When someone takes you on a long intellectual journey with such ease and versatility as Richard David Precht, then it’s an absolute pleasure to accompany him.
Not only that, it’s a real achievement that has been rewarded with 700,000 readers in 16 languages. This German bestseller is not exactly based on the stuff you would think dreams are made of: philosophy.
Richard David Precht has written the most successful non-fiction book on philosophy ever published in Germany. The bestseller Who Am I – And If So, How Many? has already been translated into 16 languages and earned much praise from critics.
Precht acts as your travel guide helping you overcome the otherwise unwieldy obstacles presented by Kant, Wittgenstein & Co. as he takes you on his mentally stimulating world trip. He has the gift of presenting philosophy in a popular idiom, served in concise yet substantial portions, and able to satisfy the appetites of readers who don’t happen to spend their professional lives in that proverbial ivory tower, but nevertheless occasionally ask themselves where they really come from, where they’re going and what it all means anyway.
It is for these readers that Richard David Precht, who was born in 1964, devised a title that sounds a bit nonsensical but conceals a subtlety of meaning: Who Am I – And If So, How Many? These are the nighttime words of a husky-voiced friend reveals the author, who likes to season his narrative with anecdotes and entertaining experiences.
Whether wacky poetry or a confidently contrived bestseller title, it could also be a handicap. After all, buyers who tend to avoid self-help titles on principle could fail to recognize that the impish cover conceals a competent story revolving round philosophical questions. The real appeal lies in the fact that the answers provided by thinkers such as Descartes, Rousseau, Nietzsche or Sigmund Freud are neatly compared with the insights of present-day natural sciences. And although the author’s favorite forays focus on brain research, he always returns to the safety of Kant.
As a result the book is not only an exhilarating ride through the history of philosophy, it is also an understandable outline of brain research, from its curious beginnings to the most recent studies, including “excitations” and tendencies to arrogance, when “neuroscientists believe their research is likely to put philosophy and maybe even psychology out of a job”. Precht knows how to sift through the arguments and lend clear contours to the struggle for superiority in our neurobiological times, for instance in the competition between Freudians and neuroscientists who “would like to delete the ego altogether”. He also reveals the great forest that can hardly be seen for trees with his “guide to the jungle of the sciences”.
In Who Am I – And If So, How Many? Precht has created a three-pronged clearing with Kant’s basic questions: What can I know? What should I do? What can I hope for?
In the first chapter he illustrates the preconditions for thought, with the help of such things as the John Lennon song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. And he takes a look at how things may have begun with the human animal millions of years ago, when the brain rapidly tripled in size. The precarious borderline drawn between humans and animals is the theme that lies closest to his heart. He investigates it again in part two, this time from the classical philosophical perspective of ethics: Is the human being an animal capable of moral actions? Should we eat animals? How should we treat anthropoid apes? Sometimes, just to jolt our minds, Precht paints horror scenarios in which humans are not the “summit” of creation but merely animal material.
Again with Kant, together with the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, the book takes a deep look at bioethical questions which are not only an age-old source of scandal but have long since shaken legislation and medical science. In a recent interview with the German magazine Stern, Precht maintained that particularly neuroscientists have “to a certain extent seized power”. But in his opinion the natural sciences and the humanities should be combined again as far as inquiries into the human being are concerned. In this respect, philosophy should by no means retire to “refurbish old buildings in the area of the mind”. Instead it should focus more on contemporary questions: “Philosophy is empty without the natural sciences, and the natural sciences are blind without philosophy.”
Richard David Precht creates multiple connections in many respects, not simply between individual islands of discipline. During the “philosophical journey” he repeatedly couples the antagonistic concepts of intellect and emotion. Who rules the world? Does Kant’s exhortation to goodness still apply? What is fashionable today? The mind is the mere servant of the will, maintained Schopenhauer. Yes, who’s in command of the mind? Is the ego merely rooted in materials? Is it just the product of neurons, biological messengers, hormones? What happens upstairs in the brain?
Here Precht has to return to the neuroscience laboratory, to the rational lobe and the mirror neurons.
And he demonstrates his talent by giving science the pace and excitement of an excellent crime story.
He narrates with expertise and precision, combined with the courage to compress, to omit and playfully twist the threads. All of this is embedded in familiar everyday language and developed into an elegant, appealing style. Nowadays there is no point, Precht reckons, in writing like Kant, who based his language on Latin students’ grammar, or like Hegel who was a “lousy stylist”. Precht says, “Hegel really couldn’t write, and that’s one of the reasons the texts are so complicated.” He openly admits that his own PhD thesis about the “gliding logic of the soul in Robert Musil’s work” was the same sort of “pompous stuff”, but that he managed to free himself again from the convoluted style of the academic jargon drilled into him at university.
And what can I hope for? The question in the third part of the “philosophical journey” links up with Anselm of Canterbury, Husserl and Sartre, Luhmann and Epicure to focus on God, freedom and property, justice, happiness and love. Precht lives with his wife, Luxembourg television presenter Caroline Mart, in a family with four children.
And this brings us to his next book: Liebe. Ein unordentliches Gefühl (Love. A Disorderly Feeling), which could well turn into another bestseller.