The Amazing World of Vittorio Hösle

Author: John Monczunski


So here I am sitting at a table across from Vittorio Hösle in Grace Hall’s Café de Grasta, drinking a cup of coffee, wondering why he doesn’t intimidate me. Clearly he should. Several professors have told me that Hösle is hands down the smartest person they have ever encountered, “an extraordinary intellectual, the kind one meets once or twice in a lifetime,” in the words of Mark Roche, dean of arts and letters.

Just listing Hösle’s academic achievements is an aerobic workout. Notre Dame’s Paul Kimball professor of arts and letters holds concurrent appointments in German, philosophy and political science. He speaks seven languages with fluency and reads 10 more, including Sanskrit, ancient Greek, Pali, Avestan and Catalan. He’s the author of more than 20 books and 100 articles on topics as diverse as the tragedies of Sophocles, mathematical logic, Hegelian philosophy and environmental ethics, as well as the comedy of Woody Allen, the spy fiction of John le Carré and the classic John Ford film about the end of the Old West, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. If that isn’t enough, he developed a multimedia encyclopedia of philosophy that is used in schools throughout Europe and has himself been the subject of two documentary films.

Before joining the ND faculty in 1999 he was the director of Germany’s Hanover Institute of Philosophical Research, established by the Catholic bishop of Hildesheim to explore philosophical issues in Catholicism. He has taught in Brazil, Holland, India, Russia, Norway, Korea and Italy. Additionally, he has served as an adviser to the German chancellor’s office and to a number of German political parties. Whew.

“Vittorio is amazingly intellectually hyperactive,” says James Turner, professor of history. “Somehow he manages to write massive amounts in short periods of time on a huge variety of subjects. I don’t know how he does it.”

So I ask Hösle how does he do it? He replies with an enigmatic smile, “A colleague at another university once received a questionnaire asking how much time he spent on research, and he wrote: ‘Always, except when I eat or sleep.’ I would write down, ‘Always, particularly when I sleep.’ Don’t underestimate the qualities of my dreams. I am convinced a great amount of your brain works when you are asleep.”

If you peek into his Flanner Hall office, tucked away in a corner you will in fact find a rollaway bed, which he confesses to using for an occasional afternoon catnap. Not so much now as when his twin 7-year-old sons, John and Paul, were infants, and he would be up at night with them. ("When you have small children roaming around you don’t have the concentration,” he says.)

Those who know Hösle best say he seems always to be probing for knowledge and having a good time at it. “You can talk to Vittorio about a topic for about 15 minutes, and then you’ll fall behind,” says Jan Hagens, a colleague who has known him for more than 20 years. “He’ll wring you out like a dish towel, because he knows more and he’s smarter than you. . . . Ask him about politics, Roman emperors, mathematics, the natural sciences, you name it, you’ll get an answer.”

An unusual café
As intellectually imposing as Hösle may seem, a story he relates about something that happened about 12 years ago in Ruttenscheid, Germany, puts me at ease. One day Hösle wandered into a café in an unfamiliar part of town. Although he had never been there before, he says everyone seemed vaguely familiar, and that was his first inkling that this was no ordinary cafe. Inside, he struck up a conversation with an elderly bearded gentleman who was sitting alone at a table. As they chatted, Hösle noticed a man at a billiard table engaged in an intense conversation with a dignified-looking Catholic bishop. In another part of the room, a diffident young man in a top hat was lecturing a well-groomed man who stared at the floor the entire time.

If you believe Vittorio—and I do—the elderly bearded man was Aristotle, the billiard player was Kant discussing ontological proof with Saint Anselm, and the shy man in the top hat was Kierkegaard trying to explain to Hegel that “subjectivity was the Truth and that the leap of faith went beyond reason.” The out-of-the-way place where all this occurred was The Dead Philosophers’ Café, a literary device invented by Hösle to help engage Nora K., the 11-year-old daughter of a friend who had become fascinated with philosophy after reading the novel Sophie’s World, in which a Norwegian girl trades letters about philosophy with an unseen mentor.

In a case of life imitating art, Hösle says he was so impressed by the intensity of Nora’s own questions when he visited her family that he felt compelled to write to her. Their two-year-long correspondence evolved into a real-life Sophie’s World. Subsequently their collected letters were published as The Dead Philosophers’ Café: An Exchange of Letters for Children and Adults, a popular book in Germany introducing readers to classic ideas in philosophy.

Now available in 12 languages, including an English edition from Notre Dame Press, The Dead Philosophers’ Café suggests why people find Hösle so appealing. He may be a world-renowned philosopher, but how can you be intimidated by someone who takes a child’s questions so seriously that he spends two years answering them in an imaginative, engaging, intellectually appropriate way?

It has been said that Hösle’s genius is his ability to look at things most people see as simple and then show how complex they really are. That capacity, Hösle likely would argue, stems from what philosophers have in common with children. Children are natural philosophers, he maintains, because, unlike most adults, they still possess a sense of wonder.” I think philosophy has to do with this capacity for wonder,” he says. “That you wonder at things that seem trivial, but they are not. Nothing is more simple than the fact that we can know the world. But why is it possible?

“There are a lot of things in the world that are not as they ought to be, but we assume the world is a place where ‘ought’ can be implemented,” he says. “How is this possible? That is a very, very great and big philosophical question. . . . I think one of the tasks of philosophy is to alert people to these issues and wake the sensibilities for that.”

Nora’s sensitivity toward philosophic issues fascinated him, he says. “You see, it’s the task of a teacher to tickle curiosity out of the student. You start with the questions they have and then lead them to the questions they should try to understand.”

Some readers of Café have seized on the mysterious “Nora K.” byline as a sign that she must be Hösle’s invention. He steadfastly insists, “She is as real as can be.” Nora and her parents decided to allow only her first name and last initial listed as co-author of the book to maintain her privacy, he explains. Since the book’s publication in 1995, the adult Nora has become a university teacher in Bern, Switzerland. “She was, in fact, visiting here on campus just last summer when I taught a course on the philosophy of mind in the 20th century,” Hösle says. “Greg Sterling, the associate dean of arts and letters here, is one of those who suspected she might not be real and insisted on meeting her.”

Always questioning

If anyone should be able to relate to such a gifted child as Nora, it would be Hösle. His Italian mother and German father (hence his unusual bicultural name, Vittorio Hösle), were both teachers and did their best to “tickle out” the curiosity of their son and two daughters. Hösle’s mother, Carla Gronda Hösle, taught German in a Milan high school, while his father, Johannes Hösle, a distinguished scholar of comparative literature, was the rector of Milan’s Goethe Institute, the German cultural embassy, when Hösle was a young child.

“Since father was the Goethe rector, I have vivid memories of poets and German intellectuals coming to our house. And so from an early age, we learned the importance of culture,” Hösle recalls. He also has vivid memories of his father taking him to the zoo in Milan and explaining things about the animals. On these expeditions, Hösle says, his father would never totally satisfy his curiosity but instead would encourage him to ask questions. And for that, Hösle says he is most grateful.

When he was 6 years old the family moved from Milan to Regensburg, Germany, where Hösle’s father took a professorship at the university. As a child he recalls often visiting Valhalla, the monumental German “hall of fame” on the Danube River where hundreds of German cultural luminaries, from Alaric I, king of the Visigoths, to Albert Einstein are memorialized with statues and plaques. “I was trained in an exaggerated way to be in awe of great minds,” Hösle says.

The young Hösle excelled in school, especially in languages, which comes as no surprise since, walking out the door, he was already bilingual (to this day he speaks Italian to his mother and German to his father). He began studying Latin at the age of 10 and began keeping his diary in Latin by 14. He picked up English by studying Shakespeare and other greats of English literature. When he was 15, for fun, he read Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible from the first verse of the Old Testament to the last verse of the New Testament.

It also should come as no surprise that Hösle blitzed through college. At the age of 21, when most of his peers were graduating with bachelor’s degrees, he earned his Ph.D. with a concentration in philosophy, classics and Sanskrit. Ironically, at the end of his first year of study he had thought about giving up. “I didn’t understand what philosophy was, and I didn’t see that I could make any contribution.” He toyed with the idea of becoming a doctor or lawyer but in the end stuck with philosophy. “I was interested in so many fields. I reasoned if I stayed with philosophy, which is an attempt to have a deep understanding of the world broadly, I wouldn’t have to specialize. And for the sake of my potential medical patients or legal clients, I am happy I became a philosopher.”

Four years after earning his doctorate, Hösle completed his “habilitation,” a second scholarly book after the Ph.D. dissertation, required in the German system for accreditation as a university teacher. This feat immediately launched comparisons of Hösle to Friedrich Nietzsche, who began his university teaching career at the age of 25. Nietzsche was younger than Hösle when he began teaching, but not by much.

Celebrity status

The young Professor Hösle was dubbed the “Boris Becker of philosophy,” after the German tennis phenom who, at the age of 17, had become the youngest winner of the Wimbledon men’s singles title. In his 20s Hösle acquired a reputation as a public intellectual in Germany, often writing popular philosophical essays on public policy issues in periodicals such as Die Zeit, the German equivalent of The New York Times. He became something of a celebrity, the subject of two documentaries shown on TV stations throughout Europe and even Korea.

Some time in the early ’90s, Hösle was in Moscow’s Red Square during a celebration of Lenin’s birthday when someone tapped his shoulder. He recalls, “The man said, ‘Excuse me, but you must be Vittorio Hösle. I saw you on TV a few months ago and recognized you. I must tell you I would much prefer listening to you than these boring speeches on Lenin.’"

For as much notoriety as Hösle has garnered in Europe, however, a stranger in Times Square isn’t likely to ask him how he enjoyed appearing on the Today Show. Even in U.S. academic circles he is not yet widely known, but Dean Roche and others believe that will change in time. Hösle’s low American profile is due in part to the fact that only four of his books have been published in English, and his broad, Continental style of philosophy is not in vogue in the United States, which is dominated by the specialized analytic school of philosophy.

As a public intellectual in Germany, Hösle has had some influence on practical matters, and he laments the fact that the tradition of the public intellectual isn’t the same in the United States. He believes it is unfortunate that most Americans regard philosophy as merely an arena for intellectuals to argue among themselves about how many angels are dancing on the proverbial head of a pin.

Philosphy’s tasks

In Hösle’s view, philosophy has two main tasks: The basic theoretical goal is to attempt to understand why the world is as it is, and the second task is to determine our moral duties in this world. “I myself began with strong theoretical interests,” he says, “but as a citizen of the planet I am exposed to concrete problems, and philosophy must address these problems.”

One of Hösle’s most successful practical books is Philosophy of the Ecological Crisis, published in Germany in 1991. The book, which has often been cited by activists in the Green Movement, has not yet been translated into English.

“This is an issue I am most passionate about,” Hösle says. “I think we will pay an enormous price for not having faced it. And the United States, in particular, has put itself in a position of enormous historical guilt for not having signed the Kyoto agreement to limit greenhouse gases.”

On environmental ethics, Hösle walks the walk as much as he talks the talk—literally. For many years he and his Korean-born wife, Jieon Kim, whom he met while teaching in Korea, did not own a car, only acquiring one after their twin sons were born. Hösle still does not have a driver’s license. Most days he walks the two miles from his Leeper Park home to campus. “I do some of my best thinking and writing on these walks,” he says.

Hösle says he tries to be “carbon neutral” and limits his transatlantic flights to one or two a year. He once declined an invitation to speak at a conference in Svalbard (formerly known as Spitsbergen), the group of large islands near the North Pole under the dominion of Norway. “The organizers of the conference wanted to protest Spitsbergen’s becoming a center of mass tourism. I said, ‘Yes, I will join your protest by not accepting your invitation. If I should fly there, I would be giving bad example.’"

Hösle’s principal foray into the area of practical philosophy is his 1,000-page magnum opus, Morals and Politics. Given his penchant for broad-based knowledge, deeply understood, the book had to be big. “My objective was to present a comprehensive vision of all the knowledge needed to answer the difficult question of what constitutes moral policies in the various fields of politics such as foreign policy, domestic policy, economics, ecology and such. It’s comprehensive and not limited to one view.”

In Germany, the book created a stir when it was published in 1997, provoking reactions from everyone from a Jesuit university president to the vice president of the German Supreme Court. A collection of essays reacting to the book was published in Germany. The English edition, released in 2004, has not received the same level of attention. Although some say he is one of a handful of philosophers of this century who will be read in the next, for now many English-speaking philosophers seem unaware of him. But, Hösle says with a Cheshire grin, “I am patient.”

In the meantime he does what he does best: satisfying his own curiosity and piquing others’. He recently completed books on Darwin and on the dialogue as a literary form. He is at work on a study of how texts are understood and interpreted. This summer he plans to teach a course on the autobiographies of philosophers. “This will give a good overview of what a philosophical existence is,” he says.

Philosophy is a way of life for Hösle, and he is always the missionary. “My hope is that my students will argue about the war between Hegel and Kant with the same passion as they have for USC vs. Notre Dame.”

John Monczunski is an associate editor of this magazine.

Photo of Vittorio Hösle by Donald Nelson.