Markus Gabriel, the world featured philosopher, became the youngest ever professor at the University of Bonn, Germany, at the age of 29. We interview him about his new challenges as a philosopher.
Pandemics, climate change,
and other unprecedented problems
are piling up for nations around the world.
There are philosophers who use theories
to show new ways to navigate
the challenges facing the world.
Among them is Markus Gabriel.
He was selected as a professor of philosophy
at the University of Bonn, Germany,
at the age of 29,
the youngest in history.
He is an up-and-coming philosopher
who is attracting worldwide attention.
Gabriel points out
that the root of various problems
stems from the lack of coordination
between scientific and moral ideas.
In December 2022,
he participated in the Tokyo Forum
at the University of Tokyo.
The theme was
"Dialogue between Philosophy and Science."
that he gained a great deal of inspiration
and new knowledge from the discussions
he had with intellectuals from other fields.
We asked him about his experience
at the Tokyo Forum
and his new challenges
that transcend the fields of academia.
I learned how deeply integrated philosophy
and science should be in the future again.
Well, it has always been constitutive
of my own approach and philosophy
to see philosophical topics
from all perspectives.
And I take the transcultural dimension
of humanity very seriously
in order to understand the nature
of what we share, right?
So we can only know
what we have in common as humans
if we encounter a cultural difference.
First of all, philosophy, too,
has become over specialized
and tried to isolate itself
from other disciplines.
So what philosophers need to do
is really engage with the type of knowledge
that we have in other disciplines
without thinking too much
at a distance from them.
Why not say that finding scientific facts
presupposes an open-ended dialog, right?
Whose result is not predetermined.
We can combine both perspectives in,
as it were, a meta-dialogue.
The COVID-19 pandemic swept the world in 2020.
This unprecedented disaster
posed a major challenge
to our society as a whole
and exposed the limits of
our current socioeconomic system.
Gabriel says he learned a key lesson from it.
The pandemic made me
like everyone in different ways.
I feel how vulnerable we are
and how fragile and dynamic
our whole socioeconomic system is
and all its dimensions.
A very deep experience of finitude
and of a loss of control.
which then of course also
led me to think about, you know,
which role can philosophy have
in this kind of cacophony,
struggle for the right decision.
Because that's what we have
also all over the planet, right?
I mean, what's the right thing to do?
How long should the lockdown be?
What do we lockdown?
What remains open, what doesn't,
what is responsibility?
So in that sense,
the pandemic made me, you know,
very humble in various respects.
I learned a lot about what I do not know.
And at the same time, I also learned a lot
about what people who claim to know something
actually do not know.
So it was a very valuable lesson
to me about human finitude.
And of course, we must not forget
that over 6 million people so far
So this was a real encounter
with a gigantic threat
and therefore with our own vulnerability.
On the other hand,
Gabriel says, the pandemic
also had a positive side:
showing the world
the usefulness of democracy.
One of the most positive lessons
for me has been
that democracy has not really suffered
from the measures taken.
The debates that we had about the measures,
however, one assesses a particular type of
measure or a whole system of measures,
at the end of the day,
everything was completely democratic.
Fortunately in the democracies
and how non-democratic covid measures
are outside of democracy.
So that's quite interesting.
If you look at China, you can see
the shortcomings of the authoritarian regime,
whereas you see the advantages of democracy.
So the democracy that I desire
is one whose institutions are always
designed in light of the question,
how can we do morally better?
How can we be more inclusive, right?
Which voices do we not yet hear?
What are they telling us?
Why are they saying this?
We need to be even
more open minded than we are.
And I think this has also
been happening in the pandemic.
Remember, in the United States, you know,
BlackLivesMatter or MeToo, etc.,
all of this also happened
during the pandemic in various modes.
And I think every country also had,
you know, very progressive moments
and regressive moments.
Gabriel has been interested in
philosophical issues since he was a child.
It was a summer vacation in high school
that defined his life as a philosopher.
I broke my ankle skateboarding,
so I had to stay at home
for an entire summer.
And a friend of mine then gave me
actual philosophy books to read,
and after the summer
that I had to stay at home, etc.,
I returned to high school,
from skateboards kids to philosophy nerd.
My father was a gardener
and my mother a nurse,
so not at all,
if you like an academic family household.
And I don't know if my father ever
really understood the difference
between philosophy and psychology.
I got lucky that I met people
who supported me in incredible ways
at every stage of
my philosophical development.
From my high school principal,
who was a philosopher and studied philosophy
in Paris with Jean-Paul Sartre,
no less a figure, right?
So, he saw a philosophical talent
and pushed me and also helped me
to already attend university courses
where at the University of Bonn
while I was still in high school.
Gabriel spent his postdoctoral period
at New York University.
He says that facing the cultural differences
with Europe and the United States.
made him realize anew the importance
of dialogue for mutual understanding.
Well, when I moved from Heidelberg,
a highly traditional
with hundreds of years
of philosophical tradition,
I first had an, you know,
a complete cultural shock, right?
So everything about that culture
in particular in philosophy
was alien to me.
And at first
I struggled recognizing,
you know, the activities
that were going on at New York University
where I was first located
as so much of philosophy.
So it was not obvious to me
So I learned something about philosophy
by seeing how it's practiced
in the so-called new world
which is different from the way in which
it's actually practice in continental Europe.
There's an interesting maximal difference
between Europe and America
that is less so between Europe
and some of the Asian countries.
So that's the take home message.
The University of Bonn
has one of the most prestigious
philosophical institutes in Germany.
In 2009, Gabriel became the
youngest-ever professor here at the age of 29.
His books have sold exceptionally well
worldwide as philosophy books.
As a result of the global economy's
continued pursuit of record-beating profits,
various social problems,
such as environmental destruction
and economic disparity,
are becoming increasingly serious.
Gabriel uses his books to sound the alarm
about the current state of capitalism
which he argues is contributing
to the division of the world.
In the future, I think
capitalism and making the world
a better place will start cooperating
because otherwise capitalism can't survive
and its own interests to survive.
Nor can humanity survive.
I think that we will see
the type of system change.
I predict that there will be something
that I call ethical capitalism.
He advocates "ethical capitalism,"
which aims to do what is ethically
and morally right and at the same time
achieve economic expansion.
It's something he says has been neglected
in the past in favor of
building up growth alone.
Basically, ethical capitalism
is the corporation of business
with morally progressive thinking.
Imagine that, you know, our companies
strive for doing the morally good, right?
So imagine you have a business model
which actually makes the world better.
So one of the reasons why
social media is so successful
is that they started with
the promise of freedom, right?
And then they undermined
the promise of freedom,
which is why now
their business model is going down.
Gabriel points out
that the recent decline of some social media
is the result of companies'
excessive pursuit of profits.
I think that what we are seeing right now,
you know, the crisis also in the tech sector
is the side effect of them
not being ethical business people.
Justice in the vaccine case.
Why is BioNTech successful?
Because they're trying to end cancer.
That's why they make money, right?
And on the way of solving cancer,
they have the technology
that was useful for this vaccine.
And I think similarly
ethical capitalism is the idea
that only companies, right,
who directly or indirectly contribute to
the Sustainable Development Goals
rather than companies
who are most aggressive in the market.
He unpacks the need for ethics teams
in businesses and governments
to make ethical capitalism a reality.
In recent years,
he has served as an ethics advisor
for various companies,
including giant IT firms.
I do political and business advising and
various contacts, as a matter of fact,
and various stakeholders on different levels
that deploy A.I. in the health sector
or telecommunications sector.
And then my team looks into the business case
and helps the company to decide the extent
to which a use of a given product
is ethically problematic or not.
So there's a serious interest in IT companies
to find out what consequences
a given product and its use can have.
In 2022, Gabriel took a leave of absence
from his university
and became the academic director
of a private institute in Hamburg
called the New Institute.
At this facility,
experts from different fields
such as philosophy -
as well as politics, business, and art -
gather and engage in
lively discussions every day.
it has become a place for
new philosophical experiments.
Philosophy is a discipline particularly
well suited for moderating perspectives.
We look at the way
in which not different
knowledge systems, right,
can be moderated and
integrated at the New Institute.
That's the function of philosophy.
Philosophy has a particular way, right,
of generating something general and universal
from the particular and vice versa, right?
And for this reason,
fundamental design of the New Institute
is based on philosophical thinking.
But then of course,
the actual knowledge that's produced here
is not exclusively philosophical,
but it's a place which basis is,
you know, production conditions
of new social imaginaries
on philosophical clarification,
on methods that come from philosophy.
So we do actually
cooperate with business people
not to improve their business,
but in order to improve
the ethics of their business.
And we learn from the business world
what the actual problems
in capitalism are, right?
So in this way we get data
and access to social realities
that you do not normally have
within the university
and social reality,
nonacademic social reality has
an encounter with the New Institute.
His programs at the New Institute
apply research to the real world
in a way that cannot be obtained
at a university.
What vision does he have beyond that?
And what I learned here
is that none of these normativity
So you cannot just take ethics and
dictate the course of politics and business.
You cannot just take business and dictate the
course of politics and ethics, etc., right?
So these systems or
these different normativity,
overlap and interfere
and make the social world complex
in ways that I could not see, right,
from within just my expertise.
I go out from the university for a while
to bring academic knowledge
to socio economic realities
and then return to the university
with the experience of having,
you know, work with this laboratory.
And I think that both institutions,
the New Institute and the universities,
can then learn something from each other.
So for me,
it's a gigantic, you know,
once upon a lifetime opportunity
to run a real humanities
and social science lab.
Do you have any words to live by?
Don't stop moving.
Stability is change.
Because everything that is stable
maintains itself over time.
But maintaining oneself over time
Because time is change.
So stability is change
that allows you, right?
to repeat a desirable pattern.
So we tend to think that,
you know, either you change
or you are stable.
But I think, you know, the real stability
can only be achieved by realizing
that it is, by its very nature, change.
But change is not what it seems.
Change is not replacing something
by something else.
Change is sustainable.