Philosophers are often accused of living in “ivory towers”, remote from society and its problems. But with interests ranging from the education of children, global warming and development policy, this hardly fits Thomas Kesselring.
Professor of philosophy at Bern University, and of ethics, ecology and multiculturalism at Bern University of Teacher Education, Kesselring likes to take roundabout ways and to discover new paths. And not only in the caves he visits.
“I discovered philosophy in high school where a German professor encouraged some students, including me, to study it,” he says.
It could be said that chance has been behind a lot of things in Kesselring’s life, but this has always been followed up with a lot of reflection and determination.
A specialist in the works of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Jean Piaget, Kesselring describes the way he reached these authors as “a long road with a lot of branches in it”.
He chose to study Hegel, he says, because the philosopher stood out from the crowd and he considered him a strategic theme.
“But I didn’t know what to do with him. Over the course of a semester, I read his most absurd and complex texts without knowing what to do with them,” he says. It was while out walking one day that he hit upon the regularity in his argumentation and came up with the “mirror model”.
“The subject reflects itself and develops by concentrating on the positions it held before. That’s how it evolves,” explains Kesselring.
I met Kesselring in the centre of Bern’s old town during a cold and rainy evening. The wind was strong in our faces, quickly turning our umbrellas inside out. We had to fight it to go forward. I didn’t imagine that this image of a headwind would be so well suited to Kesselring’s own profile and career path.
It was another strategic reflection and what could also be described as a “headwind” that brought Kesselring to his next major subject. When preparing to apply for a teaching post, he read Piaget and was intrigued by several aspects of the thinking of the Swiss philosopher, which made him want to study his works in more detail.
“The mirror model helped me a lot in interpreting Piaget,” Kesselring says. His introduction to the works of Piaget remains a reference today.
“Thanks to Piaget, it became very clear to me that thought and reflection are the result of action. Each time we remember a situation which we have experienced, we think about that situation and we look at the past from a new standpoint. And that is like Hegel’s mirror theory.”
When he decided to bring together Hegel and Piaget in his doctoral thesis, he again found himself running into a headwind. For anyone who had studied the two writers, it seemed impossible to establish a relation between them. But what his colleagues didn’t realise was that what interested Kesselring was precisely the dead-ends and impossibilities; action as the basis for thought and reflection, as with Piaget.
Exercise both muscles and brain
It was also during high school that Kesselring’s other great passion was born – his interest in caves. By chance he read a piece about the Hölloch cave in canton Schwyz, the biggest in Switzerland and at the time the largest known cave in the world.
He contacted the Swiss Speleology Society for permission to visit caves which were not open to the public. He is proud of having been the first person ever to have explored galleries in various caves, not only in Switzerland, but abroad as well.
For Kesselring, caving provides a kind of balance. “It is something to train the muscles and not only the brain,” he says. Only two weeks earlier he was climbing in a cave, he adds.
It is typical of his style to see connections between everything and he insists that caving and philosophy have a lot in common.
“Trains of thought can be equally are equally labyrinthine and sometimes very obscure, as they are in the works of Hegel,” he jokes.
After teaching philosophy for six years in Berlin, he was invited to take up a job in Brazil. There he also helped with literacy courses in a favela, worked with street children, and witnessed up close the problems of the Amazon.
For the last five years, he has also given ethics courses at Mozambique University Teaching School. It is a country where he is hoping to help improve teaching standards generally – presently the government is looking at a Kesselring project aimed at changing teaching methods in schools.
Kesselring says his experiences in Latin America – he has also taught in El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina and Paraguay – led him to realise that all the problems related to the distribution of wealth, ecology and the lack of infrastructure are actually philosophical questions.
“I have always been interested in these different realities, but I never thought that everything could be a philosophical problem,” he says. After much research, he wrote Ethics, politics and human development – justice in the era of globalisation. Currently he is working on a new book which is an introduction to the ethics of teaching and education.
Asked what keeps him awake at night, not as a philosopher but as a citizen, he frowns. “I’m worried about Syria. Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan are all conflicts born from an unfortunate interplay of political events in which the West is deeply implicated. The question of climate change and the lack of political reaction to it also worries me. Germany has made some progress on this, as has Switzerland.”
Music is something else which gives his life balance. At the age of 11 he joined the Bern Chamber Choir and he still sees rehearsals as an excellent way to clear his mind.
Our jasmine tea is finished and the waitress has indicated that the restaurant needs to close. It’s a shame because the discussion with this thinker, teacher and caver could happily go on for hours.