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Gotthard Günther 
2000 Special


Gotthard Günther, 
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the corner may answer to the question after the theories of the undoubtedly most popular physicist, theories which have withdrawn the firm ground of an absolute demand for points of reference in our universe.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 And which ground would have been withdrawn or made relative there, is there a ground at all, and what is the meaning of all this?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 battles."

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 thinking".

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 models".
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 Carnap.

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 themselves.

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 polycontextural logic.

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, 1959/1978
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: