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In: KulturPoetik 2008, Heft 1

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Elizabeth Millán-Zaibert

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Healing Powers and Undesired Side Effects of Contemporary Theory: A Whimsical Philosophical Pharmacy
Jochen Hörisch, Theorie-Apotheke. Eine Handreichung zu den humanwissenschaftlichen Theorien der letzten fünfzig Jahre, einschließlich ihrer Risiken und Nebenwirkungen. Frankfurt/M.: Eichborn Verlag 2005. 323 S.

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Early in his provocative, playful, and illuminating book, Jochen Hörisch tells us that:

Theorien sind dazu da, die Wahrheit zu sagen. Das ist kein einfaches Geschäft. Denn ›Wahrheit‹ ist nicht nur im Deutschen ein Wort, das sich nur widerstrebend in den Plural setzen läßt. Wir sind enttäuscht, wenn wir mit vielen Wahrheiten konfrontiert werden, statt der einen Wahrheit und nichts anderem als der lauteren Wahrheit zu begegnen (p. 10).

There is nothing terribly original in this claim regarding the function of theories and the frustrations felt by those who seek the Truth rather than a plurality of competing truths. Things become much more interesting when Hörisch connects this point about the function of theory and truth to a contemporary and, within the context of life in contemporary German society, a most pressing matter. Hörisch likens the inevitable tension and frustration arising from our longing for a single Truth and our steady confrontation with a plurality of truths to what the citizens of the former DDR experienced after the unification: »So wie die DDR-Bürgerrechtler enttäuscht waren, die nach Gerechtigkeit verlangten und im vereinigten Deutschland auf viele Rechtsbestimmungen und auf Recht als Verfahren stießen« (p. 10). Far too few philosophers have explored the impact of unification on German society. A notable exception is Dieter Henrich, who in Eine Republik Deutschland (1990) and Nach der Teilung. Über Identitäten und Intellektualität in Deutschland (1993) addressed this matter with great insight and in a most timely manner. So it is a welcome element of Hörisch’s volume that connections to the contemporary state of German society are made. Indeed, Hörisch’s lens is not limited to German circumstances, and he is able to connect his diagnosis of the theories he addresses to a broad swath of social and political events of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Such a kaleidoscopic treatment of ideas exemplifies the intellectual creativity that abounds in Hörisch’s fascinating book.

The 32 entries of Hörisch’s philosophical pharmacy each display a refreshing degree of originality and brilliant flashes of insight, none of which comes at the cost of an even-handed presentation of the intellectual movements presented. Each theory sketch is followed by a section on the ›Wirkungen, Risiken und Nebenwirkungen‹ of the given theory. Hörisch is able to place the most disparate of theories into dialogue with each other. Throughout the work he displays impressive openness to a variety of philosophical tendencies, as he carefully places the leading theories of the last fifty years into historical context and then points out the healing effects of movements and their undesired side effects. Referencing Derrida’s essay, Plato’s Pharmacy, Hörisch reminds us that the word ›pharmakon‹ indicates both a cure and a poison. Theories are a kind of pharmakon in our quest for truth: they can lead us further along the path to truth, but they can also go too far, and sabotage that search. Just as in medicine, overmedication can lead to substance abuse and public health problems, an excess of theory can also have insalubrious effects.

Hörisch does indeed deliver on the statement of the book’s purpose, which he clearly defines in the foreword, namely that:

die vorliegende Theorie-Apotheke versucht zu rekonstruieren, welche Theorien auf welche Probleme ansprechen und welche Nebenwirkungen, Kontraindikationen und Risiken sie haben. Sie will Grundzüge, Grundgesten und Grundbegriffe derjenigen Theorien vorstellen und prüfen, die in den letzten fünfzig Jahren das Sagen hatten und zum Widerspruch reizten (p. 23).

With just the ironic wink that characterizes the entries and which makes this volume such a pleasure to read, Hörisch then adds: »daß auch die in der vorliegenden Theorie-Apotheke gegebenen Referate zum Widerspruch reizen werden und sollen, liegt auf der Hand« (p. 23). Attention to historical detail and care for interpretative justice to the topics he addresses never stop Hörisch from having fun with his subject matter.

For example, in the entry on Analytic Philosophy we are given an impressively detailed historical sketch of the movement, with the regular cast members one would expect (Wittgenstein, Carnap, Ayer, Russell), but the entry begins with a reference to a rather unexpected source in this setting: mention of Flaubert’s novel Bouvard et Pécuchet. The main characters of the novel, we are told, were analytic philosophers »avant la lettre« (p. 35). Given analytic philosophy’s disdain for anything smacking of literary elements, to frame a discussion of analytic philosophy with reference to a novel is most irreverent; yet the many acts of textual insolence in Hörisch’s book unfailingly serve to cast traditional movements in a new light. The entry on Analytic Philosophy goes on to highlight the positive effects of embracing the analytic method: clarity and rigor of thought, a commonsense approach to philosophical problems with the promise of immunity against irrationalism and nonsense. Yet these positive effects come at the high cost of drawing the borders of philosophy so narrowly that many important voices are cast aside as nefariously nonsensical or irrational. The negative side effects of analytic philosophy include a rather reductionist view of the task of philosophy and of who is granted entry into the narrow territory defined by the border guards of this movement. To follow Hörisch’s assessment of the movement, analytic philosophers have gone too far when they take on the role of a discursive police force:

so wie Parmenides, Nikolaus von Cues, Hegel, Heidegger, Benjamin oder Adorno darf man nicht sprechen und denken. Analytische Philosophie ist deshalb unwiderstehlich für Köpfe, die Hegels, Heideggers oder Benjamins Schriften nicht verstehen und a priori fest davon überzeugt sind, daß es nur an diesen Schriften liegen könne (p. 42).

Hörisch presents an obvious limitation of analytic philosophy (namely its bellicose intolerance of different approaches to philosophical problems) in an astute and clever way.

As Hörisch moves from Analytic Philosophy to Hermeneutics, Derrida and Deconstruction, from John Rawls’s Theory of Justice to Hannah Arendt’s Theory of Totalitarianism, from the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School to Norbert Elias’s Theory of Civilization, and to the ‘isms’ of the last fifty years (Existentialism, Feminism, Constructionism, Structuralism, Postmodernism), he never fails to balance rich historical context, discussion of the relevance (both historical and political) of each theory, and a nuanced and always witty discussion of the limitations of each theory. An illustration of this excellent mix is found in the Systemtheorie (Niklas Luhmann) entry, where Hörisch uses jokes and comical references to the »Gesamtausgabe der Werke von Erich Honecker« (p. 288) to illustrate a fundamental conviction of Luhmann’s System Theory. The section on John Rawls’s Theory of Justice begins in the colorful company of references to Orpheus, Goethe, and Heinrich Heine. Certainly, there is never a dull moment in this whimsical tapestry of ideas. It seems to me that Hörisch’s book is just what any doctor of sound mind would order for a patient in search of a detailed and spirited overview of the range of theories offered over the last fifty years, an overview that provides a lively portrait of theory’s relevance to our understanding of political and social reality. 

Prof. Dr. Elizabeth Millán-Zaibert, DePaul University, Department of Philosophy, 2352 N. Clifton Ave., Suite 150, Chicago, IL 60614-320; E-Mail: emzaibert@yahoo.com