The philosopher’s hut is a space designed for privacy, where exile and thought go hand-in-hand. A new exhibition at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society invites the public into that habitat, exploring the work of three 20th-century philosophers who did some of their most important thinking in conditions of exile.
Theodor Adorno was forced into exile soon after the Nazis rose to power, an uprooting that shaped his thought for the remainder of his life. Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein imposed exile on themselves by constructing and inhabiting simple wooden cabins where they were free to think and write apart from society. Scaled reconstructions of those cabins, along with original sculptures and archival photographs, will be on view in the gallery as part of the exhibition, called Hutopia, which opens April 25 and runs through Sept. 6.
The Neubauer Collegium, a research center that aims to integrate creative expression and academic inquiry, also has organized a series of public events to consider the philosophers’ lasting influence. Dieter Roelstraete, curator at the Collegium, recently spoke about the uncanny links between Heidegger and Wittgenstein, the profound relationship between place and thought, and the cultural urge to unplug.
What is so compelling to you about exile in relation to philosophical inquiry, in these three cases and generally?
I’ve long been interested in the relationship between where something is thought and what is being thought there. The more pressing question might be why we are being led to think about the relationship between philosophy and exile at this particular moment in time. The answer lies in the fact that this moment is so relentlessly demanding, so frantically networked, and so socially and politically volatile. I think we can all more or less instinctually agree that to think clearly, sharply and slowly, we might have to disconnect. As social media and communications culture exerts an ever-tightening grip on our lives and minds, dreams of dropping out and going “off the grid” gain more and more traction. The fear of missing out (FOMO) is slowly being replaced—admittedly, primarily in very privileged quarters—by the joy of missing out. That, in a nutshell, is what Hutopia is about, in all its awareness of the ambiguities and misguided romanticism of this particular vision.
Now, to return to the concrete cases of our three protagonists: The stories of Heidegger and Wittgenstein are much more closely intertwined than that of Adorno. Exile was not something Adorno voluntarily chose, but it did turn out to be the “right” condition for his thought to develop. On the other hand, Heidegger and Wittgenstein were not only exact contemporaries who respected each other’s work from a safe distance, but they both built these cocoons for thinking deep thoughts right around the same time, and for comparable reasons that reveal an underlying reactionary, anti-modern instinct. Wittgenstein, the tormented scion of a wealthy Austro-Hungarian industrialist family who could not bear the niceties of social life in Vienna and Cambridge, fled to a remote rural nook of Norway’s fjords in search of a simpler life. Heidegger was the modest, diminutive son of a middle-class church official in the Swabian provinces of Germany whose retreat to a peasant cabin in the countryside has something exquisitely staged and therefore inauthentic about it. And that’s where the seeds for Being and Time were sown, much like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus was shaped in no small measure by the experience of living at the edge of the world. Very cinematic, is it not?
In any case, I had long been struck by this uncanny parallel in the lives of the two titans of 20th-century philosophy. You can almost imagine them sitting in their respective huts at the exact same time, thinking thoughts that would lead to radically different outcomes. But, strangely enough, they do end up speaking to each other in a way.