Herbert Hrachovec

There can hardly be a more alarming example of civilization threatened by using machines than the atom bomb. Nuclear determent, providing an uneasy balance of terror during the last decades, has been the foundation of a security-system designed by the super-powers. ”Mutual assured destruction”, as the strategy has come to be called fuses the horrible and the expedient. Thinking about the human condition, on the other hand, is comparatively inflexible and does not proceed in quantum leaps. It lacks intuitive access to nano-seconds, light-years or overkill-capacities. Human imagination is severely restricted when it comes to deal with the exceptional. The gap between the dynamics of the weapon-building industry and the inertia of the conceptual framework necessary for resistance against their products is probably even more dangerous than the destructive devices themselves.

Spinoza’s Ethica starts off with a Pars prima: De Deo, but ethics has to appeal to intuitions concerning the good life, moral law or some measure of common utility to anchor itself in contemporary discourse. It cannot be grounded in a supernatural realm any more. This has usually been regarded as an achievement but it is time for second thoughts. The destructive powers of the nuclear arsenal easily match those familiar from apocalyptic prophecies, damaging confidence in progress toward Enlightenment aims. Traditional critical philosophy seems at a loss in addressing the ultimate (self-produced) threat to the world as we know it. In particular ethics, compared to the pyrotechnics of modern warfare, is a decidedly unspectacular occupation, obviously lacking the means to inhibit developments that defy any established scale of measurement.

A first reaction to such considerations could be to reject the air of theoretical brinkmanship they exhibit. Theory, for better or worse, depends on keeping a certain distance from immediate urgencies. The disciplines of traditional philosophy, however, are not sacrosanct. Conceivably ethics is just not up to the threat of the self-inflicted annihilation of the planet. Having put the problem in its most superficial, but also most evocative form the only procedure appropriate to a philosophical paper is to withdraw from the brink, retracing some steps so that they might lead into a slightly different terrain, helping to avoid the scenery of an ultimate showdown.

In doing so I shall start by directing three spotlights toward (criticism of) ethics prior to the arrival of nuclear weapons. It did not take their physical presence for reflection about the good to run into trouble faced with science, technology and war. Philosophical ethics has been severely attacked by some of the most important philosophers of our century. This has to be acknowledged before the second step, confronting moral intuitions with the sense of global disaster, can be taken. The threat of the bomb, rather than deciding the case against philosophical ethics, forces ethics to articulate the meaning of its endeavour as clearly as possible. I will present a very sketchy survey of attempts being made in German-language philosophy to respond to the challenge of ethical reflection in an age whose notion of universality cannot wholly be covered by the corresponding Enlightenment concept. The final section of this paper will present some criticism of theoretical activity spellbound by the glamour of destruction.


Kant’s moral philosophy is usually approached by discussing his categorical imperative, emphasizing the difference between this rule and dogmatic or utilitarian positions. But it also can be looked upon from a more Hegelian point of view, trying to mediate attitudes of science, everyday life and even metaphysics. As Kant puts it in one of his admittedly unpublished and highly speculative reflections:

”Transcendentalphilosophie ist diejenige, welche in Einem Act zugleich die Möglichkeit der Mathematik in sich vereinigt und auch das höchste physische Wohl der vernünftigen Wesen (durch Weisheit), das größte Heil der Weltwesen mit den Prinzipien der Vollständigkeit der Wissenschaft darstellt.” [Kant, p.131]

The vision implicit in this quotation should not be dismissed simply because it is just a grandiose sketch. It has been a moving force in German philosophy since it was first proposed by Kant and the Romantics. One quick way to summarize it is to note the three expressions underlined by Kant: Mathematik, physisch and Heil. Transzendentalphilosophie in its most exacting sense is supposed to provide links between — to put it in contemporary terms — algorithms, pragmatism and religion.

Spelled out like this it sounds like an utterly fantastic project. There is, however, another way of looking at it. Kant articulates the profound desire of an agent caught between the developments of scientifically induced technology and the requirements of leading a fulfilling life. Nothing could be more natural than to strive for a way to combine Mathematik and Heil in some stable system. The fact that we are barely capable of making philosophical sense of an attempt to pose this problem might very well be a measure of our self-estrangement. Kant’s hints toward a kind of theoretical Entwicklungsroman, passing through all the relevant stages of mind manifest in modern society, have been taken up by German Idealism as well as Marxism. Many philosophers in the German tradition still feel they owe their readers an explanation of the possibility of synthesis (or at least coexistence) between demands on technological competence and moral responsibility. Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s violent reaction against such wish-fulfillment has to be seen against this background.

Risking a somewhat lurid shortcut their radical alternative to Kantian Mathematik und Heil might be labeled the Sieg Heil -option. As the Second World War was drawing to a close Martin Heidegger gave the following account of the relationship between the technical efforts of the German Volk and its historical destiny:

”Daher gilt es zu wissen, daß dieses geschichtliche Volk, wenn es überhaupt hier auf ein ‘Siegen’ ankommt, schon gesiegt hat und unbesiegbar ist, wenn es das Volk der Dichter und Denker ist, das es in seinem Wesen bleibt, solange es nicht der furchtbaren, weil immer drohenden, Abirrung von seinem Wesen und so einer Verkennung seines Wesens zum Opfer fällt.” [Heidegger, p.114]

I am not quoting this to make some cheap points concerning Heidegger’s unrelenting Nazism. Two more subtle issues deserve notice. First, just like Kant’s aphorism, this is thought at the edge of possible meaning, yet intelligible as expression of an overwhelming desire. When there is absolutely no hope to combine Mathematik and Heil because of the efficiency of the enemy’s war machine one last resort is to deny any importance to its victory and to withdraw into the incorruptible saving realm of the Volkswesen . This possible reaction of a philosopher toward the Endkampf is by no means restricted to 1944/45. We should stop asking how an important thinker like Heidegger could have been a Nazi and acknowledge that he is important exactly because he gave voice to the concerns that made fascism one of the most threatening movements of the 20th century.

My second remark on Heidegger’s metaphysics of German victory concerns the thorough methodological disengagement of Sieg and Heil following the collapse of Nazi Germany. According to the late Heidegger Technik — his catchphrase for the success of mathematics and science in dealing with nature — has to be overcome altogether if the essence of human life on the planet is to be saved. Obviously, given Heidegger’s presuppositions, this is a logical development, plotting the threat of pervasive physical destruction against a deeply ingrained desire for redemption. Still, it is equally clear that ethics can play no role at all in this account. Its subject matter had been transformed into the formal existential structure of Entscheidung in Sein und Zeit and after authentic German thinking had proved insufficient to stem the tide of cosmopolitan Western democracy the interest in exploring the obligations of human agents has altogether vanished in favor of Seinsdenken. The late Heidegger has probably written some of the most unpalatable pages of prose in the modern philosophy. But this should not blind one toward the fact that he has also provided a highly influential conceptual structure for dealing with the menace of nuclear war.

Before trying to elaborate on this I want to introduce a third paradigmatic stance on ethics caught between Mathematik and Heil. Wittgenstein’s Vorlesung über Ethik draws a strict line between the two of them, blocking Kantian synthesis as well as Heideggerian emphasis. While Wittgenstein’s philosophy exhibits important structural similarities to Kant’s theory of knowledge, concerning ethics no such parallel can be established. According to Wittgenstein the instruments of rational argument are completely inappropriate to work out a philosophical account of the meaning of life, even if this concern, as Wittgenstein would be the first to admit, is foremost on many peoples mind. Heidegger tries to make the sacrifice of the intellect into a transition to his new thinking whereas Wittgenstein considers mathematics and science to be completely foreign to salvation. Philosophy, trying to approach some synthesis, falls into the void opening up between facts and the desire to establish an intelligible discourse on what is important beyond their givenness.

”Wäre jemand imstande, ein Buch über Ethik zu schreiben, das wirklich ein Buch über Ethik wäre, so würde dieses Buch mit einem Knall sämtliche andere Bücher auf der Welt vernichten.” [Wittgenstein, p.13]

So much for a Critique of Practical Reason. Traditional philosophy’s projection of possible mediation between our technical and moral capacities has given way to a profound sentiment of incompetence. The demise of ethics is not only proclaimed by late Heidegger’s quietism, it is a consequence of giving precedence to the pervasive influence of scientific rationality as well.


More than a decade before the ignition of the first nuclear device Wittgenstein pictured ethics — if it were possible — as some sort of ultimate destructive instrument, exploding the entirety of ordinary knowledge. This is a metaphorical way of expressing that moral and religious language strives to deal with absolute concerns. Nothing short of unequivocal pronouncements of universal obligations could, in Wittgenstein’s view, satisfy those interests. But such material commandments would clash with the most fundamental principles of descriptive, scientific procedures. Wittgenstein does not deny the urge toward the absolute, but he regards it as pointing back to pre-modern forms of consciousness.

”Es ist das Erlebnis, bei dem man die Welt als Wunder sieht. Nun bin ich versucht zu sagen, der richtige sprachliche Ausdruck für das Wunder der Existenz der Welt sei kein in der Sprache geäußerter Satz, sondern der richtige Ausdruck sei die Existenz der Sprache selbst.” [Wittgenstein, p.18]

A close reading of this passage reveals a flash of metaphysics before the subject-matter of ethics and religion is disposed of. Furthermore, Wittgenstein’s radicalism leads him into the well-known paradox of self-referentiality: How can his own condemnation, which obviously is no scientific statement, be regarded as meaningful? The Vorlesung über Ethik is hardly a helpful contribution to the effort to clarify the grammar of moral language, an enterprise that seems well within reach of later Wittgenstein. Nevertheless, it has its own validity.

Heidegger’s construction of nothingness and Wittgenstein’s talk of the miracle of the existence of the world, while yielding absolutely no account of morality, are forceful presentations of a new kind of mortality. Traditional ethical theory might seem to be abandoned for inadequate reasons in Heidegger’s Seinsgeschichte and Wittgenstein’s rigorism, yet their theoretical impulse does not lack application to 20th century reality. The phenomenon of the atom bomb obviously calls for a drastic revision of the pattern of thinking about human pursuits. It can convincingly be argued that the bomb reintroduces metaphysics into contemporary discussion in precisely the way Heidegger and Wittgenstein have been adumbrating, as nothingness breaking into the web of human interaction or the ultimate cosmic miracle revealing itself respectively. As Günther Anders puts it ”Damit ist nun erst unsere Sterblichkeit wirklich Sterblichkeit geworden.” [Anders, p.243] Having become the masters of the apocalypse amounts to a qualitative jump that takes us from immersion into wordly actions to a position of frightening power and limitation. As nuclear mega-war spreads all that would be left to the decision-makers in their subterranean bunkers is to decide on the existence of life on this planet. There could not be a more terrifying transposition of speculative thinking into the shape of an actual choice.

Figuratively speaking the Day of Judgement will bring the final effacement of ethics. Since this theologoumenon has been given an urgent secular meaning philosophical dismissals of the discipline cannot be rejected out of hand. What I have been calling theoretical brinkmanship, on the other hand, is not immune to criticism. In Heidegger’s case the political underpinning of his philosophical pronouncements is abundantly clear. Regarding Wittgenstein I hinted at the self-refuting character of his restrictions on meaningful discourse. But neither ideological criticism nor arguments ad hominem are convincing procedures to break the philosophical impasse we have been reaching. Such a procedure would have to be developed from within the discipline itself. One such attempt can be introduced by an observation of Günther Anders. We have to acknowledge ”daß das Faktum, um das es moralisch hier geht, die Bombe als Tat ist.” [Anders, p.295] Though this sounds only marginally less paradoxical than the negative metaphysics I have been quoting up to now, it is a first attempt to free moral reflection from the stranglehold of a new kind of pre-critical obsession.

It all depends on whether the paradox in question is taken as an insurmountable obstacle to further elucidation or as a challenge to test the scope of the rational enterprise. Taken literally it is an elementary category-mistake to call a thing like the bomb an action. But Günther Anders’ point in offering his formula is precisely to capture the inconceivable in a conceptual network that includes means to refer to meaningful human activity. Even if it is true that it leads to effects that surpass all imagination, it is also a fact that pace Wittgenstein such devices were not miraculously put at our disposal. Before becoming the masters of our own apocalypse we spent considerable resources to achieve this ultimate metaphysical paradox. Simply reiterating it repeatedly fails to take into account that it is of our own making. This is a crucial juncture in any attempt to avoid being drawn into Heidegger’s and Wittgenstein’s profound skepticism concerning the feasibility of ethics. All it needs to escape metaphysical gesturing is to be prepared to anchor the paradigm of terror within the technological capacities of our civilization.

Such a course is highly obvious to some and emotionally overcharged to others. I cannot go into the details of how it can be pursued within a well-established academic discipline like ethics. A brief overview of how German-language philosophy after the War has reacted to this challenge must suffice. Generally speaking an exploration of the options of moral discourse in the nuclear age implies a turning back from omnipresent Unheil toward attempts to find a precarious balance between Mathematik and Heil. The Kantian project is given prominence again in such exertions, albeit in sometimes idiosyncratic ways. The most outspoken pacifists within the philosophical community try to combine a Heideggerian awareness of the technological threat with employment of more traditional categories applicable to ethical reflection. Günther Anders, for instance, gives an updated version of Kant’s imperative that runs as follows: ”Habe nur solche Dinge, deren Handlungsmaximen auch Maximen deines eigenen Handelns werden könnten.” [Anders, p.298] As noted above he wants to draw attention toward the unique quality of this kind of ”thing” by ascribing possible actions to it. It is no longer the universal moral law, but a product of human engineering that serves as point of reference. The meaning of autonomy, consequently, changes. Instead of being able to follow the lead of rationality encoded in moral intuitions it now amounts to submitting to such rules as could insure human survival.

In a similar vein Ernst Tugendhat whose first important book contained an incisive criticism of Heidegger on truth has written a closely argued paper employing foundational ethical reflection as his unshakeable guideline to determine the right course of action.

”Für diejenigen hingegen, die sich primär aus einer sie transzendierenden Ganzheit verstehen (und für Menschen ist das eigentlich konstitutiv), besteht das qualitativ Neuartige und Einzigartige am Atomkrieg in der Vernichtung des Ganzen selbst, und zwar des universalen Ganzen, das alle partikularen Ganzheiten räumlich und zeitlich umfaßt.

Demgegenüber sind alle politischen Risiken — und es sind in meinen Augen sehr unwahrscheinliche Risiken — bis hin zu dem extremen Fall einer sowjetischen Bemächtigung ganz Europas oder der ganzen Erde, Übel von einer — wenn man sich nichts vormacht — nicht vergleichbaren Dimension.”[Tugendhat, p.43]

Tugendhat calls the global strategies employed by the super-powers ”phantastischen atlantischen Ethnozentrismus” and uses his kind of transcendental argument to rally support for the cause of unilateral disarmament. More recently, however, Dieter Henrich has moved one step closer toward Kant’s intentions as exhibited in my initial quote.

An analogy to developments in the philosophy of mind might be helpful in explaining Henrich’s line of argument. Functionalism has been introduced into the study of cognition to overcome materialistic or behavioristic reductionism. Its main point is that any meaningful scientific work builds on various irreducible levels of description. Recognizing an instrument for measuring time, for example, cannot be analyzed into an enumeration of things and activities, since it is a grasp of chronometry that enables us to classify the items of such a list in the first place.

Similarly, it is held, psychological capacities are to be considered as a methodologically separate realm, accessible to systematic, contentful accounts of functional interrelations between mental states and the environment. One description of the radical options concerning the bomb I have been discussing is that of nuclear reductionism. Every moral issue comes down to this single one according to those who regard nuclear war as a meta-threat; there is space for only the most restricted ethical deliberation under those circumstances. Such positions carry considerable conviction given the probabilities of warfare, and yet, like materialism, they appear curiously impoverished when it comes to actually dealing with real-life events.

”Von dem Krieg, der nun zu gewärtigen ist, geht ein Schock aus, der unverkürzt das gesamte Wertbewußtsein ebenso trifft wie aufruft.” [Henrich, p.16] But, according to Henrich, when someone tries to articulate what this shock amounts to and what the proper response should be, he or she is immediately caught in a conflict of intuitions that cannot be reduced to one unequivocal set of attitudes. There is immediate moral repulsion, sure enough; but in addition to that there is also a sense of historical reality indicating an extremely complex, interwoven pattern of science and international politics as necessary context of any attempted application of the categorical imperative.

”Die unmittelbar überzeugende Begründung für die unbedingte Illegitimität ihres (sc. der Bombe) Gebrauchs steht also der Erkenntnis der Aussichtslosigkeit entgegen, dem absoluten Gebot durch einen Appell zur sittlichen Eindeutigkeit auch ebenso unmittelbar wirkliche Geltung zu verschaffen.” [Henrich, p.18]

Nuclear pacifism confounds legitimate unconditional insight into the moral reprehensibility of the bomb and careful examination of the degree of freedom the actual situation offers. Against the dramatic one-sidedness of nuclear reductionism Henrich sketches a kind of Bildungsroman of moral consciousness, trying to orient itself rationally even against the odds of a global disaster.

This is a sensible procedure; but is it an appropriate philosophical response? In some sense the bomb has put humanity back into a pre-critical stage of its history, calling for blatantly metaphysical constructions to grasp reality. Henrich’s proposal sounds like the truisms every intellectual can be counted to subscribe to.

”Es bleibt keine andere Möglichkeit als die, die Verfügbarkeit der Waffe einzudämmen und unter einer Kontrolle zu halten, die dann immer wieder aufs neue stabil gemacht, auch neu gewonnen und schließlich vielleicht auf lange Zeit in Institutionen, die nicht mehr zurückgenommen werden können, verläßlich gemacht wird.” [Henrich, p.133]

Nobody could object, but we don’t need ethics in any deep sense to tell us that we better proceed according to some such plan if we want to survive. To put it differently: even if one concedes that moral reflection should not simply be discarded vis a vis the nuclear threat it can hardly capture its uniqueness, once it begins to relativize it to the set of circumstances we happen to find ourselves in. Kant’s categorical imperative was an endeavor to arrive at moral absoluteness starting from rational reflection. The bomb, however, is the essence of heteronomy and all attempts to involve it into a contemporary version of Mathematik and Heil have to dodge its metaphysical potential of Unheil somehow.

The whole thrust of Henrich’s book is directed against what he regards as adolescent moral absolutism, namely nuclear pacifism insofar as it searches for salvation in its unconditional convictions, refusing to be diluted by compromise. Henrich’s synthesis, however, yields its own somewhat rarified conclusion.

”Sowohl der Kreuzzug zugunsten der nuklearen Abrüstung wie auch die emotionslose Strategieerkundung haben auf dem Weg zum nuklearen Frieden ihr jeweils begrenztes Recht. Das einzusehen bedeutet weder Neutralität noch Inaktivität, sondern den Ansatz zu einer Aufklärung, welche weder die Weltlage noch das sittliche Handlungsziel aus dem Blick verliert.” [Henrich, p.273]

If this is philosophy’s offer of Enlightenment Richard Rorty’s preference of novels to speculative essays strikes me as pertinent. The problem with Henrich’s harmonizing conclusion is its attempted squaring of the circle in trying to overcome all particularities and pass this off as a non-neutral, positive proposal. The notion of philosophy behind this project has been permanently shaken by Heidegger and Wittgenstein. Their refusal to reserve a separate, yet all-important, domain for their profession is echoed in Günther Anders’ remark:

”Es gibt Themen, die man bereits dadurch verfehlt, daß man sie falsch adressiert. Da die Bombe nicht über unseren Universitätsgebäuden hängt, sondern über unser aller Häuptern, wäre es ja auch nicht angemessen, einer Fachgruppe etwas über die mögliche Apokalypse in einem Fachidiom vorzuphilosophieren.” [Anders, p. 237]

At this point the topic of ethics and the bomb is drawn into the current controversy concerning overcoming philosophy and deconstruction. Henrich, it can be argued, tries the impossible in rationally responding to a trans-rational challenge. Perhaps that is a respectable undertaking at the edge of our cognitive capacities, but it is open to the objection that it is just a pathetic effort to mobilize a kind of reason that has had its day. If this is correct there are two ways out. One is a kind of honorable decisionism. ”Und wer nicht herausspringt … der wird lebend nicht davonkommen.” [Anders, p.306] Karl Jaspers and Ernst Tugendhat are among the proponents of such an attitude. Considering that this is precisely what Henrich argues against, it is obvious that this advice amounts to turning full circle as far as available options of actual behavior are concerned.

This impasse has given credibility to a second type of solution. Utter perplexity and mediating synthesis can be seen as closely interlocked, as just two correlative sides of Western civilization’s equipment to deal with the Other. It might be pointless to pin one’s hopes on an ultimately liberating use of one or the other. Ethics, in particular, is inadequate according to this argument, because it focuses on the outdated notion of rational agents. Humanism, as Heidegger conceived of it, is just a preparatory stage to the dominance of technology and its encompassing danger. Is there any opening left? According to the deconstructionist program it can only be found by shifting the level of discussion, investigating the historical, conceptual and rhetorical conditions of moral reflection rather than actually trying to employ them in defense of humanity.

Jacques Derrida’s contribution is the most conspicuous, but most of what has become known as post-modern thinking shares his reluctance to take a stance within the framework defined by responsibility and reason. As Derrida plausibly points out, nuclear war is in an important sense a thoroughly rhetorical event. Since its actualization could coincide with the breakdown of reference altogether it might well be the case that only by keeping it in the realm of the possible a topic can be made of it.

”The anticipation of nuclear war (dreaded as fantasy, or phantasm, of a remainderless destruction) installs humanity — and through all sorts of relays even defines the essence of modern humanity — in its rhetorical condition.” [Derrida, p.24]

This implies that the terms ordinarily used to describe the predicament should not be taken at face value. Questioning the rhetorical equipment of authenticity and diplomacy introduces a non-Kantian variety of critical distance between language and reality. ”Nuclear criticism” is not offered as an endeavor designed to clear the ground for rational belief. Rather, accepting the bomb as an irreducible metaphysical phenomenon, it probes some elements that go into the construction of the public image of the nuclear age. Expecting this to lead straightforwardly toward a resolution of the problem would be a rerun of the Kantian project. In its place deconstruction proposes rhetorical relieve from the ”mental cramps” characteristic of moral thinking in the grip of the apocalypse.

De-moralizing discourse about war has been a popular occupation in post-modern writing recently. Without going into its merits I want to draw attention to a systematic connection that has already been hinted at by using the Wittgensteinian phrase at the end of the last paragraph. Disengaging oneself from moral positions and trying to survey the pattern of its preconditions is a way of working out the grammar of a particular kind of language games. ”Grammar”, after all, has logical as well as rhetorical connotations. Deconstruction and anti-positivistic analytic philosophy seem to share the same transcendental impulse, bracketing the claims of material human commitments to get a better look at the changing epistemic configurations determining actual choices.

This, of course, is the Kantian move, but dramatically modified since theoretical truth and rhetorical-practical elucidation have become separated. Kant’s categorical imperative, conceived in parallel to the synthetic a priori judgements of his first Critique, was supposed to provide a simultaneously formal and material foundation of ethics. Applying the transcendental method to moral discourse without subscribing to this principled synthesis of Mathematik and Heil splits ethics into foundational rhetoric and advanced propaganda. Followers of Heidegger and Wittgenstein find themselves pushed toward epoche which, after all, is another well-established philosophical attitude designed to master exigencies.


It is beyond the scope of this paper to attempt a systematic treatment of the issues implicit in my overview, so I have set myself the more manageable task to relate several of its key motives to the main topic of this conference, terror and promise. Four loosely interrelated points might highlight topics of inter-disciplinary interest. Two of them will be grammatical observations, dealing with features we cannot avoid when talking about overwhelming terror; two will concern the status of a particular type of theoretical activity that finds itself pushed into a corner by the turn of events in this century.

My first point is that pronouncements of terror conform to very similar patterns regardless of whether they are induced by mythological entities, humans or machines. Once a group of persons settles into some sort of social life, sharing common means of expression and accompanying values, it can be threatened from the outside, attacked by forces it is unable to comprehend. Blanks within the language of the tribe are indications of what cannot be spoken about. Mere struggle for life does not afford the necessary spare time, but when a rudimentary form of civilization is established it bears the marks of what it constitutively excludes. Psychoanalysis has taught us about the return of the repressed in the shape of nightmares. A limited arsenal of expressive reactions is at the disposal of humankind faced with the entirely terrible. All the relevant items probably could be found in a review of last decade’s horror movies.

A tension inherent in all attempts to answer the challenge of modern technology can be explained by such considerations. While its destructive potential increases exponentially, warnings against this development can only become more shrill, widening the gap between the sense of being threatened and meaningful verbal rendering of this situation. A warning cry, taken as a signal, triggers instinctive responses. Within societies, however, it functions as a symbol, leaving some space for interpretive maneuvers. We pride ourselves on being animals capable of understanding, so we better acknowledge this achievement’s dark side. Talk about terror cannot establish unshakeable certainty, even if there is justified fear of universal destruction.

There is a supplement to this observation. Closer inspection of how communication works reveals that it includes features functioning pretty much like pre-semantic signals. Prototypes and cliches are not given in nature, yet ordinarily their occurrence initiates the cause-effect relationship the sciences assume. A second point can be noted here. Possible basic reactions to ultimate concerns are few and according to the most natural meaning of the term all are cliches. If a cliche is understood as an a priori pattern inadequately dealing with a situation of essentially irreducible complexity, encounters with the Other cannot but produce such stereotypes. Pointing them out in horror movies is almost a pastime, but the consequences of this remark are more extensive and even touch upon highly theoretical exercises.

Instead of rejecting speculative metaphysics, as has long been fashionable, one might regard it as a collection of cliches developed to cope with trans-historical, trans-social matters. An interesting shift of meaning occurs if such a path is taken. The stereotypes under consideration in such a case are essential stereotypes, i.e., there seems to be no way to avoid them. As I remarked on several occasions human imagination is just not capable of coming up with any less superficial reaction, because the outside threat exposes humanity itself as a wholly superficial phenomenon. Painfully incongruous, cliches are our only access to whatever it is that calls for a reaction.

The controversy regarding ethics outlined above can now be redescribed in more general terms. It seems we have a choice between preserving a sense of urgency using cliches or embark on a more circumspect project, losing touch with terror in due course. Neither emotionally nor morally overcharging human means of response is going to change this pattern. Under the right circumstances cliches might gradually be dissolved as some of the threats to a civilization’s existence are mastered by its own resources.

The strangeness of the Other loses its terror and the defensive stance of a given society can be transformed into an attitude of curiosity and understanding. But it is not in the power of actual communities to pick their lot. Our own society, in particular, seems to have learned the lesson on mastering the menace of nature only too well. I am approaching my third point. Science and ethics, working in tandem, were conquering new frontiers and stabilizing this conquest throughout modernity. An attitude characteristic of the Enlightenment was instrumental to this development. It consisted in the employment of a vocabulary of universal principles and values to further the ends of a particular, privileged segment of the world’s population. Claims that Western civilization can check the terror it encounters by projecting this strategy are no longer credible.

The reason for this, put in shorthand, is that the formality of mathematics and science on the one hand and of ethics on the other seem to have lost any common denominator. While it is still true that natural laws work the same all over the globe it is not the case that all of humanity can be addressed with the kind of ingeniousness envisaged in the categorical imperative. This might not invalidate its philosophical stringency, but philosophy in its turn fails to occupy its former position as a theoretical underpinning of the most advanced social and technological developments. It has had to part company with the progress as we have come to expect and dread it.

Despite their profound differences Heidegger and Wittgenstein were both responding to those epoch-making changes. Following their lead Kantian ethics itself can be seen as an expansionistic tool. By inviting everyone to abstract from the socio-historical conditions of a given context Kant arguably prepares the ground for a global society dominated by the ethnocentric interest of one successful tribe. Using the United Nations’ security council to legitimize the unabashed use of a superior military potential to ensure the flow of cheap oil is an example of what I have in mind.

Transcendental humanism is built upon the conviction that there is something in common to all humanity and that it can be made the point of reference for any further material investigation. This has been confirmed by the bomb, but it has backfired on ethics. It is not clear how the universal critical impulse fares under conditions reapproaching mythological dimensions. Can there still be a systematically respectable ethnocentrism of humanity taken as a whole or is ethics bound to divide into a set of doctrines for various groups of people?

Articulating the question is to concede that no easy answer is forthcoming. The conditions of possibility of the application of ethics are undermining ethics as an enterprise investigating conditions of the possibility of moral action. Philosophy in general cannot effect a breakthrough in our understanding of imminent terror. The very expression I am using here suggests the source of the problem. Rather than expecting breakthroughs philosophy has to get accustomed to the fact that it is nothing more (or less) than one stratum of defense our society has developed against what it fails fully to comprehend.

The last point I want to make touches on how this situation shapes philosophy’s self-description. It used to be assumed that reflection on a given predicament was an extremely promising way to search for an escape. The borderline to human action that is drawn by the bomb cannot be crossed in this way. Wittgenstein’s picture of a fly in a fly-bottle is still the most pertinent elucidation, even though we have stopped to use this fly-catching technique. There is a chance that the ability to rearrange certain elements of the fix we find ourselves in might allow us to escape from it temporarily. But truely modern fly-bottles don’t have exits and there is no one around to smash the glass either. The only thing that breaks down in such situations is the distinction between a prisoner and a helpful hand. Believe in God was once described as a wager by Pascal. The modern equivalent might be to regard ethics as an highly insecure investment available to a species of intelligent insects.


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Derrida, Jacques. ”No Apocalypse, Not Now (full speed ahead, seven missiles, seven missives).” Diacritics 14.20-31 (1984)

Heidegger, Martin. Parmenides. Gesamtausgabe 54 (1982)

Henrich, Dieter. Ethik zum nuklearen Frieden. Frankfurt 1990

Jaspers, Karl. Die Atombombe und die Zukunft des Menschen. München 1982

Kant, Imanuel. Opus postumum. Akademieausgabe 21

Tugendhat, Ernst. Nachdenken über die Atomkriegsgefahr und warum man sie nicht sieht. Berlin 1986

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Vortrag über Ethik. Frankfurt 1989