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.