What makes a brilliant philosopher

luxuryPhilosophy discovers an expensive phenomenon

"I love things that are of quality. Oh and I love precious stones and then I like to hold my hands with the rings in the sunlight and then I am happy to see how it sparkles and twinkles. / But I don't love things because they are expensive but because they are beautiful. "

"That is certainly a function of luxury that is perhaps more inward-looking and not aimed at society, perhaps even capturing nature with material goods and capturing the shine of the sun and also of life, of happiness. That can definitely be luxury in a cultural-scientific sense. "

The older lady loves what is noble and shines. Not to show her money, she says, but to enjoy the beauty. Thomas Hensel, professor of art and design theory, is also fascinated by luxury, but less so by expensive things than by the phenomenon itself. The professor of art and design theory at Pforzheim University allowed his students to research luxury and the project for a semester ended with a symposium.

The name Coco Chanel stands for pure luxury and expensive fashion (picture-alliance / dpa)
"The fascinating thing about the concept of luxury or the phenomenon of luxury is that it is not unanimous, that I cannot reduce it to a common denominator. There is currently both a luxury that expresses itself in 'more is more' and in a luxury that expresses itself in a "less is more". The "more is more" is expressed in a bling-bling luxury, an oligarch luxury. Think of Donald Trump's penthouse in the tower of the same name, which is covered with gold leaf is covered. "

The philosopher Lambert Wiesing from the University of Jena dares to take a different look at the topic:

"Luxury seems to make sense to me if we do not tie it to a symbolic act to the outside, that is, to a representation, but to a certain experience in the act of owning."

That could be the quiet joy of the shine of a piece of jewelery or taking time for silent retreats in a monastery, just going offline or feeling the expensive luxury just for yourself, as the French fashion designer Coco Chanel defined it:

"Luxury is not the opposite of poverty, but of vulgarity. Luxury means a fabric coat with a silk lining or with fur, but on the inside. You throw the coat on a chair and the lining comes out. Otherwise not. The lady alone knows that she wears silk or fur. Needless to say, that is luxury. "

Working on the luxury term

"The finer we differentiate, the more precisely we can describe it."

Says Lambert Wiesing. And so he did what philosophers do: they work on the concept.

We have been fascinated by luxury since the dawn of mankind (imago stock & people)
"I think a precise description protects against too great a reduction. We have the possibility to differentiate between ostentation and luxury. Protz is a word that can be used completely synonymously with prestige.

Swagger and prestige are directed outwards and need spectators. Someone shows what they have. This is what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu described in 1979 in his study "The Subtle Differences" as a principle of social distinction. Above all, it is the material side that is always attached to luxury and settles it between disgust and fascination. To this day, the Scottish philosopher, historian and economist David Hume hits a core with his essay "On Luxury", published in 1752, which now naturally includes women:

Men with liberal principles even praise vicious luxury and describe it as very beneficial to society, while on the other hand, men of strict morality condemn even the most innocuous luxuries and call it the source of all depravity, unrest and faction.

"Even the ancient philosophers railed against luxury consumption, think of Diogenes, who lives in his barrel, who slept on his folded coat and who ate his meals without cutlery and who actually made only the life of necessities and every surplus into his life program, loathed luxury. " Explains Thomas Hensel.

Luxury criticism as criticism of civilization

If philosophers, sociologists, theologians or economists deal with the phenomenon at all, then to this day it is mainly social and moral reasons that make them problematic. In a sense, luxury becomes a discussion about right and wrong ways of life. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau demonized all luxury in his educational novel "Emile" and pleaded for natural simplicity.

"This goes as far as economic theorists and sociologists like Max Weber in the 20th century, who wrote a Protestant work ethic, an inner-worldly asceticism and viewed them as the engine of our society. So criticism of civilization was often criticism of luxury or, conversely, criticism of luxury is often criticism of civilization. "

For some people, being one with nature is pure luxury (picture alliance / dpa / Chad Ehlers)
The design and art theorist is interested in things and less in morals. Art has always been in a relationship with luxury because it is always something other than the purely necessary in life. Thomas Hensel therefore prefers the simple luxury definition of the sociologist and economist Werner Sombart:

"At the beginning of the 20th century, Sombart defined luxury very pertinently and concisely as any effort that goes beyond what is necessary."

But what is necessary and what effort is superfluous, too much, just pure luxury?

"Let's take the example of running water. In developing countries, running water in one's own home may be viewed as a luxury, but in industrialized countries, having one's own water connection is deemed necessary and the private outdoor swimming pool perhaps a luxury."

"Yes, my emerald bracelet. The stones are pretty chipped. Sometimes my husband frowns. Then I say, you, you gave it to me so that I would be happy and not so that I put the clutter in the safe."

So is luxury completely a matter of opinion, only arises in the eye of the beholder or in the material longing of the envious? Is it subject to constant change depending on the individual, culture and economic system? Yes, says the philosopher, but there is something else in luxury:

"The luxury experience is made on an object that fulfills the purpose such as the clock, the carpet, the house, the garden, the library or whatever. All of these things serve a purpose. But there is a variant that is so elaborate is that one can no longer speak of functional. "

Award for luxury research

And this icing on the cake - is a special luxury, says Lambert Wiesing, who looked at the phenomena associated with the term luxury. For this work he was recently awarded this year's Thuringian Research Prize in the basic research category, which is quite rare for philosophy. He pursues a phenomenological definition of terms, derived from the contexts in which one can meaningfully speak of luxury.

"One can very quickly agree that the objects that we call luxury cannot be determined by scientific methods, i.e. by a physicist, chemist or anything else. You just can't bring a watch to a watchmaker and ask him, that's that Clock luxury? So you can't measure it, weigh it or in any way determine it technically or materially. That is a quality that is always of interest to philosophers. "

Two women look at the display of a jeweler - gold with a Fairtrade seal will soon be on display here. (picture alliance / dpa / M. C. Hurek)
The same is true of beauty, art, truth and justice - all indefinite terms that fill entire libraries of philosophical discourse. However, luxury has hardly touched philosophy so far.

"I don't really care that this jacket is only available 10 times in the world. It's actually about the fact that it's a better piece that I feel better in."

Schiller and his view of luxury

The young artist affords herself exquisite clothes, although she has to turn every penny twice. Exactly such luxury experiences are of interest to the philosopher. Swank and luxury have interfaces, says Wiesing, but they are not exactly the same. According to its definition, luxury is a highly individual experience, experienced on completely superfluous objects. Owning them does not have to be, but can give you a feeling of freedom. In his argumentation he follows Friedrich Schiller, who in his letters "On the Aesthetic Education of Man" understands gaming as a moment of freedom in which people can experience what it means to be human.

"Schiller seems to me to be a pioneering philosopher, although he hardly talks about luxury himself, but Schiller has discovered something that distinguishes man as a person in that he can take a position on himself, on his constraints, on his specifications . "

Schiller sees man as dependent on two compulsions: one is his natural instincts, his physical constitution. If he gives himself up to this compulsion, the person is only determined by pleasure. The other compulsion is reason, which makes people barbarians.

"The term is perhaps a bit unfavorable, it refers to so-called rigors who always know exactly what a person needs, what is necessary, what is reasonable, what must be done, what is correct. He also sees a moment of decline in them, a one-sidedness of man. "

Schiller counteracts the constraints with play. How to get into this special state of play, however, he left open. Above all, according to Lambert Wiesing, it is important that the basic claim that there is a state in which people experience their being human. Schiller speaks of a "fertile moment" that only appears in the game. Lambert Wiesing also sees other places for this existential experience: in art, in sport and in luxury.

"Experiences in which a person feels what it means to be a person. In other words, to a feeling that as a person one is a living being."

Luxury, then, is not just doing what either nature or reason demands of us. On the contrary - doing something completely nonsensical.

Luxury is the Dadaism of owning.

Lambert Wiesing overwrites a central chapter of his work on luxury.

"Dadaism is an art movement at the beginning of the 20th century. It is characterized by the fact that it breaks programmatically with bourgeois notions of art and that it deliberately proclaims an unreasonableness. Kurt Schwitters once brought it to this wonderful formula: It is natural Sense of nonsense. Dadaism is always an attitude of refusal. Luxury arises when you consciously do something with your property that you know is not sensible. "

Luxury as a place of resistance

That can be the classic car fool who owns cars that he repairs more than drives. But the one joyride a year gives him the exhilaration of freedom. Or the homeless person who does not put the money he has collected into sleeping for the next night, but instead affords a piece of cream cake in the best café on the square. Luxury as defiance.

"A gesture of refusal that as a human being you don't want to go completely into a functionalism and a sense of expediency."

Thinking of luxury as a place of resistance runs counter to our everyday understanding. It is commonly understood as the crown of consumption. And consumption follows the dictates of economic activity. So no trace of freedom, says the art scholar Änne Söll.

"I would strongly doubt that luxury should represent the bastion of autonomy, because in my opinion it is much more dependent on consumer behavior, which is already extremely strongly controlled by social stratification. And what we perceive as enjoyment is also controlled by it .

I would strongly doubt that luxury works without ostentation. I think luxury is always linked to the fact that other people perceive it, and it is essential. Without representation, without social distinction, there is no luxury by definition. "

The professor at the Ruhr University Bochum deals with the phenomenon of gloss as an expression of luxurious materials. She does not see freedom and autonomy in art, and certainly not in luxury.

"With regard to luxury, it is of course very interesting that since the manufacture of artificial materials, in other words in fashion since the 1920s, more and more objects have been made that artificially shine, and this shine effect has also democratized. And this cheap one Shine, this democratized shine, of course, calls into question this high gloss, which is still produced by precious objects. Then you have to distance yourself from it again. "

Often times, luxury is social display

So an endless spiral of appearance and reality? Lambert Wiesing would hardly contradict that. Luxury is often just a show. But for him it is not about social processes, but about the diversity of the term. And that doesn't go into showing off. It broadens the horizon of the term based on Schiller and Kant up to the autonomous concept of art by Theodor W. Adorno. He unfolds this in his book Luxus, also understandable for the philosophical layman. In order to deprive the reader of all certainty at the end: there is no evidence of the special experience of luxury as a moment of freedom versus purely functional rationality. Because everyone has an experience for themselves, as is well known. In his book on luxury, Lambert Wiesing only concludes with a cautious note:

"The only guiding principle is the hope, through description, to sensitize people to notice this phenomenon as such - should it show itself."