woensdag 31 december 2008


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