How do philosophers think

Think and research like philosophers

Dieter Henrich: "Works in progress", C.H. Beck, Munich 2011, 216 pages

Immanuel Kant: Clarity comes in sudden and unique moments. (AP)

Dieter Henrich explores the question of how great works of philosophy come about. The insights come suddenly, he says. And they always combine the theoretical solution of a basic problem with opening the way to a new perspective on life.

We have to live our lives. But mostly we don't just want to do it somehow. We also want to understand it, we want to bring light into the darkness of our all too often unsettled life.

So, says Dieter Henrich, it was also the case with the great philosophers: Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Wittgenstein. In sudden and unique moments of clarity, the insights on which they based the edifices of their philosophy came to them.

Dieter Henrich explores the question of how great works of philosophy come about. Anyone who thinks that this is a rather remote special question for experts is completely wrong. Because the question leads straight to the heart of philosophy, to the question of why we philosophize and for what purpose.

Henrich identifies four stages that are needed for a great work of philosophy to become reality. First of all, the thinker must perceive a fundamental deficit in all of the dominant doctrines of his time. Then, in the second and decisive stage, there follows a sudden insight.

It's more than a mere "A-ha!" or "Eureka!" Because the philosophical insight that forms the germ of a great work is an all-encompassing, life-changing knowledge. It takes place with the highest intensity and clarity. It is crucial that it combines the theoretical solution of a basic problem with opening the way to a new perspective on life. In the third and fourth stages, this insight is then checked, substantiated and finally brought into a literary form that fits between two book covers.

Great philosophical insights always combine theory and practical life: This is one of the central and most interesting theses of the book. Unfortunately, Henrich does not go on to explain what exactly he means by the practical orientation of life. Nevertheless - this first part of the book is written clearly, excitingly and comprehensibly. It gives insights into philosophical creative processes that no one has investigated in this way before.

In the second part, Henrich makes a passionate plea for an understanding of philosophy that aims at the whole and pervades all aspects of life. The search of philosophy for the undisclosed founding in our world should be preserved.

Henrich wants to save philosophy: from the clutches of a cultural relativism that understands its knowledge as a mere creative expression of a culture; before a sober understanding of the crossword puzzle, as suggested by conceptual analysis and formal logic; against limiting philosophy to areas of the knowable and thereby robbing it of its real core.

This is inspiring material to think about and difficult to read at the same time. Because large parts of Henrich's argument can only be understood against the background of Hegel's philosophy and a clear line as in the first part is missing.

Nevertheless: This "small" work is a refreshing contribution to determining the position of philosophy today. And that is urgently needed at the moment - regardless of which philosophical school you follow.

Reviewed by Sibylle Salewski

Dieter Henrich: Works in Progress: About the Genesis of Philosophical Insights
C.H. Beck Verlag, Munich 2011
216 pages, 22.95 euros.