Wolfgang Spohn


Professor for Philosophy and Philosophy of Science
University of Konstanz, Germany

4. What do you consider the most neglected topics and/or contributions in late 20th century philosophy?

One must be aware how radically the academic condition has changed since World War II. We have seen an unprecedented academic explosion due to increased needs and a fabulous wealth in the western world. I use to say that half of the professional philosophers ever existing are still alive; and though it is difficult to count (who in the ancient or medieval times is a professional philosopher?), my guess is probably not off the mark in magnitude.

Moreover, the communication conditions have changed even more radically. Philosophy has become so easily accessible. The living philosophers have read so much of the dead, I assume much more than the dead read of the dead (whereas the dead had little opportunity to read texts of the living). There are so much more publishers, journals, conferences, guest lectures, etc. Internet and e-mail has further accelerated communication in an unbelievable way.

Often it appears to me that these dramatically changed conditions and relations have received insufficient attention in the still wide spread history-biased understanding of philosophy.

Hence, I find the title question misplaced; it is a question for conditions of scarcity, not for conditions of abundance. And we are living in the latter. A sure sign of this, and one I perceive with great skepticism is the tremendous increase of encyclopedias, handbooks, companions, introductions, etc., in the last 10 or 15 years. If they are well made, one is grateful for them; but they show at the same time that there are many philosophers who have no good idea how to occupy themselves.

What I find much more fascinating is the issue of the power relations in the modern unprecedented philosophical market. From where to where do the influences run? Why do they run as they do? Do the power relations produce systematic distortions or even (unintentional) suppression? Such a market needs and has opinion leaders. How do they get their role? Certainly in virtue of their charisma, their quality und originality. I suspect, though, there are many more factors at work. How, then, do the opinion leaders structure the discussion? For good or for bad? The communication mechanics is presumably not so different in other disciplines. So, which observation can be generalized and which are special to philosophy? These would be the questions to investigate.

I have not seen any study directed to philosophy, though it would be worthwhile. I am certainly not the one to do it. However, I would like at least to mention that one factor appears to me still to be of utmost importance: language. Of course, international communication requires a common language, and as the world has developed (this is part of the power relations), this language is English. There are those who master English perfectly and those who master it imperfectly; the large majority of foreigners belong to the second group. This is an inevitable asymmetry which seems particular relevant for philosophy, because philosophers pay much more attention to phrase and style than many other disciplines and because it is still less natural for philosophers to adapt to a common language than for most other scholars.

The long and the short of all this is that I find it unlikely under the present circumstances that there really are forgotten, though important topics and contributions. Almost the only way how there could be such things is that some philosophers entirely withdraw from the academic fuss and develop their thought in obscurity, which might nevertheless be ingenious. There are such philosophers should I say: fortunately? ‑, but, of course, it is difficult to know of them.

Actually, I know of at least one: Ulrich Blau from the University of Munich. For almost 30 years he is working on the logic of paradoxes and indeterminacies, pursuing deep perspectives in the theory of truth, semantics, philosophy of mathematics, and much further. To some extent, his ideas are similar to known accounts of semantic paradoxes (though I cannot decide issues of priority), but in many respects they go far beyond. He has published only in German, and the last publications are about 20 years old. Now, finally, his opus magnum, Blau (forthcoming) , a book of 1000 pages, the fruit of 30 years of thinking, is intended to go in print. I am unable to reliably assess this incredibly rich work, but I am sure it contains an exceptional lot of ingenuity and definitely deserves much wider attention. This is the first positive answer to the fourth question that comes to my mind.

Read the remaining part of Wolfgang Spohn's interview in the book Formal Philosophy

ISBN-10    87-991013-1-9    hardcopy
ISBN-10    87-991013-0-0    paperback
Published by Automatic Press ● VIP, 2005

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