of attendees at phil.Cologne are evidence of the discipline's new and broad reach, and the festival program is representative of this wide interest.

The boom in thinking about thinking is spreading to Germany from the English-speaking world, according to Gabriel, in what he calls a "new enlightenment." Clarity is now more important than truth today he said.

"The public is getting interested in philosophy," he said. "People want to know what philosophers say about freedom, about consciousness, about existence, about the good life. That's the point we've reached now."

Precht's publisher, Georg Reuchlein, also confirmed an upward trend for philosophical themes. When he decided to publish Precht's book "Who am I - And if so, how many?" he had no sense of the frenzy that would follow.

"We didn't think philosophy was back on the rise and we needed a philosophical book," he said. "At the time, when we received this work, it was so fresh and had such a new approach that we said, we have to do this. It was a damn good feeling."

Reuchlein said Precht has once again made philosophy accessible and "connected it to the natural science and the findings of modern neuroscience and anthropology. This has made Precht appeal to many people. That, and the fact that he ties philosophy back to daily life at the end of the book and asks: What is it really all about?"

A country in search of happiness and meaning

Dr. Georg Reuchlein. Copyright: Brigitte Friedrich.

Georg Reuchlein has published books by Richard David Precht. In 2014 he was named by the journal 'BuchMarkt' as Publisher of the Year

In the face of a global drive toward rationalization and efficiency, there is a growing readership for philosophical matters. Today people are drawn to topics such as "especially aspects that deal with finding meaning in life and the right path to happiness, which, indeed, is a part of the cognitive interest of philosophy," Reuchlein said.

Markus Gabriel said he is concerned by these developments and regards them as problematic motivation to get involved in philosophy.

"In Germany, people expect to find orientation for their lives in philosophy," he said. "But that's not what it is. The lesson of philosophy is that is no orientation for life." Instead, he added, philosophy is a matter of "thinking more cleanly and clearly."

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