The new book Mündig by Ulf Poschardt is a passionate plea for self-determination. A conversation with the philosopher with a PhD and editor-in-chief of the World Group on self-driving cars, Greta Thunberg and the skateboarder as a protoype of a mature person.

Ulf Poschardt, your new book is based on a pessimistic diagnosis of the times: Nothing less than the free, self-determined individual – a central achievement of the Enlightenment – is today under threat. Where do you see the dangers?
The philosopher Immanuel Kant once suspected that the main cause of widespread immaturity was people’s laziness, and I believe that this hits the nail on the head. The concept of being “mature” is just one option and not what people in doubt really want. Added to this is modern technology, which makes it increasingly easy for people to be immature. We can now explain the world and let our taste be managed by algorithms – and in the self-driving car everyone will be just a passenger in the future.

A current survey by Swiss Life shows: Two out of three central Europeans see themselves as self-determined. They, on the other hand, attest to a real longing for determination by another party. Why do you think more and more people are looking forward to being deprived of their responsibility?
Because it’s comfortable and socially integrative. Opportunism is seductive in its supposed harmlessness, but it is the poison of a liberal democracy that gradually decomposes things and values.

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Maturity is a prerequisite for being free. Self-determination is the result of that.

You advocate a return to a self-determined existence, choosing Kant’s concept of “maturity.” Is maturity another word for self-determination?
No, both words have quite separate meanings. Maturity is a prerequisite for being free. And self-determination is the result of that.

What does it actually mean to be “mature”?
To be “mature” is an inner attitude and the ability to act and think autonomously without wanting to be isolated. It means the unconditional will to take personal responsibility and to think on one’s own. You could say something more trivial: It's neither more nor less than “being the author of one’s own biography”.

Maturity for you also includes the ability to “drift.” Just as a rally driver drifts through the curve, we’re supposed to take charge of our lives. Sounds dangerous. So a mature person is an adrenaline junkie?
No, But not a coward either. Risks are enriching where they ultimately stand for a better, more aware, more intense, more exciting life. A junkie is addicted. And addiction robs people of their autonomy and maturity and is therefore instead a juxtaposition to freedom. On the other hand, nothing drifts around a curve as well as an old Ferrari or a new Porsche GT3RS of a rally driver. Self-determination entails having the courage to take risks. Just as a rally driver drifts round a curve, so should we take charge of our lives. Because in life it’s important to be able to be unreasonable – in a reasonable fashion – in order to be happy.

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In life, it’s important to be able to be unreasonable – in a reasonable fashion – in order to be happy.

You don’t limit yourself to a theoretical classification; you describe – very clearly – 16 possible ways of existing as a mature person. From a business owner to an intellectual to a consumer. You identify a skateboarder as the true prototype of a mature person. What are his characteristics?
He dances his way through life and remains free although he exercises great discipline in achieving the smallest successes over gravity. A free person wants to fly, and a skateboarder tries to do this every day. If I’m depressed about people’s lack of desire for freedom, I watch skateboard videos for hours. And then it’s alright again.

You also celebrate Greta Thunberg as a model for a new, mature generation of women. What can we learn from her?
We can learn to take things in hand ourselves. To sit down in front of a school as a young girl with a cardboard sign, and in so doing to create one of the most effective political gestures of the 21st century, is a spectacular feat. And Greta and Luisa Neubauer are also role models for a better and healthier life. I find them enriching.

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Maturity is a precondition for democracy. Only an autonomous subject vaccinates a society against falling into non-freedom.

You write that “Maturity is not innate but an ability for which you have to do something ”. How does one learn this?
You have to want it. That’s a good start. But the most important thing is to be taught maturity – and that has to start early on. Making someone mature means empowering them with autonomy, to doubt intelligently rather than obey blindly.

To what extent does lifestyle play a role? According to the above-mentioned survey, people in the country feel a greater sense of self-determination than city-dwellers.
Less alienation and more reality help in becoming mature. Self-determination is admittedly tedious and a never-ending lifelong task. In addition to courage it calls for toughness and discipline. Characteristics that are possibly more in demand in rural life.

Self-determined people are also much less stressed, more satisfied and more optimistic. Is maturity the key to happiness?
Absolutely. For me, an immature life would be a waste of time. Nevertheless, I often act immaturely. Almost as a way of enjoying something other than a mature life. We don’t want a Protestant system of rule by reason in the existential sense.

Self-determination entails having the courage to take risks. Just as a rally driver drifts round a curve, so should we take charge of our lives.

According to the Swiss Life barometer, the coronavirus has strengthened self-determination. Does that surprise you?
No, in times of existential concern people take themselves more seriously. We recognise the fragility of existence and know that it is finite. The virus has made us more vulnerable and also more sensitive.

You also view maturity as a political necessity.
Absolutely. Because maturity is a precondition for democracy. It is the result of free formation of will and therefore the only form of political organisation that mature citizens need.

What is the objection to this if, in an increasingly complex world with its global problems, an individual’s autonomy recedes into the background slightly and the collective becomes more important?
German history in particular is an example of how the WE can become a nightmare. Only an autonomous subject vaccinates a society against falling into non-freedom. We should be aware of this, especially at a time when liberal democracy is being threatened by populists and radicals.

Photo credits: Martin U. K. Lengemann/WELT

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Ulf Poschardt

Ulf Poschardt (53) is a philosopher with a PhD, a journalist and an author. Since 2016 he has been editor-in-chief of the “World Group” (Die Welt, Welt am Sonntag, Welt TV). Among other things he has published “DJ Culture” and “911,” a book about the Porsche 911. “Mündig” was published by the Klett-Cotta-Verlag in February 2020. Ulf Poschardt lives with his family in Berlin.

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