donderdag 24 december 2009

That makes sense

That makes sense, I thought, when a headline reported that Moscow and the Vatican want to strengthen their mutual relationship. Because, when I read that, I took 'Moscow' as a reference to the ‘Russian soul’. And that soul stands for mystical experience and not for a political or diplomatic authority. With that interpretation, I was not too far wrong, as the message appeared to be about a rapprochement between the Russian Orthodox Church - the guardian of that soul - and the Roman Catholic Church.

Indeed, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church have a lot in common. They both cherish warm music and a sheltering mysticism. This is no wonder, because their cultures both stem from a time when reason was not yet as almighty as she was from the seventeenth century. They survived the blow that rational thinking has struck and which made Protestantism feel so cold and scanty. That shared ancient warmth makes the liturgies of Rome and Moscow very enjoyable and their mystique - whatever it is worth - so real. Probably they recognize and appreciate this in one another.

In addition, they both are not very fond of enlightenment and democracy. In Russia, they are surprisingly open about that. Many nationalists, including Solzhenitsyn, believe that the autonomy of the individual clashes with the mystical experience of the unity of God and country in Russia. And according to the Russian philosopher Alexandr Tsipko the Russians don’t connect very well to liberal ideas.

The Catholic Church is not equally open about this, because nowadays this church is rooted too much in modern Western society. In some countries she even has benefited a lot from modern liberal views on religious freedom. In the Netherlands for instance that made possible the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1853.

Nevertheless in my estimation lay participation and democracy are not in the DNA of the Catholic Church, the real match is lacking. The church is not strongly opposed to them, and certainly has an eye for the blessings that democracy and the constitutional state entailed. But she does not get really enthousiastic about it. The relationship rather resembles a marriage of convenience.

Also of that the Netherlands offer a good illustration. Because from the moment that in the sixties the experiments started with influence from below, with a more understandable liturgy and a place for women and lay-folk, it went downhill with the church. The national, broad Dutch folk church seems not to survive its internal democratization. What remains are the more conservative Catholic groups. These are small, but vital. The real Catholicism, it appears, is strongly tied to hierarchy and classical piety, in a traditional style. Exactly as archbishop Eijk would have it.

This strengthens my preference for a tradition with which democratic thought and shrewd reasoning are in the genes, combined with warm music and ancient rites.

dinsdag 1 december 2009


The British sociologist Frank Furedi was in Holland lately and he spoke and wrote about authority. But his line of thought was not really clear to me, neither during his Thomas More-lecture, nor in his NRC-article.

The tenor of his contributions is mostly bleak. Furedi gets pessimistic about the fact that society today has lost something it cannot miss, namely authority. No society can survive without the presence of authoritative institutions, a form of collective authority is required. Once that authority existed in the shape of the self-confidence of professionals - teachers, judges, scientists and doctors - and the confidence that the population as a whole had in those professionals. That was something a society could build upon. Such firmness is wanting nowadays. Professionals no longer believe in themselves, they prefer to hide behind procedures and 'experts'. And people no longer trust the professionals. Hence the proliferation of rules and procedures. Those should fill the authority vacuum, but actually tend to undermine authority only further.

But at the same time Furedi points out that those expert advices have only a shaky reputation. This is apparent "from the continuously fierce debates on subjects like education, health, lifestyle". Many citizens have an aversion against the exagagerated rules and the procedural society. They prefer to believe in themselves. It is true that this causes erosion of traditional authority but if – in line with Furedi's own formulation - authority has to do with belief in yourself, then that civil empowerment may be seen as a new form of authority. Indeed, should not this observation make Furedi a bit more optimistic?

I feel encouraged in that last thought because of the fuss surrounding the Dutch vaccination campaign against the Mexican flu. According to the pessimistic view that campaign does not proceed well. There is cause for concern because the Ministry and the medical profession don’t succeed in getting large groups of people to be injected. They don’t have enough authority.

But authority, defined as the radiation of faith in yourself and getting the respect for it, is present indeed. The person who refuses injection can be considered as the self-conscious person who rejects the patronizing society and overdone legislation which Furedi detests so much. He believes in himself and from that standpoint arrives at relativizing the rules.

And our national vaccination doctor, Mr. Coutinho, and his colleagues believe in themselves no less. They stand for the message they bring and they don’t blame failing communication strategies or stupid citizens for the lack of response. From that perspective, they are no less authoritative than are the refusers. Indeed, there almost is a surplus of authority, at least when you describe authority as ‘to stand for what you believe in’.

What is clearly lacking, especially compared to earlier times, is authority in the sense of control over society as a whole. Like something which a complete collective listens to. If Furedi wants to stick to that idea of authority - he almost approvingly cites Odysseus and Plato when they argue for collective authority under a single leader - he has reason to be pessimistic. But the question is whether that’s not an outdated idea. Until halfway modernity nation states could keep themselves going with that, at the national level citizens rallied behind their leaders. That does not work any longer.

Thijs Jansen and Loet Leydesdorff (in the newspaper Trouw) think we have reached the situation that no longer the entire population of a country can be convinced of the use of for instance such a vaccination campaign. At its best that may succeed in small, overseeable communities. Differences of insight will, thanks to scientific progress, remain with us. Indeed, they say, the awareness has been firmly established that knowledge is often only provisional. In former days people were not affected by that thought.

I want to add yet another factor, that has nothing to do with science or (post-) modernity. That factor is as old as the world and consists in the possibility people have to just say No. It has been frequently shown that the contents of an actual issue is completely irrelevant when it comes to such a refusal. It may even be that people agree with the contents of a plan and still refuse to accept it. Simply because someone else created it and thought in your stead.

Also see Parrhesia

maandag 23 november 2009

A single sentence

The magic of reason may be enchanting. And its power is perhaps the most palpable when we indulge to the spell of a clear, closed, logical argument, set up by ourselves or by someone else. We then sense its charm, until we encounter somewhere, half hidden, a subversive, uncomfortable little sentence. To the effect that the whole idea we were cherishing runs empty like a punctured balloon.

It often are short sentences that bring about such an effect, mostly of a somewhat hesitant and shy nature.

The economist Keynes was the author of one such short, but deadly phrase, in a remark he made with regard to he story of classical economics. This story, told since the nineteenth century by economic philosophers and eagerly embraced by practicing economists, is a prime example of a closed, rational argument. The argument boils down to the idea that an economic system always automatically moves to balance. Crises may occur, but are easily explained as caused by an inefficient supply of commodities. For in the classical theory savings somehow always find a destination when the price of goods is correct. It may take some time, but equilibrium will naturally arise again. And then suddenly Keynes comes in and says: people and institutions can simply, regardless of prices, stop investing and consuming, for example because they are uncertain. That’s puzzling perhaps, but consumers can say ‘no’ indeed. And gone is the security of the closed model.

A similar sudden transition from certainty to uncertainty occurs in the article about the economic crisis which Frank Ankersmit recently presented in a Dutch paper. As a reader you are carried along by his presentation of the models designed during the economic-financial hype. You feel the reassurance which flows from the idea that in those models all variables are identified: future returns, risks and impact of those risks on the future returns. But then suddenly he says: “There is always the possibility that a significant variable was excluded”. Such a sentence is devastating, because it abruptly destroys the absolute certainty. Indeed, if one stone falters, the entire edifice may collapse. And that’s what happened.

In philosophy also all-encompassing ideas have often been embraced. For example the idea that all people ‘essentially’ are the same, and that any ethics should depart from that idea. But what, the philosopher Hillary Putnam asks, if sometimes someone believes that some others are not 'really' the same? That opens, he says, the door to a holocaust. And gone is the argument, gone ethics, because of that one sentence. The supposed, and sought universality has suddenly disappeared, arbitrariness immediately creeps into the story. Our grip is gone.

One may get sad because our logical stories often prove to be unsustainable. But is it a solution then, to do what the Charter for Compassion did recently, namely to emphasize once more the intent to treat “everyone, without exception, with absolute dignity, fairness and respect”? Or is, in fact, such a statement totalitarian? And can it actually have any other effect than fueling cynicism, and thus endangering all ethics, because the professed intent is simply impossible?

It is the merit of Levinas, amongst others, to have pointed out that those disturbing little phrases may also be interpreted in a positive way. They break through the totalitarian nature which our ideas soon adopt when they are allowed to move ahead undisturbedly.

donderdag 19 november 2009

Very incorrect

I cannot help it, but it somehow cheers me up. Those Zaan-style baroque façades, stacked up high in the air as the decoration of new buildings erected in the center of Zaandam. They are part of the plan by architect Sjoerd Soeters for a new urban center around the railwaystation.

I am very much aware of the aesthetical incorrectness of my cheerfulness. As sociologist Abram de Swaan recently stated, since the beginning of the twentieth century we live under the regime of functionalist building. For social and technical reasons (the need and possibility of mass construction) we banned decorations on and in buildings and we focused on a new standard. The construction had to be shown and the function had to be clarified by the form. Thus, the naked truth comes to the surface.

Indeed, this standard can work out in an aesthetically very satisfactory way. It is undeniably true that the functional focus produces its own beauty. Plenty of buildings from this school are very enjoyable, such as works by Mies van der Rohe or Frank Lloyd Wright.

But at the same time that immaculate functionality has something brusque over it. And in response to that, a desire for ornament and decoration comes up again. De Swaan notes that such is true for instance for many Turkish and Moroccan, Surinamese and Antillean Dutch. They install themselves in our straight, unadorned houses, but as soon as they get the opportunity, they put in some arches in the hall or they plaster the living room with profiles. Into that trend now join the Zaandammers with colored collages of Dutch gables.

The risk to end up in full scale kitsch is obviously big, and I am, despite my cheerfulness, not quite convinced that in Zaandam that is not going to happen. But, as Joep Schrijvers recently said, it is brutal, and over the top. Whatever the effect will be, they dare.

In that risky jump there is more at stake than just nostalgic longing for the past. There is also a kind of resistance against the modernist taste dictate. Because while one may enjoy the functional clarity thereof, its cerebral nature causes alienation. It can, in its ruthless austerity, a totalitarian character. The urban visionary Charles Landry was in Amsterdam recently and told that, if you want to create connectedness with a place, senses and emotions must be allowed to compete with technical and functional qualities. If necessary beyond the point of functionality.

vrijdag 16 oktober 2009


The Rotterdam municipality and the Erasmus University decided last month to dismiss Tariq Ramadan from his function as bridge-builder between immigrant (especially Islamic) and indigenous people. The reason for the dismissal was doubt whether Ramadan distantiated himself clearly enough from repressive Islamic regimes and practices, particularly in Iran. The fuss that subsequently arose over the dismissal of Ramadan, raised the question what should be considered the best approach if you want to build bridges in Rotterdam.

With regard to this question I heard MP Alexander Pechtold say that in Rotterdam from the beginning the wrong path was followed by appointing a religious person like Ramadan. According to Pechtold such a person can, because of all the dogmas to which he is tied, by definition not be a bridgebuilder.

But, with all respect to Pechtold (and I appreciate him greatly), I find this view very modernist at its narrowest. It testifies to the deep desire for reasonableness and nothing but reasonableness, but it completely ignores the fact that religious passions are strong and in many conflicts play a major role. And that religion itself wants to be taken seriously. So I think you miss opportunities if you leave religion out.

In his contribution to the debate college professor Yoessef Azghari indeed gives due honour to religion. He believes that, for the function of bridge-builder you need a liberal-minded Muslim. In any case, someone who takes religion seriously, but also has an open mind and strives for innovation. He must not engage in missionary work.

But I think this is a tricky advice. Implementation would mean that the government chooses position in religious matters. The state would determine what is the right content of a religion. I don't think that's going to work either.

Academics from the Erasmus University state in a letter to the editor of newspaper NRC hat we throw the academic tradition of freedom of thought and speech for a scramble by showing the door to an intellectual of Ramadan's calibre. I must say, that argument appeals to me. Academic debate and tolerance belong to the crown jewels of our culture, and besides: Ramadan is undeniably at home in the Western tradition. Nietzsche was the subject of his PhD, he speaks well articulated English and French and knows how to behave in academic circles. If, on top of all that, he also is familiar from within with Islam and can speak clearly about is, what more could you want? Whoever rejects that betrays the best of the Western academic tradition.

But one might wonder whether these academics rely perhaps too much on appearances. Indeed, how much discussion really takes place with Ramadan? How much discussion can take place at all, if he is the only real from-within-expert around? I'm afraid the indignant academics forget that in order to have the debate they have in mind, there have to be conflicting opinions. Indeed, they themselves do not always agree with Ramadan, but a truly academic reply to him is not to be found in this most learned company. Because in those circles only Ramadan knows what he is talking about.

Elaborating on this point I would say: stay within the realm of the religion, continue Ramadan's appointment, and appoint one more expert next to him, with as much knowledge of Islam, but with a totally different view on it. Or better yet, several of such persons. So, Muslims, for instance of the opinion of Azghari. Because then you can get the real debate which is so sorely missed at the moment. Namely, a discussion among Muslims themselves, if need held in Oxford English.

And we? We just listen.

zondag 4 oktober 2009

Easy talking

Flying should be made much more expensive, that’s what I sometimes say. And why do not more people travel by train?

But yes, it’s easy enough for me to talk like that. Because I do not like to spend my holidays in Asia and I hate driving. I prefer skating to skiing and I think meat is tasty, but mushrooms and nuts are not less so.

Is there anything fundamentally wrong then with the love for distant journeys and expensive or less expensive cars? On the contrary, it can be enriching to travel. It can broaden your horizons, and it can confront you with different lifestyles and habits and thus help you bring your own axioms into perspective. Cars anyway extend our mobility and opportunities.

It is undeniably true that a lot of people do not achieve that enrichment, because they especially look for the sun and for their own national holiday colony. But for some people the desire to culturally look beyond their noses is authentic indeed. Is there any objection to make against it? And then, should people be discouraged to fly?

Is there something inherently better to my preferences, except that the environment would benefit? I do not think I could defend such a statement. Man apparently has been created as a curious creature and if that leads to a collision with the rest of creation, then we must conclude there is a flaw in that creation. There is little we can do to that.

Yet, another question keeps hanging. To what extent are we driven by boredom? Do perhaps the monotony of our lives or an intense feeling of futility make us visit all corners of the world? When Awee Prins in his book Uit verveling talks about the dissatisfacted saturation and despondency of the nineteenth century Russian bourgeoisie, he notes: "A constantly tried, but never healing medicine for those bored people is: travel".

And the question that comes next: is that – the boredom – also a flaw of creation? Is boredom – in an ordered society – unavoidable and inescapable? Or does creation give us opportunities to escape? Not by flying to Asia, but through the confrontation with some surprises at home, at work, on the street?

Levinas thinks so indeed.

donderdag 10 september 2009

Sartre, Levinas and the Café

The café was Sartre’s habitat. That’s where he worked and observed his fellow Parisians. There he arrived at his ideas and it offered a décor for illustrations of his ideas.

Levinas didn’t like café’s. He has never been caught sitting at a terrace and he describes the café rather severely and denoting as “an open house, at streetlevel; the place of the comfortable living together, without mutual responsibility. People don’t come there to do something, they sit down without being tired, they drink without being thirsty”.

This opposition between Sartre and Levinas does not need to surprise us very much, because a lot of their other ideas are also opposed to oneanother. That applies for instance to the human gaze which for Sartre is the vehicle of domination over other people and for Levinas of being touched by another person. Or to the embracement by Sartre of totalitarian systems, while Levinas does not get tired of warning against totalitarianism.

The remarkable thing is that the inspiration for the thinking of both of them originates from the same spring, namely the philosophy of Edmund Husserl. This philosophy aspired to taking seriously concrete experiences and concrete meanings within thinking.

Funny enough Sartre’s acquaintance with Husserl at the beginning of the thirties took place in a café. His friend Raymond Aron directed his attention to a glass on the bar and told him that the German philosopher Husserl could talk about that glass in such a way that it became philosophy. That appealed to Sartre immediately. For him things, in their impenetrability, constitute the biggest concreteness. So, that’s what philosophy should be about. All objects then become interesting, also those in a café. That in the café (in Paris anyway) also people become impenetrable exteriority can make the café only more interesting for him.

Levinas has no business there. He too is, in Husserl’s footsteps, searching for the concrete. But the most concrete for him is: being affected by others; that means most for him. But precisely that is what does not happen in Sartre’s café. Because in the Parisian café prevails what some call an atmosphere of purposelessness and aggressive individualism. Levinas somewhere calls it a non-place for a non-sociality, for a society without solidarity, a community of mere diverting play.

I must acknowledge that this characterization of the Parisian café is a bit new for me. Until now I had a somewhat more romantic image of the catering industry in the Quartier Latin in the forties and fifties. Of terraces and cellars and café’s where people until late night were engaged in talking and where intense, intellectual encounters took place.

So that’s not how it was, but that could have been more Levinas’ taste. Perhaps he should have tried – at least for a more homey atmosphere – an Amsterdam bruin café.

zaterdag 15 augustus 2009


The idea, borrowed from Adam Smith, seemed to be so comfortable. Namely, that if only everybody takes good care of himself, society as a whole will also flourish. And that this is so thanks to the mysterious mechanism of the market – Smiths’ ‘Invisible Hand’ – which warrants the harmony between private and public interests. In other words, do not feel inhibited in your aspiration to self-enrichment because you are fully morally justified, it's almost social work! So let the adrenalin flow, that is being generated by the concern for your private interests.

But, says the French philosopher Jean-Claude Milner, there is no invisible hand and that awareness has been firmly drummed into our heads again by the financial crisis. It showed us clear enough how the hunt for personal gain is not necessarily running harmoniously parallel with the intrests of society. Rather, society was about to collapse for a moment and we still do not know what we will end up with. So, the idea of an easy harmony through the invisible hand is actually a piece of self-deception. If you are honest about it there is something fishy to that source of adrenalin.

But where to get your adrenalin from then?

The Dutch columnist Johan Schaberg recently wondered whether business does not know any other motives for action beyond greed. He notes, based on interviews with other Cor Herkströter (Shell) and Frits Goldschmeding (Randstad), somewhat reassured, that money, options and bonuses with these executives don’t play a significant role as motives. But, he wonders, why do they tell this only at the end of their career? And why did they in their working lives uncritically do what the entire stock market quotated business community does: rely heavily on bonuses?

Schaberg finds more convincing examples of engagement of business with public interests further back in the past. In the thirties a number of left-liberal Rotterdam businessmen united in the Woodbroker House. There they spoke about their own responsibility towards society and they studied leftist ideological models that could bring improvement.

But in the thirties, before the bankruptcy of communism and the problems of the welfare state became apparent, faith in such models was easier to bring up than it is today. Schaberg therefore somewhat sadly notes that this kind of social involvement is hardly around in the current generations. And that this is dangerous because a society does not remain healthy just like that.

So, is there nothing to believe in anymore?
I am afraid that the great ideological narratives lost much of their stimulating power indeed, and to them I reckon the Invisible Hand and the idealism of the thirties. If there is something I believe in, it is that sometimes, now and then, one person is really dedicated to another, and not just in romantic love. Something small indeed, but yet something which can make our ordinary life exciting for a while and which can give color to our work. That creates its own adrenalin. The condition for this to happen is of course that a normal life is possible. Thus, that there are good societal institutions: democracy, good governance and fair justice.

The problem is now, says Milner, that capitalism does not seem to care any longer about those societal institutions. Perhaps because the efforts to carefully maintain them are too prosaic and generate too little adrenalin. The feverish capitalism only wants big shots of adrenalin. It does not bother any longer about the question of where the rules come from. If only there are rules, then the most aggressive will manage to wrench money out of it. According to Milner that’s a really dangerous situaton indeed. He therefore believes that we cannot enough cherish our constitutional achievements. Let us spend our thinking power also on that and not just on earning money.

dinsdag 11 augustus 2009


It is fairly common in the Western tradition to consider the vita activa and the vita contemplativa as two ultimate, opposing poles of the human world. In this scheme vita activa stands for the outgoing movement of man who enters the world for exploitation and conquest and vita contemplativa for the inward movement of the one who contemplates the world in his mind.

But the question is whether those two poles are really that far away from one another. Are they not two sides of the same coin indeed? This coin, then, is called: order or fascination for order.

Take for example the role played by the Benedictine monks over the centuries in Western Europe. With them the experience of order (vita contemplativa) and establishing order (vita activa) appear to lie in one line. And in saying so I am not primarily referring to the requirement of the Rule of Benedict that the monks should divide their time over prayer, study and manual work. Because by this work seems to be meant above all craft or agricultural work, which fits neatly within an ordered whole. It reinforces contemplation rather than that it imposes order onto the world.

No, by saying so I refer to a phenomenon that you may experience when you, being a Dutch tourist, travel to southern France and back again. You can observe then, that the Benedictine civilizators in those different regions were active in completely different fields.

In southern France, the focus was on agricultural and craft work indeed, and on the copying of sacred books. Work, thus, with a rather strong contemplative character.

In the Netherlands, on the contrary, the monks for a large part were concerned with the struggle against the water. The Benedictines of Egmond for example built dikes and conquered land from the sea. That seems to me to belong pre-eminently to the category of ‘conquering order out of chaos’, and thereby to the vita activa.

But all those monks in southern France and in Holland belonged to the same congregation with the same rule. Guarding and nurturing order, on which the focus was in the Christian heartland France, could therefore seamlessly shift to the establishing of order in the peripheral regions. It is not for nothing that modern managementauthors discovered the Benedictine practices as a model for management: the fascination for order penetrates deep into the earthly world and has exploitative power there.

Thus, in Christianity vita activa and vita contemplativa are not the pair of ultimate opposites that they are often considered to be. There is a connecting element between the two. Namely, the idea that there is a deeper, indeed objective, holy order in the world. That order manifests itself in the depth of study and prayer, but is also reflected in the orderliness of dry and safe plots of land. Anyway, order of the last kind is a condition for the contemplation of the order on a deeper level and thus the vita activa is related to the vita contemplativa.

If vita activa and vita contemplativa are no longer the prototypical pair of opposing poles, because they are both motivated by the motive of order, there would arise a new field of poles. Then the ultimate opposition would rather come to be found between what is within order and what breaks order because it is outside.

See also Things and People

dinsdag 7 juli 2009

Don't trust the cold intellect

In philosophy they produce sharpwitted but deadly pale polemics and above all a great self-complacency. In ICT they are recognizable as uncommunicative nerds. In the financial world they endlessly invent models and cause a credit crisis.

I refer to a type of person that can be described as consistently rational, showy acute but without an eye for, or in any case without any concern for the surrounding world. That’s the way this type of person is being portrayed by the Dutch columnist Schaberg.

Schaberg adds a warning to his portrayal, as far as the avid whizz kids are concerned in their suits and with their taste for expensive cars. Because they saddled the world with billions of losses and with an economic crisis, but stand ready again behind the scenes, waiting to resume the aborted game. Indeed, maybe it is not so smart for these guys to be called ‘smart’?

I think real brightness looks differently. Real brains respect the environment, recognize that invented linear calculationmodels do not reflect the complexity of human society. Indeed, really smart it is to view the pretensions of the clever rational thought with great suspicion.

Maybe that’s too difficult for economists. Anyway, that’s what suggests Frank Ankersmit. He argues that the economy time and again surrenders to simplifying rationality which narrows reality. Therefore the economy will keep running into deadlocks and will continue to be thrown back on the interference of government and politics.

But is it too difficult for us, the onlookers, as well? I think we, the public, certainly can pull some weight against the new generation of greedy whizzkids which Schaberg sees waiting ready to strike again. What we need to do is: not to be impressed by their cleverness. We cannot cure them of their greediness, that’s just too human. But greediness disguised as cleverness can be stopped, I think, if only the public no longer falls for it. Therefore, let us gape a bit less in admiration at the dizzying model-thinking, because it is bloodless and hollow. And instead nurture the awareness that society is something vulnerable and complex. Indeed, that’s complicated enough already.

maandag 29 juni 2009


Why are Jews so annoying? That’s to say, according to the Romans and early Christians? And also according to Mohammed and the later Christians and Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau?

The Dutch columnist Afshin Ellian explains the phenomenon for Christianity and Islam. Both religions, he says, claim universal validity. Jesus came, according to Christian doctrine, for all people and Islam pretends to know the truth for everybody.

Obviously these two universalist claims collide, for because each of them claims totality, they exclude one another. But at least they have in common that they believe in a truth that applies to everyone. Therefore a more fundamental confrontation for both religions is the encounter with a movement that does not believe in one and the same truth for everyone. And which in any case refuses to give up its own particularist faith in favor of universality. Indeed, that is really offensive, because general validity of any color is supposed to offer guidance. Whoever questions that principle really goes too far.

But that is exactly what the Jews have done for centuries. They viewed the joyful message of the Gospel with skepticism and refused it as they saw little redemption in the world around them. For an ideology, like Christianity, which derives its strength precisely from the general validity of its message, this is an insult.

The same happened with the truth that Mohammed brought. Regarding that message the Jews said: this is not our truth. But you cannot say that just like that to an ideology that would apply to everyone, because then you're a game breaker. You will arouse aversion and annoyance.

The bad luck - or stupidity? - of the Jews is that they demanded for themselves the right to freedom of expression at times in history that you better would not do so yet. To say no to universalist pretensions is very dangerous if you are not protected by human rights. And that’s what was showed in history. You may as well admire the Jews for it.

The problem is that universalist pretensions did not become less as Christianity lost its influence. As mentioned above, also Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau were disturbed by the Jews’ cherishing of their own traditions. And this has everything to do with the universal values that Reason, as the successor of Christianity, propagated. They don’t leave space for deviant peoples, religions or cultures, because these disrupt the universalist party.

According to Ellian, Christianity and Islam could not do – because of their universal claims – without the invalidation and demonization of Jews and Judaism. With as a result a spiral of repression and fear, violence and counter violence of which one can only hope it will once come to an end.

The pathology, resulting from the violence and fear, has largely overgrown the commitment that was originally at stake. But - historically spoken - that commitment can be indicated indeed. It was the commitment to the freedom of expression, even without being protected for that. Maybe that’s still the issue.

See also Enthusiasm

maandag 8 juni 2009

Taylor, Levinas and Emptiness

Last month Dutch papers payed a lot of attention to the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, because of the appearance of the Dutch translation of his book A Secular Age. In that book Taylor explains how the emptying of the churches in the West originates from the teachings those churches offered their members. In the papers’ articles he explains his views.

It is remarkable, after reading those articles, how many parallels one can find between the ideas of Taylor and those of Levinas.

To start with, both philosophers make the concern for an existential emptiness which many people in the West experience nowadays, into an important theme in their work. Taylor speaks about the loss of social relations and traditional religious meanings. This feels as if the connection between ourselves and the cosmos has been cut.

Levinas speaks, above all in his early work, about a surplus of self-consciousness and self-sufficiency of modern man. Because of that, modern man has become lonely and got imprisoned in boredom and weariness.

Furthermore, they both relate – be it in a completely different way – this void to the coming-to-stand-on-its-own of the individual which in the course of time has taken place in the West. Taylor does so through a cultural-historical description of developments in Christianity. The church summoned people to live according to the Gospel. That called for discipline which then came up indeed. Working hard and living a family life became important. This produced an orderly, productive and peaceful society. But exactly because of that, people gradually began to feel they could manage without God.

Levinas presents the coming-to-stand-on-its-own of the individual as the result of the struggle of man against the il-y-a. The il-y-a in Levinas means the threat which originates from an icy cosmos which in its indifference hits people with meteorite impacts, tsunamis and fires. By making use of his rational capacities man fights back against the elements. He counters them and organizes an orderly world of his own.

Both authors describe in related terms the human state of mind in such an orderly society. Taylor speaks of the enclosed self, as opposed to the porous self from before the disciplining, which was in a kind of naïve, natural contact with the surrounding world. The enclosed self has the possibility to take a distance, to disconnect itself from everything outside the mind. Everything becomes open to manipulation by the self. It may see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings things have for him.

Levinas characterizes organized man, in his separation from the cosmos, as sovereign, self-sufficient. He may regard himself as his own origin. Loneliness and boredom are characteristics that both Taylor and Levinas assign to this human creature that has come to-stand-on-his-own. It is good to keep in mind that Levinas considers nevertheless the coming-to-stand-on-his-own of man in relation to a spine-chilling cosmos a great merit, but its emptiness he calls depressing.

What makes them strikingly different is a more detailed analysis of the roots of this development to closure, self-satisfaction and loneliness they both describe.

Taylor finds a change in the effect which was produced by the emphasis on the Gospel. He notes that the original intention of the church with its disciplining impact moved into the background. The discipline itself came to the fore, and that brought us prosperity and safety. Then we no longer needed the Holy Spirit. The challenge now, as far as Taylor is concerned, is to create new forms of meaningful connection.

Levinas, for his analysis, goes further back in time. He notes that the West has already for much longer been in the grip of the belief in rationalization and ordering. That is a philosophical attitude that goes back to Parmenides and Plato and which Christianity took over. Within that attitude reason is the deepest ground of meaning and reality, and human experience is mistrusted. Christianity has not abandoned that scheme but gave it a religious garb by presenting history as a goal-directed divine plan with salvation through Jesus Christ as the pivot on which everything hinges.

From this perspective what is happening with Christianity nowadays is not that mysterious. And disciplining and rationalization are not just some by-effects that have gone wild, as Taylor would have it. According to Levinas, what comes out now has been within from the very beginning.

As to Levinas, something more is needed to overcome our emptiness and loneliness than new forms of meaningful connection. Because these could turn out to be even more of the same: organized, disciplined, forced meaning according to the best Greek-Christian traditions, ultimately grounded in reason and neglecting any particular individual experience of meaning. And with more emptiness as a result.

The only thing Levinas can offer as an alternative is the efficacy of a transcendence that has not the appearance of a historical plan which can be worked out systematically, but one that occurs in unpredictable social encounters. In such encounters the image of a coherent history, a perfect picture, breaks in pieces. There is nothing left to manipulate but nonetheless something happens there. There there is no emptiness and boredom. There happens, to speak with Taylor, “something big”.

donderdag 14 mei 2009

Mission Completed

When you think about it, it’s stunning how fast the Catholic Churches, at least in Holland, ran empty. It is extra amazing when you observe that this happened from the moment the churchleaders decided to give their church a more humane image. How could this happen?

This observation reminds me of a statement of a French revolutionary who in about 1790 declared that Christian civilization had completed its mission with the establisment of a regime of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

From this perspective one could say Christianity’s ultimate destiny is a humane society where reasonableness reigns and which may very well be secularized, as soon as Christian ideals have found their embodiment in reliable institutions. That could be a first explanation for the lessening attractiveness of Christianity in our developped world. It reached its destination and made itself redundant.

Apart from that another explanation is possible, and this one is to be found in the Christian orientation towards truth. The tendency to make the question of truth – metaphysical as well as factual truth – into a central one, possibly brings a kind of aridity with it which Christianity pays for at this moment.

The central position of the question of truth in Christianity is easily demonstrable by referring to the consternation that was aroused once about the true character of Jezus – God or man – or about the question whether the snake in Paradise could yes or no really speak. As far as I know, there is no other religion in which the question whether something took place in the exact way as it is described in the Holy Books, can stir up people so much.

This holds for example for the nowadays much debated question whether the world has been created in six days or not. From the newspapers I understand that Muslims have discussions about that question but treat it pliably. What is being presented in Scripture as one day may as well be a thousand years. The story of creation is six days can by Muslims easily be explained as a gradual process of millions of years. For Jews, also orthodox Jews, this question is not much of a sore subject.

But Christians are very much divided about this question. That’s not because Christians are more fundamentalistic: fanatical Muslims or Jews are equally fundamentalistic or more so. But their fundamentalism is different from that of the Christians. Their fundamentalism is not about whether something did or did not happen. They are fundamentalistic about commandments, about taking seriously what you have to do or not.

Also in this domain, of the search for truth, Christianity seems to be overtaken by its own success, in the same way as in its striving for a humane society. For that orientation, towards the rightness and fidelity of transmitted truths, in the West stimulated critical, scientific research. Also historical research, and the outcomes thereof appeared to be desastrous for that religion in which so much depends on the question whether a certain event did actually happen or not.

Islam is much less vulnerable on this point. I know that statements about the behaviour, the morals and the way of life of the Prophet may arouse sentiments. But I don’t think that Muslims would be greatly upset if it turned out that Mohammed has not really ascended to heaven but lies burried somewhere. The practise of commandments and prayers will not get less because of that.

And for the Jewish tradition it would not be much of a problem if the Exodus would turn out not to have taken place as the Bible relates. Also not if it would appear not to have taken place at all. The commandment to keep telling about it remains in place, even if there has never been an Exodus.

The two above mentioned explanations for the evaporation of Christianity are possibly linked to each other. Orientation towards truth comes close to orientation towards reason which strives for a humane society. What those two have in common is an uneasy relationship with experience. As Frank Ankersmit says in his book Sublime Historical Experience: in the West the interest in truth and reason has always had the upperhand of the interest in experience.

That’s what Christianity pays for at this moment. For attachment to a tradition originates primarily from continuing, shared experiences. And these are to be found more easily in doing things, in performing commandments, than in focusing on reason and truth. Those certainly can help a tradition move forward, but also make it become redundant.

(Scientific Postscript: form reliable sources I learned that in relation to Mohammed no problem needs to arise: he has as well ascended to heaven, as well – ten years after his return on earth – been buried in Medina.)

Also see La Trahison des Clercs and Taylor, Levinas and Emptiness

dinsdag 12 mei 2009

A real shame

How frustrated can you become by reading Levinas?

Rather much, I would say, when sometimes I hear the negative reactions to the ‘Philosopher of the Other’. Those reactions remind me of the resentment that some people inherited from their Christian upbringing. They have experienced that education as demanding, inimical to life and unrealistic, and they don’t want to have anything to do with it anymore. When the importance Levinas attibutes to our confrontation with someone else becomes a similar burden, then it is quite natural that his work will easily be pushed aside as unrealistic. And that would be a real shame.

The tendency to present Levinas in absolute terms is clearly visible. Recently for instance that happened on the occasion of the opening of a health care centre in Rotterdam which is dedicated to Levinas. One of the initiators told on that occasion that the centre takes the unconditional responsibility for the other as a point of departure.

But how realistic is it really to depart from a permanent, absolute responsibility for (every?) other? I think that such a startingpoint doesn’t help us any further. It saddles us with an impossible mission and easily becomes moralistic. This kind of Levinas interpretation (to which – it must be said – he himself contributed in his later work) makes his work irrelevant. By talking in permanent, absolute terms a simplification is made: the real puzzle is taken from sight. Namely: the absurdity that, in a world in which everything is relative, all of a sudden something may appear which doesn’t tolerate relativizing.

But of course, nobody is obliged to interpret Levinas as is being done in the above mentioned startingpoint. Another possible interpretation comes to the fore when some Levinas readers stress the existence of the third: apart from the other with whom I have a compelling encounter, there are others who may claim me equally. As I cannot do ten things at a time, the claim of the one other restricts the claim of the other other. In this way the absolute is being relativized and social acting can again become a matter of calculation at last.

But I don’t like this solution either. I think this way of reasoning takes away Levinas’ unique contribution to the moral debate: the urge which originates from the compelling other. To keep Levinas interesting one has to take seriously the urgency which he connects to the face of the other, as well as the experience that everything is relative within a rationally ordered whole.

This position leads up to an impossible but at the same time very true combination of words: relative absoluteness. It’s difficult to phrase the paradox which this combination contains. It is especially the young Levinas who knows to present this paradox in a convincing way. He manages to show that the steadily crawling time with its balances of interests once of a sudden can be broken through by the absoluteness of death or by the Other. To result consequently in a situation of a new, relativizing balance of interests which in its turn undoubtedly will be broken.

This sounds realistically. So Levinas does not have to be more burdening than reality itself.

See also Emergency Shelter and Levinas and egoism

donderdag 23 april 2009

A malicious smile

The most significant moment in the TV-account of Ahmadinejad’s performance in Geneva was that intensely lustful smile when he sat down again. He must have enjoyed very much his most recent denial of the Holocaust and the uproar he caused at the UN Conference on Antiracism. Apparently it makes him feel good to know you are hitting something, exactly because you deny it.

It reminds me of that other malicious laugh, the one laught by Gretta Duisenberg – the wife of the former Dutch National Bank’s president. On the question in a radio-interview how many signatures she hoped to collect for a petition against Israël, she replied “six million”, and then burst into a laughter.

What message exactly is being conveyed by such laughing?

vrijdag 17 april 2009


For a few days I happened to be in Bristol and it was nice to be there. Although you could see the damage World War II has done to the city, there was enough to enjoy. Pittoresque streets, squares and houses and above all the Waterfront: the old docks and renovated warehouses with restaurants and pavements.

I felt there what you want to feel when you’re in an ancient historical city. It’s the feeling of being connected with previous generations, with a particular culture, in this case that of a seefaring population. If you are sensitive to that kind of things, it may make you feel more at home in life.

But then, gradually, this may change. You learn a bit more about the city’s history and you realize that Bristol wasn’t just the gate to the New World but also the basis of the English slavetrade.

At such a moment Bristol suddenly is a less pleasant place to stay. The nice alleys lose their innocence. Being at home partly gives way to a kind of uncomfortable feeling.

Isn’t this exactly what happened to our Western culture at large? You could say that we Westerners felt – at least up to World War I – reasonably comfortable in our Europe. But then something irreparable happened, first by the horrors of the trenches of Belgium and Northern France but more so by those of the Second World War.

Since then our capacity to feel at home in our culture is not what it used to be like. Houses, railways, landscapes, they are not just nice and familiar anymore, they can be guilty as well now. They may be contaminated by their past.

I don’t agree with Adorno who suggested that after Auschwitz poetry is not possible anymore. I believe that, in the same way we can still enjoy good food and good sex, we can every time again enjoy poetry and beautiful music. But that good old self-evident being-at-home-in-the-world, that has been hit pretty hard.

dinsdag 10 februari 2009

Progress after all

Angela Merkel was fantastic last week, when she addressed the pope about the Holocaust-denial of bishop Williamson! Who would have thought that in our age of relativism of truth and values a leading politician makes a serious point of historical facts?

I think that means progress in three respects.

In the first place it means progress compared to an earlier dispute between Germany and the pope. In the Middle Ages the German emperor and the pope fought to be the highest Christian authority in Europe. Also then, during the so-called Investiturestruggle, parties brought in the notion of truth, but that was the vague, supernatural kind of truth. Each party claimed to know the will of God. But in fact it was an ordinary struggle for power.

Of course there is nothing basically wrong with struggles for power, they are often unavoidable. But I find it rather confusing when they are coupled to truth-claims, certainly those of the speculative and unverifiable kind. And that was the case with those theological thoughtconstructions by which pope and emperor fought each other.

The difference with the Middle Ages is that in the present interaction between Merkel and the pope there is nothing at stake but the sober, historical truth – at least at Merkel’s side. I call that progress.

Besides, the Bundeskanzler by her attitude makes clear that Germany is a mature democracy which does not evade discussion about its own past. And which makes sure that also in the future the historical truth may not be violated. That attitude existed already in Western-Germany, but to observe that it also holds for the united Germany is encouraging.

Finally there is progress with respect to our own contemparary intellectual climate. Under the influence of postmodern thinking we got used to think that truth is always relative. There are several truths, and which one you choose only depends on from what perspective you are looking. The notion that some facts are irrefutable and utterly independent on how you look at it, at times disappears in a total indifference for truth.

Scepsis as to the possibility to know the truth doubtlessly may have a liberating effect, when it comes to all kinds of metaphysical truthclaims. But postmodernists transgress a border when they deny factual truths. The Great Stories may have ended but there still are things we must never forget. With her attitude Merkel contributed to marking that difference.

woensdag 28 januari 2009

Something small

The workshop Thinking for someone else examines what happens when one person thinks for another person, when that other person doesn’t like that and when, because of that, the thinker is suddenly ashamed of himself. He feels as having made an intrusion into the other’s domain.

It occurs that, after participants in the workshop have intensively discussed that phenomenon of ‘rationalityshame’, they remark: “After all, it’s something very small, isn’t it?”.

They are right, because we then talked for two hours about confrontations which lasted just a split second, between not more than two people, and often with some trivial cause.

The reason for this narrow focus of the workshop is that the transgression which thinking for another person may cause, is most acutely perceptable at those moments. When the thinker reads from the face of his interlocutor: I may have the best intentions but now I am going too far – exactly then rationalityshame may strike at its most intrusive.

Because of that vehemence, the small suddenly becomes very powerfull. What happens there is also very important from a philosophical point of view: thinking – even the well-meant, euphoric thinking – apparently causes harm. And thinking doesn’t realize this by itself, but apparently needs some external force to become aware of that. The autonomy we cherish so much doesn’t manage to carry on without moments of heteronomy.

The magnitude of this theme immediately becomes obvious when we relate it to twentieth century political history. Most of all the developments within the diverse communistic experiments give us food for thought. There was no lack of good intentions in the original communistic leaders, neither a lack of thinking power. But at the same time it became terribly clear that the uncorrected faith in ones own thinking power and in ones own definitions of the world creates monsters. Even if you have the best intentions. When the correcting power of dissidents is brushed aside, thinking shows its violent face.

So, the neglect of rationalityshame is very dangerous. Levinas spended a lifetime pointing to that danger. He stressed the often unnoticed violent character of thinking and placed the correcting effect of rationalityshame over against it. For him, the magnitude of twentieth century political horrors and the denial of the small trivial phenomenon of rationalityshame were narrowly tied.

dinsdag 13 januari 2009

Go with the flow

Allow me for a while to use that expression in an unorthodox way.
For, usually, no incitement is needed for the tendency to move in accordance with the stream. That was obvious for example during the years when banks and other moneymakers celebrated their constantly innovated financial fashions. Of course, bonusses and obscure packings contributed to the madness but that was also part of the flow.

Problems arise when that flow crashes against the rocks. Then appeals are heard which call for self-control. We should step backwards and use nature as a mirror. Peter Robertson for example speaks about the wisdom of an appletree which may bear fruit abundantly but after that slows down and takes rest for a year. That’s what we should do also. But Robertson himself doesn’t consider his call as very likely to succeed for, so he says, people are not programmed to distrust success. And a wellknown Dutch economist argues for a restricted kind of capitalism, but at the same time he doubts whether that would be sufficiently dynamical and could generate the required adrenaline.

The problem with calls for moderation is apparently that moderation feels as being contra-natural. Those pleas may turn out to be as forceless and futile as the calls by the pope for renunciation of sex before marriage or for considering money as an illusion. And at the end of the day this imposed moderation, in the same way as so many efforts to lose weight, can lead to a jojo-effect: as soon as the cycle allows us, all breaks get loose again. Then no durable result will have been reached at all.

That kind of calls apparently goes too much against the flow. We may conclude it to be natural for people not to let themselves be confined to natural boundaries. That seems to be the case with sexuality, with making money, with inventing things and with other human affairs. In those cases the human-like, so human-natural flow appears to have its own character which diverges from the rest of nature. One should not wish to go against it.

Now I think we don’t need very often to go against it, for it appears that there are also human-like boundaries to growth and flow. Those boundaries come forth from the shame we can experience when we transgress the boundaries of other persons, which transgression is visible because of the distress and injury such another person shows us on that moment. The shame we experience then may – more than moralistic stories about moderation and natural order – whistle us back and may lead us to step backwards.

My – and Levinas’s – thesis is that this phenomenon simply occurs in our reality. Which means that we don’t have to perform difficult, contra-natural actions to restrict ourselves. If we keep our attention on what we do to other persons, such restriction may go by itself. So this may be a different – rather trivial – flow to go with. Of course, to be able to experience this flow we will have to get acquainted better with the phenomenon, which is rather neglected. For instance by talking about it when it occurs.