the "Einstein" of Philosophy
by Joachim Paul
"Everything is relative!" a passenger in
the street or a salesman in the shop around the corner may answer to the
question after the theories of the undoubtedly most popular physicist,
theories which have withdrawn the firm ground of an absolute demand for
points of reference in our universe. But a kind of Einstein within the very
mother of sciences, humanities, how is this to be understood? And which
ground would have been withdrawn or made relative there, is there a ground
at all, and what is the meaning of all this?
At least for the occident, undoubtedly the very basis
of all philosophizing, the laws of thought, have to be searched within our
logic, developed in ancient Greece and also being called the Aristotelian.
Its formalization - done by the German philosopher and mathematician
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and later by the English logician George Boole -
finds its strong mainfestation during the 19th and 20th century within a
multitude of technical applications and is again just now going to turn our
lives upside-down via computers and the internet. And concerning possible
changes of these very laws, the American philosopher Oliver L. Reiser
already writes in 1935: "If the laws of thought should fall, then the
most profound modification in human intellectual life will occur, compared
to which the Copernican and Einsteinian revolutions are but sham
It is the very merit of the German-American
philosopher and logician Gotthard Günther (15.06.1900 - 29.11.1984), whose
100th birthday return we will see this year, to have profoundly requestioned
these laws and to have opened the gates to new landscapes of thinking. And
with good reason he can rank with the great of the past century, although
his work - far apart from the philosophical zeitgeist - is still hardly
recognized by the mainstream of sciences. Who was that man?
Grown up in a Silesian pastor's family and influenced
by Prussian mentality the young Gotthard Günther systematically starts to
plan his studies of philosophy. In his autobiography he recounts that
because of the fact that the development of the Eastern cultures started 400
years before the Greek, it is obvious for him to begin with Sanscrit,
indology and sinology. But as he realizes "the striving for exactness
within the occidental philosophy", the Asian philosophies gradually
fall behind in his main focus of interest. A question in an interview in
1983, why he did not remain to stick to the oriental philosophy, Günther
answers: "Because besides all their metaphysics, mathematically the
Indians did not create anything out of their epoch-making discovery of the
null, but Western technology did."
His hallmark, his intellectual break-through are the
humanities lectures of Eduard Spranger in Leipzig. Via Spranger's point of
view that all future problems within philosophy have to be related to
Hegel's logic, Günther discovers the guiding star of his lifework. He
finally does his PhD in philosophy with Spranger, and in 1933 a book is made
from his doctors thesis, entitled "Grundzüge einer neuen Theorie des
Denkens in Hegels Logik". According to some critics it is one of the
most profound interpretations of the "grotesque rocky melody" - as
noted by young Marx - of Hegel's thoughts. Here Günther shows that on the
basis of Hegel's logic a new formalism could be established. However the
classical binary Aristotelian logic is not decomposed by this new formalism,
but from now on may rather be interpreted as a special case of a more
general and comprehensive multivalued logic. Referring to the
above-mentioned comparison, this extended logic is related to the classical
one in a similar way as the Einsteinian physics to the Newtonian.
Already here we can see a first break between
Günther and the philosophical mainstream. As Willy Hochkeppel expresses in
his essay about Günther in the German magazine "DIE ZEIT", other
Hegelians showed nothing more than friendly lack of appreciation for such
formalistic experiments, while specialists of formal logic did not even take
notice of his work.
After working as an assistant with Arnold Gehlen at
Leipzig university for a few years, Günther follows his Jewish wife via
Italy to South Africa. Here he teaches philosophy at the University of
Stellenbosch for two years. In 1940 he emigrates to the United States.
In the US the enthusiastic skier glider, motor and aerobatic flyer sets off
with making a living from small grants for teaching and tutorials. In 1945
and in addition to his work for the Widener Library of the Harvard
University he starts the preliminary work for his magnum opus "Idee und
Grundriß einer nicht-Aristotelischen Logik" which is published in 1959
by the Felix Meiner Verlag in Hamburg, Germany. Just to mention in passing,
even the introduction of this book belongs to the very best ever written
about occidental history of philosophy.
By persuasion and after having developed a deeper
understanding of the American rhythm of life, Günther applies for the
American citizenship In 1948. Developing this understanding is supported by
his friendship with John W. Campbell and Science Fiction Literature. In
Science Fiction Günther not only sees an expression of the American
frontier spirit but also a cultural and literary symptom of the trial
"of a total flight out of the classical-occidental tradition of
In 1960 his economic and working conditions radically
improve as he meets Warren McCulloch, the very father of cybernetics.
Already in 1943 the neurophysiologist knew that classical logic does not
meet the need of the formal description of processes within biological
nervous systems. McCulloch promotes Günther with lecture opportunities at
several prestigious university institutes, and soon he is offered two
professorships. Günther chooses the offer for a research professorship at
the Biological Computer Laboratory BCL in Urbana, Ilinois. BCL's director is
Heinz von Foerster, and among a group of specialists from all disciplines of
sciences and humanities is a British cybernetician, W. Ross Ashby. Here
Günther works as a "professor of electrical engineering" until
his retirement in 1972.
His border crossings between Hegel and cybernetics,
his ideas for an extended rationality, born out of the conviction that life
itself is not constructed by following the present laws of human
rationality, do not find appreciation in Germany, just alike his profound
critique of Jürgen Habermas' Logik der Sozialwissenschaften, which was
published in 1968 in the journal "Soziale Welt".
At that time, his argumentation, strictly based on
the logical structure of thinking, just could not be understood in Germany,
here arguing remains on the surface and, in context with the 68' students
rumours - mainly deals with discussions of social values, being conducted
rather emotionally, and the digestion of the Third Reich.
But as he writes in his autobiography he had already adopted "the
typical behavior of American cybernetics against philosophy which involves
an invincible mistrust in notions which are not realizable in practical
And even in his last major interview with Claus Baldus in 1983 he notes to
sociology: ".... the manner in which sociology and similar sciences are
driven today will not survive" ..... "For sociologists I can only
recommend profound studies in logic, arithmetics or combinatorics and
cybernetics, without these basics most of the topics discussed there remain
opinions without obligation, dóxa, the ancient Greeks would have
contemptuously said." On the other hand, Günther also strictly draws a
clear line of distinction to the positivistic sciences programme of Rudolf
But how do we have to understand Günther's attempt
for a philosophical renewal, an extension of our logic? For the reasons,
Günther's thinking and writing goes way back into antiquity, to the
foundation of the Aristotelian logic within the metaphysics of the Greek.
Their logic as a conception of the world is based on the fundamental
separation between cognition and being, subject and object, idea and matter.
To some extent the topic of the ancient Greeks is the simple relationship
between a human subject and the world of objects. An "I" reflects
about the world, the "I" thinks an object, an item. And as
Günther remarks in addition to that, the limit of philosophizing within the
German idealism was pushed much further, in particular by Kant, the founder
of transcendental philosophy, by Fichte, Schelling and first of all by
Hegel. Now, the "theme" is the reflecting subject itself who
thinks the item. Now, the logical process is the thinking of the thinking of
the item, and from now on reflection is twofold. Or in other words, the
subject thinks its subject-object-relationship.
But if the relationship between subject and object
becomes the issue of thinking, and not the object as such, to Günther, the
subject has to recognize that there is not only one but a multitude of
individual and different subject-object-relationships. And these cannot be
reduced to one universal subject-object-relationship, and therefore are, in
their entirety, beyond description through our binary logic. Quotation:
"Notions like "I", "You" and "We" are
totally senseless within our traditional logic. Logically relevant is only
the concept of a "subject-at-all".
But for the description of the objective reality of dead items - let's say
in the sense of physics and chemistry, to remain in the science area our
classical logic which our brain is programmed to is still valid.
Our reality as a whole however is not only a
collection of an infinite number of "ontological locations",
locations of individual being. In isolation they can still be described by a
binary logic. But for the whole and for interplay of these
"locations", reality can only be depicted by a multivalued system.
"So far, so good", our passenger in the
street may remark, "I know clearly that my wife "thinks
different" than I do, but do I really need a multivalued logic for
that, an extended formal system?"
The answer becomes quite clear when considering that
media in a more particular sense, on the one hand, and on the other hand and
generally speaking all technical stuff are items which humans use to mediate
When we still think of a single subject and its world
of objects, media and techniques are just tools, instruments, which the
subject uses to experience the world and to negotiate with the world.
Considering however a network of a multitude of ontological locations",
media and techniques change to a totally different rating! They are now
forming a net which can be filled with content and life, and which can be
used for humans to communicate with each other!
Consequently and to be worth their value, communication and media theories
of the future need to reflect Gotthard Günther's theory of many values, his
Not least because of his attitude to both techniques
and technologies, Günther is one of the philosophers of technology well
worth mentioning. To him, in short, technology means self-expression and
self-realization of the human being.
Even though the technical and formal character of his philosophy may
frighten sometimes, his theory of place values can be understood as a first
and real theory of tolerance.
Günther himself labeled his lifework as incomplete and imperfect, as a part
of something which has to be continued. However the gateway to new lands of
thinking is opened ....
Gotthard Günther died on 29th November 1984 in Hamburg.
Reading Gotthard Günther:
Idee und Grundriß einer nicht-Aristotelischen Logik, Felix Meiner, Hamburg,
Beiträge zur Grundlegung einer operationsfähigen Dialektik, Band 1-3,
Felix Meiner, Hamburg, 1978 (these three volumes contain bilingual texts in
german and English)
Das Bewußtsein der Maschinen - Eine Metaphysik der Kybernetik, Agis-Verlag,
Baden-Baden, Krefeld, 1963
Gotthard Günther on the Web:
Materials of and about Gotthard Günther in both English and German as well
as further works can be found at three adresses: