Executive Director Reinhard Mueller Discusses Orientation Philosophy and His Work with The Hodges Foundation for Philosophical Orientation


Michael Patrick Leahy sat down with The Hodges Foundation for Philosophical Orientation Executive Director Reinhard Mueller, PhD. to discuss the Foundation, its founding, and its work to advance the scholarship of modern philosophy.

Leahy: I’m here with Dr. Reinhard Mueller. He’s the executive director of the Hodges Foundation for Philosophical Orientation. Is it okay if we call you Reinhard?

Reinhard: Of course.

Leahy: Okay. So tell us about the Hodges Foundation for Philosophical Orientation.

Reinhard: The Hodges Foundation for Philosophical Orientation is based on, and tries to promote, a specific philosophy, the philosophy of orientation. That’s what it’s called.

And the originator of this was Werner Stegmaier, who was a philosophy professor in Germany. And it’s based around the notion of orientation as, “how do we find our way?” How do we find our way in a life, in a world that’s very complex and changing and full of uncertainties?

And this philosophy tries to explain and give some terminology of how this happens. And we at the foundation try to support research, for example, which expands on this idea of orientation.

Leahy: How did you come to be the executive director of the Hodges Foundation for Philosophical Orientation, based here in Nashville, Tennessee?

Reinhard: Yes. That was quite a curious occasion. So, Mike Hodges is a successful entrepreneur in Nashville, and he came across a translation of an article that deals with Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy. It was written by the same Professor Werner Stegmaier, and I translated it.

And it’s about the topic of Nietzsche’s orientation toward the future. And it’s about the question of how do we orient ourselves in time and toward time and to the future, to the past, and to the present?

Mike was getting really into philosophy first and then into Nietzsche especially. He read this article and was fascinated by it. Then he reached out to me and to Dr. Stegmaier and was very intrigued.

He flew down to Austin to meet with me and said, hey, let’s get this orientation philosophy book that this paper is based on translated into English. And then when this was halfway through, he said, let’s do more.

Let’s start a foundation based on this philosophy. And he said, hey, you should be the one running it. And so that’s why I’m here now.

Leahy: Where was Dr. Stegmaier based when he was teaching?

Reinhard: He was a professor at the University of Greifswald. Which is a small university in northeastern Germany right by the Baltic Sea. He became a professor there right when the Iron Curtain came down. So they reorganized all the philosophy departments because they were all Marxists-Leninist before that.

And so they had to basically start again from the beginning. They needed philosophy professors, and he got this offer to start there. So he established and was the founder and first director of the philosophy department there and did this for almost 20 years.

Leahy: How did you come to know Dr. Stegmaier?

Reinhard: Well, I was a student in one of his classes.

Leahy: Now, is this something you thought, I really want to be a philosopher when I grow up when you enrolled in his class?

Reinhard: Certainly not. No. In high school I wasn’t a good student, let’s say. And then I came across philosophy only after high school. And yes, I did like it a lot.

And then I tested out or went to a few classes and went to one of his and really loved it. And just something that spoke to me somehow. And from there, I just followed my passion in a way.

Leahy: Now how many students were in the class?

Reinhard: In the first one I went to, it was a lecture hall, but it wasn’t like hundreds. It was maybe 30, 40 students in the class.

Leahy: When did you first talk to Dr. Stegmaier and say, hey, this is very interesting, I’d like to learn more? When did you first have your first conversation with Dr. Stegmaier?

Reinhard: That took a while. In Germany, the relationship between professors, especially full professors and students is more distant than here. And so if you want to get to know a professor it often takes a long time. You have to work your way up through good grades.

Leahy: So your essays were excellent, I assume. And then he said, I need to talk to this fellow. Did you say, hey, Professor, I’d like to go and come to your office for office hours and discuss this latest idea? Or did you say, hey, Professor, let’s go and have a cup of coffee?

Reinhard: No. I was in some classes and he gave me some advice. But we weren’t that close back then. And then I went to another university in Germany, the RWTH Aachen, for a semester. And then I got a fellowship to study in the U.S., went to the University of Alabama. And when I was trying to decide what I wanted to write my master thesis on, I corresponded with him and that’s kind of how it started.

Leahy: Now, let me ask you this. A German philosophy student at the University of Alabama, where it’s nothing but Roll Tide. Well, no, not entirely true. There’s a lot more than roll tide at the University of Alabama.

They’ve got some fine academics there and particularly a strong law school and other graduate schools. But really, wasn’t it a bit of culture shock for a German philosophy student to be at the University of Alabama during football season?

Reinhard: Not too much, actually. I think it was because it was still a university context. Like a university environment, in which I had spent a couple of years. I went to two universities in Germany and then this one in Alabama.

So I guess my main daily work was still very similar. You go to classes. Plus, I was in the German program and was teaching German, and there were other German students with me there. Some of the professors were from Germany.

So it was maybe, also a little bit of an island of this kind of intercultural environment. So the culture shock wasn’t too bad. And I loved it. I loved Southern culture, Southern hospitality. People were just very kind.

And I loved the American graduate system, how it’s set up, and how graduate students take an important role in the system. And that’s also what stuck with me, which led to the desire to go back, later on, to do graduate work in the U.S. again.

Leahy: Now tell me about this. When did you first translate Professor Stegmaier’s works from German into English?

Reinhard: That’s a good question. I think it was maybe around 2014, or 2013. He just needed somebody to translate a paper.

Leahy: And there you were. (Laughs)

Reinhard: Yeah.

Leahy: And so because you translated one of his articles into English, and because Mike Hodges, a successful entrepreneur here in Nashville, Tennessee, read that article, the rest, as they say, is history. Now you are the executive director of the Hodges Foundation for Philosophical Orientation. Was that in the plan?

Reinhard: Not at all. No. As I said, I think in my inauguration speech it was like Kairos when a “good opportunity” comes up, you have to grasp it. But where it comes from, often we don’t know.

Leahy: Let’s talk about what the Hodges Foundation for Philosophical Orientation is currently doing. I’m very interested to learn that you have a fellowship now, your first fellowship.

There’s been a competition for the fellowship, and you’ve announced that. Tell us about the competition and tell us who has been selected to be the first fellow.

Reinhard: Yes, exactly. So we started a dissertation fellowship program. We’re in the first year now. We wanted to start earlier but the pandemic kind of postponed things for us. And so we started now in August. It’s for one year.

It’s twelve months, and we give out $30,000 which is spread out over these twelve months. And the main idea is we support dissertation projects which expand on the philosophy of orientation.

Leahy: That’s a lot of money, $30,000, for graduate students.

Reinhard: Yes.

Leahy: So how did you go about telling graduate students in the general area of philosophy about this fellowship opportunity and who applied and what have been the results of it?

Reinhard: We spread the message on social media, on our newsletter, but also on, I guess, normal channels. There are certain websites where you announce these things and listservs and so on.

And about 20 to 25 people applied from all over the world. That was quite interesting to see which places our message, basically reached all continents, except for the Antarctic maybe.

Leahy: (Chuckles) Not a lot of philosophers in the Antarctic.

Reinhard: No. But all over the world. And that was exciting to see. And since the philosophy of orientation is quite new, it’s hard for people to offer something really good in the beginning. But it was still good to see that there were a couple that were quite impressive.

And so in the end, we invited four of them for a finalist conversation. We had a jury of about nine people from our advisory council and Dr. Stegmaier and me. In the end, we decided on our current fellow, which is Olga Faccani. She’s from Italy.

She’s at the University of California in Santa Barbara, and she’s writing her dissertation in the field of Greek classics and on the Athenian tragedian, Euripides.

Leahy: And the dissertation topic is Tragic Bonds, Death, Disorientation, and Trauma in Euripides. Now, actually, that sounds interesting even to people that aren’t up to speed on orientation philosophy.

Reinhard: Yeah, very much. And that’s something what we’re especially interested in at the foundation such topics that even if it’s about ancient Greek tragedy it still relates to our time, something that’s relevant for us.

And what she explores is the idea of trauma and disorientation and death. That’s something that we encounter every day. I mean, some more, others less. But is a topic that it’s never going to be solved.

And what’s interesting about Greek tragedies is that they very clearly and bluntly show these crises and death and trauma, which we perhaps don’t encounter as blunty today anymore. And it’s quite relevant in this sense.

Leahy: Well, that’s all very fascinating. What’s in the future for the Hodges Foundation for Philosophical Orientation. By the way, it is on the web at hfpo.com. What do you have in 2022 and beyond?

Reinhard: We definitely want to continue and hopefully also grow the fellowship program. So, in our first year we have one fellow, maybe two in the second, maybe three after that. And so on. We’ll see how strong the applicants are. Then we have a prize competition, which we just finished.

The deadline was at the end of October about the question of digitization. And what I want to do a lot more in the future is, on the one hand, more videos, educational videos about things that are related to orientation philosophy.

Maybe also on Nietzsche and some other philosophers that are important for it. And I also want to establish a leadership program that offers content relevant for leaders and related to orientation, something like strategic planning, communication, negotiating, decision-making, and so on, and all this from the viewpoint of philosophy of orientation.

Leahy: Dr. Reinhard Mueller, Executive Director of the Hodges Foundation for Philosophical Orientation. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Reinhard: Thank you.





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