Tuesday, September 29, 2009

And now, England

From the last warm days in Berlin to a ghostly empty airport hotel in East Anglia.

Abrupt and (even for me) unexpected scene shifts as the international postdoc hunt continues. Yesterday I got into Oxford around 8 p.m., just in time to join the celebrations of a political theorist who had survived her PhD defence earlier in the day and who was now moving on to Graz, Austria. Sitting at a highly archetypal pub with some new and old friends; conversations that make you realize how much we are all in that same boat, that even in Oxford we are all fakin’ until we (hopefully) make it, all trying to come to terms with the unrealistic demands we for some reason like putting on ourselves.

And today, after visiting the Institute for the Future of Humanity at Oxford University, I must say that even if a job there remains a genuine long shot, just the experience of coming over here and talking to all this people has been immensely inspiring. Sorry for sounding this uber-enthusiastic, especially at this late hour, but whenever I do these kind of trips it becomes sort of a “reality check” for me and it certainly helps easing some of the dissertation angst.


Thursday, September 24, 2009


I follow Crellerstraße for a while, looking up at all the green-clad balconies while trying to avoid bumping into the few but hurried early-morning residents leaving their homes. It is not even seven yet; if one knows how to capitalize on it, the rather extreme arrival time of the night-train gives you a somewhat unique window to the real Berlin.

Half an hour later I have completed the circle and find myself back at Yorkstrasse, exiting a yellow-red train. I know the terrain here all too well for my own good, better to seek out a nice silent café and isolate myself with the dissertation.

After a few hours of writing and pancakes at "Toronto", I realise that this is inevitably set to become one of those famous last warm days that one should better spend outdoors. Therefore, and despite the heavy backpack with all its books, I head out for some election scouting. The German federal election on Sunday is only three days away. A lot of posters everywhere but it would be a stretch to call it “election fever”. If nothing completely out of ordinary happens, Angela will gain rather substantially on her result from four years ago, right now she and her CDU has a lead of about 9-13 percent on Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his SPD. More interesting I find the political slogans of The Left: “Out of Afghanistan”, “Tax the rich” and the all-encompassing “Damit es im Land gerecht zugeht”. And of course, I just have to mention this one with a gorilla joining the fight against gentrification:


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Future talk

Today I gave the final 2 x 2 hours of lectures this semester. With only four hours of seminars on Friday remaining, I am about to finish what has been three almost insane weeks.

In this final lecture I tried to shift the focus from the past and its ideas towards the future of humanity. It is always an invigorating task to listen to what risks and possibilities the students identify when they are allowed to think more freely about the future. In some ways their answers reconfirmed that strange dualism between personal and global futures that has been observed in a number of more scientific studies; strong optimism about their own life prospects and despairing pessimism about the world at large.

With the teaching drawing to a close, I will spend the next weeks working my way down that long list of to-dos, including the more joyful task of planning a post-doc scout trip to California in early November. But already tonight I am off to Berlin, if only for one day.


Monday, September 14, 2009

The rectification principle

Next week will see me back teaching political philosophy for the first time in over four years.

Though it will only be two lectures, it is still exciting to reread the classics and try to come up with new smart ideas about how to teach them. For one thing, when covering Nozick, I will put some extra emphasize on his rectification principle since it, at least by some interpretations, has some rather interesting implications for his more general entitlement theory.

As we all know, Nozick argued that the demands of liberty effectively upset any “patterned” distribution. According to him, we have to accept prevailing social inequalities if these are the results of (a) free and voluntary exchanges and based on (b) just initial acquisition. Since we know that human history did not at all unfold along such lines we can reasonably assume that the people who are rich today are, at least partially, rich because of different transgressions in the past (think slavery, colonization or, why not, simply theft). Because of this problem of historical injustices, Nozick (on page 231 in “Anarchy, State and Utopia”) writes:

“For example, lacking much historical information, and assuming (1) that victims of injustices generally do worse than they otherwise would and (2) that those from the least well-off group in the society have the highest probabilities of being the (descendents of) victims of the most serious injustice who are owed compensation by those who benefited from the injustices […], then a rough role of thumb for rectifying injustices might seem to be the following: organize society so as to maximize the position of whatever group end up least well-off in the society.”

On this and some other pages (especially 152-153), Nozick finds himself sliding into acknowledging the need for a one time redistribution according to, yes, the Difference Principle. The problem is, how exactly do we carry out a “one time redistribution”? As many theorists of justice have pointed out, it is not like that we can take all our monetary resources and put them in one big heap that we then divide fairly. Even if carried out that way, it would only take a short while until many of the old injustices would reappear since the most valuable things in a late-capitalist economy tend to be not only immaterial but also very demanding to redistribute. Just think of the role that our upbringing plays in what opportunities we are able to identify and pursue. To avoid the spectre of paternalism in the process of redistribution, there are good reasons why we should opt for “slower” means of redistribution (such as making health insurances universal or higher education free) rather than “faster” means (such as re-education camps)... All in all, it seems that we indirectly have arrived at a justification of a rather extensive welfare state :-)

(which, of course, can be justified on other and more civilized non-Nozickian grounds)


Friday, September 04, 2009


Better, in every way. The room may still be dark but I traded Anna for The Hives. The presentation went well enough and afterwards we went for some excellent Thai food at Koh Samui on Princess Street.

Marcel brought up Rawls & Me, saying that the weblog does not give away that many juicy details about my private life. True, but unlike other blogs that seamlessly blend the personal and the political, that has never been the programmatic purpose. Yet, I still find a value in not deleting post, in accepting that there are misanthropic days as well as more hopeful ones.

Tomorrow the topic will be democratic deliberation, the role of listening in green political theory and the question of how to cope with intractable controversies. Sounds like useful stuff.


Thursday, September 03, 2009

Rochdale Canal

Overlooking the old industrial waterways of Manchester from the thirteen floor at the Hilton Deansgate. I had to switch off the lights to align my thoughts after this first day of intense academic activity.

As I down a glass of chlorinated water I realize how difficult it can be sometimes, that whatever dreams I had they are being tested by time and my own inadequacies. It is not like I no longer believe, or remain idealistic, it is rather that I recognize, time after time, how difficult communication really is, how easily we give in to ontological insecurity and how uncertain all our futures are.

“simply being was easy, just having you there”

There is a certain defeatism in saying that all relationships that are truly worthwhile must end. That “being” in itself ultimately will not suffice, that human beings are after all consumables, that with sufficient intellectual and emotional integrity comes the inability to love over time.

I do not say that it is like that, nor that we should not try our best to extend these aesthetic moments of “simply being”, only that I fear what we could perhaps call the Anna Ternheimification of my soul.
Something in me vehemently objects to this. That instead of reducing human existence into aesthetics, we should think of it as pointing towards the eternal, that it is only a lack of sensitivity that prevents us from experiencing the transcendental in the eyes of those we love. Yet, true as this may be sub species aeternis, we still have our everyday lives, we still go to IKEA, collect airmiles or walk dogs, or laugh at that somewhat inappropriate joke, we are humans, we are not only spirit but also flesh, and we cannot demand others to acknowledge our own concepts of transcendental purity. But if that is so, then we have to accept the flip side of the coin, namely that at the end of the day we might ourselves be considered expendable and, what would be even worse, simply “boring”.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Once more, with feeling!

Back at that very same Nero in Manchester. Again it is one hour until the conference starts and again Marcel has written a thought-provoking paper, this time on “Zero-growth libertarianism: Population Growth and environmental sustainability”. Reminds me of a paper in the Journal of Applied Philosophy by Thomas Young who asks if overconsumption and procreation are morally equivalent, a question he, fully in line with the Neo-Malthusian paradigm, also answers in the affirmative.

Other highlights this time will be Andrew Dobson’s text on William Ophuls or “Political Theory for a Closed World”. Clearly, the stage is set :-)