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A Master of Intellectual Integrity

Giordano Bruno Stiftung mourns the loss of its adviser Prof. Dr. Bernulf Kanitscheider


Bernulf Kanitscheider (Photo: Evelin Frerk)

He was one of the leading thinkers of naturalism and enlightened hedonism. Only now it became known that the philosopher Bernulf Kanitscheider died on June 21 at the age of 77. A eulogy by Michael Schmidt-Salomon.

There are few books by other authors I would have liked to have written myself. A remarkable number of these books were written by Bernulf Kanitscheider: "Im Innern der Natur" ("In the Interior of Nature") and "Die Materie und ihre Schatten" ("Matter and its Shadows") are milestones of modern natural philosophy. "Auf der Suche nach dem Sinn" ("In Search of Meaning") and "Entzauberte Welt" ("Disenchanted World") demonstrate in captivating clarity what it means to lead a meaningful existence in a "meaningless universe". "Von Lust und Freude" ("Of Pleasure and Joy") and "Das hedonistische Manifest" ("The Hedonistic Manifesto") are masterpieces of "enlightened hedonism" that brilliantly capture the thoughts of the ostracized philosophers Epicurus and La Mettrie, and transport them into the 21st century.

In the first decades of his academic career Bernulf Kanitscheider published highly complex texts peppered with mathematical formulas (including "Geometrie und Wirklichkeit" - "Geometry and Reality", "Philosophie und moderne Physik" - "Philosophy and Modern Physics"), which at best a handful of mathematicians and theoretical physicists could fathom. This earned him the reputation of being a particularly difficult, highly intellectual representative of the philosophers' trade. His colleagues reacted all the more disconcerted when, from the 1990s onwards, he of all people published generally comprehensible works which praised the human body as a "biological Stradivarius", placed "love, lust, and passion" at the centre of ethics, and proved with a sometimes quite explicit language that the business of philosophy by no means had to be conducted by "drift-weak intellectualists".

Interestingly, these so different strands of Kanitscheider's philosophy were all linked logically. His arguments for existential serenity, for a free, uninhibited enjoyment of the world, as well as for a more liberal drug and sexual policy resulted almost necessarily from his fundamental scientific-theoretical and cosmological considerations. This enormous spectrum and consistency of argumentation always impressed me - and soon after my first encounter with the author I became quite the "Kanitscheiderian".

I first met Bernulf Kanitscheider at the end of the 1990s at one of the infamous interdisciplinary seminars organized in Nuremberg by Georg Batz, who unfortunately died far too early. At that time I was 30 years old and had just received my PhD, while Bernulf, born in 1939, had already taught for 25 years as a professor of "philosophy of natural science" at the University of Giessen. Despite the great difference in age and competence, Bernulf approached me unbiased, curious, interested, without any class conceit. I was particularly fascinated by the vitality, the almost youthful enthusiasm of the 60-year-old philosopher in presenting his theses. He embodied the "pleasure of thinking" like almost no other - and yet this first Kanitscheider lecture was a veritable shock for me, because I suddenly realized how little I knew about the world. As a typical graduate of the humanities and social sciences, I had largely ignored the findings of the natural sciences until then. After Bernulf's lecture I realized that I had to deepen my knowledge of physics, chemistry, and biology, which led to a "naturalistic turn" in my thinking that soon led me to the concept of evolutionary humanism.

When we established the Giordano Bruno Stiftung in 2004 on the basis of evolutionary humanism, Bernulf was immediately willing to support us as an advisory board member. In 2005 he gave an important lecture at the foundation's headquarters on the key topic at the time: "Leitkultur Humanismus und Aufklärung" ("Leading Culture: Humanism and Enlightenment"). I have particularly vivid memories of what happend next: After the event we sat together - as Epicureans should - with good food and good wine in a convivial atmosphere and discussed life, the universe, and everything. When eventually new concepts of cosmology were discussed, one of Bernulf's few weaknesses was revealed in a quite amusing way. In his loveably modest nature, he tended to project his own character onto others and so he assumed that his listeners had a level of education and cognitive processing ability that was probably only given in the rarest cases. This is what happened on that evening: When Bernulf was asked if he could explain the concept of the multiverse in a somewhat simpler way, he nodded enthusiastically and presented us with a series of highly complex mathematical formulas that would certainly have filled three pages in print. When he had finished, the entire group was speechless until gbs founder Herbert Steffen broke the silence with a little joke: "Okay, now I get it!". The result was roaring laughter - only Bernulf sat silently and strangely content on his chair and I am not sure to this day whether he really understood how little we had understood.

In his 13 years as a member of the gbs advisory board, Bernulf Kanitscheider has been committed to the work of the foundation. He participated in many foundation meetings and enriched our debates with wise, nuanced contributions. You could also rely on him one hundred percent in media communication. As a master of intellectual integrity, he always remained polite in form but determined when it came to the matter at hand (as for example in this discussion with physicist Gerhard Börner). Logical inconsistency or inconsequence were atrocious to him. We will remember Bernulf not only as a brilliant universal scholar, but also as an extraordinarily cosmopolitan, warm-hearted, humorous, and versatilely interested person who lived in wonderful harmony with his philosophy. The latter did not change when he was informed of his cancer in autumn 2016. Those who had the opportunity to talk to him shortly before his death were amazed at the calm and existential serenity with which he looked toward the inevitable. In the end he evidently profited greatly from the fact that he had dealt with the transience of man, the solar system, and even the entire universe consistently and without illusions throughout his life like few others.

"The cosmos remains silent to us" - Bernulf Kanitscheider gladly transferred his cosmological and existential philosophical insights to this short formula. We can all consider ourselves fortunate that Bernulf did not remain silent, but was generous enough to share his enormous knowledge with us. Future generations will be enriched by this as well, provided that evidence-based, sensory, and intellectually plausible concepts prevail. Bernulf Kanitscheider created important foundations to this end. This will remain of him - far beyond his death.

Michael Schmidt-Salomon