unizeit Schriftzug

On the trail of Davos

The legendary debate between Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger at the international Davos University Conference in 1929 went down in philosophy history. Their philosophical debate is still current today, and 90 years later has become the topic of an own student conference.

Verschneite, sonnige Gebirgslandschaft
© assalve/iStock

In the snowy mountains of Davos, in neutral Swiss territory, Germany and France should come closer together again after the First World War, also scientifically. With this goal, the international Davos University Conferences were launched in 1928. "Then, the world was in a state of upheaval. In Germany, there were efforts to establish democratic structures for the first time. Young people had the feeling that they had to take care of things now, because the ways of their parents' generation had led to the crisis," explained Frederike Loch, who is studying to become a philosophy teacher and took part in a seminar on the discussions in Davos at Kiel University during the last summer semester. There, she and also other students noticed parallels with today. "Then, as now, the mistakes of the past seem to offer little guidance for the future. Therefore the big questions arise, such as afterwards, about what man really is." This question was the theme of the Conference in 1929.

At the end of the seminar, Loch and other students decided to organise their own conference on the topic of the "Cassirer–Heidegger debate". Then, in just a few weeks, they had to find a venue, invite speakers, apply for support such as research funding from the CAU, print advertising posters and prepare their own presentations - in addition to their normal studies. The biggest challenge was the invitations. It was too short notice for many, even if they found the topic interesting. After all, the high point of the Davos University Conference in 1929 went down in philosophy history as the "Cassirer–Heidegger debate": the legendary encounter between the philosophers Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger.

Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger
© public domain

Ernst Cassirer on the left, and Martin Heidegger on the right

One (Cassirer) was an established philosophy professor, the other (Heidegger) a 15-year-younger "newcomer", who broke with philosophical traditions. One believed that mankind can transcend its finite nature, such as death, by the power of its spirit. The other believed that precisely this finite nature is essential to being human. One had to flee later because of his Jewish ancestry. The other enjoyed a flourishing career as a member of the Nazi Party, and became a university rector. "These contrasts in particular ensured that their encounter attained mythical status. In truth, the confrontation was not quite so spectacular," said Loch. They each acknowledged the other’s opinion, even if they did not share it. What probably remained in the minds of the participants at the time was instead the special atmosphere of the Conference. The future doctor Ludwig Englert took part as a student in 1929, and reported in the subsequently-published Conference proceedings about how he was thrilled by the unusually close exchange between students and professors.

The CAU students had a similar experience with their own conference titled "Davoser Disputation 1929" (Cassirer–Heidegger Debate 1929). "Our cooperation with the lecturers was different to that in everyday academic life. We resolved many organisational issues together - which of course boosts self-confidence," recalled Frederike Loch. The student organising team had the goal of creating an atmosphere, in which every individual dares to ask questions and participate in the conversation, also during the subject-specific discussions. So it moved from the classical lecture hall to the Literaturhaus in Kiel, where discussions also continued unhindered during the coffee breaks. "Even our two external speakers, private lecturer Dr Thomas Meyer from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU Munich) and Dr Jörn Bohr from the University of Wuppertal (BUW), thanked us for the very informative event," said the delighted 25-year-old.

It was different for Heidegger in 1929. Although he had some nice ski runs, he wrote to an acquaintance at the end of the Conference, he did not gain much knowledge from the stay in Davos. And what did the young people take with them from Davos, in order to change the world? "Due to the effects of the global economic crisis, and the seizure of power by the Nazis in 1933, the Davos University Conferences were only held a total of four times. Many ideas and plans that were associated with them, were lost," summarised Frederike Loch. Hope remains that the parallels end here.

Author: Julia Siekmann

Quick and Tiny: funding student research

Going on a research expedition, carrying out studies, testing software ideas, or as here, organising an own conference: the "Quick and Tiny" funding grants have so far supported 24 student projects, to pursue their own research topics with a minimum of bureaucracy. The impulse came from the Excellence Workshop, at which all university members could make suggestions to improve teaching, research and work. The workshop was part of the university-wide participation process to develop the CAU’s application for the Excellence Strategy. (jus)