Friday, December 20, 2013

February 1, 1939: Philosophy 101

                                Amstelveen, Feb. 1, 1939

Dear Anni, dear Gis,

Thank you very much for you letter. I want to go into something a bit closer. You thought of an ideal as the imagination of a goal, something that lies in the future, and you are convinced that this ideal in life shouldn't be taken from you. I believe that as well, but the question that I meant was: where is that ideal coming from? Surely it isn't anything you are born into, but something that developed as time went on. That is why I think that life is creating ideals, because according to other life circumstances and with other life experiences the life ideal would look differently. 

The people you are talking about, of which you Anni are writing that they are dull and content, they aren't like that because they built their ideals in accordance to their lives, but because they don't have any ideals at all. Whoever wants to create higher ideals, can only do it out of life. Let's take for example the idea of a kingdom of God on earth. It is based on the belief of the good in humans. Where is this belief coming from? Out of the tiny part of experiences one has made with a few people, and with a few people one knows and has heard about, and even then, one has to sometimes wait a long time until something can be discovered that could be considered good in people. Who guaranties then, that one never finds a person, or a majority of people who have nothing good to show for? I do believe also that there is good in human beings, I cannot know though, if I won't be convinced of the opposite one day. And if the opposite convinces me and the opposite proof is obvious, then the faith will have to fall too. It hasn't fallen yet, of course, I only want to say with that, that examination stands above the faith, and that a faith that stands in opposition with the mind and reason, cannot hold up. But is it most often so, that faith and reason can exist very well next to each other, that they run parallel to each other and have nothing to do with each other, so that no contradiction develops. But one shouldn't give faith a higher role. 

Anni, I can understand very well that you want to break free of the stuff with which you have been raised with, but I don't know if this would be possible alone with the fact that you are in contact with other thinking people. You have the beautiful, but also dangerous gift of amazing rhetoric, which is very helpful during a discussion, which results that you easily come out as the winner through words, without having convinced anyone, and anyways when discussing, one doesn't start with the standpoint of: What will hold up of my opinion, but rather: How will it be possible to convince the other. Only that way will you be able to make yourself independent, by checking if what you have been taught, if the Quaker thought is in congruence with your mentality, if it seems to fit and if it can satisfy your most inner being. Or if you have to bump into opposition, but check it not only of the point of view that the Quaker thought is the only true one, which you have to defend under all circumstances, but make sure to check objectively, or at least in as much subjectivity that you see yourself as the primary thing. 

I have been talking to a person here, who has called himself an anarchist, which the anarchists have unjustly gotten a bad rap. I told him many hours about the Quakers, of their faith and work, and when I was finished, he gave me this answer:  "That is also a way of expression, maybe even a very good one." He showed me the same ideas and the same spiritual powers , available in all kinds of different religions and worldly opinions, yes even in the atheist ideas, he showed me how things are done better in such and such a thing or in some things worse, how a problem was solved a different way etc. And even if I don't agree with him in all points, I did see that often the fight is all about words, and how really a world view is often only a matter how it is formulated.

My French Visa still hasn't arrived, in spite of all kinds of connections. But I have hope again to come to America. I wrote to Mr. Martin, he now gave me an answer through the American Friends Service Committee, and he made me big promises. It should be very well possible that I could get an admission certificate for one of the universities from over there, and since the study visa is a non- quota type, it should go fairly fast. I shall send in my resume, photo etc. and someone will get connected with the concerning places. Well, I am not very optimistic at this time, but still these are hopes again. I also have received a very good list of the requirements for the study course, the costs, and possible offers after the study. It seems afterwards the possibilities seem really very good.

Gis unfortunately I have to disappoint you about the job with the English family. The position has been taken last week. It probably wouldn't have been anything for you anyways, since the people don't have any children. They promised me however that they would keep their eyes open for something fitting for you. Please write me quickly and let me know if it has to be a paid position.
How far are you now with your Australian affair? Do you have any specific possibilities over there?

Please greet also your parents, Kaethe and Reinhard.

With hearty greetings,

If I ever needed affirmation about my decision to choose Philosophy for my undergraduate degree, I need only look at this fantastic letter. Opa the Philosopher. I wish we had been able to have these kinds of conversations. This letter is reminiscent of my early college days when I had the freedom to think, question, discern, decide. I went deeper than most of my friends, and when I found my friends in the philosophy major, I found kindred spirits. Opa has kindred spirits with the Quakers. Even in his autobiography, he writes about how the Quakers met his need for intellectual conversation: 
I got restless for some intellectual (spiritual?) activity. Through a friend, I was introduced to a Quaker "Young Friends" group that met monthly. (p 4)
Opa is writing to Anni and Gisela, the Halle sisters that he connected with in the Quaker youth group (Young Friends). You can tell that he has an intellectual thread continuing with Anni and a more practical friendship with Gisela. It’s fascinating to see the difference in his relationship with the two of them, as it matches the differences in the sister’s personalities.

Anni has always been a bit of a debater, and Opa is up to the task. I kind of want to engage in the debate if you’ll humor me. It sounds like Opa and Anni are debating the basic foundation of thought: where do ideals, or the basic premise of faith-thoughts, come from? And what is the measure of a sustainable ideal? Anni seems to be struggling with the Quaker ideals, trying to find her way in them, and bored or frustrated by the apathy of others who do not explore further. However, (and this is so Anni)- she seems to have a clear idea of what she thinks and knows and believes, and will defend that to the ends of the earth.

Opa argues that faith or ideals or goals, however you want to put it, grows out of our life experiences. That the belief in the basic goodness of humans will grow out of an experience of human goodness. Opa’s premise is that faith and reason (an outgrowth of experience) should coincide. He makes it a special point to say that in this relationship, “one shouldn’t give faith a higher role.”

Then, and I love this part, Opa pretty much calls Anni out on her impossible rhetoric. I experienced this when I met Anni in the sitting room of her historic home that lies just outside the hustle and bustle of Berlin, Germany. Anni left very little room for conversation and debate, and rather had a lot she wanted to tell us. Her refrain was that we should only “speak of facts.” And she spoke her facts for nearly three hours. It was one of the most fascinating conversations that I ever had, and I hardly spoke a word. She had a formidable presence, commanding your attention and respect. I can see what Opa is saying here, that she has the “beautiful, but also dangerous gift of amazing rhetoric…”

Opa challenges Anni to slow her rhetoric a bit and sit down with the ideas and experiences, and reason it out for herself, in as objective a way as possible, giving all ideas fair play. Opa gives his experience with an anarchist as an example. He enjoyed his conversation with the man, because he was able to connect and find common ground, although it was not to say he completely agreed with everything the man said. Opa found the intriguing part in the anarchist’s claims, and gained a new perspective on this otherwise ignored viewpoint.

I can’t help but think of the parallels in Opa’s world and mine today. Opa was surrounded by conflicting theories and political ideologues. Germany was especially rampant with warring political parties:
 ...a plethora of political parties abounded, all the way from communists to the far right movements, including such demagogues as Adolf Hitler... I remember many incidents of street fights, even riots, when we were warned to stay home; these fights were between primarily three dominant political parties: the Nazis, the "Nationalists," and the Communists. (p 2)
Each party resorted to violence and manipulation to gain followers or perhaps better put: subjects. This played itself out negatively as the most powerful, manipulative, and violent party won: Hitler’s Nazism. People lost the ability to have conversation and absorb the valid points of the other. This polarization resulted in what we study as the second World War.

The reason I studied philosophy, and still enjoy it today, is because in some ways, I believe it can be the fair playing field where all voices are heard and the good and the bad are sorted through the frames of logic, experience, and instinct. Philosophy demands that you think, and that you listen. Philosophy gives a space for me to play out my ideals and those of others and see if, when I lay it all out, it holds up under scrutiny. When Opa suggests that Anni combine her experiences, reason, and the thoughts and ideas of others- what he is basically promoting is Philosophy 101. Think about it. Think about how you think, and why. In the end we may find that much of what separates us from them is semantics, or procedure. Like Opa said “I did see that often the fight is all about words, and how really a world view is often only a matter how it is formulated.”

In my world today, this same polarization is happening. We are again losing the ability to have conversations about things we care about without resorting to powerful rhetoric to win the argument. The goal should not be to win, but to learn. I have to check myself on this all the time. A couple of men came into the car repair place where I am typing this. They are both armed, and my gut instinct was recoil, and disgust. I don’t like guns. However, I watched them sit with an elderly man (a father? Grandfather? Neighbor?) and listen to his stories with utmost respect and kindness. This experience checked my prejudice. It showed me that even if they had been obnoxious and stereotypical, they still possess the kindness and goodness that is required to listen to an old man tell stories.

It teaches me (once again) that you don’t have to agree with everything a person says or does to respect or connect with them. You might even learn something. Opa learned this lesson, and I think his life experience shaped that ideal. He had wisdom in seeking out truth, not through extremes of rhetoric, but through careful reasoning and relationships with people who were not just like him.

Lastly, Opa mentions his dashed hopes for a French Visa, which he seemed sure to receive. And now there is the dangling carrot of hope from America through his friend Mr. Martin.

Gisela is also looking frantically for a way out, it seems. Unfortunately the job Opa found is no longer available, but he promises to keep an eye out. Also, the Halle family seem to be looking elsewhere for options: Australia!

So today, after reading this long introduction to Philosophy… I want you to engage in conversation with someone who is not like you. And listen. And think. That will be your day’s contribution to world peace.


  1. Opa's getting deep! I love it!

    I don't now how much you care about this but your citations are a little off. Also I think when you cite stuff it would be cool to have a reference section at the end of the blog so people can find them and read them on their own.

    1. The citations for this blog are from Opa's autobiography- which were self-published and only available to friends and family. I put the page number more for my frame of reference- ha. Otherwise- that is a fantastic idea about the bibliography- I'm looking to revamp the site a bit- I will include a bibliography page to link to- thank you for that suggestion!


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