woensdag 31 december 2008

Gaza


Let's say this: I cannot think of a self-respecting Western country that would just tolerate rockets being fired to its territory for years.

Even imagining such a situation is difficult for us.

dinsdag 30 december 2008

Why is common sense so rare?


Thinking is not a wrong activity, but it requires to be permanently corrected. It’s remarkable how many people do agree with this statement at the moment.

In many cases this agreement has to do with the financial crisis. For instance the CEO of insurancecompany Aegon says we relied too much on ingenious models and too seldom on our common sense. And some people wonder in bewilderment why the high level of our education didn’t prevent all kinds of unferior products from being foisted on us.

More in general – and a long time before the financial crisis – critical thinkers pointed to the dangers of grand perspectives and logical reasoning. Sartre had lost already, in the eyes of many philosophers, the position of philosophical hero he held in the fifties and sixties. For it had become embarrassingly clear how much he had let himself be taken away by those grand perspectives, models and blueprints, when he flirted with Stalin and Mao.

And in his book The End of Organization Theory the philosopher Pålshaugen, already ten years before date, gave an explanation why inventors, sellers and consumers of those incredible financial products all just went on as they did. It is, he says, because those ingenious models create a fascination, which forms the secret connection between inventors and consumers. “Both of them know that it is an illusion to say that the model models reality. But in the same way that we cannot avoid being fascinated by a good film, even though we view it as nothing but a play, an illusion, neither can we avoid being fascinated by a good theory”. And a good theory is was; in academic circles anyway the calculation models were hardly challenged.

The underlying question forces itself on us: why are models and blueprints so tempting?

This question is not new of course. Many philosophers occupied themselves with it. But, in line with the accents of the Western tradition, the answers generally take the freedom and self-determination of the individual as their points of departure. Sartre – to mention him once more – thinks that nothing external should hamper the individual in his self-determination. And on this issue Sartre still finds much favour. Self-reflection is still conceived, nowadays as much as before, as a function of the autonomous, critical thinking. One has to keep oneself to the light. Ernestly and solitary, but also respectable and self-confirming.

Levinas’s idea, that the spark which triggers self-reflection, may nót come from your innermost self, but from somebody else who somehow breaks through your self-sufficiency, is, from this perspective, very much against the grain indeed. That idea is far from self-evident in our culture and goes contrary to two-and-half-thousand years of stressing autonomy in which we are steeped.

That’s what I notice in the workshops Good Intentions and Illusions. In the stories people tell there, it becomes clear how big our inclination is to be ahead of other people, to account for yourself, to make your own definitions of the world leading. Also when they concern somebody else, for that’s how, by definition, definitions of the world work. But if then it turns out that such another person is not really pleased by your wellmeant intentions, only then something really changes. That’s what shakes you, according to Levinas, because you could never think of that yourself.

This emphasis on the external origin of the correction on our thinking is an idea which Levinas elaborates in all his books. According to him we only have very limited space to adjust ourselves. The unexpected confrontation with somebody else, so from the outside, can help us with this. Something truly new can start there, precisely because you could never invent it yourself.

Unlike calculation models, blueprints and films, however fascinating they may be.

dinsdag 16 december 2008

Being boss in your own book


The phenomenon of being ashamed for your own thinking is a recurrent theme in Levinas’s books. The appropriation of the world which proceeds by way of thinking may be experienced by the thinker as a kind of imperialism which hurts the identity of other people.

In my book Shame and Change I tried to identify that shame in the context of organizations. My question was: do organizators (managers, consultants, coaches) recognize that phenomenon? It turned out that in their case such shame can manifest itself when they get stuck in their own plans and schemes. When the blindness of their thinking is unmasked by the confrontation with somebody who is injured by it, organizators may get embarrassed and become aware of their imperialism. Often a kind of loneliness is connected with the embarrassment.

But of course, according to Levinas, this thoughtshame, or rationalityshame, is not limited to one professional or population group. He describes self-consciousness because of one’s own thinking as an existential human phenomenon, which can manifest itself each time when one person thinks for another. For instance, in the case of parents who wish the best for their child or of a nurse who takes care of her patient.

For a change, in this message, I want to relate rationalityshame to the professional group of novelwriters. For, if Levinas’s and my thesis is: thinking can make the thinker lonely and its imperialism can cause the thinker’s embarrassment, isn’t it only logical to suppose that those phenomena will manifest themselves frequently with writers? If somewhere thinking – in this context labeled as imagination – has a free ride, it is in novels, where, as some literary critics say, the writer still reigns supremely as a god.

A writer who speaks about his embarassment as well as about his solitude is Amos Oz. In Rhyming Life and Death Oz discloses that his uninhibited imagination can cause moments of shame. He tells us this immediately after showing, in the same book, an almost shameless sample of his imaginationpower.

The startingpoint for this phantasy is his alter ego, a writer on his way to a public performance. In preparation for his performance he sits in a café and thinks about the salvo of questions that will be fired towards him. The phantasy is recorded as follows:

“Underwhile he pays attention to the beautiful legs of the waitress. While he awaits his omelet, the writer tries to imagine this waitress’s first love (he decides her name will be Riki): when she was sixteen yet, she fell in love with the reserve goalkeeper of footballclub Bnei Yehudah, Charlie. The author imagines how this Riki is exchanged for some other woman, who that is, how this proceeds and what impact this will have on the rest of her life.”

“When the writer finally decides to go to his public performance, he already has fabricated a complete world. This process is speeded up when, once arrived in the auditorium, he inspects his audience. Absorbed in his usual swindling he appropriates their history, as if he were picking their pockets, he robs their affairs, their weaknesses and obsessions.”

But at a certain moment Oz doesn’t feel comfortable with this fabriciationwork: “While the writer gets continuously more immersed in his imagination and enjoys an imaginary love scene, he simultaneously is assaulted by growing doubts: ‘Why do I write? What’s the use of it?’ He gets ashamed when he realizes that others people for him only exist as food for his stories. At the same time he feels himself seized by ‘a deep distress because of his perennial aloofness, his inability to be touched and to touch’.”

Is it an overstatement to say that in a certain way every writer is a thief? He takes something out of reality and transforms it to something of his own. And somehow he is left more lonesome than he was before.

This wording of a writer's swindling is quite similar to what Levinas says about our thinking: he calls it an act of appropriation, because it robs things and people from their identity and incorporates them in the totalitarian whole of its own world. A feast of independence and autonomy, Levinas acknowledges. But at the same time, it creates lonelines and a desperate longing for deliverance by an Other, for what Levinas calls: heteronomy.

It is not difficult to see that the celebration of imagination as practised in novels fits in very well into our Western intellectual tradition with its emphasis on autonomy and independent thinking. The novel, and most of all its creator, may be considered as exponents of this tradition. Is it just accidental that in Holland last year it were no politicians, musicians or sporters, but two writers about whom was disclosed that they arranged their own life’s end?

zaterdag 13 december 2008

Hannah Arendt's Heroes


Action needs for its full appearance the shining brightness we once called glory, and which is possible only in the public realm.

These are the words of someone who is being fascinated by the desire for light, splendour and immortal fame, for which Ancient Greece from Homer to Alexander the Great had the reputation.

It was Hannah Arendt who wrote this passage in her book The human condition. In the book she discusses three varieties of the active life which as Vita Activa stands in opposition to the Vita Contemplativa, the life of the mind. Those three varieties are: labor, work and action and most of Arendt’s attention goes to the last one.

Arendt describes action as making a new beginning. It is starting processes for which no precedent exists and the outcome of which is uncertain and unpredictable. Acting, according to Arendt, is necessary for the maintenance of a public sphere.

What strikes me in Arendt’s description of acting – and that’s what I want to talk about – is the slightly oldfashioned adoration for ancient classical times which one can perceive. For instance in the above given quote, but also in her stressing “the revelatory character of action as well as its ability to produce stories and become historical, which together form the very source from which meaningfulness springs into and illuminates human existence”. And somewhere else she approvingly cites Pericles when, in his Funeral Oration, he talks about the polis as “a guarantee that those who forced every sea and land to become the scene of their daring will not remain without wittness and will need neither Homer nor anyone else who knows how to turn words to praise them”.

Some people may find this respectable and interesting, but my first reaction to this kind of adoration for Ancient Greece is somewhat allergic. I associate that attitude with 19th-century German academic culture which primarily was looking for elevation and stylizing.

But, on second thoughts, the heroism which Arendt applauds, has something beneficial. Those ancient heroes are not always as splendid as the quotes suggest, that’s to say, not in Arendt’s view. For example, she somewhere says that heroic acts do not necessarily have to be sublime. Also one’s bad deeds will survive in remembrance and will contribute to the actor’s immortality. This addition by Arendt makes for a change in the tone of the discourse.

Besides, Arendt uses the word ‘hero’ in a very elastic way. She doesn’t limit its meaning, as is usually the case, to denoting the solitary individual who, thanks to extraordinary power, insight or courage achieves something great. In her writings something seems to exist like wheeling-and-dealing-heroes: peope who, within a network with other people, invest efforts to get things done, without any garanteed outcome: “It is because of this already existing web of human relatonships, with its innumerable, conflicting wills and intentions, that acting almost never reaches its purpose”. Important is that the efforts are being recorded and preserved for posterity. In this view the status of being a hero could come within reach of, say, a local alderman or a dyed-in-the-wool trade union official.

Because of the colouring and nuances which Arendt adds to the concepts of action and hero, an interesting theme enters the scene, which transcends the limitations of the usual hero-concept and the adoration of classical antiquity. Nevertheless Arendt’s rich descriptions do not succeed in completely removing my initial reluctance. Looking at the whole of her text I think a certain contradiction remains.

Most of all the repeated use by Arendt of words like ‘fame’ and ‘splendour’ wrong-foots me sometimes. Isn’t she, at those moments, completely immersed in the exalted German-romantic tradition? At least those words sound, in relation to Arendt’s emphasis on the uncertainty and futility of much of human action, somewhat inadequate. For wheeling-and-dealing-heroes we need other qualifications.

Also see The Heroic Cosmopolitical Individual and Greek and Jew

donderdag 27 november 2008

Why Heidegger doesn't bring us any further


It is very understandable that reflexive managementauthors like Weick, Winograd and Flores look for inspiration towards Heidegger. If you want to stop the thinking about organizations in terms of schemes and diagrams, Heidegger offers a liberating perspective.

Heidegger holds that “knowledge lies in the being that situates us in the world”. That’s to say: we do not learn by taking a distance and by observing phenomena from the outside, but by being actively engaged in the world via work and relations. Heidegger prioritizes praxis and being in the world. By doing so he breaks through the deceit which originates from models and structures. Knowledge always is embedded in an acting way of being which precedes everything.

At the same time it is possible, in relation to the Heidegger oriented managementauthors, to identify two blind spots. The first concerns the unwillingness to communicate, which people - and not just in organizations - at times display. The authors seem not to be acquainted with this phenomenon. The spontaneous active being which they talk about in their writings, for them automatically coïncides with a permanent readiness to communicate.

The second blind spot concerns the difference one person can make with regard to another person. That people may disagree fundamentally about the direction and the goal of their acting is not a theme in the works of the above mentioned authors.

I tend so see a connection between those two blind spots. That connection, in my view, stems from the way in which Heidegger uses the concept of Mitsein. Namely, as a reference to a shared reality in which we humans collectively participate. We share Mitsein as a part of our active being-in-the-world. Communication arises from there almost automatically.

It is certainly true that Heidegger leaves room for individuals to conceive of primary being, where acting finds place, in their own, original way. But by the position he allocates to Mitsein there is a shift in the balance: the portion of collectivity weighs much more heavily than the portion of individual originality. Being is foremost one and collective, even if there is a multitude of personal insights in being.

This explains why plurality of thinking and profound differences between people get so little attention from authors who orientate themselves towards Heidegger. It is as Safranski says: the true nature of political thinking will be exposed by Hannah Arendt – as part of her answer to Martin Heidegger. Such really political thought derives from living communally our differences.

I would like to add that, for an elaboration of the radical difference between the one human person and the other, we can fruitfully turn to Levinas.

Also see Heidegger, Wittgenstein and traffic and Is the world sound?

donderdag 20 november 2008

Heidegger, Wittgenstein and traffic


Organizational scientists who become philosophical should be cherished. They probably will allow a bit more space for manoeuvre and depth in their reasoning than those who are trained only in management. Nevertheless I want to make a warning remark concerning organizational scientists who orientate themselves towards Heidegger and the later Wittgenstein. What a number of followers of those two philosophers have in common – and that’s what I want to talk about – is the use of the metaphore of car-traffic for human communication in organizations. I find that irritating. For in my view that metaphore is not really adequate.

What can one say about traffic? Car-traffic consists in a unequivocal, uniform reality and this reality is based upon a set of (almost) generally accepted rules. Those among us who drive their car to the wrong side of the road or park it across the lane form a small minority. Of course the respective destinations of the road-users can diverge a lot but that’s not relevant for their quality of road-user. Their reality is being defined by the two white lines they have to respect, the arrows they have to follow and the trafficlights that come to their path. As far as their participation in traffic is concerned, all drivers have one and the same preprogrammed rationality in common, which allows only very limited space for interpretation.

The moment you start applying traffic as a metaphore for human behaviour in organizations a kind of alienating effect sets in. Take for example John Shotter, who is inspired by Wittgenstein. Shotter considers social action as ‘to know how to go on’ and for his explanation of this expression he takes recourse to the metaphore of car-traffic: “Just as in driving down a multi-lane interstate highway, we sense those cars here as near, and those there as far away, this one as requiring us to move away as it is moving too close, and we possess a synoptic grasp of how ‘to go on’ in a skilful way in many other spheres of our lives”.

Managementauthors Winograd and Flores, who orientate themselves towards Heidegger, also use car-driving as an image for communication and language in organizations. They speak about a kind of natural interhuman communication and compatibility by which things just go as they have to go and people, somehow, know what they have to do. Of course misunderstandings between people can arrise, in the same way in which collisions take place in traffic. And also in organizations one can find non-communicative people, as there are yokels in traffic. So, apparently, also traffic is not that unequivocal. But those situations are – according to the mentioned authors – exceptions, on the organization floor as in traffic, which are to be redressed or to be deplored. In the last resort they do not affect the clarity of the rules and the uniformity of reality. In principle human interaction functions, as does car-traffic, automatically.

I think this conception of human interaction is alienating because it does not match the experienced reality. The conception leans heavily on the presumption that people are permanently prepared to communicate. I find that a naïve, romantic thought. The day-to-day practice in organizations shows too many examples of the opposite. I have in mind people’s refuse to talk to others, the largescale use of language which in fact does not clarify but mystifies, and the energy it takes, not so much to redress misunderstandings, but to get people to talk with one another at all.

On a better look, it is possible to give some explanations for the discrepancy between the relatively unproblematic functioning of road-traffic and the laboriousness of human interaction. One can point to the fact that, opposite the unequivocal rationality and limited space for interpretation of trafficrules, in the domain of worldinterpretations and human acting many divergent rationalities can be found. And opposite the total freedom for each cardriver to choose his own destination, in organizations there is a hierarchy by which some workers (managers) tell other workers what to do. Conflicts on the road are usually restricted to teasing, while in organizations they often have to do with imposing, legitimately or not, one’s will on others.

These differences touch certain aspects of organizations which make communication in organizations so difficult but also interesting. Organizational scientists like Shotter, Winograd and Flores, who are orientated towards Heidegger and Wittgenstein, seem to miss exactly those points. They end up with a simplistic and technocratic caricature of interhuman communication. One may wonder whether something essential is lacking in the philosophical oeuvres of Heidegger and Wittgenstein because of which their organizational adepts arrive at that caricature?

woensdag 5 november 2008

Wowww!


Obama president!

I was surprised this morning by my own gigantic joy that this happens. Apparently I didn’t know myself how deeply cynical I had become about possiblities for change. Eight years Bush do not leave one untouched.

Of course it has to be seen yet how far Obama can get. The problems are enormous, the financial possibilities smaller than ever. But the new president himself is very much aware of that. And it may turn out that his charisma and the enthousiasm he arouses open possibilites we could not think of before.

Inevitably the election of a black president in the United States will make a tremendous impression on those people in the world who politically don’t have any choice at all. The desire for democracy will undoubtedly be felt much stronger than when Bush believed he could install democracy by military means. Whether that desire will further the world’s stability is a different question altogether. The desire must be felt.

So, they can! And if they can, can we too? In Europe, in Israël?

woensdag 22 oktober 2008

Illusionbusiness


To speak about illusions and about unmasking them is one of my favourite things.

The Pope likes to do so as well, and recently he told us that the financial crisis learns us that “money is just an illusion”. With this statement he followed in Plato’s footsteps, who called the world around us just appearence and who found consolation in thinking that ‘somewhere else’ there is a world of ideas which is much more real. If only you know to discern false from real you will be less bothered by the ups and downs of this sublunar world, so he thought.

From that perspective I take part, by my workshops Good Intentions and Illusions, in the unmasking-industry which, already since Plato and early Christianity, opposes the reality of a spiritual world to the appearance of the material world.

But I don’t feel comfortable at all with their standpoints. That’s why I want to make clear what’s the difference between their unmasking and mine.

The first thing I don’t like in their unmasking is that they overreact. It is certainly true that the material world at times fools us and that behind seeming glimmer a rotten reality can hide. But to postulate in reaction a world of ideas that is supposed to be much more stable and reliable, that goes too far. It seems to me to spring from wishful thinking.

That brings me to my second objection: the denial of realitystatus to our material world leads to nothing. We happen to be connected by many threads to our body, our needs and our enjoyments. Disregarding those connections leads to unsavoury masochism or – more usual – to hypocrisy. You are rooted with all your fibres into material reality, but you don’t want to know it.

That’s why Marlies Pernot, the head of the Dutch association of house-owners, is angry with the Pope. It’s easy for him to talk like that, she thinks, with the many millions of Euros of the Church behind him. Completely different from “ordinary consumers for whom the possession of a house or a pension is not in the least illusory”. It also is, so she says, so much derogatory, towards the people who earn their money by working hard.

Following Plato the Church apparently has trouble finding a good relationship with the world. Perhaps she managed to find it at the political level, namely in the distinction between the domain of Caesar and the domain of God. But at the level of money and economy it seems to be much more difficult. Of course at a certain moment money had to circulate, also during the Christian Middle Ages. But those affairs were preferably left to others, for example to Jews. That was very convenient because they were not allowed to have other occupations. And besides, you could reproach them to be so materialistic. Hypocrasy thus accompanied the Christian West as its shadow.

The question which still remains is: wherein lies the difference between my illusionbusiness and the Pope’s? Essentially the difference is that I don’t believe in a sharp line of distinction between appearance and reality. And certainly not that one could link appearance and reality to domains like the worldly or the spiritual atmosphere. Appearance and reality are not to be mapped out in such a dualistical way. They alternate in a way we can hardly systematically catch.

If anything systematic could be discovered in the appearing of illusions, in my view that‘s linked to our thinking. The same faculty of thinking which we take recourse to for clarifying the world, can get entangled in its own categories. Plato’s unmaskingproject may be the best illustration of the way in which thinking creates its own illusions.

Also see Levinas and Egoism and (Un)purity

donderdag 16 oktober 2008

Crisis of ethics or of thinking?


It was to be expected that, in response to the financial crisis, people everywhere would appeal to ethics as an answer and incantation. People talk about revitalizing old virtues. Journalists look for the guilty ones and the public wants to hear confessions and repentence.

Most of the indignation is about greed. But in my opinion greed did not do much more than use our thinking and its inherent illusions as a vehicle. So, to really touch the crisis, discussions should rather focus, not on greed, but on the thinking which legitimizes that greed and gives it an unlimited free ride. That thinking should be the object of critical reflection.

This asks for something else than spontaneous, holy indignation about so much greed. This asks for insight into the tricks which our thinking plays us. Of course the airing of deep indignation relieves us, but it also is an easy way out. It is powerless and fails to be really critical. In a certain way it's a symptom of the problem. Which is that we are not critical enough on our own thinking. With the consequence that we let ourselves be taken away by and too easily believe in our own ideas. Until the illusions appear untenable any longer and the bubble bursts.

So the real question is: who or what is able to stop (in time) the free ride of our illusion producing thinking? That question has been leading in the philosophical examination which Levinas undertakes in his works. And his answer was: only an external force, like the Other, can fulfill that critical role. The other shows his distress and resistance caused by our acting and thinking, and by doing so breaks through the euphoric stubborness with which we believe in our own plans.

But how complex the present crisis is, may perhaps be derived from the impossibility to unequivocally answer Levinas's central question: ‘Who is the Other who, in this subprime madness, could have stopped us?’

For one could not say this role was played by the American slum dweller who got a subprime mortgage foisted on him by a bank. That slum dweller may, at the time of the transaction, have been very happy with it. And he doesn’t suffer that much now, because by returning his key he gets rid of his mortgage debt. He just returns to his old situation. In the worst case he will be a bit more desillusionated than he was before.

It may be the lower middle class figure - let's say Joe the Plumber - who, before having his luxury mortgage, had already a decent dwelling and now is being expelled from his dreamhouse into a slum neighbourhood. This kind of distress can hurt considerably.

But the deliriously rushing, frantic financial figures hurted themselves as well. Bankemployees, mortgage brokers and house-agents also suffer on a large scale. They are their own Other. But if so, what remains then of the externality of the adjusting force of the Other, which has, according to Levinas, as most important feature its very externality? Crucial for Levinas is that no one can ever fabricate by himself the correcting effect of the other’s distress, for the very reason it is external.

Apparently, Levinas’s philosophy and its capacity to clarify what thinking does to us, reaches its limits here. What remains is my preference for Levinas’s critical distance towards our thinking and its effects on us, over against a powerless moral indignation about so much human greed. For this last attitude does not help us any further in the fundamental reflection on our thinking.

zaterdag 4 oktober 2008

Kol Nidrei and other illusions


Sometimes it happens that people are open to someone else’s distress, at the moment it becomes clear to them that they injured that other. Such is the central thesis which the French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas elaborates in his books.

Among the many injuries which people inflict upon one another, Levinas’s attention is primarily directed towards, what he calls, the ‘violence of thinking’. This violence appears where one person thinks for another and this other doesn’t like it. It is a kind of intrusion, Levinas calls it ‘imperialism’. The thinker can dwell in the euphoric illusion that he helps the other. But the injury which the other incurs because of the thinker’s obtrusiveness can vary from humiliation to the feeling to be pressed into a corner. When the thinker notices this he can be startled by his own illusions and adjust his behaviour.

When I talk with people about this Levinasian thesis, they often recognize the phenomenon and they can point to concrete experiences of it in their own lives. But at the same time they often ask: why are there also people who do nót let themselves be directed by the distress they cause with another; who just keep going their own sovereign way and do as they please with their obtrusive plans? What causes that one person may be sensitive for the injury being done to the Face (as Levinas calls it) and another person is not?

Every time again I find this an intriguing question and I don’t have an answer to it.

Some Levinas-students think you can train this sensitivity. For instance by listening seriously to others and practising this competence. I think this is not a wrong suggestion, because by doing so you develop a kind of alertness regarding illusions in which you may be trotting on and transgressing borders.

Actually, the value of Day of Atonement for me lies precisely in its contribution to that training: to bring to mind, via a specially marked day and an overwhelming liturgy, where and when I lapsed into error. To be able to do so we need a special language and Yom Kippur’s liturgy offers that language. From this perspective Day of Atonement may be regarded as a training in sensitivity, because a whole day long you are immersed in that language.

Yet, I keep being sceptical about the suggestion that we can get rid of our illusions by such training. For illusions are simply inherent to our thinking. So, as long as we don’t give up thinking (and I would not recommend that) illusions will keep popping up and with them the injuries which they cause. I certainly believe that reflection on the effects of our thinking and acting produces progress, also in our thinking. But at the same time I am convinced that we will keep being surprised by our illusions and unwantingly will continue to injure people because of them.

The nice thing is that scepsis as to the possibility of countering illusions also got its place in the liturgy of Yom Kippur. Namely in the Kol Nidrei, where we direct our attention to promises (to conceive of as euphoric intentions or illusions) which in the future we certainly will break.

Far from offering a license for randomly making and breaking promises – as this text has been interpreted by malevolents - the Kol Nidrei herewith testifies of realism and of a deep insight into the treacherous nature of human thinking. From this perspective the pronouncing of the Kol Nidrei is to be seen as a training in sensitivity.

Yom Kippur may be the heaviest training in sensitivity of the Jewish yearcycle. But immediately afterwards it gets a continuation, in a lighter style, with Sukkot. The tent (Sukkah) which is open to all sides, as Abraham’s tent was, according to Levinas is a model of sensitivity and as such, for him, of human conscience.

dinsdag 23 september 2008

Il-y-a


This picture deserves a big format. For the photograph can elucidate certain aspects of the il-y-a, a theme which plays an important role in Levinas’s work, mainly of the early and middle periods.

Il-y-a with Levinas denotes being, but then being in its specific appearance of formless, undetermined being. He sometimes calls it a noise, a roar, but it also is allied to the perennial silence of infinite space which Pascal talks about. It evokes associations with the ‘nothing’ which other philosophers speak about, but for Levinas the il-y-a is worse, precisely because the anonymous being just goes on infinitely. It is frightening, on the one hand because of its unstoppable character: it is unlimited. But more so by the repugnant indifferent character of the il-y-a, the colossal neutrality of an apalling cosmos. The unlimited aspect evokes disgust, because of the endless continuity, the neutral aspect frightens because of its meaninglessness. Levinas encounters the il-y-a in insomnia.

Already in his book ‘On Escape’ Levinas describes the oppressing experience of being chained to the indifferent being, although he doesn’t call it il-y-a yet. He talks – before Sartre does – about the nausea and the fear which are evoked by that anonymous existence. It makes him look for an escape. Levinas observes that in the course of history all human civilizing efforts were directed to one goal: fighting the wild and depressing il-y-a. Man wants to put the il-y-a at a distance. Whenever possible he will try to procure himself a safe shelter, where he can hide for the cosmic violence. Man starts to regulate and to domesticate. This culminates in the cultivation of his habitat and, at least in the West, in devellopping a rationalistic way of thinking. Man sets out to build houses, riverdams and dikes against the sea. He starts calculating, organizes society and assures his future.

However, observes Levinas, the answer of civilization – articulating the formless being and rationalizing the world – does not suffice as an answer to the meaninglessness of the il-y-a. For, he says, there is the continuous return of the il-y-a, even in two appearances. The original il-y-a, say the primeval il-y-a, manages at times to break through our rational regulations and controls, and because of that unleashed elements like tsunami’s and hurricanes keep threatening us. But apart from that the regulated, insured world brings with it a certain dimness, alienation and loneliness. Those features appear to be inherent to reason and to the high degree of rationality of an organized society. Typical forms of repugnance and disgust belong to it, which nevertheless remind us of the – supposed to be expelled – primeval il-y-a, primarily in the experience of meaninglessness and uneasiness that are allied to a rationalized universe. One could speak of a variety of the primeval il-y-a , I call it the veiled il-y-a.

For one who is familiar with these descriptions by Levinas of the primeval il-y-a on the one hand and the veiled il-y-a on the other, the above photograph is very striking. It shows in a certain way the two spheres next to each other, separated by the Dutch IJsselmeerdam.

The primeval il-y-a, of course, is to be found above the dam, and known as Waddenzee. It radiates the wildness and infinite openness which characterize the il-y-a. The feature of formlessness, which Levinas couples to cosmic forces, does not apply so much to the Waddenzee on this picture. On the contrary, the image shows intensively lightning swipes and shades of color in the water. Because of that it rather approaches the ‘sublime’ as thematized by Romantic poets and thinkers: frightening and mighty, but horribly beautiful.

The veiled il-y-a on the other hand comes to full expression in the enclosed IJsselmeer on the photograph. Safe, domesticated and regulated. But also monotonous, opaque and greyish green, in a certain way made meaningless. Kindred to reallotted landscapes, mirroring officebuildings, strict laborhours, weariness and bureaucracy. Here becomes visible how rationality, on the photograph embodied in the IJsselmeerdam, can become the bearer of the same hurting features which characterized the primeval il-y-a: meaninglessness and indifference.

As said above, the Waddenzee on the picture leaves space for more exciting associations. But in the last resort – as far as Levinas is concerned – a horrifying indifference lies hidden underneath the sublime lightreflections of the Waddenzee and of the rest of the cosmos.

See also Escape

vrijdag 5 september 2008

How naïve is Levinas really?


Quite a few authors consider Levinas as being naïve. They mean by that that he drafted a nice theory on the essence of the human subject as ‘to-be-for-others’, but that he did not treat the question what that looks like in everyday reality.

Mark Dooley, for example, criticizes Levinas because the latter fails to provide concrete suggestions as to how suffering, cruelty and humiliation might be avoided. Because of that omission he calls Levinas politically naïve.

Philosopher Ger Groot in an article compares the work of Levinas with that of Derrida. His conclusion is that the position of the last one is undoubtedly the most realistic because he explicitly gives a place to societal institutions in his analyses.

Columnist Bert Keizer disposes of Levinas in one blow by his characterization of some honest, politically-correct people as figures “who know their Levinas”. Apparently we can speak of exemplary naïvety of the kind that passes into a proverb.

Levinasstudents who have objections against the image of a naïve Levinas sometimes try to defend him by pointing to the role ‘the third’ plays in his work. The absolute obligation which, according to Levinas, man has for the Other is being relativized because apart from the Other there are other others (thirds). To them I have absolute obligations as well, and because of that all obligations become less absolute. Weighing of all obligations against each other finds place in the political and constitutional institutions of a society. Levinas considers their existence of great importance, but he stresses that the original moral obligations are always to a certain extent betrayed by the weighing and the calculation that goes with it.

I have never been impressed very much by this kind of defense of Levinas. For, when it comes to weighing people’s intrests Levinas does not offer us any particular added value. He just sanctions a tradition of social and political philosophy which already for centuries emphasizes the importance of weighing intrests and which concentrated much more on its elaboration than Levinas did. At most Levinas can elucidate whý so much energy and thinking power is invested into that tradition. That is, because the appeal of the Other lies at its base.

Moreover, the bringing up of the third as an argument against naïvety does not remove the adduced objections. For nowhere in his treatment of the third Levinas speaks in really concrete terms (as, by the way, he fails to do in his treatment of the second/the other). So, also with the third, you can keep having the feeling that he is rather vague and doesn’t do justice to social reality. That’s why I think we should not look for the value of Levinas’ writings in the field of social philosophy. For that there are social philosophers and it has never been Levinas’s own intention to practice social philosophy.

His intention wás, actually, to show that everything we invent in the field of the weighing of intrests, never is just good. It originates in something else, namely in the absolute obligation for the other, and that obligation keeps being betrayed by the weighing of intrests. However beneficial the work of our legislators, judges and scientists may be, the selfcomplacency those institutions sometimes display is definitely out of place as far as Levinas is concerned. And the stability and quality of their products have a high illusory degree, when measured to the question how much violence is being done to the original moral obligation.

Levinas’s real contribution, I think, is in his indefatigably emphasizing the illusory character of much of our rationally constructed reality. This seems to me to be a far from naïve, but rather sharply critical position, in which political and other respectable institutions are never just taken for granted. Apart from that Levinas is very conscious of the possibly offensive nature of his position, for he explicitly links this position to the Jewish tradition of prophets and rabbis who cherished the moral voice and by that raised a lot of trouble for themselves.

Levinas knows very well that the message of the Jewish tradition which he brings, does not fit into social reality just like that. He has no illusions about the resistance that established institutes and fierce nations may display when they are confronted with appeals to conscience. Without going into the complexities of those confrontations he realizes that the voice of the Jewish conscience runs the risk of being reduced to “the whispering of a subjective voice, without being mirrorred or sanctioned by an objective order. Jewishness is: humanity on the verge of an ethics without institutions”.

Levinas is familiar with the dangers of that position. The conscience which asks subversive questions, he says, runs the risk to end up suddenly and without being warned in the comfortlessness of its exile, its desert, its ghetto or camp. “Already an icy wind sweeps through the elegant apartments, which rips the paper and paintings from the walls; it extinguishes the lights, makes the walls crack, snatches clothes into pieces and carries along the howling and roaring of merciless crowds. Is this anti-Semitic Word, which does not resemble any other word, an insult like any other insult?”

One may question whether in this passage Jewish tradition and anti-Semitism are not rendered too much reified and essentialized. But one can definitely not say that Levinas thinks too easy about the problem which is at stake. He knows all about it.

To see and not to be seen


Gyges, a mythological figure from Antiquity, happens to find a ring which can make him invisible. From the moment he discovers this possibility he slips down into a attitude of complete immorality. Because now he can follow his bent and get away with it, he doesn’t shy back for anything anymore. He starts cheating people and he ends up raping the queen and murdering the king. Plato, who tells us this story, makes clear that there is an obvious relation between invisibility, shamelessness and moral decline.

Levinas loves this story. He applies it to the process of acquiring scientific knowledge. According to him, that process is characterized by putting the objects of scientific research at a distance and then passing rational judgments on them. In short, it is spying upon the world from a sheltered position: seeing without being seen.

Because of this interpretation of Gyges, Levinas’s evaluation of his actions is, unlike Plato’s evaluation, not just negative. Of course it is not sympathetic to reduce the world to dead material which, via experiments and reasonings, you can manipulate as much as you like. But in a way, according to Levinas, it is unescapable for us to do so: we humans are beings that create representations in our heads, by which we reconstitute the world and thus keep our foothold. And although that mental reconstruction is an illusion, we cannot help doing it. Moreover, says Levinas, the pursuit of objective knowledge is very laudable: it helps us make the world better accessible for each other.

Apart from that, for Levinas – in opposition to Plato and other philosophers as for example Sartre – shame is not only connected with being seen but as much with seeing. And, indeed, one may wonder whether watching without ever being moved, as Gyges apparently could, is possible at all. The manipulator (Gyges) may, be it only for the twinkling of an eye, be touched by the injuries his manipulative violence and objectifying gaze bring about. The accompanying shame comes from within and, by that, is not dependent on the visibility of his deeds. That shame will have a corrective effect on his intercourse with the world.

woensdag 6 augustus 2008

Things and People


Enjoying my holiday in the Dordogne, reading a book, brings me each year again into a contemplative mood. Old churches, the silence of a monasterial garden, a scorching afternoon sun and chirping crickets lead me unavoidably to meditative atmospheres.

In this attentive presence in the world around me I should look – that’s what my book tells me – for the ultimate assurance against the thoughtless hurrying and activism which haunt our lives.

But why then is this contemplative tradition slowly disappearing from our Western culture? And does that disappearance say something about its credibility for our time? Could it perhaps be that the values of the vita contemplativa are not as timeless as they want to appear? Or should we, very pedantically, say that people nowadays do not know anymore what is important?

In my opinion contemplativity contains an important manco: it is, in first instance, not interested in people. It does, to be sure, engage into relationships, but primarily so with things and only in second instance with other people. Certainly the Christian tradition, in which contemplation plays a main role, knows also a social philosophy. But this social philosophy is emphatically placed at the second level, behind the contemplative attention for creation as a whole of divinely created things. That’s why this attention is called prima philosophia: the first philosophy, which is significant enough.

The book I read situates itself clearly within this tradition. It attributes a fundamental role to contemplativity for reflection on a world that gets stuck in its vita activa. It suggests that we perhaps could escape the coupling of technocratic observation and acting “just by reflection on that connection and thus to dwell with an emptied mind upon the things themselves”. In this thought the author is supported by Heidegger and Nietzsche.

Honestly, I think that the spirituality of the monastery doesn’t fit us anymore.
The problem is not so much that that spirituality is too much withdrawn from the world and does not engage with it. For that withdrawal is rather relative. The contribution to society of the early monks by way of bringing waste land under cultivation was enormous. They worked actively in the care for the sick and the poor. And the accumulation of wealth in the monasteries and later by the ascetic-protestant capitalism made the economy flower.

The actual difficulty is that that spirituality, in line with the definition of contemplativity as prima philosophia, proceeds primarily via things. The dwelling upon creation and things belongs to the heart of the vita contemplativa. Paradoxically enough this stilled attention for things is best expressed in the frugal soberness of Cistercian monasteries. There buildings and objects have been reduced to their essential simplicity.

But exactly that primary attention for things does not suffice anymore. It suffices most of all in a world which lies at your feet to be cultivated. But our world ís cultivated, people are being overloaded with things. Now it are relations which count, communication is primary. In such a situation a spirituality of things is less appropriate than a spirituality of human relations.

One could say, with Levinas, that our conception of prima philosophia should be revised. According to him not the attention for the essence of things is fundamental but reflection on the ethical relation.

But rather I would let go the whole idea that there is a more and a less fundamental philosophy. The first person (where contemplativity departs) and the third person (the source of ethical transcendence) alternate continually as the central focus for human beings. By placing them on an equal level we keep space for surprises. And at the same time we dump a bit more of our hierarchies.

See also Order

woensdag 11 juni 2008

What makes Sammy run?


It’s in to listen to your workers. To try to reach their inner motivation, for then people will get really engaged. By doing so you create cultural controls and these are more effective and cheaper than other kinds of control.

Roy Jacques reproaches those who adhere to this vision that their intrest in their workers is instrumental and does not really stem from real concern for them. Perhaps it has to be that way because as a manager you operate within limiting conditions like the targetted return on investment, the quality of products, the need for managementcontrol and the income-dependency of the workers. All those conditions limit the space workers can get or dare to take.

But given those restrictions it’s good to know you cannot just in a non-committing way talk of inner motivation and engagement. Because this rhetoric has its own dynamics.

When you promise somebody that he will be listened to and that his voice will count, then at a certain moment he will not be content anymore with a small present, a bit of empowerment and so-called participation. He will unmask the windowdressing and if behind the surface he doesn’t find any real concern he will turn cynical. The nice management will be experienced as hypocritical.

When indeed the managerial intrest is conditional and instrumental it is also dubious whether you can ever get to know at all what motivates your workers. This in spite of the huge research efforts labor-psychologists and motivation-economists invest in the field. Could it possibly be that we not even know 10 percent of what people consider as ‘nice work’? Wouldn’t that be plain logic as long as managers and controllers, be it right or not, stick to a number of unnegotiable conditions such as return on investment and control?

If you really would let people speak for themselves, the outcome could very well be unwelcome to management. That’s to be learned from a newspaper article about a unique situation where one of the usual limiting conditions was not met. The subject was the – for the greater part voluntary – Dutch fire-brigades where the interesting combination exists of serious management and income-independency of many workers.

The paper reported that the Minister of the Interior wants the fire-brigades to regionalize. That means that local corpses are going to be encapsulated in regional corpses, because of the scale advantages and possibilities for more effective actions in case of calamities and crises. The idea is that volunteers from small communities after the regionalisation can be deployed in other communities within the region. Many volunteers reject this plan because they volunteered as firemen to combat fire in their own town or village. A big number of them now threatens to quit the fire-brigades. As 22.000 out of the 27.000 firefighters are volunteers this can have major impact on fire safety in Holland.

This story offers, for who wants to see it, a glimpse into the soul of organizational workers. Serious management apparently asks for scaling up, nice work for the opposite. Probably this will be the case not only with the fire-brigades but also in healthcare and educational organizations. Managers, controllers and labor-psychologists can take advantage from this insight, when they are really intrested in worker welfare. If not, sooner or later, fysically or mentally, Sammy just runs away.

vrijdag 30 mei 2008

Levinas and May '68


With the fact that the other, my neighbour, is also the third in relation to another, neighbour in his turn, thinking, consciousness, justice and philosophy come into being.

It must have been Levinas’ confrontations with politics that brought him to such an appreciation of the institutionalized crystallizations of thought. First of all the experience of the Russian Revolution which in 1917 he witnessed in the Ukraine. But most of all his fate as a Jew during the Second World War is important. It was brought home to him what it means when the constitutional state cannot garantee anymore the rights of its members and one is delivered to rightlessness.

If you so much cherishes the institutions of the constitutional state – political authority, jurisdiction, universities – what will you do when, as a professor, you are being confronted with revolting students? That’s what happened to Levinas when in 1968 he gave his lectures on Hegel for beginners and Husserl for advanced students in Nanterre.

What did he do? He kept out of it as much as possible. He did not disapprove of the events openly, for he found enough heart-warming messianism in the marxist slogans. But he did not want to play any role in the protests, in contrast to for example his collegue Ricoeur. He fled the riots: when the university was open he would accurately give his lectures and when not he would not be around.

He actually was overtly indignant at the lack of respect for authority and about the use of violence. One could see him walk with firm steps through the university corridors, grumbling about the teared curtains and the graffittied walls. In those scenes he appeared as the authority-abiding personality he used to be, attached to hierarchy and order. Which will have had to do not just with his political experiences but also with his character.

But on a deeper level he must have recognized the totalitarian tendencies that took the marxist students in its grip. Already for decennia the danger of totalitarianism was one of Levinas’ themes. And as early he had been in pointing out that danger in the bourgois societies of the thirties, as alert he was in discovering it with the rebellious students. So he writes:

In the flashing outbursts at certain privileged moments in 1968 – which were soon extinguished by exactly the same conformistic use of language and the same rubbish as they were supposed to replace – being young consisted in rebelling against a world that others dismissed already for a long time.

Also Levinas had his critical and angry moods. But things had to remain intact.

zaterdag 24 mei 2008

The Same and the Other


The same and the other can not enter into a cognition that would encompass them.

And another one:
Metaphysics, transcendence, the welcoming of the other by the same, of the Other by me, is concretely produced as the calling into question of the same by the other, that is, as the ethics that accomplishes the critical essence of knowledge.

Could it be more abstract?
Yes, with Levinas it can sound much more abstract. But nicer is to point to a scientific report that all of a sudden concretizes what Levinas describes. On the basis of that report it appears that Levinas managed to use age-old concepts, stemming from Plato, for expressing an insight which a scientific experiment can elucidate now in understandable terms.

The experiment that was reported about was neurologic and it showed that the braincells with which we think about ourselves are the same as those we use to think about people who resemble us. About people who do not resemble us we think with another part of the brain.

So it becomes clear that refractory Platonic terms as The Same and The Other reappear in an acceptable way in neurological surveys. Even at the level of the grammatical forms that are being used. It can look like being unnecessarily abstract when Levinas speaks about The Same and The Other in stead of about the Self and the Other.

But with a better look, this is exactly what happens in the report of the experiment. The crucial distinction we can make here doesn’t lie primarily between my self and the other, but between me and the people who resemble me – so: the same – on the one hand, and the rest – the other – on the other hand. So it’s exactly the most abstract wording which connects with the neurological experiment.

This is interesting in itself. But apart from that it has consequences for the way in which we interpret Levinas. The findings offer support for an interpretation of the Other as referring certainly not to each other person. For to the group of all other persons belong people who feel as likes. Rather the Other refers to others who, at a certain moment, feel as truly different. So, they form a selection from within the group of all others.

I want to add that also the confrontation with those other others does not always produce the encounter with the Other that Levinas discusses. This remains unpredictable.

maandag 19 mei 2008

Harder than postmodern


Quite often you can hear people say that postmodern thinkers (e.g. Derrida or Lyotard) are hard to understand. Derrida uses difficult terms such as Deconstruction and Aporia and Lyotard speaks about Le Différend and The Sublime.

But it’s not just the terms that are difficult. Probably a much bigger problem is that so little remains to give your thinking a firm grip. God was dead already, now follow traditional artistic and cultural values, societal orderings and linguistic meanings.

Yet something exists that is still harder than Postmodernism. For, however difficult it may be, Postmodernism still knows the comfort of an iron logic. The tendency to generalize and universalize, which is a feature of reason and is active in Modernism, remains at work in Postmodernism. And may even be stretched in Postmodernism to its most radical form. This could appear from popularized postmodernistic sayings like: “Everything is relative” (mind the word “everything”); “Nobody is himself” or “Grand stories don’t exist anymore” (mind the words “no” and “not anymore”); “Strictly speaking everybody has some belief” (mind the words “strictly speaking” and “everybody”).

Such statements still feel like conclusions which are inescapable for a properly reasoning brain. And that feels familiar for it’s to that kind of arguments we, since Descartes, got attached to.

Only then it becomes really hard for us when a philosopher says: at times it’s such, then again it’s so. For instance: there is a leading principle, but sometimes it’s gone or there are two of them. Or: hierarchy in values exist, but not always. Such a philosopher doesn’t take philosophy seriously.

Yet that’s what you can find with Levinas, that’s to say the Levinas from the early and middle periods. In Totality and Infinity for example, he manages to present complete human autonomy as the startingpoint for his description of the world; to show then how this autonomy is being turned upside down by the appearance of another human being; to claim thereupon that that encounter is “more fundamental” than the original autonomy was (so: heteronomy); and finally to make autonomy leading again until the next confrontation takes place.

Here we cannot speak anymore of radical thinking, if indeed we mean by that the consistently pushing through to an ultimate ground or fundamental. Here is being obsérved and done justice to a certain phenomenon, namely: that there is a certain order the fundamentals of which are surely valid, e.g. autonomy; but that, sometimes, once of a sudden a phenomenon appears which is at right angles with autonomy, such as another person by whom I am touched and who commands me (heteronomy). Not always, not with every other, but: sometimes.

Faced with something like this our reasoning breaks apart. If a fundamental is sometimes valid and sometime it’s not, it already is no fundamental anymore. Yet I think Levinas gives an adequate description here of a phenomenon which – sometimes, with some people – just occurs: to be touched by the Other.

It is true also Levinas, notably the late Levinas, has given in to the tempation of universal, generalizing statements, with many Levinas readers in his wake. That’s how we got sayings like “The experience of the other is always more original than the experience of the self” (mind the word “always”) or “Permanent responsibility is the deep structure of the subject” (mind the words “permanent” and “deep structure”).

It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the late Levinas has been caught into the trap he, certainly at the beginnings of his career, so ardently tried to avoid: the trap of the always and everywhere, of the categorical and the essentialism. It is a bit of a disgrace.


Also see Levinas and Rousseau