Elmar Holenstein

Professor Emeritus
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, Switzerland

Professor Elmar Holenstein was born on January 7, 1937 near St. Gallen in Switzerland. He studied philosophy, psychology, and linguistics at the Universities of Leuven, Heidelberg, and Zurich. He earned his doctorate at the University of Leuven in 1970 with a dissertation on the phenomenology of prelinguistic experience and completed his habilitation in 1976 at the University of Zurich with a book on the phenomenological structuralism of Roman Jakobson. He has held various teaching and research positions, including lecturer in the Department of Philosophy, University of Zurich (1973-74), research fellow at the Husserl Archive in Leuven (1971-73), and researcher at Harvard University (1973-74), the University of Hawaii (1974), and the Institute for Linguistics, University of Cologne (1975-77). From 1977 to 1990, he was Professor of Philosophy at Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, and from 1990 to 2002, Full Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Humanities at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Since 2002, he has been Professor Emeritus at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

A researcher of international repute, Professor Holenstein has been a visiting scholar at the Department of Linguistics, Stanford University, USA (1981-82), and at the Institute for the Studies of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa in Tokyo (1983-84). He has also been a visiting professor at the University of Tokyo (1986-87) and a research fellow at the Collegium Budapest, Hungary (1996-97).

Professor Holenstein has edited four volumes of writings by Roman Jakobson and Edmund Husserl and published ten books, including Phaenomenologie der Assoziation (1972), Roman Jakobsons phaenomenologischer Strukturalismus (1975), Linguistik – Semiotik – Hermeneutik (1976), Von der Hintergehbarkeit der Sprache (1980), Menschliches Selbstverstaendnis (1985), Sprachliche Universalien (1985), Kulturphilosophische Perspektiven (1998), and Sokrates (2002). His Philosophie-Atlas: Orte und Wege des Denkens (2004) has been praised for inaugurating a new genre in philosophical writing. He is also the author of over eighty scholarly articles. His work ranges widely across the domains of phenomenology, philosophy of language, poetics, philosophy of culture, philosophy of intercultural understanding, and, most recently, philosophy of geography. His writings have been translated into many languages, including English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Hungarian, Chinese, and Japanese.

Since his retirement in 2002, Professor Holenstein has lived in Yokohama, Japan, and is still very active in research. His recent work has focused mainly on philosophical psychology (the mind-body problem, the relations between experience, language and thought, and the contrast between natural and artificial intelligence) and cultural philosophy (intercultural invariants and intracultural variations, and the role of geography in the history of philosophy and the sciences).

As the third holder of the Tang Chun-I Visiting Professorship, Professor Holenstein will offer a public lecture entitled “Socrates: A Retrospect in Europe – A Prospect in Asia,” a four-week graduate seminar on “Philosophy of Geography and Geography of Philosophy,” and a staff seminar in the Department of Philosophy on “Natural Ethics: Legitimate Naturalism in Ethics.”

The occasion of the Tang Chun-I Visiting Professorship marks Professor Holenstein’s fourth visit to the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He first visited the Department of Philosophy in 1997 and returned to CUHK as a Ming Yu Visiting Scholar of New Asia College in 2000. Earlier this year, he was a keynote speaker at the First Conference of PEACE (Phenomenology for East-Asian Circle), co-organized by the Department of Philosophy and the Research Centre for Phenomenology and the Human Sciences.


All articles here are copyrighted and can only be used for academic purpose.

“The Cultural History of Humanity: the Conception of Hegel (up to 1831), of Jaspers(1949) and the Contemporary Conception (1999)” (PDF)
Original German version “Die Kulturgeschichte der Menschheit: Ihre Konzeption bei Hegel (bis 1831), bei Jaspers (1949) und heute (1999)”, in: Karl Jaspers – Philosophie und Politik, hg. von Reiner Wiehl & Dominic Kaegi, Heidelberg: C.Winter, 1999, 163-184.

“Life like a Dream – Overdetermined Freud’s Timeliness for a Philosophy of the Life Sciences ” (PDF)
Original German version “Das Leben wie ein Traum – ueberdeterminiert: Freuds Vorbildlichkeit fuer eine Philosophie der Lebenswissenschaften”, in: Der Traum – 100 Jahre nach Freuds Traumdeutung, hg. von Brigitte Boothe, Zuerich: vdf (ETH), 2000, 139-157.

“A Dozen Rules of Thumb for Avoiding Intercultural Misunderstandings” (webpage)
Original German version in Elmar Holenstein, Kulturphilosophische Perspektiven. Schulbeispiel Schweiz – Europaeische Identitaet – Globale Verstaendigungsmoeglichkeiten. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1998, 288-312.

Socrates: a Retrospect in Europe ─ a Prospect in Asia

Monday, 11 October 2004
16:30 – 18:30 (Tea reception at 16:01)
LT1, Esther Lee Building, Chung Chi College, CUHK

The time is past when the traditional Socrates figure was creatively and correspondingly merrily subjected to deconstruction. Moreover, those presentations of Socrates that focused almost exclusively on the unity of philosophy, life and death that he achieved in exemplary fashion have also passed into the background. Today, research focuses on the theoretical innovations attributed to him as an early pioneer of philosophy in Europe. The present lecture treats a selection of four typically Socratic tenets:

(1) Philosophy is midwifery.

(2) Knowledge is erotic.
(3) Philosophy is self-knowledge.
(4) Philosophy is agnostic.

(1) A Socratic philosopher regards himself not as an instructor, but rather as an instigator. In dialogue with people, he gets them to see that all, women as well as men, people in Asia and in Africa as well as people in Europe, are able to philosophize, that is to reflect and to argue. The proof that they are able to speak a natural language is sufficient.

(2) Outstanding scientists do not believe in a monocausal explanation of their thirst for knowledge. Striving for power and prestige are not a sufficient explanation for them. Knowledge also has an aesthetic and thus an erotic side. In contrast to the forms of artificial intelligence known today, natural human intelligence has an emotional dimension. Knowledge involves pleasure.

(3) Hegel thought that with Socrates knowledge addressed the own self for the first time in history. In South Asia, however, the turn towards self-knowledge predates Socrates by one to three centuries. Today, two corrective views are under discussion. Self-knowledge is not possible without knowledge of other people. With regard to the physical nature of the human being, it is also not possible without knowledge of nature. Accordingly, the turn of philosophy from nature to mind, which is attributed to Socrates, must be subjected to review.

(4) Philosophy does not only treat the reasons that people give for what they think they know. It always also has an eye on the limits of this knowledge. One’s attitude to these limits is an important question. A self-satisfied agnosticism is not a fruitful heuristic principle.

It is just a short while ago, in 2002, that a full 2400 years passed since Socrates was condemned to suicide. This is an occasion to ask in conclusion what he said about death and the death penalty. The view that Plato attributed to him, at least, is disappointing. It is a dogmatic response: The human being, who does not owe his life to himself, should also not dispose of it. It is even more surprising that from Socrates, condemned to death, no critical remarks on the death penalty are known – in contrast to Kong Zi a century earlier. Today, however, the death penalty is abolished in Hellas, but not in Zhongguo.

Philosophy of Geography and Geography of Philosophy

October 8 – 29, 2004 (every Friday)
14:30 – 17:15
CKB 109 (Room 109, Chen Kou Bun Building), CUHK

History plays an important and well-known role in philosophy all over the globe, in East Asia as much as in Europe. Geography, its spatial counterpart, however, is much neglected, despite the obvious fact that historical developments largely hinge on geographical factors.

In the European tradition from Plato and Aristotle to Montesquieu and Herder, the main geographical factors that are taken into account to explain cultural traditions are terrain (soil) and climate. But at least as important is the environment in the literal sense or spatial connection. Why did philosophy in Europe start in Greece and not in Germany? The answer is simple: Greece, not Germany, lay in the immediate neighbourhood of the most advanced early urban and proto-scientific civilizations, those of the “Fertile Crescent” from Egypt to Mesopotamia.

A transfer of ideas from one language or culture to another casts new light on them and stimulates other connotations. It so furthers almost automatically creativity.

It is a well known but insufficiently explained fact that accomplishments in philosophy, art, and science vary not only between the continents, but also within Europe, South Asia, and China, and probably all countries.

Such observations will be discussed in the seminar on the basis of a newly published atlas of the global history of philosophy. One of the goals will be a revised Chinese edition of this atlas.

Natural Ethics: Legitimate Naturalism in Ethics

16:30 – 18:30
Room 125, Fung King Hey Building, CUHK

In ethics, it is called “naturalism” if someone believes (1) that an inference can be made from is to ought and from is not to ought not, and (2) that something is ethically good because it brings happiness, is pleasant, useful, conducive to life, in accordance with nature or the like.

(1) It is no accident that the objections to an inference from is to ought emerged in Europe in the modern era (with Hume). They presuppose an extremely lean ontology. They presuppose that everything that is is contingent and that it is not necessarily what it is, and accordingly that everything that occurs in sequence is similarly contingent and not necessarily in this sequence. In particular, they presuppose that there is no natural teleology. If living beings do not strive for anything, then there is no ground in their own nature to evaluate their behaviour.

The legitimacy of the inference about which Hume raises misgivings is most evident in the negative case, when non-being (is not) results in inability (cannot). It cannot be demanded of anyone that he should do something that he is not able to do. Here the question arises: Is it possible to infer ought from is via can? This is possible by way of a further natural presupposition: if, namely, biologists are right is pointing out that a natural ability is naturally (expediently) associated with the disposition, that is, a “volition”, to make use of this ability. If someone wants something, then he should do what helps him reach his goal. This presupposes, of course, that the goal is more valuable for him than the non-use of the means of reaching it.

(2) The objections to the foundation of the ethically good in happiness, pleasure, utility, conduciveness to life, harmony with nature and the like also seem to be guided by a belief in a simply structured ontology or at least by a predilection for simple ideas and concepts. It seems that something like an autonomous value removed from natural urges is presupposed. There is a counter-question to this: Can something be ethically good if it is not a bringer of happiness, pleasant, useful, conducive to life or in accordance with nature, or the like? Can a universal law, a moral imperative be made of an action that is neither a bringer of happiness nor pleasant nor useful nor conducive to life nor in accordance with nature, or the like?

What is appropriate in ethics is not a reductive naturalism that reduces the concept of the ethically good to naturalistic predicates such as causing happiness, pleasurable, useful, conducive to life or in accordance with nature, but rather a non-reductive naturalism that recognises naturalistic properties as basic ethical properties, regarding them only as necessary, but not as sufficient for the judgement of an ethical action. The concept of the ethically good has points of similarity to the concept of happiness. Being happy is not exhausted by the states that people list as the presuppositions for their happiness.