Dietrich Harth
Panajotis Kondylis’ Philosophy of Survival

Zur Aktualität von Panajotis Kondylis


Der Mensch ist im Grunde ein wildes, entsetzliches Tier. Wir kennen es bloß im Zustande der Bändigung und Zähmung, welcher Zivilisation heißt: Daher erschrecken uns die gelegentlichen Ausbrüche seiner Natur.
Arthur Schopenhauer

Some months ago a big German newspaper published an article under the title »An appeal to the instinct of self-preservation of Greece« (WAZ 20.6.2011). This is a heading which insinuates that a community when on the brink of failure (state and society all together), can only be rescued under its own power, and that this power has its roots in something like a physical or biological urge, that is to say in an ›instinct‹. There is a resonance of involuntary irony in that claim because the constructional problems in monetary and economic policy, threatening the prosperity of a big people, can hardly be remedied by drawing on a naturalistic principle of survival. And what is more, if we can trust in Thomas Hobbes’ assertion that a community will only than tumble to death when it is savaged by Civil War, it is little likely that the Hellenic Republic will perish – despite the pictures of violence displayed via television and other visual media. The written word, it seems, has fallen into a state of poorness and powerlessness.

It is an all the more remarkable fact that today’s economic and political crisis in Greece helped to promote a book published already twenty years ago. I am talking of that comprehensive treatise written by Panajotis Kondylis, in which he confronts in an ideal-typical manner the cultural life of the bourgeois society with the post-bourgeois life-world of our time. In Kondylis’ German version the title of this book reads: Der Niedergang der bürgerlichen Denk- und Lebensform. Die liberale Moderne und die massendemokratische Postmoderne (1991); the Greek version: Η Παρακμή του Αστικού Πολιτισμού. Από τη μοντέρνα στη μεταμοντέρνα εποχή κι από τον φιλελευθερισμό στη μαζική δημοκρατία (1991). It is worth mentioning that the meaning of the Greek metamondérna in German would not be ›Postmoderne‹ but ›Nachmoderne‹, a significant semantic difference because ›post-modernity‹ has a strong link to the French movement of deconstructivism. The title in English could perhaps read as follows: The Decline of Bourgeois Life and Ideology. The Liberal Modernity and the Mass-democratic Post-modern Era. Unfortunately there is no English translation accessible.

Kondylis’ treatise (the title of which I will quote further on in its abridged version as Niedergang) captured the attention of the Greek public not only because of its provocative title. Much more important was the fact, that the author in his introduction to the Greek version cast a critical glance at what he, a traveller between two worlds, called the ingrained provincialism and consequential shortsightedness of his fellow-countrymen.

This is not the place to delve into a topic I myself know only through casual conversations and through hitherto unpublished interviews. Yet I will subsequently at least try to indicate that Niedergang is a diagnosis of lifeforms and ideologies in which the author in a remarkable way makes use of the theoretical groundwork elaborated in his other books. As to the exposition of this groundwork I will endeavour to concentrate my presentation on those features which are connected with Kondylis’ cultural theory. A theory, I must add, which he did not carry out explicitly, the traces of which however are deeply rooted in his anthropological ideas. I think it is not too farfetched to argue that Kondylis with his great books followed a master plan thoroughly investigating what he labeled the ›multidimensional‹ range of the guiding intellectual issues (and these are cultural issues) in the modern world, as there are: Enlightenment Rationalism; Critique of Metaphysics; Decline of Conservatism; Theory of War; the Decline of Liberalism and Bourgeois Civilisation. What seems to be missing is a criticism of Religion.

The guiding concepts in Kondylis’ general theory read ›decision‹ and ›self-preservation‹, the latter frequently connected with an ominous “instinct of”. These two theoretical concepts implicate one another as can be shown by the following quotation: ›Decision (de-cisio) is a consciously or unconsciously performed act or process of separation, producing an organised and hierarchically structured world-image, that ensures the orientation-ability necessary for self-preservation and serves the striving for power by granting a firm identity‹ (Entscheidung (de-cisio) ist demnach ein sich teils bewußt, teils unbewußt vollziehender Absonderungsakt oder -vorgang, bei dem ein organisiertes und hierarchisiertes Weltbild zustande kommt, welches die zur Selbsterhaltung erforderliche Orientierungsfähigkeit garantiert und dem Machtstreben durch die Gewährung einer festen Identität dient. Machtfragen 135). This heavyset statement summarises the determinative ingredients of Kondylis’ anthropological postulates, and it suggests at least in a concise form what is at the very bottom of his, philosophically understood, sceptical perspective. The central interrelated concepts in this statement are: ›decision‹, ›self-preservation‹, and ›identity‹. Let me cast a very brief glance at the interrelation between these concepts focusing on the subjective stance of a virtual social actor: Self-preservation is the driving force motivating the actor to (strategically) restructure through a process of classification – called ›de-cision‹ – the chaotic world surrounding him, with the effect that he accomplishes two things at once, to configure a world-image and to mould his identity. It is already at this point noticeable that Kondylis deliberately eschews the option to explain the identity-formation with reference to the dialogical interaction between Ego and the significant Other (cf. for instance Taylor 1992, 32-34, and Stryker 1987).

Self-preservation (›conservatio sui‹ / Selbsterhaltung / ›αυτοσιντίρισισ‹), to concentrate on that term, is since the dawn of the European ›Neuzeit‹ (the modern era) a key concept in theory-building as far as it touches the anthropological implications of social relations in general. According to the first theoretician of modern society, Thomas Hobbes, »fear of violent death and desirous peace« are the compelling reasons for man to form a society and to bow down to an all-powerful authority: the souvereign State. Self-preservation or »conservation« of one’s life, to use Hobbes terminology, is dependent on a superior power checking the animal instincts of man. As the British philosopher himself explains in his famous Leviathan: »It is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man.« (Hobbes 1965, 64)

Hobbes dismissed Reason in its traditional meaning as an ›infallible faculty‹ suitable to establish and to control the societal norms of behaviour and moral conduct. Kondylis in his commentary on Hobbes’ epoch-making theory comes straight to the point when remarking that the instinct of self-preservation only through »Angst-Vernunft« (a fitting formula, joining reason with fear) attains the benign features of sociability. Consequently there is no tenable argument to defend the irreducibility of Reason. Reason is not above sensuality and desire, as Kondylis points out in the constitutive introduction to his history of European Enlightenment within the Context of Modern Rationalism (1981). Reason in its manifestation as a ›Weltanschauung‹ called ›Rationalism‹ is, seen from a formal point of view, rather on the surface of those fundamental decisions, which are ultra rationem, but nevertheless of vital significance to man's existence (Aufklärung 36-38).

Let me briefly summarise the most significant features of that image of humankind so familiar to us, which in its own time – about the middle of the 17th century – was something utterly new. The human individual is, according to Hobbes, in constant movement and agitation, driven by desire and fear: by the fear of destruction and by the unrestless craving, to achieve in all circumstances the goals of his disparate actions. What is little comfort, because – Hobbes argues – the very same structure of self-preservation and enhancement of power marks the will of the citizens united in state and society. Therefore, self-preservation of both, the individual and the citizen, has to be seen as the true rational principle of communal life and as a decisive momentum for the evolution of cognitive and cultural achievements. To come to accept this as a truth is a sign not only of strategic judiciousness but at the same time opens the eyes for the multifarious uncertainties challenging human existence as such. As the most effective momentum in human affairs Hobbes advocated a modified egoistic hedonism. Moral standard for him was an individual's pleasure and power, controlled and restrained by the law of the state.

What is new in Hobbes’ theory becomes evident when we realise against what he struggled, which world view his new thinking successfully brought down – at least within the framework of modern socio-philosophical thought. I cannot describe in detail the position he considered antagonistic. It, therefore, must suffice at that point to indicate that the British philosopher rebelled against the powerful tradition of the classical Aristotelian teleology, i. e. against the doctrine of a final cause, defining the end or purpose of any being whatsoever or whosoever exists. Aristotle considered a ›good life‹ (ευ ζην) worthy of preservation. The British philosopher, however, recognised as determinative in preserving the naked life as such a double potentiality: a tendency to act in a strong fashion, when striving to satisfy one's desires and at the same time an innate weakness by being exposed to the fear of death. It is exactly this ambivalence, I believe, which Kondylis acknowledged as a fundamental and at the same time universal feature of human existence.

Hobbes’ realism or – if you like – healthy pessimism considering the quarrelsome and unsociable nature of the human creatures had an enormous impact on the advancement of political, anthropological and philosophical thinking in Europe, including as different positions as those of Spinoza, Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche and Georg Simmel, who in his Sociology (1908) contemplated the way social groups compete for self-preservation. But it was also Hobbes’ inclination to stir up controversies that fostered the impetus to a polemical use of concepts and arguments as well as a widespread radical stile in philosophical discourse.

Here now I consider it appropriate to turn again to Kondylis, in order to compare some of his theoretical basics with those of the British philosopher. There is more than only one good reason justifying a comparison: For one thing Hobbes and Kondylis in their writings referred intensively to a mutual intellectual hero: the Greek historian Thukydides. Hobbes translated The History of the Peloponnesian War, and Kondylis wrote an elaborate comment on the same book. Both philosophers were fascinated by Thukydides’ conviction that man's unchanging nature is constantly striving for power and at the same time driven by an existential fear to survive. It seems indeed that the issue of self-preservation was already of essential significance for Thukydides’ historical project triggered by the imminent threat of war.

Kondylis shares Hobbes’ resistance against a determinant teleological conception of historical evolution. And another overlapping affinity can be seen in the tendency of both – the historian Thukydides seems to be a patron of that view – the tendency to adhere to the role of the disengaged and impartial observer, when studying the ups and downs of the political as well as the intellectual life. Closely linked to the role of the impartial observer is the claim to abstain – while pursuing the task of research and investigation – from value judgements. There is of course no social and cultural life without value judgements in the sense of opinions, prejudices, partiality, bias and beliefs. And even methodic research – be it the historian's, the sociologist's or the philologist's – cannot totally avoid to get involved in value-conflicts, given the banality that scholarship and search for knowledge do not happen outside the vicissitudes of social life. But value-free research can be – and this is Kondylis’ decision – defended as a normative rule necessary to control unreflected normative prejudices damaging the validity of apparently objective knowledge. Value-freeness for him is an essential, theoretically based ideal for analysing social and cultural reality. It does not mean that the researcher himself is free of values, but it reminds him that he has to be aware of this and to make it a point of reflection and self-criticism. It would be naïve, however, to believe that value-freeness would rule out what Kondylis calls an unavoidable perspectivism. In this regard he is quite in conformity with the views of many social scientists – from Max Weber through Georg Simmel to the Austrian-American scholar Peter Berger. To only quote Weber: »Alle Erkenntnis der Kulturwirklichkeit ist, wie sich daraus ergibt, stets eine Erkenntnis unter spezifisch besonderten Gesichtspunkten.« (All knowledge of cultural reality is (…) always knowledge from specifically sequestered points of view. M. Weber 1949, 181)

That is to say: to opt for a value-free insight into the structures of a socio-cultural world does not mean to deceive oneself with the false hope of finding an incontestable truth beyond the conditions of one's own temporal being. Nobody can bale out of the social lifeworld contemporary to him or her, a fact that makes all knowledge imperfect and relative. Panajotis Kondylis, who agrees with this view, is, however, sceptical towards the possibility to come to terms or to achieve consensus by examining the different points of view through dialogue. Reason and knowledge, he argues instead, are involved in the struggles for self-preservation through augmentation of power and are, therefore, suitable to be utilized instrumentally, i.e. as intellectual weapons. All the more important is the suspension of value-judgements, in order to construct a standpoint distant from normative claims, from which a rational insight into either the friendly acquisition or the antagonistic battle of ideas becomes possible. To put it plainly: The decision for value-freeness gives the investigator the chance to at least partially escape the normative and moral compulsions inculcated in his mind by the culture in which he was brought up. An opinion that pretty well matches the convictions of a sceptical mind.

When we scrutinise what it means to interpret the work of reason and knowledge in terms of its instrumental functions we have to acknowledge that this not only affects academic and scientific cultures but culture in general. Self-preservation by augmentation of power is, to use Kondylis’ words, not a variable but an anthropological constant; it is, so to say, the materially or physically rooted foundation of human existence. What changes that are the historically contingent modes of its actualization (Niedergang 291); and these keep running the permanent strife for self-preservation, the end of which occurs not until the individual passes away. Culture – let me add that the notion at this point is said to include the institutions of Education, Art, Religion and Science – culture is the realm of volition and action (das Reich des Wollens und Handelns), and insofar the battleground where norms and values are set or negotiated, where decisions are made and abolished, where claims to power collide and worldviews fight against one another, and where the whole consequential turmoil again and again settles down for some time in relatively consistent institutional structures. In short, this is not only a particular field for conflict research and criticism of ideologies, it is also a specific subject area for the socio-historical analysis of theoretical and philosophical concepts regarding the versatile fate of the human species.

No doubt, all manifestations of philosophy and theory-building share with the general culture what according to Kondylis is part of that Will to Power (Nietzsche), he recognises as a driving force necessary to overcome any obstacles obstructing the instinct of self-preservation. »Reason« – we read in Niedergang – »is not a sovereign lawmaker, not a normative agency with a universal claim; it is an instrument in service of individual or collective self-preservation – serving power in the broadest sense of the word.« (Vernunft ist demnach keine souveräne Gesetzgeberin, keine normative Instanz mit allgemeingültigem Anspruch, sondern ein Instrument im Dienste der individuellen oder kollektiven Selbsterhaltung – im Dienste der Macht im weitesten Sinne des Wortes. Niedergang 149)

It seems, there is no chance even for the most self-aware scholar to completely escape this entanglement of reason in the supposedly omnipresent power plays. Yet, if scientific research deserves to be qualified as ›rational‹, there must be any criteria allowing to methodically alleviate and overcome the temptations of power. We already got to know value-freeness as a strategy helpful to bracket this entanglement to a certain degree. And there is another epistemological guidance that might help to soften a potentially power-crazed attitude. It has to do with the way the interpreter conceives the historicity of thought and ideas. Do (I would like to ask) the great ideas of the past create a powerful golden chain by which the human spirit rises to an almost divine grandeur, or have these ideas to be seen as a heterogeneous multitude of trial-and-error-arguments designed to answer the fundamental, socio-historically conditioned questions of human affairs? The first-mentioned view coincides more or less with a conventional attitude towards a cumulative history of ideas; while the latter is well known under the label of ›Problemgeschichte‹. Even the so called ›historical facts‹ are from the point of view of Problemgeschichte objects shaped by the theoretical preconditions of the historian, ›Gedankengebilde‹ – intelligent constructions – as one of the partisans of that conception, Max Weber, has put it (Oexle 2001, 19). History on the whole, thought and ideas included, in this regard is seen as something the interpreter has to be accountable for because he is the one who formally designs the facts and thoughts, in short: the culture of the past; and he does this with the empirical knowledge of his present-day world behind him.

This is, of course, nothing extraordinary, but it simply recalls the dependency of all historical investigations on the leading questions of present-day experience. The model of Problemgeschichte is the model Kondylis favoures in all his writings which are dedicated to the history of ideas and ideologies. In addition to that – again similar to Max Weber – he prefers a structural-analytical method of reconstruction. That is to say: his concept of historical analysis rejects the common belief of an on-going progress in human affairs. To insist on continuity in the sense either of socio-political emancipation or of civilizational advancement is in the eyes of the sceptic nothing else but illusionary and self-deceiving. He, therefore, divides sharply the normative content of what he on many of his pages labels ›ideology‹ from the ›conceptual structures‹ of thought (Begriffs- oder Denkstrukturen) defining the intellectual battlefield of a particular era.

In Niedergang (Decline of Bourgeois Ideology and Life) Kondylis insists on a value-free analysis of the bourgeois, i.e. the ›modern‹ era and the ensuing period which he subsumes under the problematic title ›postmodern‹. His large-scale survey of the main features significant for the transition of worldviews dominant in Europe follows more or less a common historiographical convention by applying a triadic pattern to the transition of historical periods, fraught with high tension. These periods go hand in hand with particular mentalities reflected in specific cognitive structures or worldviews we may comprehend as just as many cultural productions. The triadic pattern of transition reads as follows:

I. period: societas civilis, i.e. the old European culture existing until the late Middle Ages, favoring a theocentric worldview;
II. period: bourgeois society, from the early Modern Age (Frühe Neuzeit) as far as the end of the 19th century, elaborating an anthropocentric worldview together with the foundations of industrial and high technology;
III. period: mass society emerging during the postmodern era, characterised by a conflicting plurality of worldviews and a contradictory relation between technical rationality and a hedonistic or irrational attitude to life (Niedergang 295).

The transition from one to the other period by no means took place in a conflict-free atmosphere. True to Kondylis’ motto of a combative, self-preservative relation between different claims to explain the world and the meaning of human life, Niedergang describes the processes of transition analogous to a passionate polemic. That is to say, there is in any case a fight of positions between different figures of thought (Denkfiguren) representing Modernity on one side and the Ancien Regime on the other side, followed by a polemic struggle between pluralistic ideology on one side and Modernity on the other. Transition in this respect means, there does not happen a total replacement of the Old through the New. There is no standstill as if a final goal or dead end was reached. The outcome rather is some sort of a hybrid interrelation between conventional and innovative clues. Methodologically seen, the ideal-type construction of specific figures of thought, designed to characterise certain historical periods necessarily includes in some sort hypothetical or fictitious elements. In Kondylis’ diction the decline embraces the ›synthetic-harmonising figure of thought‹ (synthetisch-harmonisierende Denkfigur) of the bourgeois or middle-class society leading to the ›analytic-combinatorial figure of thought‹ (analytisch-kombinatorische Denkfigur) designating the pluralistically disintegrating mentality of post-modern mass-society.

We could, of course, dissident from Kondylis by explaining the emergence of pluralistic worldviews with reference to the historical facts of globalisation, migration and the ensuing formation of multicultural societies. The growth of cultural diversity in former nation-states may nourish a fear of loss in those who cling to the bias of cultural homogeneity and coherence connected with the social exclusiveness of a harmony-longing ideology. From the perspective of an intensified border-crossing circulation of transcultural ideas and pluralistic life plans neither mass-democracy nor diversity must be seen as the infallible signs of a general decline. Transition is not by all means a change to the worse, even if it is accompanied by confusing disorientations.

So, interpreting the transition of a past period as a ›decline‹ (Niedergang) of that same period is apparently dependent on a retrospective judging the present-day world from a critical if not negative point of view. At the same time – notwithstanding the principle of value-freeness – it is, undoubtedly being a judgement, asking for criticism. ›Decline‹ in Kondylis’ book Niedergang not only refers to the disintegration of the 19th century system of bourgeois society, a process that in his eyes leads to the evolvement of a pluralistic type of society dominated by mass-democracy and captivated by the hedonistic temptations of mass consumption. As an interpretive metaphor ›decline‹ also insinuates a transition of mentalities resulting in the deficiency of formerly positively valued capacities and insofar signals not only rising uncertainties but also the loss of predictable modes of problem solving. In Niedergang Kondylis restrains from far reaching predictions and contents himself with a short hint to the fact that no ideology remains uncontested, and that what is fashionable today will tomorrow end up as waste.

All the more remarkable is what he seven years after the publication of Niedergang had to say about our time, the 21st century. I quote from the introduction to a collection of political essays, he published in 1998, shortly before his unexpected death: ›The expansion of Western democracies on an international level will scarcely everywhere in the world put forth trustworthy copies. They will also change in those countries from which they originated and will there inflame intense distributional conflicts.(…) But nobody knows what kind of precise incidents these great tendencies will trigger with regard to the 21st century. This century will become, I believe, the most shaken and most tragic era in the history of mankind.‹ (Die Ausdehnung westlicher Demokratien auf internationaler Ebene wird wohl kaum überall auf der Welt glaubwürdige Kopien hervorbringen; sie werden sich auch in den Mutterländern verändern und dort heftige Verteilungskämpfe entfachen. (…) Doch niemand weiß, welche konkreten Ereignisse diese großen Tendenzen im Hinblick auf das 21. Jahrhundert einleiten werden, das meines Erachtens das erschütterndste und tragischste Zeitalter in der Geschichte der Menschheit werden wird. Das Politische 12)

I have to close, and therefore want to sum up in a very brief manner: What we call ›culture‹ can be seen as a value-system constructed and shaped through social interactions while these interactions get reciprocally reconstructed by the same cultural values. On the one hand culture – in the sense of worldimages categorially structured by acts of decision – facilitates orientation; on the other hand culture wields power over their subjects by endeavouring through moral and civil legislation to curb the menace of violence latent in all social arrangements. Hence, behind all normative and meaningful doctrines and values, behind all ethico-religious engagements, to which we ascribe the individual quest for meaning and which we reckon essential for a peaceful coexistence on this planet – behind all this there lurks like an irrevocable fatality the struggle to survive by preserving oneself and by taking up in this process a power-hungry stance. In the light of such a worldview one is inclined to conclude with the German poet Heinrich von Kleist that we exist in a world the orderly living conditions of which are in every respect fragile and rotten. Kondylis would probably agree, and he would perhaps add that philosophy, facing this state of affairs, will deny any consolation.

(For all translations of the German quotations into English ©Dietrich Harth)


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Am 2. Dezember 2011 veranstaltete das von Marek Chamot geleitete Kulturinstitut der Wirtschaftsuniversität in Bydgoszcz (Bromberg) eine Tagung pro memoria Panajotis Kondylis. Die in deutscher und englischer Sprache sowie in polnischen Zusammenfassungen präsentierten Vorträge thematisierten biografische (Gisela Horst), epistemologische (Falk Horst), konzeptionelle (Lech Zielinski), hermeneutische (Andreas Cser) und prognostische (Evangelos Spyropoulos) Aspekte, die für das Werk des 1998 in Athen verstorbenen Philosophen von Bedeutung sind. Der hier wiedergegebene Tagungsbeitrag von Dietrich Harth knüpft an die überraschende Konjunktur von Kondylis’ Niedergang der bürgerlichen Denk- und Lebensform auf dem aktuellen griechischen Buchmarkt an, ein postumer Erfolg, der jener Krise zu verdanken ist, die keine noch so wohlgemeinte bürgerliche Tugend unbeschädigt davonkommen lässt.