What is the point of the debates

Free University of Berlin

Hesselmann: At the moment I have the impression that above all the risks of communication on the Internet are seen - especially by teachers. I don't want the internet and social media to be viewed naively, we also have to respond to the problems and legitimate concerns. But sometimes I have the impression that we only perceive the whole thing as a risk, often it's just about internet addiction.

Traninger: True, we rarely have a positive approach, but basic culture techniques are used to deal with these media. When it comes to digitization, people talk about how to equip the classes, whether every student should have an iPad - and at the same time, threat scenarios are set up. The media education we currently have is often a problem machine.

Hesselmann: Social media are also an artistic medium. Teju Cole, an African American writer, has been a literary tweeter for years. He has now switched to Facebook.

Traninger: Twitter poetry has become a big field.

Hesselmann: That's a great thing, and I think it's extremely important that examples like this are covered. You could do something like that in literature class at school, just like at university.

well-founded: The current media change is not the first in history. Book printing and the rotary press also had an impact on communication. You, Ms. Traninger, have also dealt with the shift from orality to written form in the culture of debate in the early modern period. What can we learn from this for the present?

Traninger: In our research project we examined the concept of impartiality in the European scholarly culture in the 17th and 18th centuries. We looked at the debate patterns that prevailed at universities before and during this period and what has changed with the advent of periodicals. That is precisely the medium that has brought about and enables the great change in debate of these years. A new idea emerges, that of a “learned republic”. It included: "We scholars all over Europe are networked, our form of government is that of a republic, and war should in principle and permanently rule in it." It is astonishing that Pierre Bayle and other great thinkers in the 17th century say that this space, this “scholarly republic” is characterized by great freedom - the freedom to attack one another brutally and without consideration, and there is a permanent war: all against all. This is actually not what we would have expected for the 17th and 18th centuries. That seems more like a description of what we are now seeing in internet forums and social media platforms.

well-founded: What was done to counter escalations in the “learned republic”?

Traninger: The interesting thing is that the declaration of war is accompanied by an ideal of taming. It was said: war? Yes, but we put forward our arguments impartially. What does that mean? We do not abstain from expressing an opinion, but we pretend that everything we want to say has first been put to the test. We want to introduce a quality of judgment: We do not take into account whether this is my friend, my brother-in-law, my patron, against whom I argue, but I also have to examine my argument. This kind of reflected differentiation or distancing from what you are actually trying to say is an interesting consideration. Of course that doesn't work at all in the learned republic, and there are terrible arguments. But such considerations are apparently lacking today. It would be a nice meta-debate to think like back then: “We want to have free access to the media, but let's see how we can organize that.” That was a really exciting situation in the 17th century. Hesselmann: Totally exciting. We are also currently trying a little experiment that goes in this direction. The Tagesspiegel, for example, set up the debate portal “Causa”, and you have just given me a nice name for it: the digital republic of scholars. For example, political scientists like Thomas Risse and Tanja Börzel or natural scientists like Christian Thomsen write there. With "Causa" we try to have a structured debate like this and "oblige" the debaters to formulate their arguments in writing and to evaluate the arguments of the others. That was our original idea, but not every scientist gets involved, so it didn't work out as hoped. It is also an attempt to take debate to a higher level. The next step is to open up these debates. The work of the colleagues will be the moderation. My colleague Tilmann Warnecke, for example, led the debate in which the President of Freie Universität, Peter-André Alt, writes about how a university should be run these days. Traninger: I really like that you are introducing this series of debates because that is actually the mode of the scholastic university. We are heading towards the Luther anniversary, towards the Reformation anniversary with its theses. Your forum obviously works exactly like the scholastic disputation: theses are put forward, and then pro and contra arguments are made, and you always have to stick to the topic. I have often asked myself: What would Philipp Melanchthon or Martin Luther think about the way we debate today? They would probably see a big mess, because the most important thing at the time was the status controversiae. Where are we actually? What are we talking about? What are our terms? Where do we understand terms differently?