Committed to critical thinking

  • 2021-05-27
  • Bettina Mittelstraß
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Statue of the ancient philosopher Plato in Athens © GettyImages / araelf

Committed to critical thinking

Dr Sarhan Dhouib, born in Tunisia in 1974, already knew at the age 14 what interested him most: contemplation, enlightenment, philosophy. ‘My friends and I grew up under the autocracy of Ben Ali and longed for a new world; for freedom, justice and democracy’, recalls Dhouib – who has been a research associate in the Institute for Philosophy at the University of Hildesheim since 2019.

These Tunisian high school students secretly put paperbacks with critical content into each other's coat pockets, debated and developed their own critical language. Dhouib attended seven philosophy lessons per week during the baccalaureate phase. ‘Reading Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment” was obligatory for us.’ The pupils also had to grapple with Ibn Khaldun, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hegel and Arendt. He decided that he was most interested in German philosophy of the 19th and 20th centuries and that he wanted to read and explore these texts in the original.

He used Goethe to learn German

His first knowledge of German was self-taught during his philosophy studies at the University of Sfax in Tunisia – among other things with the help of German-French editions of the works of Goethe. ‘That made me aware of the complexity of language and roused my interest in translating philosophical texts’, Dhouib relates. Translation elicits an appreciation for differentiation, word formations and variations, and thus assists in encountering other cultures with great respect.

After completing his teacher training degree in philosophy in 1996, Dhouib came up with the plan to pursue a doctorate in classical German philosophy in Germany. ‘This is my life,’ he explained to anyone who was astounded at this undertaking. Because the hurdles were immense: the prerequisites were not only German language skills that were certified as excellent, but also a German ‘Magister’ degree. It soon became clear that the autocratic regime was also determined to deny Dhouib his career as a researcher. Instead, he was given a job as a grammar school teacher on the island of Djerba. ‘They threatened me that I would never get another job if I gave it up.’

Back and forth to Paris to study

Dhouib took the job, although he didn’t abandon his goal. For two years before that, he had already commuted hundreds of kilometres from Sfax to Tunis on weekends to attend German language courses at the Goethe Institute. He also applied to the Sorbonne in Paris to obtain his German ‘Magister’ degree. Assistance from the Goethe Institute enabled him to participate in a German language course in Mannheim in August 1998. The acceptance from Paris came at the same time. For two whole years he travelled to France in his own time and at his own expense. He completed the German ‘Magister’ degree with top marks.

Albeit this was still insufficient for a doctorate in Germany. A further language test and a supervising German professor were lacking. Dhouib contacted the Goethe Institute again – and, as luck would have it, his German examiner from Mannheim had in the meantime become the director there. He remembered the young man and offered his support. Dhouib also met his future doctoral supervisor from the University of Bremen at a conference in Tunis.

Shaped by a new culture of discussion

The next stage was a four-month language course in Bonn. ‘But then came the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and all the doors were closed to me as a Tunisian’, Dhouib recalls. His determination was put to the test for two more years, but in 2003 he was finally able to travel to Bonn. Here he learned about the possibility of applying to the DAAD for a scholarship, which he eventually obtained.

Dhouib says that his time in Bremen made a deep impression on him. ‘It was my entry into Germany’s culture of discussion. I was able to speak without fear for the first time.’ His experiences with the authoritarian teaching style meant it was a big step for him to offer constructive criticism of established intellectuals.

Dhouib was awarded his doctorate in Bremen and has since realised an impressive number of research projects and publications. Their titles shine a light on his interests beyond classical German philosophy: ‘The Ethics of Globalisation’, ‘Philosophy in the Islamic World’, ‘Philosophy in a Comparison of Cultures’, ‘Responsibility, Justice and a Culture of Remembrance’.

Contributing to a shift in perspective

Dhouib is especially motivated by transcultural philosophy. ‘There is a profoundly asymmetric perception’, he explains. ‘German philosophy is of course perceived in an Arab context. Conversely, however, there is a lack of perception of modern Arab philosophy, or it is dominated by a perspective in which everything revolves around Islam.’

Dhouib’s aim is to contribute to changing that. He has co-conceived a volume for a German reference collection on the history of philosophy in which Arabic philosophy of the modern era is critically depicted. ‘These intellectuals have not yet been portrayed anywhere in a European language’, says Dhouib – who has translated and critically presented the writings of 24 authors for the volume appearing in August 2021, with a depiction of their life, work, teaching and impact along with primary and secondary literature. ‘We have to be very differentiated if we wish to do justice to other cultures.’

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