woensdag 22 oktober 2008


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.