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.