Why are philosophers not treated as celebrities

Philosophers organized a panel discussion with prominent figures

Peter Janich opens the panel discussion with prominent figures that concludes the annual conference of the German Society for Philosophy.
Philosopher Jürgen Habermas
Panel discussion in the AudiMax. From left to right: Wolf Singer, Jan C. Joerden, Carl Friedrich Gethmann, Reinhard Merkel, Jürgen Habermas. Photos: tk
"Maid or queen of the disciplines - what role does philosophy play in the present?" Asked Peter Janich in his introductory speech. The Marburg philosophy professor and organizer of the "Forum for Philosophy" organized by the German Society for Philosophy (DGPhil) this year in Marburg, held a public panel discussion in the AudiMax on September 29 to mark the end of the forum: “Does naturalism force society to rethink criminal law and education?” was the question posed by five prominent speakers well-filled hall.

The public interest was not only due to the topic. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas sat on the podium, as did the director of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Wolf Singer. The Hamburg criminal lawyer and legal philosopher Reinhard Merkel, the criminal lawyer Jan C. Joerden from the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder and the Essen language philosopher and DGPhil President Carl Friedrich Gethmann, who also runs the European Academy for research into the consequences of scientific and technical developments Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler heads, completed the professors' group.

But the topic, at the center of which was the discussion about free will, was tough. Because both penalties in criminal law and in education require that people can freely decide what to do - in other words, that if they had committed a crime, for example, they could have acted differently. But this is exactly what brain researchers like Wolf Singer deny: "We are not free to want what we want. Human action is determined by the neuronal interconnections in the brain." Newer imaging methods - based on the famous experiments published by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s - would show that up to twenty seconds before a subject becomes aware of their intention to act, the brain is already making the appropriate preparations.

New legislation every few years?

If Singer is right, central concepts such as guilt and responsibility have been robbed of their meaning. Reinhard Merkel, for example, who at least found the thesis "plausible", pointed out that the "criminal guilt principle must be upheld in any case": Regardless of how human behavior is explained, "we are forced to apply our norms stabilize". Carl Friedrich Gethmann, however, went one step further and accused brain research of not having achieved the “status of a mature theory”, unlike particle physics, for example. By way of illustration, he added that the legislature cannot make far-reaching decisions every few years just because new knowledge has been gained in the neurosciences, which by definition can also be falsified.

Jan C. Joerden focused on another problem: If criminal lawyers no longer believe in free will, "we must all look at them as if they were insane" - with far-reaching consequences: humans would then no longer be a subject, but merely to be treated as an object. However, criminal law must react to the latest developments - after all, free will will probably not be found experimentally in the future either - that the focus of considerations should not be the act, but the danger that a perpetrator poses to society.

Everyone can explain the reasons that determine their actions

Jürgen Habermas, on the other hand, referred to fundamental categorical differences: "Every person can continue to explain why they acted this way and not differently" - the "language game" that people use in such cases remains in principle unaffected by the scientific consideration of the brain. The question could not be whether a "fiction of the attribution of responsibility" must be upheld for pragmatic reasons, despite new findings. This is "anthropologically not productive", especially since it is hardly possible to isolate the functional system of law by using a different image of man as the basis for all other areas of society.

Can we want what we want? Are we free in our actions? And is philosophy entitled to the role of a "queen of the disciplines" who can put naturalism in its place? This evening showed that we will have to wait - possibly a long time and perhaps in vain - for definitive answers.

Nobody can lean back, however, the persistent problems in practice are too urgent, as Reinhard Merkel in particular expressed them. He presented the case of a hitherto innocent teacher who more or less suddenly developed pedophile tendencies. Judicial experts found out that this was caused by a tumor in his brain - after it was removed, his behavior returned to normal. On closer inspection, however, it was not the tumor that was the cause, according to Merkel, "but the disorder it caused in the brain". As a consequence of this consideration, the question now remains whether there is simply disorder in the brains of other people who have committed criminal offenses. Can we, Merkel asked, treat them differently from the man whose free will was obviously restricted by a tumor?


Professor Dr. Peter Janich
Philipps University of Marburg
Institute for Philosophy
Wilhelm-Röpke-Strasse 6 B.
Room 317
35032 Marburg
Tel .: (06421) 28 21375