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.