A philosophical quest

After the final of this year's Philosophy Olympiad was reduced to an online essay competition, the participants finally met in person at the beginning of September. They spent four days traveling across Switzerland in the footsteps of two famous philosophers.

On the Chastè peninsula near Sils. (All images: Lara Gafner)

On the first day, the participants came up with their own philosophical questions.

On the first day, the participants came up with their own philosophical questions.

Sleeping like Rousseau: Gold medalist Manuel Beckert in the famous philosopher’s room on St. Peter's Island.

Thinking like Nietzsche: Gold medalist Severin Rohrer at Lake Silvaplana.

Workshop with Urs Marti-Brander.

Raphael Zumbrunn and Nitya Rajan during a discussion about consciousness.

The final of this year's Philosophy Olympiad was supposed to begin on the 19th of March. However, only a few days before the event, physical events had to be banned due to the pandemic. The competitive aspect of the Olympiad remained - the finalists wrote their essays from home. However, the social aspect is just as essential. Therefore, we were determined to organise a replacement for the final. In spite of all the setbacks and complications that came with the uncertain situation, we managed to organise a philosophical journey. From the 3rd to the 7th of September, 2020, eight of the twelve participants visited places in Switzerland which had inspired the famous philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Our trip began on Thursday, the 3rd of September, with an interactive workshop. In a usual Philosophy Olympiad setting, the participants are given philosophical questions or quotes, which they then have to write an essay about. This time, the participants would come up with their own questions. After all, much of philosophical practice comes down to finding an interesting problem and formulating a precise research question. By the end of the workshop, each participant had come up with a question to guide them through the philosophical journey ahead.

On Friday, we took the boat from Biel, where we were staying, to St. Peter's Island. The political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau fled to this peninsula in 1765. He was looking for a place where he wouldn't get in trouble because of his controversial thoughts. After six weeks, he was banished from Berne as well, and moved on to visit David Hume in England. Even though Rousseau's stay on St. Peter's Island was brief, he enjoyed the solitude and the nature very much, and considered it the best time of his life. 

From Prof. Dr. em. Urs Marti-Brander, the participants learned about the concepts of "amour de soi-même" and "amour propre", as well as the "contrat social" in Rousseau's philosophy. Nietzsche, the second thinker we would encounter on our trip, was also covered in the workshop. Urs Marti-Brander introduced the participants to Nietzsche's ideas behind what he called "Sklavenmoral" and "Herrenmoral".

The next day, we embarked on the long train ride to St. Moritz, where we moved into the Youth Hostel and spent a free afternoon. The participants swam in the Staz lake, the volunteers visited the Museum Engadinais. On Sunday, the 6th of September, Sils Maria awaited us. In moody weather, we walked along the Silvaplana lake and to the Chastè peninsula in Sils lake before our visit to the Nietzsche-Haus, where Friedrich Nietzsche spent several summers. There, the participants learned a lot about the philosopher's turbulent life.

Before saying goodbye, it was time to come back to the philosophical questions from the first evening. Over the course of the extended weekend, some of the questions had changed - they became more or less broad or narrow, certain concepts turned out to be more complex than anticipated. Some questions led to answers, others led to more questions - or both. Watch the finalists talk about their philosophical questions:

About the author: Lara Gafner is the president of the Swiss Philosophy Olympiad. After obtaining her Bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Bern, she studies History and Philosophy of Science at ETH Zurich.

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