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24 June 2004

Prof. Volker Gerhardt of Humboldt University (Berlin) at the Heidelberg Life Sciences and Society Forum

Kant and his philosophy of the human world — The "Forum" encourages interdisciplinary dialogue between the sciences and the humanities — Support from the Manfred Lautenschläger Foundation

An interesting talk by Volker Gerhardt, professor of practical philosophy at the Institute of Philosophy of the Humboldt University (Berlin), attracted a large audience to the "Heidelberg Life Sciences and Society Forum" yesterday evening. Gerhardt's lecture centred around philosophical reflections on the "concept of life".

The speaker took his initial bearings from Immanuel Kant. The 200th anniversary of his birth this year has inspired a plethora of new approaches to his works. Professor Gerhardt has represented philosophical ethics in the National Ethics Council for some time now and his remarks cast new light on the great philosopher, known to the public largely as the one-man think-tank of the Prussian state. But Kant's critical philosophy was at the same time a philosophy of the human world. The specific slant of Kant's thinking on the world is its focus on the individual in terms of personal achievement. This presupposes a degree of predictability in the relationship between man and the world. In absolute chaos the individual would be hopelessly lost. To illustrate the point, Professor Gerhardt drew on the amusing comparison with an umbrella. We expect an umbrella to protect us from the rain, not to mutate into a helicopter rotor whisking us off into infinite space. This predictable state of affairs makes it possible for the individual to recognise his own achievements as a contribution to the development of human culture and hence as the defining condition for his existence.

Professor Gerhardt has been on the chairing committee of the Bioethics Commission of the German Research Council (DFG) since 1998. His major concerns centre around the fundamental problems facing practical philosophy, with special reference to the questions posed by biology and anthropology, bioethics, the relations between nature, society and human consciousness and the constitutive role of individuality. The speaker then went on to emphasise the systematic connection between reason and life. Kant, said Gerhardt, used the concept of life to make the phenomenon of reason understandable. From there he proceeded to discuss the concept of freedom, with extremely interesting results. "Kant's biggest achievement," he insisted, "lies in the irrefutable demonstration of human freedom. He succeeded in showing that anyone who denies freedom is in fact making use of freedom to do so."

But freedom depends on a firmly established network of binding laws, to which all human beings are subject and upon which they can all rely. Only then does it make sense to speak of freedom. "The human individual is free as long as he can do what he wants and is not forced to do anything by his fellows." It is in this constellation that reason can develop in the first place, only thus can reason claim to be the origin of all human behaviour. At the same time, the human individual only becomes completely human by drawing upon reason. If he wants to remain human he must make use of his reason. This in its turn involves a moral obligation, as Gerhardt illustrated with reference to the depletion of biological diversity. In the face of imminent extinction for many species of animals and plants he emphasised not only the aesthetic and biological damage this implies but also the fact that modern humans must behave towards the different species in such a way as to preserve their dignity.

All in all, Volker Gerhardt provided a host of interesting and challenging insights into Kant's philosophy. As such his talk was a genuine contribution to the "Heidelberg Life Sciences and Society Forum", the organiser of the event. The Forum came into being in summer 2001 and is the result of an initiative by scientists from the University of Heidelberg (the ZMBH Molecular Biology Centre and the Medical Faculty), the European Molecular Biology Lab (EMBL) and the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ). The Forum is targeted equally at the general public, providing an opportunity for discussion of socially relevant topics with experts from the fields in question.

The co-organiser of the lecture, the "Interdisciplinary Forum", is an initiative founded by grant recipients of the Study Foundation of the German People. Since last winter semester they have been giving a course of lectures on the subject "Designer Man".

For more information go to
www.embl-heidelberg.de/ExternalInfo/SciSoc/hdforum.html
and/or
interdisziplinaeres-forum.uni-hd.de/
Heiko P. Wacker

Please address any inquiries to
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317
michael.schwarz@rektorat.uni-heidelberg.de
http://www.uni-heidelberg.de/presse/index.html


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