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Sub-thesis 1

Researcher: Thomas Schwarz Wentzer

As responsive beings, humans interpret their existence

This claim explicitly suggests thinking of responsiveness in terms of existential hermeneutics. It strives to reflect the relation between human agency (in the broadest sense of the word as being engaged in worldly and social affairs) and human self-understanding. It indicates the idea that the human way of being is closely related or even dependent on human self-understanding. What we are crucially depends on what we hold ourselves to be. This idea marks what could be called ‘the hermeneutic turn’ in philosophical anthropology. It radicalises the hermeneutical move not only to characterize the methodological stance of the project, but also to determine a pivotal characteristic of its subject matter. Humans respond to the burden and the project of their existence via interpretation, thus establishing and altering personal identities and collective life forms. In its strong, almost idealistic version this thesis claims the primacy of the impact of our self-conception over our being. This however does not imply that self-understandings are a matter of wishful thinking or private invention, as they are mediated by historically transmitted modes of orientation, socially sanctioned processes of mutual recognition and complex systems of cultural symbolisation. Responding to our own being by interpreting it is in sum a highly complex phenomenon that cannot be analysed sufficiently in terms of classic existentialist categories such as decision, anxiety or freedom alone. But no matter how mediated, self-understanding essentially takes place in the first person perspective and thus remains a deeply existential issue.

Sub-project 1: The Hermeneutics of Responsiveness

In contrast to the use of the term ‘responsiveness’ in recent Anglo-American philosophy and phenomenology and drawing prominently on Dilthey, Heidegger, Schütz, Gadamer and Arendt, this sub-project wants to explore the possibility of a hermeneutical conception of responsiveness. The project will try to argue:

  1. that cognitive, emotive and volitional attitudes can be understood as modes of responding to the challenges of human life (instead of conceiving them under the paradigm of adaptation, reaction, epiphenomenal functions, spontaneous intellectual skills etc.);
  2. that humans respond to the challenges and affordances of concrete situations in one’s own name; i.e. by overtaking one’s normative commitments and motivational sources as one’s own;
  3. that thusly responding means to give an answer, not just a reply; i.e. that when a certain demand is required one is supposed to meet some conditions of fulfillment that qualify a reply as an answer;
  4. that responsiveness is the existential ground for accountability, acknowledging the responsibility for oneself and other persons;
  5. that responsiveness entails the need to get at an ‘inner’ distance to oneself (reflection) and to establish an ‘outer’ phenomenal appearance (expression).

Philosophical hermeneutics is often seen to provide merely historical or philological contributions. A hermeneutic of responsiveness allows thinking of human existence without the metaphysical burdens of modern subjectivity or the irrationalism of traditional existentialism. But it still dares to think of human beings as such, thus objecting to recent post- or anti-humanism in its various forms. To put it differently: The importance and the actuality of Heidegger’s, Schütz’, Gadamer’s, Ricoeur’s and others’ thinking is seen in relevance for a distinctive mode of introducing philosophical anthropology, i.e. with regard to the problem of how to pose the very question concerning the human being as our being. This perspective is formal in the sense that it is indifferent to a particular social class or group, gender, religion, culture or civilisation. It is supposed to facilitate the analysis of particular life-forms as instances of situated responses.