Robert Spaemann (1927-2018) was an internationally acclaimed German philosopher and Catholic public intellectual. He was an ordinary professor of philosophy at the Universities of Stuttgart, Heidelberg, where he succeeded Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Munich. In his books and essays, he touches on all the major themes of philosophy: God, religion, human nature, politics, ethics, bioethics, as well as the method and place of science, both social and natural. Much admired by Benedict XVI, he draws on classical philosophy and Christian theology to assess modern thought and culture. In 1982, the great English philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe lamented that Spaemann was too little known in the English-speaking world. Since then, some of Spaemann’s books and essays have been translated into English. In this interview, Adam Myers takes us through them.
A native Virginian, Adam Myers teaches philosophy at Mount Mercy University, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He has degrees in philosophy, history, and religion at Liberty University (Va.), Wheaton College (Ill.), Yale Divinity School (Conn.), and Baylor University (Tex.). His dissertation at Baylor comprised a genealogical defence of what is sometimes called ethical naturalism, tenets of which are found in the work of Philippa Foot, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Robert Spaemann. Intrigued by the networks of this modern Aristotelian revival, he is now working on an essay on Spaemann's relation to his teacher, Joachim Ritter.
Perhaps we can begin with a brief biographical overview of Spaemann. He was born in 1927. This meant that his youth coincided with the Nazi period. He was never tempted by the typical cultural temptations of Nazism. He found it unpalatable. His youth was characterised more by a pious and devout embedding in Catholic religion. That made National Socialism very unappealing to him.
His mother was a dancer, in an avant-garde style. She died quite young. His father became a well-known Catholic priest and writer in Germany. He wrote on many topics, such as euthanasia. In a sense, Spaemann grew up virtually an orphan.
About ten years ago, he published some autobiographical reflections. Unfortunately, most of these have not been translated into English. He painstakingly goes over his younger years as a philosopher, thinker, and intellectual. He does not recount a particular time in which he first gave himself over to philosophy or theology but he does write about his teachers in the Gymnasium. He writes in a journal, for instance, “Today the teacher philosophized again.” He does not quite know what he means when he said that, but he saw that the teacher had departed from the typical material and was reflecting at a higher level.
When he went off to university, he studied Roman antiquity, German literature, and theology. It was only when he met Joachim Ritter that he opted decisively for philosophy.
Then, he began teaching. The themes of his work can be described though his relationship to Ritter, a philosopher who is not very well-known in English-speaking circles. Other post-war German philosophers are better-known: Heidegger, Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas, and Gadamer. Ritter does not normally make his way into that list. That is a shame.
Ritter had collected around him, in what was called the collegium philosophicum, a ragtag group of young intellectuals who were getting their doctoral degrees and studying with him. Some of them were theologians; some, jurists; some, Protestant theologians; some, Catholics; some, positivists; some, sociologists; some, philosophers, like Spaemann. This informal group of students was not unified by any theory or methodology. In this regard, it was quite distinct from the Frankfurt School. The Ritter-Schule was much more diverse. It was unified, for Spaemann at least, by a certain way of asking questions; certain interests; and by questions of a historical nature that were concerned with modernity. All of its members were, to a certain degree, shaped by a historical or sceptical approach to asking questions. Their approach was sceptical in the deep philosophical sense. They were always asking, “Give me some reason for thinking what you have just told me to think.”
Spaemann went on to teach at different institutions for a good thirty years. He settled in Munich and was made emeritus there. After that, his writing became more religious, theological, and, one might even say, spiritual. For instance, he published a series of meditations on the Psalms. Unfortunately, they have not been translated into English. They are beautiful, very distinct writings. I do not think I have ever come across someone reading the Psalms quite like this before. I saw new things in the Psalms by reading them with Spaemann.
I do not know what accounts for this change in his writings. It is not that he was not concerned with these topics earlier on. However, he would not have been the first philosopher teaching publicly who thought that he should stick to business for the meanwhile and, once he was not teaching, would go on to write about faith-related matters. Elizabeth Anscombe had a similar approach. In her published philosophical writings, there is not much trace of a religious sensibility, much less of religious names. She explicitly kept names like Aquinas out of discussions about things that she learned from him and did so for reasons that appeared obvious to her. As soon as you mentioned Aquinas, nobody was going to be interested in what you were saying. They would just tar you as a religious nutjob. In Spaemann’s later writings, I pick up a more straightforward confidence. He does the philosopher’s tasks earlier, showing all the work that one must do to reach certain conclusions.
You are studying how Spaemann’s teacher, Joachim Ritter, influenced him. Ritter, a student of Martin Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer, was one of the most influential figures in German philosophy after World War II. Known for his innovative studies on Hegel and Aristotle, and for the Historische Wörterbuch der Philosophie (Historical Dictionary of Philosophy), he also formed a circle of influential German intellectuals that, in addition to Spaemann, included figures such as Hermann Lübbe and Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde. Unlike Gadamer’s circle, Ritter’s had a distinct interest in political philosophy and was singled out by Habermas for its conservative leanings. Is Ritter relevant to contemporary debates in the Anglophone world? To what extent does Spaemann carry on themes from Ritter? People like Habermas called him a reactionary and a counter-Enlightenment thinker. Schnädelbach calls him a neo-Aristotelian, and that is not a compliment.
For their part, the Ritter-Schule styled themselves as liberal conservatives. They did not like the name neo-conservative, the exonym used by people such as the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. It is more helpful to move beyond those names and get to their genuine concerns. Without entering into the justice of Habermas’s remarks, what you see in them is a concern with the gains and losses of twentieth-century modernity.
"Both Spaemann and Ritter saw that straight-up liberalism promises an ongoing emancipation and progress that has no goal or direction whatsoever. They wanted it to be more attentive to the historical situation of human beings."
You mentioned Hegel's central importance for Ritter. Hegel is very important for Spaemann too. They both read him very closely over the course of their life and named him as a one of their great teachers. His interpretation of the French Revolution is important for Ritter’s view of society. There is a dialectic between the abstract, negative freedom sought by the Revolutionaries and its consequences in France: the Great Terror, the reactionary movements of the ancien régime, and the rise of Napoleon. For Hegel and Ritter, it is important to see the underlying continuity between these two things. Even if the French Revolution looks like a rupture, it is philosophical to look for what underlies the apparently opposing sides of things. This was a model of engaging with twentieth-century modernity. Ritter did not want to be on either side. He did not want to be on the reactionary side: to go back and satisfy a nostalgic longing for a bygone world. Nor did he think you should just throw yourself into an empty ideal of constant progress. He saw that as an incoherent fall into the same partisanship that arose in the wake of the French Revolution. Both Spaemann and Ritter saw that straight-up liberalism promises an ongoing emancipation and progress that has no goal or direction whatsoever. They wanted it to be more attentive to the historical situation of human beings.
Human beings are born into a pre-shaped world that already has certain norms. The stage is set. The furniture is there. You do not get to control the backdrop. Your actions are shaped by that. This does not mean that you do not exercise any agency whatsoever. Rather, what Spaemann wanted us to do was acknowledge that individuals, communities, and society exist in contingent historical circumstances rather than pursue an empty ideal of freedom.
Both Spaemann and Ritter went through a Marxist phase. However, whereas Hasbermas advocates freedom from any kind of domination whatsoever (Herrschaftsfreiheit), for Ritter and Spaemann the historical situation of human beings is such that you are always going to emerge in a concrete situation that constrains and restricts what it is possible for you to do. This can be managed in a more-or-less orderly way. It is not domination in the negative sense. The liberal conservatives of the Ritter-Schule have a much more pronounced place for institutions in their practical and political philosophy. Both Spaemann and Ritter get this directly from Aristotle. Human action is possible in its rationality and in its sociality precisely because it is shaped by a range of institutions that are stable across generations. I can learn how to build ships or play a musical instrument because this rational activity is also a social activity. It comes to me via institutions.
This is remarkably similar to the thought of some anglophone philosophers, not least Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. It is no accident that both Hegel and Aristotle have been significant conversation partners for MacIntyre as well. The same goes for Charles Taylor. They are all thinking about what it means to be a concrete human being, with the dramatic ideals proposed by human rationality, in modernity. That obscures a huge range of differences between these thinkers. But there is something quite similar going on in all of them.
"You might forget the thesis of the whole essay, but in the span of a sentence or two he says things that, in their own right, are memorable and extremely helpful."
In his writings, Spaemann eschews the highly technical approach adopted by most professional philosophers. That makes his books accessible to the general reader. Nevertheless, it is not always easy to follow his arguments. Often, he does not state his thesis explicitly at the beginning but teases it out and works his way towards it dialectically. Do you have any advice for those interested in reading Spaemann for the first time? This takes us into the first book, Basic Moral Concepts. This book is dialectical. It starts with ideas we experience immediately. Then, it slowly complicates them, until you realise that you are doing ethics. In his works, Spaemann routinely motivates these questions, especially at the beginning of an inquiry or an undertaking. He does a very good job of showing an interesting question and making it accessible to the everyday person.
But you are right. Often, he wanders off in directions where you do not feel quite so guided by your everyday experiences. This is the advice I would give. If you are intrigued by what he claims to be talking about, just keep going. Let it remain unclear and push forward. Sometimes, what he says will have a retrospective effect on your reading.
On the other hand, his writings are riddled with brilliant aperçus. You might forget the thesis of the whole essay, but in the span of a sentence or two he says things that, in their own right, are memorable and extremely helpful.
You have already mentioned that Basic Moral Concepts tops your list because it is the most accessible of Spaemann’s books. In fact, it was a series of talks broadcast on Bavarian radio in 1981. That is right. There are also writings by English-language authors that were originally delivered as radio addresses: the Screwtape Letters or Mere Christianity, for example. It is remarkable how few people read aloud what they write. If we did, our style would improve so much. Spaemann seems to have had quite an ear for his own writing. A good part of what has been published in English was originally delivered as a spoken address. He speaks quite beautifully. On YouTube, you can find interviews with him or documentaries that he made on philosophy. Unfortunately, these are not accessible to people who do not speak German. However, he had an uncanny way of philosophising clearly, right in front of you. I always find it so refreshing and instructive. As a philosophy teacher, I often wonder, “How can I speak about these ideas with vivacity but also content?”
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